Matters of Anxiety/Anxieties of Matter: South African Gothic in the Post-Transitional Moment

Posted by rebeccaduncan on February 26, 2013 in Guest Blog, Rebecca Duncan tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Over the last few weeks, I have sketched, very generally, a trajectory through South African fiction since the early eighties – the period often referred to as the country’s ‘interregnum.’ Fiction from this era, I have suggested in line with critics like Elleke Boehmer and Stephen Clingman, tends to fixate on a future which, as the reality-defining structures of apartheid began to buckle, appeared utterly opaque and impenetrable. In contrast to these forward-looking narratives, texts produced in the period following the genesis of democracy are often preoccupied with the past – or rather, as Rita Barnard suggests, with the complex interrelationship between the past and the present. This backward gaze reflects a post-apartheid impulse to un-mute voices suppressed by the old regime, and a desire to situate these newly recovered (hi)stories in relation to the liberated present. The fiction of both periods, I have argued, responds to anxieties generated as the nation transitioned from an era of intense and prolonged oppression to one animated by the spirit of liberation and multiculturalism, and often these fears, which find their way into the country’s literature do so in fearful, gothic form. During the interregnum, texts like Reza de Wet’s ‘African Gothic’ or J.M Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country deployed Gothic devices – most notably repetition and transgression – to create uneasy fictional worlds in which South Africa’s anxious uncertainty about the future is articulated through characters who remain paralysed on the brink of change; forced to kill the paternal incarnation of colonial values over and over again. Later narratives – those characteristically preoccupied with time gone by – have explored the South African past via a logic of haunting, in which the threats of history take shape in violence that refuses to remain anterior, but surfaces terrifyingly,as monsters, grisly family secrets and ghosts. The Devil’s Valley, Trencherman and, most recently, The Sea of Wise Insects, are all examples of South African fiction which probe at history in this way, using gothic techniques.

Today, in the final post of this series, I would like to offer some thoughts on Gothicism in South African literature of the present moment; a time that goes increasingly under the title of the ‘post-transitional.’ While, as Ronit Frenkel and Craig Mackenzie point out, this term ‘indicates something occurring after a period of change,’ it should not be interpreted as, in any way, denoting a sense of inertia. ‘[T]he notion that there are periods of change (or transition) and ones of stasis is fallacious,’ they continue, pointing out that ‘all periods of history witness change’ (2009: 2). Further, as Meg Samuelson has argued, temporal categorisations like ‘transitional’ and ‘post-transitional’ should not be considered absolute; these ‘cannot be imagined as slicing a clean break on the cultural continuum (2009: 113). There is, in other words, significant overlap between the preoccupations of earlier fiction and the texts produced in South Africa as we enter the second decade of the new millennium. It is possible, however, to discern certain characteristics which have become especially dominant in the narratives of recent years.  Recent literature, Frenkel and Mackenzie venture, is ‘often unfettered to the past the way that much apartheid writing was, but … may still reconsider it in new ways. Equally it may ignore it all together. Other features include politically incorrect humour and incisive satire, and the mixture of genres with zest and freedom’ (2009: 2). To this, Samuelson adds that the post-political character of post-transitional fictions has often been remarked upon, but points out that novels in this as yet amorphous canon, while perhaps less internally focussed than the literature of apartheid and the early transition, remains concerned with the state of the nation insofar as they grapple simultaneously with ‘the question of South Africa’s place in the world and its relationship to its past’ (2009: 2). Indeed, she goes on, we might consider recent South African literature as ‘a process of scripting connections;’ as an as an emergent body of works in which bonds are ‘mapped both within the nation and beyond it’ (2009: 113-4). It is, I suggest, at the intersection of the post-apartheid South African locality and precisely this international ‘beyond’ – especially those ‘elsewheres’ that are also seats of global, economic power – that we find the gothic in post-transitional literature.

Because – and really this cannot be overstated – Gothic there is in this nascent corpus. Cultural productions in South Africa in the last few few years have regularly drawn on an arsenal of disturbing devices. The intensely uneasy aesthetic of contraversial music group Die Antwoord (see featured image), for example, constitutes just one instance in which Gothicism has found its way into the social imaginary. Recent textual productions have engaged with Gothic, interestingly, as a part of the ‘zesty’ generic mixing to which we have seen Frenkel and Mackenzie refer. In fact, the increased presence of the overtly dark and uncanny within South African fiction might be considered one mode through which literature in the country has begun to forge new connections at a formal level, borrowing from, and adapting, traditions of Hollywood horror, for example, and supernatural fiction. In fact, the gothic excess which emerges in post-transitional literaure belongs, in many ways, not exclusively to South Africa, but, broadly, to the globalised world. The zombies which shamble through the suburbs of post-apocalyptic Cape Town in Lily Herne’s Deadlands trilogy (2011-13), the weird, sadistic ‘management’ and nightmarish shopping precinct in S.L Grey’s The Mall (2011), and the haunted technology in Lauren Beukes’s masterful Zoo City (2010): these are forms which speak, not necessarily to South African anxieties alone, but to a sense of unease which arises, arguably, throughout the increasingly interconnected, consumer-driven world. Post-transitional gothic thus bears witness to the nation’s post-apartheid integration into the global economy, and, more specifically, to the fears which breed within the context of this encounter. These are, I suggest, by no means neglible, and are discernible, what’s more, not merely in literary fiction designed to scare and disturb, but in sinister cultural mythologies and occult practises that, anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff suggest, have exploded in South Africa since the nation’s entrance into the fast, fluid network of global capital.

