Recent events remind us of the central role of violence in shaping the world around us. The downing of flight 17 in a lawless area of Ukraine (likely by paramilitaries supported by Russia), the war in Gaza, the thousands of Latin American children fleeing vulnerable lives, and in Africa the tyrannies of Boko Haram, call attention to the fact that people across the globe live amidst considerable violence.
Identifying these brutal realities is far easier than understanding them. Violence very often ruptures the fabric of social life. Violence is both exceptional and banal. Its study has generated a plethora of words modifying the original noun:
“everyday”, “symbolic”, “epistemic”, and so on. We often struggle understanding violence beyond describing its social determinants. Violence very often seems beyond explanation, particularly when it appears to be meaningless or gratuitous. Indeed, the study of violence raises some of the most profound challenges in humanities, social sciences, and in literature and the arts.
We identified the theme for the 57th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, “Rethinking Violence, Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” because of the urgent need to focus attention on what is, and has been, a central facet of the human condition. 2014 is also an anniversary of sorts, a time of remembrance and critical reflection. Twenty years ago saw both the Rwandan genocide and South Africa’s first democratic elections. On the one hand, a society almost destroyed itself. On the other, people came together to put an end to the obscenity that was apartheid. The post-conflict histories of both Rwanda and South Africa raise important challenges to the African studies community, challenges we have tried to identity in the annual meeting’s CFP.
We approached the theme with some trepidation. Africa has seen more than its fair share of violence, of course, as well as creative and widely influential attempts at peace making and reconciliation. At the same time, however, there is the tenacious popular image of Africa as somehow inherently or uniquely violent. Would a conference devoted to the study of violence risk reproducing stereotypes and generalizations that have been the bane of representations of Africa for at least two centuries? How, in short, can we talk about violence while steering clear of well-worn clichés?
Early in the planning stages we decided it was important to systematically examine violence in all its manifestations, from the environment to gender to warfare. We also knew that it was vitally important to think critically about cultural production, representation, and the location of violence in various disciplinary approaches to Africa’s past and present. We identified ten major sub-themes, beginning with the “violence of everyday life.” (In keeping with past conferences we added an additional eleven general sub-themes.) Readers will note that many of the sub-themes move far beyond the usual (and important) focus on political violence to include topics such as health, neoliberalism, and refugees.
The goal was much more than to provide balance. We wanted to create the possibilities for critical and creative conversations across varied disciplines. We wanted to create opportunities for thinking about Africa in unexpected ways, including seeing violence as more than simply the evidence of some sort of pathology. In short, we hope the 57th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association will offer members and guests the chance to engage in spirited dialogue on some of the most important challenges facing the continent.
We were thrilled by the willingness of the twenty-one colleagues to serve on the program committee. We are so very thankful for their very hard work in helping evaluate the proposals. The program committee represents a diverse community of scholars from across the disciplines and includes Africanists at various stages of their career. They were enormously generous with their time, including participating in Social Science Research Network training workshops.
One never knows what the response of a CFP will be. Cutbacks in college and university support for conference attendance since the Great Recession have had a substantial impact on many professional organizations. We were delighted by the response to the CFP. We received well over eight hundred submissions. We soon began worrying if we would exceed the conference’s room capacity.
Evaluating so many submissions and then producing the preliminary program is a herculean task. Again, we collectively owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the program committee. The committee in fact had two jobs. First, it had to evaluate two hundred panel and roundtable proposals. A more difficult challenge is evaluating the over six hundred individually submitted papers, and then forming panels from among the accepted proposals.
From their hard work we created the program. Each panel and roundtable was color-coded according to sub-theme. We then spent many hours staring at the computer while we allocated panels and roundtables to specific rooms and times, all the while trying to avoid conflicts with competing presentations. Here we were ably assisted by the great work of our graduate assistant, Ms. Jill Rosenthal (who also happens to work on violence and refugees in the Great Lakes region).
At present the program consists of a total of 316 sessions spread over three days. Inevitably, from this embarrassment of riches there will be instances of simultaneous sessions addressing the same general theme. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we had the largest response to the sub-theme “Political Violence, the State, and Global Forces,” followed closely by a number of related topics. However, we also received a refreshingly large number of proposals in the humanities, including panels and roundtables looking at the ways artists have been addressing violence and the complexities of reconstruction and reconciliation.
Whenever we could we strove for balance. We know that there will be many attendees debating which session they should go to. If you are unable to make a particular session, we encourage you to contact the participants. Arrange to meet for a cup of coffee, or a beer, or meet up at the Saturday dance party!
One of the joys of being a program chair is learning about the extraordinary work being done in African Studies. We were overwhelmed by the intelligence and creativity of so many proposals, by the depth of research and commitment, and by the liveliness of the ASA community.
See you in Indianapolis this November!
The 2014 ASA Program Co-Chairs: