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Pillay, Pravasan (2002) A Report by Pravasan Pillay on Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture on The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual. Centre for Civil Society : -.

It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing

A Report on the 6th Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture: The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual delivered by Professor Jonathan Jansen

Professor Jonathan Jansen brought the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series to a close for this year with a provocative albeit problematic talk on the problems facing black intellectuals and the development of black intellectuals in South Africa today. The lecture was well attended with an equal mix of academics and community activists and a smattering of other interested parties.

Entitled, “The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual”, the lecture seemed especially topical given the climate of sycophancy, compliance, conformity, and anti-intellectualism that has suffocated national debate. Jansen, who appears to be a practiced speaker, began, as is the way with practiced speakers, with an anecdote. He related an incident where a (black) subordinate was incredulous that he, a black man, could be a dean of a university. His punch line drew the requisite amount of polite laughter from the manicured sections of the audience. I sunk lower into my seat. I was to remain there for much of the evening.

Jansen started his lecture proper by correctly pointing out that the vocation of the intellectual has fallen on hard times. He said that while there is a minority of voices, both black and white, daring to raise uncomfortable questions these people, when they do raise their voices, are very often silenced, discredited, attacked, or sidelined. He added that the need to raise these questions becomes all the more important given the current fragile state of our democracy.

For the purposes of his talk he chose to focus on the role of the black intellectual in society and more particularly on the reasons why this group of intellectuals have stayed silent when outrage and critical engagement was required. He citied many examples of this silence at pivotal moments, for instance, the president’s stance on HIV/AIDS and the Zimbabwean crisis, and Mbongeni Ngema’s anti-Indian music recording.

So why this silence?

Jansen gives several reasons. The most interesting and penetrating of these is his assertion that the black intellectual is involved in a fundamentally different relationship to the state than that of the white intellectual. Jansen believes that a certain loyalty to the emerging state is demanded from the black intellectual that is not expected from other race groups and because of this pressure for solidarity the black intellectual, even if he is at odds with particular state policies, must remain silent if he is to avoid accusations of disloyalty and stay on the gravy train. This is a valuable and nuanced insight but Jansen shows little appreciation of it.

For instance, he makes no mention of the strong influence exerted on the black intellectual by claims about traditional African values. The black intellectual, like every other person, occupies many different roles and these roles, more often than not, are difficult to separate. He is not just an intellectual but also a member of a wider cultural community and as such is bound to be influenced by the values of that wider community. All cultures are heterogonous. All cultures contain movements of reaction and resistance and lines of flight. There are always heretics. But many African nationalists, and their white supporters, have extracted and reified the African vision of the world that sees the human being in terms of organic community.

This vision includes, for instance, a culture of consensus in decision-making procedures, the idea of isihlonipho (respect), and the idea of umuntu ngamuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons). There is a definite sense of conspiring together, or literally, in its Latin root, of breathing together, which is a vastly different thing from the atomistic and mechanistic world-view that came to be dominant in the west after the revolutions against feudal absolutism.

In the face of the strident assertion of this communal vision of the world as THE African vision of the world it is not difficult to see why some black intellectuals might feel that a certain loyalty to the state, a perceived source of life force (seriti), is required for them to fit comfortably into society. Jansen with his distinctly liberal Appiahite world-view ignores this.

Pointing this out is hardly cultural relativism. On the contrary it must be argued that, especially in these post-modern times of moral and critical lassitude with regard to cultural attitudes and practices, we need to actively scrutinise and if necessary criticise all aspects of all cultures -however politically incorrect this may be. The point is that Jansen fails to take this important aspect of black intellectual and cultural life into consideration. This is a serious failing given that authoritarian communalism is the dominant cultural ideology in this country. (How it fits with and reinforces the economic authoritarianism of market fundamentalism is another story.)

But it must be added that there is another possible reason for this sense of black solidarity. This is the noticeable shift in the conceptual language and focus of the South African left in the years following the transition. This shift, casually put, has been from a race-class based politics to one with an exclusively class-based orientation. Its development has been interesting to note.

The past decade has seen a steady increase in criticism of the state’s neo-liberal (ultraliberal, Thabo?) polices from progressive quarters. As this criticism increased so too did the state’s counter-accusations of racism. The most common thread of counter-accusation being that such criticism stems from an inherently racist lack of faith in a black-run government. This leftist criticism, when it comes from white sources is labelled out-and-out racism and when it come from black sources is labelled self-hating or even, in condescendingly and ironically very racist move, as emanating from the influence of white puppet-masters.

