The academic game

African Studies scholars write for the gate-keepers, to prove our own legitimacy, for the stimulation of conferences and the relief of rising recognition by algorithms.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Writing from the perspective of an island, continents are vast entities with enough space for loneliness and separation.

The world has been mapped such that the journeys between continents are almost ignored—more so the spaces within the oceans of rest, recuperation, and succor.

But currents still link the continents, and the islands between them are critical beads on the chains that bind us. Long distance transportation of goods, ideas, people, and even rats requires knowing islands, and working with/on/against/in/through them. Shipping highways marked onto the sea by traces of oil left in passing wakes.

The industrial machine has been laid upon oceanic surfaces. Vast worlds beneath an echo, sonar, imagination. Internet cables below, marine peons on tight delivery schedules above.

How do we reflect “Africa” from here? Mirror, mirage, line on a map, that which is below Mauritius on the Tables of Bureaucratic Development. Point of Departure for some. Point of Arrival for all. Slavery. Indenture. Tax Haven.

“Academic study is like adding one grain of knowledge-rice to the meal of human reference.” I repeat received wisdom sagely to a graduating student. “The bowl is all wrong” was the dry response. She left my office and went to lead a Fridays for the Future march—islands are vulnerable to climate change, and so is Africa.

The bowl is all wrong

After centuries of African Studies that have coincided with slavery, colonialism, the trading of bibles for gold, should we not examine the bowl of our own knowing? What is its shape, materiality, the contours of inside and out, the boundaries of food versus poison? How is it possible that the bowl is still manifest as singular in form—not gourd, not pot, not Coca-Cola-offcut or radiant banana leaf?

How do we reconcile a world where those with currencies forged in plunder still decide what questions are important? Where the gatekeepers of knowledge are often starkly other to the continent?  Where promotion depends on publication in pay-walled journals that require networks—human, material—to access or be let into? Where often the “African University” means only University of the Witwatersrand or the University of Cape Town.

More than that, that international borders are not permeable in both directions? That Zoom only kept the world going because it was going before (how many of us have gasped at our own non-essentialism now).

That the Africans who for decades have educated Africans in African institutions are not perceived as global knowledge leaders unless they package their knowledge into bites that are palatable for occidental constitutions and their academic accounting systems. That knowledge is a rare earth mineral long mined without any compensation. That writing in area studies without attending to connection is like writing on islands and ignoring the sea.

Factories of insecurity

Universities as they stand were forged within extractivism. Neoliberalism has enabled their expansion to the point of blocking off alternative horizons. These are factories of insecurity, with deeply human underbellies. Scared of dismissal, academics write not to change the bowl, but to keep eating from it, to ensure it is not taken from our hands. To maintain our right to think in comfort. A glorious privilege, carefully guarded.

We write for the gatekeepers, to prove our own legitimacy, for the stimulation of conferences and the relief of rising recognition by algorithms. ORCID IDs. Hyperlinks (Please Cite Me!). Our writings are the grains of knowledge we add to pacify the data-driven beast, trail through the forest, proof of productivity while we ourselves consume—but what is the ratio?

Most of us would have liked to be storytellers, teachers, explorers, but there is little money, less status, and too much danger in those roles. Yet, we cannot make new maps of the world—literal or metaphoric—if our job security depends on never questioning the bowl.

Instead we make lists, tick them off, categorize, organize, produce. Lists are more stable on land. Again, we usually do not think about the currents of connection.

Who do we love, and where will we go to die?

On a burning planet, these are the critical questions: who do we love, and where will we go to die? How much should we care about hits on virtual accounting systems, when faced with fire and flood?

How many authors of seminal texts wish to die in the places that have enabled their careers? Are the skins we are seen in to be treated as shrouds, or are they political manifestos, flags, flagellations, flesh, points of encounter? What of callouses on the hands? Languages spoken in dreams?

Curiosity is not enough. We have moved into an era where the questions of bones become the questions we must address.

Love and death. It will show a new map. We need new maps. On this map of dreams of death by Most Cited Scholars of Africa, “the continent” will be an emptiness of Conradian proportions, the oceans drawn with the trail of invisible carbon cast by jumbo jets. Why is this so?

Expertise without love is a hollow straw with a very high carbon footprint.

Like this, the bowl will not change.

Who will mourn us?

When we lay down our bones, we Area Studies Scholars, who will mourn us?

Who will be the people who pause in their tracks to say, “That … was a life well lived”? Where will they be geographically located, where will they gather? What traces will we have left that others may follow when we know for sure once again that flying is a dream only for princes? Which rare earth minerals did we mine from the seams of human knowledge, and who shared the dividends? Have we told stories that expand empathy? Have we enabled care?

Will the ancestors welcome us?

When we die, will the ancestors—fictive, intellectual, of blood—welcome us? Will they be proud?

Are we visible to the ancestors in the places we have described, or will we become but ghosts on the surface disturbing in the afterlife what we interrupted in this one?

What do maps look like when they are drawn by ghosts?

What must we now do?

How might we draw in flesh and spirit and manifold complexity? Can we now expand relationality to allow a deeper presence?

To chart new maps we will require a different way of seeing, different reference points on a compass made with a different goal. As we tip the angle, tilt the frame, turn over the bowl, we will have to write for an audience of living ancestors, and not of ghosts.

We will have to speak in a way that is audible, not whispered at the margins. And we will have to teach in a way that enables a world that we cannot yet imagine, based on structures we have yet to conceive.

Note: This was solicited as a journal article for a special edition in an area studies journal within a former colonial power, which had the goal of reframing/rethinking/reimagining the field of African Studies. The journal got skittery because to talk the talk, one has to walk the walk, and too much attention there could be a little uncomfortable, possibly awkward, possibly a PR nightmare. That it is being published here is precisely the point of my intervention: in scholarship, if one wants to not trip, nor tip, but simply take a close look at the fruit cart, the preference is generally that this be done outside the village gates and preferably also without the farmer present.

About the Author

Jess Auerbach teaches at North West University, South Africa and is an affiliate at the Open University of Mauritius.

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