Unconventional histories in the critical social sciences: the Fourth Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference.
Derek Hook* and Martin Terre Blanche
Department of Psychology, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, email@example.com
This paper traces the objectives and pragmatics of the organization of the Fourth Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference (SAQMC) 'Histories of the Present'. The ongoing series of SAQMCs is seen as a central component in bolstering South Africa's important position within the ranks of 'critical psychology'. Turning toward the philosophical and epistemological ethos of the event, the second half of the paper focuses more directly on the genealogical thematic of a 'history of the present'. The incentive to destabilize, relativize and disrupt the practices, discourses and subjectivities of the present is seen as a key tactic in critical social science work taking power-knowledge as its subject of analysis. Via an alternate reading of the value of 'history' and a proposed alliance between the knowledge-producing practices of the social sciences and the arts, the authors attempt to mobilize a number of methodological imperatives, namely an 'ethic' of alienation, a valuation of 'otherness' and the formation of counter-knowledges, as means of impelling a critical, politically-motivated qualitative social science practice.
"Question everything" (Marx, cited in Kamenka, 1982, p. 37).
"What's going on just now? What's happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living? (Foucault, 1982, p. 216).
"The genealogist is a diagnostician who concentrated on the relations of power, knowledge, and the body in modern society" (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 105).
Beginning in 1995 as a largely student run initiative with the objective of investigating (and problematizing) the politics of knowledge-production in the social sciences, and South African psychology in particular, (cf Terre Blanche, 1997; Terre Blanche & Kruger, 1998; Terre Blanche 1998), the Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference (SAQMC) has grown into a far wider, international event. Critical questions pertaining to research, enquiry and issues of knowledge-production more broadly (in and out of the academy) continue to be crucial to the animus of the event.
* To whom all correspondence and enquiries regards past and future SAQMCs may be addressed.
The conference retains its ground-swell support in its founding discipline of psychology despite having evolved into a far more cross-disciplinary forum encompassing fields as diverse as oral history, sociology, comparative literature, education, philosophy, political science, the plastic and dramatic arts, cultural geography, sociology and architecture. In addition to having secured the support of the most prominent South African universities, the annual Qualitative Methods Conferences have been successful in attracting international delegates from as far afield as Australia, Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, the USA, Canada and the UK.
The series of conferences has also resulted in a number of academic publications. Not only have the conferences been the basis for a special issue of the South African Journal of Psychology (1997, 27, (2)), and for half an issue of the German Journal Soziale Wirklichkeit (no 1, 1998), they have also been the motivation and substance for a forthcoming book: body Politics: Power Knowledge and the body in the Social Sciences (eds Bhavani, K. & Terre Blanche, M.) to be published by HOP Press. The 1998 conference, entitled 'Histories of the Present' was in addition the subject of considerable media interest, much of which stemmed from the participation of the two distinguished international personages the organizers secured as key-note speakers, world-famous French Artist and art-historian Orlan, and Cornell University Professor of English and author Mark Seltzer.
Further to the credit of the conference is the fact that it has been instrumental, over the last four years, in forging and strengthening a network of critical social science scholars working within South Africa. More than helping to establish and consolidate this informal network, the conference has also provided a 'site of exchange' where local academics have been afforded the opportunity of meeting, engaging with and even collaborating with esteemed foreign academics who are conducting research in similar areas (past guests Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Patricia Hill-Colins, Mark Seltzer and Orlan, and future guests, for the 1999 conference, Ian Parker, Erica Burman and Nikolas Rose are the most exceptional examples of such luminaries).
More than providing local academics with the opportunity to make valuable international contacts, the conference has also been important in drawing the attention of international academics to the current critical social science work occurring in South Africa. This cross-pollination has no doubt resulted in vitalizing critical research methodology in South Africa - the steady increase of textual and discursive analytic research work within the ambit of psychology is a good case in point.
The SAQMCs cannot of course take credit for all such cross-national and cross-disciplinary collaborations involving South Africa's critical social scientists. It has however played a fundamental role in disseminating and motivating such work and as such, in substantiating South Africa's forefront world position within the fledgling sub-discipline of 'critical psychology'. Indeed, next to the United Kingdom, South Africa boasts one of the world's strongest concentrations of scholars working within the broad rubric of this field. It is the consolidation and extension of South Africa's position as a world-leader in this new area of enquiry and criticism that provides the SAQMC with its raison d'etre and its deserving need for continued and increasing support.
Student Academics and the Avant-Garde of Qualitative Methodology.
