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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

John Higgins and the pitfalls of underdetermination

Kelwyn Sole - 2009-03-26

(A response to John Higgins, "The sole measure of poetic value")


My recent article on South African poetry to which John Higgins has responded had several levels of intention.1 Firstly, through a discussion of post-liberation State economic policy and its effects on civil society, it sought to show how the everyday life of many South Africans is still pervaded by a sense of lack that can be in part traced back to global neo-liberal policies and the present government’s implementation of these, chiefly through GEAR. I used poetic evidence from a number of (generally) lesser known local poets to demonstrate how dissatisfaction at this was expressed by a group with little access to political power.

Secondly I suggested that Henri Lefebvre’s sense of the political potential residing within the notion of "the everyday" is still valid, even as I signalled the ambiguous, slippery province of this term. While registering that the "everyday" as a realm of scholarship tends towards studying routines, habitual activities and acquired skills and attitudes of mind so mundanely regarded as to be often performed without full awareness, I suggest that such activities and such a consciousness are still overdetermined by larger social and institutional structures, State policies and ideological hegemonies; and that these processes can perhaps be more swiftly perceived in the so-called "developing" world. This argument was aimed at countering the increasingly apolitical ambience in which the term is being deployed, both in the developed world (a legacy of the effects of the largely descriptive methodology of de Certeau and his followers) and more recently in South Africa (as a result of the incomplete manner in which literary and cultural commentators have taken up Njabulo Ndebele’s formulation of the "ordinary"). I implied that an awareness of the politico-economic aspects of the "everyday" dovetails interestingly with theorists in other disciplines who stress the pervasive reach of economic imperatives under late capitalism. The matrices of previously relatively autonomous levels of human livelihood are becoming saturated: proof of tendencies in capitalism’s development that Marx had highlighted already by the 19th century. The paradoxical result of this is that, as capitalism develops, economic determinations seem to disappear while they simultaneously become ever more insistent. Thus, the effects of neo-liberal policies such as GEAR in South Africa are in a very real sense an intrusive, lived experience, especially among the poor and marginalised.

This allowed me, thirdly, to initiate a critique of the emergence in South African academic thought of the widespread article of faith that expressions of quotidian life experience necessarily act as an antidote to political tendentiousness in art. Following this, my article intended to bring into purview the upsurge of recent poetic activity in South Africa, using a number of figures who seemed to me to be writing in ways which tallied with the logic of my argument. I highlighted their anger at State direction and macro-economic policy, at the greed of the old and new elites and the self-serving behaviour of professional politicians.

Finally, I posed a number of points which my article either could not answer satisfactorily or did not have space to investigate - such as the enigma as to why the prose of the same period seems relatively free of such political themes, and the degree to which issues of gender - a crucial concept for the "everyday" - would influence my findings. There are, of course, other omissions, due to the article’s brevity: for example, it does not develop issues based around race and identity; nor does it begin to subject the current upsurge of slam poetry (and the manner in which poetry has become an item of "fashion" among some sectors of better-off black youth) to scrutiny.2

In light of the above I find Higgins's reading somewhat surprising. At times his response appears to misread the intention and, occasionally, the very letter of what I say. Perhaps this is because his own overriding concerns at the moment are very different, as he concedes (99). As I make the presence of economic factors a focus, it is hardly surprising that I discuss economic concerns: yet the suggestion that the article is content merely to draw attention to the ways "an economy determines a culture" (idem) is not an adequate description. I cannot understand how an article which goes out of its way (just to give one example) to examine the impact of civil society on the issues it raises, can be labelled as falling prey to a simplistic economic determinism.

Nevertheless - although he emerges elsewhere as no adherent of Althusserianism - he of course has a right to read my article "against the grain". It is, however, disingenuous not to engage with its substantial thrusts and concerns. Moreover, it is to be regretted that he chose to publish his response in a different journal from the one in which mine appeared. The consequence is that readers are left in the position of taking either his word or mine for what was said. If this were all there was to it, of course, any debate between us would be uninteresting to others. However, he raises, or demonstrates, several points of substance where we find ourselves at odds, which reflect pressing problems among materialist theorists.

Base and superstructure

Higgins's succinct reference to the Adorno-Benjamin interchange leaves many aspects of this exchange unmentioned. His assumption that Adorno has the last, unassailable word can be queried: Benjamin certainly didn’t think so. There are other ramifications to this debate which would need analysis for any evaluation: for instance, the manner in which Adorno misunderstood Benjamin’s deployment of montage and the "dialectical image" (“I need say nothing. Only exhibit”) as a substitute for the former’s desire for a narrative of reasoned - and, to be less kind, often long-winded - exposure of the levels of mediation in culture;3 or their opposing views on the relevance of Hegelian thought to the process of mediation per se.4 This gap in investigation possibly occurs because Higgins uses Adorno for the sole purpose of accusing me of falling prey to archaic practices in cultural studies, especially my supposed reliance on the base-superstructure conceptualisation, through which I supposedly attribute ineluctable causal explanation to the economic base and ignore the full play of mediations in my study, and (despite his disclaimers) perhaps even tend dangerously towards revitalising passive, mechanistic and reflective notions as to the manner in which culture and literature operate within the social totality.
It would be easy to dismiss this by pointing out that Higgins does not seem to have read much of my work, despite his encomia: a quarter of a century ago, at a stage when the base-superstructure formulation was generally accepted on the South African left, I was drawing attention to the problems that could accrue through its rote, reductionistic application vis-à-vis literary and cultural studies.5 Yet there is a much more interesting symptomatic problem in his response which may be fruitful to discuss at some length, as it is a problem which to some extent besets us all. This is the vexed question as to how one deals with mediation and determination in the absence of the base-superstructure formulation; and, as a corollary, the effect Raymond Williams's dismissal of this formulation has had on cultural and literary studies on the left. Among left critics who are attracted to readings which stress human agency, as well as "post-al" critics more generally, Williams's rebuttal seems to be now regarded as incontrovertible. However, while there has been an acknowledgement of the pitfalls of base-superstructure among many Marxists, there is a powerful school of thought which is not convinced as to the finality of such a dismissal.
What is tantalisingly missing from Higgins's response is any hint as to how (in the face of the purported crudities of "economism") mediation and determination could be made to operate more adequately within the general questions that my article raises. Indeed, puzzlingly enough for someone who claims to be operating within "the dynamics of Marxist literary criticism through a reading of the work of the British literary and cultural critic, Raymond Williams" (99-100), there is practically no attempt discernible to tackle the daunting issues of mediation and determination at all. This is no small absence: Crystal Bartolovich is surely correct in pointing out that in our post-colonial world capitalism, globalisation and uneven development have between them spawned "a density of mediations that make their intrication with political economy obscure, but not absolutely unreadable".6 The same can be said for culture and the arts: a point with which Williams, in his continued emphasis on materialism despite his dislike for the base-superstructure metaphor, would surely have agreed.

I find nowhere in Higgins an idea of how "mediation" should operate conceptually, nor how it could be modelled. In the face of such a silence I have searched for insights elsewhere, in particular in his recent book-length study of Williams. While I experienced difficulty at times separating the author’s glossing of Williams in this study from his own critical commentary, it is clear that he sets himself firmly in line with Williams's belief that the base-superstructure model is an expression of the economism and functionalism present in Marx’s work. In its place Higgins promotes a Marxism which eschews a priori formulae, stresses the complexity of social totality and the presence of human agency, the material effectivity of consciousness and the active, constitutive force of culture on social structures. There can, of course, be no disagreement with this. It seems incontrovertible that cultural forms (like other sites of human agency and consciousness) work at all levels of society, including the political and economic, and that they do not only reproduce the status quo but also powerfully produce change.
Yet, in his discussion of determination in this book, it is noticeable that Higgins's dislike for reflective and passive conceptualisations is such that he moves quickly to, and focuses on, a discussion of the usefulness of the Gramscian notion of hegemony as "that sense of determination as the setting of limits which human agency may always challenge, with neither success or failure written in from the start", simultaneously downplaying any emphasis on saturation and determination which might use these as "terms which might suggest a closed and static state of affairs".7 This seems to be an over-compensation, and one which lends itself to positions that lose as much in their observation of social agency at work through culture as any static determinism. Peter Osborne observes:

