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Combative Culture and Alienation

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

The history of art is the history of violence. Fred Moten, Black and Blur.

In January 2020, the Arts and Artefacts Collection of the Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape taught us that culture is a weapon to be handled with care. What makes a nation strong enough to fight for its emancipation is found in the seeds of the culture it nurtures. As such, culture is the necessary catalyst for any form of political action and commitment towards collective ideals of emancipation. At the same time, whenever a dominant force aims to organize itself, it finds in culture the terrain to implement the alienating powers of repression and constraint. For as long as culture is used to serve the colonial racist agenda of capitalist systems, including the very same system that turns artists into labourers serving the museum and gallery industries, the emancipatory dimension of collective cultural patrimony and agency is lost. Indeed, the desire to dominate the market has infiltrated the very fabric of society and seeks to extract from it the seeds of change. It is then urgent and necessary to avoid feeding into a system that only supports artists and cultural producers as long as it can leverage their art and cultural production for its own purposes. No monetary values should dictate the emergence of an artwork. Indeed, throughout history, even during drastic repressive measures, artists found a way to indulge in the only thing that made life worth living, the creative practice of art-making. Now that the late capitalist structure demands the constant creation of a conglomeration of influences, of fashion trends and elites, art has become a commodity completely separated from the inherent impulse to create, to make life worth the price of existence. It is through the art market that the synthesis of both economic and political domination is sustained. And it is such pervasive synthesis that creates the alienating logic of cultural market trends. Culture has a value that cannot be dictated by the marketplace and it is the history of such non-monetary and thus transcendent value that is necessary to resuscitate. A society already under domination and a society grappling with the colonial and racist hangovers of the past are exactly the same: both are in urgent need of regaining cross-cultural solidarities to ground a political agenda that sustains emancipatory futures. Culture is thus not a question of the past or the present. Culture doesn’t care about such a market-driven timeline. Culture is a living entity, morphing according to new necessities, and grounded in the constant movement towards the liberated expression of human life.

Modernity and colonization are hegemonic concepts in discourse about Africa. These interlinked historical episodes are integral to the formation of perceptions about the continent of Africa and its people, as well as being instrumental in the shaping of the material conditions presently existing in contemporary African societies. For this reason, it is important, in thinking critically about the continent’s present, and the multiple cultural lives of its people, that the histories of its oppression and continuous struggles towards liberation are kept close at hand. Modernity and colonization are critical concepts used for their analytical significance. They need to be sincerely engaged with, in order to make sense of our contemporary moment and its socio-political reality. Today’s liberation movement does not look the same as it did in the past, where there were clearly demarcated lines distinguishing between benign and malignant forces. As a result of the multiplicity of technologies of industrial production, the characteristic object of the people’s struggle for freedom has become amorphous. When the enemy does show itself, it is only for a momentary and transient period, appearing in a malleable false-form, to disappear again into plain sight. The pervasive and malleable shape of power has infiltrated the inner fabric of society, decomposing its collective strength and undoing a myriad of possibilities that collective action can take.

The capitalist value imposed on art is informed by an increased dissociation between the need to join together in order to form a collective movement towards emancipation and the impulse to invest for the sake of individual enrichment. Art and culture in today’s capitalist society is not only shaped by the dynamics of the artistic and cultural sectors. Every single individual now is turned into an agent of an alienating culture where stimuli targeting the ego, quick media recognition, and other technological influences, have replaced collective investment. Capitalist systems seek to promote the very narrow stories of one individual as opposed to sustaining the collective emancipatory progress of all people. And, it is in order to counteract the hegemonic power of dominant culture that one needs to unlearn and create new modalities of cultural care. Capitalist and colonial domination is very elusive as a creature and its danger to living and non-living beings is slippery and difficult to grasp. But it is also dangerous in how it continues to quietly eat at any signs of cultural and spiritual progression that currently oppressed peoples muster. In the meantime, control violently corrodes the cultural patrimony of millions of oppressed people in the world. In doing so, forms of sovereign, imperial, and colonial power keep many individuals repressed, pre-empted from reaching their purest forms of expression. The biggest obstacle to this dream shared by billions of people is the evil infrastructure of state capitalism and the many masks that it masquerades underneath. As long as we live under the system of capitalism, oppression will not cease to exist and the rules of domination will not stop from morphing into new forms of attacks. Institutions are launching assaults on artists and cultural beings. While in the times of colonization, the power to dominate was concentrated in precise figures of control, the post-independent/post-apartheid states have seen the morphing of such assaults into new forms of constraint on human freedom. As Frantz Fanon stated, the adaptability of racism is the capacity for a racist culture to prevail while wearing the masks of integration and assimilation. This adaptability demands the constant and continuous adoption of strategies and tactics in response to remain powerful and defiant.

