Variations on an Atlantic theme

Locations and Locutions Lecture Series, Stellenbosch University.

Additional reporting by Leon de Kock

The Locations & Locutions series of lectures is an initiative of the Graduate School in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University. The current convenors are Achille Mbembe, Grace Musila, Sarah Nuttall and Meg Samuelson, and the theme for this year is “Which Africa? Whose Africa?”. The next public panel discussion on “Indian Ocean Africa” will take place on 13 September. For more details visit

The second event of the Locations and Locutions lecture series (Stellenbosch, 19 July) saw Ian Baucom (Professor and Director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University, USA), and Ato Quayson (Professor and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto, Canada) in conversation around the issue of “Atlantic Locations”. The session was chaired by Sarah Nuttall (Professor of English at Stellenbosch University).

The seminar is the second in a series of three, which addresses the greater question: how do our locations form our locutions? As Dr Christoff Pauw, Manager of  International Academic Networks at Stellenbosch University commented in his overall introduction to the lecture, the plural “locations” was important, not only when thinking about the Western Cape, but Africa in general. The representation of Africa had often been underpinned by “epistemologies of certainty” – the temptation to describe Africa from outside, from a distance, as though from the deck of a ship. The goal of this lecture series was to counteract this impoverishment in the way we think of Africa, Pauw said.

In her introduction to the panel, Nuttall reminded the audience that the Cape, with its contested, creolised history, was a singular space, in that it was a connecting point between three worlds: the Atlantic Ocean zone, the Indian Ocean zone, and the African continent. Thus, many of the issues addressed in the second seminar were predicated on “thinking Africa from the Cape” (the theme of the first seminar, which took place in June).

Nuttall pointed out that a starting point for thinking the Atlantic in relation to Africa and the Cape would be Paul Gilroy’s influential study, The Black Atlantic. She noted that, while Gilroy’s study dealt extensively and insightfully with the Atlantic in Euro-Caribbean terms, it did not fully take account of other areas of the Atlantic. She also cited cultural anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff’s new book, Theory from the South, which explores the relations between “Global North” and “Global South” in constituting modernity.

Baucom provided an illuminating overview of the field of “Atlantic Studies”, and how the different approaches within this field might usefully be employed in thinking Africa from an Atlantic location. Baucom was careful to stress that, as a theorist based in the “Global North”, he was speaking “from a position of not knowing” (a position, incidentally, which was echoed by Judith Butler in her talk two days later), and that his observations should be regarded provisionally, as suggestions for ways of opening up theoretical perspectives on Africa.

Baucom proceeded to give a brief overview of three locational models of Atlantic Studies, namely the cis-Atlantic, the trans-Atlantic, and the circum-Atlantic models. He pointed out that, while these models had effected, or offered to effect, knowledge revolutions, it was necessary to see what might get occluded within the Atlantic frame determined by each model. He suggested a fourth Atlantic paradigm, what he termed a geo-Atlantic framework of critique and knowledge engagement, and suggested that this paradigm may be particularly useful in thinking the Atlantic from the Cape, and the Cape through the Atlantic.

Baucom defined the cis-Atlantic model as one that viewed the Atlantic not as singular, but as multiple. The prefix “cis” implied thinking of a milieu that was literally on this side, or on one side of the Atlantic. It thus suggested thinking a particular side as a nodal point.

As an example of how cis-Atlantic studies worked, Baucom pointed to the way in which high English Modernism had been thought “through” the Atlantic. Rather than attempting to position a work vis-à-vis a Contintental perspective, cis-Atlantic studies would position it as part of a circulating Atlantic discourse on race, jazz, and other phenomena. Cis-Atlantic studies thus identified nodal zones, reinflecting them through the Atlantic, and asking how English literature could be rearticulated through this frame.

In applying this model to the Western Cape in particular, Baucom asked, how might one read, how had scholars most profoundly read the Cape in a cis-Atlantic frame, as a nodal point in an Atlantic, rather than a national framework? How does the Cape reappear as a node in the Atlantic, and in thus reappearing, what is occluded? One of the obvious effects is that it displaces the primacy of the category of the nation.

The second model, the trans-Atlantic frame, set two ensembles in relation to one another across the Atlantic, in order to map the possibilites between them. As an example, he cited Greg Edwards’s re-reading of black internationalism by taking Harlem and Paris as primary zones of a black internationalism. Baucom suggested that in South Africa, a similarly useful reading might be produced by setting, for example, Sophiatown and Harlem in conversation with one another.

In reading the Cape in particular through a trans-Atlantic mode, Baucom suggested that we consider the question of what constituted the Cape’s primary zones, what bi-locutions became available by setting the Cape in an exchange with other Atlantic sides. However, he cautioned that there were risks involved in such a reading. By entangling the Cape in the Atlantic, and thereby disentangling it from the nation, the Cape ran the risk of being isolated as a space, or unit, a node of history or culture that was simultaneously within, but also apart from a nationalist project. Thus the question arose: how could one conceive of a reciprocity between the Atlantic, the Cape and Africa?

