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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

“An illuminating and brilliant addition to Mbembe’s corpus” – The Conversation reviews Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason

Critique of Black Reason

In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness – from the Atlantic slave trade to the present – to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity.

Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity while mapping the relations between colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital.

Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression.

Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion. With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future.

Manosa Nthunya recently reviewed Critique of Black Reason for The Conversation:

African philosopher, Achille Mbembe, has gained an enviable reputation as a scholar that challenges the tenets of modernity. Some aspects of modernity Mbembe is known to challenge are characterised by the move towards more capitalistic economies, an increase in social stratifications and the universalisation of Western European thought. From On Private Indirect Government (2000) to his recent book, Critique of Black Reason (2017), his interest has always been on how the world can account for the construction and consequences of race and racism.

In “Critique of Black Reason” Mbembe challenges us to rethink the present with the view of charting a future that, according to Mbembe, will differ from the past and the present.

A key interest of the book is on how race and racism have played a role in how the modern world is organised. However much the world might have benefited from modernity, what is unavoidable is the integral role of race and racism in the construction of modernity. This is why for Mbembe it is of utmost importance that we examine this aspect of modernity as it continues to exclude subjects and create new and old victims that are “the wretched of the earth”.

He writes:

race, operating over the past centuries as a fundamental category that is at once material and phantasmic, has been at the root of catastrophe, the cause of extraordinary psychic destruction and of innumerable crimes and massacres.

For Mbembe, the construction of race emanates from the symbolic. It accounts for the ways in which subjects live and where they live. It explains the kinds of debates that prohibit – or allow them – to lead meaningful lives.

The book focuses more on how discourses of race and other differences emerged in the eighteenth century during what is popularly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.

This was a period in which science, philosophy and other disciplines, and social debates, constructed differences between people.This was driven by two factors: material interests and an unwillingness to live with the unfamiliar. Mbembe’s book takes to task this idea of Enlightenment to show how it is responsible for the construction of race and racism:

The Black Man is the one (or the thing) that one sees when one sees nothing, when one understands nothing, and above all, when one wishes to understand nothing.

This, for Mbembe, is not coincidental.

Continue reading Nthunya’s review here.

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“Everything your ever wanted to know about crime but were too afraid to ask” – Robyn Sassen reviews The Truth About Crime

“The Truth about Crime is replete with original insights. Reflecting on the disproportionate relationship between fear and actual danger in a number of major countries, Jean and John Comaroff explain why criminality, although far from matching many other potential sources of public peril, elicits much more civic outrage. We learn how changes in the meaning of criminality and the nature of crime-and-policing are associated with the recent shift in the relationship between capital, governance, and the state. We also learn how these developments in both the United States and the Republic of South Africa have resulted in steps taken to discipline or control certain groups defined or viewed as threatening. This is a compelling book, a must-read for scholars and laypersons alike.” – William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged

The Comaroffs’ constant articulation of sparkling ethnographic vignettes, rich statistical data, and highly imaginative insights makes for a truly effervescent argumentation, creative and, at the same time, thoroughly documented. With this combination they offer a powerful book that newly addresses a theme that is becoming central all over the world: our increasing obsession with (in)security.“- Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust
 
 
 
In this book, renowned anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff make a startling but absolutely convincing claim about our modern era: it is not by our arts, our politics, or our science that we understand ourselves – it is by our crimes. Surveying an astonishing range of forms of crime and policing – from petty thefts to the multibillion-dollar scams of too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the collateral damage of war – they take readers into the disorder of the late modern world. Looking at recent transformations in the triangulation of capital, the state, and governance that have led to an era where crime and policing are ever more complicit, they offer a powerful meditation on the new forms of sovereignty, citizenship, class, race, law, and political economy of representation that have arisen.

To do so, the Comaroffs draw on their vast knowledge of South Africa, especially, and its struggle to build a democracy founded on the rule of law out of the wreckage of long years of violence and oppression. There they explore everything from the fascination with the supernatural in policing to the extreme measures people take to prevent home invasion, drawing illuminating comparisons to the United States and United Kingdom. Going beyond South Africa, they offer a global criminal anthropology that attests to criminality as the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular by which politics are conducted, moral panics voiced, and populations ruled.

