? development, the environment and activism - Imponderabilia

development, the environment and activism

Some introductory thoughts - Jess Auerbach, University of Cape Town

It is because the world has ideas... that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think. - M. Foucault Corriere della Sera November 1978 Croc e Moses, a Canadian/Swazi/South African slam poet, wrote recently “Change of light. Coming through the wreckage. There is no waste of darkness. Even our shadows start changing colour. The only genius is grace. Perhaps journey is our teacher” (2008: 183). To me, his words capture the study of anthropology in the current era. As a discipline in constant dialogue with its past, those who study it confront certain darknesses – exploitation, inequality, the use of ethnography in campaigns of war, objectification, the flattening of living people into two-dimensional text or binary code, the loss of breath that this creates. Yet, if taught with care and sensitivity, it is a discipline in which darkness is not wasted - instead, it can be deployed to throw light upon the present by showing connections where others see none. For this reason, consideration of the practice of both learning and teaching anthropology is deeply significant in a journal such as Imponderabilia.

Reflexivity and sincere questioning are integral to education, as well as to addressing the needs of contemporary society. To maintain the relevance of the discipline, we must ask questions of our teachers and of our students regarding both the curricula we teach and learn, and the actions we take and do not take. In raising issues of concern, in highlighting areas of effective learning and in communicating with one another across global and – dare I say it – disciplinary boundaries, we open ourselves to new thought and new action. It is important that we remember that one does not need a PhD to voice a question, and equally such documentation does not guarantee the ability to answer it. History has demonstrated time and again the significance of the questions raised by young people, and those of us who are so privileged as to be able to articulate our questions in public have been given access to profoundly significant arenas. It is important that we seize these opportunities.

The articles that follow represent a section still in its infancy, one that we hope to see growing into a space for debate, dialogue and reflection. It begins with an article that questions the inward-looking tendencies of anthropology. ‘Is just thinking enough?’ asks Annie Thuesen, in a call for an education that includes knowledge that can be applied in the world outside the University of St Andrews, where she is based. Her thoughts are followed by several brief reflective pieces on what it is like to study anthropology in institutions in three continents: Europe, North America and Africa. Through the sharing of personal narrative, one gains a sense of just some of the questions that are grappled with on a day-to-day basis by students across the world. In future editions, we hope to receive contributions from those who teach anthropology as well as those who learn it. We also hope to have input from students who work outside academia employing the techniques of anthropology, who ask and answer questions that relate to the participation in and observation of society. In South Africa, there is a broad movement currently rustling through anthropology departments all over the country, being pushed largely by senior students and junior lecturers: may we have an anthropology of the African South, please, rather than reciting the canons of the WASPs? What might an anthropology of the African South look like, and who would define it? Of course, we don’t really know yet, but it’s exciting and engaging, and India and Brazil are in on it too. Here alone, the possibilities opened by anthropological thinking seem boundless – what is going on in the rest of the world? Who teaches anthropology on Facebook, and who relies on Evans-Pritchard? Where do our shadows come from? Do they provide shade or stifle us? What do our students respond to with enthusiasm? Why?

We invite you to write to us at journal.imponderabilia@googlemail.com, whatever your involvement is with anthropology. This section offers scope for connecting fieldworkers, for sharing humorous narrative, for advice from friends rather than direction from professors, for inspiration and warning, for discussions of ethics... and for knowledge of the diverse but closely-knit population of anthropologists to which we all inadvertently belong, notebooks in hand, trying to make sense of the world. This section is both the simplest and the most complex: rather than writing of others, we invite you to write of yourself.


Foucault, M. (1978) quoted in Michel Foucault Eribon, D. (1991) Mass.: Harvard University Press

Moses, C. E. (2008) Through Centre for the Book, Cape Town