Histories: Commissioned, Authorised and Patrolled

21 May 2020 - 08:00
Workshop participants in session. Photo courtesy of Rifqah Kahn.
Workshop participants in session. Photo courtesy of Rifqah Kahn.


Summary of Discussion at APC’s Workshop
Histories: Commissioned, Authorised and Patrolled
Cynthia Kros

In the introductory comments to this workshop, held on 20 February, 2020, Carolyn Hamilton asked us to consider how commissioning produces certain kinds of work and to think about what happens when commissioned work enters public life.

Alongside this we considered how often there is ever complete independence? As Susana Molins Lliteras put it, let’s think about the many forms ‘patrolling’ can take. The university, for one, plays a role in exercising certain kinds of control and authorising what enters the public domain and how. ‘Commissioned’ and 'authorised' work may have a wider application than appears at first sight.

The idea of responsibility was introduced into the discussion and continued to be mentioned throughout the workshop. It was pointed out that accountability might be a more important consideration.

Participants posed the question about whether or not there is space for critique – surely one of the foremost instruments in the academic arsenal – in commissioned works. And, what does public engagement mean?

Cynthia Kros kicked off the presentations by describing some of the work she has been commissioned to do over the last few years. She raised a number of issues: the question of dealing with the sense of trust that is often established between client and commissioning agent/subject of a biography and the ramifications of being put in a position where that trust is broken (an issue considered again, later, in Susana’s presentation); matters of censorship and how they might be subtly exercised; the advantages of developing a collaborative relationship with the commissioning agents; deciding on who speaks for the institution/even the individual who is the subject of the work; deciding who the constituency/audience/public is – and this question recurred – what is in the public interest? She reflected on the possibility that the line between our approach to academic work and the kind of commissioned work we are considering in this forum may be quite thin in terms of the relationships of trust that, in most cases have to be established for a project to be viable. Even when we are writing as scholars about people in the past who are deceased, as long as we are not writing about outright scoundrels, we often feel a sense of responsibility to their descendants or even to the memory of the person who has passed on and their posthumous reputation. Furthermore, as scholars we do well to interrogate our own ideological investment in the subjects which we are writing about — and see the notes below on Camalita Naicker’s presentation for a focus on this aspect.

Several times, we were encouraged to think about what the implications of accepting that knowledge is a form of power actually are. Doesn’t it mean that we as academics are necessarily complicit? What are we endorsing in, say, a work of institutional history? As illustrated through Camalita Naicker’s presentation, it is possible that texts lay down ‘layers of sedimentation’ (Carolyn) that prevent us thinking in another way.

In her presentation, Camalita brought out issues of privileged archival access; asked us to consider whether the fact that a work had been commissioned necessarily tainted its merits; pointed to a number of examples where academic works were authored by participants in the organisations whose history they were writing and analysing, but their personal stakes remained undeclared and their ideological allegiances opaque. She posed the question about what other questions may have emerged had not a certain group of people – with deep personal involvement and ideological investment - not written the histories they did, or had at least made their position and associations clear. The authors of the Union histories that are Camalita’s main concern, adopted a neo-Marxist narrative, which owed much to contemporary left-wing trends in the academy, as well as to their own political positions. Camalita argues that the formulaic rigidity of neo-Marxist analysis and its triumphalism has had a lasting effect on subsequent scholarship. An historical materialist approach has occluded dynamics, particularly the politics of women’s organisations that cannot easily be accommodated by a neo-Marxian analytical framework. Furthermore, the tragedy of the 2012 Marikana massacre has been warped, in the case of at least one monograph authored by academics, into an odd triumph for the working class.

It was observed that Camalita’s paper pointed to the importance of reading in the genre, rather than simply focusing on whether a particular work was good or bad; that we may be dependent for certain information on commissioned works since their authors have been granted access to archives from which outsider academics are firmly excluded; that we may not have conceptual ways of talking about certain things today because a vocabulary has already been deeply entrenched, especially as individuals responsible for developing it have risen to power in the academy with resources and student labour power at their disposal. The questions we are able to ask now are often limited. What does this mean for the possibilities of healing and reconciliation? How are we served, or not served by appreciative histories of working-class struggles which end with the victory of the latter – even when it is apparent that there was no victory?