The result is a disturbing but necessary portrait of the modern era, one that asks critical new questions about how we see ourselves, how we think about morality, and how we are going to proceed as a global society.

Artist, academic, and visual artist Robyn Sassen recently reviewed the book:

It infiltrates our very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams.

The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons.

This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written.

And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

Continue reading Sassen’s review here.

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LSE literature blog reviews Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa

Ties that BindTies that Bind is an intriguing and long overdue book about race and friendship. It marks a time worldwide when virtual friendships are fast becoming the norm. And yet, after reading the chapters, one is left with a clearer sense of what it takes – or might take in the future – to actually be friends across race. Sarah Nuttall, author of Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid

What does friendship have to do with racial difference, settler colonialism and post-apartheid South Africa? While histories of apartheid and colonialism in South Africa have often focused on the ideologies of segregation and white supremacy, Ties that Bind explores how the intimacies of friendship create vital spaces for practices of power and resistance.

Combining interviews, history, poetry, visual arts, memoir and academic essay, the collection keeps alive the promise of friendship and its possibilities while investigating how affective relations are essential to the social reproduction of power. From the intimacy of personal relationships to the organising ideology of liberal colonial governance, the contributors explore the intersection of race and friendship from a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and scales.

Insisting on a timeline that originates in settler colonialism, Ties that Bind uncovers the implication of anti-Blackness within nonracialism, and powerfully challenges a simple reading of the Mandela moment and the rainbow nation. In the wake of countrywide student protests calling for decolonization of the university, and reignited debates around racial inequality, this timely volume insists that the history of South African politics has always already been about friendship.

Written in an accessible and engaging style, Ties that Bind will interest a wide audience of scholars, students, and activists, as well as general readers curious about contemporary South African debates around race and intimacy.

Mantė Vertelytė and Sarita Fae Jarmack recently reviewed Walsh and Soske’s work for The London School of Economics’ Review of Books:

As an analytical concept, friendship, in contrast to kinship, has taken a marginal position in anthropological and sociological studies, while in philosophical thought it has been a central concern in discussions of the nature of the political order, solidarity as well as human life and relations since the times of Aristotle. Ties That Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, edited by Shannon Walsh and Jon Soske, therefore marks a notable growing interdisciplinary scholarly interest in the topic of friendship.

The particular Aristotelean notion of friendship inscribed in his quote o philoi oudeis philos (‘O friends, there are no friends’), and later brought up in Jacques Derrida’s writings in The Politics of Friendship, perfectly describes the paradoxical understanding of friendship replicated in this edited volume. In Ties That Bind, friendship appears as a simultaneously inclusionary and exclusionary relationship: it is as material as it is sublime; mundane as it is extraordinary; emotional as it is political. As noted in the introduction:

Friendship can crystallize almost instantly both practices that resist structures of oppression and those that enable them: intimacies and complicities. Perhaps the blurry boundaries of friendship become even more in flux when it crosses the different paths inscribed in bodily power relations and structural inequalities, such as the marked race relations in South Africa given the country’s histories of colonial power and apartheid. As Walsh and Soske state: ‘a history of colonial power in South Africa must therefore incorporate a genealogy of the language and practices of friendship’. Within this context, the ambition of this anthology is to bring friendship to the centre of attention, enabling an explanation as to how dimensions of power are manifested within everyday social relationships. As such, the book’s emphasis is on friendship and ‘difference’, as summarised by the editors: ‘Rather than assume that cultural entanglement necessarily disrupts or diminishes difference, we are interested in the inverse: how intimacies expressed through friendship produce and structure difference’.

To do so, Walsh and Soske, with a history of bridging their scholarly disciplines with visual approaches, bring together methodologically varied work, identifying three main avenues to approach an exploration of friendships within a South African context: namely, ‘structure of settlement’; ‘operations of power’; and ‘critique of solidarity’.

Continue reading here.

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  • Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa edited by Jon Soske, Shannon Walsh
    EAN: 978-1-86814-968-1
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“Blackness is indeed consciousness of black experiences” – Gabriel Apata reviews Critique of Black Reason

In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness – from the Atlantic slave trade to the present – to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity.

Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity while mapping the relations between colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital.

Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression. Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion.

With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future.

Here, Dr. Gabriel O Apata reviewed Critique of Black Reason for the journal Theory, Culture & Society:

Kant’s first Critique may be described as an attempt to hoist reason up out of the contamination and impurities of subjectivity and relativity onto to a transcendental plane where alone it can possess objectivity and universality. This then is pure reason, whose critique lays down the law for very basis for human knowledge, its limits and which asks whether metaphysics is at all possible. But Kant’s universality turns out not to be universal after all since it excludes or does not admit of certain groups, in particular black people on the basis that they lack reason. The question is can there be such a thing as black reason? If reason does come in colours could it ever be objective? This is the question that Achille Mbembe in his new six-chaptered book Critique of Black Reason (2017) sets out to explore. Mbembe not only believes there is such a thing as black reason but he thinks he knows what it is and what stuff it is made of.

So what is black reason? According to Mbembe ‘Black reason consists of a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary and nonsense, whose object is things or people of “African origin” (p.27). He goes on to say that ‘Black reason names not only a collection of discourses but also practices….’ (p.28). But this will not do since this definition of black reason can equally apply to any other group. For instance if we substitute the ‘black’ and ‘African origin’ in his statement for ‘white’ and ‘European origins’ we end up with nothing to distinguish between the two except difference in cultures. But hold that thought, because that is precisely Mbembe’s point. The Western idea of reason is different from black or African idea of reason because both are products of different geographies (Europe and Africa) and also experiences. Mbembe suggests that contact between both worlds has produced two narratives: the Western Consciousness of Blackness and Black Consciousness of Blackness.

With regards to White consciousness of blackness Mbembe takes us on a historical tour, through the vicissitudes of the black experience that have shaped black consciousness, which are the three most important epoch-making events in black history: slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. This is the familiar story of conquest, oppression, subjugation, persecution and so on. Western consciousness of blackness is thus a category construct that is like a prison within which are quartered cellars and doors through which the black man passes or is let through, at will, into rooms, as though on a production line where he is shaped, boxed, stamped and eventually produced, as blackness. Like the slaves in Plato’s cave, blackness is shackled against a wall where it sees only images and not reality and where he is denied not only freedom, but also the light of reason. It cannot attain knowledge of pure forms but only copies of reality, hence it cannot be admitted into Kant’s kingdom of ends. They have no access to the realms above because, as we mentioned, they lack reason. As Mbembe points out, ‘Reason in particular confers on the human a generic identity, a universal essence, from which flows a collection of rights and values. It unites all humans…. The question …was whether blacks were human beings like all others’ (p.85). The answer for many was no. Indeed, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative that exhorts us to treat humanity not as a means but as an end in himself did not apply to black people. The idea of absolute or intrinsic value, of ‘supreme limiting condition’ that Kant thought is the very measure of humanity also did not apply to the black man for the same reasons as stated above. Hence the justification for their use as instrumental value.

With regards to black consciousness of blackness, Mbembe points out that ‘Black – we must not forget – aspires also to be a color. The color of obscurity. In this view Black is what lives in the night. Night is its original envelope, the tissue out of which its flesh is made. It is a coat of arms, its uniform’ (p.152). Psychologically, Black is like a victim of locked-in syndrome, within a skin that the bearer never chose but within the confines of which the victim is aware of what is happening to him but remains powerless to express thoughts and feelings. In this prison only two options are open to the black man, either to acquiesce and die or struggle and survive. Out of this fight for survival ‘the struggle to the death’ emerges the narrative of black consciousness.

But Mbembe’s idea of two consciousnesses is classic Hegelian master and slave dialect, a co-dependent relationship in which both are trapped, and within which each holds up a mirror to the other and from the ensuing reflection both become conscious (aware) of each other and of themselves.

Continue reading Apata’s review here.

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“Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice” – Robyn Sassen reviews Recognition

Recognition
The woman looked up and wiped her cheek. She saw Sophia watching her. There was a recognition there, just for a moment.
— Mary Watson: Red Shoes

This anthology of short stories is a welcome volume that presents the state of the South African literary field with generosity and imagination.
— Imraan Coovadia, author of Tales of the Metric System (2014) and director of the creative writing programme at the University of Cape Town.

