Daniel Herwitz

Faculty / Academic Staff
Intellectual Biography: 

South Africa has two unique intellectual traditions in the humanities both of which are the result of the role of certain of its liberal universities during the history of struggle. The first is the tradition of public scholarship, in heritage studies, the arts, the writing of policy, in writing for the newspapers, in the critique of state and citizenry. The second is a related (but not identical) activist template of knowledge production that produces new knowledge from field engagement, and in political terms. One way to characterize the dialectic of the humanities in South Africa is as a tension between the poles of generating new knowledge in the hermetic study and from the political field. This tension has been at the heart of concept formation in the South African humanities which take their project to be contribution to global scholarly norms on the one hand and the derivation of new ideas from highly contextualized and specific South African political contexts on the other, which did not easily admit of the generality relevant to theory. This intellectual template or inheritance is a unique and important contribution of the South African humanities to global intellectual life. It cannot easily be found in the northern universities of Europe and America.

The future of theory-creation coming from the global south is partly a matter of the decline of the Eurocentric southern university, which gained status during the old days by allying itself with Oxbridge, to a degree considering itself a mere conduit of Oxbridge ideas. It is also a matter of the increasingly transnational state of knowledge production afforded by new technologies, which allow southern universities to partner as equals in international projects (like the Wits-Michigan Mellon Grant) and offer circulation of new knowledge through digital means. But in considering the future of theory-making in South Africa (and I do not want to generalize here to the global south), one must also respect the powerful intellectual templates/traditions which are the legacy of the South African liberal university: public scholarship and engaged knowledge production. How those traditions fit with theory, whether their highly contextual use of concepts means theory stands to one side, or whether the very concept of theory should change to make room for a new kind of enterprise coming from the organic intellectual life of the South African university, seems to me a central topic for the first Wits-Michigan workshop on theory and empiricism, and will be my particular contribution.

I have published two books on South Africa, both of which are written in an essayistic style, deriving from the philosophical essay, which seeks to capture a piece of the contemporary world by simultaneously revisiting and probing the relevance of received ideas from intellectual traditions. In my book of essays, Race and Reconciliation (Minnesota, 2003) written mostly during the 1990s while I lived in South Africa and taught at the then University of Natal, Durban, I address the whirl of political transition by thinking about it in an inaugural way, which is related to reflecting on the question of what it means to write about a transition so early into its making, when the things one pens could find themselves (like the writing of a journalist), out of date by the time they are published. There are essays on Truth and Reconciliation, Film, Literature, Architecture, poststructuralist theory and the state of universities during the South Africa of the 1990s.

My more recent book on South Africa, Heritage, Culture and Politics in the Postcolony (Columbia 2012) mostly written while I was a Mellon Fellow in Carolyn Hamilton’s Archives and Culture program at the University of Cape Town and in Ann Arbor Michigan, is about the tendency of societies at moments of decolonization or political transition to turn to the past and rethink it under the rubric of a heritage. I understand the heritage turn to be the cultural politics of nation building, and of community restitution, not to mention, in the global world, a turn towards re-branding and marketing. The book has four chapters on heritage making in South Africa, one on India and one on the first post-colonial country, the United States.

Questions of culture produced outside of Europe and America in contemporary times have interested me since my first book, Husain, about India’s premier modernist painter, published in 1988 (Tata Press). Themes of global profiling and branding, of dependency, exclusion and circulation, and of the cultural politics of heritage making in relation to the nation and its discontents have informed my writing since that time. Since these themes are played out across various parts of the globe, the writing I do is quite often comparative.

Presentation Title: 
The Heritage of the Humanities in the South African University and the Question of Theory
to follow