Needless to say while there are clearly some voices critical of the government that are self-servingly opportunist, the majority of criticism of state economic and political polices have been accurate and hard-hitting. In most instances the accusations of racism, a powerful correlate to a host of other negative terms and a perfect discrediting tool, are merely cases of bad faith and punching out in the dark on behalf of those in power with the aim of doing something, anything, to prevent anti-government sentiment from reaching critical mass. However instead of ignoring this racial baiting the newly constituted left have largely chosen to drop the problem of racism from their agenda and concentrate instead on a strictly structural based analysis, a clear case of moving the field while the game is still going on.

This is not the place to discuss the relative merits and relevance of each approach. What is important to note is that there is the very real sense in which the conceptual ownership of race analysis has been handed over to those in power and to those in contact with power. In some left circles it has even become unfashionable, spoiling, even reactionary to talk about race.

Instead we get grandiose pronouncements of a new race-less class-less under-society while the primacy of perception, of appearance, and hence race in a still deeply racist society is forgotten. Poverty in South Africa is still very much a phenotypical phenomenon. Not only is this blasé attitude naïve given the grinding ceaselessly humiliating discrimination faced by black people everyday in this country but also extremely irresponsible.

The silence of the left in this regard is as condemnable as the silence of certain sycophantic black intellectuals on matters of economic and political policy. Given this conceptual impasse it is hardly surprising that some black intellectuals, with concerns about race and the situation of their own race, have aligned themselves with the government, which acknowledges the problems of racism albeit it in a convenient uncritical manner, and not with the new left, which ignores the problem altogether, or deals with it in a very flippant manner.

Highlighting these two possible reasons for the close relationship between some black intellectuals and the state is not an attempt to excuse them from their responsibilities as intellectuals. Their silence, and the silence of intellectuals from other races, is something we ought to rightly condemn. What also needs to be pointed out is that although a conformist and strongly authoritarian thread of traditional African culture largely discourages the development of individuals with independent critical qualities there have been scores of black voices that have defied these cultural conventions. Similarly there are black intellectuals who continue to focus on the problems of racism without aligning themselves to the state’s agenda and while still retaining a real interest in problems of poverty, class, and economy.

The trouble is simply that Jansen seems to ignore these other pressures on the black intellectual and instead dismisses this, admittedly morally wrong, form of black nationalism as being based solely on self-interest, a form of racial revenge, and as a way to assert the primacy of the apartheid defined African. He accuses many black intellectuals inside and outside of government of conveniently eroding other categories of blackness (for instance, the Bikodian idea of trans-racial blackness) now that a scramble for resources is on. This is certainly true of many black intellectuals but to assert that it is the sole reason behind the close relationship between the state and black intellectuals is being intellectually lax.

Jansen gives two other possible structural reasons for the silence of black intellectuals. The first deals with the affirmative action policies of a number of universities where black academics are fast-tracked into professorship. He calls this the dumbing down of the professoriate. According to Jansen the result of these policies is the destruction of the young academic’s career, because he, having no incentive to develop, will not gradually build a record of scholarship. More importantly these practices effectively terminate the careers of a potential class of intellectuals.

The second reason is that there seems to be a culture of self-censorship and silence at universities today where people are afraid to speak out in fear of victimization and in fear of losing benefits. There are two reasons for this. The first is the corporate (and therefore authoritarian) managerial style to which universities are increasingly subjected and the second is concurrent subordination of universities to government. Jansen argues that in such a stifling environment it will be difficult to see the emergence of black public intellectuals.

Jansen is, to a large degree, correct. The environment mentioned above is certainly not conducive to the production of intellectuals. However there seems to a difference, and this I suspect is the crux of matter, between what he considers to be an intellectual and what is an authentic intellectual. Before we give a brief topology of such an authentic intellectual we need to first tackle the reasons why Jansen has chosen to focus particularly on the responsibilities of black intellectuals.

In his words: “I am not intending to minimise the role and contribution of white intellectuals; there must of necessity remain a place for solidarity and collective action by white and black intellectuals, together. But it would be dangerous to ignore the fact that the objective conditions that nurtured black intellectuals under and against apartheid, and that inform and shape the character of black intellectuals after apartheid, are quite different from those that influence and nurture white intellectuals.”

