Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, and Human Rights in Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow

By Davis, Emily S. | College Literature, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, and Human Rights in Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow


Davis, Emily S., College Literature


This essay explores the association between the outsider-as transnational migrant, social outcast, city dweller, and HIV positive person-and disease in South African novelist Phaswane Mpe's 2000 novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow. As Odile Cazenave points out, Mpe's characters are linked through a trope of infection (2007, 672): despair, violence, and AIDS are all transmitted among characters as forms of contagion. Yet these transmissions belie the discourse of xenophobia in post-apartheid South Africa, in which all of these social ills are blamed on "Makwerekwere," the immigrants and refugees from other parts of Africa who have streamed into neighborhoods like Hillbrow in Johannesburg since the end of apartheid. The novel presents an array of South African-born city dwellers whose urban modernity makes them guilty of many of these same social ills, to the dismay and shame of their families. Thus, as often occurs with xenophobic discourse, the characteristics ascribed to the migrant can also be used to police the behavior of homegrown social rebels or outcasts. My examination of Mpe's novel focuses on the ways in which the text appropriates the trope of contagion from this xenophobic discourse and reconfigures it to uncover the transnational and rural/urban interconnections in post-apartheid South Africa erased by scapegoating the Makwerekwere. On a broader level, I seek to consider the possibilities of the concept of contagion as a means for approaching questions of cosmopolitanism, human rights, and shared vulnerability in the era of globalization.

Cosmopolitanism offers one of the oldest available discourses for addressing questions of solidarity, shared responsibility, and mutual entanglement, and it has seen a scholarly resurgence in the last two decades. Wary of the problematic roots of the term, from the paradoxically exclusionary universalism of the Greeks to the Enlightenment Eurocentrism of Kant, scholars have attempted to temper its claims in various ways. Homi Bhabha's "vernacular" cosmopolitanism, Mitchell Cohen's "rooted" cosmopolitanism (1992), Bruce Robbins's "actually existing" cosmopolitanism (1998), Benita Parry's "postcolonial cosmopolitanism" (1991), and Kurasawa's "cosmopolitanism from below" (2004) speak to the desire among contemporary critics to salvage the term for discussions of the kinds of contemporary vulnerable subjects I describe in the opening paragraph: migrants and refugees, marginalized city dwellers, and those living with diseases like HIV/AIDS that circulate globally regardless of whether their carrier has lefthis or her hometown.1 In the wake of this "cosmopolitan revival," as Christian Moraru calls it, many scholars remain unconvinced that the term can shed enough of its universalizing and Eurocentric baggage to be put to responsible use, arguing that in fact the term functions as simply the ideological accompaniment to and justification for the excesses of globalizing capitalism. In this overly simplified equation, "cosmopolitanism is to globalization what superstructure is to base" (Moraru 69).

For scholars working on issues of human rights, globalization, and culture- which is the shorthand I will use to locate myself-the term 'cosmopolitanism' raises several key questions: To what extent can the term escape its Eurocentric origins? And to what extent is cosmopolitanism a description of aesthetic and material tastes or affects that may or may not lead to anything beyond a desire to consume particular products or images? Bruce Robbins and Pheng Cheah attempted to push the conversation toward existing, partial, and grounded versions of cosmopolitanism through the term "cosmopolitics," but its problematic associations are hard to escape (Robbins 1998, 9). In my case, it is precisely the term's association with aesthetics, consciousness, and affect that make me hesitant to abandon it. Human rights offers an important conceptual framework for addressing legal, medical, and political questions, but I am not convinced that it is the ideal frame for describing the transnational affinities stemming from art and imagination that are so central to much contemporary literary and visual art. …

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