Authors meet critics at African Studies Association
As part of ongoing engagement with the recent publication, Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life (Wits University Press, 2020), APC Post-Doctoral Fellow Susana Molins Lliteras organised an “Author Meets Critic” panel at the 2020 African Studies Association (ASA)’s 63rd Virtual Annual Meeting, “The Hour of Decision: Power, Persistence, Purpose, and Possibility in African Studies” (19-21 November 2020).
The “Author Meets Critic” panel offered an opportunity for books to be discussed in depth, bringing a range of perspectives and critiques from several interlocutors. Babel Unbound was presented by the book’s editors, Carolyn Hamilton and Lesley Cowling. As critics, we had a variety of expertise and experience: Professor Shireen Hassim, Canada 150 Research Chair in Gender and African Politics (Carleton University and Visiting Professor at WiSER, Wits University), an internationally renowned expert in feminist theory, politics, social movements and collective action; Professor Jacob ST Dlamini, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University and a historian of Africa and renowned author (including the recently published The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police and Safari Nation: A Social History of the Kruger National Park) with a keen perspective on archives; and Rehana Thembeka Odendaal, a former APC student and currently a PhD Student in Education, Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania), with an interest in how institutions and technological environments shape how young people think of civic engagement and social responsibilities. In addition to the book editors and critics, the panel included two other contributors to the book, Litheko Modisane (author of a chapter and co-author of another) and Susana Molins Lliteras.
The fruitful discussion was held early on a Saturday morning for those located in the northern hemisphere and in the warm afternoon for those in South Africa. Hassim had ample praise for the book, highlighting the wonderful wordscape it provides to speak about public life. She asked a crucial question: what are the material and discursive aspects of the public sphere? And the common infrastructure (like a train or a bus) where we convene. In addition, Hassim raised the pertinent issue of “trust”, and, related to that, “facticity”, wondering whether, if lost, how they can be regained.
Dlamini, in turn, probed the key question of the role of language in the volume, asking why it was not directly addressed. At the heart of the Constitution of South Africa is a set of rules we agree to live by, yet there is an inability to bridge the divides that English still engenders. He saw two challenges arising from the book’s propositions: on the nature of the nationalism that constitutes South Africa and the kinds of public spheres that have developed here.
Finally, Odendaal emphasised that Babel Unbound does a good job of showing how rage and experience are now part of public conversations and that pathos is not just content-centred. She also wondered about offline publics, and suggested that they are not entirely independent of online publics.
Broadening out from these central issues, we had an engaging conversation among the panellists, as well as the wider audience, who, though they might not have read the book yet, could participate in the ensuing discussion. Overall, what came across strongly is that Babel Unbound is a crucial intervention from Africa and the Global South into the theorisation of publicness, and that the new concepts and methodologies it proposes that allow us to analyse how public engagements work in society will be key not only to understanding the continent but also other societies beyond our shores.