I Lagardien
I Lagardien

Pantomime of the parvenu

South Africa is a particularly fractious society. Rarely does a week pass without something stirring the country’s intellectuals from their silences. The noise generated by this fractiousness says more, perhaps, about South Africa’s collective neurosis, than it does about anything else. What is amusing to behold, though, is the theatrics of intellectuals that play out in public every week.

One of the strands that runs through the concatenation that holds together the string of somethings (incidents, events or states of affairs) that stirs so many of our intellectuals is a type of danse macabre fed by self-fulfilling prophecies of a democracy in the final throes of its brief life. So pervasive has the ‘death of democracy’ meme become in South Africa that it has become assimilated, culturally, while (at the same time) provoking increased hysteria in a toxic cycle fed by intellectuals acting in bad faith. Not unlike the danse macabre evoked by the misery and gloom of 14th century Europe – from the 100 years’ war to the Black Death – intellectuals present us, almost daily, with notices of imminent collapse, and some among them dance, prematurely, on the grave of democracy in South Africa.

Most of these intellectuals, across the media, in government and academia, locked in silos of a priori knowledge (and bearing conclusions that have ossified over time) would have us believe that South African society was unique for the way it is plagued by chaos and bad news, and by an overall sense of hopelessness. One suspects that for the most part our intellectuals know that ours is a society that is grappling with itself, and that our democracy is in its infancy. One may be forgiven for suspecting, also, that the danse macabre may well be a pantomime in which parading knowledge becomes the main objective. It would appear, in fact, as if discourse has become a type of duel in which argument has become a weapon – and not a means to furthering knowledge.

Even when one is most generous, it is difficult not to get the impression that most intellectuals, the parvenu in particular, fail to imagine that their own knowledge or conclusions may be false. Things simply have to be the way intellectuals believe they are or ought to be, and they have great difficulty believing that anyone could think long and hard (and honestly) and still disagree with them. At best, and in Hobbesian terms, the intellectual is perfectly capable of acknowledging intelligence on the part of others, but believes its own to be superior. Hence intellectual exchanges are reduced to personalised criticism and playground bullying, name-calling, sarcasm, machismo and attempts to embarrass people with whom there is disagreement. It is all terribly puerile, sometimes.

What is, perhaps, most toxic is the contestation of all agency on the basis of ossified theories and ideas. This ossification stems from the belief that all (existing) theories and all ideas retain full validity over time. In terms of this belief, the life world of human beings can, and ought to be parcelled off into neat little packages that are, themselves, shaped by rigid a priori categories and classification schemes. When the social world is approached in this manner, opinions trump necessities of specific situations. Rigid a priori knowledge and ideas divert critical demands for agency founded on experience, and agency that brings together theory and practice. Such thinking dissolves the specificity of people, events or states of affairs into formal categories of thought – secured from criticism! This ideological rigidity is as apparent among liberal capitalists, obeisant to the neoclassical economics orthodoxy, as it is among the vulgar and lazy Marxisms located in the peaks and valleys of the intellectual landscape.

In his defining work on method, Jean-Paul Sartre explained that using sets of labels (he referred at the time specifically to Marxism) which substitute for specific knowledge, rather than as a set of regulative ideas to help us in our work (scholarly or otherwise), is an a priori method. This approach does not stem from experience “or at least not from the new experiences which it seems to interpret. It has already formed its concepts; it is already certain of their truth; it will assign to them the role of constitutive schemata. Its sole purpose is to force the events, the persons or the acts considered into pre-fabricated models … What is necessary is simply to reject a priorism.”

One especially good example of this crude a priorism was evident during a recent book launch. At the event, a critic (of the book) launched a set of terribly incoherent, inconsistent and rather offensive claims and statements about the author of the book without any apparent knowledge of what was presented in the book. The book was discredited by the critic on the basis of the author’s racial identity and intellectual identity (categories that precede the act of writing the book); the author was considered to be wrong because he was white, and therefore an imposter who had no right to write about black people. It was rather telling that throughout the event (the book launch) the critic could say little or nothing about the contents of the book. This suggests that the critic had carried his ideas, beliefs and methods to the book launch (without having read the book) and simply applied them – abgesichert!

For purely deontological reasons, we are obliged to be generous and honest in our engagements with fellow human beings. This notwithstanding, the picture that seems to be emerging in South Africa, is one in which the ideas and writings of intellectuals seem to be self-serving and quite irrelevant to the political action that requires immediate, forceful and meaningful agency. It would, of course, be unfair to generalise about all intellectual activity. We have some quite outstanding thinkers who do a lot of good work; it is rather ironic that they are the ones who are not as noisy as the parvenu…

To register an incontestable claim, South Africa faces a multi-dimensional crisis that is most forcefully manifested in unprecedented inequality, unsustainably high unemployment, of which young people between 16 and 24 carry a disproportionate burden, an education system which has failed and may for the foreseeable future continue to fail a generation of students, infrastructure that is crumbling, a state that seems to have lost its capabilities and ominous centripetal forces that conspire to conflate the sensibilities of the centre with those of the whole of South African society – notwithstanding its diversity, contradictions and contestations.