Ritual murder, the trade in human body parts, and a growing belief in zombies: these are all the dubious resulting features of what the Comaroffs term South Africa’s ‘millennial’ brand of capitalism. By this they mean ‘not just capitalism at the millennium, but capitalism invested with salvific force; with intense faith in its capacity, if rightly harnessed, wholly to transform the universe of the marginalised and disempowered’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002: 785). This kind of fierce, almost fundamentalist approach to neoliberal economics is, the Comaroffs argue, one upshot of the entanglement of post-apartheid freedom with freedom of the market. In the postrevolutionary society, in other words, the capitalist and consumerist emphasis on accumulation as the measure of all things – success and self included – becomes loaded too with political significance. For contemporary South African subjects, the Comaroffs write, ‘the conspicuous consumption of prized commodities – houses, cars, TVs, cell phones – does more than just signal accomplishment. It also serves to assuage the inequities of the colonial past’ (2002: 792). As consumer goods and money become ever more intensely fetishized, however, the means by which these items are to be achieved in South Africa become increasingly opaque. The post-apartheid rise of consumerism has been paralleled by a steady decline in production: multinational capital, always in search of the cheapest site for manufacture, has withdrawn from the country, and the modes of generating value which have taken over from more traditional models of material labour, remain thoroughly inaccessible to many people. ‘Production appears to have been replaced as the fors et origio of capital,’ the Comaroffs sum up, ‘by the provision of services and the capacity to control space, time, and the flow of money. In short, by the market and by speculation’ (2002: 781).

The emphasis, on the one hand, on accumulation as the measure of self-definition and liberation, and the mystification, on the other, of the mechanisms through which finances and goods are to be attained, has opened up a gap between means and all-important ends. In this void, the Comaroffs argue, dark mythologies and practices have sprung up, all of which attempt to recouple wealth with a legible, causal origin. In these occult narratives, money might be made instantly, for example, by the imbibing of certain medicines – or muti – or, more disturbingly, through the murder and zombification of members of a community; through the creation, in other words, of a workforce of the dead. Notably, these arcane modes of value production often parallel the technologically realised functioning of the modern market; results are frequently intended to be instantaneous, for example, and achievable invisibly or remotely, over long distances. They are, in short, attempts to explain, and thereby regain control of, the means of accumulation and self-definition, which, according to the Comaroffs, have become deeply mysterious following South Africa’s entrance into the global economy.

It may seem that we have drifted a long way away from the literary Gothic and from the fiction of South Africa’s post-transitional moment. However, the climate Comaroff and Comaroff describe in their series of papers situates the current effulgence of zombies, scary shopping malls, and cell phones and computers which channel the dead – a sample, once again, of motifs defining recent gothic texts from South Africa – such that these begin to shift more clearly into focus. The occult mythologies which rush into the vacuum separating economic means from ends do more than attempt to reconnect cause and effect in a meaningful way; they also reveal a subliminal anxiety which, I suggest, is precisely the frisson of unease that animates many global-South African gothic narratives of the post-transitional moment. Real-life stories of muti killings, of organ harvesting, of zombification: all of these fearful occult interpretations of the operation of the market belie a sense that, in the contemporary South African context, human life is gradually ceding to the status of object. There is, write Comaroff and Comaroff in this vein, ‘a mounting confusion of people with things’ discernible in such mythologised accounts of post-apartheid experience; a readiness to approach personhood as, in their words, ‘a materialized form of cultural capital,’ as a kind of asset available to ‘whomever ha[s] the liquid cash to invest in it’ (1999: 286).

Like South Africa’s occult cultural narratives, the literary fictions I have mentioned as examples of a post-transitional Gothic also reflect anxieties that are focussed on dehumanisation. In each of the narratives, fears are bound up with the mechanisms of South Africa’s capitalist economy primarily as these are experienced in its corollary: the consumer society. In this kind of context, in which identity is constructed, as we have seen, through the accumulation of goods, there is, after all, a real sense in which the subject becomes a series of material possessions. Fred Botting makes precisely this point when he writes that, within the hyperreality of late capitalism, ‘the modern subject defined in terms of individual, familial and national identity as a morally responsible, rationally self-conscious, and economically productive being is no longer a central figure. Instead, as a consumer of goods and services, she/he is determined by what she/he buys: identity is externalised as an effect of images, consumer objects and the lifestyles they conjure up’ (2002: 292)

Literary fictions such as Deadlands, in which the walking dead – humans literally reduced, that is, to meaty matter – feature as a central locus of anxiety, present us with a horrific rendering of this kind consumer identity, and one which becomes especially potent in moments at which the narrative plays out within commercial settings. The Mall, by collaborative writing duo Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg (aka S.L. Grey) presents us, too, with the human-turned-drone in the form of plugged-in shop assistants. These only-just people are connected, by a gaping, weeping socket punched into the base of the neck, to the computerised retail system which, we sense, has somehow replaced mental life. The novel is set, as the title suggests, in a shopping precinct with a strange shadow side; a bloody, stinking counterpoint to the shiny consumer paradise, and one which points to a darker sense in which the operation of a neoliberal capitalism might erode the integrity of human life. This has to do with  deregulated labour conditions, with unemployment and exploitative wage laws, all of which might be experienced as inhumane and alienating; as, in short, a kind of objectification.

At this point, it is useful to return to Samuelson’s comments about the porous nature of the divide between transitional and post-transitional concerns, and to highlight her observation that recent South African narratives, in as much as they situate the national in a transnational context, also attest ‘to the ongoing effects of the psychic damage and intimate harm produced under apartheid, and colonialism before it’ (2009: 114). ‘Drawing on the conventions of a popular global genre,’ she goes on, ‘South African writers are filling it with local content and in the process re-politicising the genre in new ways, rather than turning away from the political, or for that matter, from the past’ (2009: 114). Samuelson’s comments are directed at crime fiction, although they apply equally to the gothic narratives at which we have briefly looked. All of these deploy forms that belong to what we might think of as a global gothic aesthetic, speaking to fears endemic in consumer society at large, but do so in such a ways that these resonate simultaneously with peculiarly local significance. In South Africa, exploitation and dehumanisation are crimes that characterise a long history of oppression. Their repetition in the post-apartheid context irresistibly signifies the persistence of the past, and this is a sense that is discernible in the gothic narratives of the post-transitional moment. Grey, in particular, gestures to the extent to which contemporary South African reality echoes its violent predecessor.  The  gothic mall, in which people are plugged in and from which there is no escape, is, significantly, a brutally stratified realit; a society divided into distinct classes according to a hierarchy at the top of which is the ‘Shopper,’ and at the bottom, in a clear evocation of apartheid race policies, are the ‘Browns.’ Thus, the narrative addresses the South African past, but does so via an aesthetic powerfully shaped by contemporary concerns (to do with globalisation, with identity and with the commodification of life). In this way, the novel engages, in Samuelson’s sense, in a ‘scripting of temporal connection, rather than a sense of temporal discontinuity’ (2009: 114); it attests to South Africa’s integration within the international network of global capital.

The post-transitional Gothic, like all gothic narratives, is thus animated by tensions occurring within a specific society, at a specific cultural moment. In South Africa, as we have seen, these fears arise over the fault lines of global and local; at the seam between the multinational and the post-apartheid nation, where the anxieties of consumer culture – the fears of objectification, of commodification – are experienced as a return of the oppressions which characterise the past. Comaroff and Comaroff have suggested that the narratives of witchcraft, occult ritual and zombification, which have emerged with a vengeance in contemporary South African society, and which attest to a fear of dehumanisation, have the capacity to ‘make the language of intimate, interpersonal affect speak of more abstract social concerns’ (1999: 286). This too, it seems, is within the reach of the Gothic as a genre, wherein broad cultural anxieties are distilled such that these speak directly to the reader, in forms which disturb us as if they were our own, personal nightmares. This ability to shock and frighten, to engender intense reaction, is a feature of the gothic the importance of which I have emphasised throughout the month, and it becomes, again, particularly significant in the darker narratives of the post-transitional moment. The fear that circulates throughout these texts is, after all, bound up with a loss of sentience, with a deadening of the human as it cedes to the object, and it seems that the gothic experience, in which we feel, definitively, as we read, might somehow participate in a challenge to an encroaching sense of becoming-matter. ‘Who,’ asks Steven Bruhm in this vein, ‘is more alive than I when I am thoroughly gripped by a horror story that actually changes my physiological condition as I read or watch?’ (Bruhm 2002: 302). South Africa’s recent gothic fictions zero in on the fearful sense that, in an eerie echo of old oppressions, life is degrading and losing its integrity, and such novels write this unease large, in the language of horror, so that, with every shudder, with every thrill of dread, we are reminded that– unlike shambling zombies or the plugged-in shop assistants, we are not – or at least not quite – simply dead flesh.


Beukes, Lauren. 2010. Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana

Botting, Fred. 2002. ‘Aftergothic: Consumption, Machines and Black Holes.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (Ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruhm, Steven. 2002. ‘The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.’ In: Jerrold E. Hogle (ed). Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. 1999. ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony.’ American Ethnologist. 26 No.2: 279 -303.

–. 2002. ‘Alien Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millennial Capitalism.’ South Atlantic Quarterly. 101 No.4: 779-805

Frenkel, Ronit and Craig MacKenzie. ‘Conceptualiseing Post-Tansitional  South African Literature in English.’ English Studies in Africa. 53.1: 1-10.

Grey, S.L. 2011. The Mall. Johannesburg: Penguin

Herne, Lily. 2011. Deadlands. Johannesburg: Penguin

Samuelson, Meg. 2009. ‘Scripting Connections: Reflections on the ‘Post-Transitional.’ English Studies in Africa. 53.1:113-117

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