The Terrain of Cultural Production

I had been invited to chair a panel on cultural production during a graduate student conference held at the BIEA. Because I like to be responsible, I had asked those on the panel to send their work to me–their most complete drafts–at least 48 hours in advance so I could think with it. Partly, because I think it’s a useful exercise for graduate students to process their thinking by drafting it in advance and, partly, because I take intellectual labor seriously. For whatever reason, the panelists did not send me their work in time; I could not think with it, so I withdrew from the panel.

I take my intellectual labor seriously and I expect those who ask me to be an intellectual to take it seriously.

I had drafted remarks for the panel, if not for the panelists. Here they are. The conference theme is “Centres & Peripheries.”
On what terrain can we speak about center and periphery? Where do we assembled here stand to address this relationship? How do we assembled here generate and reproduce centers and peripheries? And how do we, as scholars, benefit from the existence of such centers and peripheries as scholars? I begin by raising the problem of the ethico-political, the problem of what Stuart Hall describes as the terrain of ideological struggle. Let me speculate about three sites where the ethico-political might call on us to think more deliberately about the terrain we occupy and construct in our neoliberal present. Schematically, these three sites are institutional creation, knowledge production, and subject formation in Kenya.

When I started primary school in 1981, Kenya had one public university—the University of Nairobi. By the time I completed primary school, Kenya had three public universities—Moi University had opened in 1984 and Kenyatta University in 1985. Prior to the Structural Adjustment Programs that transformed Kenyan higher education in the 1980s, university education was understood as a public good: public university was free for those students who excelled at high school and students received a living stipend, what was known as “boom.” I went to Nairobi Primary, which is sandwiched between State House and the University of Nairobi. Teachers would tell us that if we worked hard, we would make it “across the street.” We would join the university—by this, they meant the university prior to Structural Adjustment Programs. By the time I finished high school—and qualified to join the university—we had learned to ask new questions. Not, “when shall I get my boom,” but “how shall I pay for university?” It was, of course, an unevenly distributed question. Those of us securely located in professional middle class families had not yet learned how to ask that question. Nor did we know how to think of what asking that question meant about the transformation that had taken place in education.

Today, Kenya has approximately sixty institutions of higher education, public and private. While some people celebrate, we in the humanities and social sciences should be wary. The idea of higher education as a public good transformed, in the 1980s, into an idea of higher education as preparation for the market. This market-driven model dominates Kenya’s higher education landscape. Few of the new universities offer degrees in the humanities and social sciences. Few of the fields and disciplines represented at this conference—anthropology, archeology, philosophy, literature, gender studies, cultural studies, political science, and sociology—have homes in many of these new institutions. Market-driven education in Kenya does not like the humanities and the social sciences. To put it plainly: the humanities and social sciences are at the periphery of Kenya’s expansion in higher education. How might we think about our fields and disciplines as peripheral and vestigial formations in Kenya today?

[I had planned to be politic, but since I canceled my in-person appearance, let me add the following. Within the broader project of generating knowledge about Kenya, Kenyan institutions are peripheral to institutions in Europe and North America. Almost no Kenyan scholars are acclaimed in the broad field of Kenyan studies, and the native informant continues to live on, no matter how educated that informant. Two problems for pedagogy: how to foreground Kenyan thinking in its various forms and how to train foreign researchers not to approach Kenyans as native informants]

Second, knowledge formations. Earlier this year, Tom Odhiambo and Godwin Siundu, both at the University of Nairobi, launched the Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies journal. It was a moment of celebration and a moment of mourning. The journal is published out of the UK, by Taylor and Francis. As far as I know, none of the major Kenyan educational publishers supports an academic journal in the humanities or social sciences. This absence is compounded by the fact that the European and North American scholarly protocols that dominate global academic production continue to unsee Kenyan knowledge makers. Across the broad field of Kenya-focused scholarship, Kenyan thinking plays a minor role. Kenyans continue to function as native informants and research sites to be processed through European and North American thinkers. Pay attention to how often Kenyan thinkers will be cited as thinkers today. Not as informants. But as thinkers. In what should strike us as an absurd formulation: Kenyan thinking is peripheral to knowledge production about Kenya.

Finally, let me note that I’m interested in subject formation and what lies outside of that formation. I continue to learn from Stuart Hall and Sylvia Wynter, Louis Althusser and Luce Irigaray, Freud and Foucault, Judith Butler and Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon and Katherine McKittrick. A list of names to remind you that I am not an Africanist. Among many names for those produced at Kenya’s periphery, we might include the indigenous, the domestic worker, the sex worker, the queer, the youth, the refugee, the stateless, the prisoner, and the disappeared. If we are to understand Kenyan knowledge production, these figures should not be absent from our thinking, no matter how much neoliberalism directs our gazes elsewhere.

One thought on “The Terrain of Cultural Production

  1. i admire your work, and fully agree with you about this problem. why don’t you consider founding, with some of your colleagues, an online, peer-reviewed, literary and cultural studies journal?

    “Nor did we know how to think of what asking that question meant about the transformation that had taken place in education.”— i’m not quite sure anyone quite knows what to think about this, or wants to. The transformation you describe, though, is now thoroughly in place in america, and the results are just as the corporations might hope.

    (and let’s hope taylor and francis goes belly-up, by the way— and soon. commandeering and exploiting academic knowledge which is not their own, for profit, is inexcusable.)

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