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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Russel Brownlee completed a journalism degree at Stellenbosch in 1991 and then spent several years working as a radio news writer and magazine sub-editor in Johannesburg. After a brief attempt at building a career as a shop owner in Prince Albert he moved to Cape Town, where he now works as a technical editor. In 2002 he enrolled in UCT's Creative Writing Masters programme, and the novel he wrote there, Garden of the Plagues, was published last year by Human & Rousseau.
Ashraf Jamal is based at the English Departments of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and the University of Stellenbosch. He is a critical and cultural analyst and a fiction writer. He is the author of Predicaments of culture in South Africa (Unisa Press/Brill, 2005). He is currently involved in research pertaining to Southeast Asia with a view to the publication of a collection of essays in 2007. His first - "The erasure of Malaysia and other disappearing acts" - will be presented at a conference at the National University of Singapore later this year.

Russel Brownlee in conversation with Ashraf Jamal

  1. You recently left South Africa to take up a position at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. What attracted you there, and do you have any specific research or writing projects that you will be pursuing?

    For some time I’ve been drawn to the delicate weave of islands that largely make up Southeast Asia. My initial interest stemmed from wanting to draw links between Holland, the Cape and Batavia (Jakarta), the Dutch imperial headquarters in Java. What interested me was the human traffic and the deeply personal stories of these hapless slaves from Java and elsewhere who found themselves at the thoroughly inhospitable foot of Africa. To follow up on this I felt I had to be here, to be a part of the human archive, as it were. I’ve never been particularly impressed by the miserable reconstruction of colonial history, that oh so easy black/white dialectic which is as tiresome as it is utterly dull. Surely there had to be a greater human complexity in outposts of empires such as ours. This question is certainly implicit in your exceptional and beautiful novel. You see, it is love that moves me most. Over and above the barbarism and the fallibility of human beings, it is their capacity for love that matters and that, finally, can conquer the psychic disfigurement that is our sorry inheritance.

    But more on this later. Let me just say that being stationed in Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula, with cheap flights via AirAsia, is an immense blessing.

    A consequence of my being here – which invariably happens whenever I shift countries – is that I’ve immersed myself wholly in matters pertaining to Southeast Asia, reading everything from mapmaking to boat-building, to dance and witchcraft, to contemporary politics, business and religion. Indeed, so immersed am I, I’m now working on a symposium (2006) and an international conference (2007) on matters pertaining to Southeast Asia. All of which will lead, in two years’ time, to a book. Nothing beats being obsessive.

  2. Your latest book-length publication, Predicaments of culture in South Africa, takes a critical look at the state of artistic freedom in this country. You suggest that despite political liberation, the defining characteristic of our cultural imagery remains the ghetto - and by ghetto you mean the propensity for people to associate themselves with groups holding set positions from which they attempt to establish a new orthodoxy. In short, South African cultural production is not yet free. How do you see this lack of freedom in a practical sense - how does it actually manifest and inhibit the output of writers, artists and critics?

    As you well know, it is very easy merely to criticise a perceived limitation. In my case, and in defence of my position regarding South African arts and culture, I’ve noticed a persistent failure of the imagination and an absurd overrating of the talents of particular individuals. I should certainly add that I’ve also been party to this absurd misperception. If I reflect now on my craven adoration for the writing of JM Coetzee I simply wish to weep. Undoubtedly he has a remarkable stylistic gift – that is, if you value a style that is both resonant and arid. However, his graft of human experience is appallingly bleak and rather naïve because of its bleakness. Similarly, that other bloated sacred cow in South African culture, William Kentridge … Again, remarkably intelligent, but precious little spirit, or vitality. It is as though South African culture, through the works of figures such as these, appears dead on arrival; as though all that was possible was the mirroring of our sorry morbidity.

    Then, of course, there has been the contrary problem of artists such as Athol Fugard … reactive thinkers who would proffer a redemptive narrative. What I’m getting at is that I’ve very rarely encountered the ability or the courage to grasp the unthinkable; to shift the axis away from the tedium of polarisation, as though our minds and imaginations were transfixed by the Manichean dialectic and precious little else. I never feel that Coetzee, or Kentridge, or even Fugard has in fact lived.

    Why, then, are they so remarkably successful? Precisely because they have cashed in on a pathology that is domestic and international. When Coetzee says that South Africa is as irresistible as it is unlovable he, precisely, re-enacts the procedure of fascination and loathing which largely characterises the continued psychic state of our fellow citizens. Still, just because he is accurate does not mean that the position is meritorious. My counter-view is that South Africa is as resistible as it is loveable. By this I mean that only by conceptualising the country in this way will we counter our pathological inheritance. But then, perverts that we are, we prefer to rot in our fallibility and our weakness. Which of course means that freedom is the last thing that anyone wants!

