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9 July 2018
Centre for Humanities Research: Winter School 2018

(Published - 9 July 2018)

For 72 hours, students, academics, artists and researchers retreated to the heart of a forest - scattered with 2,000-year-old milkwood trees – to “push thought to the limit”.

It was there, in Noordhoek, where UWC’s Centre of Humanities Research (CHR) held its seventh annual Winter School - with a record 80 participants - from July 3 to 6. This year’s theme was ‘After Technology’, and saw participants explore, among other things, what effect technology has had on thought, aesthetics and subjectivity.

Savouring a cappuccino on a sternly cold morning at the close of the winter school, Professor Premesh Lalu, director of the CHR, said many universities are overrun by speed.

“There is no space to retreat – to retreat into a space of thinking carefully about a problem. One ambition of the winter school is to push thought to the limit. The humanities are not thought of as an inquiry that has anything to say about technology. The 2018 winter school aimed to change that perception,” said Professor Lalu.

“What would it mean to think about the human and technology in this moment of rapid, excessive development of technical objects? What have those technical objects done to our memory? For example, when you ask people whether they remember telephone numbers they reach for a device in their pocket called the cellphone and they call up a number. We have deposited part of our memory and our memory function into a machine. So we’ve got to think very carefully that what we are dealing with here is the reconstitution of the human.”

The winter school was organised by graduate students from the CHR, the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota, as well as the SARChI Chair in Social Change at the University of Fort Hare.

Aidan Erasmus, CHR doctoral fellow and member of the winter school organising committee, said the event has always been driven by students. Research papers and presentations by artists in residence at the CHR were studied, panel discussions were held, and workshops presented.

Emma Minkley, another CHR doctoral fellow and winter school organising committee member, said: “We had sessions where students could talk in a more informal way about their own work, and pose questions to other students and faculty and have a space that wasn’t intimidating.”

Classes were presented by, amongst others, Professor Michal Kobialka from the University of Minnesota’s Theatre Arts and Dance, Professor Elizabeth Giorgis who is the director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, and Professor Rinaldo Walcott: director of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

Dr Maurits van Bever Donker, research manager and senior lecturer at the CHR - which is supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the United States of America and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences in South Africa – said they often experiment with pedagogy.

“Something that the CHR invests quite a lot of energy into is developing a space in which people do their research, and deal with difficult questions in a non-hierarchical, non-confrontational space. We have a reading programme on a number of our research platforms. We put honours, masters, doctoral, post-doctoral and researchers together in the same room reading texts, and it is not a case of you having to sit and listen and we will tell you what to think. You have robust engagement on the text and that really gets expressed in the winter school,” said Dr Van Bever Donker.

Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere, artistic director for the CHR’s Factory of the Arts, explained that the event has left him inspired. “What appealed to me as a practicing artist is to get the space where you engage theoretically and academically about issues,” said Wa-Lehulere. “I am energised. I could not have asked for more ahead of my rehearsal. I question my art, I question my style, and my aesthetics as a director.”

Professor Lalu listened to Wa-Lehulere intently and remarked that they are experimenting with a new model of a university. “That new model will have to create spaces of experimentation and inquiry that are not bound to the bureaucratic apparatus that we’ve inherited from apartheid. So this winter school is an effort to test the limits of what a future university would look like.”