Research

Impossible Images

Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

In the arid landscape of South Africa’s northern Karoo, astronomers and engineers are slowly building the biggest scientific instrument in the world. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will one day link radio telescopes across the African continent and the Southern Hemisphere, turning much of the planet into a vast ear for picking up the faintest echoes from the early universe. I am interested in exploring the conceptual and representational challenges posed by radio astronomy in general, and the Square Kilometre Array in particular. What kinds of cultural artefacts and images are likely to be produced by the SKA, and what kind of relationship will a non-specialist audience be able to have with them? And how can the Karoo array’s unprecedented power to look (or listen) back in time be related to the deep human past that has left traces all through this landscape?

In addressing the SKA as a writer, the challenge is to recognise both the fascination of outer space and specificity of earthly place. Doing so has revealed to me a major difference of intellectual impetus between the sciences and the critical humanities, one that is perhaps suggestive of why they so often ‘miss’ each other in public conversation. The first seeks to isolate and decontextualise its object of knowledge: to filter out earthly noise; to minimise the signal of its own instruments; to avoid seeing its own structures in a distant, even unimaginable mathematical space. The second always feels the urgency of introducing contingency and context: to bring into frame the desperately poor environs of the northern Cape; to remember the British imperial project that carries astronomy to the tip of Africa; and to look for the history that hides in its brilliant and unearthly images. 

Impossible Images: Radio Astronomy, the SKA and the Art of Seeing. Journal of Southern African Studies 45:2 (2019). Gallery.

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Experiments with Truth

Reading non-fiction across South Africa’s unfinished transition.

Published in the African Articulations series from James Currey / Boydell & Brewer, 2019.
Launch 17:30 Wednesday 5 June, Book Lounge, Cape Town.

I began working on this project in 2007, a time I remember very clearly since I was starting my PhD and living in Johannesburg during the first great era of ‘load shedding’. I would pilot a tiny, bright green Isuzu buggy with a hole in the exhaust and no second gear up Constitution Hill and over the brow of Hillbrow, round the taxi rank and across the tracks to the Johannesburg Central Library.  

After I had parked underground at GAME, found a desk and ordered up some books via a laborious card index system, the power in the whole CBD would invariably go down: all the traffic lights out, the city suddenly plunged into a mood of civic disorder but also a strange euphoria. I would then have to thread the Isuzu back through the chaos. Sometimes traffic police would roll down their window and say: ‘Your car…’ and I expected the worst because it was unroadworthy in so many ways. But the follow up would normally be: ‘I like your car. Is it for sale?’

Load shedding, then Polokwane and the downfall of Thabo Mbeki, then outbreaks of xenophobic violence against African nationals in 2008: it was a moment when the story of post-apartheid South Africa modulated into a more dissonant, diminished key. For some it was the onset of a more fractious and difficult ‘second transition’, as it became clear that the truths and reconciliations of the Mandela years were in some ways illusory, and that the 1990s project of social reckoning and reconstruction had not been nearly deep, honest or durable enough. As an over-stressed national grid struggled to cope and the rolling blackouts continued, it seemed like the whole national project was teetering on the edge of massive system failure. But there were also lots of nice candlelit dinners.

At the time, I was reading across a wide range of non-fiction from or about South Africa: dense and passionately researched biographies, memoirs, essays, narrative journalism, social history and more. I was overwhelmed by the ambition and richness of non-fictional forms across 20th century and contemporary South Africa, particularly since this is a place where the most important intellectual work has often taken place outside of formal institutions: in marginalised, covert, non-academic or exile spaces.

This book is an attempt to give more critical attention to all those kinds of writing that get classed under the dull and inadequate term ‘non-fiction’. It is drawn to those works which are not carriers of pre-existing information but creative treatments of actuality: restless, unstable and even experimental mixtures of the found and the imagined, the received and the wrought.