  3. You suggest that to truly be free we need to adopt a position that avoids prescription and determinist certainties. You invoke Homi Bhabha's hybrid moment as a model for this position. Other related descriptors include radical negativity, queer, and folly. Could you comment more on these terms and how they point to a way forward?

    Why is it that South Africa has produced so few great thinkers? Are there in fact any? The reason I ask this question is that without great thought we will never overcome our psychic entrapment. All we have, it seems to me, are fatalists, positivists, or relativists. There is no Emmanuel Levinas, no Gilles Deleuze, in other words, no thinker who has opened up that system of indenturement and enslavement which we have a sick vested interest in sustaining. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K is the only visionary and radically political work to have emerged from South Africa (in the English language at least). That it remains his only work of great significance is telling. The reason why it is a great work is that it creates a character who is a squatter in systems who escapes detection, a condemned man who remains strangely free, uttering little, understanding even less, disclosing nothing, his passage through life inscrutable. He is a creature who is neither friend nor foe, who neither flees nor engages the world, the embodiment of that most austere of conditions: distance – not the calibrated distance between things but distance itself. In other words, Michael K is the closest we get to what that brilliant and much maligned thinker, Homi Bhabha, calls the hybrid moment. Clearly it is a moment that bypasses the Manichean dialectic, and for that crucial reason it opens up another method of thinking. It is a quest for this other method that is the reason I wrote Predicaments of culture in South Africa. Its vital plea is to remind us that to love is to think, and that it is lovelessness that is the negation of thought, and hence of life itself.

  4. In the opening pages of Predicaments you outline a set of challenges for your inquiry, one of them being the question of how to "rethink the human in South Africa". A constitutive part of the process, you say, is to restore the capacity for love. It seems to me something of a bold step to bring the subject of love into an academic study, and yet you have done so. Is love something we should be taking seriously? What is love?

    Forgive me for pre-empting your question! Yes, my primary intention was to rethink the human in South Africa. It is my firm belief that nothing is static, certainly not the human condition, though, of course, it is all to often trotted out that nothing changes under the sun, etc. My view – a view derived through many years of researching the sublime – is that it is the ineluctable that matters. While Immanuel Kant baulks in the face of the sublime, finding instead a rational mechanism to accommodate it, my own view, like that of Longinus, goes for broke and wants to be torn apart in the moment of insight. Now most leading South African artists are more like Kant – cautious and terribly secular – while the very few – Brett Bailey, for instance – have that capacity to attain a radical sublimity. In answer to your question, I believe we need a lot more of Brett Bailey’s energy – with all the vulnerability that accompanies such artistic courage – if we are to access the noumenal and arrive at a more dynamic sense of being. Remember, we are not nouns but verbs, and are therefore caught in a wondrous and ceaseless process of becoming. Love is such a verb, such a process of becoming.

  5. In your novel Love Themes for the Wilderness, one of the characters complains that the world has certain limiting concepts about South African art, and that what the world wants is "crude serialised depictions of trauma". I heard Ken Barris make a related point about South African writing, that overseas critics of local novels tended to home in on the political content of the novels to the exclusion of other aspects. Do you think we are being held back at all by the world's conception of what South African art and writing should depict? Is the world keeping us in a ghetto of our own?

    Of course! But remember, we are party to that ghetto! Hannah Arendt speaks of the banality of terror. Well, it is that banality that now grips the entire world. If foreign critics latch on to the banality of our pain - for we, like Vaclav Havel's Czechs, are experts in suffering - it is because we have failed to produce a vivid counter-narrative. Our crass messianism and our crass consumerism are no antidotes to our suffering. We remain poor escape artists - unlike Michael K! - precisely because we are happy to be recognised as abject - all the more so by re-emerging in the larger world via a transcendental overdrive (Mandela) and via our wannabe status as international citizens. It is precisely our doubled and paradoxical reversion to religion and money that has made us all the more pathetic as a nation. We have no grace, because we have no sublimity. We have no beauty, because we have no humanity. We have no genuine capacity to transform, because we have no willingness to make the philosophic changes that are so necessary. In short, we want our prepaid access to an afterlife, be it in this world or the next, and we want it by continuing to cash in on our disgrace. South Africa remains a diorama for miserabilism and a gorefest.

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LitNet: 28 February 2006

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