How salty has the sea been over the past 541 million years?

Take a bottle of water from the sea and try to drink it. You gag and your lips pucker. After all, dissolved in that liter of the ocean are around 35 grams of salts (mostly sodium chloride). Now, imagine you tried to do this same thing 1 million years ago, 10 million years ago, 100 million years ago, even 500 million years ago (that is, throughout the Phanerozoic eon). Would you ever be able to drink the water? Alternatively, would the sea ever have been so salty that today’s ocean creatures would not have survived? A 2006 article by Hay et al. helps answer precisely these questions. The authors tracked variable chloride levels to demonstrate how salinity has changed throughout the Phanerozoic, noting a significant overall decline. These changes have had important effects on ocean circulation and on plankton levels — and possibly contributed to the explosion of complex life in the Cambrian, 541–520 million years ago. Continue reading How salty has the sea been over the past 541 million years?

Teleology, Hegel, and King

A critique of teleology is well-worn and is articulated particularly clearly by Thomas Trautmann and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Both contrast the “theory-deadness” of the Orient with the the centered dominance of Europe. This can be glossed as a teleology: theory is the telos. This is what Hegel is saying, too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.

In other words, world history is

the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. This spirit [is] the substance of history; its nature is always one and the same; and it discloses this nature in the existence of the world. … World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.

In a very simple sense, reading Hegel is weird. The idea of progress is so unfashionable that it is hard to take Hegel seriously. Surely he doesn’t mean a world-spirit in a metaphysical sense. Surely he doesn’t really mean to put Europe above everything else (and thus provide an easy justification for colonial violence). This immediate reaction, once tempered by the considerations outlined earlier, becomes a question: what can we recuperate from Hegel? Continue reading Teleology, Hegel, and King

Levinas and Appiah on the Double Bind of Alterity

I found reading Levinas’ Existence and Existents both challenging and stimulating. At heart, I took his argument to be an extension of the existentialist creed: existence precedes essence. In this instance, existence precedes time. This is why Levinas concludes: “To take human existence as something having a date, placed in a present, would be to commit the gravest sin against the spirit, that of reification, and to cast it into the time of clocks made for the sun and for trains” (97). The hypostasis for Levinas is the “I” — the ego. But this is an ego that relies on existence, not rationality, for its ontological constitution: “The I is not a substance endowed with thought; it is a substance because it is endowed with thought” (87). To talk about the relationship of this ego (the subject) with time, Levinas emphasizes that we must resist conventional understandings of time: “Does not the analysis of economic time, exterior to the subject, cover over the essential structure of time by which the present is not only indemnified, but resurrected? Is not the future above all a resurrection of the present?” (92) Note that this turn to the grammar of political theology invokes the same kinds of alterity that Fabian traces more concretely — in particular the supercessionism that Levinas, as a French Jew studying the Talmud, felt so acutely. In this articulation of time, resisting neoliberal logics of economic time, Levinas notices a problem: “The ‘I’ is not independent of its present, cannot traverse time alone, and does not find its recompense in simply denying the present” (93). So how can we constitute time proceeding from an existentialist ego? “If time is not the illusion of a movement, pawing the ground [a gloss of economic time], then the absolute alterity of another instant cannot be found in the subject, who is definitively himself. This alterity comes to me only from the other.” (93) Levinas has linked time in its constitution to the other. In his understanding, time “is constituted by my relationship with the other, … is exterior to my instant, but … is also something else than an object given to contemplation.” Hence, “the dialectic of time is the very dialectic of the relationship with the other.” For me, at least, this is a profoundly different conception of time.

I think this understanding of time can help us think more clearly about the question Kwame Anthony Appiah poses: Is the post- the same in both postmodernism and postcolonialism? His concluding thoughts in some ways echo Levinas’: “Postcoloniality has become, I think, a condition of pessimism” (353). This echoes Levinas’ articulation of the tragic, and further brings to mind a long tradition of thinkers motivated by a kind of pessimism or skepticism (not least Cornel West’s “tragicomic sensibility”). Another theme shared by the two thinkers is alterity: “Perhaps the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual is simply that as intellectuals — a category instituted in black Africa by colonialism — we are, indeed, always at the risk of becoming otherness machines, with the manufacture of alterity as our principal role.” For Levinas (and for me) the power of the other is profound. Not only does it help us to unsettle the familiar, but it is also fundamental to an existentialist conception of time. But what if, as Appiah seems to suggest, producing these positive forms of alterity also means creating an Other? Reading both Appiah and Levinas, we seem to be stuck in a double bind. Postcolonialism on the one hand resists dominant logics of Othering (as with Said’s Orientalism); on the other hand, it also wants to resist neoliberal logics of time that flatten difference, that reduce the tragic condition of existence to a false commonality (as with the critique of the pseudo-universal citizen-subject). The very alterity that is required to resist the latter seems to reinforce the former. What to do?

