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English Studies in Africa
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‘THE MOBILE INHERITORS OF ANY RENAISSANCE’: SOME COMMENTS ON THE STATE OF THE FIELD
Natasha Distiller Available online: 24 Aug 2009

To cite this article: Natasha Distiller (2008): ‘THE MOBILE INHERITORS OF ANY RENAISSANCE’: SOME COMMENTS ON THE STATE OF THE FIELD, English Studies in Africa, 51:1, 138-144 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00138390809485268

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economic. Ancient histories of exchange resonate with the globalised present. refusal. while at the same time recognising the African traditions. culture. How to avoid the paternalistic and patriarchal discourse of Shakespeare’s putative universal humanity (all literature is universally human. to suggest that we are entitled to him not because he is Shakespeare but because we are South African? Ingrid de Kok’s poem. as the young men of de Kok’s poem are saturated not only in Venice’s celebrated light. and place. entrepreneurial Africa. experiences and identifications that these creations bespeak? How. and are imbricated in the markers of culture invoked by the poem’s descriptions as well as by its title: Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 . but in relations of power that span time. established Europe and its so-called high culture. histories. and poor. and the disavowal. and place. the way they refuse and undermine binary constructions of race. the ambivalences of colonial history are exemplified. ‘Merchants in Venice’. underminings.‘THE MOBILE INHERITORS OF ANY RENAISSANCE’: SOME COMMENTS ON THE STATE OF THE FIELD Natasha Distiller Shakespeare’s texts have a rich South African history. which is surprisingly difficult to explicate without reinscribing the very terms that the history itself calls into question. One of the poem’s subtexts speaks to Africans’ political. Shakespeare’s form marks his texts as belonging to a specific culture which cannot be overlooked without losing what is Shakespearean about Shakespeare) while acknowledging the texts’ poetic resources? How to describe the cultural appropriations. that African uses of Shakespeare comprise? How to acknowledge the imbalances of colonial history together with the creativity of subaltern mobilisations of the master’s tools without collapsing the whole into Shakespeare hagiography. addresses the relationship between rich. assertions. The poem offers ways to read the presence of Africans in this famous landscape. and cultural rights. in the face of Shakespeare’s enormous cultural capital. In the complications that arise in talking about Shakespeare in South Africa. or lack of their recognition. which would undo the entire exercise by returning us to colonial points of reference? How to see the ownership subaltern creative acts exemplify.

The poem insists on this without reducing Europe’s artistic accomplishments to instrumentalist objects of power and overpowering. tourists eye the wares of three of our continent’s diasporic sons. do they think of their mission and mothers. floating graves and cypresses. while the city keeps selling its history and glass. What have we Africans to do with this? With holy water. Mary’s illuminated face and the way Tintoretto’s Crucifixion is weighted with the burden of everyday sin and sweat. the poem makes visible . air and all surfaces of light. young men in dreadlocks and caps. ‘the way Tintoretto’s Crucifixion is weighted/ with the burden of everyday sin and sweat. spies. thud of the vaporetto against the landing site. the adamantine intricacy of marble floors. buyers. Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 On the Rialto. gold borders of faith. De Kok’s poem brings to the surface what is hidden beneath the beautiful veneer of European culture. Commerce and its patterns of exploitation. and the real lives of real people lived above. and boys like these: fast on their feet. At the same time. artists. inform Europe’s beautiful objects and invest them with a different meaning to their commodified claims to fame. saints. carrying sacks of counterfeit goods. belief and power sounding history with the bells of the subdivided hour. touting leather bags and laser toys in the subdued dialect of those whose papers never are correct. and the turbulent frescoes of corridors and ceilings. homeboys now in crowded high-rise rooms edging the embroidered city. the mobile inheritors of any renaissance. How did they get from Dakar to Venice? What brotherhood sent them to barter and pray? And on long rainy days when the basilica levitates. mercenaries. sellers. and within the layers of art and history that comprise the physical and cultural architecture of Venice.THE MOBILE INHERITORS 139 Merchants in Venice We arrive in Venice to ancient acoustics: the swaddling of paddle in water. or hover and hustle like apprentice angels over the shrouded campos and spires? Into the city we have come for centuries. beneath. dreaming of drowning./ while the city keeps selling its history and glass’. shining in saturated light. the banished. on water.

