Revising the global intellectual map

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Five years ago a group of students at Wits University launched an independent intellectual platform to develop critical thought.

Convinced that a city is first and foremost an idea, they named it the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism

The end of apartheid coincided with the coming of age of globalisation, that integration of the world through large flows of goods, capital, people and ideas. It should have heralded an epoch of unparalleled creativity and intellectual ferment in South Africa and in the rest of Africa.

Novel ways of imagining the relation between public culture, democracy and critical thought would have been required for this to happen. Instead, we bought into too narrow a definition of what value and human needs are, and too vulgar a conception of what material welfare and freedom stand for. As a result of this structural myopia, instrumental reason and mindless utilitarianism have become the main currencies determining the value of everything.

Our moral imagination having been colonised by the worship of material objects, luxury fever and the drift toward consumerism have paved the way for a set of false assumptions about how the world works and what we should be doing in it. An impoverished conception of knowledge and who it is supposed to serve and a crude understanding of economic rationality today reign supreme.

The naive belief is that, coupled with science and technology, market capitalism will sort out most of our problems. Complex social facts such as mass poverty, joblessness, hunger, disease and illiteracy are treated as if they were purely technical matters. No wonder the post-1994 sense of being at the edge of a future has quickly vanished.

Such a capitulation is happening at a distinct global and historical juncture. For centuries, Western hegemony over the planet relied on theory just as it did on science and technology. But after a thousand years of world ascendancy, the Euro-American archive is finally running dry.

The world is moving East and the southern hemisphere has become the epicentre of contemporary global transformations. Here, fundamental problems of poverty and livelihood, equity and justice are still, for the most part, unresolved. A huge amount of energy is still put into eliminating want, making life possible or simply maintaining it.

People marginalised by the development process live under conditions of great personal risk. In order to survive, many are willing to gamble with their lives and with those of others. Power relations and the antagonisms that shape late capitalism are redefined here in ways and forms not seen at earlier historical periods.

The paradoxes of mobility and closure, of connection and separation, of continuities and discontinuities between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, pose new challenges to intellectual inquiry, critical thought and policy making and implementation. They can no longer be solely accounted for from within orthodox forms of political, social or cultural analysis.

Moreover, from Mexico to Lagos, from São Paulo to Mumbai and Shanghai, the production of ideas for the planet’s future is increasingly originating from the global South. This is where novel ways of articulation of politics and culture are in the making . And yet this is also where the lag between actual social processes and our efforts to make sense of them conceptually is nowhere near being closed.

Intellectual platforms such as The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism play a key role in the continuing redrawing of the global intellectual map which started during the era of decolonisation. They show that a city like Johannesburg is first and foremost an idea and there is no democracy without cities of ideas.

To consolidate its fledgling position on the global map of cities of ideas, Johannesburg will need to write itself firmly into the alternative circuits of intellectual and cultural circulation that emerged during the last quarter of the 20th century.

It will have to become a node in the worldwide dissemination of ideas and thought, a major intersection in the worldwide circulation and translation of texts, an Afropolitan centre where global debates are denationalised and national debates made global, a place where the world can be studied and interpreted.

Unfortunately, while these changes have been unfolding, South Africa has witnessed a surge in problem-oriented research that has become attractive to the government and private funding agencies because of its putative relevance to “real world” challenges.

Funding scarcity in turn has led numerous scholars to work as nongovernmental organisation entrepreneurs and consultants. Instead of boosting research capacity and orienting quality knowledge production towards the kind of critical and theoretical thought from which new ideas emerge, funding practices by state agencies and private United States foundations have depleted South Africa’s capacity to produce global thought.

Liberal political principles of equality, the rule of law, civil liberty, individual autonomy and universal inclusion are gradually being eroded by the pursuit of pure power and pure profit without any other goal but power and profit itself.

Almost 20 years after freedom, an impoverished conception of democracy as the right to consume is on the ascendency, making it difficult to envisage a different economy, different social relations, different ends, needs and ways of life. Whether we want the responsibility of authoring our own lives and whether we actively want to pursue our own substantive freedom and equality, let alone that of others, is in doubt.

We will not entirely exit a society based on commodities, wages, money and technology. But we urgently need to rediscover something in social life that cannot be privatised; that is immeasurable, that is priceless and cannot, as a consequence, be bought or sold.

By withdrawing from the domination of the market those spheres of human activity in which instrumental rationality does not suffice, we will create the preconditions for freedom and the existence of society itself.

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By: Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe is a research professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. His forthcoming book, Critique de la raison nègre, will be published in Paris in October

Source: Mail & Guardian



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