Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Story Skills and Hierarchies of Needs and Values: A Defence of the Humanities

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Story Skills and Hierarchies of Needs and Values: A Defence of the Humanities

Article excerpt


This article (1) is a defence of the humanities that emphasises the nature and value of humanistic knowledge. I firstly outline the present negative perceptions of the humanities and the factors that constrain their development in South Africa. Chief among them is the privileging of technical rational knowledge above Bildung and self-development. Against the background of views on social dedifferentiation and the end of the book I emphasise the career value of the humanities. I try to reverse the opposition between technical rationalist knowledge and Bildung by analysing Maslow's hierarchy of needs and confronting his theory with a number of findings of our recent research into identity and literary space. Two keywords that feature strongly are centrality and narrativity. The implications of this view are explored in a brief analysis of Eben Venter's novel Foxtrot van die vleiseters (1993) [Foxtrot of the Meat-eaters].


Hierdie artikel is 'n verdediging van die humaniora wat klem le op die aard en waarde van kennis binne hierdie dissiplines. Ek skets eers die huidige negatiewe persepsies van die humaniora en die faktore wat huile in Suid-Afrika beperk. Dit kom breedweg neer op 'n teenstelling tussen tegnies-rasionele kennis en selfverwesenliking. Teen die agtergond van sienings oor sosiale dedifferensiering en die einde van die boek beklemtoon ek die Ioopbaanwaarde van die humaniora. Die teenstelling tussen tegniese rasionaliteit en Bildung word verder ondersoek deur Maslow se behoeftehierargie krities te ontleed en sy teorie te konfronteer met 'n aantal bevindings uit ons navorsing oor identiteit en literere ruimte. Sleutelwoorde in hierdie verband is sentraliteit en narratiwiteit. Die implikasies van hierdie siening word uitgespel in 'n kort analise van Eben Venter se roman Foxtrot van die vleiseters [Foxtrot of the Meat-eaters] (1993).


What can the humanities offer humans in South Africa, caught up in the euphoria of 14 years of democracy and the successful 2010 soccer bid? What can they offer ordinary people in their struggle to keep body and soul together amongst the splendour of the rich and powerful, buffeted by the icy winds of globalisation, threatened by HIV/AIDS and TB, seduced hour by hour by the press, radio and TV messages to strive for a lifestyle they can never afford? How can the humanities help these poor, hopeful, exposed little beings?

By supplying what the people want, obviously. But what does a man or a woman want? A new cellphone, designer clothes, a ticket to the World Cup, regular sex, a job, a well-balanced diet and a TV? Breyten Breytenbach once described TV in a memorable phrase as "die boks wat van jou 'n doos maak". It is untranslatable, but a close equivalent could be: "the box that turns you into a mampara". So what can the humanities do in this scenario? Entertain, console and pacify the people?

Often they do quite the opposite. To adapt the words of the Dutch poet Lucebert, written shortly after World War II,

   in these times what people always called
   the humanities humanities have burnt their faces
   they no longer console the people
   they console the larvae the reptiles the rats
   but humans they terrify
   making them forcefully aware
   of being bread crumbs on the skirt of the universe

   (Lucebert 1974: 47)

It is true that the humanities can open up a terrible knowledge of our own insignificance in the ever-expanding universe, but what they can do and the perceptions of what they can do in our society depend on the dominant view of what it means to be human and to know in our society. To reduce the human to a set of skills for the job market, the capacity to vote, live in style and escape into entertainment would, for example, give carte blanche to the SABC to televise South Africans into blissful, consumerist ignorance.

Living life stylishly can contrast quite sharply with the ideals of human dignity, human rights, equality, liberty and democracy enshrined in the constitution of South Africa. …

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