Despite a strong focus on international participation and upon collaborative rapproachment between academics across national and disciplinary barriers, the SAQMCs also has pressing domestic goals. Foremost amongst these is to 'open up' the critical social sciences in South Africa, to provide an entry point for young and historically disadvantaged researchers to present, distribute and publish their work from the platform of their participation at an international conference. This concern with nurturing and developing young scholars and student academics was particularly the case with 'Histories of the Present', where every effort was made to integrate senior with more junior participants, to establish links between more established and up-and-coming researchers, to cultivate a climate of dialogue, discussion and debate.
This objective of providing 'spaces of exposure' extends also to new and multi-disciplinary research, to the influx of new theory, to methods and subjects typically marginalized within a more traditional practice of social science. As suggested above, perhaps the fundamental motivating factor in 'instituting' the SAQMC was to foreground the most recent and technically advanced local and overseas social science research work, to enable the dissemination, critique and expansion of such new modes of analysis.
This concern with technologies of analysis and critique is nor however purely formal. The abiding dedication of the SAQMC to progressive techniques and procedures of knowledge-generation
is not one of a naive fascination with the 'avant garde' of current qualitative methodologies. This attention to new methodology is geared primarily towards political utility rather than merely an enthusiasm for formal innovation. The cultivation of a kind of 'political consciousness' of the extraordinary power-relations and dynamics that characterize particularly South African contexts and histories is a defining feature of the SAQMC. It is this multifold and widening analysis of power-relations, the forcing of the ostensibly apolitical into the light of political critique and interrogation (most notably perhaps here the practices of psychology themselves), that has been one of its most vital aims. Indeed, the trajectory of the SAQMC is marked not only with the identification of new and less humanistically-orientated methods of research (discourse analysis, ideological critique, genealogy, geopolitics) but with equally new subjects of research (power, space, history, discourse) and with the prospects they hold for new forms of knowledge, truth and, ultimately, practice.
Given then that the conference has as a central objective an 'opportunity creation' initiative aiming to provide a platform both for junior and for marginalized research, the issue of dissemination becomes apparent. As important as conferences are as sites of exchange and interaction (factors indeed that should not be under-estimated), paper presentation and attendance is not the same, in terms of disseminatory and credential value, as is publication. Every academic knows this. The publication imperative has thus become increasingly important for the institution of the SAQMC, and whilst, as mentioned above, the organizers have done well in distributing and publishing conference material, collections of this sort remain vital to maintaining the stature and development of the conference. This present collection, whilst by no means exhaustive, and whilst noticeably diverse in style, content and disciplinary foundation, substantiates this goal, by providing a cross-section of the papers presented at 'histories of the present'.
Beyond attracting presenters and publishing the proceedings, a related goal of the conference organizers was to attract a large and young representative body of delegates to the event. A number of strategies were hence adopted as means of ensuring a strong student presence. The elitist trappings of academic conferences where only recognized scholars are invited to present were dispensed with. A prize was offered for the best student presentation and a large-scale publicity campaign was conducted at the host university (the University of the Witwatersrand) to attract student participation. Additionally student registration fees were largely subsidized or alternately determined according to a pay-what-you-can sliding scale. Ultimately two of the greatest successes of the conference were the large number of students (both graduates and under-graduates) who attended key conference sessions, and the number of student presentations which balanced those of more senior researchers by a ratio of almost 1:1. (Incidentally a 2:1 ratio of white to black presenters reflected a mark of progress for the conference, whilst admittedly still falling short of a the more representational balance that the 1999 SAQMC will aim to attain).
'Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything'.
The cross-disciplinary ethos of the SAQMC has proven to be extremely successful in involving both visual and performing artists. SAQMC's intellectual investment in cross-disciplinary work (across the humanities and arts) is based in an optimism regarding the potential for such collaborations to yield new forms of knowledge, which bring with them new possibilities for political action. Endeavours like genealogy (spanning the disciplines of history, philosophy and the social science disciplines, in Foucault's case (1977, 1980b)) and critical spatial politics or geopolitics (drawing both from geography and critical social science) are prime examples of this. These hybrid 'disciplines' bring to light kinds of understanding, expositions of power beyond the jurisdiction of insular disciplines, hence opening up prospective spaces of interrogation and resistance. The idea is that 'multi-disciplinarianism' of this nature can extend opportunities for critical enquiry, can make the terrains of foreign disciplines more approachable to those working outside of them, and richer to those working within them.
