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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


CROUS, Marius. T.T. Cloete and the subaltern. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.2, pp.177-187. ISSN 2224-7912.

In his poetry the eminent Afrikaans poet T.T. Cloete has, since the publication of his first collection in 1980, always been very critical of contemporary society and the lack of respect by humans for fellow human beings and for the environment, as well as of the lack of interest in intellectual matters shown by the large majority of people. In his later poems, situated in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa (after 1994), he is even more acerbic in his satirical take on society and in particular on the new political elite, guilty of inhumane treatment of the people who voted them into power. The French philosopher Rancière (2004) writes extensively on the poor, in particular on the prevalence of writings about the poor (an essentialist concept usedfor the sake of the theoretical argument), and asks why there is such a preoccupation with the poor amongst philosophers. He poses this question in the light of the fact that there seems to be no interest on the side of the poor for philosophy and philosophers. The theoretical basis of my reading of three poems by Cloete is underpinned by Spivak's classical question whether the subaltern can speak, as well as by her famous dictum that one should be "unlearning one'sprivilege as one's loss". Spivak (1988) examines Gramsci's use of the term subaltern and - based on her interaction with the Subaltern Studies group, in particular with the comments by Guha - shows to what extent Deleuze and Foucault perpetuated the colonial view of the subject. In her revisionary essay she uses the practice of sati, or widow burning, as an example of how the subaltern Other may be silenced. Spivak's classic essay, "Can the subaltern speak" forms the basis of this engagement with the Other in Cloete's poems. By positing this theoretical approach, the critic is aware ofthe binary oppositions underpinning such a reading, but do so in order to "interrogate the covert philosophical and political presuppositions" (Derrida) of both the text and the method of reading. Readers of analyses of literary texts still favour the search for the meaning of the text and such an approach is undermined in this analysis of Cloete's work. The premise of my reading is that the white patriarchal male writing subject uses the poor, or the underprivileged as Other, as material for his poems, not only to highlight the plight of the poor, but also to deliver his scathing commentary on the dystopic post-colonial society in which he is writing and speaking. In the second part of this analysis, I will show how two poems describing the suffering of young children mimic the poet's attempt to "unlearn" his position of privilege. As will be indicated in conclusion, however, the reader is faced with an aporia The subaltern remains silent because of the unwillingness and/or inability of the writing subject to allow them to speak in their own voices. To what extent did the subject "unlearn" his position? Despite him showing compassion towards the Other, the reader is still not satisfied. The Other is still not allowed to speak and serves merely as poetic models for the writing subject. Significant is the fact that Cloete examines a sense of self-transcending empathy with the Other in his poems on children. In thefirst ofthe two poems under discussion, the subaltern, or the object ofdescription, is a young girl. In Spivak's writings on the subaltern, perennial concerns are the position ofwomen and the silencing of women in colonial historiography. Male dominance is still central to the hegemonical discourse into which the female subaltern has to inscribe her own subjectivity.

Keywords : subaltern; T.T. Cloete; Afrikaans poetry; the poor; Spivak; Rancière; subject; postcolonial subject; unlearning of subject position.

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