It was remarked that academics often don’t understand how what happens beyond the academy shapes what happens next, and how in turn, it shapes the archive. Tracey Randle compared her experience working on Solms Delta where she had walked into a new place and, with the collaboration of colleagues and workers, made a museum from scratch. The experience of having a huge amount of freedom was tempered by her sense of responsibility that she was shaping the history.

The Huguenot Project, which her presentation focused on, was totally different because she was working with a history and a Society that wasn’t liberal and whose collection had, in fact been built up through Afrikaner nationalism and mythology. The collection was burdened with its history. The Society turned to Tracey to help it in its search for relevance and, made fearful by the #RhodesMustFall movement, was trying to remake itself, and to respond to ideas of social inclusion. The identity crisis experienced by the Society was similar to those mentioned in the workshop in other instances. We were encouraged to think about what the purpose of celebrating big anniversaries and commemorations by organisations and institutions, or, as in the case of Mandela, renowned individuals.

Tracey talked about the negotiations that took place behind the scenes and communications that took the form of referencing research, which led her to ask: how do you write about these projects, and especially when you are also part of a client relationship?  The point she made about the lines - those which you will not cross – being made explicit, was picked up elsewhere in the workshop.

Tracey – like several other participants – pointed to the multiple publics that were envisaged for the Huguenot Museum, ranging from ageing White people identifying as Afrikaner to visiting Francophone Africans. She also raised a question about personal creative practice, given that many commissioned works involve teams of individuals bringing different kinds of expertise and ideas to the enterprise.

Once so-called marginalised histories are introduced in an attempt to meet criteria of social inclusion, Tracey noted, it is often really difficult to represent them in nuanced ways. The tendency is to portray groups considered to be marginalised by mainstream historical representations as being without any agency. She asked us to consider how a multiplicity of voices can be represented, especially given limited resources, space and demands for multilingualism. Tracey pointed out that Huguenot history has been based strictly on a notion of patrilineal descent so that women who married out are not part of the conventional history of the Huguenots.

Tracey talked about the power and the authority of the curator, which in practice is extremely difficult to mitigate. She voiced her scepticism about the theory of community participation and ‘shared authority’ that was heralded some years ago as a breakthrough in various museum circles. Ayanda Mahlaba added that, similarly, prominent families tend to have a monopoly in the commemoration processes with which he is familiar. Even processes of renaming often amount to the privileging of a particular family. Community participation, it was noted, is often merely a rhetorical gesture.

Nashilongweshipwe Sakaria intervened to observe that as curator and artist he acknowledged how implicated he was – he is not pretending to be objective. Having access to the colonial archive as he does, he noted, is in itself a privilege. There was some talk of how the concept of curatorial shared authority has been applied, with particular reference to Jay Pather and the idea of the invisible curator and the death of the curator. The participants concluded: but the curator never does die! We are implicated. However, it is work we need to do.

Susana worried, though that we might find ourselves involved in processes of legitimisation. She pointed to the example Tracey had mentioned of Francophone Africans being included in the Huguenot Museum’s remit. This new narrative re-legitimises the role of the Society. How do you negotiate that? Tracey reiterated the general point about academics who feel called upon to meet ethical obligations to be critical where necessary.