My alternate title for the book was ‘Unusable Pasts’, which is meant to signal all those stories that don’t fit easy templates of nationalist or public history-making. I am intrigued by those works that can in some way honour the strangeness and resistance that past lives and events should offer to our current desires and projections; that resist the crushingly predictable narrative shapes, orthodox vocabularies and punctual timescales of much public discussion; that seek to reveal human lives as complexly symptomatic of the past, not as simply emblematic of it.

At the heart of the project is Njabulo Ndebele’s insight that the death of apartheid (and the coming of democracy) should be imagined not as an event but a social process: on-going and uneven, happening in different ways and at different tempos, split across institutions and individuals, ranging from the most public languages to the finest tissues of subjectivity, and one that will reach across generations.

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Historical knowledge streams in unceasingly from inexhaustible wells... The strange and incoherent forces its way forward, memory opens all its gates and yet is not open wide enough, nature struggles to receive, arrange and honour these strange guests.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Reading Harris Dousemetzis's The Man Who Killed Apartheid.


Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’.


Ahead of a talk on writing lives, I have finally finished Harris Dousemetzis's life of Dimitri Tsafendas, The Man Who Killed Apartheid. Not a great title, and not without its problems, but nonetheless an enormous, passionate, often astonishing biography, and one accompanied by a report submitted to the office of the Minister of Justice in South Africa that runs to three hardback volumes and 861 803 words.

From all this we learn the following...

1. During the Greek Revolution of 1821-32, the Ottoman Empire declared that ‘akis’, a suffix indicating smallness, should be added to the family names of all those Cretans rebelling against their authority. The surname Tsafendas thus became Tsafantakis.

2. Dimitri, born Tsafantakis (14 January 1918), changed his name back to Tsafendas when learning of this history from his Cretan father, Michalis Tsafantakis, who had a large collection of anarchist literature in his house in Lourenco Marques.

3. Dimitri was a compulsive reader from a very young age, and was described as ‘a lending library’ by those who knew him as a child.

4. He mainly liked to read in bed.

5. His favourite books included Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), about exploitation of miners in 19th-century France, and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World (1916), the story of a political awakening in colonial India.

6. He also loved Dostoevsky, and would quote a line from Demons when discussing his killing of Verwoerd in his old age: ‘It’s easy to condemn the offender, the difficulty is to understand him.’

7. He idolised the African American leader, actor, trade unionist and singer Paul Robeson, who would become a leading voice in the civil rights movement.

8. His favourite song was Robeson’s deep baritone version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’.

9. Another of his favourite songs was ‘Zot Nit Keymol’ (Song of Warsaw Ghetto), which he would sing in Yiddish, having memorised the lyrics.

10. He also loved Brecht.

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We are all in the plague

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Notes towards an abandoned essay.

In 1947, when he was thirty-three, Albert Camus published La peste, the story of a town struck by bubonic plague. He judged the book a failure, but in many ways it is his most successful work: translated into many languages, never out of print, read and taught all over the world.

In one sense it is a very simple story. Rats come out of cellars and sewers, spitting blood, and begin to die in the streets. Then people begin to die. The town is sealed off and we follow the experiences of a small band of characters as they battle the epidemic. Like a classical tragedy, the book is divided into five acts. In parts one and two, the death toll is rising; in part three it is at its height: ‘the plague had covered everything’. In parts four and five, the disease slowly retreats, and the town is liberated again.

The opening lines are at pains to stress the ordinariness of the setting, the French Algerian port of Oran where Camus arrived in 1941 for tuberculosis treatment, and where he began gathering material for the book:

Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran. De l’avis général, ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire. À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire et rien de plus qu’une préfecture française de la côte algérienne.

The first English translation, by Stuart Gilbert in 1948, gives this as follows:

The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194…, at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’.

In Robin Buss’s 2001 version, which seems to be taking fewer liberties, we have:

The peculiar events that are the subject of this history occurred in 194–, in Oran. The general opinion was that they were misplaced there, since they deviated somewhat from the ordinary. At first sight, indeed, Oran is an ordinary town, nothing more that a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.