Perhaps where the SAQMC has in this respect been most successful is in promoting the productive interface of academic research and art-production. Previous conferences were fortunate enough to have hosted the prodigious talents of South African artists the likes of Penny Siopis, Moshekwa Langa, Hentie van der Merwe, Caitlin Thompson and Steven Cohen. 'Histories of the Present' was a stand-out success in this respect, entailing an exhibition of the same name as part of the core conference proceedings, which included (with thanks to the tireless efforts of curator Kathryn Smith), local and international exhibitors of the calibre of William Scarborough, Mark Haywood, Bradley Hammond, Esmarie Meyer, Derek Revello, Tony Scullion, Storm van Rensburg, Jeremy Wafer and Mark Hipper. Curated on a shoe-string budget and opening on the first night of the conference to a large audience, the exhibition garnered positive reviews across the media, including a front page spot in the September 13 edition of the Sunday Independent. Indeed, the Independent's Nina Johnson (1998) called the show 'one of the most impressive exhibitions of the year'.
More than related in a kind of decorative capacity, the role of art-making and performance within the SAQMC has been that of a central and vital means of enquiry, critical practice and indeed, knowledge-production. (See Louw's 'Constructing ground' for a discussion of the production of new and discursively-sensitive knowledges through artistic/design process).
The fact that practices of art-production and performance belong to different epistemological and ontological orders - as aesthetic endeavours - to those of conventional social science practices, means that they have been able to lend to the conference certain unique opportunities in terms of brokering oppositional 'counter-knowledges'. More plainly put, they offer novel and affective means of challenging status quo understandings and values. These properties of subversion and resistance proved integral to the conference's overall objective of interrogating the 'everyday knowledges of normality'. Both the centrality of the aesthetic practice to the SAQMC, and its prospects in terms of political resistance, were reflected in the choice of Orlan as one of the conference's keynote speakers.
Orlan's artistic project, the gradual transformation of her face and body through life-endangering bouts of cosmetic surgery, which are filmed and then broadcast around the world, (grizzly excerpts of which featured in her presentation), displaces a number of pressing issues concerning the female body and its relationship to desirability and malleability within the given patriarchal social milieu. Questions of the primacy of representation, of bodily essentialism were likewise brought to bear in a disturbing and visceral presentation which attracted in excess of 200 delegates. In many ways Orlan's 'carnal art' is successful in producing a kind of counter-knowledge by threatening the collapse of one of modernity's most cherished divisions: that between the pathological and the rational, the abnormal and the sane, the accepted and the transgressive. The division is of course, a mutually-exclusive one, one whose perpetuation is of massive importance to a human science like that of psychology. Indeed, an applied discipline like clinical psychology would, arguably, cease to function in the absence of so fundamental a distinction.
Long & Zietkiewicz pick up on the implications of exclusionary practices based upon just such a distinction in their paper 'Unsettling meanings of madness: constructions of South African insanity'. Posing the collapse of this distinction in a very different way, one of Tony Scullion's contributions to the conference exhibition, a canvas entitled 'Assessment' (1988), features the word 'freak' emblazoned graffiti-like across the picture-plane, behind the figure of a human grotesque looking outward at the viewer through a pair of binoculars. The tension of the work, is, as Atkinson has (1998) noted, that it remains unresolved within the context of the work as to whether the assessment is directed at the viewer of the picture, or at its grotesque subject.
Another performance which powerfully evoked issues of sexuality, deviance and transgression was that of Steven Cohen. Cohen, a participant of both 1997 and 1998 SAQMCs, and Vita Art Award winner in 1998 conducted his performance on the first night of the conference, at the opening of the conference exhibition.
Dressed in drag, but essentially naked, Cohen was caned across the buttocks by a co-performer in an apparent mime of sado-masochistic sexual practice. In a second piece, Cohen ejected viscous red dye from his mouth before douching the same blood-like substance over a kitsch nude of a young girl that he'd previously placed amongst the exhibition.
Although perhaps more spectacular in their shock-appeal, these two performances (Orlan's and Cohen's) called to mind the work of British Artist Damien Hirst. One of his most notorious pieces, namely 'Some comfort gained from the acceptance of the inherent lies in everything' (see Hirst, 1997) features two dead cows, which have been divided by vertical cross-sectional cuts into 12 separate segments, each floating upright in its own separate tank of formaldehyde. As an exhibit the 12 tanks are placed in a discontinuous but linear order such that the various cross-sectional segments of the two bodies are interchanged. Separated from one another equi-distantly, the tanks are arranged so that spectators may walk around and between the various segments of the carcasses and benefit from both external and internal anatomical vantages of the two animals.
The attraction of these works, and the power they exude from the perspective of the politically-motivated social science researcher, is that they are able to displace certain dominant values by exhibiting the facts hidden, secreted away by more acceptable practices. Each of the above examples, Orlan's cosmetic surgery, Cohen's sexual exhibitionism, Hirst's displayed carcasses, have strong corresponding co-ordinates in the field of culturally-valid, socially-acceptable objects and practices. Face-lifts, attempts at modifying the body through various practices (like those of tanning and exercise), are quite 'unextraordinary'. The means, understandings and forms of predominant and socially acceptable forms of sexual interaction, at a given time and place, are likewise understood as quite natural. Even the mass mutilation and destruction of cattle, and the use of their carcasses as food-stuffs, clothing and means of decoration, is a basic and unqualified condition of the everyday modern, western life-style. All of these examples are, quite undeservingly, unremarkable, normal, until re-contextualized, placed back into relation with their seemingly more extreme forms.
