Babel Unbound: Rage, reason and rethinking public life, edited by Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton (Wits University Press, 2020)
The notion that societies mediate issues through certain kinds of engagement is at the heart of the democratic project and often centres on an imagined public sphere where this takes place. But this imagined foundation of how we live collectively appears to have suffered a dramatic collapse across the world in the digital age, with many democracies apparently unable to solve problems through talk – or even to agree on who speaks, in what ways and where.
In this timely and erudite collection, writers from southern Africa combine theoretical analysis with the examination of historical cases and contemporary events to demonstrate that forms of publicness are multiple, mobile and varied. Drawing primarily on insights and materials from Africa for their capacity to speak to global developments, the authors in this volume propose new concepts and methodologies to analyse how public engagements work in society.
The contributions examine charged examples from the Global South, such as the centuries-old Timbuktu archive, Nelson Mandela’s powerful absent presence in 1960s public life, and the contemporary debates around the 2015/2016 student activism of #rhodesmustfall and #feesmustfall. These cases show how issues of public discussion circulate in unpredictable ways.
Babel Unbound will be of interest to anyone looking to find alternative ways of thinking about publicness in contemporary society in order to make better sense of the cacophony of conversations in circulation.
Susana Molins Lliteras' chapter, "Iconic Archive: Timbuktu and its manuscripts in public discourse," attends to how archives other than those of ‘Western civilisation’ have functioned in public life in the past and the role they play in contemporary public deliberations. It sets itself the task of understanding the role of the Timbuktu archive as an international and African cultural treasure and as the object of attack by the al-Qaeda-linked rebels in 2012. Molins Lliteras offers a detailed account of the complex dynamics of the manuscripts’ multiple roles in public life, dating back to the 1200s. She looks at how the manuscripts themselves, as well as ideas about them, were mobilised across centuries in determining what collective life looked like, conferring status on some people and denying it to others, substantiating claims about identity and sustaining long-distance networks and relationships, garnering in the process enormous public potency. The Timbuktu archive is still used to enable conversations about local identities, a wider African identity and African epistemologies, and is under attack because of its potency and for its promise of always opening to alternative narratives beyond any prevailing orthodoxy.
Find the Maverick Life excerpt here.