Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Nonidentity and Reciprocity in Conceptualising South African Literary Studies

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Nonidentity and Reciprocity in Conceptualising South African Literary Studies

Article excerpt

In his essay, "The Task of the Translator", first published as the preface to his translations of Baudelaire's poetry, from French into German, Walter Benjamin stresses what he calls the translatability of all literary works. This is possible Benjamin (1992: 73) claims, due to the basic "reciprocal relationship between languages". He likens this reciprocity to "a kinship of languages" marked by a "distinctive convergence". Writing from a European linguistic context, he states: "Languages are not strangers to one another, but are a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to say". All languages, in others words, are vehicles for a range of common articulations.

In what seems like a countermove, he stresses the specificity of languages. This uniqueness, according to him, marks the limits of translation and announce the untranslatable aspect of language as manifested in the phenomenon of nonequivalence at all linguistic levels: lexical denotation and connotation, semantic, syntactic and contextual. Because languages are distinct, they are marked by difference so that according to Benjamin (1973: 74) it stands to reason that "kinship does not necessarily stand for likeness". This nonidentity, understood in the sense formulated by Heidegger (1960: 15) with regard to identity, should not be viewed as sameness, expressed as A=A, or self-coincidence or abstract equality, phrased as "the jejune emptiness of what, in the absence of internal relations, remains in persisting monotony" but is also applicable to literary works. In Saussurian parlance, this nonidentity is not something fixed or essential but a nonpositive, relational phenomenon. To be sure, for Benjamin, nonidentity, likewise, implies reciprocality and the other way round.

What do these two concepts, nonidentity and reciprocity, pertaining to an essay on translation, have to do with South African literary studies? On the face of it, apart from translation practices and studies relevant to a multilingual field, very little if not nothing. Such a conclusion, of course, issues from the face of matters: the face here signifying the surface of things. I enlist these two concepts because they are handy here in what is an attempt to chart the ways in which the field of South African literary studies has been conceptualised over time.


South African literary studies, which this special issue of JLS and another to follow are devoted to, has been beset by conceptual exigencies since the beginning of the twentieth century when reference to South African literature first came into circulation. These difficulties, while arising from many interrelated factors, can largely be attributed to the changing ideological perspectives which shaped successive political, cultural, linguistic orders and their inscription in academic practices for almost a century. This produced a society with a cultural order of discursive divisions, fragmentations, shifts and instabilities flowing from the linguistic and literary divisions which developed in the wake of the ethnic division of South Africa well before but especially after 1948. This either precluded an inclusive conceptualisation or marginalised such conceptualisation for much of the century.

In addition, the sway of poststructuralist theory, with its suspicion of grand conceptualisations during the last quarter of the twentieth century, also played a role in barring the approach to the object. With its emphasis on heterogeneity and difference and a rejection of anything suggesting homogenisation, the particularities of the various South African literatures were regarded as mutually exclusive systems beyond the capture of theoretical systematisation.

Independently and in combination, these factors checked attempts at arriving at even an operational definition which admitted to the object of South African literary studies not as the sum of its parts but as a field where both the reciprocity between languages and their nonidentity could be approached. …

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