This again is true. The white intellectual has long enjoyed dominant access to publishing, resources, and positions within universities. This in turn has lead to their domination in research and production. If Jansen’s focus on black intellectuals means to redress this academic imbalance then he is right on the money but if he means that such focus and development will produce black academics willing to speak truth to power and put their mind and bodies in harm’s way, in other words, authentic intellectuals then he is mistaken.

The other reason he gives for his focus on black intellectuals is that these days even white radicals with impeccable struggle credentials are susceptible to attack by those in power through use of the race card. The inference seems to be that there is certain utility value in having black intellectuals speak out in that they will not be so open to racial baiting.

So what exactly does Jansen expect of black intellectuals?

For one being a black intellectual involves: “…actively recasting the received categories of racial and ethnic classification which reinforce a divisive apartheid language. But the task of the black intellectual, in particular, is not simply to delegitimise these received categories as if it were an exercise in correcting vocabulary; the broader task is through everyday social practice – but also through artistic performance and academic writing – to create and sustain solidarities at all levels that will ultimately render such classificatory systems obsolete.” He also expects black intellectuals to speak out in defence of people of other races who are the victims of injustice.

These are noble and worthwhile tasks. But the nagging question is why Jansen places this responsibility solely on the shoulders of black intellectuals. These are tasks that should be equally undertaken by people of other races. Jansen sets up the criteria for assessing good praxis and fails to adhere to them himself. By delineating categories of intellectuals he is contributing to the divisive apartheid language that he wishes to eradicate.

Is it just the case that being a black intellectual offers some protection against charges of racism? The pragmatism of such a rationale is both frightening and against a long tradition of authentic intellectual endeavor. Implicit in the act of standing and speaking against injustice is the knowledge that such public gestures are antagonistic to certain interest groups. By standing up and speaking out the authentic intellectual knowingly opens her reputation and livelihood and, in some circumstances, her body up for attack. Her mission is not pragmatic. On the contrary she pushes against the constricting logic of pragmatism.

I want to argue that it cannot be an easy thing to be an intellectual and that it is precisely this difficulty that makes the intellectual vocation so honourable. If speaking out against government policies makes one susceptible to false charges of racism then one must be prepared to be called a racist. If speaking out results in one being called disloyal or an agent of a white plot then so be it. In certain circumstances being called a racist or an agent of a racist plot by certain people should and, indeed very often is, considered an affirming statement in that it implies that you are asking the right sort of questions, doing the right sort of things and making the right sort of people uncomfortable.

Jansen points out that writings on intellectuals have been largely race-less. The reason for this, I think, is that being an authentic intellectual is something that largely transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, and ethnicity. The duty of the intellectual, as Frantz Fanon has pointed out, is to put one’s muscles and brain in the way of injustice - wherever it occurs. We all confront this duty equally without respect for the tone that the accidents of our births have given our skin. But part of this duty is that we must all face up to and fight the ideologies of race that make the extra-social fiction of race such a stark reality in the world of lived experience.

Consider the life and times of the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre. He fought in the French Resistance, had his flat bombed for speaking-out on behalf of the Algerians and later the Vietnamese, had 5000 French policemen marching against him shouting “Kill Sartre”, had all his work banned by the Pope, and stood in solidarity with the French student revolutionaries of 1968. A measure of his influence is the fact that when he died more then 50 000 people marched in honour of him. Taking into account the bravery and intellectual honesty of people like Sartre, Fanon and Biko we might conclude that the black intellectuals that Jansen has criticised for remaining silent are actually not authentic intellectuals. If black intellectuals like Trevor Ngwane and Sipho Seepe are prepared to put themselves on the line by speaking out then it is clear that those who don’t simply lack the necessary swing to be considered intellectuals - not matter how fat their tedious CVs. And if that is the case why should we bother about them at all? Why?

It is necessary to consider in a little more detail what it means to be an intellectual but first we need to deal with the extraordinary amount of interest paid to the roles of black people, or in this case, black intellectuals in society. Just why is there this intense interest in black intellectuals? Should black people feel flattered by all the attention? Why is more expected from them than intellectuals from other race groups? A lot of it has to do with the concept of merit.

For instance, consider Jansen’s observation of the dumbing down of the professoriate by the fast tracking of black academics. While I have no doubt that he is sincere in his desire to develop a competent generation of scholars it is certainly curious how talk of merit is always associated with all things black. So how are we to understand the concept of merit here?

We could start by asserting that when most people talk about merit in relation to affirmative action they are, in effect, asking the other (in this case the black) to justify his existence. They are demanding from black people proof that they have a right to exist in a certain career role. The problem with asking the other to justify his existence is that the standard of judging belongs to the person making the demand. The questioners’ right to make such a demand is thus presumed in the question and the person being questioned is always, in the words of critical race and liberation theorist Lewis R. Gordon, presumed suspect.

