Survivance - Lesley Green - Applications Invited: Transdisciplinary Scholars to Re-Design Higher Education

Applications Invited: Transdisciplinary Scholars to Re-Design Higher Education

Lesley Green

Planet University: Stereographic projection of a spherical panorama centered on Sara Baartman Plaza at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Image by Lee Casalena.

August 2021

Applications Invited: Transdisciplinary Scholar to Assist in Re-Designing Higher Education.
Project Tasks: Whose knowledge? What is knowledge? What is a university?
Personal attributes: Courage. And a sense of humor.
Core lifeskill: Survivance.
Project description below.

Whose knowledge? What is knowledge? What is a university? These questions will be at the core of your work. Great swathes of history have instantiated the ontology, epistemologies, and assemblages of modernity. Ontology: what counts. Epistemology: how to count it. Assemblage: the world according to the spreadsheet, or the map, or the taxonomy, sans time; sans perspective; sans empathy. The Universe, as known by the University. The One-World World.1

Knowledge-keepers in the one-world world will bitterly resent the challenges you will bring to their paradigm: to them your thinking will be a personal affront. To challenge the protectors of the one-world world is to challenge those who have made themselves Masters. Many are white, and male. They will expect you to obey. Masters accept into their disciplinary houses only knowledge that is translated into their terms: their epistemology; their ontology; their assemblages. This you will not accept, for you know that to accept that rationality, and its subjectivity, will betray all that you have struggled to put into the words that you know can make new worlds.

Our time is that of a planetary emergency, caused by those who have imposed the one-world world. Paradigm shift is needed when things fall apart and the center cannot hold. Yet Walter Benjamin understood this as more than the exercise of reason: to translate well, he observed, is to betray the destination language, not the source.2

Disciplinary gatekeepers will block your way, but not on rational terms. When they tell you “the debate has moved long past pure science” and your dissent with governing officials, philanthropists, and captains of industry is your personal problem—”I am well aware of your own struggles with the City and would prefer not to get involved”—recognize what they are saying: there is only one version of science; it’s ours and it’s pure and it’s shared by the powerful. Contesting this is personal, not professional. Recognize the tactic: you are, at that moment, what Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret described as “no longer … a colleague but a distraction who intends to ‘politicize science,’ to make it serve a cause that is ‘unscientific.’”3 You are being told you are betraying the discipline and the University, the very institution of scholarship. You will be tempted to respond personally to the pathologizing of your dissent. Don’t: that will yield you to their definition of the problem and on that terrain, you lose. The struggle is institutional. It’s not about you.

When you quibble with the characterization of a region—obviously black—as having the strengths of “labor and traditional culture” and you are told, “Don’t worry about that! It’s just words! We can change them! Consultants change their words like they change their clothes!” remind them, and yourself, that words make worlds. Ask them if they would mind you changing their numbers.

They will trivialize your training in social sciences; declaring that natural science and engineering knows humans best. Know it for what it is: “social science denialism.” The global university system is set up to avert its eyes from its enactment. In order to justify their “transdisciplinarity” to funders, they will hire junior social scientists, typically as post-doctoral fellows without any power to challenge the framings of their funded projects, much less the ontologies of ideas. Or they will hire economists, whose one-dimensional “Homo economicus” theory of the human is an affront to social scientists. Or they will contract unregistered social science consultancies to do telephone surveys. Few will declare partial the scientific consultant who will not criticize local government for fear of losing out on the next research contract. You, however, will be accused of being unscientific for setting out the case against their obfuscations. You will find allies among those who make the case to government that public trust in science comes from well-funded independent research. Know those institutional levers, like a university’s statement of values, which remind all what we are collectively building.4 Use them.

Environmental governance scientists will ask you to help them “get behavior change” by designing ways to teach people how they think, and designing ways to arrest the target populations if they dissent. They will tell you that in the urgency of the now, there is no time to think about ontology, epistemology, assemblage, or for that matter, the niceties of democracy. When their research is reviewed they will appoint top people in their fields, but never a senior, free-thinking social scientist. They may even claim demographic fiat as expertise, as did one scientist that I once met, that “our work ticks the funder’s gender box, heh, heh, because most farmers in Africa are women.” In my experience, one even pretended to have a senior social scientist—yours truly—as co-Principal Investigator on a major transdisciplinary grant application without even the courtesy of an invitation. Clearly, no real social science is useful. Whatever knowledge is needed about society can be known through their version of social science—on the grounds that they too are human! Oh, Rational Man. By your logic, I’m a cardiologist. When are you coming for surgery?

