Academic journal article ARIEL

Captive Audience: Confession, Fiction, and the South African State

Academic journal article ARIEL

Captive Audience: Confession, Fiction, and the South African State

Article excerpt

    Even during the period of detention I had been allowed to write. It
    was something I could not ignore. A voice said, 'Write,' and I
    Breyten Breytenbach, True Confessions (156)

    I am a captive audience, literally.
    Albie Sachs, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (132)

Confession as an imperative has a central, if not always comforting, role in modern South African culture. Apartheid laws and regulations demanded that citizens identify themselves (by race, by issued pass, by ideology, etc.) before its figures of authority, and those who did not answer the call to satisfaction--satisfaction determined, it is very important to bear in mind, not by the structure of confessional discourse but entirely by the agency of the confessor--were subjected to the more rigorous techniques of 'inquiry' practiced in the privacy of police stations and prisons. By contrast, post-apartheid South Africa has developed an entirely different mode of confession (though still imperative) in the mandate of its ambitious and controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The appropriation of religious doctrinal practice and language for purposes of social justice affirms both Foucault's general observations about spiritual resuscitation through corporeal punishment in his foundational work, Discipline and Punish, as well as the suggestion of Michael Lapsley, a priest expelled from South Africa in 1986 and the wounded survivor of a letter bomb four years later: "part of our debate and national discourse has always been, and still is, about theology" (Boraine et al. 28).

Aquinas, in considering the beauty of the spiritual life, posits that the penitent is ashamed not "of the act of confessing but of the sin which confession reveals" (268). The process is itself beyond criticism. "Through the confession," notes Foucault of legal confession, "the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth" (38). (1) Yet, at least in part because, as Dennis A. Foster puts it, "the very discourse of representation as expression is symptomatic of the desire for a language that will make the writer the master of his meanings" (2). The confessional fiction of a writer like Breyten Breytenbach operates subversively as fictional confession: the exact narrative shape which the oppressor dictates and expects to be parroted is turned inside-out. "Penal truth" is thus distinguished from "truth." In the discussion which follows I shall examine how writers like Breytenbach and Albie Sachs subvert the process of penal confession by themselves redefining a confessional form (anti-confession?); but, further, for a decent appreciation of such subversions, the said discussion needs to be bracketed by considerations of the respective ideologies and methods which produced the apartheid-era penal confession and the present hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


    Describe your relationships to me. Tell me about what is veiled.
    Admit even to that which you don't know.
    Breytenbach, True Confessions (59)

In the fashion in which Foucault suggests that "discipline organizes an analytical space" (143), I would suggest that the penal confession, by which I mean the confession yielded by police interrogation within the apartheid penal system (as distinct from the anti- and post-apartheid confessional strategies discussed later), limits the space, confines the analysand. The system of penal confession within South Africa endows its captive audience (and captive performer) with no choice but "a certain asceticism: they must, at certain moments at least, confront temptation and perhaps the severity of God alone" (Foucault 143). God is, of course, on the side of the panoptic guardians of the prisoner.

This necessary solitude, as Foucault outlines it, is integral to such a rough practice: the penitent must be made to understand that he/she is alone against forces great in number and irrepressible in their need for the "truth" to be told to them. …

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