Three different versions and three different ways of transcribing the blank in nineteen-forty-something: a period, an ellipsis, a dash. This tiny but curious absence in the very first sentence begins the restless, damaging oscillation between the specific and the universal, the located and the placeless, the literal and the metaphoric, that will play across the whole work.

This short prelude introduces an ordinary town, in one sense an allegorical ‘everytown’, where the daily routines of money and love-making, sea-bathing and newspaper reading are charted in a cool, objective, transparent style: ‘the style of absence which is’, as Roland Barthes remarked of Camus’s prose, ‘almost an ideal absence of style’. Further down the page are the most quotable lines, which demonstrate his way with an aphorism: ‘A convenient way of getting to know a town is to find out how people work there, how they love and how they die.’

Like so much else in the book, the simplicity is deceptive. The words let on more, betray more, know more than their author ever intended. The ‘peculiar events’ of the novel, as we will see, are indeed ‘not in their place’; they are misplaced in a profound, painful and complicated sense, with major consequences for how one interprets the book, and whether the great humanist credo that it arrives at can be believed in: ‘pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser’ : ‘to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise’.

The opening lines contain, in embryo, the whole problematic of a story that wants to be read as a kind of fable or allegory, but also stubbornly refuses to give up its allegiance to a particular place. Oran is a town not in Europe but in Africa; or perhaps, more accurately (at least in nineteen-forty something) a town no longer European but not yet African.

What is the exact nature of that typographic gesture, 194–, in any case? Is it an abbreviation or a concealment? The convention is more common for proper names in non-fiction, signifying someone or some place familiar to the author but lightly or partially disguised for the reader. But it is really Oran itself that the opening lines should have rendered as O–, O… or O. That, at least, would have avoided some difficulties. Because as soon as one tries to place the book – to situate it in its historical moment, to track its arc in actual time and real geography – The Plague becomes a deeply complex, contradictory work: one that that absorbs and reflects back as much complexity and difficulty as the reader is willing to bring to it. What follows is an attempt to track my thinking about Camus’s work across many years, and from a place, South Africa, that emerges as a kind of mirror image, or rather a negative image, in the photographic sense, of the north Africa in which the novel is set; or else just a confusing mirage.

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A Literary Con

A Literary Con

Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost

Excerpt from Experiments with Truth in the Johannesburg Review of Books. 1 April 2019.
(With thanks to Jen Malec and JRB for image / montage of book covers.)


‘Is this Long Street?’

Everybody knows Long Street, so why was I being asked this by a large man who came out of a side alley?

As I began to give a cautious yes, the large man was shooed away by a smaller man in a high-vis jacket that read CCID (City Centre Improvement District).

‘They know you like to talk, Nigerians’, he said: ‘Be aware’.

Further down, the CCID had set up some large screens on which you could watch CCTV footage (taken by cameras on Long Street) of people being mugged, pickpocketed and scammed. The jerky black and white clips had been edited into a range of informative segments. The dangers of the open bag or the visible iPhone; lightning fast card swaps by people offering help at cash machines. A more elaborate version of this is the ‘false pop up’. Fraudsters tell tourists that they need a special permit to walk down a street, since it is closed for a film shoot, but that that this can easily be obtained from the nearest ATM, and let me help you with that.

There was also footage of the Shoe Scam – a ‘man particular’ con – which a friend of mine had just recently been a victim of. Staggering along drunk at night, he suddenly had someone beside him saying ‘Hey brother, we’ve got the same shoes!’, grabbing him by the shin, pulling up his trouser leg and comparing sneakers. This, the video explained, was a textbook diversion and desensitisation technique. It draws attention to the shoes with one hand while the other snakes round to remove a wallet, which is then swiftly passed it to an accomplice walking in the opposite direction. 

