Peter Hudson, bearer of emancipatory knowledge

An erudite scholar, complex writer and revered teacher, Peter Hudson bequeathed the enduring value of learn and teach, teach and learn. Through him, countless people learnt to be better thinkers and better people too.

Peter Hudson was not a public figure, in the sense of regularly engaging in the media, though he did sometimes participate in debates, and even polemics, in journals that existed in the 1980s such as Work in Progress and Transformation. He was widely revered as a teacher, a lecturer who nurtured generations of students, some of whom went on to become leading scholars or major figures in the country’s public life.

Since his death on 22 June, at the age of 68, there has been a broad outpouring of grief from his many, many students, and some colleagues. They testify to the impact he made on their lives. Some expressed pain at not having had the opportunity to express their appreciation of his gifts and commitment as a teacher.

Peter was buried on 26 June. But what he meant to large numbers of people will never be buried, insofar as his influence will not be easily snuffed out and will continue to be manifested in a range of ways.

His legacies as a scholar and teacher will not see replicas of Peter emerge, and he never sought that. But the work and practices he promoted will continue to exist in a number of ways. This ought to contribute to the opening of the intellectual and cultural terrain through continuing a range of important debates, something that is badly needed in South Africa today.

If we want to achieve an emancipatory society, meaning one where we enjoy ever enriched and advancing freedom, a variety of emancipatory opportunities and practices are needed, in various spheres of our lives, including all aspects of education.

Rigorous scholar, empowering teacher

Peter was above all a meticulous, rigorous scholar who took no short cuts with any problem he confronted. He was continually growing, considering questions afresh and open to new influences, which he would consider in the careful, measured, deliberate way that characterised his research, writing and teaching.

One of the areas that are particularly important in achieving emancipatory education is the question of how we build our knowledge base. We need to impart and build knowledge through processes that are emancipatory, which means ways of teaching and learning that not only increase understandings but also do so through empowering both those already learned with enhanced knowledge and those who are taught, with increased capacities.  

Emancipatory knowledge presupposes ways of teaching that invest the learner with new powers and awareness, conducting research and generating knowledge in ways that open insights that students or readers may never have considered. Any such knowledge will be seen as essentially provisional, always subject to constant re-examination, revision and enhancement as we revisit what we understand, and new factors come to our attention. 

Conceiving the educational terrain as empowering and a mutual learning process helps build the freedom enjoyed by and built by all of us.

It is sometimes said that Peter’s writing is inaccessible, as Andrew Colman, a psychology professor at the University of Leicester remarked about Peter’s work on Rick Turner. When Peter wrote in debates on contemporary South African political issues those were generally widely accessible. Some of his writings that interrogated philosophical thought, especially that of French scholars were, as with his engagement with the significance of Turner, in contrast, not immediately accessible and he sometimes used words that could not be found in conventional dictionaries.  

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That is what often happens when one is engaging with a topic that is very complicated and where precise distinctions need to be drawn in analysing complex texts. The reader has to work for the meanings because sometimes there is no simpler way of expressing the thoughts involved. Over time, through his use of repetition, saying the same thing albeit in different ways, these ideas became more accessible in his classes.

Meticulous and wide-ranging

In his scholarship, Peter took no short cuts with any problem he confronted and spent hours and hours on the same texts, much like theological scholars studying the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran and other sacred texts, deploying the hermeneutic method.

He produced a number of articles over the years and was preparing a book of essays when he died. Some of these were related to contemporary South African debates on the Freedom Charter and the National Democratic Revolution and later engaging with notions such as Colonialism of a Special Type. He was also continually absorbed with critiques of liberalism and unpacking racism under apartheid and its post-apartheid manifestations. Peter’s views on these issues changed over time and were constantly evolving as he was subjected to new influences and rethought his understanding of these and other issues. 

But his body of work stretched wide, covering Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Lacan, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière and the work of his teacher Rick Turner. He repeatedly returned to topics such as the “nature of the subject”, democracy, liberalism, communism and various strands of Marxism.  

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For the last 25 years, he spent a great deal of time, from his initial engagement with Joe Slovo’s work and that of the South African Communist Party of the time, with the character not only of Marxism but communism. He interrogated the works of people such as Badiou, Žižek and Jody Dean in the quest for a living communism, not necessarily dismissing Lenin, if reread and rethought in order to shed some of the elements in the original Lenin and anti-democratic interpretations and practices that have been performed in Lenin’s name.

Peter was non-sectarian and open, always growing and learning something new. Though he was not, himself, religious, he did not eschew spirituality and was ready to be influenced by anything that any belief system had to teach him. Peter was learned, especially in French philosophy and other European philosophers.  

He was a Marxist, but that Marxism continually changed as he learnt more and more. He was open to influence from non-Marxist sources, such as Black Consciousness.

Peter was not as well acquainted with Southern thinkers and African American writers, but he was open to this work and read them when they came into his focus, as with Fanon and others. He was also reading Cornel West, with great admiration and excitement, in recent times.

Respect for students

I was recently reading a memoir of a public figure commonly identified with “ethical leadership” and encountered a remark in a passage in the book that few people knew that this public figure did not prepare his talks. This was said as a compliment, presumably meaning that he knew his material so well that he could talk off the cuff. I remember discussing this with Peter, who regarded this as very disrespectful towards whatever audience was being addressed.

Whether it was first year, an honours class, or any other form of teaching, Peter prepared his lectures, course material or seminar inputs afresh every year. There was nothing for which he would go unprepared. This also meant that he would freshly investigate the same topic he had taught repeatedly. Each presentation would be geared to whatever specific needs the audience required. Peter constantly grappled over the problems that he taught. He would never talk off the cuff. Even remarks made without written notes were the product of intense preparation.  

I was never a student of his, though I knew him from the 1970s when he was a student of Rick Turner and Michael Nupen, both of whom he admired greatly, in Durban. He later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. We met up again in the 1980s and engaged in debates on issues over which we sometimes disagreed, though there was never any acrimony.

Teaching as emancipation

The outpouring of grief at the passing of Peter raises the question of what it is that is valued in academic appointments and promotions. What weight is given to teaching, especially where it entails the level of dedication and the impact of someone like Peter? What value is placed on letters behind the academic’s name? What weight is given to publications?

Writing a thesis cannot be a contribution to emancipatory knowledge until it is a public document, when it is turned into a book or a series of articles, or when the author or others use the material in lectures or seminars. Usually, a thesis is consulted only by some dedicated and specialised researchers.

Teaching, in contrast, can have an immediate and enduring effect on the consciousness and understanding of people.

Peter never saw his audiences as passive consumers of knowledge that he would impart. Obviously, in the initial stages, there would be some basic communications on the meanings of concepts and foundational ideas. As the process of teaching developed, the mode of communication that Hudson adopted saw an ongoing interaction through which he, too, would grow and change. It was a case of “learn and teach, teach and learn” (as a publication of the Human Awareness Programme put it, in the early 1990s).

Knowledge lightly borne

Reading the way Peter’s students recount their dealings with him, it is clear that he wore his brilliance lightly. If students organised intellectual debates, Peter would participate as one of them, as a member of the audience or, alongside his students, as one of the presenters. This was part of his generosity and humility.

At the same time, he had distinct qualities that marked his image and style as a lecturer. He was known as the man who always wore black. He used to pace up and down emphasising points. He had some unique gestures.

His constant use of repetition was deliberate and not eccentric. One of his former students Tim Karayiannides writes:

“The characteristic feature of a Peter Hudson lecture, as any one of his students would attest, was his use of repetition. Not just the repetition of central theories and formulation at the level of his discourse but gestural repetition too. His was an embodied political thought: his pacing, his repetitive hand gestures which seemed as methodical and punctuated as his crisp prose and his sparkling and powerful formulations. This repetition never seemed superfluous. It neither served as a mere reproduction nor was it merely a useful pedagogical tool for reinforcing a difficult theory. I think the structuralist in Peter was very conscious of the fact that repetition, genuine repetition, produces novelty. In Saussurian linguistics, a term cannot be repeated without varying, and thus without producing something new. This was the fundamental principle of the way Peter thought.”

Compassionate and ethical

There was and will only be one Peter Hudson. But many people will take what they learnt from him and become better thinkers and better people. Better thinkers bears a neutral connotation referring to intellectual qualities, but people who fell under Peter’s influence or interacted with him became better people because he was a deeply ethical person, a person whose integrity was everything to him.

He liked to see the best in people but he would not follow any advice that compromised his sense of what was right and proper conduct.  

Peter was a very compassionate teacher, who would spend endless time in his supervision and mentoring, pumping confidence into those who had doubts about their own abilities.

Peter Hudson has died. He has left his wife Lesley and his son Dan, whom he loved deeply. That his young son Dan had already imbibed Peter’s central ethics was evident in his emphasising at the funeral that his father had taught him to bear himself with humility and to respect all human beings.

Peter Hudson retired as a Senior Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in December 2015. He continued to teach as a sessional lecturer until his death.

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