Nathanael M. Vlachos

Anthropology. Ethics. Theater.

PhD, Cultural Anthropology, Rice University. (Houston, Texas). 

Research Narrative; or: Why Study South African Theatre?

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I didn't initially intend or set out to become an anthropologist. As an aspiring philosopher who had earned a B.A. and was working toward an M.A. (and hoping, eventually, for a PhD and a career in philosophy) I found philosophy to be an exciting discipline that allowed me to think deeply and provocatively about the world. I was, and still am, passionate about the study of ethics. Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle, have always had a special place in my heart and my brain. Texas Tech, where I completed my M.A. in philosophy, was a great department for my training in ethics—not only with regard to my favorite ancient Greek texts (taught by Howard Curzer) but also Early Modern Philosophy (with Francesca Di Poppa) and contemporary Metaethics (Daniel Nathan). Aesthetics—a branch of philosophy that investigates art and the judgments made about it—was another passion for me, and I had amazing guidance from Anna Christina Ribeiro in that regard.

At some point—I’m not sure how and I’m not sure why—my research interests grew steadily more empirical. My Master’s Report was a good (though in retrospect, confused) piece on the topic of evolutionary aesthetics. Specifically, I explored the question of why humans might find a certain pleasure in grotesque or transgressive forms of art. Meanwhile, my interests in ethics had increasingly come to focus on rapprochements between social science and philosophy—specifically the work of Peter Railton and, in general, approaches to ethics that proceed from a stance of methodological naturalism. In other words, I was excited about exploring ethics empirically, if at all possible.  

MA from Texas Tech, 2009

MA from Texas Tech, 2009

Philosophy might be a big tent, but I never quite had the chops by the time I graduated to find my place in the discipline with these newer research interests. My failure to find a good fit for a PhD program in philosophy was likely the combined product of disciplinary gatekeeping and my inability to articulate a clear and rigorous intellectual project. The philosopher in me will never go away though—figures like Paul C. Taylor (author of Black Aesthetics) continue to excite me. 

Throughout my training in philosophy, I had been visiting South Africa and had quickly grown fascinated by its people, its places, its history and its present. I was, and am, inspired by a country that survived and overthrew a white supremacist regime and worked to install a nonracial democracy in its place—even if the work of creating a “new” South Africa remains ongoing. For all its flaws, South Africa is still a beautiful country.

South African Forum Theatre, in many ways, carries the legacy of the theatre of Black Consciousness. 

South African Forum Theatre, in many ways, carries the legacy of the theatre of Black Consciousness. 

I was particularly attracted to South African theatre. I saw some incredible pieces in 2009 that changed my conception of performance and made me take seriously the idea that theatre can be a form of ritual. Rooted as it is in a history of colonialism and apartheid, South African theatre has an incredibly rich past and present that is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Particularly during the height of the Black Consciousness movement, Black Theatre in particular was a powerful tool for the affirmation of blackness and a way of giving voice to experiences of life under apartheid. It was, along with other art forms, a key element of apartheid protest culture.

The importance of theatre not only as entertainment but as social commentary persists, in many ways. Grahamstown, for instance, hosts the annual National Arts Festival each year, a ten day explosion of theatre that is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and second only to Edinburgh globally. My attendance at three National Arts Festivals and my fieldwork in Johannesburg, Soweto, and Alexandra were more than enough to convince me that the end of apartheid has not dulled, in the slightest, the sharp edge of theatre as a form of public critique. South Africans continue to take their theatre seriously, and theatre continues to have serious things to say about what it means to live a good life in South Africa.

South African theatre (and South Africa more broadly) gradually became my new research focus, and in 2010 I was admitted to the PhD program in Anthropology at Rice. Although Rice’s Department of Anthropology was, in some ways, an unlikely home for a study like mine—Rice has no resident cultural anthropologists studying either South Africa or theatre—I did find affinity with James D. Faubion, whose research into the anthropology of ethics offered me a compelling theoretical framework for studying ethics at work in the world. Rice was a place where I could continue to delve into the study of ethics while getting other crucial theoretical and methodological skillsets from anthropologists like Dominic Boyer, Cymene Howe, Andrea Ballestero, and Zoe Wool. Importantly, it is also a place that prizes experimental forms of ethnographic theory and enquiry. It was a warm and collegial environment full of good mentors who worked tirelessly to help shape me and my project. Elias Bongmba, eminent scholar of religion in Africa, is also at Rice in the Department of Religion and was always ready to chat about anything related to South Africa. 

February 2014: A "Theatre and Life" class at the Market Theatre laboratory in downtown Johannesburg. The pedagogy or teaching of ethics is a central theme in my research. 

February 2014: A "Theatre and Life" class at the Market Theatre laboratory in downtown Johannesburg. The pedagogy or teaching of ethics is a central theme in my research. 

Gradually my research project took shape: an anthropology of ethics, set in South Africa, focusing on theatre. Specifically, I am interested in how artists, through theatre, engage in practices rooted in ubuntu—a communitarian ethic summarized by phrases like “a person is a person through other persons” or “I am because we are.” This tidy summary of ubuntu masks a complex and nuanced reality—ubuntu is in fact an ontology and a political philosophy in addition to being an ethical framework. While ubuntu’s roots go back much further than apartheid, it played a critical role in South Africa’s transition, functioning as a nation-building discourse of racial reconciliation and social transformation. I explore the status of ubuntu—as both philosophical practice and cultural praxis (see Leonard Praeg’s A Report on Ubuntu)—in the setting of what I call a “Post-Mandela South Africa” marked by the sense that a truly new South Africa has yet to emerge from the ashes of colonialism and apartheid. My primary fieldwork was carried out from 2013-2014.

During fieldwork in Grahamstown, 2013-2014

During fieldwork in Grahamstown, 2013-2014

South Africa has a lot to offer when it comes to studies of ethics, art, and anthropology. As Jean and John Comaroff have long pointed out, South Africa does not lag behind the Global North but has instead foreshadowed, numerous times, developments that are currently taking place in Euro-America. In years past, for example, I often explained South African president Jacob Zuma as “the George W. Bush of South Africa” to North American friends and colleagues. But given the recent election of Donald Trump as president, the comparison between Trump and Zuma is a good deal more apt. The order of the comparison must now be switched, however: Trump is the Zuma of the United States, for Zuma came first as a national political figure: on trial for rape in 2009; suspected of inappropriate financial relationships and shady business dealings; accused of misappropriating funds for dubious security upgrades to his private residence; a populist champion who came to power by ousting the elites of his own party (former president Thabo Mbeki among others). Beyond Zuma, foreshadowing abounds. South Africa has long wrestled with a level of xenophobia that the United States is (disturbingly) coming to mirror, not only with regard to immigrants but also refugees, and South Africa has also long been confronting economic inequalities that only recently have become nascent on a popular level in the United States with the rise of Occupy Wall Street and politicians like Bernie Sanders. South Africa does not embody the Global North’s past or its culturally exotic other. It is the future of the Global North unfolding in the present, and certainly worth studying for that reason among many others.

As a newly minted PhD and a proud cultural anthropologist, I am excited to continue my research and writing on South Africa, theatre, ethics, and critical race theory, and to engage my passion for teaching ethnographic methods and ethnographic writing to others. Many thanks to everyone in South Africa and the United States who have helped me and taught me important lessons—about ubuntu, about anthropology, and about ethics—along the way.