LPCA: Where are we?
It is too late to announce what LPCA plans to be and too early to assess what it has achieved. But it is perhaps the moment briefly to look back and forward, the moment being marked by a modicum of assurance that the project will have the institutional support to continue at least for the next five years. Vincent de Rooij's promotion from post-doctoral status to a faculty appointment in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam will enable him to continue to manage and develop the LPCA web site; Johannes Fabian's partial early retirement will make it possible for him to devote again more time to work on the kind of material -- mostly text- and language-documents of Shaba/Katanga Swahili -- that made us think of the project in the first place.
Our commitment to, and plans for, LPCA are unchanged although efforts to find more substantial outside funding have so far not met with success. The plan was (and is) to extend the basic support provided by the University of Amsterdam (Internet access, office space) with funds for the addition of visuals and sound to the web site, technical assistance (transcription of recorded text and entering older documents), and expanding our research capacity in the form of one or several dissertation fellowships).
1. Statement of Rationale and Purpose
At the end of this century, anthropology emerges from what many feared would be a lethal crisis (of "post-modernism," or "post-colonialism") with a number of widely shared theoretical positions and research agendas. Among them, the following are especially relevant to the proposed project:
Long neglected by established disciplines in African Studies (anthropology, history, political science), African popular culture has in recent years become an important and large field of research. Many of its creations, above all its music and products of visual arts, now have a global presence without losing their local meaning and significance. It took a long time before contemporary, mainly but not only, urban ways of life were recognized as creative forms of survival. These cultural expressions range from religious movements to sports, from dance music to improvisational theater, from grass roots literacy to genre painting, to name but the most conspicuous forms, all of which also make use of the "media", especially radio and television. We now recognize them as active appropriations and transformations of modernity and no longer just as evidence of uprooting, loss of tradition and orientation, and mindless imitation of imported Western culture.
While there is wide agreement today that contemporary life in Africa produces expressions deserving to be recognized as "culture", it is also true -- and this is one of the reasons why we keep speaking of "popular culture" -- that these phenomena often appear as ephemeral and hence superficial, as constantly changing and not burdened by respect for tradition. Much of popular culture is oral and performance-oriented; even its visual creations are embedded in verbal discourse and the same goes for its music. Institutions that could document and preserve what is being created, such as academies and museums, are most often lacking (or not functioning); literacy of an uncontrolled kind (hence qualified as sub-standard) does belong to the practices of contemporary life but did not, at least not in obvious ways, produce a literary, artistic canon. Still, it is now also clear that today's popular culture has historical depth. It owes its existence to processes spanning generations and going back to the beginnings of urbanization, perhaps to even earlier practices of travel and trading (including the slave trade), certainly to the creation of a class of wage-earners recruited from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
In sum, the challenge of the study of popular culture lies in the tension between vigorous, often rapid cultural production and the absence of official or standardized institutional sponsorship and, indeed, of forms of presentation and preservation.
An assumption central to the approach taken in this project is that the African popular culture was mediated, made possible, by, and certainly went together with, the emergence of distinctive languages such as the variety of Swahili spoken in Katanga which has been the point of departure for our project. Apart from searching for factual, historical connections between specific languages and specific forms of popular culture, the purpose of LPCA is also to explore theoretical links. For instance, we want to ask whether the linguistic concept of creolization (as well as a host of others, such as code-or style-switching, borrowing and interference) used in describing and explaining the distinctive shape of languages such as Katanga Swahili can be of use in the interpretation of the culture that found in this language its principal medium of communication. We want to explore analogies as well as homologies and raise, in a new context, the old anthropological questions of language, world view, and identity, that is, of the interplay of linguistic form, cognitive categories, intellectual content, and social-political function. In what sense, we also want to ask, can substantive questions such as distinctive appropriations of modernity (new religious, political, and artistic discourses) be related to specific practices of communication, to habits and genres of speech?
A general frame for our project is provided by research and theorizing in language-centered anthropology and (socio)linguistics, with more than incidental connections to fields such as folklore, oral tradition and history, colonial history, and studies of modernization, globalization, ethnic and national identity, transnational migration, and so forth.
2. Innovative Character
The innovative and, we believe, promising nature of the project lies in the choice of the Internet as its medium and forum. Preliminary work has made it clear that in important ways the Internet is not a mere instrument. At the very least, it changes the conditions (including the time-economy) of collection, storage, documentation, and publication; it opens up unprecedented possibilities of exchange and collaboration and it (re)moves existing borders and distinctions between the production and presentation of knowledge.
This is the place briefly to recall the history of our undertaking. It began, more than a decade ago, with a much more limited proposal to make an inventory of a vast corpus of texts recorded in Katanga Swahili (partially transcribed and translated) by J. Fabian since the mid-sixties. These texts were collected in the course of research on religious movements, language and work, popular theater, painting, and historiography. V. de Rooij, trained in anthropology and linguistics, also made numerous recordings of conversations in colloquial Katanga Swahili during fieldwork in 1991 and 1992; another corpus of popular texts was collected in Lubumbashi at about the same time by M. Gysels. These documents, as well as a growing collection of printed texts in this language that appeared in print since the 1930s, were to be published in a series we called Archives of Popular Swahili. From the beginning, the intention was to associate other researchers to this project and to provide an outlet for their collections of relevant material. The idea was also to include in Archives analytical and interpretive essays and monographs. Predictably, the project languished for years, principally because the prospects for financing its publications in print were dim.
This situation changed, first when word processors became widely used, and then (after a short phase of thinking about production on CD-ROM) with access to the Internet. As it turned out, the new medium opened a potential scope for the project that none of us had envisaged even a few years ago. Our experiences and expectations can be summarized as follows:
This describes, in substance, our current vision of the project. LPCA will remain a site under construction for the foreseeable future. A significant change in scope regards the decision, dictated by the historical and current sociolinguistic situation of Katanga Swahili, to encourage inclusion of material in languages that have had comparable, often overlapping, functions either in the same geographical area or in comparable contexts elsewhere in eastern and southern Africa (such Bemba, Lingala, Tshiluba, but also Fanagalo, to name some of the most obvious examples). We would also like to put up for discussion an idea that may be less obvious but is in fact logically inescapable given the multilingualism of popular culture, namely the inclusion of documents in "African" French and English (and, some may insist, Portuguese). This opens a huge field and the only practical way to go about covering it will be to wait and see what develops as our contacts and outside interest in LPCA grow.
published: 14 December 1999