The idea that a life-history can be told raises a number of questions about historiography, identity and politics. It raises historiographical questions as it is premised on the assumption that there is a meaningful social context against the background of which individual lives can be rendered intelligible. It bears on identity through the manner in which it posits narratives as a means to bring the tension between the individual and the collective into full view. Finally, it raises political issues in as much as it draws from the assumption according to which life-histories worth telling speak to values and interests that both shape and are shaped by the contexts within which lives are constituted. The roundtable discussion draws mainly from a collaborative research which placed at its analytical centre the demand that observations are informed by a critically conscious way of looking from somewhere at something and at one’s own self. This “reciprocal gaze” is now brought to bear on individual lives constituted across cultural, social and political spaces. The idea of describing these lives as “cosmopolitan biographies” seeks to capture, on the one hand, the extent to which narrative brings individual trajectories to life and, on the other, how the contexts within which such lives are constituted conflate the rural and the urban, the local and the global and the individual and the collective.
Participants: Cynthia Kros (University of the Witwatersrand), Sekibakiba Lekgoathi (University of the Witwatersrand), Petunia Mabokela (University of the Witwatersrand), Noor Nieftagodien (University of the Witwatersrand), Martin Schaffner (University of Basel)