Contemporary Orientations in African Cultural Studies
May 30 – June 1, 2014, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
Cultural Studies has become a prominent concern in recent scholarship from and about Africa. Those theorizing the field of ‘African Cultural Studies’ have had to tackle long-standing hegemonic notions of what Africa has come to mean in academic and popular circles both on the continent and globally. The practice of theorizing the field, it seems, is often bogged down by responding to the problematic ways that Africa remains a common signifier for “a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” (Ferguson 2), or by how African cultural production is simplistically viewed under the shadow of colonial history rather than as a product of the longue durée of intra-African, transnational, and global cultural exchanges marking the African everyday. For Karin Barber, this practice involves tackling the notion that Africa is consistently read academically under a reductive binary paradigm of the traditional versus the modern, whereas she emphasizes the complexity of “the popular” in contemporary African cultures. For Sarah Nuttall and Cheryl-Ann Michael’s work in particularly South African cultural studies, this involves calling into question academics’ trend toward “the overdetermination of the political” which elides complex cultural formations that emerge from popular youth cultures, creolizations, and migrations occurring on and off the continent (1). For Handel Kashope Wright, this work involves contesting African Studies’ overwhelming focus on literature and calling for increased attention to other cultural forms in contemporary African scenes. Much recent scholarship has addressed these foundational critiques of the field, generating an ever-widening terrain of inquiry into the production of culture and the circulation of power in Africa that we need to take stock of. Jean and John Comaroff’s latest work, for example, suggests that we theorize the contemporary by way of a “critical anthropology of the Global South” that “universalize[s] Africa” (quoted in Obarrio) as an “ex-centric” prism through which to view world historical processes and current political and economic shifts across and within North-South contexts (“Theory from the South: A Rejoinder”). Moving across different African contexts, Sylvia Tamale pushes the field’s critical articulations of gender, sex, and sexuality as frameworks that intersect with legal studies to enable site-specific analyses of both broad political terrains and the everyday. Paul Zeleza, on the other hand, asks what movement itself means within African contexts and seeks to trouble limiting assumptions about the experiences and work of diaspora.
Taking cues from this generative body of scholarship, we propose a conference on contemporary orientations in African Cultural Studies. We want to continue many of the self-reflexive, field-laying conversations already underway, but we also commit to creating a venue for dialogue on and presentation of various cultural forms that have yet to enter the field’s purview. The academic focus of the conference will address the new or expanding sets of concerns that African Cultural Studies might take on under the rubrics of the everyday, the popular, and contemporary global flows, particularly as they intersect with diasporic, immigrant, postcolonial, critical race, queer, and feminist theoretical approaches. Following Handel Kashope Wright’s work on the field, we invite papers that aim to address a range of questions pertaining to “the critical examination of the historical (i.e., past, the present and the future) relationship between the continent and the rest of the world, as well as the social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual organization and functioning of African communities” (7).
Areas of inquiry for submissions may include, but are not limited to, the following topics and questions:
- In theorizing the cultural flows and clusters that animate the everyday and the popular, how can we account for privileged or differential points of access to culture? In addition to marking the nature of a diffuse politics of the everyday vs. the organized programmes of state politics, we might consider the positions generated by the circulation of cultural products and knowledges, by vernacular cosmopolitanisms, and by legacies of global alignment and non-alignment.
- How have dynamics around the management of resources in Africa informed, impeded, or motivated popular, local, and global forms of cultural production? Can we consider a phenomenology of the everyday in relation to industries around oil, energy, water, global science, genomic and pharmaceutical research, and education?
- How do various kinds of cultural formations, production, and producers configure the everyday in particular African communities – even if such cultural formations occur in violent or “post-conflict” areas? Applicants are welcome to engage with literature, film, radio, print, telecommunications, and other technological forms including the broad scope of “new media.”
- Thinking of the thriving hip-hop music, film, and popular fiction industries across the continent, and the creation of vast informal economies that sustain both individuals and whole communities, how have youth functioned at the heart of the complex socio-economic and cultural processes taking shape across Africa? How might we theorize the unique ways in which African youth have reinvented both local and global forces shaping the African continent.
