Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid

Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid

by Sarah Nuttall


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781868144761
Publisher: Wits University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2009
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sarah Nuttall is head of WISER, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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Literary and Cultural Reflections On Post-Apartheid

By Sarah Nuttall, Pat Tucker

Wits University Press

Copyright © 2009 Sarah Nuttall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-86814-476-1



Since the political transition in 1994 South African literary and cultural criticism has bifurcated into two distinctive bodies of work. Two dominant responses have emerged, that is, in relation to the dynamics of political change in the country.

The first bifurcation is an idiom produced by critics both inside and outside the country, which could be characterised as neo-Marxist in inflection. Here, the dominant critical impulse has been to assert continuity with the past, producing a critique based on reiteration and return, and an argument in the name of that which has not changed in the country. Such critics employ categories of race, class, domination and resistance in much the same way as critics had done in the decade or so before. Thus, for example, Herman Wasserman and Shaun Jacobs (2003) acknowledge that 'certain social configurations have started to shift' but emphasise that the issues of hegemony, resistance and race that marked an earlier critical idiom need to remain at the centre of our critical investigations and that 'the reaffirmation of the same identities that in the past were discriminated against require our ongoing critical recognition'. Barbara Harlow and David Attwell (2000, p 2) refer to South Africa as 'a society whose underlying social relations or even attitudes remain substantially unchanged'. Yet, by the time they were writing, South Africa's black middle class, for example, emerged for the first time as larger than its white middle class, a statistic which contests a stasis in the social structure of South Africa and suggests the emergence of new kinds of imaginaries and practices in the country. Certainly, by the late 1990s neither recent South African fiction nor popular culture suggested social stasis.

Such readings were, to be sure, born in part of what we could refer to as an ethical oppositionality which seeks to register the ongoing 'agony of the social' – the continuing inequalities and suffering of many in South Africa since its political transition. This position resonated with a body of work produced during this period by a number of largely ex-South African critics based in the United States and Britain – even while these critics pushed its critical registers somewhat further. In a 2004 special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly, entitled 'After the Thrill is Gone' and edited by Rita Barnard and Grant Farred, readings of the contemporary South African moment by Neil Lazarus, Grant Farred, Shaun Irlam and others constituted what we could call a narrative of political loss or melancholia.

Loss is expressed in various idioms, chief amongst which is the loss of politics itself – or at least a form of resistance based on mass politics. Thus Neil Lazarus argues that the idea that South Africa is a nation at all is the perpetration of a violence; Grant Farred invokes a disgruntled, historically-enfranchised white subject and a discontented black subject and looks for an oppositional place, the zone of what he calls the 'not yet political'; while Shaun Irlam finds that 'the New South Africa has ushered in an era of identity mongering and separate development on a scale that South Africa's old bosses incessantly promoted at an ideological level'. Grant Farred's work, in particular, relies on that of Carl Schmitt. Politics, for Schmitt, involves friends and enemies, which means at the very least the centrality of those who are with you and those against whom you struggle. People will, according to Schmitt, only be responsible for who they are if the reality of death and conflict remain present.

This, then, constitutes the first critical moment adopted by literary scholars in response to the demise of apartheid and to its aftermath – a political and critical mode which I have characterised as one of reiteration and return. A second critical moment approaches the prognostics of change in terms of a representational shift, according to a more future-inflected politics. In order to approach an as yet nameless present, scholars have tried to propose and shape expanded critical vocabularies. Among them are Leon de Kock, who argues for a notion of 'the seam' (an idea he draws from Noel Mostert's book Frontiers) to denote the place where difference and sameness are hitched together – where they are brought to self-awareness, denied, or displaced into third terms; Michael Titlestad, who, analysing jazz representation in literature and reportage, concerns himself with forms of epistemological itinerancy, with 'transverse drifts through a set of theoretical possibilities'; Mark Sanders's notion of complicity as marking the limits of a theory of 'apartness' and Isabel Hofmeyr, whose interest is in tracking the 'post-resistance' formations which traverse neo-Marxist and nationalist accounts of literary and cultural work in this country.