At their most forceful, these works of art are able to 're-semanticize' facets of normality, displace them so as to make them, by contrast, quite strange and alien. The surfacing of such marginalized contexts operates to interrogate practices of normality, disrupt their apparent arbitrariness, their secured positions within the normalcy of modernity, invert their acceptable positions in the cultural domicile of our particular times, places and spaces. At their most seductive, these works, like the incisive and compelling evidence of visionary research, have the ability to make normalcy appear counter-intuitive, absurd, irrational. Their counter-knowledge, their logics, twisted and abstracted from those of normative objects and practices, come, however momentarily, to seem immanently more sensible, more believable than those of present culture. It is through this quality, that Johnson (1998) described in her exhibition review as a kind of 'overwhelming raw truthfulness' that such works become, able to challenge and ultimately refute the given order of normality. This 'ethic of alienation', which in its ability to oppose and resist habitual and invisible relations of power sustained by the very facade of normalcy, may thus properly be considered as in fact ethical. The political value of such confrontation, whether achieved through art or research, is something we will expand upon as the discussion of 'history of the present' thematic ensues.
Before moving on however it is important to note that the performances of Cohen and Orlan were not the only talking pieces of the conference. Other conference performances which sparked debate, dramatizing not issues of perversity and deviance but rather those of the problematics of representation and of political apathy, respectively, were those of US film producer Nate Kohn's performed 'screen-play': Messing: information, liminality, dread', and the musical/spoken-word piece 'Suffer even the least' contributed by J.W. Richardson (Emory University, USA) and J.L. Pickett (Columbus Symphony Orchestra double-bassist).
The 1998 SAQMC theme, 'histories of the present', a Foucauldian methodological injunction lifted from the beginning of Discipline and Punish (1977), suggested a unifying way of loading critical enquiry across a wide array of qualitative research methodologies. Moreover, the thematic proved to be one (as touched on above) that served also as an aesthetic credo of sorts, enabling the conference and the conference exhibition to share the same title and similar political objectives.
The conference's initial call for papers solicited academic presentations, exhibitions, multi-media displays and live performances 'able to relativize the present cultural and political status quo'. The conference's stated objective, linking up with the 'ethic of alienation' sketched above, was the creation of a forum for interdisciplinary inquiry into methodologies, strategies and theoretical systems able to destabilize and defamiliarize the present.
Although the theme clearly stemmed from a genealogical imperative, it was not the conference's intention to apply pure genealogical research principles, or to foreground solely work of a historical flavour. The valorization of history, or a historicizing approach to research material alone, is obviously not enough to ensure critical penetration of that material, or work that may be politically operative/contestive. As Dreyfus & Rabinow (1982) and Butchart (1998) note of Foucault's criticism of history, any form of history that cannot conceive of forms of power beyond the sovereign blueprint of its operations, or that simply project backwards from the dominant values and understandings of the present, will clearly not escape the insidious insulation of current practices, balances and knowledges of power. To the contrary, it is precisely these interests that such a form of history will risk endlessly reproducing (Butchart, 1998).
An over-riding concern of a 'history of the present' thus is not to assume any object or practice to be beyond the scope of a malleable, adaptive and 'headless' power that no longer resembles the figure of the sovereign in its functioning. Nothing can be assumed to exist in a vacuum outside the gamut of power, no understandings, as basic or as essential as they might seem, can be presumed universal or as existent beyond the productive and constitutive role of power-knowledge. The conference demonstrated this point through a variety of examinations: of sexuality (see Deverell, Thatcher & Katz's paper on cybersex), of the body (Sey & Smith's on cyborg culture), of ethnicity & nationalism (Kistner's 'Imagined communities', Tschudin's 'When is an "african" African?'), of insanity (Long & Zietkiewicz),
of human emotions (Neves's etymology of emotionality) and of identity and subjectivity (Rankoe's 'Exile, identity and subjectivity', Wilson & Durrheim's 'Subjects of reconstruction and development' and Dalgliesh's discussion of Foucault's genealogy of an anti-theory of the normative subject).
For the genealogist, or the student of a 'history of the present' there are no fixed essences, no underlying laws, no metaphysical finalities (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 106). To such a student, every conceivable object, practice or discourse is amenable to analysis; liable to a rewriting. From this perspective a seemingly limitless domain of the subjects/objects of power's production comes into view as potential focuses of analysis. Indeed, as seen from the selective listing above, the papers in this collection are testimony both to the diverse and variable focus of a 'history of the present' and to its concern with seemingly arbitrary or natural subjects.
