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Friends and colleagues
It is a great honour and also a pleasure to talk to you tonight about Bushman Letters, in this city and in this room, close to the sites of the Breakwater prison and the Governor’s library, places which played an important part in the unfolding biographical, historical, political, cultural, literary and scholarly narrative, to which this book belongs. Library and prison, representative of the incompatible spaces of intellectual endeavour, on the one hand, and colonial force, on the other, incompatible that is, until the advent of Marxist, feminist and postcolonial criticism delivered us from our innocence and taught us to see the direct links between them. Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen, edited by Pippa Skotnes, provides a graphic illustration (quite literally, in the case of its many photos and pictures) of the collusion between knowledge and violence. Professor Skotnes’ other books on the Bleek and Lloyd Collection place more emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the /Xam materials, the abilities of the narrators and the intellectual passion and tenacity of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. The ambiguities, nuances and contradictions, clearly evident in the different reactions elicited by a quick flip through Miscast, on the one hand, and Claim to the Country, on the other, that attend the revisiting of colonial scholarship and its projects, particularly in the field of cross-cultural studies, is also an inescapable part of contemporary scholarship in South Africa, a daily source of both unease and productivity. What we might call Bushman Studies or more broadly Khoisan Studies, the unsatisfactory nature of terms such as Bushman, Khoi and San already signaling the problem, is, of course, no exception. In his brilliant and unrelenting analysis of Bleek’s theory of language, Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language, which came out just as I was finishing this book, Shane Moran asks the crucial question: “How does one approach the texts of colonialism – texts overtly marked with the violence of expropriation?” Bushman Letters might be seen as one sort of answer to this question, specifically in relation to the reading of the materials in the notebooks, especially the /Kaggen narratives and the stories of the sun, moon and stars. None of this I knew, however, when I walked into Liz Gunner’s office at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg about 8 years ago with a proposal for a doctoral research project on Credo Mutwa and the New Age. Liz, as many of you will know, is an English scholar who devotes her time not to English literature but to Zulu and Xhosa oral literature and music. She listened for a few minutes, before interrupting me: “Yes, that sounds interesting, but read this first,” and handed me a paper in which rock art specialist Anne Solomon bemoans the fact that anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians and regular historians had written about the /Xam materials but not literary scholars. I
was being dispatched, in effect, to the archives. It was only when I got to know Liz better that I realized that I had escaped lightly. I might as easily have been sent to villages in Zululand to study wedding songs or local halls to watch isicathamiya performances or even to Shembe church meetings. In any event, I offered no resistance. It would be interesting and challenging, I consoled myself, to embark on the study of something I knew nothing about. But this was only part of the reason that I changed course so readily. The chief reason is one I came to mistrust and critique in the book, something to do with the mystique that surrounds the idea of the Bushman, for me the result chiefly of years roaming the upper valleys of the Drakensberg, often for weeks on end on my own and sleeping in caves with rock paintings and charred ceilings. One remote area, in particular, drew me back again and again. It seemed quintessential Bushman country: full of eland and hartebeest moving against a tableau of sandstone rock faces. I also had several uncanny encounters with water snakes in rock pools, probably not the sort of thing that one should confess to at the launch of an academic book. More and more, as the years went on, I realized that the caves were still being used. I came across light traces of human presence. The branches of shrubs broken in order to dry for firewood, for example, or herbs recently cut and stored under a small overhang. These were not the signs left behind in other areas by the ordinary human traffic of the mountains: dagga smugglers, cattle rustlers and pedestrians on their various journeys from Lesotho to KwaZulu-Natal. There were no strands of fertilizer bag, no instant drink sachets or Boxer tobacco packets. Bushmen, I thought, there must still be Bushmen visiting these remote valleys. Of course the people who had always just left before I arrived were probably Sotho or Zulu speakers. I will never know exactly who they were. Nor had I then realized, through reading the work of Frans Prins, Peter Jolly and others, that the distinctions between Bushman, Zulu and BaSotho in the area are anything but fixed. But these mountain journeys predisposed me, nevertheless, to turn to the study of the Bleek and Lloyd collection. I had little idea of where to start so I drove the 2000 km to Cape Town (the easy part), found a park on campus (the impossible part), located Manuscripts and Archives, was promptly sent off to buy a pencil and then began reading. By the time I left the city two months later I’d read the notebooks from cover to cover and much of the secondary literature as well. I also, incidentally, acquired a wife, followed shortly by a couple of children, an unanticipated spinoff of conducting research in Cape Town. Reading the /Xam notebooks right through is a total and overwhelming experience. While the world they describe is familiar to anyone who has spent time in the wilder parts of southern Africa, the reader of the materials is left with a completely different and not always coherent perspective on this world. I have spent the better part of eight years revisiting the materials and writing about them, a process which culminated in the writing of this book. Thanks to their digitilisation (and to Pippa Skotnes and her team), I have in more recent years been spared (or denied) further trips to the archive. It is now possible to search the collection and easily cross-reference it, both central to the method I have used to interpret the narratives. Nevertheless, despite the possibilities that the digitilised collection offers, I should imagine that a new researcher would still have to visit the notebooks themselves if they hoped to get some idea of their compass and depth.
