Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Art of Evasion: Writing and the State in J.M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

The Art of Evasion: Writing and the State in J.M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K

Article excerpt

Summary

This article focuses on J.M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K (1983) in light of current theoretical concerns with issues of sovereignty and the state (raised by, among others, Hardt and Negri and Agamben), issues which Coetzee explicitly addresses in his recent Diary of a Bad Year. I analyse the novel's engagement with several of the narrative formations of political modernity, both generally and in the South African context, and focus in particular on the following: the social contract, as formulated by Hobbes, and its rebuttal by Rousseau; as well as the historical events that came to underpin the modern South African state: the Great Trek and Van Riebeeck's garden. I argue that the novel attempts to counter these narrative underpinnings of state sovereignty, not so much with a literary sovereignty, but with its own strategies of rescripting, defamiliarisation, and evasion. I situate Coetzee very much within the context of not only South African, but also global modernity here: at a historical moment when the articulation between the state and its subjects is becoming increasingly problematic, I argue that Coetzee's novel is eminently worth revisiting.

Opsomming

In hierdie artikel word J.M. Coetzee se roman Life & Times of Michael K (1983) verken in die lig van die heersende teoretiese belangstelling (van onder andere Hardt en Negri en Agamben) in die staat en sy soewereiniteit. Coetzee ondersoek hierdie kwessie uitdruklik in Diary of a Bad Year wat onlangs verskyn het. Ek ontleed hoe die skrywer in die algemeen sowel as in die Suid-Afrikaanse verband omgaan met verskeie narratiewe formasies van politieke moderniteit. Die volgende aspekte geniet besondere aandag: die sosiale kontrak wat Hobbes geformuleer het en Rousseau se kritiek daarop, asook die historiese gebeure wat uitgeloop het op die totstandkoming van Suid-Afrika as 'n moderne staat, naamlik die Groot Trek en Van Riebeeck se tuin. Ek voer aan dat in die roman gepoog word om die narratiewe formasies van staatsoewereiniteit teen te werk. Dit word nie soseer deur 'n literere soewereiniteit vermag nie, maar deur die skrywer se eie strategiee, soos herskrywing, vervreemding en ontwyking. Myns insiens verleen dit aan Coetzee ongetwyfeld sowel 'n Suid-Afrikaanse as 'n internasionale moderniteit. In 'n tydsgewrig waarin die verhouding tussen die staat en sy onderdane toenemend gespanne word, voer ek aan dat Coetzee se roman by uitstek herwaardering verdien.

Georg Lukacs famously diagnosed the condition of the modern subject as "transcendental homelessness"--his term for the radical and irremediable fissure between human existence and meaning that suddenly renders the world an inadequate venue for the acting out of human desires. The emergence of the novel as a literary form that functions as a surrogate home for these rootless modern subjects is the prime expression of this condition ([1920]1971: 41). In his "Reflections on Exile", Edward Said extends Lukacs's diagnosis to a consideration of the phenomenon of the modern state, which Said reads as an attempt to effectively annex a "national" home from the transcendental homelessness of modernity. Quoting Simone Weii, Said writes, "To be rooted ... is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul", and goes on to suggest that of all the "remedies for uprootedness in the era of world wars, deportations, and mass exterminations", it is "the state--or more accurately, statism--that is the most insidious, since worship of the state tends to supplant all other human bonds" (Weil quoted by Said 2000: 83). Said here outlines what we can call a psychopathology of the modern state, and helps give a peculiarly modern answer to the question posed so powerfully by Rousseau in the opening lines of his On the Social Contract, of why the home of a state turns so easily into a hell: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains" (Rousseau [175411987: 141). …

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