»Would You Say That Your (Artistic) Practice is Political?«

The various possible answers to the question seem scripted in advance – like we are arriving at this question too late.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the domain of politics was imagined to have shifted from a rarefied space (however historically constituted, i.e., the polis, the public sphere, etc.), to a decentralized and »capillary« operation within all spaces. This led to a significant blurring of boundaries, most clearly elucidated in the key mantra of Second Wave feminism: »the personal is political.« By the mid-1990s, however, locating the political was a process marked by a certain melancholy, even exhaustion. The Google Ngram below plots the use of the expression »everything is political« between 1800 and 2008.

One immediately notices the sharp spike in the 1990s followed by an equally sharp drop before 2000. But big data can be deceptive. There are two things to note about this Ngram:

1.) The data isn’t even really »big.« In the peak of the graph (mid-nineties), Google finds only three matches in 1994, seven matches in 1995, five matches in 1996, and no matches at all in 1997 or 1998.

2.) In most cases, the matches in the mid-nineties are critiques of the notion that everything is political. For example, there is this from a 1996 book by Geoff Waite: »›Politics‹ is among the most overused words in contemporary cultural studies, where virtually everything is ›political‹…« And two quotes from 1995: »Why would anyone be tempted to suppose that ›everything‹ is political?«; »Claiming that everything is political is at once claiming too much and too little.«

In other words, the peak in the mid-nineties shows (if it shows anything at all) a reaction against a notion of politics that is too general. Indeed, by the late twentieth century it was widely felt that the enthusiasm for politics as an all-encompassing category had gone too far. A number of efforts followed: to »retreat the political« and subsequently distinguish precisely »the political« from »politics« (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy); to reintroduce something dark or negative that resists all incorporation into the tyranny of political power (Baudrillard); or to treat politics as exclusively the »composition of the collective,« rather than as a general grid or pattern upon which collectives are assembled (Latour).

Politics as specific –> politics as general –> various retreats, parries, ripostes.


In the basement archives at Wits University, South Africa, I find an article from the late nineteen-eighties published in an obscure newspaper called New Nation. The article begins:

»We all look forward to a democratic future when the people shall govern. But the South African government says that blacks are not yet ready for democracy, because their customary form of government is chieftainship.«

The article then goes on to explain how chieftainship is in fact quite democratic. The authors of the article explain this with the story of Cirha – the first Xhosa chief – and Tshawe – an »ordinary commoner:«

One day when a group of Xhosa men went out hunting, Tshawe caught a buck. When Cirha demanded the portion of the buck that he believed was owed to him as chief, Tshawe refused on the grounds that the buck was rather small. The two men fought »until Tshawe, who was supported by the people, became the chief in Cirha’s place.«

The article in New Nation emphasizes the small size of the buck. Cirha could only legitimately demand a portion of meat if there was some excess that could be spared. But because the buck was rather small, his claim was not legitimate. Furthermore, the story shows how Tshawe won the argument with Cirha because of the support of the people. »Xhosa political thought thus sets limits on the power of a chief. One can even say that it supports the right of the people to rebel against an unjust ruler. [/] This democratic element in Xhosa political thought can be shown not only from the story of Tshawe, but from several historical events.«


In the mid-nineteenth century, when the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape were under tremendous pressure from British colonialists, a certain prophetess named Nongqawuse persuaded her people to kill all their cattle and to destroy all their crops. It was alleged that during a walk on the banks of the Gxarha River, she had received a message from the ancestors: the destruction of all livestock and crops would make a clean slate, and every dead Xhosa person would rise from the sea. At the same time, Nongqawuse prophesied, the British would be swept into the sea.

It is estimated that approximately 40,000 people died of starvation following the notorious cattle-killing episode. Many more tens of thousands fled. »As the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended« (Mbembe).


During a fellowship in Germany, the South African author Antjie Krog had the following thought:

»I don’t know what Europe or India or South America is and is not, but I do know that, living in a South Africa properly embedded in its continent, I need to understand this world view or philosophy of interconnectedness fully…

You must bear in mind that Western philosophy has ample examples of philosophers who emphasized the importance of interconnectedness. Spinoza, Feuerbach, Levinas, Freud …

There is always a Westerner saying this to me. The West is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything, mauling it to pieces within the debris of its own failures, and then it tells you: But we have already said this. Nothing can be said in the world that the West has not already said. What I am trying to describe has not be grasped by the West, and if you think what I am saying is the same as what these other philosophers are saying, then it simply means we from Africa have not yet properly managed to articulate it succinctly.«


And then there’s the question of »practice.« My practice, for all intents and purposes – and also my labor – is primarily teaching. Which means that there’s another possible angle to the question of whether my practice is political. But how might I properly evaluate it? If politics is always a shared affair, then perhaps I am not the right person to answer this question at all. Perhaps it is my students who know if and how my »practice« is political.

