Text or Presence: On Rereading the /Xam and the Interpretation of Their Narratives

By Wessels, Michael | Journal of Literary Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Text or Presence: On Rereading the /Xam and the Interpretation of Their Narratives


Wessels, Michael, Journal of Literary Studies


Summary

The Bleek and Lloyd collection of /Xam materials has elicited a variety of responses from scholars in different disciplines. These include interpretation of the texts, history and biography. Most of this writing has hot been subjected to close criticism. I will argue in this paper that Jacques Derrida's critique of the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Claude Levi-Strauss in Of Grammatology (1976) is applicable to some of the writing that has been produced in relation to the Bleek and Lloyd archive, Derrida's work also illuminates Bleek's ideological framework and the attitudes displayed towards the Bushmen during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Opsomming

'n Verskeidenheid response uit verskillende dissplines het gevolg op die Bleek en Lloyd-versameling van /Xam tekste. Dit sluit interpretasies van die tekste self in, die geskiedenis en biografiee, Die meeste van hierdie werke is nog nie blootgestel aan noukeurige ondersoek nie. Ek voer in hierdie artikel aan dat Jacques Derrida se kritiek van die werke van Jean-Jacques Rousseau en Claude Levi-Strauss in Of Grammatology (1976) ook van toepassing is op die literatuur voortspruitend uit die Bleek en Lloyd-versameling, Derrida se werk lig Bleek se ideologiese raamwerk en die houdings teenoor die Boesmans gedurende die negentiende en twintigste eeue uit.

The /Xam archive, collected from several /Xam informants in the 1870s by the German linguist, Wilhelm Bleek, and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, comprises one of the most extensive and important collections of oral literature in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has attracted the attention of scholars from a variety of disciplines. The close interpretation of the actual texts, though, remains a task that surprisingly few of them have attempted. It is also true to say that, with some exceptions, the interpretation that has been conducted does not employ or engage with the theoretical insights that have resulted from the debates of the last forty years in the fields of cultural and literary studies. Nor, again with some exceptions, has the interpretation that has been produced been subjected to the type of critical scrutiny which takes these theoretical developments into account. A number of reasons might be advanced for why Marxist, feminist, post-structuralist or postcolonial theory has had relatively little impact on the interpretation of the /Xam narratives. The groundbreaking and deservedly influential analysis of the /Xam narratives by Roger Hewitt was produced in the seventies, although only published in the late eighties. It preceded, therefore, much of the theoretical activity to which I am referring. In addition, several of the readers of the /Xam stories have been anthropologists, historians, archaeologists and art historians rather than literary critics. Academics in these disciplines have not always been preoccupied with theoretical questions to the same degree as cultural and literary scholars. The general field of folklore and mythology, moreover, within which much of the interpretation of the /Xam texts could be located, remains largely rooted in the comparative, functionalist and structuralist paradigms of an earlier era, partly perhaps because the object of its study has often been seen as traditional and timeless. Another possible factor is that contemporary theorists have rarely shown much interest in analysing "traditional" oral texts themselves and have not, therefore, provided a lead as to how to apply their insights to texts of this sort (Csapo 2005: 291).

Despite the relative lack of impact of contemporary theory on the interpretation of the /Xam materials, the insights produced by this theory have potentially profound consequences for the ways in which the texts are read. Work such as that of Henry Louis Gates (1988) or Karin Barber (1991; 1999) has demonstrated the effectiveness of employing some of the theoretical insights of the last fifty years when reading both traditional oral texts and the more contemporary texts that are directly related to older oral traditions. …

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