Apart from finding ways of reading the materials, I also followed a suggestion of Duncan Brown’s (who I am thrilled to see here tonight) to allow the texts to talk back to modern theoretical understanding. The results of these twin projects were well and generously summarized by one of the book’s reviewer’s. I will quote briefly from the report:
The author does not so much offer his own interpretations of the material as show how the material could be interpreted. Again, his own interpretations are always meta-interpretations about what it means to interpret and how these texts invite and resist interpretation. The author argues for the following principles: a) consider the narratives as texts in themselves, not as anthropological evidence b) consider the texts in all their singularity, without recourse to universal narratives, such as those of trickster or the creation myth c) refuse to reduce them to an established genres, such as myth or folktale, d) follow the strands linking story elements in the archive; e) respect the polyvocality of the narratives, the multiplicity of meanings they suggest; f) remain on the surface, with the stories themselves. The author insists that the stories do not give transparent access to something below. g) attend to how meaning is generated by critics and to the politics of analysis. The texts are used to turn the hermeneutic gaze back on itself.
My work on the /Xam materials has led me to consider many questions of orality, performance and writing and also different aspects of cultural and intellectual politics,. I cannot pretend to offer expert knowledge about these matters but hope that aspects of the book will generate discussion about many of them. I will briefly mention some of things I have begun to realize in the course of this project: 1. The /Xam and the other inhabitants of the region who are described generally as Khoisan are subject to many misconceptions. One of these is that their culture is monolithic. In fact, there is a great deal of diversity and variation across time and place. I show this in the book by emphasising the rich and intricate texture of the narratives and indicating the ways in which they invite multiple interpretation and elicit multiple meanings. This contrasts with approaches which suggest that people across the region tell the same stories with only incidental variations. It is true that there are common features but I have argued that differences and details are important sites of creativity and questioning. This insight obviously extends to other cultural forms and traditions across the region. Another misconception about the Khoisan is the idea that they are a people who belong to the past. This view stems partly from European ideas of evolution and modernity (the
Bushman, for example, were a stone age relic, doomed to vanish before the superior forces of civilisation) and also, increasingly, I think, from particular modes of constructing identity in pre3sent-day South Africa. Most of the peoples of the southern African region, however, possess a strong Khoisan linguistic, genetic and cultural component, whether they are seen as Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaner, Tswana or Cape Coloured. But since South Africa doesn’t yet celebrate hybridity, this fact remains largely unacknowledged and unexploited. The /Xam narratives are a cultural resource that remains current in this sense, although it would also be anachronistic to claim the narratives as some sort of proto South African literature. 2. Documents of the past become contemporary as soon as they’re interpreted. I have tried to show the limitations of the approaches to interpretation that have been adopted with regard to the /Xam materials while also acknowledging my debt to the work that has preceded mine. In turn, I have tried to show how my own approach to interpretation belongs to contemporary critical history. This obviously has implications for the ways in which scholars create a public knowledge in which history and culture are continually interpreted and re-interpreted. 3. Who speaks for whom? Without pretending to be able to be able recreate a /Xam interpretation of the narratives the book takes the view, inspired by Karin Barber’s work in West Africa, that they are set up to invite exegesis. The comments made by the /Xam informants are vital to understanding the stories better as is the wider context of the collection as a whole. These considerations lead me to often accept the literal meanings of the texts rather than engage in decoding them in ways that bypass the meanings that the informants themselves identify in them. This also has implications for the ways in which public knowledge is created, authorised and articulated in the country and the region. 