Choose your own path, young intellectual
"Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another."- Toni Morrison, Beloved
At a seminar on black thought held at Wits last week, Afro-Jewish philosopher and political thinker Lewis Gordon gave an illuminating talk on "black thought". He asked, provocatively, what it means to think in an atmosphere where knowledge has been politicised, colonised and stratified.
The seminar spanned a range of interrelated subjects, including Steve Biko and black consciousness, how different kinds of thought are produced, the racial underpinnings of representations of 'reality', and a fierce critique of the academy and the kind of knowledge that is privileged, produced and taught in academic spaces. This critique did not go down well with some intellectuals who felt their disciplines had been ridiculed and attacked, yet failed to see how Gordon applied his critique to all disciplines, and argues for knowledges that are free of racism, and the emancipation and decolonisation of thought itself.
He posed difficult, disruptive questions to the academy and academic institutions, and his critique raised the ire of students who felt duped by the spaces they had trusted to "teach them", suddenly aware of the way knowledge is not ahistorical, universal and free of politics. One student raised her hand and passionately argued that Wits has not exposed its students to enough African thinkers, privileging Western knowledge at the expense of students being exposed to black thought. Her question to Gordon was phrased in terms of what choice and action are possible and necessary for students in light of these revelations about knowledge and thought. Listening to the conversations that followed, I was reminded of how these sites of learning often become spaces of exclusion, academic posturing, "disciplinary decadence" and unchecked privilege.
The previous night, I had been at the first meeting of a book club. As four women, we spent hours putting Angela Davis's book Women, Race and Class in conversation with modern debates around feminism, pop culture icons and their politics, other theories and current events. It was a diametrically different space than the Humanities Seminar Room at Wits. Our half-baked ideas, first thoughts on different and difficult subjects, and tenuous arguments were tried and tested on each other in an environment where we were committed to learning together. The vociferous debate was peppered with personal anecdotes, theory we had learnt at university and articles we had read on Gradient Lair, Crunk Feminist, Salon and other websites. All were valid, and all were allowed into this space of thinking through things, and thinking with each other.
There exists a problematic idea that 'true', legitimate learning has to be confined to the hallowed halls of academia. Outside these institutions, it is presumed that knowledge and theory cannot exist or thrive. However, there are intellectual spaces beyond the academy and intellectual sources and texts that, although unconventional, deserve space alongside the traditional library. Just as we have to decolonise and emancipate thought, we have to emancipate ourselves from the idea that knowledge is inextricably tied to the academic institution. These institutions are not the only places where learning and thought can occur, grow and thrive - or even the only spaces where intellectuals can be found.
One only has to visit the website of Durban shackdwellers' movement abahlali baseMjondolo to prove this notion wrong - the thriving online library and intellectual project, under the title 'the university of abahlali baseMjondoli' epitomises Gramsci's notion of the organic intellectual, born out of and shaped by their environment.
This is not to argue that there is no space for the institution: being a student of Rhodes University's politics department gave me face-to-face access to Lewis Gordon, Grant Farred, VY Mudembe and Achille Mbembe, among others, and exposed me to critical courses on race, class and gender that favoured African scholars and what is termed the "global South". But this experience is often the exception. Rather, it is to argue that we have to remain critical of the kind of thought and knowledge that is privileged in these spaces, and not unquestionably accept it, lest we drown in its decadence. These institutions are themselves facing the challenge of transformation in all spheres that must not be confined to representation in the student body and staff alone. Attending these institutions is an immense privilege, however they are still rooted in multiple, complex types of privilege and require changes that are not simply cosmetic.
Knowledge, and its production, is inescapably political. Putting knowledge in its historical context reveals the structures that underpin it: how the kinds of knowledge and thinkers favoured today have gained their prominence and pre-eminence. It is what lecturer Joel Modiri articulates as the "North-bound gaze": how "everything from experience to knowledge to understanding of the world to the kind of information and material that is deemed to be relevant is produced largely through an Anglo-European, American, German, French tradition".
African perspectives, thinkers and knowledge remain relegated to the side-lines. As a result, what might just appear as a course outline, reading list or course pack is rooted in the politics of knowledge, and the way it presents itself as universal, but is in fact particular - as the curriculum itself needs to be a site of transformation.
To the student who raised her hand, Gordon answered that students should demand the education and curriculum that they want from their institutions and become actively involved in their learning. We have agency in our intellectual journey. The kinds of resources that you are privileged to have access to at a university often mean an unlimited access to journals, a vast library and the internet - which is a mecca of audio podcasts, videos and articles that put theory in conversation with multiple realities. Committed to the project of decolonising knowledge, we have to be as resourceful as we are resilient, as challenged as we are challenging, and unwaveringly dedicated to nuanced, complex critique. We are responsible for taking our institutions to task, questioning the curriculum and challenging its politics of intellectual inclusion and exclusion. However, the ivory towers of the academy are not the only space where knowledge exists, nor the only space where thought is valid.
Sitting in that seminar room, I pondered how we are often afraid to create our own spaces, to venture into the unknown, to innovate the concept of learning for ourselves. We have to take responsibility for our own intellectual journey, which will demand challenging institutions and actively pursuing their transformation, disrupting traditional ways of thinking, and being critical of knowledge that presents itself as singular and universal. Beyond the academy, we need to create spaces to debate our unfinished thoughts, whether these exist digitally on social media threads, or physically in the form of book clubs, networks and our friendship circles. In these spaces, we own the terms and conditions of our education, where knowledge involves being as well-versed in Melissa Harris-Perry, Staceyann Chin, Teju Cole, Roxanne Gay and Trudy Hamilton as you are with bell hooks, Sojourner Truth, Derrida and Frantz Fanon. Here, Salon.com will be as valid as South Atlantic Quarterly, and discussing Raven Symone's recent statements on her race and sexuality, and pop culture politics, will be as integral as Jacques Ranciere's concept of depoliticisation, in a space where theory meets lived realities.
In these transgressive spaces, we can disrupt ideas about what it means to be intellectual and what is valid intellectual activity, we can unshackle ourselves from dominant discourses, and subvert the obsession with methods and methodology. But here, we will also be required to continually check ourselves and our privilege, surrounded by people who challenge and cultivate our thoughts and minds. It is not enough to know the terms and conditions of thought in our age, but we need to act on this knowledge and claim radical ownership of our intellectual journey. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, "Freeing yourself is one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self is another."
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler