Carrol Clarkson. Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. xiii + 204 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-5416-3.
Reviewed by Diana Wylie (Boston University)
Published on H-AfrArts (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin (Saint Louis University)
Forging a New "We" in South Africa
What leads people to accept a new meaning for the word “we”? Carrol Clarkson, addresses this question within a pertinent, not to mention highly charged, context. It is the gargantuan task of creating a just South Africa out of a famously unjust and deliberately fractured society.
More narrowly political analyses of nation building tend to focus on formal institutions like political parties and schools. Clarkson’s ambit lies deeper, in the realm of culture: the visual arts (photography, painting, architecture), literature (novels, short stories, poetry, linguistics), and philosophy. She is especially interested in a deliberately broad question: how art changes the way we think about ourselves and others, what we value, even what we notice. She asks, “What does it take to recalibrate the settings so that what has been unseen, or unheard, or devalued before can now be perceived as worthy of attention?” (p. 2). Because South Africans are currently living through a period of “transitional justice” (p. 19), the time is ripe, as Clarkson frequently notes, for this “recalibration.”
“The line” is the metaphor binding her book. As a species we are continually drawing boundaries not only on maps but also between groups. Then we cross and redraw them. The new limits look hard and fast at first, but then the way we engage with the world shifts after some new discourse or art has freed up our imaginations, and fresh possibilities appear. In itself, the mere act of drawing a line invites us to imagine what is on other side. The provocative nature of this apparently simple act has already resulted in a remarkable number of books, including ones about South Africa, bearing the word “line” in their titles.
Drawing the Line is itself a boundary-crossing book in the sense that it pulls evidence from an extraordinarily wide range of disciplines: law, art and architecture, literature and literary theory, philosophy. Clarkson was encouraged by “critical legal studies” scholar Drucilla Cornell, co-editor of the Fordham series in which her book appears, to fashion ten of her previously published articles into this nine-chapter book. When Clarkson writes that her chapters do not need to be read in sequence and that each one can stand alone, she is effectively forewarning the reader to expect a fair amount of repetition. The chapters read like collected essays. They end up circling a set of fundamentally aesthetic problems, rather than building to a resounding conclusion or advocacy of a particular policy. It is fitting that the last sentence of her book is a question rather than a statement, one that is made uneasily tentative by the word “perhaps”: “In the meaningful projection of a more just future, how do we imagine, make sense of, and perhaps redraw these lines?” (p. 168).
Jacques Rancière’s theory of the “aesthetic act” helped Clarkson frame this question. Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) looks at specific cultural incidents that have had the power to, in Clarkson’s words, “reset social perceptions of what counts and what matters, especially in relation to questions of social justice and to questions of political and legal identity” (p. 2). “Aesthetics” refers broadly to shifts in perception so vast that they could be likened to the movement of tectonic plates. (Neither she nor Rancière is using "aesthetics" to refer narrowly to the realm of the beautiful.) Real force and real power lie in “aesthetic” acts that at first sight might seem small because they occur far from the world of armies or money, but they are actually grand. Words like Mandela's celebrated speech from the dock in 1964 or a building like Johannesburg’s new Constitutional Court, fashioned from a former prison, can lead people to different ways of “perceiving the relations between the actual and the possible” and thus have an “ethical potency” (p. 3). Clarkson’s prose is sufficiently clear that the relevant arguments of not only Rancière, but also Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida will be intelligible even to those who have not read the original texts. Plato and Ludwig Wittgenstein make appearances, too. Drawing the Line is solidly grounded in Western intellectual history.
While Clarkson does write clearly about Continental philosophy, her most compelling passages come from works of South African fiction (the short stories of Herman Charles Bosman, the novels of J. M. Coetzee). The literary images she presents as evidence of boundary-crossing leap off the page in a way that her own prose cannot. Bosman pierces the reader’s consciousness when he writes with great irony about orderly Boer graveyards, “properly marked-out places on our farms for white people to be laid to rest in, in a civilized Christian way, instead of having to be buried just anyhow, along with a dead wild-cat, maybe, or a Bushman with a clay pot, and things.” Clarkson’s commentary on Bosman reads flatly: “images of fences and graveyards are striking in that they invite thoughts of the mutability and contingency of the human boundaries they are meant to set and stabilize” (pp. 30-31). The greater power of the first passage has, of course, inspired Clarkson’s argument, but this fact points to an irony at the heart of her book. When she asks, “Could literary texts contribute to ethical thinking in ways that reasoned arguments of philosophy fail to do?” (p. 127), her answer must be yes. That is, by addressing feelings, literature has greater power to "recalibrate" human attitudes and behavior, to broaden our affective scope. Readers may wonder if the insights to be gained from Drawing the Line are in fact simpler and more widely known than they seem when framed in theoretical discourse.
Drawing the Line is admirably animated by the author’s desire for the new “we”—grounded in the country's remarkably progressive constitution—that is indeed growing in the new South Africa, albeit in fits and starts. South Africa is still fractured, as Clarkson well knows. Within the past few months fault lines have split open everywhere: in townships where locals have stabbed foreign Africans to death in broad daylight, on her own campus where protestors recently threw feces on a statue of Cecil Rhodes, in private primary schools where white parents have requested separate classes so their “own culture” could be maintained. As suggested by these 2015 flash points, old mental boundaries remain to be crossed by South Africans of all hues.
And yet, most of Clarkson’s artistic examples come from white South Africans (Willem Boshoff, Coetzee, Bosman). Fewer come from black South Africans (Phaswane Mpe). This disparity could give rise to the misapprehension that white South Africans are the main social actors resisting the new “we.” If, for example, Zanele Muholi’s photographs of queer and trans people had been included in the book or if there had been a wider discussion of African philosophy and cultures, would this imbalance have been redressed, would she have shown us a broader and more representative image of South Africa today?
Clarkson takes ideas deeply seriously as social forces in their own right, rather than as epiphenomena of class interests, a common tendency in southern African studies not so long ago. Less philosophically inclined readers are likely to be frustrated by her disciplinary bias against including empirical data on impact: how are people’s ideas actually changing? This is not a question for theory to answer, though Drawing the Line certainly does set us up to wonder.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-afrarts.
Diana Wylie. Review of Clarkson, Carrol, Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice.
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