Inaugural Lecture : Biometric capitalism and the future of History

Tuesday, 16 May, 2017 - 17:30

Keith Breckenridge

South African historical scholarship, and the Humanities in general, seem to have reached an intellectual impasse. This moment can be described in many ways, but it is characterised, overall, by an obvious narrowness of research ambitions, the collapse of comparative inquiry, a preoccupation with pathos and, above all, a general failure of broad historiographical curiosity. The causes of this predicament are many – it is a product of the earlier success of Marxist historicism across the Humanities and Social Sciences, the resource predicaments that confront South African universities in general, and the general weakness of our intellectual culture. Nor are we alone in this. Across the anglophone world, historians are losing an intellectual battle to disciplines that rely on mathematical reasoning to understand and shape society. Yet the condition is also clearly escapable. In this lecture I want to suggest a methodology for liberating ourselves by returning to the core questions that animated historians in the 20th century. Close attention to the economics of the present, and of the future, is key to this project. Currently, South Africa and many of the other countries on this continent are being transformed by a new form of biometric capitalism. The lecture will explain what that means, and why South African history has been important to its global development, but it will also show that this strange transition, and its global significance, can only be comprehended, and controlled, by those who understand historiography.