Aligned to this diverse and variable focus is a premium on methodological innovation, on generating new means of fixing the analysis of relations of power across new dimensions of consideration. The steps made in discursive analytic work are again a case in point here (exemplified in the papers of Wilson & Durrheim, Rankoe and Neves), although at present a more pressing example of a hitherto unexamined dimension of power is perhaps that of space. Here Borreill's paper on 'Territoriality: dimensions and implications' is a good example, within the South African context, of a critical investigation of the role of space and geography in identity politics. A different but likewise important examination of space is to be found in Louw's 'Constructing ground', which centralizes a form of spatial politics in the discussion of architectural methodology).
Indeed, in many ways the SAQMC has taken the diverse methodological innovations and rejuvenations associated with Foucault (archaeology, genealogy, interpretative analytics, the likes of geopolitics, discourse analysis) as both model and impetus for the future work it would like to foreground and initiate. There are several examples of work within the present volume that adopt innovative or experimental methodologies, means of knowledge-production. The paper of Sey & Smith draws on 'twin perspectives of psychoanalysis and the history of science' whilst weaving in and out of the field of aesthetics as way of formulating a central argument about the nature of transgression and pathology in the premillennial era of late modernity. Hoedekie's 'In the light of shadow' leans on the poetic and fictive through the methodological evocation of the metaphor as a means of exploring what he titles the 'shadowconcept'. Webb's discussion of 'Studied skills? globalizations. barely managed markets. higher education. learning. deconstructions' (sic) employs what he terms the 'strange structuralism' of Foucault's genealogy alongside Derridean thinking. Hlatywayo, Mnisi & Mathibe's brief discussion of oral history ('Give them back their memories: the University of the North Oral History Project in a Post-Custodial Era') similarly opens up new methodological opportunities.
Other papers, whilst being more loaded towards a knowledge-generation of theory than of in vivo analytic research of a more traditional social science fashion, introduce powerful critical currents into the field. Kistner's 'Imagined Communities - by what stretch of the imagination?' and de Kock's 'Virtual ecology and the economics of politics and aesthetics' are the strongest exemplars of this trend.
Given that a 'history of the present' respects no concept or subject/object as above the jurisdiction of its critical excavations, the contentions of a substantial project of linear history themselves come under threat. Rather then being preoccupied with slotting the single event in to any broader structure of history, such work has a preoccupation with the specifics of the local, single event, in a way that attempts to sidestep the foreclosure of existing history, the 'pre-determinations' of already existing knowledge. Avoiding the search for depth, histories of the present seek out the surface of events, the small details, the minor shifts and subtle contours (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 106), indulging themselves, as one might put it, in the analysis of the superficialities of everyday life. Hence both Butchart (1998) and Armstrong (1990) note that a history of the present doesn't bother itself with the separation of primary and secondary data sources - all sources instead may be considered as primary, as Butchart puts it, "for their own period of authorship" (p. 9). Britten hence immerses herself in the popular local Madam & Eve comic strip as a way of tracing a tentative outline of 'the history of the new South Africa'.
What is becoming increasingly apparent then is that a 'history of the present' maintains a fundamental disrespect for conventional history. Following Dreyfus & Rabinow (1982), a 'history of the present' is a problematizing methodological ethos that seeks out discontinuities where others have found continuous development, finding reoccurrences and play where others have traced the smooth veneer of steady progress. Unconcerned with providing stories of evolution and achievement, stability and continuance, the 'historian of the present' chooses rather to head 'against the grain' of predominant understandings, resolutely attacking what Foucault has called the 'order imposed by blocks of functionalist or systematizing knowledge' (1980a, p. 82), even when this order has itself been a previous 'home ground'. Durrheim's 'Qualitative fetishism' is noteworthy here. Taking as its partial subject of criticism the special issue of the South African Journal of Psychology consisting of papers of previous SAQMCs, he questions the epistemological and political powers that have seemingly erroneously been assumed of popular avant-garde qualitative methodologies. In a similar way, Dutton's 'Postmodern positivisms' argues that the political zealousness of the sphere of post-structural theory and research is, as he puts it, merely the academy's latest trompe-l'oeil.
