The Ingenuity of Walking
a response to the Seminar’s Provocation
In 1969 Argentine writer Julio Cortázar published a groundbreaking literary almanac Último round (Last Round). Nestled amongst 45 articles, essays, poems, short stories, sketches, street poetry, paintings and photography in the book is “El Tesoro de la Juventud,” Cortázar’s “brief history of scientific progress.”
This hilarious reverse history begins with recent technologies in sea, land, and air transportation. It then works forward to the increasing convenience of flying at lower altitude to better appreciate the landscape, to the bicycle as far superior in this respect, and then to the invention of walking, which seems to defy efforts of the imagination to surpass its convenience. Travel by sea leads to the parallel breakthrough invention of swimming.
What propels Cortázar’s playful history is the caricature of a relentless human appetite for safer, simpler, more intimate forms of transportation, until in the end, driven by child-like simplifying logic, we turn out to embody all the technology needed to do what we like best.
Such a comic, deliberately absurd chronology underlines the meaninglessness of Western technological progress, of advancement as a never-ending march towards “time, forward!” “Pedestrians and swimmers are the culmination of the scientific pyramid,” declares Cortazar.
Of course, those of us who live and work in Africa know that our relationship to technology is always more complex. Here, radical changes often go hand in hand with gradual and subtle shifts, and sudden ruptures are deeply embedded in structures of inertia and the logic of routine and repetition.
High digital connectivity exists alongside new levels, forms and types of circulation, observable in the movement of bodies, commodities and idea. Exploding financial markets, proliferating highways of electronic circulation, ever longer distanced extraction, and expanding property regimes share the space with more primitive forms of production and accumulation.
The detritus of Western and Eastern digitisation, redundant computers and components dumped in Africa are repurposed and rewired by Nigerian scammers to pull off the third-largest bank theft in history. A border fence, once dubbed the snake of fire because of its lethal charge, is no longer live but remains a living monument that delineates ‘here from there’. Digital music is composed in a computer in a township shack, remixed online, transferred to tape and then distributed across the continent via the pan African migrant sneaker network.
Here, communication is often less a matter of order and contract than of improvisation, composition and experiment. New forms of and ways of creating, sharing and distributing knowledge are continually emerging.
In such a context the assertion of a putative incommensurability between the “hightech” and the “primitive,” “new media” and “old media” is becoming increasingly meaningless. Rather than being radically disjunctive, these concepts are mutually constitutive. Media technology, blogs and social networks are not replacing tradition media; rather they live side by side in an increasingly entangled relationship that often opens up spaces for new forms of knowledge.
Chimurenga’s latest publishing project is a newspaper, an old-fashioned traditional paper broadsheet. Its newsroom however is online. This “offshore” base brings together editors, writers and photographers from across the global pan African network. An active working space, The Chimurenga Newsroom blog allows us to share ideas, research, story pitches and track the development of stories and interact with the broader public. But it is also open-source archive, a self-reflexive document that allows us to delve into the history and the structure of our newspaper, and to account for the multiplicity of the pathways and trajectories that the project takes. Here contributors are able to work between numerous temporalities – world time, local time, communications time, logistics time – time to get there, time to leave – real time, historical time and future time, analogue time and digital time.
Similarly, the Pan-African Space Station is an online radio station that streams cutting edge music from global Africa, live online 24/7. Its base however is a Tagore’s Jazz Bar. A small, dingy club in Observatory, Cape Town, Tagore’s might not feature on any global music maps, but it is this space that gives the station its content, its community, its texture and its uniqueness. It is this physical space that facilitates a unique musical engagement with the world, both the world of others, and the world which we call our own.
In the same way, the Chimurenga Library is both a place and an idea. Manifesting as an online presence and through physical interventions, it is a library less interested in physical collections than the space between them – the ideas that link them together, the dependencies between them, and how we manage that interstitial space. Ultimately it is not a question of medium, but one of imagination.
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