Introduction: Special Issue Aspects of South African Literary Studies Part 2

By Oliphant, Andries Walter | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Special Issue Aspects of South African Literary Studies Part 2


Oliphant, Andries Walter, Journal of Literary Studies


This is the second double-volume special issue devoted to Aspects of South African Literary Studies. It consists of nine articles by scholars working in this field. While the first volume opened with an attempt to delineate the field of South African literary studies and brought together a variety of essays concerned with post-apartheid literary institutions and forms of knowledge as embedded in literary texts and practices shaped by colonial and postcolonial exigencies, this volume is broadly concerned with issues of identity and ethics. These concerns, like those published in Part 1, emerged without any preconceptualisation, planning or directives to contributors. The publication of the essays in separate editions is no more than a practical clustering of research currently produced by scholars.

Part 2 thus opens with "Fabrications and the Question of a South African National Literature" which interrogates claims made by scholars in the recent past with regard to the existence of South African national literature. It seeks to provide a theoretical basis for present and future discussions on the phenomenon of a national literature against a discursive tradition in which the concept has been enlisted in arbitrary, and frequently imprecise, fashions. It considers the construction of national identities through literature and language by tracing the adventures of the term "nation" from ancient Greece to the rise of modern nationalism to account for how nations are constructed. In the light of this, it concluded that South Africa is a sovereign state consisting of a diversity of peoples, cultures and literatures. It cannot be said to either constitute a nation in possession of a national culture or a national literature.

The essentialist and constructivist tropes which are called upon to account for nations, are of course also pertinent to other more specific and localised identity discourses. This is evident in Pamela Ryan's essay "'College Girls Don't Faint': The Legacy of Elsewhere". By means of archival retrievals and memory, the essay traces the inscriptions of Victorian codes of gender, religion, culture and militarism in the construction of identities in colonial agenda in two private schools which valorised "the fiction of Englishness" in the one instance and "Christianity" in the other, over local and indigenous identities and identifications to produce self-regulating young women with subjectivities and body cultures subject to the imperatives of a normative culture located elsewhere and reproduced locally by means of education to construct specific gendered identities congruent with those favoured by imperial culture.

With regard to subjectivity and personal conduct, the concept of "dignity" in the guise of bearing, deportment, demeanour and whatever approximates it is explicit in the regimes of gender socialisation of the two private schools which Ryan's essay investigates, is raised by David Medalie's essay "'What Dignity is There in That?': The Crisis of Dignity in Selected Late-Twentieth-Century Novels". He explains that dignity is related to identity as well as to interpersonal conduct. In a reading of two novels dealing with the relationships between masters and servants, he reveals how in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day and in Nadine Gordimer's July's People, this concept of dignity is not treated as a transhistorical human virtue but as an ethical value embedded in social relations fraught with the inequalities of hierarchical societies.

Ralph Goodman's essay "De-scribing the Centre: Satiric and Postcolonial Strategies in The Madonna of Excelsior" provides, through a reading of Zakes Mda's novel, a reading of two forms of satire, that is, critical modes, which deal with the kinds of identities colonialism and nationalism, as two competing forms of hegemonic power, are questioned and disrupted. He contrasts satire in general with satire in postcolonial discourse with regard to their praxis and ethics. …

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