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Dr Wamuwi Mbao

Home country: South Africa

Year of enrolment: 2010

Graduation date: March 2013

Department: English

Supervisor: Prof Shaun Viljoen

Dissertation title: Unavowable communities: Mapping representational excess in South African literary culture, 2001 - the present.



This thesis takes as its subject matter a small field of activity in South African fiction in English, a field which I provisionally title the post-transitional moment. It brings together several works of literature that were published between 2004 and 2011. In so doing, it recognises that there can be no delineation of the field except in the most tenuous of senses: as Michael Chapman asserts, such "phases of chronology are ordering conveniences rather than neatly separable entities" (South African Literature 2). In attempting to take a reading of this field, I draw on discussions of the innumerable post-transitional flows and trajectories of meaning advanced by critical scholars such as Ashraf Jamal, Sarah Nuttall, Louise Bethlehem and others. In this thesis, I trace the "enigmatic and acategorical" (Jamal, "Bullet Through the Church" 11) dimension of this field through several works by South African authors. These works are at once singular and communal in their expression: they are singular in the sense that they are unique literary events1; they are communal because they share a particular force in their writing, a force that resists thematic bestowing. The schism between these conflicting/contiguous poles forms the basis of this thesis. I examine the works of a diverse selection of South African authors, finding in them a common, if discontinuous, seam in their treatment of excess, by which I mean the irreducible surplus that always demarcates the limits of representation. I find that these works each engage a movement towards the aporetic moment opened up by their characters' experience of the traumatic. To be sure, these particular works of literature are notable for their exploration of ideas of alterity, loss and the capacity for survival in the routines of 'South African' lives. I use literature as the primary site of navigation for this enquiry because, as the scholars cited above have observed, literature is often a generator of meanings and a space where complex ideas about identity are explored and played out through the medium of the everyday. I recognise here that in the post-transitional moment, literature's affective capacity in the world of action is limited – in Simon Critchley's terms, it is 'almost nothing.' My thesis seizes this almost as the site of exploration. Taking as its starting point the existential question 'have we learnt to imagine ourselves in other ways?' I propose a number of positions from which these post-transitional works of literature might be read. The first chapter attempts to give account of the theoretical problem that attends to the reading of that which exceeds language's capacity to invest with meaning. I use works by Diane Awerbuck, Annelie Botes, Shaun Johnson and Kgebetli Moele to inform my argument. In the next chapter, I explicate the problem of excess via a reading of Mark Behr's Kings of the Water (2009). I then trace the aporetic nature of Otherness as it occurs in J.M. Coetzee's Summertime (2009), paying particular attention to the ways in which that novel performs a refusal of meaning. Finally, I read Ishtiyaq Shukri's The Silent Minaret (2005) as a work that posits the failure of alterity as a launching point for future ethical action. The burden of this thesis, as I see it, lies in the apophastic nature of its subject matter. In embarking upon an exploration of the incommensurable, my argument is for an ethics of reading that seeks to explicate the ways in which literature works by thinking through its affective capacity the better to affirm its performative dimensions.

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