Research results indeed, social science denialists will have: geological and archeological testaments to the stupidity of their struggles to retain mastery of the planet’s environmental governance in research confined to their inherited version of nature with a few social science words crocheted onto the findings. They will tell you that they describe a “social-ecological system,” and that their work is “holistic.” Their recommendations for financialized interventions will ignore the forests that must be turned to charcoal for sale, or the transactional sex that is needed if local people are to afford the magic golden beans designed in industry-funded ivory towers. You, however, will be told that you are the Charlie Chaplin in the room. That your work is trivial. It’s “humanities” not “STEM” sciences, referring, of course, to the New Golden Mean that is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And they will say “Your ideas might be relevant in twenty years but right now our science has an urgent problem to address.” Remind yourself that Chaplin’s work is still viewed, a hundred years later. He knew it takes laughter to speak of the oligarch in the room.

Desperate claims to hold on to the purported “universalism” of the University require social science denialism. When you seek to open difficult conversations about a default to militarized policing against the homeless settled near a local nature reserve, you will be told that “your aim to destroy the last vestige of natural heritage remaining for the people.”

The version of social science that is invented by center-right scientists is devoid of attention to the ways in which scholarship too, is implicated in history. Hold them to the empirical. Ask: “Where, empirically, are these ‘social ecological systems’ of which you write? Is it useful to separate knowledge into categories like ‘nature’ and ‘society’ and stitch them together with a few terse notes on over-population, poverty and the dollar values of ecotourism? Is it not a tautology to violently separate humans from nature, in this ‘Anthropocene’ era?” Remember Claude Levi-Strauss: binaries in belief systems always require heroes to link them. Their hero, striding like a colossus in the binary world of their making, is Homo economicus: a fantastical species who does not exist. Politics is always cosmology.

And when social media trolls come after you to tell you: “Relax! You really are becoming a bitter old woman… Why do you want to stir up anger by referencing ‘apartheid’… Being intelligent and using thought … seems to be censored in your faculty… You are nothing more than a hateful fascist liberal!” remember that racist patriarchy always secures itself against dissent by naming a witch.

What is knowledge?

“Colonization is thingification,” wrote Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of postcolonialism.5 After colonization comes technoscientific feudalism—that is, neoliberal governance—which attempts to remake the world through the financialization of relations.6 Your focus will be on the relational, but you will be opposing the insertion of technoscientific feudalism into the web of life. Your attention will be on the recoveries of non-financialized relations, in the remaking of fields of care and response-ability known by those cultivating the arts of living on a damaged planet without the oversight of environmental policing proposed by planet-saving sciences via grants funded by the technofeudalists.7

Your work will be ontological: searching for what is occulted by the objects that are brought into view by neoliberal paradigms. Your practice will gently refuse the exercise of thought being turned into battles (or tears) about the end of white supremacism. Your craft will be building spaces where fresh questions can be posed, so that the old categories, and old solutions, and tribalized disciplines can be seen for what they are: irrelevant to the task of building a new University.

Your skill will be recognizing new wine in old bottles: the neoliberal sorcery that turns citizens into customers, or ratepayers into “city business partners” or the democratically elected national government into “a support provider.”8 You will know that sorcery for what it is: the renaming of relations; the imposition of antidemocratic logics; the writing of new scripts that justify inequality via the rationality of the knowledge economy: technical efficiency, economic profitability, and scientific objectivity.9 As the meme goes, eventually karma runs over dogma.

