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Undisciplined Ancestors
25 November 2011


Carine Zaayman, Sketch after lost sculpture:
Ancestor
(1999)
Nick Shepherd

We enter the room, grab a coffee, chat, take our places around the table. The seminar is convened. The subject: ‘Ancestors and Archives’. The group is part of the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative. The place: Cape Town, South Africa. It is perhaps relevant to mention that it is a mellow spring day, that we meet in the basement of a building constructed in the 1920s in terms of a bequest by Cecil Rhodes to establish a mini-Oxford in Africa.

The first point to emerge through discussion is that the ancestors exist in different senses for those of us around the table. For some, they are a lived presence, a dimension of the present moment, a potentiality in life. Called-on for assistance or guidance in a moment of crisis, they will supply the necessary words, confidence, decision. For others, they exist as a kind of thought experiment: ‘What if we take seriously the proposition that the ancestors exist in life?’

This is an interesting discovery, for it invokes a distinction amongst the participants in the seminar. The seminar space – produced at the intersection of a set of disciplinary discourses – is meant to erase such distinctions, and yet here we are… And along with this distinction goes a question, which remains politely unvoiced: By what right, or in what spirit, do some of us – the unbelievers – intend to engage the ancestors as phenomenon?

A second point to emerge through the course of the seminar is that we are disabled in particular ways from pursuing this topic. This is not a passive disablement – we lack the conceptual tools, we lack on agreed-upon language – more an active disablement: we have been schooled and disciplined to objectify the ancestors, to treat them as a phenomenon available and amenable to certain forms of intervention, certain regimes of care. Treating the ancestors as agentive subjects in a shared present runs against the grain of these practices in fundamental ways (how is it possible, for example, for the archaeologist to exhume the remains of the dead if the dead escape their consignment as ‘bones’ or ‘skeletons’, and emerge as ancestors?).

Our discussion threatens (or promises) to produce another kind of division, a division not between belief and unbelief, but between a disciplinary voice, which falls back on established categories and conceptualisations, and a non-disciplinary (or undisciplined) voice, which wants to refuse the confinement of these categories, to reach for something new. This is an internal division, and in our responses we wobble between these different voices, like learner-cyclists, or like what we are (divided subjects, imperfectly interpolated into disciplinary frames and a modern cast of mind).

Put differently, the notion of ancestors as subjects presents a particular, sharp challenge to disciplinary discourses in anthropology and archaeology and to practices of archive. We are presented not so much with the limits of discourse, as with the unimaginable other of these discourses. Put differently again, if I wanted to imagine a form of counter-archaeology (which I do), then one of my starting points would be with the ancestors. The seminar is framed as an exploration, a first pass, it may lead on to something, or it may be a dead-end. As I have described it here, as a group we enter the discussion divided and disabled in particular ways. But in the kind of inverted knowledge economy that I like to inhabit, this may be no bad thing, may be one of the methodological keys that we take with us in this exploration.

So much for the first part of my response, which takes the form of a kind of descriptive framing of the seminar itself. In the second part of my response I move to consider the written responses, and end by asking (and trying to answer) two questions. Carolyn Hamilton writes of contemporary practices of self-making which invoke a notion of the ancestors: ‘Family associations meeting in Newtown cafes pay close attention to crucial fragments of ancestral histories, notably in the form of izithakazelo’. She writes: ‘In paying attention to ancestors we begin to see the past in the present in a way that simply cannot be encompassed by notions of tradition and ethnic politics’.

George Mahashe writes of the reciprocal relations of care and obligation that exist between the living and the dead. Of the ancestors, he writes: ‘The most burning issue seems to be: How do we use them when we are in need of them, and how do we discard/ pacify them when they are a hindrance?’

Susana Molins Lliteras writes of the unexpected relevance of the discussion to her own research: ‘I am still trying to make sense of how the ancestors affect/ effect my archive’.

Alex Dodd reads a notion of ancestral communication through the mediation of Jacques Derrida’s text, Archive Fever. She writes: ‘In my work, I am interested in exploring imaginative responses to the ancestral inflections of “archive fever” – the specific and wildly varying ways in which selected South African artists use art production to convene oblique conversations with the ancestral dead.’ She continues: ‘I also spoke [in the seminar] about the phylo-genetic aspects of ancestral lineage, and how we experience our ancestors in distinctly bodily terms, as fevered impulses, aches, spells, disease etc… In this sense we might find more common ground between the pagan practice of ancestor rites and Romantic, gothic, occult ideas about the haunted nature of urban space, driven by a restless dissatisfaction with the nature and design of the modern environment.’

Xolelwa Kashe-Katiya writes that belief in (or communion, or conversation with) the ancestors, usually ‘regarded as primitive’, is ‘a far more global phenomenon’. She continues: ‘This is especially true where the physical remains of the dead or sites where people died are involved.’

