The dangling conversation

Inscription on a dry-cleaning notice: “Some stains can only be removed by the destruction of the material itself.”

A problem emerged into being and slouched towards us when universities began to prostitute themselves to corporate capital. As more and more faculties gave themselves over to the lure of the pecuniary reward, the more dilettante branches had to find a way of justifying what exactly they did, or risk being menaced by the Order of the Teaching Objective, in a language that was not their own. Now that the academy has been worn to a sheen by the oppressions of late capitalism, its occupants have had to find newer and more diverse ways of making themselves and their disciplines relevant.

In masochistic deference to this trend, the adherents to the culture of Letters in the great Learning Golgothas buried the aesthetic in favour of the useful. What is relevant, if literary theory is to take its lead from the determinisms of the day, is what is socially pertinent. And what is socially pertinent of course depends on its ability to change our existence, in a Badiouan sense. This line of thinking has produced any number of interesting literary events: studies that speak with a glossy, scientific sheen, essays that discuss the vertiginous textual transhumances in architectural lingo, and tomes that have stopped asking what things are, and now ask how they work or how we use them. So recuperated, literature can move among the newer and more rosy-cheeked Y-generation academic disciplines. The problem with this, as I see it, is that English literature in South Africa is not a particularly garrulous phenomenon. For an activity Simon Critchley says arises from our inability to sit quietly in a room, English literature studies displays a noticeable reluctance to play outside. It is more often than not a matter of sifting, of contending with the invisible, of meaning rather than information. It moans and groans when it is made to go outside and play in the street like Sociology or Anthropology, afraid of getting its analytical hands grubby.

But nevertheless, adapt it has done, and now literary studies plays with the other kids in the Humanities Street rather than watching anxiously from the window. Of the productivity to which this has led, there can be no doubt. It thinks aslant, it interrogates and it opens up new pathways and meanings and conversations about itself. That’s all good and well. My sense of the epistemological passion driving this moment in South African literary theory is that it remains haunted by its dowdy past. Institutional culture (the phrase clatters resoundingly in any university hallway) runs deep, and it’s rather difficult to change things when departments of literary theory aren’t experiencing a high enough turnover of academics. So what happens is that Literary theory as it is practised in some quarters tends to feel like an over-diagnosed and rather hypochondriac patient. There are any number of conferences happening about the future of literary studies, how to define it, what it lacks, what it needs, how to make it more open to things (as if learning to write about Black people properly can be taken up like one learns to play badminton), and they are invariably accompanied by a sort of pusillanimous restlessness, as if the practitioners are caught between the desire to be self-reflexive and the unwillingness to leave the comfort of their positions.

I’ll give an example of what I mean. Last autumn I was sitting on the panel of a seminar (more playing indoors) which was discussing a recently published book set in a Black township – one of many – in South Africa. As I listened to the various statements cascading forth, the earnest pronouncements tumbling out, I grew more and more unsettled by the number of gauche statements and speculations about the Black Other. It’s a feeling I often get when listening to the collective conversations literary studies has with/about itself – a sense that the room is filled with a lot of middle class white professionals who struggle to identify with what they’re talking about. Maybe identifying ought not to be a prerequisite for discussing a subject, but the field is transfixed by the idea of having a veridical relationship that reaches outward beyond its predominantly white middle class self. This concern is rather too diagnostic – its cursus is too limiting even as it tries to be open-ended, too fragile where it seeks to be robust.

What might account for this troubling malady? I don’t think the relative lack of Black literary theorists in this country is solely responsible. After all, expecting them to be more versed in the task of imagining the spaces they’re on intimate terms with is as fallacious as expecting toddlers to be experts on jungle gym design. Perhaps the problem lies in the noiseless fact of the word’s always-already secondary relation to the act. Anybody who has a first-hand experience of ekasi life in its many-hued variations will agree that something escapes in the modern process of trying to convey that experience to an outside audience – you can’t rely as much on the audience’s knowledge as you would with a visual form like etv’s Ekasi Stories, particularly in this country where a text by a Black writer in English has to meet rather peculiar standards of cultural translucence. The inadequacy that troubles the literary theory academy bleeds over into the literature it takes as its subject, because the texts are themselves reviewed and regulated by people who are part and parcel of the interpretative community. A large number of emergent novelists are graduates of the Literary Theory mill. Writers and academics occupy the same conversational spaces; they teach together, they attend the same conferences: they are often one and the same. This in itself is not problematic. What is problematic is that too many of those conversational spaces are occupied by people who operate at a disconnect from the Real they are trying to access. Too often the contemporary South African literary theory, when it comes to representing Black experiences at least, is a rather more prosaic example of the inadequacy Giambattista Marino discovers in Borges’ A Yellow Rose.

This seems to have largely escaped many of literary theory’s agents. If we’ve moved away from presenting conference papers like Goldilocks as Colonial Vandal: Speculations on an Ursine Counterlife, we still haven’t gotten much closer to the Other we spoke so fondly of when alterity was at its peak. There’s a certain perspectival distance that adheres, and with it a sense that the talk of pathways and connectivity we so readily traffic in has little application to the lives of the people who live in Khayelitsha or Soweto or Umlazi. The obvious suggestion is to follow the braver kids from the Cultural Studies realm and do some field work – spend a week understanding the masculine sociocultural ethos of a township carwash before you write about it. But that’s not really a solution because then you risk perpetuating the notion that things cannot be understood just in terms of what they are in themselves, but in terms of what their value is in an economy of relevance.

Perhaps one shouldn’t blame literary theory itself. If I return to the start of this ramble, the march of the times has forced a steady academicising of the practice. There are any number of writer-academics who, having passed their way through the mill are undamaged by the experience. I suppose that if the often-asked question in this discipline revolves around what sorts of conversations are happening or could happen in future, or what such conversations could look like, it might be worth taking a look at who’s not at the table when such a conversation begins. It’s worth looking at who frames the terms of the conversation – at whose table it is and at who happens to be picking up the bill. In a basic Bakhtinian sense, conversations may be multivocal, but not all voices will carry weight.

This problem, as I’ve began to outline it, could merely be a matter of perspective, without tangible appearance in reality to those it affects most clearly. It’s a problem I began thinking about during the run-up to a conference whose title was, in that pop-ironic Tina Fey way, What We Talk about When We Talk about English. I decided, after reading that blurb, that this was perhaps not the best venue in which to go about airing views that are neither boldly declarative or indeed saying anything too new. So take this article as a Rorschach test: if you don’t get what I’m talking about, you might just be part of the problem.

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