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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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

Abstract

PAUWELS, Matthias. Welcome to the desert of decolonialphilistism. Aesthetic reflection amidst radical cultural struggle in South Africa. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.1, pp.76-94. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2017/v57n1a7.

This article engages with the theoretical challenges posed by what I call - in a non-derogatory sense - the philistine tendency of current decolonization struggles in South Africa, spearheaded by students at tertiary institutions of learning since 2015. This refers to the employment of extreme, confrontational and violent cultural strategies of contestation, such as vandalism, destruction and removal of cultural artefacts from the colonialist or apartheid era. Most controversially in this regard, was undoubtedly the burning of paintings at the University of Cape Town in early 2016. Taking the latter as primary case, I aim to develop an approach that has been missing so far in public and theoretical discourse on such philistine cultural acts, one that is affirmative and redemptive without thereby wanting to absolve such actions completely. As a preliminary to such an interpretation, the first half of the article offers an overview and critique of the most significant responses to current decolonial cultural activism, starting with the few defences by participants and commentators. I demonstrate how the latter mostly use approaches such as vulgar materialism, the politics of representation and institutional critiques of art in their justification ofphilistine acts by student protesters. I also point to the latter's limitations in fully accounting for the student activists 'passionate and indiscriminate disregard and hatred for art. Next, the article examines more reserved reactions to decolonial cultural activism by progressive critics that, although mostly sympathetic to its aims, seriously question the appropriateness and adequacy of the cultural strategies employed to achieve the latter. I argue that such responses mostly take issue with utilitarian, ends-justifying-the-means type defences of the destruction of cultural artefacts, with concerns raised about what appears to be an unstoppable descent into cultural barbarism. On a more specific, aesthetic level, commentators have pointed to the inefficacy and even inconsistency of the tactics employed to contest cultural artefacts. Here, I particularly take issue with ensuing attempts to plead for more mediated, sublimated and, allegedly, more "constructive" and "meaningful" tactics. I argue that the latter involve a too hasty rejection of key features of current decolonial cultural politics that have made it so effective in shaking up the status-quo and unleashing radical political passions. I further point to the danger among progressive cultural theorists of exerting mechanisms of othering, exclusion and externalization in response to violent acts against art, as well as the adoption of a prescriptive, patronizing, or reprimanding mode of interaction with current decolonial movements. In contrast, this article aims to conceptualize the latter's radical cultural activism in a way that stays true to those key features which I have labelled polemically as "philistine" and that have been regarded generally as unacceptable and unproductive. As such, it undertakes a reappropriation of predominant, stigmatizing and derogatory depictions of such activism in the view that something fundamental concerning the relation between aesthetics and politics is revealed by it. Key to this purpose is the articulation of a more positive, critical, complex and dialectical notion of philistinism, to which the second half of the article is devoted. I take my cue here from essential work done by Fredric Jameson in the early 1990s in his important interpretation of the aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno. Of special significance here is the way in which he stresses the importance in Adorno's work of the opposite or negative of art which, for instance, includes art's others or enemies. What is valuable here is that the latter are not understood in the pejorative sense, but are dialectically and critically related to the spheres of art and culture. They are said to function as reminders of the operations of social and cultural division that are constitutive of these spheres. It specifically concerns divisions between intellectual labour (including aesthetic contemplation) and manual labour, or between art and praxis. Here, however, I depart from Jameson's neomarxist reading of this process of division and propose to interpret it in a less economistic and reductionistic fashion as involving relatively autonomous mechanisms of "sensible division", a notion I borrow from the work of Jacques Rancière. Against the background of such processes of division, philistine acts are thought to manifest a certain truth - albeit a partial one - regarding the structural guilt and complicity in the division of the sensible, as well as the intolerability of art's inconsequential claims to preserve a promise of happiness in such societal conditions. Finally, I use Jameson's redemptive interpretation of philistinism as a springboard to argue that in his or her extreme hatred of art, the philistine can be seen to be driven by a utopian longing for a suspension of not only illegitimate sensible divisions, but also a sublation of the divorce between art and (revolutionary) political praxis. The article thus employs Jameson's reading of philistine acts and attitudes as theoretical lever to facilitate a more positive way of analysing, understanding and valuing current decolonial cultural activism in South Africa. This is not to justify violation or destruction of art in absolute terms but to contest and offer a corrective to offhand rejections of such radical cultural acts, as well as of the avoidance of serious theoretical engagement.

Keywords : Cultural contestation; Cultural activism; Radical politics; Decolonial struggles; Student protests in contemporary South Africa; RhodesMustFall campaign; Destruction and vandalism of art; Cultural philistinism; Cultural barbarism; Aesthetics; Fredric Jameson; Late Marxism; Theodor Adorno; The guilt of art; Art's promise of happiness; Keresemose Richard Baholo; Tokolos Stencil Collective; Jacques Rancière; Brenda Schmahmann; Mike van Graan.

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