Long Street was closed to traffic for the evening, and a crowd had gathered. People were mesmerised: to see something so furtive and fast captured in the grainy footage. To see the obliviousness, the ease, the skill of it, the way pickpockets moved when in the act, so that even the rest of their bodies seemed unaware of what the one frantic hand was doing. The woozy surprise and confusions of the marks, then the sudden realisations – it was all there in archival black and white, ‘Recorded at 00:43 a.m. on Long Street’. The footage was so transfixing that a rumour, or a joke, began to run through the crowd: people were being so drawn in by these on-screen cons that they were being pickpocketed, again, in real life.

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A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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Teaching / Writing

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Creative and otherwise.

Thirteen Ways in At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University. ed. Susan Levine. HSRC Press, 2018.

... Showing examples of Cubism alongside such a poem is effective, of course, since students of the twenty-first century have visual literacy skills that are immensely advanced: the challenge is to get them to ‘translate’ such analytic techniques from the visual to the textual. Which is not always easy: ‘One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses,’ John Ashbery remarks in The Paris Review, ‘but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience’.

Without mentioning structuralism or De Saussure or using the word ‘signifier’, I also tried to broach the idea that ‘blackbird’ could in one sense be seen as an entirely arbitrary choice, easily replaceable with another word in this verbal algorithm. An ex-colleague of mine (now at Wits University) had been compulsively working up variations of the poem on his Facebook wall, and I shared one of them:

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of J.M. Coetzee.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three J.M. Coetzees.

[…]

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That J.M. Coetzee is involved
In what I know.

N2

Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’

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Kingdom of Rain

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An interview with Rustum Kozain.

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals...

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80

RK [...] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.
HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness...

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?
– Gilles Deleuze

Literatures of Betrayal

Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies
‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words.

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The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts. 
ICA, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions...The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language.

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A Useless Life

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Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

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About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

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Visions of Tsafendas

Visions of Tsafendas

Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.

Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.

Early version, 'Parliament of Fouls', in the Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.

I am sitting in the National Library, ordering up back issues of the Sunday Times, trying to find a particular paragraph which describes just how dysfunctional parliament became during the 20th year of South African democracy. There were many accounts of the chaotic sessions in the National Assembly just beyond the trees of Government Avenue; but I remembered this one in particular for the attention it paid to the physical gestures made by MPs as they baited each other in front of a public that was by turns amused and appalled.

Traced back to its root, the word ‘Parliament’ means speaking. The Old French source is preserved in the Afrikaans spelling on signs in Cape Town’s Company Gardens: Parlement. But in South Africa, 2014 was the year of ‘unparliamentary language’...It began with a brilliantly effective piece of political theatre: new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters being sworn in while wearing red labourers’ overalls (men) and red domestic worker aprons (women). Since then the EFF have set about jamming the language of the National Assembly in all registers, with little patience for verbal formulae and niceties inherited from abroad.

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Earth Ecology Humanities

A new interdisciplinary course at the University of Cape Town.

Environmental Humanities South

Imagining the Anthropocene

What do we mean when we speak of ‘the environment’? Whose environment, and who gets to speak? What propositions about ‘the natural’ and ‘the human’ undergird scientific advice on governance and management of the commons? ‘Sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘conservation’ – these are all terms that we hear daily, yet they are often used uncritically, or in specific, contested ways. What different ‘cultures of nature’ can we discern in a postcolonial setting like Cape Town, a place that opens onto highly contested terrains, both physical and intellectual?

‘Indigenous’ biodiversity set against botanical ‘invaders’ on the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park; constitutional rights to water and its complex social circuits through the ‘human settlements’ of greater Cape Town; predator ‘management’ in the farming districts of the Boland; debates over fracking in the Karoo thirstland; the state policing of Cape fisheries – these flashpoints call for new ways of imagining the relations between state, science, ecologies and publics. The environmental humanities is the term for a dynamic and growing field in universities across the world, one promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that explores how we understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. Ranging from scientific modelling to government policy, from social justice movements to the creative arts, it examines questions of sustainability, human wellbeing and the environment in their broadest sense.  In a 21st-century context of increasing pressure on the biosphere, the environmental humanities provide a vital intellectual space that enables researchers, students, artists, writers, scientists, policy-makers and practitioners to reflect critically on the concepts that underlie contemporary environmentalism, as well as broader social imaginings of ‘the natural’.

