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The Workshop


The world of the early twenty first century is a deeply heterogeneous world of flows, fractures and frictions. In the contemporary conditions of global capitalism, new boundaries are emerging while old ones are being redrawn, extended or simply abandoned. The paradoxes of mobility and closure, of continuities and discontinuities between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, or of temporariness and permanence pose new challenges to critical thought and intellectual inquiry.

These challenges are nowhere as acute as in the global South, the site of unfolding global developments that are contradictory, uneven, contested, and for the most part experimental. Here, fundamental problems of livelihood, equity and justice remain unresolved, even as new practices of governance and politics are heatedly in the making. Amidst the prospecting of novel ways of articulating politics and culture, the social sciences remain compromised in their ability to describe, diagnose, and keep up with the lived worlds they strive to address.
Indeed, the lag between actual social processes and our efforts to make sense of them conceptually is nowhere near to being closed. The limits of classical social theories are everywhere revealed and stretched by the complexities of our worlds.

The global intellectual map is also being redrawn. Traditional Western institutions, the established custodians of knowledge production, are being de-centered by new hubs of learning, not least in the Persian Gulf, China, and other Asian states. Global networks of colleagues and information-sharing have usurped in many ways the traditional university ‘department'. Symposia, independent media, art shows, book fairs, film festivals and other hallmarks of intellectual life are reconfiguring the intellectual landscapes of many parts of the world. Social theory is at play in forms and places hitherto unimaginable.

In spite of the fragmented and uneven distribution of the resources for learning, teaching, and cultural criticism, marginal regions of the world are no longer simply producers of data or test sites for the theory mills of the North. Theory itself is no longer seen as naturally metropolitan and Western. It has been de-territorialized. Many key concepts have been de-nationalized, displaced and reconstructed sometimes with surprising effects.
Today, the international circulation of intellectual ideas is complex. A new, transnational, academic public sphere and culture has emerged during the second half of the 20th century. Western-born academics are moving to other parts of the world in growing numbers while Southern born ones are filling many faculties and departments in Northern universities. The worldwide dissemination of thought has been buttressed by a worldwide circulation and translation of texts, a highly productive invention and re-appropriation of concepts and the de-nationalization of the great academic debates.

This newfound mobility tends to blur the old distinction between the North and the South. But whether the de-territorialization of academic discussion has brought a truly global perspective to conventional theory and criticism remains to be seen. So is the extent to which the hybridization at work simply reproduces global relationships of power in precisely the regions of the world where these relationships produce the most brutal and the most extreme economic inequalities.

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism seeks to be a crucial node in this scene of global intellectual production. We are a platform for intellectual work that takes seriously a position in the South while addressing international conversations. We take the labour of theory and criticism to be significant political work that is crucial to the development of experimentation in social forms.

We most warmly welcome you to join us in Johannesburg!

About the JWTC Workshop

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism is an independent platform for critical social analysis based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). It was founded in 2008 by three members of the Wits Faculty of Humanities, Achille Mbembe, Kelly Gillespie and Julia Hornberger. It is intended for intellectual stimulation, exchange and sustained interaction with noted scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and the emerging fields of critical legal and science studies.

Building on rich historical traditions of subversive counter-readings in Africa and elsewhere, our goal is to contribute to a reappraisal of theory and criticism in such a way as to think anew about a de-centered world.

We hope to take advantage of the new age of academic mobility and the renewed convergence of theory and civic activism worldwide to highlight the variety of human forms in which argumentation occurs, contributing therefore to the global movement towards the de-provincialization of intellectual praxis.

The Workshop's focus is the contemporary and the emergent - those domains of human life and those forms of "the social" that profoundly interrogate the way we think and act, who we think we are, who we want to be and the kind of world we want to inhabit.

Our Audience

Our audience is those critical intellectuals locating their work beyond the model of area studies; are willing to challenge naturalized interpretive conventions, and are eager to bring about a renewed dialogue among the disciplines with a view to transforming the landscape of critical theory and its impacts.

We bring together in Johannesburg every year an international group of intellectuals whose proximity to each other in an African city we hope facilitates the emergence of fresh connections, linkages and insights that might help to overcome the fractures within the world of global scholarship.

3 Nodes of Inquiry

The social is less a matter of order and contract than a matter of composition and experimentation. Societies continually produce the new, the as yet un-thought, which is yet to be accommodated within established conceptual systems and languages. Vast domains of human struggle and achievement are hardly the object of documentation, archiving or empirical description, and even less so of satisfactory narrative and interpretive understanding. There is still a colossal amount of things we do not know, and do not yet know how to describe.

In order to structure the encounter with what we do not yet know or what we cannot yet determine because it is only emerging and has not yet become definite, the Workshop privileges the following modes of inquiry:
(1) the ethnographic-historical
(2) the philosophical-ethical
(3) the aesthetic-literary and imaginative


Speakers are leading thinkers in their respective fields, internationally renowned scholars and younger academics whose intellectual itineraries and personal experience straddle multiple worlds.

Each year, the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism will invite a group of esteemed scholars to present on their current research and theoretical interests. Instructors will present their work in the form of lectures and/or seminars.

The JWTC will also host other scholars and intellectuals in roundtable discussions, public lectures, exhibitions, performances and other fora for intellectual discussion and contemplation. Please see the JWTC programme for further details.


The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism is located at the University of the Witwatersrand under the umbrella of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). We are always looking to partner with other projects and organisations which work with similar ideas and orientations. Currently we draw support and partnership from the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI),the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) at Duke University, and the Goethe Institute (Johannesburg).