There is a discourse, and an astonishingly prevalent one at that, within which it is maintained that discourse itself may serve not merely to constitute objects within the field of meaning, but also to represent structures of existence which have an effective determinacy independent of the forms through which they are "constituted as objects" within discourse … it is precisely the failure of any such notion of representation as this which makes a representation a representation, which is constituted through a relation between itself and something else, independent of it, which it claims to re-present. The issue is not the possibility / impossibility of a "pure" or pre-discursive access to objects, but what criteria of "truthfulness" are suitable for which forms of representation and for what purposes, and how they are related to those forms of extra-discursive determinacy which impose themselves upon us practically, as limits, in all our dealings with the world. (My emphasis)8
At the risk of sounding reductionist - and I am certainly not the first to make this point - I would wish to re-examine the ingrained power of British empiricism within such left-wing opponents of "system" as Williams and, differently, EP Thompson. There seems to be a germ of truth in the suggestion that as a theorist Williams was blind to, or dismissed, the fact that Marx’s formulation of base-superstructure could at best work metaphorically. Moreover, as GA Cohen argues in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense, it is entirely possible for social processes and institutions (Cohen deals with law) to be empirically omnipresent in society and at the same time usefully conceptualised and analysed as various "levels" of that society. It is to be regretted that the hegemonic - at times canonical - position Williams's critique has gained in contemporary cultural studies has blinded students to the need to look at other intricate arguments among Marxists revolving around problems of base-superstructure, arguments which remained cautious about a complete ditching of the concept (or, rather, the important considerations that revolve around the concept - the metaphor in itself is of little worth if a better means of description could be found). My sense is that students these days are simply not given access to (for instance) Meillassoux’s notion of infrastructure, or Cohen’s defence of functionalism in Marx’s work.
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, the question can be raised as to whether Williams's "solution" has been the most productive in resolving the topic of mediation and determination. What seems to have proliferated in its wake are a plethora of studies which Williams, I suspect, would have had no time for: free-floating notions of cultural behaviour espoused alike by many contemporary post-modernist and more traditionalist literary and cultural critics. As James Holstun notes:

Marx’s statement was not a dissertation but an aphorism: a local and strategic attempt to hack out some breathing room for historical materialism inside a choking thicket of Hegelian idealism. And the need for such ground-clearing aphorisms has not disappeared, even inside ostensibly materialist contexts. For if marxists have nothing in particular to like about the base / superstructure metaphor, they still have something to fear from its critique; the disappearance of economy and the very concept of determination. For instance, many readers assimilate Williams’s essay on base and superstructure to a comfortably idealist rejection of the economic, or an argument for the “relative autonomy” of the superstructures, which leads to new reifications: the base becomes a mere thing which can be safely ignored, while the relatively autonomous superstructures become too complex to analyze systematically, and determination becomes overdetermination verging on indeterminacy. Contemporary practitioners of cultural studies seldom take time to specify what is other than culture, so by definition (by the definition of “definition”) they never define culture itself. They post clear warning signs on the road to reductive economism, but leave unmarked the equally reductive road to culturalism.9

The point Regis Debray made in 1979 in A Critique of Arms Vol 1 is pertinent: every formulation of "theory" - including Marx’s own - has to be read in part as a response to the previous interventions and formulations it is critiquing, and cannot be fully understood in isolation from these. I would want to believe that Higgins's over-compensation above can in the long run be similarly comprehended, rather than standing simply as a dismissal of structural determination, or the need for conceptual reduction in analysis per se. Yet, given his silence about determination, what worries me is the echoes in his work of a proclivity of 20th-century literary studies David Simpson wryly comments on, and from which (I am sure) he would want to distance himself: a tendency for the discipline to see itself "as a mobile energy moving between everyone else’s fixed approaches … we never linger long enough to fall under the spell of systems and structures, which are often seen to be … improper, leading us away from the fecund temporality of 'lived experience' (to echo one of Raymond Williams’s favourite phrases)".10

I have argued elsewhere that post-liberation South African cultural and literary studies have too often come to operate within a realm of culturalism which, through an effective rather than an espoused avoidance of the study of literature and culture as determined and mediated aspects of the social totality, tends towards philosophical idealism, despite its radical veneer.11 I believe there is a discernible disposition for South African literary and cultural critics these days to neglect not only issues of politics and economics in their investigations - despite genuflecting in their direction - but also to pass over creative work that foregrounds or lingers on such issues. My article sought to counter this. Higgins can hardly be unaware of this intention, as he quotes me in this regard, inter alia my suggestion that "such criticism has taken literature away from an examination of politics and (especially) the economy, at a crucial stage in South African history … few convincing demonstrations as to how everyday experience deals with or escapes economic and political have been forthcoming from literary commentators" (101). Instead, he indulges in a misreading: the tone here is obviously not one that seeks to set up rigid hierarchies; neither does "escapes" merely mean "refuses to look at" or "does not pay attention to"; it also means "does not conform to".

If Higgins were further able to show any outcomes of prescription in my work that an inflexible application of the base-superstructure metaphor have caused, or any faith demonstrated in the rote primacy of productive forces, or a narrow economism, then there would be no further reason for discussion. Instead, however, and against his intention, it can be seen that his own predispositions in his discussion of base-superstructure result in silences and blind spots in his critique of other aspects of my article. Oddly enough, this results in a study as "abstract and unreal" as any occasioned by a mechanistic application of base-superstructure, as I will demonstrate.


My article never suggests that the matters it raises are the only ones, or even the central ones, of South African poetry. I do, however, point out that they are matters few literary or cultural critics in South Africa seemed prepared to ask in post-liberation times - an omission which reflects on the present ideological hegemony operating both inside and outside the academy. Yet what surprises me most about the discussion of canon-formation in my work is the manner in which Higgins individualises it, appearing to think that one critic can muster the persuasiveness and power to institute a canon through one article. I am flattered, of course, though it seems misplaced to comprehend canon-formation solely in such terms. While canons are, of course, formed through the agency of (amongst others) individual critics, they can gain their purchase to operate only through institutionalisation: through the academy (the selection in university poetry courses, for instance), the media, journal editorial proclivities, prizes, and so on. These are important structures of determination which act on, and help shape, canons, and which require the agency of many and the work of institutions. In this case we have one critic and one article. Hardly a conclusive case for the emergence of a new canon!

In this we see illustrated what a partial understanding of determination does to Higgins's perspective. He appears to discuss the issue of canonisation chiefly through a belief in the effectivity of consciousness - and the consciousness of individuals at that - and thus occludes the role of institutions, thereby (so to speak) dematerialising his project. Is this a result of his disregard for issues of determination? I may be mistaken, but I can consequently understand Higgins's statements here only in terms of the post-modern belief that not only are canons wrong; the attitude of critics who are prepared to indulge in special pleading for any particular sort of literature is also blameworthy, as evincing an implicit desire to canonise. Well, perhaps. Yet at the same time he notes in his article that many of these poets are new to him and, further, that my work has served "to broaden the existing margins of debate and canonical inclusion" (99).
John Guillory argues that one should treat with caution the belief that it is possible to construct a list of canonical works that would be fully representative of a particular society, tracing the notion itself back to the social imaginary of aliberal humanism newly outfitted with the accoutrements of contemporary theory.12 Instead, one must understand the political practice of canon-making and -breaking within specific social formations and contexts. My article does not make a plea for demographic or any other form of representativeness in South African literature; instead, it makes it clear that I am intervening within a very specific context. My opinion is that South Africa is in a situation where, 15 years after liberation, ideas about literature are again omnipresent in the academy and media which two prior decades of radical scholarship, black and white, had convincingly demonstrated were hugely flawed.13 After the averted South African revolution, there are signs of a new, by no means radical hegemony in place again in major institutions of learning and communication. This displacement has occurred more through exclusion than debate at the nodal points of dissemination – school and university teaching, newspaper reviews, publishing outlets, etc - precisely through what it refuses to debate orexamine. It is an exclusion which, I would suggest, functions powerfully to naturalise the worldview of the conglomeration of white business interests, reformulated centre-right liberalism and conservative African nationalism (with emergent black business in tow) which is emerging as the new - albeit quarrelling - ruling class in the country. All-pervasive in South Africa at present is an official and media discourse based around themes of nation-building, developmentalism14 and a vaunting optimism that at times has little foundation in social realities, insisting instead that it is (in Thabo Mbeki’s words) "counter-revolutionary" to shake the boat of present State policy and direction. This is a world where, in the words of one inhabitant of Thembilihle Informal Settlement, "Just now they will start giving starving children colouring-in books and call that development."15
My article set itself against such exclusion and silencing, as well as the tendency for the new and old elites to presume that their ideological and rhetorical gestures can act in place of the practical and structural. Hence my foregrounding of social determination. In this, I chose to highlight many poems with political ramifications and resonances that were also formally experimental: poems and poets I perceived were ignored by orthodoxy. Perhaps this is an idiosyncratic view, but I do not think so. Poet Rob Berold, for example, speaks of a stylistically and linguistically innovative upsurge of post-1990 "black poets: Rampolokeng, Motsapi, Nyezwa, Zhuwao, Muila, Dladla, Bila and others. Why nobody in academe … has registered the importance of these poets is beyond me. It really makes me wonder whether these professional literary people are able to read."16 In such a context it is counter-productive, to my way of thinking, for Higgins to be so stern about my intervention while remaining silent about existing, and powerful, aesthetic and ideological orthodoxies in South African literature.