Continuity, Representation, Redress: Khoi-San Testimony on Land Expropriation

This is the final paper written for a Fall 2018 course with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have given the first three paragraphs below — for the rest, please see my full paper here!

In February 2018, the Parliament of South Africa established a committee to explore whether and how to “make it possible for the state to expropriate land in the public interest without compensation.” In order to hear testimony from across South African society, the committee organized public hearings in all provinces from 26 June to 4 August 2018. Many spoke of how white farmers — less than 9% of South Africa’s population — still own 67% of the land a quarter-century after the end of apartheid. Redistributing this land, for many, is a clear step toward redress of historical injustices perpetuated by white settler colonialism. Others invoked the specter of Zimbabwe, where land seizures led to economic freefall and long-term political instability. While few testifying before the committee opposed land reform in principle, many argued against the arbitrary abrogation of property rights and the concomitant sprawl of government power.

On 6 September 2018, the committee heard seven hours of oral submissions in Cape Town. One of the first to testify was the head of Indigenous First Nation Advocacy South Africa (IFNASA), Anthony Williams, who claimed to represent the Khoi-San community. Williams argued in favor of land expropriation without compensation. For him, this meant not just amending the constitution to correct for the injustices of apartheid (which only really began after World War II) but also to allow for land claims prior to 1913. Williams decried the focus on Bantu-speaking communities and further asked why his submission was the only one heard from the Khoi-San community. Committee members in turn expressed skepticism over Khoi-San claims to indigeneity, concern over racial stratification, and suggestions of alternative recourse for the redress sought.

This vignette serves to frame my paper. I will attempt to corral a teeming mass of evidence to provide some kind of response to two questions prompted by Williams’ testimony. First, when and why are Khoi-San land claims expressed? Second, how and why are they received? The framework of my investigation follows the three concepts mentioned in my title: continuity, representation, and redress. The first section will thus explore the history of South Africa from 1652 to 1994 to help understand the kinds of continuity and rupture experienced by the Khoi-San. The second section will focus on representation of the Khoi-San in the quarter-century since the end of apartheid in 1994. In each section, I do not want to reproduce the wealth of scholarship that has preceded me. Instead, I illustrate several examples that will help guide us back to the testimony of Anthony Williams before the Constitutional Review Committee. Through these examples, we will begin to discern common tropes that undergird discussions about the Khoi-San: allochrony, continuity, “truth and reconciliation” nationalism, and strategic essentialism. I contend that to understand Anthony Williams’ testimony, and hence the situation of the Khoi-San in contemporary South Africa, we must be sensitive not just to immediate cause-and-effect (as with political debates over the Khoi-San today) but also to alterity and the longue durée of history. This process of talking and listening to the Khoi-San sheds light on questions of redress in South Africa and around the world.

Continue reading here!

A Bronze Bust and its Legacy at the RISD Museum

Photo credit: RISD Museum.

About a year ago now, I submitted my final assignment for a class with Yannis Hamilakis called Decolonizing Classical Antiquity: White Nationalism, Colonialism, and Ancient Material Heritage. The prompt was “Decolonizing the Museum”: we were to select one object from the nearby RISD Museum, research its history and context, and present it from a decolonial perspective. The object I selected is shown above. It was previously known as “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy.” I argued that the name should be changed to avoid racial language. Why? To answer, here’s an excerpt from my paper:

I argue that the name used for this object should be changed from “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Nubian Boy” to remove racial (and gendered) language. An example of an alternative title is “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child.” I suggest that the word “boy” be replaced with “child,” since there is no clear evidence that the subject is male. Making this change acknowledges the legacy of patriarchy in naming museum objects; the “unmarked” term should not be masculine. Most importantly, I strongly believe that racial terms like “Nubian” should be avoided when naming objects. As I contended earlier, using such terms – even with the best of intentions – reinforces the structural racism that still pervades our world today. Removing racial language from the label of the object is not a panacea, but it does signify the commitment of the RISD Museum to a just future. Leaving out racial language also does not mean ignoring the continuing legacy of racism, especially in the United States. Ideally, a name like “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a Child” would force the viewer to reflect on their ideas of race. Whiteness is currently the norm; no object is (or should be) described as a “Vase and Lid in the Form of the Head of a White Child.” Using unmarked language (with no racial descriptor) for the object under question normalizes blackness. Rather than ignoring race, changing the label to remove racial terminology provokes reflection on race and racism while also avoiding ahistorical vocabulary that is inappropriate when referring to classical antiquity.

My full paper is available here if you’re interested in reading more. What I was happiest about, though, is that this paper actually made a difference (albeit a small one). After the class, I emailed Gina Borromeo, the curator of ancient art, suggesting this change. It took nine or ten months, but I’m very glad to say that the object is now called “Bust of a Child”!

Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

Over the weekend, I was a chair at BUSUN XXII, a high school Model UN conference here at Brown.1 The committee I ran simulated a session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. One of the issues we talked about extensively were the withdrawals from the ICC of various African Union states. At some point on Saturday, I was becoming a bit frustrated with how glibly the students were treating the topic. I therefore began introducing more and more real-world examples. The most powerful part of the session was when I read out excerpts from a report compiled by Human Rights Watch. A representative of HRW interviewed several dozen victims of the violence associated with the May 2018 referendum in Burundi. The testimony these witnesses gave to Human Rights Watch was horrifying. To give just one example, here is a passage from the report, which is entitled “We Will Beat You to Correct You”: Continue reading Testimony, Sara Baartman, and Agonistic Humanism

Jan Tzatzoe, John Wesley Gilbert, and Women’s Refugee Care

I want to take the chance to reflect somewhat on how Roger Levine’s A Living Man From Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) intersects with other things I’ve done and am interested in. First, I want to elaborate a bit on the similarities and differences of Levine’s project from my work on John Wesley Gilbert. Second, I want to discuss my work with Women’s Refugee Care in light of Jan Tzatzoe’s life as an intermediary and interpreter. Finally, I want to think a bit more about Levine’s method — particularly his relationship to “theory” — and consider what I can learn from A Living Man From Africa. Continue reading Jan Tzatzoe, John Wesley Gilbert, and Women’s Refugee Care

Enchanted Mountains, Chinese Scholars’ Rocks, and Geoaesthetics

Mountain Grove with Path, Cheng Jiasui, c. 1630. All images from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

In August of this year, I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art. We only had three hours until we had to catch a flight, so my father, my uncle, and I agreed that we should choose to focus on just a few of the galleries. I had visited the top floor — with mostly European art and contemporary art — a few years back. Besides, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of seeing yet more eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western paintings. So, instead, we walked through the lower floor. There was an exhibition of Dakota art, but soon enough I drifted over to the side of the floor devoted to Asian art. The collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art was phenomenal. What I want to do here is stop and think about this statement I just made: what was it that I liked so much about the Asian art in the MIA, particularly in terms of its relationship with nature? And what, if anything, does this have to do with the geoaesthetics of Daoism? Continue reading Enchanted Mountains, Chinese Scholars’ Rocks, and Geoaesthetics

Review of The Broken String: The Story of a Lost Language

The past twenty years have seen a real surge of interest in the San. Since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, more and more attention has been paid to the story of the indigenous people of the Cape, the first people Dutch settlers encountered in 1652. Although relations did not immediately sour, the next century and a half saw the progressive dispossession of the Khoikhoi and San and the disintegration of their society. The San in particular — generally identified with foragers, as opposed to the Khoikhoi pastoralists — were driven to more and more marginal land as the Dutch East India Company’s demand for cattle grew ever greater. The latter half of the eighteenth century was particularly violent, marked by state-sanctioned robbery, massacre, and forced labor. In 2011, Mohamed Adhikari convincingly argued that these events constituted a genocide of the San people. Adhikari’s book was released a year after The Broken String (2010), although it retrod the ground that historians such as Susan Newton-King and Nigel Penn (notably in The Forgotten Frontier, 2005) had already demarcated in painstaking detail.

This, then, is the context in which The Broken String intervenes. In particular, this film documents the story of the Bleek-Lloyd collection, probably our most important source for understanding San society. Between 1857 and 1875, Wilhelm Bleek (a German linguist) worked with his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd to conduct, record, and translate interviews with a few dozen San people — most of whom were prisoners in Cape Town. Bleek’s interest was first aroused as a linguist exploring the development of language by documenting two San tongues, ǀXam and !Kun, before they disappeared. The texts he and Lloyd created not only provide our only sources for these languages but further tell rich stories of dispossession and survival. One of these stories, translated as the “Song of the Broken String,” furnishes the film with both its title and its connecting thread. As the director Saskia van Schaik narrates, through their work Bleek and Lloyd gradually shifted from scientific interest in the San to an attitude marked by empathy and collaborative spirit. Their informants were invited into the Bleek-Lloyd family home in Mowbray, which seems to have been a warm and welcoming environment. Sadly, Bleek died at the age of 48. Lucy Lloyd continued transcribing and editing the collection they had assembled, eventually publishing a selection of stories as Specimens of Bushman Folklore in 1911. The full extent of their work, though, only became known after the Bleek-Lloyd collection was assembled and cataloged in the archives of the University of Cape Town. Continue reading Review of The Broken String: The Story of a Lost Language

Satellite Images and Early Maps of the Cape of Good Hope and Southern Africa

Above, I’ve presented just a few maps and satellite images of Southern Africa. Apart from the ones I’ve selected, many images and much valuable information about Southern Africa can be found at the following online sources: