Jess Auerbach
Jess Auerbach

By way of introduction …

Hi, I’m Jess and I am new on the M&G blogspot. My reason for joining? Wanting to understand knowledge. I wanted to understand knowledge so much that I took a course last year called “Tradition, Science and the Environment” in which — for the first time in my life — it wasn’t just me who was going, okay, but how do we really know that two plus two is four? Who decided what a number is? Does everybody see the same thing that we all call green? Those questions used to keep me awake at night when I was in primary school — quite probably my teachers too for very different reasons. Luckily they were patient with me and I made it to university where, amongst many other things, I started taking anthropology. Anthropology was the first discipline I found that had space for lots and lots and lots of “whys” that were based on people, not just “facts”. And it turns out that, having spent their lives looking at society, most anthropologists are pretty decent people by your everyday standards, and the crowd at UCT actually listened to the questions asked by students, which was another experience that made me sit up and pay attention.

So, I made it to Honours and I worked in a refugee camp and taught other students and asked lots of questions, and I took this course that allowed me to try to answer them by understanding not so much what was in front of me but the whole of civilisation. Two plus two equals four because we use roman numerals, because the world is currently run by America, because we need “whole” numbers in order to divide the world into conquer-able sizes. Two plus two equals four because of history, because of power, because of technology. Anyone know the Chinese symbol for “four”? I think it may be increasingly important. The Arabic one? The Hebrew? The Sanskrit? But what if four units aren’t four units at all? Imagine if we said “two plus two equals four-and-all-of-their-cousins”, or it turned out that only the .5s matter in the world, that whole numbers are too lonely and too isolated to be any good after all. Even bricks come with a little brick-dust attached, apples with stalks, sweets with wrappers, pears with the shade of the apple tree.

When I finished Honours I had a nine-month break before beginning a Masters, I had rent to make, things to think about, more “whys”. I got lucky because just at that moment the anthropology department at UCT was awarded a Sawyer Seminar grant that was right up my alley. The title was (and is) “Knowledges, Ways of Knowing and the Postcolonial University” — a bit of a mouthful but one that I could get around when I realised if I applied for the researcher position I would be able to play with “whys” all day, teach, and be a student in staff’s clothing at UCT. The seminar series is one big Why-fest. Four three-week periods of intense thinking and discussion by leading academics from Southern Asia, Africa, Latin America and Brazil, thinking and talking about knowledge and the ways in which we know, happening in August and October this year, and August and November in 2010.

The first of these seminars is just around the corner, beginning August 5 in fact. Its focus is on personhood. We take personhood, people-hood, so much for granted for the most part, yet we all experience our humanness in different ways. Our personhood is shaped by the contexts in which we were raised, the political climates of our eras, the circles we move in as adults and the access we have to alternative ways of thinking.

The seminar is going to take place from August 5-14, largely at UCT but with several public events occurring alongside it. If you’re interested in this at all, you should check out the link that takes you to the seminar series website: www.sawyerseminar.uct.ac.za. Ashis Nandy, Fernando Santos-Granero, Jean and John Comaroff, Michael Lambek, Daniel Yon, Achille Mbembe, Francis Nyamnjoh and a host of others … they’ll all be there. In my world, these are big names, the names of people who have thought a lot about what it means to be a person in India, in Africa, in Latin America, in the 21st century and even in Cape Town. They write things that are perhaps a bit more nuanced than your average celebrity statement, and that are very real. All of them have tried to answer the perennial question of the humanities student: yeah, but SO WHAT, and all have done so with some success.

In the next few weeks it is my task to write about the ideas raised in dialogue, in teaching and in presentation. It is my job to try to get a handle on how South Africans feel about knowledge, it is my job to be in the middle — age-wise between students and staff, word-wise between the university and the public, world-wise between UCT and Long Street, Landsdown Road, London. This is a dialogue where the only prerequisite is thinking, and all thoughts are equal in the public domain. I’ll take what I can down from the mountain, and try to feed back up to it and see what will be said. As Nandy — one of our international guests — has written “no intervention in society, politics and culture becomes moral just because we cannot at the moment think of an alternative” (2001: 139). I’ll blog about one dialogue and hopefully an alternative one will arise online and in the midst of that maybe, just maybe, we could head towards a moral understanding of knowledge.

Just to lay all my cards on the table, as it were, I will only be blogging in this vein for the first of the Sawyer Seminars, the August one. After that, I will pack some things together and head off to the UK where I am continuing the next bit of my education. A rich, dead guy called CJ Rhodes is paying for it. I’m very grateful. Really, I am. I also suspect that life as a Rhodes scholar might offer some weird and wonderful insights into the why we know stuff, and how it became “stuff” not just thoughts, and how the empire that used to be British and is now one of Knowledge is really run. Who decided to write all this stuff down after all? Why? For what ends? The Kruger rand? Some weird copper lions on a mountain? Sunrise? If we don’t write will the sun not rise? Will the lions regain the prairie if we do? Can the lions map the prairie for Google if we put microchips in their tails? Sheesh, save the trees …

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The point is that now I am at UCT, and I have a bunch of stuff to think about. After that I will be at Oxford and I will have a bunch of other stuff to think about. I live in the world, too, which usually provides far richer fodder than the academy. The thing is that thinking on one’s own can lead to depressed academics with poor social skills and a sense that the world has left them behind. Don’t let that happen to me, think with me, help me understand the Why questions that have real bearing on our lives, that inform activism, politics, writing and reading, the making of maps and our ability to walk the routes they scribe, inequality, equity, peace and resolution, playing music, playing soccer, playing with ideas, coming to know.