Certainly, at the point at which some of the names Berold mentions harden into a new canon accompanied by routine and predictable praise from critics, it will be time to move on; Higgins is quite right to focus on the potential circularity of canon-construction (101-2). However, canonisation is an ineluctable process; it cannot be avoided, only fought at the point where reception, and people’s sensibilities and expectations, start to rigidify. Anything else transmogrifies, despite intention, into an argument for stasis, or treats the question of canonisation in so voluntaristic a way as to make the study of its effective power meaningless. Indeed, from one perspective it can be maintained that teachers such as Higgins and myself indulge in the urge to canonise any time we select texts for a course we teach, or choose certain critical foci to highlight these texts, or allow classroom debate to flourish in certain directions rather than others, or make selections for examination questions.17 We cannot avoid this, only make students aware of how the process works, and lay bare our own methodologies as we teach.

In the face of this, there are a number of lynchpins to Higgins's analysis that are over-precipitate. I nowhere suggest that the poetry gives an accurate account of the ways in which the economy impacts on ordinary citizens in such a manner as to fall outside of questions of ideology and representation, as he maintains (99): and while my article does not focus on aesthetic and formal concerns because of its very nature, it does not foreclose the need for their study. Higgins blurs this by presuming that my study must necessarily bear with it an unconscious, final aesthetic evaluation. Neither do I believe, or say, that the "best" poetry (where does Higgins find this word in my article?) is a poetry of "witness" that testifies to globalisation (101). Here the degree to which he makes elisions and conjures up conclusions in line with predetermined assumptions is marked. To say, for instance, that in my analysis

The best poetry is the poetry of witness, that which "immediately and perhaps even causally" reflects the determinations of economic policy on everyday life. Or, to use the paper’s own vocabulary, its central question with regard to literary value regards "the manner in which these politico-economic circumstances have impacted on poets during the last decade" (idem) is to elide the gap between the first quote (which does not appear in my article) and the second (which does) in a way which is unacceptable. It should also be obvious that "impacts" implies a very different process of mediation and inter-relationship to "immediately and … causally".

He in addition seems not to have been paying attention at the point in my article where I signal very clearly that my approach is only one that could be adopted to my subject matter, and that other approaches would probably yield somewhat different evaluations. I name a number of poets who deal with the "everyday" in ways which fall outside of my thesis, and who would therefore need scrutiny from a different perspective. Nor do I suggest that the work of the poets I mention stops at a purview of political and economic issues. He is reading negligently if he assumes that I am saying that the work is aesthetically interesting because of its subject matter. I am describing the poetry at this point, not suggesting causal connections.18 The fact of the matter is that what continually fascinates about someone like Lesego Rampolokeng, for instance, or Mxolisi Nyezwa, or Jeremy Cronin, or Seitlhamo Motsapi, or Joan Metelerkamp, or Ari Sitas, or Karen Press, is that their work is prepared to experiment formally at the same time as it does not eschew political concerns. This acts against a long-standing belief in South Africa, widespread among students and the academy alike, that politically-inflected poetry must needs be aesthetically uninteresting. I do not take this point further, or look more closely at the nuances of this proliferation of styles, for the good reason that I was principally concerned with reading the work vis-à-vis the concept of the "everyday’, and saw this as a subsequent project.


Higgins is correct to refer to the incipient dangers in terms such as "witness" as a means of evaluating literature. I was uncomfortably aware of the problematic history and nature of this term, and the tinges of Romanticism in my material, as I was working on the article. However, although I personally dislike the term, I was faced with the dilemma as I wrote that no other approach seemed to delineate adequately the poets' self-fashioning, what they thought they were doing, or what they appeared to be doing, in the face of a post-liberation State they believed paid little attention to their grievances or insights; and in a context where literature, and especially poetry, has been devalued as an ethical public discourse by a number of effects, such as the rapidity of socio-economic restructuring let loose in the wake of liberation, the proliferation of new technologies, the growing predominance of non-literary forms such as film and television in popular consciousness, and so on.