It is difficult to believe that we are on the verge of self-destruction in South Africa. Our democracy is young and fragile, but conditions are not unique, nor do they seem precipitous; at least for now they don’t. A most cursory look at the failures of the Enlightenment’s promises of peace and prosperity (in the light, especially, of the conflicts of the past 100 years), may induce some sobriety into our intellectual discourse.South African democracy may seem fragile, but it may yet outlive most of us. If one may proffer advice, the challenges before our intellectuals are to establish stable links between theory and practice that will help us engage directly with the multi-dimensional crisis that besets the country; to know and understand its causes and significance, and to help us deal with this crisis freed from a priorism. A good starting point would be to abandon the tendencies towards self-dramatisation and apostasy that serve, in the grand scheme, only to reduce the role of intellectuals to pantomime.

Appreciations to JS for comments on a previous draft of this post.

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  • 23 Responses to “Pantomime of the parvenu”

    1. Tofolux #

      I am quite pleased with this simply because the heartbeat of our country does not depend on what intellectuals think. Personally for me, these gurus can sit in some dark corner, drink their expensive whisky and smoke their imported cuban cigars. It is such a small congregation and their overall effect on society is non-existent. What is perplexing though is the audience that panders to the ranting of ”intellectuals”. It is a given that they have the capacity (economic or otherwise) to access the latest offerings of this new intelligentsia. Hence not only are they better equipped, one would imagine that they enjoy the trappings of middle or upper classes. Hence if this is the case, what has happened to their tools of analysis? Also, what is so obvious is the campaign of this negative information. It has been deliberately synchronised. But then again, you know we have had this experience before. It is so familiar, so why are we not calling it out, for what it is? ie call a spade a shovel.

      June 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm
    2. An excellent piece! Like Tofolux, I too think we tend to inadvertently elevate these “intellectuals” – products of an Christian Nationalist education, far too much in our diverse society. As you can see from many of our bloggers, many are pseudo-intellectuals, with blind-spots to their racism and condescending attitudes. They frequently engage in name-calling and puerile personal attacks instead of addressing the real issues with the reasoning, logic and honesty required of an intellectual. Being part of the INTELLECTUAL CASTE in our “modern” society, their primary mission is to cling to the privileged status and its all the trappings conferred to them by our sick society.

      In our diverse society, true intellectual giants have never even seen the inside of a university or will ever need to! I think it was Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall album says it best: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control….”

      June 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm
    3. OneFlew #

      Many South Africans seem happy to use the term ‘intellectual’ to describe themselves and others. This is in itself quite interesting.

      There are countries where one wouldn’t get away with what would be seen as such vainglorious pretensions. And where one would generally be expected to argue the case rather than to use labels.

      Try to make the argument without using the ‘intellectual’ label. After all, it just substitutes for specific knowledge…

      June 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm
    4. bernpm #

      “………A good starting point would be to abandon the tendencies towards self-dramatisation and apostasy that serve, in the grand scheme, only to reduce the role of intellectuals to pantomime. ”

      Please define what you regard to be “the intellectuals” you refer to. Undefined collectives do not feature well when trying to make a valid point regarding a society.

      June 14, 2012 at 11:51 pm
    5. Well, an interesting post, but frankly, too wordy and stuffed with jargon-laden phrases which serve to obscure rather than reveal the actual meaning of the author. If you are going to be complaining about the way in which people do not think clearly about what they are saying, then you should preferably conceptualise yourself as simply as possible.

      Having said that, I note that while you make the necessary grumble about people whose minds are steeped in old-fashioned Marxism (which is the only coherent ideological response to contemporary socio-economic conditions thus far developed, by the way) the only actual example you cite is someone’s racist rant at a booklaunch. Since it is rather obvious that racism is not going to be driven by Marxism, shouldn’t you have either chosen to grumble about the very stupid way in which people abuse BC and pan-Africanism for their own corrupt purposes, or else identified a stupid Marxist rant? (Almost anything written by Jeremy Cronin in the last five years would probably have been suitable for such criticism.)

      Furthermore, is it really true that either Africanists or Marxists, stupid or not, dominate the intellectual scene? Far as I can see, the big dominant forces are white racists and neoliberals, sometimes operating through black people professing false left-wing opinions. Maybe those are the intellectuals you ought to be critiquing? Because they aren’t going away, you know.

      June 15, 2012 at 8:38 am
    6. Reducto #

      @Harris: “They frequently engage in name-calling and puerile personal attacks instead of addressing the real issues with the reasoning, logic and honesty required of an intellectual.”