The problematizing ethos of a 'history of the present' is hence not one that stops short of self-scrutiny or self-problematization. Indeed, it is exactly this kind of initiative
that has revealed the core problematic of the SAQMCs - a problematic that is the source of the conference's greatest philosophical difficulty as well as that of its predominant and most motivating methodological challenge. This problematic concerns the nature and function of the social sciences. Given Foucault's (1977) clear and unbending declaration that the social sciences were born as measures of control, as means of perpetuating and extending oppressive objects and relations of power-knowledge, given this solid and unabaiting force of criticism, one has to ask whether the social sciences, no matter how critical, or detached from the scrutinization of human or statistical subjects, can ever be operational in producing properly politically-utile, non-repressive, non-hegemonic or liberatory knowledges. A declaration of this sort makes the speed with which the SAQMCs have rushed to align themselves with various disciplines of the arts and humanities quite unsurprising.
Basic to this central and seemingly intrinsic problematic is Foucault's (1977) understanding of disciplinary power. Butchart distils an aspect of this concept of power in noting that 'all disciplinary enquiry relates to its subject matter not as a means of discovery against an object awaiting to be known, but as a productive power that is also its effect' (1998, p. ix). That power cannot be separated from knowledge and that such power-knowledges unavoidably serve the interests of state and reigning asymmetries of power, in the surveillance and disciplining of human subjects, means then that the social science enterprise will always and indissociably feature as a vital component of modern power.
The prospect of new methodological horizons and new anti-humanist themes, like those of history, space, discourse, that surrender their grip on the human subject, would appear to mitigate somewhat against Foucault's grim prognosis. Likewise an avoidance of research that gratuitously 'psychologizes' hence providing clinical professionals with additional surfaces of purchase within the human subjects, may appear to go some way to alleviating the 'subjectifying' tendencies that so attach particularly the axis of psychological knowledge/practice.
Perhaps future conferences will be able to offer a more convincing or substantial retort to this predicament. For the time-being it is worth noting that the SAQMCs have taken as basic to their programmes the attempt to turn particularly its putative home-discipline of psychology 'in on itself', to lend the discipline a greater 'reflexivity of practice'. The ethical and political criticism of psychology and its various applied sub-disciplines has been an over-riding agenda of the conferences, as epitomized in the ambiguous theme of the forthcoming 1999 event: 'New Subjects For Psychology'. Whether this line of criticism will ultimately yield formidable results and equip laypersons with adequate vocabularies and resistances (against the power-knowledge complex of psychology) is something that future SAQMCs and the field of critical psychology as a whole still need to assess. Until then the SAQMC faces, as an incentive, Foucault's (1977) challenge that a critical, progressive, politically-active social science remains a contradiction in terms.
As is thus becoming clear, the thoroughly politicizing force of a 'history of the present' makes for an unremitting and forceful scepticism. Rather than presuming the objective existence of any objects of knowledge, or of the apparently transcendental nature of subjectivity, the 'historian of the present' rigorously denies them any trans-historical stability, considers them in a state of flux, never beyond the production reach of power. Meeting a political scepticism of the knowledges 'that are' with a suspicion of the phenomenological subject 'that is', Foucault famously declares that "One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject" (1980a, p. 117). To properly ascertain the workings of power the student of a history of the present needs thus be continually aware of privileging the philosophical myths of the transcendental or founding subject, of originating experience and of the constituting author (Foucault, 1981). To slip into any of these modes of conceptualization is to provide the workings of power with a substantial and personifying alibi, to simply retread relations of power without revealing them.
Given these warnings of what are not suitable levels of analysis for a 'history of the present', it becomes important to delineate what roots of analysis are.
Counter-Knowledges. The Political Utility of Otherness.
A fundamental concern of a 'history of the present' lies with the avoidance of the reproduction of predominant current values. A 'history of the present', rather than stationing itself in 'the now' and projecting current values back into the past (as Butchart puts it, 1998, p. 2) and into the products of its present analysis, opts instead to uproot the 'now' of commonplace understandings, normalities and subjectivities, with recourse to a source of otherness. In genealogy such an otherness is typically accessed through reference to oppressed histories.
South African histories of this sort featured strongly in the conference, not to reconstruct the Apartheid past, to simply rediscover there what had previously been lost or differently defined, but to throw an examinatory light upon the present 'new' South Africa. Perhaps the strongest single embodiment of this strand of criticism was the Khulumani Support Group's workshopped dramatic presentation 'The story I am about to tell'. Through disturbing re-tellings of true personal trauma (snippets of survivors' Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies) the piece powerfully upturned commonplace assumptions of the meaning of truth and reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Ensuing debate helped foreground the need for a strong foreward-looking political imperative within qualitative research agendas. Such an imperative would be to implement a sense of political urgency to the transitory process still transpiring within South Africa, and to combat the political complacency characteristic of many white South African's involvement in the country's 'current history'. The sense that 'Apartheid is not yet dead' surmised the contributions and sentiments of many delegates on the issue.
As mentioned earlier, not all histories are politicallly operative in the contestation of asymmetrical relations of power.