Precursors of these critical positions include my argument with Cheryl-Ann Michael (2000), that South African studies have, for a long time, been overdetermined by the reality of apartheid – as if, in the historical trajectory of the country, apartheid was inevitable in terms of both its origins and its consequences; as if everything led to it and everything flows as a consequence of it. We worked from the idea that other historical possibilities were out there, and are evolving now, in the aftermath of that oppressive system. That there are continuities between the apartheid past and the present we fully acknowledged. Apartheid social engineering did and still does work to fix spaces that are difficult to break down in the present. There is no question about this. But, we contended, there are also enough configurations in various spheres of contemporary South African life to warrant new kinds of explorations and tools of analysis. To confine these configurations to a lens of 'difference' embedded squarely in the apartheid past misses the complexity and contemporaneity of their formations.

Jolly and Attridge (1998) have argued for a syncretic analytical practice, suggesting that the problem lies in 'our fixation on difference', in its 'fetishization' (p 3) Likewise, Elleke Boehmer (1998) has shown that cultural form was used 'as a front for other kinds of communication – for political imperatives, for the telling of history, for informing the world about apartheid', with the result that it has been shaped by circumstance, rather than actively doing the work of shaping its material; that it is hesitant about what Boehmer calls 'form-giving' (p 53). Rita Barnard, in her work on South African literature, has long displayed an interest in 'new possibilities of transcending the Manichean opposition of coloniser and colonised and of moving towards a new culturally-hybrid democracy' (2006).

Critics working within the second moment outlined above have worked in large part with the historical archive. This is important since a theory of the present requires that we work out how we relate to the past and its remainders. Besides, these critics work in such a way that we can draw on their theoretical paradigms in the present. Nevertheless, what we need now is a critical approach which can draw present and past more fully together within a compelling analytical lens. Our critical archive, in other words, remains somewhat bifurcated in this temporal sense. In what follows I try to elaborate on the notion of entanglement, which I broached in the Introduction, as it might apply to specific instances in the historical and contemporary South African archive.

Entanglement, as I use the term here, is intended less to imply that we contest that forms of separation and difference do still occur, materially and epistemologically, than to draw into our analyses critical attention to those sites and spaces in which what was once thought of as separate – identities, spaces, histories – come together or find points of intersection in unexpected ways. There are several ways of doing this. One of these is to revisit, in the aftermath of official segregation, the concept of segregated space in socio-historical terms and use this as a methodological device for reading the post-apartheid situation; the second is to undertake a sustained reading of the present, or the 'now', as I have referred to it here, in order to supersede interpretative models based on configurations of the past. In what follows I try to draw on both analytic possibilities.

This chapter consists of three parts – fragments, possible registers, or, as I will indicate, methods of reading – as a way of approaching the issues set out above. The first part considers how a theory of entanglement might draw on aspects of a rich body of international work on creolité to raise important questions seldom asked of the South African cultural archive. The second considers regional variations in how we might approach such a body of work locally, and the third looks at conceptions of race and class in the light of the foregoing analysis. The chapter concludes by considering a series of inflections we might give to a notion of entanglement based on the material considered, and on the ways in which entanglement speaks to the work of desegregation, both as theoretical undertaking and as political praxis.

On creolisation

One of my interests in reading the 'now' in South Africa has been to consider how scholarly work done elsewhere on creolité might be deployed in the context of contemporary South Africa, specifically in relation to how to come to terms with a legacy of violence in a society based on inequality. The assumption, made most often by Marxist critics, has been that processes of creolisation are devoid of conflict – in other words, that these processes are not grounded in materialities and therefore that the use of the term as a theoretical tool results in the sidelining of the more crucial issues of class struggles, social hierarchies and inequalities.

In the context of South Africa theorists have tended to be uncomfortable with debates about creolisation. Two of the major reasons for this have been, first, the presupposition that 'creolisation' is tantamount to 'colouredness' as a biological and cultural construct and second, the apartheid state's construction of colouredness as a political buffer between blacks and whites, and the interpellation of 'colouredness' as neither black nor white (according to an ideology of racial purity), a notion that was both racist and suspect.

Zoë Wicomb (1998), Zimitri Erasmus (2001) and Desirée Lewis (2001) have all written about 'colouredness' as having been constructed and experienced as a residual, supplementary identity 'in-between' whiteness and blackness and interpellated in relation to registers of respectability and (sexualised) shame. Erasmus, in the introduction to her edited collection Coloured by History, Shaped by Place, argues, however, that 'colouredness must be understood as a creolised cultural identity'. Coloured identities are distinguished not merely by the fact of borrowing per se, she argues, 'but by cultural borrowing and creation under very specific conditions of creolisation' (p 16). For Erasmus creolisation refers to 'cultural creativity under conditions of marginality' and she draws on Edouard Glissant's notion of 'entanglement' to elucidate her use of the term. In particular she makes use of Glissant's notion that diversion – turning away from the pain and difficulty of creolised beginnings – needs to be complemented by reversion – a return to the point of entanglement, the point of difficulty (p 24).

