Universities need stumbling stones

In most German cities there are brass plaques set into the pavements. They are raised just above the pavement with the result that if, say, you are stepping out of a club in Berlin on a summer evening, perhaps laughing with friends, they’ll catch your shoe. They won’t interrupt your stride enough for you to fall but they will compel your attention.

They are Stolpersteine, stumbling stones. They are usually set outside the homes where people who were murdered by fascism lived. They carry the names of the dead and the dates of their birth, deportation and death.

An invitation to recall a family that lived in this house in this street draws attention to the concrete, to a specific human presence in the world, rather than to an abstraction. What, one may wonder, did the couple say to each other, and to their nine-year-old daughter, when the fascists came?

The stumbling stones are a modest intervention, but there is something deeply humane about this way of inserting a memory of historical trauma into the everyday flow of life.

The question of inclusion and exclusion from the shelter of the category of the human has been central to anticolonial thought since Toussaint L’Overture rose to confront slavery in San Domingo. More than two centuries later, it retains its charge in the contemporary world. It emerges again and again, sometimes asserted in the language of dignity, in the struggles that seek to make their way out of the zones of domination, exclusion and dishonour.

It is there in the work of Achille Mbembe, who insists that, for the democratic project to have a meaningful future in South Africa, “it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and ‘the human’ from a history of waste”.

Along with new forms of politics, this project requires new ways of seeing and new ways of knowing. Many societies have had to confront this imperative. In 1992, riots ripped through parts of Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. At the time, the riots were described as the spontaneous combustion of discarded people.

In a letter to her academic colleagues written on the anvil of the moment, Sylvia Wynter noted that officials in the Los Angeles judicial system had used the acronym “NHI” – no humans involved – to describe abuses carried out against unemployed young black men in the city’s ghettos. She asked how well-educated officials, and a group of equally well-educated jurors, could accept that some people could be excluded from the count of the human.

Wynter concluded that university intellectuals needed to take the riots seriously enough to enable what she called a mutation in modes of perception and, therefore, knowledge.

Today we confront escalating popular struggles – from the shantytowns to the mines and the universities – and an urgent demand for a shift in how authorised modes of knowledge make sense of the world. The fact that the ANC has been elected does not mean that it has the capacity to do this work for us. On the contrary, it presents our increasingly fractious present through a paranoid lens, constantly scanning the terrain for conspiracy.

Memory often functions as ideology – at times in a straightforwardly Orwellian fashion – calibrated to legitimise the increasingly brutal politics of the synecdoche, the conflation of the part with the whole.

If we have any prospect of seeing the world anew, of really seeing the people masked by abstractions, that work will have to be done within society.

Contestation about ways of seeing and knowing is already underway. A new generation of young people have announced their refusal to accept the enduring presence of colonial modes of oppression and exclusion, as well as impunity for the violation of the autonomy of women. There is a new sense of political urgency, destiny and possibility – a sense that, as James Baldwin put it, “the challenge is in the moment, the time is always now”.

Some of this new urgency is expressed through the new media technologies that increasingly constitute and shape our public sphere. They often bring certain kinds of performances of overt racism into new forms of public scrutiny. As a result, our national conversation frequently seems to lurch from outrage to outrage.

The outrage machine is often more concerned about performing moralism than with politics, in the sense of building and sustaining the kinds of social forces that can intervene in the deep structure of society. It is also largely organised around a shared elitism. Reports of more than 60 murders at the Glebelands Hostel in Durban since last year have received a very small fraction of the attention given to sometimes relatively petty disputes that play out in the middle-class terrain.

Although it’s not unusual for the outrage machine to generate its own pathologies, it has also allowed personal expressions of racism to become teachable moments around which some useful discussion coheres. A writer such as Sisonke Msimang can bring real wisdom to the poisonous ideas held by a judge – a person in whom our society has invested considerable authority and responsibility, without ever expecting her to grasp that, as Frantz Fanon noted, the settler is quite right to assert that he knows the native – for the simple reason that he invented the native.

The new sense of political urgency is also expressed more concretely. Universities are not the only sites for this but, when they are located in elite networks, the intellectual dimensions of campus politics attain significant attention in the broader public sphere. When a shack is erected on a campus, there is an aesthetic disruption that issues a clear demand for the attraction and investment of new kinds of attention. When the barricade is brought into the zones of privilege, there is a material disruption of the circuits of everyday life that can force the recognition of new actors and new issues.

Disruption has always been a important tactic when, whether in principle or practice, social arrangements for participating in the political don’t recognise some people as credible protagonists, or some issues as worthy of serious consideration. It has not been unusual for forms of disruption that are initially seen by constituted authority as criminal and consequent to conspiracy – what the philosopher Lewis Gordon terms “illicit appearance” – to attain, in time, legitimacy or even a hallowed place in political memory.

Those who draw no distinction between what Aimé Césaire called the “abstract equality” written into the law and actual equality, and the actual autonomy and dignity of personhood, often fetishise a convenient fiction to gloss over social realities. The fact that, most of the time, most of us are not governed by the principles of our Constitution needs to be taken seriously.

Because political innovation frequently occupies a space beyond the borders of the orthodox, there is a need to be open to new forms of politics.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is authorised in the name of an affirmation of justice. Those who argue that the weight of injustice legitimises the suspension of immediate ethical considerations in the name of a better world to come are always on very dangerous ground. This is a moment that requires careful thought and a sustained rejection of all forms of authoritarianism, including that of both the partisans of the established order and demagoguery directed against it.

When young women on a university campus disrupt business as usual with the aim of putting an end to the normalisation of rape, there is a pedagogical dimension to their actions. When university managers request the courts to mobilise the threat of arrest, and the associated threat of violence, to reassert their authority, they too are engaging in a pedagogical strategy. When the police bring their teargas, their pepper spray, their rubber bullets, their cameras, and their right to assault and to arrest, with the aim of suppressing these women in the name of order, there is also a pedagogical dimension to their actions.

There is no way to move beyond the tightening circle of these competing pedagogies without those whose authority, whose right to instruct, is socially authorised to take on, to at least some degree, a conception of pedagogy rooted in mutuality and reciprocity.

As a young man recently graduated with a PhD in philosophy, Karl Marx had looked forward to “an association of free human beings who educate one another” as the ground for his hopes for a better society. This formulation carries with it a democratic ideal that exceeds the stunted, often overly formalistic and in practice frequently authoritarian conception of the democratic that typically characterises the liberal consensus. It also exceeds authoritarian forms of radicalism.

Universities will never be radical institutions. They have fundamental limits and contradictions. But they have been thrust into a moment of real political significance and need to rise, in so far as they can, to the occasion. They can certainly work to create more spaces for free and open discussion. They can also take some responsibility for ensuring that all students are asked to take full measure of what colonialism has been and how it continues to structure the present; of how racism came to be, what it has been and what it is; of how people were impoverished and what impoverishment means today; and why the autonomy of women continues to be violated with impunity. Stumbling stones can be placed in the circuits of business as usual and on the path to becoming a judge or an engineer.

Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana

Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.
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