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LPCA: Where are we?

(LPCA Editorial)

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:

  • We now approach the research object that gave rise to our discipline, "other" societies various designated as savage, primitive, traditional, developing, and so forth, as contemporary, that is, involved in the same historical processes of a global scope and impact that affect the euro-american West where anthropology found its place in academe.
  • Ethnography, or field work, remains our empirical basis but it is widely agreed upon that ethnographic research is no longer best conceived of as the application, through established methods and techniques, of prefabricated theory but rather as a practice which is, at its core, interactive and communicative, hence historically and, indeed politically, situated. Although language has, throughout anthropology's history, been recognized as an instrument and object of study as well as a theoretical model for the concept of culture, it is now understood pragmatically as being central in the formation as well as the study of identity.
  • The idea of culture as "text" signals the understanding of anthropology as an interpretive science.
  • These developments have reinforced anthropology's traditionally multi-disciplinary outlook (encompassing sociology, history, linguistics and, at least in its American conception, human biology, evolution and prehistory).
  • The most important insight to emerge from recent debates and liberal borrowing from literary theory and criticism is that the presentation of knowledge is an integral part of its production. This insight takes on a new dimension and asks for innovative responses with the availability of new media (such as the internet) that are beginning to revolutionize practices of publishing as well as of "data storage."
  • Finally, there emerges from post-colonial critique, a thorough revision of what was once an accepted one-way perspective of research, based on a division of labor between those who speak and are studied and others who write and study. The orality/ literacy barrier has crumbled and the most far-reaching consequence is that anthropology's task, producing knowledge of other societies, is in essence a critical continuation of practices that originate in these societies, one of which is the complex of practices and representations that has been designated as popular culture.

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:

  • Compared to publishing in print, setting up a web-site with links to various kinds of documents and information, involves minimal expenses as regards material and services.
  • Most of the time- and budgetary constraints that affect periodical or quasi-periodical publications no longer apply. On the Internet, a document or a scholarly contribution can be published as soon as it is prepared (with much freedom concerning format, style, or even level of elaboration). Polished essays as well as work-in-progress can be made available very quickly.
  • Aside from a few work-places (office space, a PC and printer, some storage) the project needs no physical space, nor is it, at least in the long run, tied to one physical location. Concretely: If we succeed in developing LPCA along the lines we now envisage it will in fact be comparable to a research center, with the difference that management of its electronic site could move almost instantaneously from Amsterdam to, say, Lubumbashi.
  • Standards for this type of publication are still rather fluid. Some, such as the services of an advisory board, peer-evaluation of journal contributions, conventions of editing and presentation, rules of copyright, will be taken over from print-publishing, others will have to be developed as the work progresses.
  • Technically possible (at constantly decreasing cost) is also the inclusion of (moving) images and sound documents. Thus we will be able to offer sound tracks together with transcription and translations. Another possibility is to put important out-of-print publications (articles, but also entire books) on-line at the LPCA site
  • The potential openness, speed, and adaptability of publication on the Internet also encourages removal of unproductive boundaries between strictly scholarly and popular contributions, between theoretical or methodological articles and monographs and the "data" (texts) on which they draw. We firmly intend, for instance, to treat recorded texts both as historical documents and as contributions to the field of study, not just as stuff for a data-bank (a notion which we will avoid). The idea of an archive remains central. It expresses the view that, in our language-centered approach to popular culture, form and content cannot and should not be treated separately.
  • The internet is an interactive medium. We will encourage response from users. Authors will be able to get quick reactions. Experts, linguists as well as native speakers, can offer criticism, and comments by subscribing to the LPCA-L mailing list managed by the LPCA web master. The list has a WWW interface allowing users to search the list archives and to post messages to the list (see for more information). In order to further communication and collaboration between researchers, a special section of the LPCA site will consist of a listing of relevant research projects and the scholars associated with them.

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.

Your questions and reactions are welcome at the LPCA-L list.
You may also want to contact the editors of LPCA directly by e-mail.

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published: 14 December 1999