Nick Shepherd

I arrived at the University of Cape Town as a first-year student in 1985, in time for the State of Emergency. Those were the years of the township revolts. Nothing in my previous existence had prepared me for this. The University was constructed as a site of prospect, a mini Oxbridge-in-Africa. The brooding presence of Rhodes looked over his hinterland, an Africa of the imagination. But this was a very different scene. By day, pillars of smoke rose from the burning barricades on the Cape Flats. As students we stood on Jamieson steps and felt – what? – the flaw in the glass, the mid-day silence, a kind of imminence. Back home in Obs it was a matter of lentils and incense and intense, secret confabulations. I remember the lemon tree in the backyard, its particular air of neglect.

This was the context in which the University came to seem like a charmed place, a place of special importance. It was a harbinger of the society to come, which none of us could imagine, but which we could play-act in our little world. Stuart Saunders was always there to negotiate with the cops, the bullets were rubber and they bounced, comrades were busted but the lawyers were always there in the morning. Like many of my generation, I drifted into graduate school as a way of avoiding the draft. I chose Archaeology over English because I liked the field trips, and most of my friends were there. Now I blink, and I find myself in mid-career. The most difficult idea for me to shake has been this notion of the university as a special place. Against all the evidence, I resist the idea of seeing myself as a disposable worker in a global industry in higher education. This means that my life is essentially perverse. But it is a fiction which I am prepared to maintain; more and more happily, as it turns out.

Archaeology takes you to the caves and dry place in which logos, the word, shrivels on the tongue. An archetypically modern pursuit (Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault and Freud were all fascinated by the trope of archaeology) it is also deeply anti-modern: in its adherence to objects, in its pursuit of deep time, in its efforts to summon other worlds. My own work is situated in the sub-fields of Postcolonial Archaeology, Indigenous Archaeology, Public Archaeology and Social Archaeology. At the same time, I try to push a set of debates. Every one of those labels frames its own question. Currently I have two projects. The first is concerned with social movements and archaeology: specifically, subaltern groupings who mobilise around sacred sites, material cultures and the remains of the dead in the course of struggles around rights, resources and representation. Framed in primordialist terms, these struggles typically involve complex plays around the (re)invention of tradition and the staging of ethnic identities. Articulated in response to forms of globalization/ development, and as a counter-point to the global proliferation of CRM, these developments are currently remaking worlds of practice in archaeology. This is a potent conjunction of cultural heritage, identity politics and disciplinary practice, which I describe as archaeology ‘at the sharp edge of the trowel’.

My second project is concerned with colonial epistemologies and decolonial knowledges in archaeology. Called ‘Archaeology, Coloniality, Modernity’, it begins by sketching an alternative genealogy of the discipline. This names archaeology not as the project of a single formative context – modernity – as standard accounts do, but as the result of a complex twinning of colonialism and modernity. A number of concerns follow. These include the fate of local and Indigenous knowledges of gone time and practices in relation to the materiality of the past in the present, subalternised and rendered fugitive by disciplinary knowledges. A key category of concern is the status and meanings of the dead (the ancestors) whose co-presence conditions the possibilities of the contemporary moment. Subsidiary concerns include notions of body as archive, performance as archive, landscape as archive. Disciplinary knowledges are born under the sign of an epistemic violence whose locus is a regime of care centred in the museum/ archive. A decolonial archaeology begins when we anatomize (interrogate) this violence and, under the heading of ‘back to life’, propose alternative regimes of care.

What a strange place to be, in this perch above a city riven by history. Our present is conditioned by a layered past, the trickle of sand that sifts across the open page. Spectres roam; and to me, the possibility of any kind of defensible action in the present is only possible in the light of certain renunciations, certain pacts with the past. Each working day I walk down the broad avenue that leads to the library. I am the me that was seventeen, I am the me that is now. I contain my astonishment, I turn my thoughts to a new day.