Nothing is Different but Everything’s Changed

Paul Simon’s lyrics capture an enduring paradox of uncertain times:

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 Universities in South Africa feel this way; Fanon and the whiff of teargas standing against staunchly neo-classical facades and retromingent ceremonies. And life must particularly feel this way for those in uneasy alliance at the University of Stellenbosch, whose proposals for language reform have been repudiated this week by their Council.

Here, and by fortunate coincidence, a powerful essay in a just-published collection points to the kind of more-considered approach that will be required if there is to be dialogue rather than stubborn confrontation over issues of institutional culture. Louise Vincent’s “Tell Us a New Story” welds together the significance of story-telling with an appreciation of the valency of our material world. In this, Vincent lays the intellectual basis for a practical and effective approach to mediating the complex requirements of transformation, for finding the “fragile and strange” that will mean that things are both different and changed:

Think about home again? I never think about home. But then comes a letter from home, the handwriting’s fragile and strange. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

Vincent thinks of institutional culture as like the giant mushroom in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, that covers the equivalent of 1665 football fields. This is a sufficiently alarming metaphor to prompt a bit of background research and yes, there is indeed such a phenomenon, Armillaria solidipes, claimed to be world’s largest living thing. The point is that, vast and all-pervasive as it is, this giant armillaria is only visible as small and nondescript outbreaks of fungus on the mountain’s surface: “when it comes to describing in concrete terms the mass and bulk of what we mean by institutional culture and its power on our lives we flounder, managing to point only to anecdotes and passing incidents.”

In addressing this – the limitations of anecdotes and the happenstance of conflictual outbreaks – Vincent turns to “new materialism”; theories about the ways in which the spoken and physical worlds are inseparable, part of a common package.

This has also been an active area of enquiry for archaeology in recent years, from work on the legacies of South America’s dictatorships to “landscapes of destruction” in North Africa and memories of violence in Europe. Appropriating Foucault’s classic metaphor of the “archaeology of knowledge”, this could be considered the “archaeology of transformation”.

Vincent insists that the discursive and the material must be considered together: “this idea is not about interaction, but about how our sense of being emerges in intra-action – in the spaces between bodies, chairs, floors, discourses and narratives that pervade an institutional setting”. Discourse is about stories, collectively garnered and shared to change consciousness, making the normal strange, challenging dominant voices and assumptions.   “Instead of taking for granted the world as we see it through our own eyes”, we rather need to “make room for the partialness of our own view, whoever we may be and wherever we may be situated – what might be referred to as making our own particular version of normal strange.”

Materiality is the recognition that material things have agency, in the daily constitution of identity and in the ways in which memory lives in the present and shapes the future. Universities are exemplars for this. Rhodes may have fallen at the University of Cape Town, but his absence is a minor dent in an archaeology of memory that shaped a whole mountainside. As with all material aspects of the places we inhabit, the multiple public and private spheres of daily communication are sutured with the tangible world:

The continued influences of the legacies of apartheid and colonialism are perhaps most concretely felt in built environments, architecture, urban planning, monuments and other physical artefacts, design and physical planning choices. Transformation of institutional ‘culture’ therefore cannot avoid an engagement with concrete material manifestations of cultural practices, identities and subjectivities.

These “material things” have agency over us. The question that Louise Vincent’s essay prompts is: how can theoretical structures like “new materialism” be used for practical purposes, in the kinds of leadership moves she calls for, in febrile contexts such as the escalating conflict about language at Stellenbosch?

Seen through the lens that Vincent offers, the Stellenbosch Council’s position on language is narrowly transactional:

Council states unequivocally that language may never be an obstacle for any student who has no command of either Afrikaans or English wishing to pursue undergraduate or postgraduate study at SU. Thus Council requests Management to expand the necessary mechanisms to this end, and to monitor these continuously. If this should imply that the English academic offering exceeds the set target, it will be supported by  Council.  Concurrently Council states that this may not be to the detriment of the agreed minimum target for the Afrikaans offering. Council requests that the Afrikaans undergraduate academic offering should also be increased. Council confirms that its multilingual academic offering is considered a strategic asset of SU that should be expanded as a competitive advantage.

But language is never “just language” and the widely-distributed video exposing conditions at Stellenbosch – Luister – is an exemplar for the insights from a new materialist perspective; the marginalization, humiliation and exhaustion from being subjected to the “necessary mechanisms” of simultaneous translation, of being always on the outside. And beyond this, of course, Afrikaans is a living and lived language, a medium for stories and for the constitution of memories. Afrikaans is saturated by history and joined with the materiality of architecture, monuments and landscape.

This inevitable materiality – Stellenbosch’s own giant mushroom – requires engagement. This, and its necessary complexity, had been the consensus reached by student activists, a significant number of staff, and the university leadership. In Louise Vincent’s words, we need “acts of leadership that consciously make available spaces for the telling of alternative stories and create a climate in which these stories can really be heard”. The Stellenbosch Council determination, in this context, that “necessary mechanisms” for translations should be continue and that teaching in Afrikaans should be expanded is, at best, naïve.

Once upon a time there was an ocean. But now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

 I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean. But now I’m a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.


Louise Vincent: “’Tell us a new story’: a proposal for the transformatory potential of collective memory projects”. In Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews (editors). Being at Home. Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions. Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015.

Martin Hall: “Nothing is different but everything’s changed”. In The Next Twenty Five Years? Affirmative Action and Higher Education in the United States and South Africa. Edited by Martin Hall, Marvin Krislov and David L. Featherman. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Martin Hall: “Objects, Images and Texts: Archaeology and Violence”. Journal of Social Archaeology 16 (1), February 2016, in press.

Mpho Raborife: “Open Stellenbosch disappointed at council’s stance on language policy”. News24, 30 November 2015.



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