Research Platforms

Aesthetics and Politics

Convenor: Heidi Grunebaum

This thematic area critically investigates the relationship between the arts and the making of a post-apartheid society. How do the arts recalibrate thinking about the humanities in relation to public institutions, politics and critique? How could contemporary debates on aesthetics and politics offer new ways of thinking the subject of the human at the limits of the disciplines marked by apartheid and state oppressions? What conceptual elaborations may emerge out of an encounter between critical thought and multidisciplinary arts practices? And how may these provide for imagining new ways of being, of being in relation, and of modes of thinking that enact a post-apartheid sensibility? The aesthetics and politics research theme renews a humanities inquiry in which its foundational concepts and categories can be rethought through its encounters with visual arts and photography, music and sound, puppetry and performance, literary and cinematic forms.

Concerned with critical investigations at the intersection of the arts, politics, and publics in post-apartheid South Africa, the theme is conceived in terms of a “distribution of the sensible” (Ranciere, 2004), where disciplinary categories and artistic conventions and art practices structure social orders of inclusion, visibility and hidden-ness. Out of this conjunction of arts practices and humanities scholarship, the research theme aims to “redistribute the sensible” from within the very histories, geographies, and institutional conditions of apartheid.

Through the association with the Dullah Omar Centre for Critical Thought in African Humanities (DOCCTAH), the Factory of the Arts and collaborating institutional partners, the first five years of the research theme will focus investigation on subject-object relations through the work of thought and landscapes of affect activated through their encounter with emotive objects or Emotive Prostheses. An exhibition on Unlikely Arts will re-imagine and examine arts and cultural productions related to Athlone on the Cape Flats. Athlone is also understood metonymically as a place forged in the crucible of apartheid and the politics of anti-apartheid struggle, yet which exceeds the forms of thought and creative imagination through which the place and similar localities have been generally depicted. In this view, Unlikely Arts undoes fixed determinations of place and narratives of history by fracturing perceptions of a unified or single view of the world and its potential imagined forms. Locating an arts project in areas where the potential of the arts have been severely eroded allows for possibilities to be reactivated.

Artists in Residence



Migrating Violence

Convenor: Suren Pillay

Through the figure of the migrant, we wish to understand how violence in Africa remains embedded in the unreformed particularities of colonial citizenship. This project addresses itself then centrally to more general dilemmas of citizenship in the postcolonial world, where political modernity is the product of a colonial encounter. From Kivu in Eastern Congo, the Rift Valley in Kenya, or Seleka and anti-Balaka violence in the Central African Republic, continuing social antagonisms on the African continent are often manifested along the cleavages of who belongs and tensions between local and migrant settlements. Theorizing political violence and political practices by historicizing the “migrant” will allow us then to track conceptions of community, equality and citizenship. Elaborating on the discursive and institutional constellation that surrounds ‘migrant’ – as migrant worker, as immigrant, and the ‘condition’ of migrancy – will bring into sharper relief not only the ruptures, but also the continuities that define many post-colonial worlds, and post-apartheid South Africa in particular. Contemporary South Africa is itself contending with social, cultural and economic antagonisms that are taking place within the domain of the political rights secured in the negotiated settlement. It faces growing social, identity and economic struggles, many of which are biopolitical struggles over equity and care, led by sections of the population who now have a political right to expect and to demand equity and care as citizens and migrants in one form or another. It is incumbent upon critical scholarship to grapple with these agonisms and antagonisms that are a part of the condition of making a postcolonial democracy. Over the course of the first five years, this theme will investigate the question of how we might think the contemporary violence if conceived as being simultaneously the product of a particular history of capital and of colonial and apartheid-defined communities undergoing dynamic changes. In its later investigations, it will seek to study various questions of migrancy in their legal, political, economic, historical, aesthetic and literary iterations, and as they manifest in spectacular as well as quotidian everyday concrete practices of violence.

Becoming Technical of the Human

Convenor: Premesh Lalu

The problematisation of race in liberal and radical thought brings into view the larger question of the relationship between the human and technology spread across the experience of colonialism, apartheid and the becoming post-apartheid of South African society. Under this theme, the relationship between technology and being human brings together scientific, technological and humanistic thinking. Philosophers, Stiegler (1994) and Deleuze and Guattari (1987), have demonstrated that the relation of the human to technology ultimately defines the terms on which ‘the human’ can be thought. What this relationship entails has been in dispute for centuries and continues to bedevil the grand challenges of contemporary social orders. This research theme therefore reaffirms the relationship between techné and episteme as a way to develop human potential in the post-apartheid. Usually techné and episteme are thought of as distinct. In the first, the human is dominated or marginalized by technology (named as episteme), and more productively, in the second, the technical and the human both emerge as co-constitutive expressions of the potentiality of life (techné or poesis). Technology, however, too often functions along the first itinerary, as a supplement to the desire to be modern, to be, in philosophical terms, most fully man (Cf. Kant, 2007) and, as such, unfolds within a racialised schema (Fanon, 1952). In the first stage of our project, we will set out the grounds, grasping as well as departing from this itinerary through a sustained engagement with philosophical and political traditions in Africa and the West in which race comes to be thought within the bounds of aesthetics. The focus here will be on the relation of techné and desire as these are marked in traditions of African humanities, critical theory and philosophy. This is not only a question of an intellectual history, but rather traces particular philosophical constellations in key figures in Western critical theory, and intellectuals such as Molema, Sobukwe, Mandela, Fanon, Senghor, Maxeke, and Biko. In the second stage, we apply the study of critical theory to a more specific technological grammar of life in Athlone on the Cape Flats. This will entail a sustained study of the social life of visual forms as expressed in the institution of ‘the bioscope’. It will also work with the implications for the thinking of the human through collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company and its specific interests in movement, technology and the human.

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