It seems to me that a 'creolité hypothesis' might be applied to aspects of the South African cultural archive proposed as one set of questions among others in relation to the shaping of racial and cultural identity in South Africa and might offer a programme of possibility in relation to neglected questions, a point of interrogation directed towards a richly complex and extremely conflictual history. What many critics of the concept of 'creolisation' tend to overlook is precisely that the notion was born out of the historical experience of slavery and its aftermath.

In his pioneering study Singing the Master (1992) Roger Abrahams shows how the emergence of a typically African-American vernacular culture was the result of a dual legacy, a syncretic formation that was itself part of the events that brought together slave and master in the plantations of the Americas. Focusing on slave dancing practices Abrahams examines a context in which planters encouraged the display of what they recognised to be slaves' 'different set[s] of cultural practices', while slaves came to recognise in the obligatory play and performance 'an opportunity for cultural invention and social commentary'. Abrahams's overwhelming impression of life on the plantation, he writes, is 'that the representations of two cultures lived cheek to jowl for a matter of centuries, entertaining each other, subtly imitating each other in selective ways, but never fully comprehending the extent and meaning of these differences' (p xxiv).

It goes without saying that this coming together happens in a context of a deep loss: loss of a home, loss of rights and political status, and overall terror (Hartman 1997). When considered historically, then, creolisation relates to the worst that society is capable of – the maintenance of human beings in the shadow of life and death. Yet even within this most violent of systems (and possibly because of it, where violence itself gives rise to the fractures and cracks that let the other in) cultural traffic occurs – mutual mimicries, mutabilities. The notion itself, therefore, does not foreclose possibilities of resistance, nor does it deny the material fact of subjection. It signals a register of actions and performances that may be embodied in a multiplicity of repertoires. In this sense creolisation is, first and foremost, a practice.

Although Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2002), in his work on creolisation, treats historical situations which come from the Caribbean slave plantation, he writes that 'this treatment may be useful to historically oriented cultural anthropologists and linguists in general, inasmuch as it directly faces the issue of our management of the historical record' (p 190). For the majority of enslaved Africans and African Americans prior to the mid-nineteenth century, creolisation did not happen away from the plantation system but within it, writes Trouillot. This creation was possible because slaves found fertile ground in the interstices of the system, in the latitude provided by the inherent contradictions between the system and specific plantations. On some plantations, Trouillot shows, slaves were allowed to grow their own food and, at times, to sell portions of what they harvested. This practice was instituted by owners to enhance their own profits, since they did not have to pay for the slaves' food. Eventually, however, these practices, which at first emerged because they provided concrete advantages to particular owners, went against the logic of the plantation system. Time used on the provision grounds was also slave-controlled time to a large extent. It was time to 'create culture' knowingly or unknowingly ... Time indeed to develop modes of thought and codes of behavior that were to survive plantation slavery itself (p 203). Trouillot writes about social time and social space seized within the system and turned against it; about the ability to stretch margins and circumvent borderlines which lay at the heart of African American cultural practices in the New World.

If slavery and the creolisation it produced were crucial to early modernity they were also central to the formation of diasporic communities. The articulation of race to space and motion is an integral part of even recent Marxist-inflected readings of early modern forms of racial identity-making. Some of these readings focus on the intercultural and transnational formations of the Atlantic world (Gilroy 1993; Linebaugh & Rediker 2000). This Atlantic world is peopled by workers: sailors, pirates, commoners, prostitutes, strikers, insurrectionists. Here, the sea is not a frontier one crosses, it is a shifting space between fixed places which it connects. This is a geography of worldliness, which could be opposed to the geographies of particularism and nationalism.


Excerpted from Entanglement by Sarah Nuttall, Pat Tucker. Copyright © 2009 Sarah Nuttall. Excerpted by permission of Wits University Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Entanglement,
2 Literary City,
3 Secrets and Lies,
4 Surface and Underneath,
5 Self-Styling,
6 Girl Bodies,

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