Public Life: Past, Present and Future

2 Oct 2020 - 12:30
Screenshot of Colloquium on Public Life. Screenshot courtesy of Rifqah Kahn.


In August the Archive and Public Culture research initiative at UCT hosted a day long-long colloquium Public Life: Past, Present and Future. The colloquium took stock of fresh theoretical insights, innovative methods and new research in the area of public life, and its histories. 

The first session engaged with the new book, Babel Unbound: Rage , Reason and Rethinking Public Life (2020) with contributions by Rory Bester, Lesley Cowling, Anthea Garman, Carolyn Hamilton, Indra de Lanerolle, Susana Molins Lliteras, Nomusa Makhubo, Litheko Modisane, Pascal Mwale and Camalita Naicker. The second session focused on interventions by Bheki Peterson on the Black Humanities in public life, while the third considered contributions to an in-press book, Public Intellectuals in South Africa: Critical Voices from the Past, edited by Chris Broodryk, with essays by Broodryk, Katlego Chale, Lesley Cowling, Luvuyo Dondolo, Rory Du Plessis, Carolyn Hamilton, Pfunzo Sidogi, Keyan Tomaselli, and Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren.

Carolyn Hamilton presented an overview of Babel Unbound, making links to the kinds of work that Bheki Peterson and others are doing on the Black Humanities and the intellectual contribution of early black writers and creatives, as well as to the contributions in the in-press book on public intellectuals.

A common concern across the three sessions was the significance of a long historical view in understanding contemporary collapse of the public sphere, a key social imaginary of democracy. Another concerned the role of history in public life.

The Babel Unbound session kicked off this question through a focus on the relationship between public discourse and archives, grappling theoretically with the ways in which public discourse and archive shape and reshape each other across time. This entails rethinking the very concept of archive in relation to public life in ways that that change the terrain of the discussion about what it means to deal with established archives iconoclastically, and what it means to consecrate new ones, understanding these developments to be at the heart of the knowledge/power nexus.

The session also covered theoretical interventions that are central to Babel Unbound, noting that the kind of theorising that the book does on the back of the southern African material is both prescient and useful for elsewhere, indicating that the book "lands" in an immediately recognisable way for the world in 2020.

One of the interventions involves conceptualisation of the public sphere as convened, even corralled, or in language of 2020, "captured", in the process constraining public deliberation in particular ways. One effect of this is that certain spaces of deliberation are sequestered right out of sight and even out of mainstream comprehension. The book, and the discussion, considered concepts of media orchestration and babelisation as part of the effort to grapple with how debate takes place, or is disabled, in the media, and how publics of various kinds, some outside of the imagined public sphere, are constituted.

Paying attention to the ways in which ideas in public life circulate, the book conceptualises the circuits as capillaries of discussion, and offers methods for tracking how ideas circulate, gaining and losing charge - public critical potency as one author memorably conceptualises it - sometimes across long periods of time.  The point was made that capillaries of deliberative activity are not a new function of social media, but long-standing forms of deliberative activity not taken account of by much public sphere theory. That said, social media add impetus and pace to these processes, facilitating the emergence of fluid publics and public making from, as it were, below.

In the lunchtime session Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson read from a paper that forms part of his larger project on the arts in 20th century South Africa. The larger work makes a case for what he calls “the Black Public Humanities”. His talk gave a broad introduction to the history, nature and visions of early African intellectuals, particularly their immersion in the arts as catalysts of Black Public Humanities. For Peterson, the creative and intellectual energies of these intellectuals enabled the inauguration of the black public sphere at the center of which was the Black Public Humanities, a flurry of artistic and intellectual activities that were by necessity embedded in black communities rather than in academic institutions which were racially exclusionary.

Notably, the black intelligentsia exploited the artistic repertoires of traditional African intellectuals and worked with them. Deeply aware of their precarious social and political statuses, they drew from their cultural backgrounds at the same time as they marshalled new technologies of colonial modernity such as writing and printing. In their formation of the Black Public Humanities, the African intelligentsia gave rise to an archive whose nature is reflective of the repressive conditions under which it was formed. To paraphrase Peterson, a significant degree of this archive is ephemeral rather than catalogued, socially diffuse rather than organized, personal rather than institutionalized.

The afternoon session, discussing the papers prepared for the book on Public Intellectuals, was notable for its interrogation of received ideas, notably the very notion of public intellectual itself. Is this notion productive, or is it a received idea to be unsettled, a problem to be addressed? In his wrap-up of the colloquium, Chris Broodryk spotlighted the public intellectualism of figures like Eusebius McKaiser, referenced Kopano Ratele's thinking on masculinities, Redi Thlabi’s radio activism, and the contribution of new generation of local scholars. Noting the entanglement between (South) African scholars and the West, he also drew attention the way the Colloquium engaged questions of power, Eurocentrism, the sustained project of decoloniality, and underscored the elaboration of the black public sphere that requires further elaboration and study, including sustained engagement with and around the Black Humanities. Commenting on the discussion during the day that distinguished between academic activity and intellectual activity, he posed questions about the nature of conversations between "Indigenous Knowledge Systems" and historically dominant epistemologies, and the weight of the former in a developing grid of intelligibility. 

Broodryk drew attention to the Colloquium's illumination of the importance of counterintuitive approaches, of a re-theorisation and re-thinking of established ideas such as the archive, the idea of public life, and the presence of absence. Dealing with the archive in conversation with the public and vice versa often results in the generation of new knowledge or the documentation or performance of this knowledge. Often, as contributions to the Colloquium noted, rage forms part of the social and discursive responses to, for instance, statues and other works of art that represent and evoke experiences of oppression and trauma. 

The Colloquium allowed for new vocabularies and critical skills such as resonance, orchestration and babelisation in making sense of the public engagement, public space and public life – whether corporeal or digital. Added to this, Broodryk asked, how do we bring – with integrity – ruralisation discourse into these conversations? And he made note of the necessity for new methodologies for public engagement on social media.

He teased out the thread of discussion that dealt with the significance of ephemeral and ethereal public engagements, underscoring earlier discussion about the potential of a pervasive ethereal archive to be wider and less constrained than the thin, chosen slivers of the fixed archive. The archive, he noted, after all, is in the very fabric of social life and here the ethereal gets recorded or is brought forward in time. 

Details of where Babel Unbound can be ordered can be found here.

Public Intellectuals in South Africa: Critical Voices from the Past, currently in press at Wits University Press, is scheduled to appear in 2021.