RDL Polaf n°163 – Coetzee (Carli). Written under the Skin: Blood and Intergenerational Memory in South Africa. Suffolk/ Rochester/Johannesburg, James Currey/Boydell & Brewer/Wits University Press, 2019, 190 pages
Blood is at once an unfailingly emotive, visceral and potentially incendiary sight. Its appearance on a book cover with a fingerprint solicits multiple conjectures about the modern body and its knowability, identity, biometric surveillance and penal procedures, among other possibilities. Written under the Skin: Blood and Intergenerational Memory in South Africa proposes a subversive notion of blood, contradicting the very institutional parameters of surveillance and regulation of the human body. The text is a judiciously provocative invitation to consider writing in relation to blood, and subtly recalls the historical use of human skin for bookbinding and writing. In contrast with a scholarly focus on the skin as a means of analysing “South African everydays”, and apartheid imaginaries of race, the book’s discursive currency is based on the blood under the skin. It offers a sophisticated analysis of South African historical events and writing based on the metaphoric vitality of blood. Guided by this metaphor, whose power derives largely from a custodianship of “secrets yet undisclosed”, Written under the Skin draws from a variety of genres and events as sites of intergenerational memory of South Africa’s past and present. It proposes new ways of reading the archives that are not limited by poetics of the hyper-visible skin. What is being suggested here is a methodology for reading the racialised past and present invasively, in a manner that resembles the medical practice of piercing human veins to extract blood so that it can be read in order to heal the body. The book’s central argument is that “ongoing debates will determine and challenge the parameters used for the readings of this metaphoric blood”. According to the author, the blood considered in the book is history-rich and comes in many forms that are conjoined in unexpected ways – the blood of childbirth, rape and menstruation. Women’s experience of blood gives particular impetus to a methodology that interprets both fictional and non-fictional literature through the metaphor of blood and its related tropes.
Non-fiction by Ruth First, 117 Days, prison visits to the infamous assassin of the Apartheid state Eugene de Kock and books on him by the researchers Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Anemari Jansen, A Human Being Died that Night and Eugene de Kock: Assassin for the State respectively, form a major part of the first section. In her discussion of Mandela’s legacies, the author looks at the curation of his former prison cell on Robben Island. She also draws on a range of texts, such as Cambridge Companion to Mandela by Sarah Nutall and Achille Mbembe, Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s play The Island, as well as films about Mandela, especially Invictus. The section also revisits the controversy around the first human-to-human heart transplant at Groote Hospital in South Africa, of which laboratory assistant Hamilton Naki and surgeon Christiaan Barnard are the main protagonists. The second section addresses what the writer cautiously calls “archives of the emergent present”. These are foregrounded in part through an analysis of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, which took root in South African universities in 2015. Fiction by Kopano Matlwa (Coconut and Period Pain) and Thando Mqolozana’s A Man Who is not a Man, as well as the artwork series Isilumo Siyaluma by Zanele Muholi, provide significant material for the book’s bloodied optics.
In several of the analysed texts, including events as texts, figurative blood illuminates critical views on diverse themes, including prison writing, regimes of care, museum curatorial practices and black literary culture. In the first section, the writer subjects prison writing about de Kock and First to a blood test(s) – that is, to analyse these writings based on the ethics of knowledge production and the formation of archives. The same is applied to Mandela’s curated prison cell, in which she finds sanitised versions of the legacies of his life that sustain what she calls “bloodless time”. She insists on new readings of Mandela’s blood that must exceed bloodlessness and generate multiple, even contradictory, meanings of his life. The separate processes of interviewing de Kock used by two ethnographers – Gobodo-Madikizela and Jansen – are intimately scrutinized for their production of “knowledge under the skin”. The outcome of these analyses is a subversion of the dominant readings of the themes of forgiveness and a shared humanity that are often read into the two books about de Kock. Instead, encounters with the blood of violence that de Kock’s past represents and his body remembers produce contradictory and antagonistic discursive outcomes in both – one to ethnic identification (blood relations) and the other to a demand for respect and dignity. The author finds a post-apartheid revisionist legacy in the Heart of Cape Town Museum that revolves around the famous heart transplant, with other historically resonant tropes. Hamilton Naki is placed at the centre of reflections on transplanting the history of the surgery as part of apartheid modernity, but more importantly as an ambivalent figure whose presence-absence is defined by admittance and erasure. Even then, the deployment of his memory is presented as being in the service of healing the ailing body of Christiaan Barnard’s fame – and by extension white settler entitlement and privilege. The Rhodes Must Fall movement is a particular example of how the book links blood to black people’s demand for dignity. The chapter foregrounds the incident that inspired the movement when a student leader Chumani Maxwele poured a bucket of faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. Tracing the act and the subsequent protests it generated to the pasts of black student activists, the writer reads it in terms of blood affiliations and as an act of cleansing the university. The students brought their ancestors from home and subverted the cleaning work done by blood-related black cleaners by doing the real cleaning of the university’s real historical dirt. The student movement seeps into another arena of rewriting of the archive of the present – the Abantu Black Festival, an event launched in protest against predominantly white literary festivals and for the realization of black autonomous spaces of reflection. Importantly, Matlwa’s Coconut and Period Pain and Mqozolana’s A Man Who is not a Man intersect with Abantu as literary and activist works of self-care and care for the community. The works’ references to bloods of menstruation, birth, rape and ulwaluko (an isiXhosa rite de passage) become representative of the state of crisis of South African society and its body politic. They are also presented as being ripe for reimagining new features that are not oblivious to these crises, but acknowledge them and work through them. In the last chapter on Muholi’s Isilumo, the blood of menstruation is recorded not only as a form of embodied memory of women’s self, but also as radical activist challenge to patriarchal regulation. Written under the Skin is a major contribution to literary and cultural studies. Not only does it reveal the limits of skin as an analytical category, but it also pays thorough attention to the value of going deeper than the skin. I concur with the author that this is “demanding and dangerous work”, particularly in societies where blood is a marker of colonial and patriarchal violence. Part of the danger lies in the potential of blood tests to radically undo established knowledge about the self and others.
University of Cape Town