The third model, the circum-Atlantic model, provided a way of thinking African modernity in relation to other Atlantic nodes, instead of solely in relation to the North. Thinking the Atlantic as a circumference added not just one more zone, but many zones. However, the circum-Atlantic zone had been thought of primarily as a northern zone. This thinking had been critiqued by Africanist scholars, deeply concerned that Africa in this account got fixed to a particular locality, as the space of traumatic departure for those sold into slavery. Thus, in this reading, Africa was “left behind”. In leaving behind this trauma, the model took the pressure of a rearticulation of race off the national project of thinking race, race terror and racial subjectification. By thus reading the Cape in a circum-Atlantic mode, we could re-include Africa as part of the Atlantic circumference.

Having set out these models, Baucom then returned to the original valence of the cis-trans distinction, in order to open up the concept of “tumult”. He noted that the terms were originally based on Roman law addressing and defining particular forms of tumult, namely cis-Alpine tumult and trans-Alpine tumult. He extrapolated this distinction to ask, to what extent had Atlanticist work generated forms of tumult?

Baucom identified four types of tumult generated by Atlanticist studies: first, geographic tumult challenged the epistemological priority of the national framework by articulating a notion of Atlantic production. Second, genealogical tumult had reformulated ideas of modernity by contrasting Euro-American accounts of modernity with trans-Atlantic race terror. Thirdly, historiographic tumult had significantly re-elaborated what we understood by the notion of “the present”, a present that was perpetually haunted by prior instantiations of that modern opening or rupture. Baucom quoted from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to illustrate this notion of “the present”: “All of it is now, it is always now.” He noted that this suggested an accumulated time, and that thinking history through the Atlantic resulted in a notion of time that did not pass, but accumulated. His fourth type of tumult was identified as disciplinary tumult, in other words, the manner in which Atlanticist studies had disrupted the division between knowledge disciplines.

Baucom noted that there was a limitation that underpinned all tumult-generating phenomena, namely the limitation which attended to the moment when the power to make new was reconstituted as a preserved power. He also pointed out that the cis-Atlantic, trans-Atlantic and circum-Atlantic models were limited in the form that they imposed on the Atlantic.

He then turned to the fourth rubric, that of the geo-Atlantic, as a way of thinking the global through the Atlantic, and of moving into the global through the Atlantic; he noted that the Cape held great possibilities as a site of geo-Atlantic critique. He proceeded to elaborate the prefix “geo” as implying not only “geo-political”, but also “geophysical” and “geological”, and suggested that the interaction between postcolonial and Atlantic studies could be a way of understanding and addressing the issue of global climate change.

He cited the example of van Riebeeck’s settlement at the Cape, noting that it coincided with the moment when the Dutch republic was achieving its liberty from Spain. The Dutch understood themselves as anti-imperial rebels. The violence of the Dutch in the Cape could therefore be understood as a constant expression of a logic of republican liberty, based on Roman-Dutch law, which linked the enemy of republican liberty to the trope of the tyrant, who oppresses liberty, but also to indigenous peoples. According to Roman philosopher Cicero, the enemy of the republic could be identified as those who had no state, no senate, no treasury, no citizenship and no civil liberties. Thus, according to Cicero’s definition, all indigenous peoples who do not possess these qualities, are to be considered enemies of the republican state. Republican liberty thus constructs inimical enemy forms of life for itself. Hence the extreme violence perpetrated against Africa’s indigenous peoples by the Dutch settlers.

Baucom therefore suggests that it is time to entertain the urgency of an alternative account of liberty, a project that might be a project of freedom, holding out a model of liberty in insecurity for the multiple republics that are now the dominant state form. Thus, a geo-Atlantic thinking of the future of liberty.

For Baucom, the rethinking of liberty is urgent, particularly in addressing climate change. He briefly outlined the current “climate of history”, noting the adoption of the term Anthropocene, a period of geological time in which human life becomes in its species entirety a devastating force of nature. Noting the convergence of a period of excessive fossil fuel usage and a moment of freedom struggles, Baucom suggests that there is a non-coincidental link between the expansion of freedom and the intensification of consumption and that, consequently, we urgently need to rethink our notion of freedom.

He concluded that the condition underpinning the Anthropocene was not fossil fuels, but the founding of the state’s unlimited liberty to preserve standing life against anything outside its bounds, including nature, which was itself nature rendered enemy to the state’s liberty. He pointed towards the (newly liberated) Dutch Republic’s first actions at the Cape as illustrative of this point: establishing a garden, and building a castle. He concluded by underscoring the precarious geologics of the planet and urging that it was time to rethink our liberty to consume, to maintain a particular standard of life.

