Doing history differently?

What has been lost and what gained in a sustained scholarly attempt over nearly two decades to “do” history differently?

This was the leading question posed at a recent one-day workshop to commemorate and evaluate the Contemporary History and Humanities Seminar, an initiative of the University of the Western Cape’s history department and Centre for Humanities Research (CHR).

The seminar, now in its 17th year, emerged at a crucial point in the academic, cultural and political landscapes of South Africa in the early 1990s. It was a collaboration between the Institute for Historical Research (IHR), then headed by Colin Bundy, and the history department and has been a Tuesday afternoon fixture on the calendar ever since. “Humanities” was added to the name in 2006 when the IHR became the CHR.

Kicking off on March 30 1993 with Diana Wylie from Yale University (her paper was titled “Starving on a Full Stomach: Food in Black South African History 1880-1980”), the seminar has since hosted local and foreign luminaries, including Jean Comaroff, William Beinart, Terence Ranger, Ed Wilmsen, Allen Isaacman, Antjie Krog, Helen Tiffin, Luise White and Mahmood Mamdani.

The inspiration behind the seminar was the Agrarian Studies Seminar at Yale.
It adopted the practice of pre-circulated papers and developed the format of “gagging presenters” to allow as much discussion as possible in one-and-a-half hours. The original brief of the local seminar was to establish a forum where members of the academic community, especially staff and postgraduate students, and those from other universities could meet and discuss South African historical issues.

As the list of 324 presented papers shows, the seminar has gone beyond that brief—it has transcended South African historical studies and the UWC’s academic space and hosted scholars from all over the world and engaged in cross-disciplinary debates.

The one-day workshop on September 14 was titled “Out of History” and drew together six historians (four of them still at UWC) who have chaired the nearly 40 semesters of the seminar’s existence. Professor Premesh Lalu, UWC’s deputy dean of arts and director of the CHR, Professors Leslie Witz, Ciraj Rassool and Andrew Bank from UWC’s history department, Professor Gary Minkley from the University of Fort Hare, and (in absentia) Bundy, now at Oxford, chose a selection of the papers read at the seminar since 1993 and their reflections on the intellectual work of the seminar.

The audience, who packed the room, included other faculty members and students from the history department, the Africa Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies, and other departments and programmes.

“Out of History” was part of UWC’s 50th anniversary activities and the ambiguity of the title aimed to stimulate debate. It was also planned as an initial selection of papers for inclusion in an edited volume. In the words of workshop convenors Paolo Israel and Annachiara Jung Ran Forte, the intention was “to spark a conversation about how this intellectual space has contributed to the shaping of new ways of ‘doing history’ which draw simultaneously from history’s possibilities while continuously probing the limits of the discipline”.

For Israel and Forte it was an opportunity to “look at this space of dialogue as a site in which new trends of historiography have emerged and new meanings of history have been forged”.

Other concerns included questions about intellectual paradigms and research approaches, interdisciplinary debates and the kinds of relationships between the local and the global that had emerged in the seminar space. Also in question was the extent to which the seminar provided space for debates about thorny post-colonial issues such as the interplay between the politics of knowledge and disciplinary conventions, the epistemological legacies of colonialism and how the notion of “Africa” had been conceptualised as both a geographic location and an epistemic object.

Singling out five papers from those presented during the past 17 years, the six workshop participants asked whether the seminar had provided space for thinking beyond the notion of history as a professional practice with particular methods and outcomes:

     Had work presented at the seminar enabled a recognition of history as a philosophical inquiry and practice of criticism that allowed debate and disagreement rather than certainty?

  •  Were scholars who presented their ideas in the forum ready to give up on notions of certainty in the daily practice of their scholarly pursuits?

  • Had the seminar been successful in steering a course through the pitfalls of social or people’s history and the limits imposed by narratives of nationalism emerging through the post-apartheid transformation?

  •  And had the seminar offered a space of engagement that was amenable to and reflective of the multiple, complex yet fragmented and globalising demands of the times?

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, a professor in UWC’s history department, highlighted “the question of enduring relevance”, noting that issues raised by provocative papers in the 1990s were still considered relevant in the context of the present and especially in teaching.

Yet power relations were at play, Dhupelia-Mesthrie pointed out, both in the weekly sessions of the seminar and in the retrospective project of paper selection by the all-male cast of past chairpersons of the seminar. Was this the only way to begin the selection process, or could there have been a more imaginative and less protective approach, such as asking an outsider—perhaps a postgraduate student or another member of the history department—to identify key seminars?

“This ... would have been more inclusive, would have bridged the gender divide and would have avoided some hierarchies,” Dhupelia-Meshrie said. For her it was the seminar space itself and not necessarily the paper that in many cases had pushed the boundaries of history.

“Often the weakest and most conventional paper provoked fabulous discussions and ... contributed to our understandings of each other and our academic pursuits,” she said.

It was important that the participants should recognise that they seemed “more comfortable with certain geographical spaces and their historiographies” than others, Dhupelia-Mesthrie said. While accepting the current selection format as a starting point, the difficulties posed in selection criteria such as “new”, “impact” and “significance” needed to be recognised. “We have to ask new in what way, impact on whom and significance for whom for each one of the papers and what role personal interest should play,” she said.

When it came to choosing papers, four of the six participants in the workshop singled out Nicky Rousseau’s 1995 critique of notions of social and popular history outlined in her presentation, “Unpalatable Truths and Popular Hunger—Reflections on Popular History in the 1980s”.

Several participants also singled out the 2006 paper by University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Hlonipha Mokoena, “What Did This Life Mean? Magema Magwaza Fuze and the Problem of Writing a Kholwa Intellectual History”. This offered both biography and intellectual history as well as, in Bundy’s words, an exploration of three major intellectual transitions: from oral culture to literacy, from native informant to indigenous scholar and from a customary, local ethnic identity to membership of an imagined nation.

Isabel Hofmeyr (Wits) was noted for her 1995 paper, “Reading Oral Texts”, an examination of the intersections between the textual and the oral, and the role of performance in both.

Two participants chose Emory University scholars Ivan Karp and Cory Kratz’s 1999 paper, “Islands of Authenticity: Museums in Disney’s World”, which discussed how the past is imagined and presented at American-themed amusement parks.

UWC scholars Patricia Hayes and Premesh Lalu received citations for three papers each.

Bundy’s contribution was a provisional analysis of all 324 papers in terms of content, historical period and geographical coverage. This revealed that 142 (almost 44%) of them were by academics and students from UWC itself and 128 (40%) by scholars from abroad. There were 18 by scholars from the University of Cape Town, 14 from four other South African universities and eight papers stemming from research in museums, heritage organisations and similar public institutions.

In Bundy’s analysis, 55 papers addressed public history and heritage, visual history, historical memory and the production of history.

More than half the papers dealt with South African history and/or historiography, with only one of these addressing pre-colonial history. Twenty-seven were on the colonial period (1652-1910), 39 on the period from 1910 to 1990, and six dealt with contemporary history.

Bundy found that most of the papers dealt with South African issues, 61 addressed other African societies (mostly, but not all, from an historical perspective) and 22 were about societies beyond Africa.

Fifty-five of the 324 papers dealt explicitly with disciplines other than history, including literary and cultural studies, gender studies and education.

“It is difficult to imagine that any publication emerging from the workshop will not grapple in some way with some of the ways in which the conventions, assumptions and practices of academic history have been called into question during the years the seminar has taken place,” he said.

Jill Weintroub is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Humanities Reseach, University of the Western

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