for the first time. It brings history and politics into art. structured through our cultural performances and through notions of cultural ownership and authenticity. where each informs and inflects the others.140 ENGLISH STUDIES IN AFRICA the human struggles which belie any easy celebration of intrinsic worth.(always-) valuable main tourist attraction. despite the political problems with the concept and in the face of the material history of the transmission of Shakespeare’s texts. Ironically. and economic positioning. the Renaissance has become a particularly resonant trope. I would like to explain this journey. written for the ‘Provocations’ colloquium at WISER in April 2008. And yet the right to inhabit this landscape is fraught in today’s neo-colonial context. consuming. by insisting that they have always been a part of the grubby. Spreading over this tangled web of material and ideological factors. literary criticism of the 80s and 90s which resonated so well with early modern textuality: new historicism. digesting. both of which depend on English Literature as a formal field of study with its original. I was forced to think about whether I was entitled to work in the area. drawing as it does on hopes of rebirth and revitalisation. which enables it to exist as object and as artefact. as it were. Where does this leave English Literature. They helped to explain what I felt. These structures often rely for their self-narrations on exclusionary binaries which our cultural products and the identifications bespoken by their creators reveal to be artificial. and the study of bibliography which offered a different deconstruction of authority and focus on materiality. Shakespeare is a particularly potent signifier in this regard. imposed. Africans’ relationship to Europe’s texts and treasures becomes participatory. my relationship to Renaissance literature. These ways of reading these texts and their ideological histories spoke to my experiences of the world. and then excreting anything of value as pre-packaged. and especially its still. Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 . feminism. The experience of studying as a postgraduate at Oxford made me question. The language of universalism continues to dominate the popular meaning of Shakespeare in South Africa. and thereby approach the topic of South African literary studies. Europe’s art would not mean what it does without Africa. capitalism’s maw gapes like Galactacus. both of which would seem to insist that Shakespeare is neither universal nor outside of colonial education histories. with a 100% mark-up on their price tags. in post-apartheid. and inadequate for any real understanding of what comprises the South African. and the local manifestation of the notion of Renaissance. easy-to-transport knickknacks. and then. These hopes speak to a post-apartheid recovery of a damaged or wounded Africanness. In particular. that coloniallyconstituted discipline. pocket-sized. cultural. It also stakes a claim for what Africans are entitled to inherit from this history. bring into focus how identities have been. they do so in a language that is reliant on the culture and the history which this putative originary Africanness would transcend. With this acknowledgment. In this intellectual autobiography. politicised. I have found connections that have structured my thinking. At the same time. post-colonial Shakespeare studies. From there to here. Shakespeare studies. which means without its exploited human and other resources. and continue to be. painful human living which makes high art. cultural materialism. The specific South African history of the deployment of a so-called universal Shakespeare. especially read through the then-new. from Venice to Dakar. traditional canon. neo-liberal South Africa?1 My first academic love was the literature of the Renaissance. Questions of authority and methods of authorisation often saturate claims to identity. where economic and cultural worth inform and enable each other and both literal and symbolic access is structured by one’s racial (or national or ethnic). and why. and its symbolic position in a global history and economy.

this disavowal is indicative of a melancholic and haunted neo-colonial subjectivity which is all we have to go on into the future. from exploring how South African writers made use of Shakespeare in the development of writing in English. in the face of our enormous and urgent challenges. How do we see what we can become. via the trope of the Renaissance which relies on Renaissance studies for its circulation and authorisation. This is not to suggest we should embrace a language of newness at the expense of paying attention to the ongoing presence of old structures. Sello Duiker’s books. the so-called ‘Zulu Macbeth’ written by Welcome Mtsomi in the early 1970s and subsequently exported as part of a post-apartheid cultural package. I argue that the concept. I’ve examined the changing commodification of performances of Africanness as they have been mediated through an eventually globalised uMabatha. which I believe we desperately need. and performed in this context. Because exploring the history of Shakespeare in South Africa takes one in the first instance into old binary formations and questions of authenticity and quite interesting anxieties about relevance. I’ve looked at Antony Sher’s expression of his ex-pat white liberal identity through his staging and writing about Titus Andronicus. But I think there is an emerging literary engagement with how the post-apartheid everyday is being lived and how identities are enabled.THE MOBILE INHERITORS 141 since I was repeatedly told that my questions were too political and were therefore inappropriate to my location. before leading into other territory. to the editorial decisions made in compiling Shakespeare editions for our schools.2 The work on Shakespeare in South Africa opened up questions about South African identity. albeit mostly in English. encodes a constitutive loss and a fundamental hybridity which belies what the African Renaissance wants to be. I had to pay due attention to the educational policies of colonialism. and what we in some ways have always been. David Medalie’s The Shadow Follows. while remaining cognisant of the inherited power structures that continue to comprise our starting points. to begin to conceptualise ourselves differently. For example. Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 . This work has generated a whole field of questions for me. Essentially this raised doubts about ownership: what was Shakespeare to me. ‘African Renaissance’. K. and his contemporaries? What was my South African claim on English history. the anodyne celebration of the ‘new’ South Africa is problematic and by now wearying. which lead to work on post-apartheid literature of the everyday. or the possibilities for newness opened up by a move away from old certainties. I’ve also done some thinking on the work done by the notion of the African Renaissance as a concept. invested. old ways of doing things. I also began to look at post-apartheid cultural productions to take further the issues of identity as expressed in writing in English. and collections like Nobody Ever Said AIDS and some of the many short story compilations that have emerged in the last decade or so. of the development of English Literature as a formal field of study. I ended up exploring new discourses of identity post apartheid. disabled. The nature of my work on South African literature and performances of identities focuses on an interest in finding a vocabulary. which we have denied or repressed or seen through particular lenses? It seems to me that South African literary studies could offer such a vocabulary to the wider populace. Most recently I’ve been working on Shakespeare and coconutiness in the context of a postPolokwane Thabo Mbkei’s media image. At the same time. and what was I entitled to say about ‘him’. if indeed I had one? This experience led me to explore what the historical and literary interaction between South Africans and the Shakespeare text has comprised of. and the fact of English as a language of power. I have been working with students on texts like Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

