2017 African Critical Inquiry Programme Workshop

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Secret Affinities, a workshop in critical reading and an interrogation of the city in Africa via Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk. Satyagraha House, 22 to 23 March 2017


The Secret Affinities workshop is co-hosted by the Wits City Institute and the Wits School of Arts. It has been made possible through an award funded by the prestigious African Critical Inquiry Programme (ACIP) based at Laney Graduate School, Emory University. The ACIP is a project of the Ivan Karp and Corinne Kratz Fund that ‘seeks to advance research and debate about the roles of public cultural domains and institutions in shaping identities and society in South Africa after colonialism and apartheid’. The annual ACIP Workshop provides an ‘interdisciplinary, cross-institutional space for the interrogation of issues central to such debate, and encourages the development of comparative, critical frameworks that can yield fresh insights, innovative and informed practice, and lively interchange for those working in and on institutions of public culture in Africa’.

‘Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars’

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Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, an unfinished sprawling assemblage, is the text that enables us to think critically about the city/Johannesburg/African urbanisms – and about the architectures, public histories and heritage projects, creative writings and artworks that these continue to provoke. Das Passagen-Werk has been called a kaleidoscope, a fable, a fairy tale, an allegory; a ‘virtually impossible project’. As with Benjamin’s positioning for part of his writing, in Paris, his ‘capital of the Nineteenth Century’, we work from our vantage point in Johannesburg, quintessential city of an African (but also hybrid) modernity, arguably the ‘African capital of the twenty-first century’. We see transformative and transdisciplinary potential in the undisciplined reach of this seminal text, Benjamin’s unfinished reflection on modernity and history, which we believe is of relevance to our de-colonial moment. Through sharing a range of contributions, the workshop aims to follow Benjamin’s endeavour in the Arcades project to construct ‘a world of secret affinities’ or ‘a magic encyclopaedia’ in which his assemblage of notes, reflections and citations on a host of topics, could begin to inform and infect each other in unpredictable, undisciplined ways. Like Benjamin, we seek a ‘primal history’ not of ‘great men and celebrated events’ of traditional historiography but rather the ‘refuse and detritus of history, the half-concealed, variegated traces of the daily life of the collective’. Seeking ‘secret’ histories and ‘lost time embedded in the space of things’, Walter Benjamin styles himself as the rag picker, collecting the anecdotes, the ephemera, the ‘detritus’ of the past, to tease out the idea of secret affinities in which disparate objects (of culture and society, art and architecture, the city and modernity), collide, thereby pointing us to new knowledges and new understandings of modernity and our present.


Additional support for the Secret Affinities workshop and associated activities is gratefully acknowledged from the Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism at the University of the Witwatersrand, which is funded by the A.W. Mellon Foundation, and from the Directorate of Arts, Culture & Heritage of the City of Joburg.

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Image credits: Satyagraha House; Historic image & exterior (by Manuel Zublenaand), both courtesy of Satyagraha House.