Your methods will be to track and trace what was invisible to the colonials and remains off-stage: flows of matter, through bodies, geologies, oceans, winds, and eons. Your analysis will not limit the planetary crisis to carbon, nor will you accept the solutions proposed by the new technofeudal asters. You will follow all matter, through every material, and understand the earth systems of our collective now without dividing them into the irrelevant and outdated categories of “society” and “nature.” You will know that fences don’t stop earthly flows; that the earth has always been a commons, and can neither be governed nor healed via regimes of private property or financial years. Pursuing earthly healing and restitutive body-land connections, you will work with students to co-invent new fields to secure habitability in the critical zone: legal geology—the laws of earthly morphogenesis; ecopathology; biogeochemical social sciences; technosphere ecologies; urban metabolism. In all these fields you will be unmaking the regimes of mastery that have yielded extractivism, consumerism, and end-of-pipe dumping as if we are extra-terrestrials, or as if we live on a Flat Earth and in the sea is a place called nowhere. Your work will be about home-coming: coming home to earth.10 It will be about knowing that what is in the ocean today could be in your body next week. Becoming human is becoming terran.11

Whose knowledge?

This question will get you out of bed every morning, as you work with students, mostly black, from across Africa, who find in radical transdisciplinarity a space to think, write, feel, and find their voices as professional researchers whose work is connecting the worlds lost in a sea of data. The power in finding a voice that can make connections comes from learning to see the world without the filters of coloniality and modernity… That power. That beauty. That fresh water from deep streams, long pent up. Making sense of the centuries of trauma of land-dispossession and the particularities of ecological alienation; and what it means to have lost, and to regain, a somatic relation to Earth. They will find their voices that were lost in their efforts to speak in the machinic languages of “social-ecological systems” and “drivers” of this or that, or the imaginary dollar values of “ecosystem services” or the absurdities of interpreting satellite imagery of fields without talking to farmers. The reconnection of soma to Earth and water and seed; life and body and wellbeing will be in their own languages as archives of ontologies long lost, like ubuntu: a person is a person through other people; like the idea of kinship with soil in the African mantra “sons and daughters of soil.” In these relational words will be the fragments of worldmakings that will become maps out of this modernist and colonial practice of “thingification.” You will treasure the thanks they receive from elderly women in rural areas: “Thank you, my son, my daughter, for coming to listen to us. No one else has done that.”12

What is a University?

The Master’s House, this “Anthropocene,” will not be unmade with the Master’s tools, but with the values held by elderly women and men who understand fecundity through the fields they have tended, and the chickens and children and cows they have fed, and the health of their bodies in relation to the ruins of ecologies they dream of healing.13 “So long, Rational Man,” you will say, “thanks for all the data; we will read it along the archival grain.”14 Assemble a new archive in your writing.15 For STEM sciences alone will not rebuild life amid the monstrous ruins of a world conceived as a standing stock of extractables. Research questions capable of improving habitability will be your focus. That is, seeing, learning, and tending relations, in all their materiality, and their travels through solids and liquids; mud and mists; bodies, policies, and gases.

Come work here, in this University, in a convocation of Earth, matter, and species that offers an ongoing invitation to gatekeepers to abandon their posts and assemble self and knowledge via relations other than finance, property, territory and mastery. The University we are building attends to care for planetary flows, earthly processes, fecundities, and habitability. Apply within.


John Law, “What’s wrong with a one-world world?” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 1 (2015): 126–139.


Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task, Walter Benjamin (Translation),” trans. Steven Rendall, TTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction 10, no. 2 (1997): 151–165.


Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf, trans. April Knutson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press/Univocal Publishing, 2014).


“A Statement of Values for the University of Cape Town and its Members,” University of Cape Town, December 10, 2016, .


Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: New York University Press/Monthly Press, 2000).


Yanis Varoufakis, “Capitalism may end with a whimper, but the techno-feudalism bang may soon follow,Daily Maverick, June 29, 2021, .


See Donna Haraway, Staying With The Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, eds. Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).


“City of Cape Town maintains its credit rating,” City of Cape Town, June 30, 2021, .


Bruno Latour, “The Recall of Modernity,” trans. Stephen Muecke, Cultural Studies Review 13, no. 1 (2007): 11–30.


Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).


Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Guimaraes Nunes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).


Henry Tambala, Forthcoming M.Soc.Sc. dissertation, Environmental Humanities South, University of Cape Town, 2021.


Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (London: Penguin, 2018).


Ann Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (New York: Princeton University Press, 2009).


Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

Survivance is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Knowledge Production, Translation, Postcolonial Theory, Universalism, Ontology, Epistemology
Return to Survivance

Lesley Green is founding director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town. She is the author of Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (2020); editor of Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge (2013), and co-author of Knowing the Day, Knowing the World: Engaging Amerindian Thought in Public Archaeology (2013).


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