Ato Quayson then picked up the conversation and proceeded to elaborate, in an amusing and playful fashion, the relation between Africa and its many diasporas.

In anecdotal fashion, Quayson cited several incidents involving Africa over the past seven years, which require us to think Africa differently. In brief, these incidents are: the 2005 African Union declaration of the African diaspora as the sixth region of the continent; the role of Gabonese national, Jean Ping (currently chairperson of the Commission of the African Union), born of a Chinese father and a Gabonese mother, in facilitating the 2004 visit of Chinese president Hu Jintao to Gabon; the fact that currently more African-born Africans migrate to the United States annually than during the entire 400-year period of slavery; the World Bank estimate that there are currently 30.6-million Africans living outside their own countries (Quayson jokingly noted that this number included only those Africans who exposed themselves to be counted); and, finally, a recent report by the World Bank and the African Development Bank, calling for African states to institute diasporan bonds.

Quayson then proceeded to point out that the African Union’s declaration of the diaspora as the sixth region took place at a moment when the idea of diaspora was a weak one, and that they were actually thinking of the economy. This raised the questions as to who was actually an African, and how we were to establish identification between Africa and its many diasporas. It was not entirely certain that the fact that you were black outside the continent still meant that you identified with the continent. The AU declaration was thus fudging the notion of identity and citizenship for the sake of the economy.

The first step in understanding Africa’s many diasporas required a distinction between “dispersal” and “diaspora”. It was not certain that recent dispersals would necessarily coalesce into a diaspora. For a dispersal to convert to diaspora, a myth of homeland was needed, as well as time - Quayson suggested that it took three generations to establish a diaspora. The myth of homeland asserted a certain grip on the consciousness of the dispersed. The myth may also generate a utopian ideal of return. Quayson found that the best current example of this was the State of Israel, where the myth of the homeland encouraged a sense of nationalism, which generated a desire for return. A further factor influencing the possibility of the coalescence of a diaspora, was class segmentation within the dispersed population. Without inherent class contradictions and the myth of nation, the utopian ideal could become moribund. It was possible to rewrite the history of the world today from the perspective of dispersals, as opposed to the notion of nation state formation.

As an example of this, Quayson pointed to the fact that the modern world – which he delimited as the “second phase” of European expansion, from 1650 until the end of the second World War – was not regulated by wars. Rather, it was constituted by severe population pressures in Europe that led to dispersal from Europe. Thus, Van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape was part of this dispersal. The factors that led to the dispersal of European peoples were the same factors that had led to migrations from “Global South” to “Global North”. However, Quayson urged that we should augment notions of European dispersal with other dispersals, such as the slave trade, which coincided with European dispersal.

From the 1850s, the character of dispersal changed. In the face of formal colonialism, another level of dispersal took place. These were instrumentalised by colonial governmental authority. Colonial governments initiated dispersal as a form of control. For example, an indentured labour policy was established after the abolition of slavery in order to pacify landowners, with the consequence that, following the discontinuation of indentured labour, some of the indentured labourers decided to stay in Africa. They were encouraged to settle with Indian women. Thus in East Africa, a large population of Indians existed. British policies propped up Indian business. By the time of independence, most business was controlled by Indians. These Indians had remained in Africa and considered themselves to be African. Thus the question arose yet again: who really was an African?

Africa’s many diasporas raised fundamental questions, not only as to who was an African, but also with regard to identity within the diasporas themselves. Quayson pointed to the example of the constitution of “Black Liverpool”, where the conscription of blacks by merchant ships entering ports such as Liverpool led to multicultural interaction, with these sailors often staying on in the port cities and settling down to start families with local women. Thus, “Black Liverpool” was black, but populated by people who were not identifiable as “black”. Furthermore, Quayson suggested that musical influences such as those evidenced by groups like UB40 and Steel Pulse consituted the splitting of a black identification which was not exclusively pan-African, but also global.

During question time, Quayson was asked to respond to Achille Mbembe’s point, made in the first seminar, which suggested that displacement was a key modality of being African. It was also suggested that there was a class difference between Indians in East Africa brought in as indentured labourers by the plantation model of dispersal, and those who had come in by trade, a difference which affected the extent to which these people were eventually assimilated into indigenous African culture. Yet another questioner asked how we could handle the pain of the divided, colonial African past in such a way that the pain was not carried into our future, and how we could heal so that those who saw themselves as Africans might see Africa as a future. Lastly, Quayson was asked to comment on the manner in which  the African interior might be linked to the port and the sea, which seemed to form the dominant nodes of thinking Africa in this lecture series.