Imagining the Anthropocene.

White Papers, Necessary Noises

White Papers, Necessary Noises

The Strange and Surprising Adventures of Jeremy Cronin.

Paper delivered at Craft Wars: Comparative Perspectives on Poetry '74 | University of Cape Town, 19 September 2014.

Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, MP and poet, describes reading his work to learners in 2007. From an interview with Andrew van der Vlies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 49 (2008):

Over several years now, at least one of my poems has been set in the national matriculation syllabus, and for some reason (perhaps because it is conveniently short), it often appears in the examination paper itself. So these school events involve a captive audience. I am not deluding myself that the majority of learners are present for the sheer love of poetry, or that, as I step into the venue, I have an extensive and passionate school readership; I try to respect these realities [. . .] Over the recent period there has been a certain predictability about these engagements. 

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A Literary Con

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A Literary Con: The ‘memoirs’ of Herman Charles Bosman and Dugmore Boetie. Conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), New York University, 20-23 March 2014.

After a while, I think, the wit begins to pall. Ironic inversions are worked compulsively just once too often. Irony, as Roland Barthes has noted, remains safe, it keeps its distance [...] There are too many knowing winks travelling between narrator and reader. Prison and its ways are held at a comfortable distance. We find ourselves laughing when sometimes we should, perhaps, be asking questions [...] This irony touches upon awkward questions – innocence (what is innocence?), justice (whose justice?), prison (is it really rehabilitative?) – but lets them all pass in laughter. (142)

Yes, Bosman, you old lag, with your wheedling voice, half conning us, half conning yourself, talking out of the side of your mouth, wink, wink, wink, popping your eyes and whispering down the decades out of that Cold Stone Jug. (143)

Jeremy Cronin, ‘Inside Out: Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. In Stephen Gray (ed.), Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg: MacGraw-Hill, 1986.

Abstract

In How Fiction Works, James Wood distinguishes between reliably unreliable narrators in literature (fairly common and generally identifiable) and the rarer, more disquieting case of unreliably unreliable narrators. This paper relocates his insight to the ostensibly non-fictional works of two South African comic writers: the urban sketches of Herman Charles Bosman, collected in A Cask of Jerepigo (1957), and the prose cycle that makes up Dugmore Boetie’s ‘experimental autobiography’ Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (1969). Often compared in South Africa, yet little known elsewhere, Bosman and Boetie trade in forms of comedy and irony that, I suggest, are uniquely unstable. With satiric targets and strategies liable to shift disconcertingly from paragraph to paragraph, a ‘politics’ that is wilfully opaque and illegible, and a deliberately cultivated sense of tastelessness and irresponsibility – their texts are perhaps best described as elaborately rigged confidence tricks, often at the expense of the earnest, bien pensant reader. Nonetheless (as glutton for punishment), I will attempt to trace the workings of a complicitous and guilty narrative pleasure: a strain of South African comic vernacular that is echoed in the work of later writers like John Matshikiza, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavic. I will also reflect on the difficulty of teaching (and then resolving never to teach) Bosman and Boetie in the multiracial context of a South African university – perhaps out of an anxiety that students might not ‘get the joke’; or perhaps because they have intuited that some jokes are not worth getting.

The Lives of Objects

10-throne-of-weapons_544Oxford Centre for Life Writing | 20 - 22 September 2013 | Archive and Public Culture gazette. ...Stories, like objects, have contours and patterns. And certain objects might allow us to tell stories that are shaped more irregularly and are more interestingly patterned than the vast, over-arching narratives we are often saddled with. As the objects circulated through the auditorium, he spoke evocatively of the ‘synapse’ of cultural energy that links an object with the place from which it has come...

See also: The Lives of Objects in the History of Cape TownMolo (Dec 2013).

“Jews are to history,” Philip Roth once wrote, “what Eskimos are to snow.” I have often thought that the remark could just as well apply to South Africans...