The situation is Shakespearean in its tragic proportions. the social and economic power of English is crucial to the aspirations of one of the protagonists: ‘[P]erhaps it is for the better that the conditions in this dump [her township home] never improve. I believe one of the biggest problems facing us in South Africa today is the intractable nature of white privilege. It also continues to give us canonical power – that is. More and more I find we seem to be developing. happy and personally powerful equates with being white. which means. which reinscribes essentialised and essentially artificial race differences. the accent matters.142 ENGLISH STUDIES IN AFRICA I have a real sense of the vitality of the issues raised in these texts when it comes to the lives of students. (137) [M]y whole life has become about how I speak. The power of English also relates to the ongoing existence of white. where they were born. I have even started speaking in the English language even when I do not need to. I am no longer concerned with what I sound like because I have come to believe that I sound like any other English-speaking person. For Fikile. or continuing. My work is concerned in some ways to engage with the identity structures and material conditions that continue to produce this situation. while seeking to draw out elements of our recent writing that offer ways through it. Nothing intimidates me. too. for whom such expressions are more than academic. and in a specific way: I am now more confident in everything I do and am no longer uncertain of my capabilities. dirty and poor. The work. Responsive or expedient counter-discourses of black authenticity or tradition set another limit. I use words like ‘facetious’ and ‘filial’ in everyday speech and speak English boldly. speaking English. on this level. a public discourse which revolves in the first instance around discourses of race. is also constructed by a specific ideological and material history that it cannot leave behind. this has set one limit on how far we can develop a new vocabulary because it refuses to shift or learn. I am also particularly interested in how the subject of English. what sounds the words make as they fall on the listener’s ear. They can serve as a constant reminder to me of what I do not want to be: black. the power of the canon defers an authority on us as lecturers and critics. and most importantly what kind of people they associate with … Trust me. The brand of liberal humanism which structures and informs a universal Shakespeare was behind the development of the subject in the early twentieth century. This. People don’t realize how much their accent says about who they are. This bucket [where she washes] can be a daily motivator for me to keep working towards where I will someday be: white. English. being rich. whether we teach Shakespeare or not. I also find myself increasingly aware of what may be conceived as a constitutive loss: of how our possibilities for creation grow out of a devastating history that we by definition cannot leave behind. while at the same time often accurately reflecting ongoing racialised interpersonal and public sphere dynamics. (154)3 Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 English’s ongoing power continues to attract students to our departments. and has come up most recently in Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut (2007). for all its multiplicity. in structuring our social and economic systems. the university subject. and remains deeply embedded in the unconscious of the . rich and happy’ (118). in the first place. middle-class privilege. In that text. is an issue for students’ everyday ideology. continues to structure identities and strategies of identification post-apartheid. and increasingly. which creates Englished subjects. feels activist to me. a point which itself gives Shakespeare power.