The difficulties we face sustaining emancipatory tactics of change are worsened by what seems to be a mutually constitutive relationship shared by culture and power. Both complexes produce one another, in a reciprocal relationship that is a core element in the construction of modes of existence for both living and non-living beings. Together, culture, power and their historical ramifications have come to impose what is shaping up to be unilateral commandment in the consciousness of shared human experiences. We are hereby trying to understand this relationship, familiarize ourselves with its traits and lend specific attention to the particularities that constitute its reciprocality, in addition to the components that lie outside this axis. These could very well be the seeds that contaminate social relations and produce enmity in civil society. The collective crusade towards emancipation should not desist despite the enemy having amassed so much weaponry that it uses against us by means of launching incessant assaults on liberalised expressions of life.

Life and culture exist alongside perversions of power. In its manipulation of people through the conditions that be, the dominant forces, those who possess power, do not want to completely make us extinct. This would not be to their advantage as they need the ‘other’ to exist in order for their delusions about their superiority to remain in place. Instead, what indeed works in their favour is for the ‘other’ to exist in a perpetual state of agony (Fanon). This agony manifests itself primarily through processes of political violence, brutal exploitation of both psychic and physical life vis-à-vis labour processes, and imposition of patriarchal systems that are constantly diminishing more than half of the world population. The condition of agony is called alienation. For the system to function, there must be a subjugated class of people, whose labour provides the oil that keeps the gears of the hegemonic machine turning. Parallel to the progression of history from the past to the here and now, the human subject has undergone considerable changes. History has made the contemporary human-subject a highly technologized subject whose consciousness operates much in the same way as that of a mentally infirm person. Human consciousness is now a consequence of the hyper-augmented technological field of relations, in which the human-subject is in a state of flight, having incurred a loss of awareness of one's identity in the simulacra of experiences induced by processes of industrialised capital. The human subject today is stripped away from her or his ontological and historical understanding and exists in a self-relation that is as fluid as the space that they experience and physically occupy.

Culture is that which emerges out of care, out of a need to cultivate a place of growth, transmission, generation. The caring practice of culture-making is grounded in the desire to thrive and make life worth living. It is specifically the power of culture to uplift communities of people that have been targeted by the dominant structure of neo-colonialism. A nation that is colonialist is racist in that it functions on the humiliation and annihilation of one culture by the dominant force, usually backed by both capitalist and patriarchal systems of thoughts and material conditions. The psychic agony of people emerges from the constant dismissal of their culture. Their culture isn’t made to be completely eradicated. On the contrary, the culture of the oppressed is meant to stand still in agony, in a state of complete suspension that no longer evolves and is able to carry forth the project of radicalising its power to bring about change. In culture rests the seed of emancipation to be planted, a seed that Steve Biko saw as the necessary element in the fight for freedom. Culture is about creating the condition to resist and thus defy the ideological and hegemonic context of an oppressive society. Such a cultural approach that aims to undo the alienation brought about by sovereign power and domination is grounded in the importance of aesthetic experience as the condition to fight political bondage and exhibit modes of defiance. Resisting the preemptive weapons of domination is locating culture at the center of the fight for freedom, as “liberation is necessarily an act of culture” (Biko, 13). The task of digital cultural work is then to create a place where culture can heal the wounds of oppression.

Authors: Anaïs Nony & Phokeng Setai


  • Steve Biko, “Black Souls in White Masks?” in I write what I like, Bowerdean Publishing, 1978, pp.19-26. Published under the pseudonym Frank Talk in the monthly SASO (South African Student Organisation) newsletter called “I write what I like.”

  • Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture” in Towards the African Revolution. Political Essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier, New York: Grove Press, 1967, pp. 22- 44.

  • Amilcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture” Transition, No. 45 (1974), pp. 12-17

  • Rosalind Krauss, “The cultural logic of the late capitalist museum” October: The Second Decade, 1986 - 1996, MIT PRESS.

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