Megan Greenwood writes of a number of conjunctions around the time of the seminar, including the death of a loved grandparent and the unexpected discovery of an ancestral archive at the University of Cape Town. Using elements of Christian theology as her frame, she wonders what would be involved in a notion of God as ancestor: ‘If one continues [this] train of thought of God as ancestor, one arguably encounters what is claimed as the Christian figure of God-in-flesh, Jesus. As the son of God the Father, the incarnate speaks of an offer to become adopted into a new family, as his brothers and sisters, as God’s sons and daughters.’

David William Cohen writes with great penetration about two categories of beings: the ‘African dead’ and the ancestors. Of the African dead ‘who are lost and mourned yet continue to haunt both African and global landscapes’, he writes: ‘[They] challenge the capabilities of the living, diplomats and also anthropologists, historians, photographers, and poets, to comprehend the intersections of pasts and futures.’ He writes of the ‘crowdedness’ of African landscapes and African lives, a fact missed by ‘objective representations of African demography’. Represented by a certain kind of development discourse as a problem (‘the dead never cease to overhang the lives of Africans’), they ‘are also seen as a resource, sustaining Africa and defending the living Africans against terrible new forces, the big challenges’.

With regard to the ancestors, he notes: ‘There is a tension between the association of the ancestors with a kind of timeless sense of persistence or continuity and some wave like effect produced as people, individuals, communities, and nations, learn a need to address the ancestors, or account for them, as a social, cultural, political responsibility.’ He asks: ‘Is there a possibility of achieving, or just imagining, a scholarly ethic that acknowledges the importance of ancestors and yet retains a critical distance and engagement with the claims and effects regarding the ancestors?’

Now for my two questions: What is behind, or how do we account for, the urgency of the contemporary emergence of the ancestors as a category of relevance in a range of debates, struggles, contestations? What does it mean to engage the ancestors from the space of the university as institution, and the disciplines as knowledge projects?

In my own work on archaeology and contemporary social movements, I have looked at the way in which subaltern struggles around rights, resources and restitution have been mobilised – or activated – around sacred sites and human remains. The materiality of sites and remains become key points of identification and visceral connection in a postcolonial politics of memory and identity, which ties together communities of the living and the dead.

Framed in primordialist terms, such struggles are a phenomenon of the postcolonial postmodern, involving slave-descended persons in postapartheid Cape Town, Maya Movement activists in Guatemala City, African-American community- and faith-based organisations in New York. The targets of such struggles are multiple: local elites, a neglectful postcolonial state, local manifestations of capital, unchecked urban development, the annihilation of local ways of life and local histories.

At base, they involve a rejection of particular, destructive forms of globalisation and development, and a particular telos (forward-looking, progressive). Their premise – that the dead walk among us – plays havoc with modern time/space, setting in play alternative conceptions of time (simultaneous, parallel, the time of the return) and personhood (ancestors as subjects, the agentive dead).

I am particularly interested in the epistemic challenge posed by a notion of the dead as ancestors to disciplinary practices in archaeology and anthropology. Disciplinary practice in relation to the dead in archaeology customarily takes the form of capture and spatial and temporal boxing. Captured (or harvested) for science, the dead are removed from specific locations and the regimes of care that resulted in their interment, and re-emplaced in the institutional regime of the museum/archive. In the process they undergo a catastrophic reduction of meaning and dimension, are reduced to empirical measurement, statistical point-on-a-graph, data. The epistemic violence of this act is directed alike at communities of the dead and the living, their contemporary claimants.

Contemporary conceptualisations and practices in relation to the dead as ancestors are challenging and transforming worlds of practice in archaeology and museum curatorship right now. They are part of a broader move to challenge the traditional epistemic privilege of the university as institution, and a modernist conception of disciplinary knowledge as the sum total of ways of knowing. Or rather than being part of a broader move, they constitute one of its cutting edges. The point about ‘the ancestors’ is that they challenge modern ontologies of time and personhood: hence their utility, hence their efficacy, hence the radical challenge that they pose to ways of knowing.

By way of conclusion, I return to my second question: What does it mean to engage the ancestors from the space of the university and the disciplines? Is this part of a contemporary, belated move to (once again) capture and contain the ancestors, to discipline them, to trim them of their radical potential? By encompassing them in thought do we re-establish the authority of disciplinary knowledges, as part of a savvy re-stylisation of anthropology/ archaeology for postcolonial times? Or do we embark on a more radical project of allowing the implications of a notion of ancestors as subjects to lead us as we re-engage our own guiding ideas and forms of practice as academic disciplinarians? And where would that lead us?

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