- In what ways might we account for pleasure, humor, and joy in critical or creative African cultural practices? On the other hand, in what ways might we account for expressions of negativity, disappointment, or critique that do not recapitulate a hegemonic terminology of Afro-pessimism?
- How do past and present intra-African mobilities complicate our understanding of postcolonial, state-centric approaches to the study of African cultural texts? How have these mobilities influenced cultural production across the continent?
- How are various cultural texts engaging with notions of ecology, nature, nonhuman life, and animality in Africa? In what ways are we able to decenter the human as the primary focus of cultural critique in African contexts?
- How do notions of indigeneity operate on the African continent today both in relation to and in contradistinction from non-African sovereignty struggles?
- What is Africa’s place in the terrain of globalization studies or contemporary cultural theory, and how might African Cultural Studies be invoked productively in non-African contexts? Applicants are invited to consider frameworks for cultural, critical, and practical pedagogy as well as the challenges associated with hosting our discussions in North America.
- How do different socio-political regional alignments throughout the African continent shape critical preoccupations within “African Cultural Studies”? We particularly invite proposals which aim to query orientations by language, religion, and ethnicity in their use and basis for conceptualizing African identities.
- What specific contribution does African cultural theorizing make to the common lexicon of cultural studies grounded in terms such as political economy, consumption, distinction, subculture, culture industry, and cultural globalization?
With these sets of concerns in mind, we are very pleased to welcome Pumla Dineo Gqola, Handel Kashope Wright, and Sarah Nuttall as our three keynote speakers for the conference, all of whose foundational contributions to various facets of African Cultural Studies have provided much of the groundwork for our conference. We hope to buttress the academic component of our conference with a series of creative works, including performance, film, and/or art installations. In this vein, we are also delighted to be hosting Tsitsi Dangarembga, who will be sharing some of her critical and creative work at the conference. Because this is an Africanist conference being hosted in North America, we aim to maintain as transnational a focus as possible. To that end, this conference will serve as the first of two meetings for a Southern African Cultural Studies Association, the other to be held during a follow-up conference at the University of the Free State in South Africa. Moreover, we are interested in creating opportunities through Skype and video conferencing that will allow participants who are unable to travel to Canada to get involved. It is our hope that this conference will be an opportunity for the coming together of various interorganizational, interdisciplinary, and international concerns, and will provide a forum to explore the contemporary orientations in the field of African cultural and scholarly production.
1) Please send 300 word paper and/or panel proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by January 15th, 2014.
2) Attach a short biographical note (50-100 words).
3) Type “African Cultural Studies Proposal” in the subject line of your email.
Jesse Arseneault, Sarah D’Adamo, Jessie Forsyth, Sarah Olutola, Helene Strauss, and Paul Ugor.
For more information, please consult our website, at https://africanculturalstudies.wordpress.com/. You may also follow conference updates on our Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/africanculturalstudies .
Barber, Karin, ed. Readings in African Popular Culture. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1997. Print.
Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Theory From the South: A Rejoinder.” The Johannesburg Salon 5 (2012): n.p. Web. 27 Jul. 2013.
Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Theory from the South, or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Boulder: Paradigm, 2012. Print.
Ferguson, James. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
Nuttall, Sarah. “City Forms and Writing the ‘Now’ in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 30.4 (2004): 731-48. Print.
Nuttall, Sarah and Cheryl-Ann Michael, eds. Senses of Culture: South African Culture Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
Obarrio, Juan. “Theorizing the Contemporary: Introduction.” The Johannesburg Salon 5 (2012): n.p. Web. 27 Jul. 2013.
Tamale, Sylvia, ed. African Sexualities: A Reader. Oxford: Pambazuka P, 2011. Print.
Wright, Handel Kashope. A Prescience of African Cultural Studies: The Future of Literature in Africa is Not What it Was. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Print.
Zeleza, Paul. Barack Obama and African Diasporas: Dialogues and Dissensions. Athens: Ohio UP, 2009. Print.