There is clearly a double-standard operating here as the people making the demand, usually from in a position of power but not always, set the standard of who or what can be deemed the ideal candidate while they themselves are exempt from being judged on it. This phenomenon manifests itself in the unfair standard employed by certain critics of affirmative action policies who are quick to shout merit at every opportunity whilst not even considering the application of this yardstick of competency to people of their own race.

For most white critics of affirmative action policies the standard of competency or merit is considered to be themselves. This means that any inherent value contained within the term “merit” is transferred onto anybody who is in possession of whiteness. Merit thus equals whiteness or vice versa. Thus we witness the establishment of an explicitly Manichean conception of whiteness as competence and blackness as incompetence.

Once the standard of merit as whiteness is established it is easy to criticise blacks on the basis of a lack of merit as they lack not skill but whiteness. Thus to be black in the white academic world is ultimately to be guilty of blackness and the only way to rid oneself of this guilt is to stop being black. This is not to say that there are no incompetent black people – of course there are – but these can be found in equal number in other race groups. If it is shown that the greater number of incompetent people in academic situations are black then it is merely proof of the unfair advantage (in terms of education and social situation) other race groups have over black people – therefore, in effect, what critics of affirmative action are talking about when they vaunt their merit is their superior position in society.

Furthermore it is often the case that incompetence in black people is sought after rather than merely noticed – what this means is that the black in an academic situation exists in a state of constant surveillance. His every move is presided over by the omnipotent white look and he need only slip up once for his overseers to bring up the dreaded subject of merit. It is clear that no human being can function or exist properly in an environment that regards him as a potential specimen of incompetence.

It needs to be stressed that this is not in any way questioning of Jansen’s sincerity in wanting to develop black academics. It is merely that we should be guarded when using seemingly sterile concepts like merit as justification for questioning the primarily moral process of affirmative action. Merit, right now, in South Africa is a value-term that belongs to white people and when they use it as a weapon against black people they are effectively saying: “You are incapable of being white.”

That being said let us try to get to the heart of the matter. It has already been pointed out that there seems to be some confusion between what Jansen considers to be an intellectual and what is an authentic intellectual. This can be seen most clearly in his suggestions for the development of black intellectuals. For instance, he suggests that a school for doctoral students be opened to train future academics in the art of scholarship and intellectual endeavour. He suggests rethinking the curriculum of public institutions so that the values of critical disposition, intellectual engagement, and public dissent are promoted.

The confusion here is between the development of university academics and the development of intellectuals. They are not the same. The suggestions Jansen offers are geared more towards the production of academics rather than intellectuals (leaving aside the highly problematic idea of developing intellectuals - who 'developed' Sartre or Fanon or Biko or Marcos or Roy?). There is nothing inherently wrong with this project. Trying to instil in others the joys of scholarship is a worthwhile cause but academics, unlike intellectuals, will not change the world, which, when you really get down to it is what it is all about.

The problem with the university academic, as Ivan Illich has pointed out, is that he has been schooled to serve the rich of the world. Jansen points out that we have made some post-apertheid progress in that there are now black academics consulted by the media on national and international matters. What we need to consider is why those particular academics have be chosen as spokespeople and observers. In the era of entertainment and surfaces they are likely to have been chosen to play this role because they can produce a good sound-bite, are camera friendly or can deploy the appropriately impressive sounding technical language. In short they fit the form of what the news as an entertainment product requires an intellectual to look and sound like.

The bottom line is that these media celebrity academics owe their position to the fact that they are safe for public consumption. The academic might criticise government occasionally but at the end of the day he is as dependent on that government for his livelihood and status as the government is dependent on him to give their regime the veneer of democracy. Their dissent is calculated and self-serving. It never brings the crisis of the poor and the sick across the razor wire and velvet ropes, past the make-up artists and on to the news.

Illich: “The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders. Schools select for each successive level those who have, at earlier stages in the game, proved themselves good risks for the established order. Having a monopoly on both the resources for learning and the investiture of social roles, the university co-opts the discoverer and the potential dissenter.”

