“Quite simply – and this is what I wish to discuss tonight in relation to the question of rage and violence – we are living in different times. Or at least, our time is disjointed, out of sync, plagued by a generational fault line that scrambles historicity.
“The spectre of revolution, of radical change, is in young peoples’ minds and politics, and it is almost nowhere in the politics of the anti-apartheid generation. In fact, even as they criticised young people just five years earlier for being apathetic and depoliticized, they have now thought student activists misguided, uninformed, and mad.
“You would think that it might be possible to resolve this difference in time by means of a careful reading of what is called the ‘objective conditions for revolution’: are we in fact in a time in which revolution is immanent? No matter the subjective experience of time – there must be a way of determining who has the better bearing on history, who can tell the time. What time is it? Yet to tell the time is a complex matter in this society.
“We are, to some degree, post-apartheid, but in many ways not at all. We are living in a democracy that is at the same time violently, pathologically unequal. Protest action against the government – huge amounts of it, what in most other places would signal the beginning of radical change – often flips into a clamour for favour from that very government. Our vacillations, contradictions and anachronisms are indication that what time it is, is open to interpretation.
“I want to argue that the comrades I have worked with in the student movement are not so much mad as they are time-travellers. Or rather, that their particular, beautiful madness is to have recognised and exploited the ambivalence of our historical moment to push into the future. They have been working on the project of historical dissonance, of clarifying the untenable status quo of the present by forcing an awareness of a time when things are not this way. They have seen things many have yet to see. They have been experimenting with hallucinating a new time…”
Read the rest of this paper, delivered at the 13th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg last night.
Susan Buck-Morss, writing in 2001 on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, marked by the critique of progress in the name of a revolutionary time which interrupts history’s chronological continuum:
The only power available to us as we, riding in the train of history, reach for the emergency brake, is the power that comes from the past… One fact of the past that we particularly are in danger of forgetting is the apparent harmlessness with which the process of cultural capitulation takes place. lt is a matter, simply, of wanting to keep up with the intellectual trends, to compete in the marketplace, to stay relevant, to stay in fashion…
So, what in God’s name are we doing here? The litmus test for intellectual production is how it affects the outside world, not what happens inside an academic enclave such as this one. [Walter] Benjamin himself held up as the criterion for his work that it be “totally useless for the purpose of Fascism.”* Could any of us say of our work that it is totally useless for the purposes of the new global order, in which class exploitation is blatant, but the language to describe it is in ruins? Of course, we would be horrified if decisions on academic hiring and promotion were made on the basis of what our work contributed to the class struggle. The disturbing truth, however, is that these decisions are already being made on the basis of ensuring that our work contributes nothing to the class struggle. And that, my friends, is problematic.
*Benjamin, preface to ‘Work in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In: Benjamin 1969: 2 18.
In Pandaemonium Germanicum, 5/2001, pp. 73-88. Read the full article: Susan Buck-Morss – Walter Benjamin – between academic fashion and the Avant Garde.