In some of its potential meanings, the term "witness" brings with it assumptions about - amongst others - the importance of truth, authenticity and the role of the individual poet as an individual prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness: all concepts which resonate strongly with European Romanticism. However, Higgins's debunking of this is rather skewed. The charge he makes against these poets, or perhaps against my interpretation of them, is decontextualised and dehistoricised. There are three points that can be made here. Firstly, there is a need to separate the witnessing of victimhood to the experiencing of it, if one wants to raise, or deconstruct, the issues surrounding "authenticity". Secondly, the North American poet Alicia Oistraker has argued strongly that "witnessing" has continued validity in the post-modern world as a useful stance for the socially concerned poet. She argues that assumptions that "witness" must bear the arrogance of final authority, or the complacency of confession-giving, misses what is going on in some contemporary North American post-modern poetry, where a poetry of "witness" has emerged that moves past confession-giving to a conscious enacting of the discontinuities and contradictions of authorial or narrator consciousness and understanding, embodying "a personal wrestling, which can never ultimately stand in righteously complacent judgement of others".19 So much for the article of faith that the pose of witness-to-experience necessarily bears "evangelical overtones" or that it always takes the high ground of "special knowledge" (102)! Thirdly, the concept has a historical resonance in South Africa that goes far beyond the recent effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Notions of "truth", "authenticity" and the prophetic voice of poetry - and associated terms tied by Higgins merely to Romanticism - go far further in their purveyance in South African literary history. For one, Es’kia Mphahlele has pointed out the prevalence of the poet-prophet figure in the history of black poetry.20 In this sense, figures such as Rampolokeng, Bila and others are less unusual than they might appear. So is the figure of the poet as outsider but incisive social and spiritual commentator, which seems to span racial groups these days – apparently filtered, in figures as diverse as Rampolokeng and Berold, through the additional influence of the Beats.

Moreover, a perceived context of repression and/or injustice will act as a spur for a poetry that proclaims its truth and authenticity, or emphasises the unique role of the poet; and here post-liberation South Africa is no exception. We have, even in this post-liberation era, many statements to this effect: Kgafela oa Magagodi, for example, notes that 1970s Black Consciousness poet Madingoane’s work remains important because "when poets hid behind metaphors you stood/ & spoke nine-nine" ("ninenine"),21 while Motsapi angrily proclaims that contemporary "politics, journalism and advertising (are) … driven by passion for illusion, talent for obfuscation and predisposition to ostentation".22 The latter implies, through a denigration of these other forms of discourse, a theme openly stated among a number of contemporary local poets: that there is something about the discourse of poetry - and, in the local situation, possibly about its contemporary undervalued, "outsider" status - that many people feel facilitates and enables direct commentary of their insights, experiences, emotions and dreams, whether of utopia or nightmare.

I doubt whether this can be satisfactorily comprehended as a consequence of poets, or critical commentators, being immersed in the special qualities of poetry à la Shelley, except in a transformed, historically determined sense.23 Although it is tempting to trace the prevalence of (some, not all of) the terms of Romanticism back to the effects of education and, earlier, missionary education, or the spread of European thought and the layering of its discourses on to African sensibility as a result of colonialism, this is only part of the picture. Poets who trace their origins more fully from an African aesthetic tradition, such as rurally based oral izimbongi (praise poets), are the bearers of strikingly similar notions about their roles and craft - the prophetic "truth" of their utterance, its source in a mysterious, God-given "inspiration", and so on – all beliefs which would be familiar to students reading Jerome McGann or Marilyn Butler. These exist at least as far back as the emergence of the Ntsikana-trope in the 1820s, and probably long before, in contexts that in some cases simply cannot be ascribed fully to missionary influence, or the influence of foreign concepts, in the education system or in black social life.24
It is noticeable that Higgins perceives the term "witness" only in aesthetico-philosophical terms, and from within a European paradigm, then takes it upon himself to deconstruct it. This leaves huge areas unexamined. Despite the cogency of the initial point he makes, I am uneasy with the deracinated and Eurocentric results of his manner of dealing with the issue of Romantic influence and "witness" in South Africa. In using the term "Eurocentric", I am not here trying to install a West-other binary: for anyone dealing with the history of South African literature, one of the problems with which we cannot help but be troubled is the displaced, attenuated and reformulated history of transposed European categories in our lives and in our objects of study.25 Yet, contextually, both "Romanticism" and "witness" have ramifications that are opaque to Higgins, and which could emerge into view only with a study of structural issues and a more precise understanding of local history.

