environmental humanities

Impossible Images

Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

In the arid landscape of South Africa’s northern Karoo, astronomers and engineers are slowly building the biggest scientific instrument in the world. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will one day link radio telescopes across the African continent and the Southern Hemisphere, turning much of the planet into a vast ear for picking up the faintest echoes from the early universe. I am interested in exploring the conceptual and representational challenges posed by radio astronomy in general, and the Square Kilometre Array in particular. What kinds of cultural artefacts and images are likely to be produced by the SKA, and what kind of relationship will a non-specialist audience be able to have with them? And how can the Karoo array’s unprecedented power to look (or listen) back in time be related to the deep human past that has left traces all through this landscape?

In addressing the SKA as a writer, the challenge is to recognise both the fascination of outer space and specificity of earthly place. Doing so has revealed to me a major difference of intellectual impetus between the sciences and the critical humanities, one that is perhaps suggestive of why they so often ‘miss’ each other in public conversation. The first seeks to isolate and decontextualise its object of knowledge: to filter out earthly noise; to minimise the signal of its own instruments; to avoid seeing its own structures in a distant, even unimaginable mathematical space. The second always feels the urgency of introducing contingency and context: to bring into frame the desperately poor environs of the northern Cape; to remember the British imperial project that carries astronomy to the tip of Africa; and to look for the history that hides in its brilliant and unearthly images. 

‘Impossible Images: Radio Astronomy, the SKA and the Limits of Representation’, forthcoming in Journal of Southern African Studies (2019).

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Shadow of a Drought

Shadow of a Drought

A water crisis and its aftermath.

Financial Times, 27 July, 2018. With photographs by Kent Andreasen.

Cape Town’s most neglected heritage site can be found in a subterranean shopping mall near the central rail station. Tucked under an elevator between braiding salons and smartphone shops is a crumbling wall under glass: the remnants of a water reservoir built by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. Before the downtown district of the Foreshore was reclaimed from the sea, this spot marked the Atlantic Ocean’s edge, where ships would stock up with fresh water that had been channelled down from Table Mountain.

It is a forgotten reminder of why the city exists where it does. Other bays up the west or east coasts provide better anchorage in storms; but here a steady supply of drinking water could be guaranteed all year, gushing down the mountain slopes in winter, trickling out the sandstone in summer. Today’s urban centre was once a place  called Camissa –“place of sweet waters” – by the indigenous Khoikhoi herders who were gradually driven from the pastures below what they knew as Hoerikwaggo, or “Sea Mountain”. Dutch settlers laid claim to the lushness created by the mountain’s rain shadow, now some of the city’s richest, greenest suburbs.

If you fly into Cape Town International from the right angle, you can see some of the water infrastructure built by the next colonial presence, the British. A series of small dams are set high up into the mountain chain like shards of mirror. Walled with granite blocks hauled up by 19th-century cableway, they are beautiful No Swimming swimming spots, filled with cola-coloured liquid. But as the plane wheels round to land on the sandy, much drier Cape Flats, these are mere handfuls when seen against a metro that has now grown to some 4 million people, and which recently came close to running out of water altogether.

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N2

Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’

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Sea Power

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From Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and back again.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (excerpts) | Africa is a Country | 10 September 2013.
With photographs by David Southwood | Memory Card Sea Power.

A genre-busting book, Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard does a rare thing: it is non-fiction that breaks the mould of works that look in on the continent from the outside. It shows the ancient and complex connections that exist within and beyond African borders in emotional, historical, cultural and metaphysical ways that others shirk from.
Billy Kahora

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Half-lives, Half-truths

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Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.

Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.) I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point...

Read more on the PEN SA website 

Kingdom of Rain

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An interview with Rustum Kozain.

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals...

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80

RK [...] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.
HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness...

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?
– Gilles Deleuze

Xolobeni and the Violence of 'Development'

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Screening and panel discussion hosted by Environmental Humanities South.

For over a decade, members of the Amadiba community in Xolobeni have expressed their opposition to mining titanium on the sand dunes of Pondoland, on the Wild Coast of South Africa. This community is also opposing the extension on the N2 toll highway that will be required to transport the minerals from this remote rural area.

In screening ‘The Shore Break’ documentary, we hope to open a conversation about how to think beyond the language of ‘development’, with its many binaries and trade-offs. How to listen to those affected? How to engage without imposing? How to imbue political voice? How to overcome the binary language of development discourse, which is framed as for or against, either/or, mining versus ecotourism?

Negative Spaces

Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.

Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016 | PDF

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

Taking as its centrepiece the collection of businessman Jochen Zeitz, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) may sound a bit like a German-engineered coffee maker. But this not-for-profit institution, set to open in September next year, is being touted as our answer to the power station that became Tate Modern, or the Nabisco factory on the Hudson river that is now DIA Beacon.

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Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.

Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams...

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Confession of the Lioness

A radical call for change framed in semi-traditional forms.

Review of Mia Couto, Confession of the Lioness, trans. David Brookshaw.
Financial Times31 July 2015.

In April of this year, the poet and novelist Mia Couto wrote an open letter to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. “We remember you in Maputo,” it began, “from that time you spent as a political refugee in Mozambique. Often our paths crossed on Julius Nyerere Avenue and we would greet each other with the casual friendliness of neighbours.” Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Couto used his platform to condemn the attacks on foreign nationals that had resurfaced in Johannesburg and other cities. He implored the government to do more, and asked fellow Africans to remember a shared history of cultural mixing, migrant labour and liberation struggle — to imagine the fraternity of an “Africa South” that goes beyond national borders.

One of the most remarkable things about the letter was the fact that President Zuma (usually known for laughing off his critics) responded, and responded at length. He addressed Couto as “my dear brother”, remembered him as a courageous journalist, and acknowledged how the vulnerable Mozambiquan state had sheltered combatants fighting against apartheid. So it was surely Couto’s “struggle credentials” that partly invoked the response. Yet I also wonder if it might have been the particular mode of his address: its careful salutations, its formal language, its poetic and even ceremonious quality.

A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways. This is one way of describing Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012 and now appearing in translation by his long-term collaborator David Brookshaw. It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

An Unnatural History pt.2

An eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.

Review of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi, 2015). Sunday Times, 9 May 2015. Longer version at Books Live.

Now that Cecil Rhodes has been toppled from his plinth and trucked away for safekeeping, the question is what exactly to do with the man. One idea has been to relocate the statue to the Old Zoo just beyond the edge of the University of Cape Town’s campus. It is a lush, unsettling place of stone ruins and overgrown cages, where rough sleepers sleep rough in graffiti-covered enclosures and students sneak off for a joint between lectures. Instead of gazing out toward hinterlands, here the imperialist could himself be gazed at – not unlike the various animals that he once installed in this 19th-century menagerie. The Old Zoo is at the heart of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s remarkable new novel: an eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals...

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An Unnatural History pt.1

An Unnatural History pt.1

The Hoerikwaggo Trail (and just after): a walking seminar.

Postamble | A transdisciplinary journal of African Studies.

Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on ‘nature cultures’, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.

Slightly skeptical of this at first – all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc.) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel. The sensorium changes, opens…

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