Indeed, 'histories of the past' by contrast to 'histories of the present' (and in this respect much like the great majority of ongoing social science research), firmly anchor themselves in the current socio-political realm. Hence the results of these research endeavours inevitably reveal (as Butchart puts it, 1998) as much about the author's historical and political context as about the subject matter itself. A penetrative analysis of the effects and machinations of power can hardly reach a level of reasonable critical efficacy if insulated in this fashion.
Considering the critical and political value of ascertaining a viable source of 'otherness' it becomes clear that a 'history of the present' represents an almost absolute reversal of the typical function of conventional histories. As opposed to a 'history of the past' - which is essentially a work of the present produced as way of understanding the past - we now have a 'history of the present' that looks everywhere it can beyond its domicile culture to assemble competing means of making the present intelligible. A 'history of the present' then is largely written from a collection of fragments of the forgotten, suppressed, disqualified or otherwise marginalized past. The possibility exists here however that reference to the past may not represent the only source of such disqualified knowledges. It is possible that there are other sources of such a scrutinizing 'otherness', from which such critical 'histories of the present' may be written. (For a more in depth and cross-sectional review of 'technologies of otherness' see Golding, 1998).
A successful 'history of the present' then, in a more fragmentary application of its pure genealogical form, and in a departure from its necessarily historical basis, may be understood as equipping the researcher with different accounts and readings of what had appeared to be ontologically secured meanings. The denial of the apparent ahistory of many of the subjects/objects/practices of 'the now' may occur through the generation or rediscovery of a variety of potentially liberatory knowledges and counter-knowledges beyond the historical. The aesthetic realm, as alluded to above, appears to be one such alternate and viable source of destabilizing counter-knowledges.
Adequately contestive knowledges thus, produced by practices of artistic and research endeavour, 'histories' of this nature, then perhaps are more properly understood as kinds of recontextualizing knowledge that give voice to the disqualified, low-ranking and local forms of understanding long since invalidated and delegitimized by dominant relations of power-knowledge. Here then, most vividly, one can see the force of the linking of anti-rationality, critical social science research and artistic practice. Following Foucault, it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, inadequate, insufficiently elaborated or naive knowledges located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity through these local or popular knowledges incapable of unanimity, that criticism performs its work" (Foucault, 1980a, p. 82).
The risk of evoking 'history' here as a powerful form of non-centralised criticism standing as far as possible outside of a reliance on the approval of established regimes of thought (to borrow from Foucault, 1980a, p. 81) is that we will stretch the understanding of the concept beyond its capacity. 'History' as a reservoir of otherness, as a source from which may be drawn the insurrectionist force of subjugated knowledges (to again borrow from Foucault, 1980a, p. 81), as a means of rediscovering the ruptural effects of conflict and struggle that systematizing blocks of modern power-knowledge are designed to mask, such a 'history' would be a potent political weapon indeed.
The papers in this collection each in their own way attempt 'histories', contestive accounts that threaten to disrupt and destabilize the status quo of certain normative values, understandings, accounts and presumptions. Written from a variety of vantages, these papers draw on a number of alternative sources/platforms from which different kinds of knowledge-production are made possible. Their critical commentary has been divided into the following sections:
1) Methodological issues
2) Subjects and subjectivity
3) Location, nationalism and ethnicity
4) Spatial politics
5) Politics, aesthetics and philosophy
6) Perceptions of otherness.
A last and miscellaneous section, entitled 'haunted objects', contains a number of key images from the 'histories of the present' exhibition, with the added extra of a number of press cuttings pertaining to the exhibition. Also contained in this section is the call for papers for the 1999 SAQMC: tentatively entitled 'New Subjects for Psychology - Psychology in the New Millenium'.
Epistemology and Politics.
Prior to closing it seems prudent to anticipate the attacks of the conference's critics (like that of Van Staden's, 1998). Foreseeably the predominant criticism of the objectives of 'Histories of the Present' and other SAQMCs is that they espouse a misguided celebration of 'anti-knowledges', sacricifing epistemological rigour for a flavour-of-the-month methodological experimentalism and 'avant-guardism' for 'avant-guardism's' sake.
The conference has provided a forum for experimental work, and at times for performances and arts seemingly broaching a celebration of anti-rationalism. It is understandable that so diverse an ensemble of works and practices may be construed as unscientific, and hence as epistemologically invalid. For the record: the espousal of naive 'anti-knowledges' has never been
an objective of the conference. As specified above, a problematizing of the politics of knowledge-production, has been. In assessing the validity of the truth-claims of what have been referred to above as 'counter-knowledges' it is important to specify issues of epistemological-direction prior to an overzealous interrogation of epistemological rigour. From the very outset the SAQMCs have been unconcerned with producing scientific 'truths'. Rather than science, their overwhelming concern has been with producing politics. They have, in short, entertained a fundamentally different, and from their perspective a more pressing, research imperative to that of the more positivistic social sciences. Foucault neatly surmises this imperative when he states:
"It seems to me that the real....task in a society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight them" (Foucault, 1974, p. 171).