One of the suggestions my article floats is that those poets who come from formerly disadvantaged communities under apartheid, and who have not benefited from subsequent changes in patterns of wealth and privilege, do indeed witness - and perhaps have an understanding of - those economic and political issues whose dire consequences accrue through everyday experience most readily to the poor. Poet Dineo Mosiane, for one, suggests that "the deep thoughts the ones 'in need' fall into are much deeper than of those who have all they want".26 It is this tendency in my work which, I presume, is under attack by Higgins as promoting a canon based on "a poetry of witness … which … reflects the determinations of economic policy on everyday life" (101). It could be put more accurately than this. While I am by no means subscribing to a class-based notion of "truth", what to me this does suggest is that South Africans are subject to, and acting on, the "lived experience" of the present in differing ways, despite the confluences caused by hegemonic ideas and the effects of mass media; and that class, and other effects of the economic, are powerfully active in this realm. To my perspective, "class" is compelling precisely because it is the structural term which, strangely enough, is least mentioned in South African officialese, business or the academy these days, or mentioned only as a secondary effect on gender or race. There is a fascinating issue here of structural positioning and status in society as a decisive and, yes, determining factor on consciousness and understanding which, content to loiter in the realm of the cultural, Higgins misses; which should rather make middle-class academics such as ourselves more wary about our assumptions and the extent of our worldview.

Past a sense of demanding an understanding of totality and the complexities of mediation in cultural studies with which I would agree,27 the relative ignoring of issues of determination in his response cripples its focus. His response is too succinct for proof, but I see in it tinges of the kind of culturalism my original article set itself against. While I have no doubt that he would protest strongly against such a categorisation, I presume Higgins will concede that if one loses the desire to study the specificity of determinations in cultural and literary studies, one is left with a vague, bland humanism and voluntaristic concept of agency which, in a very real sense, scrubs out necessary conceptual distinctions. This means that resulting studies cannot really understand cultural autonomy, or even relative autonomy, at all. In at least some of the articles I read in South African literary and cultural journals these days, I am struck not by the dominance of gratuitous political or economic factors, but by the lack of any discernible scrutiny of the impingement (or not) of these factors at all. This acts as an attenuating factor on their scope and incisiveness, even in areas of cultural studies in vogue at the moment that appear at first glance to have nothing to do with politics or economics.

We as scholars in the developing world are, whether we like it or not, post-colonial scholars. In such a situation, useful as any aspect of the theory of the developed world may be, such theory should be evaluated contextually, and cannot be assumed as immediate and absolute wisdom.

In conclusion, I would want to insist that such a point can equally be made about theories of the "everyday" - the focus of my original article. In recent studies, I would contend, discussion of the lineaments of everyday experience have tended to presuppose far too often that the ambience of contemporary quotidian social experience in the West is the norm. Critics like Rita Felski misrecognise the possibility that "everyday" behaviour and experience can in fact be interwoven with a routine experiential dissonance. An erasure between "extremity and the everyday, the terrible and the ordinary … a topsy-turvy world (where) the unthinkable becomes mundane, even expected" does not only emerge in "abnormal" societies where torture and terror are systematised, as she maintains. 28 These are also - to a less extreme degree - a factor of experience of the poor, the homeless, refugees and other marginalised groups in countries lower down the global market food chain, such as South Africa, as well as even existing among the marginalised of her own world.

It follows, therefore, that the "dissonance" Felski implies is the opposite of "everydayness" can meld into it and become a factor of quotidian experience. If this is the case, it is possible that those who experience their routines as a partial dissonance will not simply participate in ideology distractedly or unconsciously, but with an uneasy, pestering sense of lack in their lives, especially when this lack is measurable against the plenitude that surrounds them, close at hand, or that is brought to their attention through the globalising showcase of the media.


1 J Higgins, "The Sole Measure of Poetic Value: A Response to Kelwyn Sole", Pretexts 12(1), 2003. Unreferenced page numbers in the text are to this article, which responds to my "The Witness of Poetry: Economic Calculation, Civil Society and the Limits of Everyday Experience in a Liberated South Africa", New Formations 45, 2001-2002.

