Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Splice of Life: Manipulations of the "Real" in South African English Literary Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Splice of Life: Manipulations of the "Real" in South African English Literary Culture

Article excerpt


This essay employs the idea of a "splice" to look at ways in which South African writing in English has historically participated in a narrative move in which the category of the "real" is manipulated to lay claim to a greater purchase on authenticity of statement. The essay suggests that both fiction which poses as "more truthful" than confabulated nonfiction as well as nonfiction which pretends to be superior to fiction are playing a similar game. This game is seen as the desire to overcome a scene of near-impossible heterogeneity by laying claim to a more singular truth and a more managable mode of truth-telling.


Hierdie essay gebruik die idee van 'n splitsing om na die wyses te kyk waarop Suid-Afrikaanse skryfwerk in Engels histories deelgeneem het aan 'n narratiewe skuif waarin die kategorie van die "werklike" gemanipuleer word om 'n groter aanspraak te maak op geloofwaardigheid. Die essay suggereer dat fiksie, wat sig voordoen as meer waarheidsgetrou as nie-fiksie, sowel as nie-fiksie wat voorgee om verhewe te wees bo fiksie, dieselfde spel speel. Hierdie spel word gesien as die begeerte om 'n toneel van bykans onmoontlike heterogeniteit te oorkom deur aanspraak te maak op 'n meer sonderlinge waarheid asook 'n meer hanteerbare wyse van waarheidsvertelling.

   In South Africa there is now too much truth for art to hold, truth
   by the bucketful, truth that overwhelms and swamps every act of the

   (J.M. Coetzee 1987) (1)


In an article on "The Rhetoric of Urgency in South African Literary Culture under Apartheid", Louise Bethlehem (2001: 373, 378) argues that the South African literary domain during that period was dominated by what she calls a "stenographic bent"--a strong inclination towards a kind of "representational literalism" that sought to weld signifier to referent. (2) Bethlehem locates a "rhetoric of urgency" in the work not only of black writers--who in the apartheid years sought "urgently" to expose social injustice by recourse to language in which truth was "reinstalled" and "restored"--but also in the writing of white as well as black critics of most persuasions, including liberals, revisionists and Marxists. She cites evidence in the literary scholarship of the period for what she calls a "trope-of-truth", which she says was underwritten by a "dominant investment" in the notion of the trope-as-truth--a thorough-going disregard for the discursive codes that mediate between "realism" as a literary construct and the overdetermined social "reality" of apartheid (p. 368).

For Bethlehem, this "instrumentalist concept of language" was implicated in a "regime of meaning" in South African literary studies in English which, she writes, sought to "effect closure between the word and the world in order to safeguard the ethical claims of South African literary culture" (p. 365).

Safeguarding the ethical claims of various parties in South African cultural exchange--more basically, the will to legitimate one's desire to prevail--has long been a conversational imperative, and it has, in my reading, a much longer history than is allowed for in Bethlehem's otherwise persuasive account. (3) In this paper I take a view of this more extended history via a meditation upon the idea of conversation as an extended analogy for the cultural politics of legitimation in colonial and formerly colonial settings, South Africa in particular. My extended analogy gestures towards the contemporary politics of global cultural exchange--colonial encounters being an early form of globalisation--but in the present paper such gesturing remains implicit rather than explicit. There are also parallels to be made with the broader scene of African literature as a mode of conversational response to a history of perceived falsification by outside parties, by the cultural invaders. But that would be a much broader and bigger project than is intended in the present essay. …

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