In a similar vein Foucault contends: "The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning" (1980a, p. 114, my emphasis). As such political-orientated research such as that foregrounded by the SAQMC does not address itself primarily to truth, but rather to action and struggle. This is not to suggest that politically-motivated research of this sort need have no epistemological integrity. Indeed, quite the contrary, the initiative is to "render certain critical knowledges capable of opposition and to struggle against the solidity of the theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse...[of]...opposition to the scientific hierarchization of knowledges and the effects intrinsic to their power" (Foucault, 1980a, p. 85). Work of this sort hence needs a kind of epistemological strength if it is effectively going to be able to enter the field of struggle and contestation.
The contestation of power however cannot simply orient itself around the positivistic goal of determining the truth, substantiating knowledge, given that both of these are, according to Foucault (1977), functions of reigning asymmetries of power.
The analysis of power (the putative function of political research), in short, thus makes for a special case in research. It is not enough to simply 'map the terrain of power'. To attempt doing so risks 'discovering' a description that has to a certain extent already been pre-determined. The criticism of power needs set up a utile and 'unassimilable' framework of criticism, engender a political matrix that is thorough, combative, and ultimately politically effective against reigning understandings to 'stand its own ground' without being colonized or re-possessed by the very object of is criticism.
Such a political agenda however by no means vindicates a lyrical right to ignorance and non-knowledge:
"we are opposed primarily not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organized [social] scientific discourse within a society such as ours" (Foucault, 1980a, p. 84).
Political research does as such apply itself to knowledge-production and the generation of kinds of truths - however, these are critical, operative, action-directed truths capable of strategy and resistance, rather than truths of a static or merely factual variety. Political research is tactical as opposed to unconditional in its relationship with truth - not merely positivistic. In closing it is appropriate again to turn to Foucault:
"I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that, I would not want to say that they were outside the truth. It seems possible to me to make fictions work within truth, to introduce truth-effects within a fictional discourse, and in some way to make discourse arouse, "fabricate," something which does not yet exist, thus to fiction something. One "fictions" history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one "fictions" a politics that does not yet exist starting from a historical truth" (Foucault, cited in Morris & Ratton, 1979, p. 75).
Armstrong, D. (1990). Use of the genealogical method in the exploration of chronic illnes. Social Science and Medicine, 30, 1225-7.
Atkinson, B. (1998). Dealing in death. Mail & Guardian, September 11-17, 31.
Butchart, A. (1998). The anatomy of power: european constructions of the african body. London & New York: Zed Books.
Dreyfus, H.L. & Rabinow, P. (1982). Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Foucault, M. (1974). Human nature: justice versus power. In E. Fons (Ed) Reflexive water. The basic concerns of mankind (pp. London: Souvenir Press.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. England: Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1980a). Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings by Michel Foucault, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, M. (1980b). The history of sexuality. An introduction (volume 1). New York: Vintage House.
Foucault, M. (1981). The order of discourse. In R. Young (Ed) Untying the text: a post-structural anthology, (pp. 48-78). Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. In H.L. Dreyfus & P. Rabinow (Eds) Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Golding, S. (1998). The eight technologies of otherness. London: Routledge.
Hirst, D. (1997). Damien Hirst: I want to we everywhere, with everyone, forever. New York: Monacelli.
Johnson, N. (1998). Prepare to be shocked, then bask in beauty. The Sunday Independent, September 13, p. 12.
Kamenka, E. (1982). The portable marx. London: Penguin.
Levett, A., Kottler, A. Parker, I. & Burman, E. (1997) Culture, power and difference: discourse analysis in South Africa. Rondesbosch: University of Cape Town Press.
Morris, M. & Patton, P. (1979). Michel Foucault: power, truth, strategy. Sydney: Feral Publications.
Terre Blanche, M. (1997). Crash. South African Journal of Psychology, 27, 59-63.
Terre Blanche, M. & Kruger, J. (1998). Crash test dummies. In 'Touch me I'm sick': the proceedings of the 3rd annual South African qualitative methods conference. Pretoria: The South African Qualitative Methods Collective.
Terre Blanche, M. (1998). This is war: reply to Fred van Staden South African Journal of Psychology, 28, pp. 44-46.
van Staden, F. (1998). The 'new discursive paradigm': as yet another elitist European import? Comment on special edition of the SAJP. South African Journal of Psychology, 28, 44.