2 See, for example, the fashion shoot "Threads Wrap Da Poets" in Y mag, April-May 2003, pp 76-85.

3 See B Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002, p 71.

4 E Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno. London: Verso, 1985, p 168.

5 “Literature is by no means a passive reflection of politics or the economic base of a society. There is at best an asymmetrical relationship between the economic base and elements of the superstructure … of a social formation. Each element of the superstructure has its own internal dynamics not easily reducible to an expression of economics - literature, music and the plastic arts in particular have a high degree of autonomy. A study which tried to explain literature coherently in terms of the ideological and political structures which influence it, would eventually have to seek out the principle which tied particular works to ideology and distanced them from it … What the text is silent on needs to be considered as well, as a text is always incomplete in an analytical sense and full of conflicted and contradictory meanings.” K Sole, "Class, Continuity and Change in Black South African Literature, 1948-60", in B Bozzoli (ed), Labour, Townships and Protest: Studies in the Social History of the Witwatersrand. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1979, p 144.

6 C Bartolovich, "Introduction: Marxism, modernity and postcolonial studies", in C Bartolovich and N Lazarus (eds), Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p 12.

7 J Higgins, Raymond Williams: literature, marxism and cultural materialism. London: Routledge, 1999, p 113.

8 P Osborne, "Radicalism Without Limit? Discourse, Democracy and the Politics of Identity" in P Osborne (ed), Socialism and the Limits of Liberalism. London: Verso, 1991, pp 207-8. Osborne is discussing the post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe, but the point can be made more generally.

9 J Holstun, Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2000, p 93.

10 D Simpson, The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, p 117.

11 See the discussion in K Sole, "South Africa Passes the Posts", Alternation 4 (1), 1997, p 131.

12 J Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp 8ff.

13 For further general arguments on similar (not identical) lines, see E Bertelsen, "Phasing the spring: open letter to Albie Sachs", Pretexts 2(2), 1990 and S Moran, "The New Hellenism" in J Smit et al (eds), Rethinking South African Literary History. Durban: Y Press, 1996.

14 For an early example of the use of this term to critique policy in contemporary South Africa, see F Barchiesi, "Debunking the developmentalist state form", debate 1, 1996, pp 17-25.

15 Quoted in V Robinson, "Civil society: Diversity or disintegration?", Mail & Guardian,7-11 November 2003.

16 J Metelerkamp, "Robert Berold" in R Berold (ed), South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001.Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2003, p 168.

17 For a further discussion of the way in which literature courses hide these processes behind a veil of "free discussion" see A Davies, "Common Sense and Critical Practice: Teaching Literature" in P Widdowson (ed), Rereading English. London: Methuen, 1982.

18 See Sole 2001-2, pp 24-5, 51.

19 A Oistraker, "Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness", American Poetry Review,March/April 2001, p 36. There are some local poets, such as Metelerkamp, whom it may be fruitful to examine in like terms.

20 E Mphahlele, "The Voice of Prophecy in African Poetry", English in Africa 6(1),1979.

21 "Nine-nine" is a tsotsitaal term meaning ‘'straight-forward, to the point, authentic".

22 S Motsapi, "Black foam and babble", Mail & Guardian,2-8 November 2001.

23 As an aside, it is also noticeable that it is those figures of European Romanticism whose example and work can be used to more conservative ends - such as Wordsworth and Keats - who have been focused on in South African schools. While this requires further research, there is some evidence that the radical aspects of such poets, or most of the work of more obviously radical figures such as Shelley, are not highlighted.

24 For examples from the praise poetry tradition, see the remarks by interviewed izimbongi about the source of their ability, their role, and their stress on "inspiration" (do we consider this a Romantic term in such a context?) in J Opland, Xhosa Oral Poetry: Aspects of a black South African tradition. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1983 pp 65, 76, 81. Along with overwhelming evidence elsewhere in South African praise poetry, I would suggest that many other African genres also show some evidence of this, such as the Sotho-language lifela tradition described by David Coplan.

25 Roberto Schwarz puts it incisively: “… in the countries that have emerged from colonization, the system of historical categories shaped by European experience comes to function in a space with a different but not an alien … sociological conjunction in which these categories neither apply properly nor can help but be applied …” Quoted in N Larsen, Determinations: Essays on Theory, Narrative and Nation in the Americas. London: Verso, 2001, p 79.

26 Quoted in J Hemsley and R Blumenthal (eds), Of Money, Mandarins and Peasants. Johannesburg: SANGOCO, 2000, p 89.

27 To this end, one can take heart from Higgins’s critique of Williams: "If the unity of the social process is in reality ‘indissoluble’, then no causal analysis of it is possible, the flow of social process can never be grasped or articulated" (Higgins 1999, p 123).

28 R Felski, "Introduction", New Literary History.33(4), 2002, p 617.