Guts to Fight Back
Terre Blanche & Brandon Hamber
baggage retrieval system at Heathrow
Anita Craig is worried about many things: The over use of unstructured
interviews, misconceptions regarding the sex lives of homosexuals,
people who say "in my experience the importance of this cannot be
underestimated" (sic), the hairstyles of black female TV continuity
announcers, and so forth. We all have similar gripe lists, and labour
to convince others of the importance and deep coherence of what to
them may seem arbitrary and bizarre. Craig uses a well worn strategy
to achieve this. First, she invokes the master signifier of a future
directed rationality set off against all the various forms of soppy
emotionality, subjective gut feelings and unthought through prejudices
that supposedly characterise "life in general in South Africa nowadays".
Second, she declares herself exempt from the injunction against subjectivity,
speaking in the register of authoritative but highly subjective self
disclosure. Thus we are told again and again what Craig believes,
finds attractive, agrees with, is enticed by, worries about, feels
unsure about, thinks, considers to be a "fine analysis", intuits,
and so on; and paradoxically these intuitions all centre around a
conviction that such subjective assertions do not constitute proper
grounds for knowledge.
This contradiction is by no means unique to Craig's text, but is central
to the dynamic constituting modernity itself. The grand narratives
of modernity speak of progress through a strict adherence to standards
of objective, rational enquiry, while at the same time appealing to
the sovereign, subjective individual as the ultimate guarantor of
what is meaningful and important (Parker, 1989). The tension between
rational (objective evidence; future directedness; standards; universal
principles) and irrational (subjective feelings; the present; arbitrary
preferences; particular experiences) cannot be resolved from within
modernity, and Craig's text would have functioned equally effectively
in re inscribing modernist truths had she chosen to champion irrationality
Seen from a modernist universe where everything has to be positioned
between the two poles of rationality or irrationality, objectivity
or subjectivity, reason or schmaltz, postmodernity appears not as
a (potential) route out of the impasse, but as emblematic of the touchy
feely, schmaltzy side of the coin. In fairness, Craig does imply that
her critique is aimed primarily against "thin" readings of postmodernity
(that seek to equate it with extreme relativism, for example) although
for the most part she nevertheless continues to operate as if such
remarkably naive readings actually constituted an adequate understanding
of postmodernity. Similarly, she tries to avoid presenting reason
as purely based on universal principles, defining it in explicitly
interactionist and pragmatic terms in places almost reminiscent of
the democratic, workshoppy style of knowledge production she so vehemently
attacks elsewhere. Such displays of moderation and even handedness
does not, however, detract from the extent to which Craig's text is
overwritten by the fundamental modernist duality displaying exactly
the kind of "not knowing about knowledge" it accuses others of.
Precious bodily fluids
Understanding Craig's text as structured by a certain formulaic logic
of binary opposites does not explain why it sides with the "reasonable"
side of the opposition or why it should populate the "unreasonable"
side with such an idiosyncratic cast of characters. Journalists reporting
on Verwoerd's grandson, people crying (apparently excessively or inappropriately)
at Truth Commission hearings, action researchers, people exhibiting
superficially pleasant dispositions, image consultants, people who
object to sexist jokes, people who base their land claims on the fact
that they were the first occupiers, and so on and so forth all are
presented as contributing in one way or another to the rot.
Although Craig claims allegiance to the new democratic order and makes
liberal use of the first person plural, her take on what constitutes
important issues is clearly at variance with that of the majority
of South Africans. The majority would be more likely, for example,
to see the massive unemployment rate (rather than say the current
fad for motivational speakers), as well as the structural oppression
of the past, as key manifestations of an underlying lack of rationality.
What is silenced in Craig's critique is the extent to which historical
processes have their own implicit reasonableness. South Africa is
currently still in a period shaped by the politics of legitimacy (in
which, for example, it is reasonable to base employment decisions
in part on the logic of restorative racial justice), but may well
be moving into an era shaped by the politics of delivery in which
the electorate will shift from a position of "I vote for them because
they are legitimate" to "I vote for them because they can build me
a house and they will do it". There is of course no reason why Craig
should be in step with such processes, but in wanting to play the
role of prophet standing outside these historical contingencies she
runs the risk that her text may cease to orient itself in relation
to commonly recognised points of reference and be reduced instead
to existing in a world of its own making.
Craig's insistent warnings against the dangers of emotionality perhaps
borders on the obsessional, and in places her text does threaten to
deteriorate into a form of disassociated conspiracy theory. More disturbing,
however, is the tendency for the text not to lose its connection with
reality, but rather to align itself with the reactionary politics
of (mainly white) privilege. This is a reading which Craig repeatedly
seeks to dispel, but which is hard to avoid given the history of "race".
Western conceptions of rationality have for many centuries depended
on a distinction between reflective, abstract thinking supposedly
characteristic of (white) civilization and the impulse driven, brutish
behaviour thought to belong to (black) savages. Thus it is difficult
to appeal to the concept of reason without at the same time invoking
a centuries old discourse of racial inferiority. This is doubly so
when a critique of social conditions as being unreasonable is launched
in the years immediately after the installation of a predominantly
black government. Craig's text is clearly not intended as racist and
whether unintended racist overtones can be detected in it is obviously
a matter of debate. However, it cannot but be read against a background
where most privileged white South Africans constantly hear "warning
bells" ringing and are convinced that decisive action is needed to
prevent a slide into unreason and anarchy, while most black South
Africans are filled with optimism about the future (Reality Check,
Craig should be commended for raising uncomfortable questions and
for refusing to be politically correct (how many other academics would
be willing to mention "women, blacks, fools, even multiple murderers"
in one breath?). Like the Democratic Party's Tony Leon during the
1999 elections, she clearly has "the guts to fight back", although
(as with Tony Leon) some may be a little uncomfortable about who she
perceives to be the enemy and what kind of future she may be taking
us back to.
Martin Terre Blanche. Department of Psychology University of South
Africa Box 392 Pretoria 0003 Brandon Hamber Centre for the Study of
Violence & Reconciliation Johannesburg.
Brandon Hamber is an independent research and development
consultant. He is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue in Belfast.
All correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parker, I (1989) The crisis in modern social psychology and how to
end it. London: Routledge.
Reality Check (1999) Survey of the South African Population. The Sunday
Independent, 2 May 1999.