Ethical concerns were brought to the fore in a complicated and challenging way through Susana Molins Lliteras’ presentation as she recounted her experience with a family collection (Fondo Kati) bought and united in the late 1990s/early 2000s by one Ismael Diadié Haidara. The collection, it was argued was different from other family collections in Timbuktu because it traced itself back to medieval (what is now) Spain. Ismael had rediscovered his own family history through the marginal notes on the manuscripts, which had been conspicuously hailed and widely publicised in Spain. Spain was now receiving immigrants from Africa and it was a moment of reckoning for the country – it had need of a narrative that told of long-standing family connections between it and Africa. The collection was also extravagantly endorsed by a reputable American academic. Susana spoke about the relationship she had established with Ismael – she was not only granted access to the collection, but after the crisis in Mali in 2012 was allowed to digitise it. She explained that it was not really a case of commissioned work, but she did sign a collaboration contract (supported by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project), which granted her ‘academic freedom’ (what does that mean?), limited her future use of the images for academic purposes, and was subject to permission from Ismael and also made a number of commitments on behalf of the broader Tombouctou Project to publicise the collection.

But then Susana found that some of the marginal notes, on which Ismael’s claim of descent were based, were not from the 17th century, and the narrative that had been built could not be sustained on the basis of the notes. Ismael had by then raised substantial amounts of money from the regional government of Andalusia – on the strength of the Spanish-African line of descent of his family. Susana described how her relationship with Ismael deteriorated once she informed him of her discovery, and she worried about its material repercussions not only for Ismael, but for other holders of manuscripts in Timbuktu and for the Timbuktu archival enterprise as a whole.

Even though the research was not commissioned, Susana had a number of questions to pose that were applicable to the more conventional understanding of a commissioned book: did the granting of archival access change the relationship? Was Susana in a different position from that of an academic who works in a public archive? What about the critical obligations of the academic that had been raised earlier in the workshop? Is this a matter of public interest and who decides whether it is or not?  How do we know where our ethical responsibilities lie? What is our relationship to metanarratives that establish who is good/evil – the good Muslims who are the custodians of the manuscripts (and of the evidence of the union of Europe and Africa) vs. the bad Muslims who seek to destroy precious artefacts? How does our apprehension of the truth/knowledge/where power relations are located play into all this? It was pointed out that moralism should not be mistaken for ethics.
In presentation based his close involvement in a great deal of authorised writing, Verne Harris talked about the desire to create an ethical frame – a desire at least for colleagues at the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF). Breaking authorised writing into ‘sub-genres’ for the purposes of illustrating several points, Verne emphasised the importance of collaboration with people on whose behalf one is writing a speech or writing a biography, and of documenting the process meticulously. Going back to the records has allowed him to hear where there were discrepancies or misunderstandings in these collaborations, but also to trace the development of a shared discourse. Verne talked about the need sometimes to hold back on exposing something, while striving to keep the archive as open and accessible as possible (drawing on laws and policies in place, including PAIA). Documentation should be preserved that explains why, in some cases, the decision not to disclose something was taken so that at a later date it may be possible to locate and understand it. Verne, making a point similar to the one made by Camalita, pointed out that not knowing what the purpose of a particular document/book is can present problems – if the agenda is apparent, the way we read texts might change significantly.

Tracey wondered about when the NMF speaks – what does that do – that authorising moment? Is it still Mandela speaking beyond the grave? What is it that the authorising moment is mobilising? Verne responded by saying that it’s impossible to know about how the voice of NMF is received. When the Foundation is asked to comment on a current event, it often amounts to meaning "what would Madiba say" and it is tempting to speak with his authority. It is sometimes implied, Verne observed, that the NMF has information that others don’t.  As he put it, "our message should be – come and read Madiba’s writings for yourselves".

Verne rejected the idea that the NMF was committed to safeguarding the ‘legacy’ of Mandela, as some of the participants put it (and see other presentations where the collections/narratives of a society, particular organisation or holdings might also have been regarded as a legacy). Verne explained that he disliked the concept of legacy because the Mandela inheritance is constantly remade, and NMF is a player in this complex terrain. We also discussed whether or not the authorised work is more ‘impure’ than one that is not explicitly authorised. One of Verne’s correspondents wrote that he was worried by the idea of formulating more rules for the writing of books, and this led to an important question, somewhat touched on in the rest of the discussion, which closes the gap between works that have been commissioned or authorised and the single author academic monograph/biography: are we susceptible to the myth of the author who writes alone?

Workshop participants in session. Photo courtesy of Rifqah Kahn.