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Culture in the public sphere : recovering a tradition of radical cultural-political debate in South Africa, 1938-1960.

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This thesis is concerned with the negotiation of cultural and literary matters in South African public life during the period 1938 to 1960. While I begin with an exploration of the more 'orthodox' or 'academic' traditions of literary-cultural discussion in South Africa, the far more urgent preoccupation has been to explore a hitherto undocumented tradition of cultural-political debate in the South African public sphere, one which arose in the ' counter-public' circles of oppositional South African political groups. What has emerged is a rich and heterogeneous public debate about literature and culture in South Africa which has so far gone unrecorded and unrecognised. What sets this 'minority' discussion apart from more mainstream cultural discourses, I argue, is its overt engagement with contemporary socio-political issues. Articulated mainly by 'subaltern' writer-intellectuals - who occupied a precarious position in the social order either by virtue of their racial classification, class position or political affiliation - this is a cultural debate which offers a forthright critique of existing race and class norms. In these traditions, literary-cultural discussion becomes a vehicle for the articulation of radical political views and a means whereby marginalised individuals and groups can engage in oppositional public debate. In this regard, I argue, literary-cultural debate becomes a means of engaging in the kind of public political participation which is not available in the ' legitimate' public sphere. Focusing in the first instance on literary criticism 'proper', this thesis considers the distinctive reading strategies, hermeneutic practices, and evaluative frameworks which mark these alternative South African discursive traditions . Here I argue that the political, content-oriented, historical and ideological emphases of an alternative South African tradition are in marked contrast to the formalist, abstracted and moralising tendencies of more normative approaches. What the thesis points to is not only the existence of a substantial body of anti-colonial criticism and response in South Africa from the mid-1930s onwards, but also to a vigorous tradition of Marxist literary criticism in South Africa, one which predates the arrival of Marxist approaches in South African universities by some thirty years. Aside from the more traditional critical arena of literary consumption and evaluation, the thesis also considers a more general public discussion, one in which questions such as the place of politics in art, the social function of literature/culture, and the complex 'postcolonial' questions of cultural allegiance, identity and exclusion are debated at length. In this regard, culture becomes one of the primary sites of a much broader contestation of ruling class power. Regarded by many in these traditions as intrinsic to the operations of class and colonial oppression, culture also figures as one ofthe primary nodes of resistance. In seeking out these marginal South African 'subaltern counterpublics', the project has sought to retrieve a history of radical cultural-political debate in South Africa which is not available as part of the existing literary-cultural archive. In this regard, I hope not only to keep these ideas ' afloat' as a way of complicating and interrogating the present, but also seek to provide a more accurate and inclusive sense of the South African public sphere during the period under review. In particular, I offer a sense of the many competing intellectual discourses which formed the broader intellectual context out of which the dominant English Studies model was eventually constellated. I also give attention to the complex social processes by means of which certain intellectual discourses are granted legitimacy and permanence while others are discarded: what emerges in this regard, as I suggest, is gradual 'outlawing' of politics from South African cultural debates which coincides with the rise of the apartheid state.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2005.


Criticism--South Africa., Marxist criticism--South Africa., Theses--English., Taylor, Dora.