4. Certain forms of scholarship and popular perception have tended to position the /Xam and their culture in a timeless past. It is my view that oral literature should be treated as contemporary and not as a survival from a preliterate past. It is a Marxist truism that consciousness is socially and historically determined. The oft mentioned African ethos of ubuntu, generally explained as the notion that a person is a person only by virtue of her place amongst other people, expresses a similar idea. Authors are supposed, I think, to only adhere in part to these ideas: they should acknowledge the fact that the strengths of their work derive from the contribution of the collective while all its imperfections are attributable to their own failings as isolated individuals. I should not like to transfer responsibility for the book’s shortcomings from myself to either history or my support networks. But I do think that imperfections in a scholar’s work are often the points of creative engagement with this work. Without the work of Roger Hewitt, Mathias Guenther and David LewisWilliams, for example, mine could not have existed in anything like its present form. But what I
saw as gaps or shortcomings in their work offered me a way forward. I trust the same will be the case in the way in which other scholars use this book. So much for the failings of the book. Its strengths, and I suspect that there may be some, are attributable in large part to a number of people besides myself, some of whom are here tonight. Duncan Brown is one of them. I shall extol his virtues even though I, and many others at UKZN, are bitter that he left us to fend for ourselves and brought his wonderful personal and academic skills to a remote and windy peninsula that is already over-endowed with gifted and competent scholars. Not only has Duncan’s own writing been a seminal influence in the way that I have approached the project but he has always been a tireless ally, helping me to find a niche in the difficult environment of the contemporary academy. For this, I shall always be grateful. All writers, I am sure, have ambivalent feelings about reviewers. We love the flattering review that discovers no fault and fear the scathing attack. Andrew Bank, as a prominent scholar in a small field, has had the unfortunate task of reviewing a number of journal articles that I wrote as well as the manuscript of this book. He fits into neither of the categories of reviewer I have mentioned: he doesn’t viciously attack, nor does he flatter. Instead he offers lengthy and considered critiques that themselves should be published as essays. His review of the book resulted in much rewriting and rethinking. His contribution has been utterly invaluable. I think this sort of reviewing is a sure sign of true scholarship: passionate, dedicated, generous and meticulous. Reviewing is a hidden and unheralded kind of contribution. I am also indebted to Andrew for the influence of his work. I devote a chapter of the book to it, in which, I have to concede, I am guilty, to a considerable degree, of uncritical praise-singing. As a literary scholar I am always in awe of historians, in any case, who do the actual work, while some of us get away with just writing about literature and culture. Talking of real work, Professor Skotnes, too, I cannot thank you enough for your immense contribution to the field and, of course, to the events of this evening. I am very honoured that you have been the guest speaker. I first met Veronica Klipp when she ran a small press for children’s books and poetry in Durban. The nobility of these endeavours (publishing poetry and children’s stories is noble in itself, but in Durban !) already won me over and I have never had cause to revise my initial good impressions. I received sevdral warnings about the pitfalls that attend publishing a book. Working with Wits Press, though, has been an unmitigated pleasure. Veronica, herself, Julie Miller, Melanie Peqeaux and Tshepo Neito could not have been more helpful or responsive during the different stages of the production of the book. I should like to thank Alex Potter, too, for his editing. I have recently done a fair amount of editing of other peoples’ books myself and have a new appreciation for the skills and arts involved. Sleep is the opposite of waking life and yet is essential to it. I think the time spent with friends stands in a comparable relation to work life. With some exceptions, the contribution of friends is everything that takes one away from work, in my case, research and writing. Their presence rarely coincides with these activities and yet is critical to their success. It is the journeys, walks, dinners, heartbreaks (in some instances) and companionship that make all endeavours, scholarly
ones included, possible and for that I am grateful to the many friends who are here tonight as well as the many people I don’t yet know but who are also here. I thank you all.