The lives of South Africans have always been interwoven in complex ways. There is a long history of division; but also of profound (and often surprising) instances of mutual recognition.

Recognition is an exciting anthology of short stories in which twenty-two South African writers render these intricate connections.

The writers whose stories have been selected use the transformative power of the imagination and the unique appeal of the short story to illuminate aspects of our past and present.

Cumulatively their stories tell of a history tainted by misrecognition but not, finally, bound by it.

Amongst the twenty-two contributors are some of our best-known short story writers: Pauline Smith, Herman Charles Bosman, H.I. E. Dhlomo, Can Themba, Nadine Gordimer, Alex La Guma, Dan Jacobson, Miriam Tlali, Ahmed Essop, Njabulo Ndebele, Mandla Langa, Chris van Wyk, Damon Galgut, Achmat Dangor and Zoë Wicomb. And there is also a selection of vibrant newer voices: Makhosazana Xaba, Nadia Davids, Mary Watson, Lindiwe Nkutha, Wamuwi Mbao and Kobus Moolman.

Chronologically the collection ranges from the 1920s to the twenty-first century. It builds on its predecessor, Encounters, but devotes significant attention to the transitional and post-apartheid years: almost half the stories were published after 1994.

The anthology includes a generous and detailed introduction, written by David Medalie. It traces the motif of recognition, discusses the general characteristics of short stories and the narrative devices used by writers, and includes a brief analysis of each short story.

Recognition will appeal to teachers and students of literature. It will be enjoyed by all those who love short stories and appreciate the craftsmanship involved in telling a memorable tale.

Robyn Sassen recently reviewed Recognition on her WordPress blog. An excerpt from Robyn’s review reads:

There’s something unmissably effervescent about a beautifully written short story.

It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever.

This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice.

It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence.

It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are.

It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Continue reading Robyn’s review here.

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Roger Southall reviews The Rise of Africa’s Middle Classes: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements

Roger Southall, based at the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, and a Research Associate in Political Studies at the University of Cape Town, recently reviewed The Rise of Africa’s Middle Classes: Myths, Realities and Critical Engagements edited by Henning Melber, for Pambazuka News.

An extract from Southall’s review reads:

Institutions such as the World Bank and African Development Bank regularly propagandise that as a product of ‘Africa Rising’, the African middle class is also rising. Albeit spread unevenly across different countries, this new version African middle class is said to be becoming more prominent, more visible and more influential with the spread of market capitalism. In turn, Africanist scholarship has built upon this narrative, placing heavy emphasis upon such key issues as definition, consumption and the fragility of the ‘new’ middle classes across the continent. This book, the latest such offering amidst a burgeoning literature, confirms this trend, and is set to become a standard work of reference.

It would seem from the title of the book that the African middle class is unambiguously ‘rising’, yet that assertion is questioned by at least three of the authors. Henning Melber, in both his introduction and conclusion, takes strong issue with the rather curious income or expenditure definitions of middle class-ness adopted by the global institutions, some of which label Africans living just above the poverty line as ‘middle class’. He queries whether it is growing as fast as is usually implied, suggests that it may have declined in size since the global crisis in 2008, and wonders whether it is meaningful to refer to it as ‘middle class’. Even so, he concludes that the current engagements with ‘the phenomenon called the African middle classes(es) is anything but obsolete’ as ‘they signify modified social relations in African societies which deserve attention’ (p9). That rather lukewarm endorsement must be taken as the justification for the collection, even if the editor might usefully have impressed upon the publishers the need for a question mark in the book’s title.

The outstanding chapter in the book is offered by Carola Lentz (Ch. 1) who provides a superb overview of the literature, historical and contemporary, dealing with those groups in African societies today customarily referred to as ‘middle class’. She too bewails the poverty of definitions provided by the global institutions. However, she moves beyond that to explore the rich troves of literature dealing with the African middle classes while urging the necessity of relating this to the vast body of work dealing with middle class formation in Europe, America and the global South.

Continue reading the review here.

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