roots. We also share with many of our international colleagues the fact of the decline of the social value of the Humanities in an increasingly narrow interpretation of a market-driven educational environment. or to do nothing but complain that we are. contribute to the work of challenging an ideological weighting in favour Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 . In addition. in no uncertain terms. and which seems to me to act as a cover for a refusal to be held accountable for exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it. suspicious. we need to leave liberalism behind and be more honest about the perpetuation of some of the uglier aspects of English’s power. for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to invoke this right. I am aware that I am asking for resources to be put in the service of the most resourced language. becomes a strategy to retard change and prevent innovation. especially in a neo-colonial context where the proliferation of Literatures in English has challenged the departmental. and interconnections that have made us who and where we are. it will have to be in the context of a management hierarchy. dominance of the traditional English canon. It would add a new aspect to South African Shakespeare studies. Wherever it is we are going. in the first instance. as well as with his plays as texts in their own rights. narrow-minded. will structure universities’ agendas.THE MOBILE INHERITORS 143 subject and many of its departments. in the second. I think there is a case to be made for viewing this work as using Shakespeare as a source in much the same way Shakespeare himself relied on source material. One of the strategies available to us is to be aware of and strategic about the place of English and of English Literature in the South African everyday. At the same time I often cannot shake a suspicion that some of the complaints made against the capitalisation of and managerialism in academia. in a context where other languages are fighting for such access. are helping to perpetuate the worst of what it means to be South African: tribalised. From what I can tell. the need to transform. now that we can. Given that he translated the plays idiomatically. so that it has become inevitable that the institutional nature of the institution. Making his work available to those of us who do not speak seTswana would enable much more sustained engagements with how Plaatje used Shakespeare. The tendency in the Humanities either to pretend that we are not in such a hierarchy. An engaged and subtle literary criticism can help to surface the paradoxes. English departments are still characterised by a liberal individualism which is classed and raced. such a project would make strategic use of Shakespeare’s iconic power. and fighting to retain privilege gained at enormous cost to others. self-enclosed. thinking differently. but in the ideologies in some of our departments. we now need a cultural criticism which continues to engage with our society by seeking to make visible the enormous complexities of our current moment which needs to acknowledge. Not just in the South African sense of the word. one project I would like to see happen is the translation into English of Plaatje’s Diphoshoposho and Dintshontsho tsa Bo Julius Kesara. and the logic of the bottom line. the ongoing legacies of our colonial and apartheid constituting frameworks. sexist. For example. as well as have room for what we need to be doing. This is necessary to enable informed responses to our choices as citizens. not only in our society. humanist. The tendency towards historical amnesia together with variable levels of ignorance of aspects of our cultural and social histories. seeing. genealogies. and we will have to be able to account for the value of what we offer in terms other than the softly. if not the symbolic. frustrating and limiting as these often are. or even strongly. are complaints about. this is characteristic of English as a discipline across the world. However. and resistance to. but in the sense that the university has fundamentally changed with the acceleration of globalisation. and gendered. In place of the relatively simple position offered by ‘resistance’ as a driving critical idiom.

and has marvelous potential to develop links across the various literatures of our region. for example: ‘“We’re Black. ‘English and the African Renaissance’. 2006: 49–56. English Studies in Africa 47(2). Matlwa. it is that we’re great at conceptualizing and terrible at implementing. Ingrid. I fervently believe in the enormous potential we have. Stupid”: uMabatha and the new South Africa on the world stage’. 3. Shakespeare. although I recognise the problematic elisions in such a move. 2009. and Post-Colonial Culture. Throughout this discussion I am conflating ‘Renaissance studies’ with ‘Shakespeare’. 2005. 2. ‘Tony’s Will: Titus Andronicus in South Africa 1995’. Cape Town: Heinemann. Shakespeare in Southern Africa 18. We are not currently producing the kind of students who are equipped for this task. Ed. Volume 9. the necessity of which many people have addressed at this colloquium. Coconut. NOTES Downloaded by [ ] at 02:10 16 December 2011 1. and help develop a multilingual South African literary studies. It also makes clear the artificiality and ultimate untenability of identifications which refuse the imbrication of the English and the South African. Johannesburg: Jacana. Cape Town: Kwela. This is done here for ease of reference. However. 2004: 109–124. Terrestrial Things. See. even as I sometimes despair of my experience of the daily practice of literary studies. For a detailed discussion of the role of Shakespeare in this text’s construction of English and Englishness. Such students would need to be well-versed in both Elizabethan literature and seTswana linguistic and cultural history.144 ENGLISH STUDIES IN AFRICA of the Western half of an old binary. Natasha Distiller and Melissa Steyn. Ed. Kopana. Under Construction: ‘Race’ and Identity in South Africa Today. forthcoming in Shakespeare Survey. see Natasha Distiller. I do mean to make a claim for the reliance of each signifier on the other. 2007. But if there is one thing that has to date summed up the post-apartheid moment. and confounds discourses of racial and cultural difference while acknowledging material history. This project needs interdepartmental and interdisciplinary co-operation. . Tom Bishop and Graham Bradshaw. South Africa. ‘Mourning the African Renaissance’. ‘Shakespeare and the Coconuts’. 2004 149–162. 2002. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen. Shakespeare International Yearbook. WORKS CITED De Kok.

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