The people with the real dangerous and contagious ideas, ideas that don’t engage with the system but question its existence are only on television or in the press as subjects of an anxious and objectifying gaze. Our universities are institutions that tame and co-opt the rebel spirit. That, together with the provision of uncritical technical skills to the market and state, is what it is there for. Of course this structural purpose is vastly different to that of the university structurally independent of the state, market and church where the quest for knowledge and understanding is the sole aim. Such universities are, as in Paris in ’68, for dissenters, outsiders, and heretics. In South African universities in 2002 asking the questions that matter gets you in trouble. Often the good work that is done is conceived and executed in hushed whispers in dark corners on stolen time and in direct contradiction to the offical projects of those universities.

This is known to most academics. But most academics are hopeless losers. Their only preoccupations are with getting and keeping tenure, lucrative consulting jobs, keeping the research-production-reward engine running, and, most importantly, keeping the journal and book publication tally steadily ticking over so that they can develop a fifty-page CV and earn enough airmiles to take the children to Disneyland or, when they are a little older, visit them in London or Sydney. The fact that all those publications basically exploit and repeat the same ideas and the fact that no-one outside a select group reads them is not considered important. Most academic research and publications are, as Nietzsche said speaking of philology, about nothing more the art of reading slowly.

Even articles published in so-called progressive leftist journals are of little consequence. If someone produces a worthwhile article that genuinely expresses a few radical ideas all that becomes of it is that it is excitedly and self-consciously footnoted endlessly in the articles of his contemporaries producing a vicious circle that basically achieves nothing. If this circle of articles and research becomes wide enough it is called a movement or school. This largely incestuous writing very rarely affects the lives of the people the academic radicals are making their money and status off of.

Jansen said that there is nothing inherently wrong with a public intellectual working with government if that person is able to retain their critical qualities. He then proceeded to delineate another category of intellectual within the system - the bureaucratic intellectual. He calls for a dismantling of the radical cynicism that thrashes everything government does simply for the hell of it. He labels such an attitude anti-intellectual. It is useful to reproduce the quote with which Jansen opened his talk.

It is taken from Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual: “the intellectual’s provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway. [italics added]”

The intellectual if he is to be authentic must remain outside the corridors of power. Such an exile is clearly taxing but is necessary if the intellectual’s integrity is to be held in place. The truth is that everybody is corruptible, even in little, seemingly inconsequential ways. The Clash put it best: “He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” It is actually the belief that one can change things from the inside that is radically cynical as well as ultimately defeatist.

I’d like to end by relating a question that was asked by audience member that struck me as important. The man, an activist from the neighbourhood of Wentworth, asked Jansen why most intellectuals didn’t speak in a language that ordinary people could understand. He added that more intellectuals should follow the example of Bob Marley, whom he called a peoples’ intellectual. A few people around me grimaced and some yahoo fucks laughed derisively. The point, clearly, is a valid one and Jansen to his credit acknowledged it. He answered by saying that he wasn’t aware of the composition of the audience he was going to be speaking to.

It’s a difficult problem. How does one convey complex ideas to a larger audience who haven’t been coached in the appropriate technical language without compromising the integrity of those ideas? It can, of course, be done and the change will have to come from intellectuals. They will have to learn to convey ideas in different forms if they are to be of any use as public intellectuals.

The intellectual landscape of this country is changing and changing for the better. Ashwin Desai has rightly pointed out that the new social movements in this country prefer attitude to ideology. Most old-school intellectuals have to come to the realisation that their politics, as the CrimethInc Collective put it, are as boring as fuck. The new social movements are fuelled by desire, anger, love, and friendship rather than kindred readings of Trotsky. In any event one doesn’t need Trotsky to know that cutting-off someone’s water and electricity or evicting a family from their home is wrong.

The intellectual these days is more punk rocker and b-boy than academic, more lover than leader, more pamphleteer than researcher, more organiser than NGO consultant, and more outie than speechmaker. In this free anarchic environment the lyric, the parable, the sermon, the guitar solo, the play, the pamphlet, and the t-shirt are as effective if not more effective than the public lecture.

Later in the evening I shared a Black Label with the Wentworth activist and had a chat. He said he sincerely thought of Bob Marley as a peoples’ intellectual because he expressed his ideas clearly and in way everybody could understand. He said that Marley was streetwise, sharp, and that his music moved people more than intellectuals ever could. He added derisively that most intellectuals wouldn’t last a day in the streets; most would probably get stabbed. Before he left he related a story about a friend from Wenties called Skiddo, a retrenched teacher, who would use big words to say simple things. Like “Where are the ablution facilities?” when he all wanted to do was take an ordinary piss. I laughed along with him but I also felt a bit sorry for that ou Skiddo.

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