Confession and Public Life in Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Foucauldian Reading of Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull

By Garman, Anthea | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Confession and Public Life in Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Foucauldian Reading of Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull


Garman, Anthea, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

Truth commissions around the world have given the technique of confession a new public currency and political power. Many works of literature thematising these commissions have also adopted the technique of confession for literary purposes. In this paper I bring Foucault's understanding of the technique of confession, and his discourse on the role of public intellectuals in modernity, to bear upon an examination of Antjie Krog's literary reflection of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), entitled Country of My Skull (1998). I look at how this text, and Krog's subsequent public intellectual status as a witness of the TRC, perpetuate the technique of confession without problematising it in ways that Foucault's work would suggest is necessary.

Opsomming

Waarheidskommissies die wereld oor het die tegniek van skuldbelydenis met 'n nuwe openbare geldigheid en politieke mag beklee. Talle literere werke wat hierdie kommissies dokumenteer her ook die tegniek van skuldbelydenis vir literere doeleindes ingespan. In hierdie referaat pas ek Foucault se opvatting van die tegniek van skuldbelydenis en sy diskoers oor die rol van openbare intellektuele in moderniteit toe op 'n ondersoek na Antjie Krog se werk Country of My Skull (1998). Ek kyk hoe hierdie werk, en Krog se daaropvolgende openbare intellektueie status as getuie van die Waarheids-en-versoeningskommissie (WVK) die skuldbelydenis-tegniek perpetueer sonder om dit te problematiseer op wyses wat Foucault se werk suggereer noodsaaklik sou wees.

Introduction

One of the most insightful contributions made by Foucault towards an understanding of the Western subject was his investigation into the extent to which confessional practices have long permeated the fabric of Western societies and their writings. In the introduction to The History of Sexuality in particular, he points out that confession has, since the Greco-Roman period, been used to shape a particular type of self-disclosing, self-knowing human subject while at the same time compiling bodies of scientific knowledge about the human subject itself. "We have become", says Foucault, "a singularly confessing society" (1976: 59):

   The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part
   in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love
   relations. In the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in
   the most solemn rites; one confesses one's crimes, one's sins,
   one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes
   about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most
   difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one's
   parents, one's educators, one's doctor, to those one loves; one
   admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be
   impossible to tell anyone else, the things people write books
   about. One confesses or is forced to confess.

      (Foucault 1976: 59)

With regard to the question of literature in particular and in relation to what Foucault describes as a metamorphosis in literary forms, he refers to the extent to which we see a change from works which recount marvellous tales of heroism and sainthood to a literature attempting to extract "from the very depths of oneself" "a shimmering mirage" which confession always holds out as the truth to be found and expressed (1976: 59). In this literature, he suggests, the belief that there are secret truths within the soul that must be extracted and brought into the light, is powerfully taken up and explored. Linking this exploration of the deepest reaches of the self to his interest in technologies of self-construction, Foucault shows how writing and reading have, over the centuries, been privileged as particular methods of confession in this search for the true self (1994: 207):

   Writing as a personal exercise done by and for oneself is an art of
   disparate truth--or, more exactly, a purposeful way of combining
   the traditional authority of the already-said with the singularity
   of the truth that is affirmed therein and the particularity of the
   circumstances that determine its use. 

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Confession and Public Life in Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Foucauldian Reading of Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull
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