And yet, I know so little about what they actually think! Consider the following Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching (OMET) survey from a course that I recently taught at the University of Pittsburgh, a course with explicitly political and aesthetic content. (The course was Music in Africa. I teach mostly about performance practices that developed in parallel with African independence movements and statecraft in the second half of the twentieth century.)

This graph tells me very little indeed. It does not help me much in determining whether my practice is political.

Should I feel proud or ashamed of myself that, in the students’ own estimation, the score is higher for »how much they have learned« than »the amount of work« they have done?

What do I make of the fact that my highest score is for »being accessible to students«? The first time I saw this, I felt a bit embarrassed, as though the only thing I »excelled« at was being accessible. But now, in light of this Schlossghost question, do I have the right to view being accessible to students as somehow a political act? Why not place value on the act of being accessible to young people wanting to learn? (Finally, I notice that while 14 students answered most questions, only 11 answered the one about my being accessible. Is this because three of them never bothered to find out?)


The qualitative part of the OMETs doesn’t help much either. If things go well in a course, my students might evaluate me (anonymously, of course) with phrases such as:

  • »Speaking very carefully and clearly«
  • »Nice, funny, realistic expectations of students«
  • »Knew the information well«

But I’ve also been described (not infrequently!) as »boring.« And recently, on the public website ratemyprofessors.com, a disgruntled student complained about my »wired [sic] accent« and my »twitching face« which, the student insisted, must mean that I have »some kind of disease.«


On a Youtube video of me speaking about »South African Music in Global Perspective,« I get nine thumbs up and two thumbs down. This metric does not seem appropriate for assessing the political value of my work.


My training in graduate school consisted to a too-large degree, I now feel, in learning how to point out that »X is political.« I ended the preface of my first book with a meditation on this very topic:

»As an ethnomusicologist, I often tell my students that music is always political. I used to believe that this statement communicated a profound insight. But in recent years, I must admit, telling students that music is always political sometimes rings hollow – not because it is untrue, but rather because I have learned to wield the statement like a weapon against enthusiastic and bright-eyed eighteen-year-olds. I used to delight in crushing a student’s belief in ›music for its own sake.‹ After all, is it not my job as teacher to educate or even enlighten? Perhaps. But anyone who has ever ›demystified‹ a student’s supposedly naïve attitudes about music will also probably have noticed that the student was not as satisfied by the demystification as we – as teachers – are. Should we continue to attribute the student’s dissatisfaction to her inability to grasp difficult concepts? I am not convinced. [/] This book takes the question of music seriously, not as a universal category but rather as a historically situated modality of experience. The consequences of this experience remain underdetermined but also, and precisely for this reason, compelling to think with.« [1]

About a month after writing this preface, a student tells me that he will turn in his assignment on music and nationalism in Tanzania when he feels that he wants to. College is very expensive, he insists, and he’s paying me a lot of money. He will be the one to decide when something gets handed in or not. He storms out the door.

(If I am not mistaken, this student received a »B« in the class. His work was late, but he did turn it in and it wasn’t that bad. It is very likely that he described me as something like »nice but boring« in my teaching evaluations and that he gave me a 4 out of 5 for »accessibility.«)


I do not know if the political is nowhere or everywhere. But the two possibilities do not seem the same.

At Solitude, I will work on a project about a Xhosa »whale caller,« a person who invites whales into the bay by blowing a wonderfully twisted kelp horn. This man, Wilson Salukazana, only agreed to speak with me if I used his knowledge to »educate young people« (his own words). I wonder what this »education« would mean to the student who complained to me about the exorbitant price of his education. Or to the student who complained about my weird accent.

Does this whale caller know something about collectives that we, in the West, do not? Does he possess knowledge that would disrupt any question surrounding the political?

I’m not just talking about »human-animal relations,« or »non-human actors/actants,« or »multispecies intimacies.« I am referring to knowledge that the West has not already grasped – always already, »mauling it to pieces within the debris of its own failures,« as Krog puts it.

What did Nongqawuse see when she looked into in the Gxarha River? Narcissus made the mistake of falling in love with his own image shimmering on the water’s surface. What ghostly faces might Nongqawuse have seen, faces that compelled her toward destruction and death?

Does the whale caller detect something else beneath the water’s surfaces, something not yet grasped in either life or death?

  1. Jump Up Gavin Steingo: Kwaitos Promise: Music and the Aesthetics of Freedom in South Africa. Chicago 2016, p. xi.