Baucom was asked to comment on the map as a static object, and the manner in which Atlantic studies might destabilise such a static view of a space. He was also asked to clarify his solution to climate change and related problems, since his talk seemed to suggest that the state be given a role that would foster new policies but under global capitalism, where the custodial role of the state had been undermined, and where it seemed impossible to bring the state back to such a role. A third questioner asked Baucom to comment on the current discourse of “crisis”, which portrayed the global situation as a kind of “huge disaster” against which people had to stand up. This respondent suggested that if we had to rethink liberty, freedom, state and democracy, we also had to rethink notions of security and crisis.

In response, Quayson noted that insofar as displacement was considered a key modality of being African, he would prefer to speak of it in terms of the concept of alienation; that is, not just as a condition of being unsettled in the world, but also as the disruption of cultural norms. He identified one of the crises of alienation as a certain uneasiness about identifying excusively with traditional culture, and suggested that the terms in which the crisis was being debated were not necessarily up to the task at hand. He went on to note that the most famous model of diaspora was a “victim diaspora”, the notion that “the homeland will not let me return”. He quoted Adorno: “It is also a part of morality not to be at home in one’s own home.”

Addressing the question of Indians in East Africa, he noted that long before indentured labour policies brought Indians to Africa, a trading diaspora existed. This same labour diaspora was converted into a victim diaspora when the diasporan subjects were hounded out by new African nationalist governments. Thus a constantly varying definition of diaspora existed. Additionally, he questioned the extent to which Indians in East Africa were really assimilated into African culture, since they tended to marry endogamously, thus regulating the modes of exchanging women within the community. Quayson suggested that the exchange of women between cultural groups was a good indication of the extent to which those groups had truly assimilated.

Lastly, in addressing the issue of Africa’s divided past and traumas, Quayson suggested that for diasporas, the most important division in trauma was that Africans were responsible for selling other Africans. More recent divisions would be those caused by cleptocrats who hijacked state apparatus to fill the pockets of their wives and concubines. This would suggest that Africa was as much responsible for its own internal division and attending trauma as was the history of colonial subjugation.

In his response, Baucom noted firstly that maps were articulations of a geographic entity, but one that was frozen in time. Therefore, what was important in diasporic and Atlantic work was that you couldn’t map it, since the territory of the Atlantic was articulated through traumatic-event history. Territoriality was both long and intermittent.

Furthermore, he was adamant that he was not, in fact, calling for a return to the state, but rather linking a specific version of the state, one that he felt postcolonial theory had insufficiently understood, as emerging from a specific theory of the republican state. A certain kind of dominant/hegemonic modernity had the capacity to impose a shape on the world. The state formation that emerged here was a republican one. If we were to have a fully liberatory postcolonial politics, we needed to rethink the notion of freedom or liberty that was encoded within the state form. He was not thinking of a return to the state itself, but to the fundamental philosophical virtues upon which many contemporary state formations were based. This virtue could be a certain conception of liberty. Liberty in this sense was a negative condition, a certain freedom from constraint that could only be realised under the sovereign protection of the state form. If anything, he was suggesting that we’d had enough of this state form, and should not rethink the state, but be reminded by the various forms of violence that certain forms of the state had generated, of the key virtue on which the state was based, namely the virtue of liberty or freedom.

This entailed a conception of the political and public valence of the category of love. Noting firstly that the republic was the form of many postcolonial states, and that a certain kind of republican ideology of the US had allowed it to turn into an imperial power, he briefly explicated what he called a “theory of love”. The theory of love went like this: there was a minimal degree of shared sociality or obligation towards another, but this was limited by our self-love – the love for ourselves and the need to preserve ourselves. Because we were in a state of nature and could not preserve ourselves, we turned to that which could preserve us, namely the state. The state then became the primary instrument for the preservation of the self and for the capacity for the fundamental political articulation of love to find public form: the love of that which is most like itself, for itself.

This linked to Judith Butler’s work on precariousness or precarity; Butler was trying to think a different relationship to another, one that emerged from the experience of love and being loved. Love and being loved arose from being precariously involved with one another. If there was a state form at the end of all this, it would be a state formation that emerged from a rethinking of freedom not as freedom from that which constrained us, but freedom for a condition of vulnerability or insecurity or precariousness. We could actually talk about love as a public political value, love for that which was least like us, love that was construable as inimical to us.

On climate change, Baucom noted that the work we did as theorists in the humanities, in trying to engage core questions – what was love, what liberty, what alienation, what did it mean to be African, what was diasporic and what displacement – we needed to realise that these issues were not separate from the world of public crisis. It was in the rethinking of such terms first that we would be able to participate in the generation of policy solutions. Policy solutions could not be involved in an internal conversation with themselves. They needed a theoretical, anthropological, philosophical, sociological, historical, basis. If the signs of climate change were clear, one of the reasons the policy solutions seemed impossible was because the binding ethical argument on the relationship to future generations that we would never meet had not been strongly enough made.