      Sounds like you are talking about yourself here. Here are just some examples:

      > When I pointed out what was wrong with the Traditional Courts Bill, rather than engaging with my argument you called me a “BOA”.
      > When I asked you where, exactly, the judgment requiring South Africa fulfill its international law duty to investigate torture was wrong on the law, you called me a “product of the apartheid education system”.
      > You get particularly nasty and venomous towards any black person who does not share your views. How often have you called Lindiwe Mazibuko a “tea lady” or made your snide” anyone for a cuppa” remark?

      Hell Harris, on the whole, you are one of the most abusive, anti-intellectual people on here.

      June 15, 2012 at 9:25 am
    7. Bovril24 #

      I had no idea there so many “intellectuals” in SA!

      June 15, 2012 at 9:40 am
    8. Correction:

      The reference to “20 years” in the last paragraph should read “100 years” – Ismail

      Hi. We’ve fixed that for you. – Ed

      June 15, 2012 at 10:37 am
    9. Jon Story #

      @Dave Harris

      ‘We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control….’

      Having seen the inside of a university does indeed not make you an intellectual, what is taught there is knowledge.

      Without knowledge we are lost but it is the clever use of knowledge which makes for wisdom. That comes with the years.

      That is why the song of Pink Floyd is short sighted. A similar thing happened during the apartheid years. In some communities schools were torched and educators necklaced in the mistaken belief that it benefitted the cause, the struggle against apartheid. Revolution before education. Talk about thought control.

      SA is still suffering because of it.

      June 15, 2012 at 11:39 am
    10. MLH #

      I am persuaded that Ismail, Tofoluxa and Dave Harris wouldn’t recognise an intellectual if they happened to trip over one. Especially because they’d all be looking for them in the wrong places.

      June 15, 2012 at 12:09 pm
    11. @Reducto
      > True, due to restrictions on the length of comments, I’m forced to use acronym BOA – Beneficiary of apartheid, in order to exercise my free speech rights. ;-)
      > True, unless a child was educated overseas, EVERY child growing up under the apartheid’s Christian Nationalist Education are “products of the apartheid education system”. What wrong with that term?
      > You’re taking Lindiwe Mazibuko’s “tea lady” comment out of context since you conveniently forget to mention who threw the first punch when these insults were traded on both sides of the debate. Besides, its a common term used for subservient black women fronting for white organizations. Similar to an “Uncle Tom” used in the US for a black man subservient to white authority.

      I thought about making a list of your name-calling of President Zuma, Malema, and black leaders in general, but I figure its not worth my time.

      June 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm
    12. Max #

      “What is necessary is simply to reject a priorism.” I agree – although that might be a bit ambitious don’t you think? Wholesale abandonment of apriorism sounds a bit radical for my taste, since apriori categories are very valuable and useful in very many instances, for example the apriori ontological fact of “… unprecedented inequality, unsustainably high unemployment, of which young people between 16 and 24 carry a disproportionate burden, an education system which has failed and may for the foreseeable future continue to fail a generation of students, infrastructure that is crumbling …”
      The kind of apriorism to be spurned is that illustrated here regularly by Harris who interprets everything he [mis]reads to bolster his extremist a priori ideas of the evil-whites/evil-media scapegoat myth.
      Totallly crazy that he and tofolux praise this article while displaying precisely the kinds of thinking that the article derides and criticises so articulately. Good for a laugh though. The irony and lack of self-awareness just is so great. So thanks Harras.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm
    13. Reducto #

      @Harris:
      > So, you basically admit that rather than engaging with someone’s valid argument, when you don’t have a counter-argument, you call someone a “BOA”.

      > Actually, I was educated post-1994, my point was that you resort to personal attacks rather than engaging with argument.

      > So, basically, attempting to justify your name-calling. And I forget who threw the first punch? http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/amandangwenya/2011/10/27/mazibuko-election-a-victory-for-sa/ You were the first to post in reply here, and what do you say? “I believe Julius Malema has his own pet name for Mazibuko. Anyone for a cuppa?”

      So, you have not refuted my point: you are consistently one of the most abusive, anti-intellectual people on here.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:18 am
    14. Reducto #

      In fact Harris, going through your blog, one finds examples of you being incredibly abusive. For example:

      “You should work with your doctor to procure one of those “mentally handicapped” signs to carry around so that you can continue to enjoy some of those special privileges and handouts that you and your ilk have gotten so used to from generations of white affirmative action.” http://southafricana.blogspot.com/2010/12/myth-of-da-liberalism.html

      How on earth, with comments that, can you deny that you are abusive and anti-intellectual in debate?

      And yet you complain about some of your comments not being put up on M&G and Thought Leader. As I have said before, one wonders what line you have crossed in those comments.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:26 am
    15. @Reducto
      Playing that Victim Card again eh?
      BOA is simply an acronym, not name calling. I suppose you’ve inadvertently equated the term BOA to being called a snake. Well, even though many beneficiaries of apartheid act do act like snakes, I would agree with you, that its an overly harsh term. Maybe I should change the acronym to Supporters Of White Supremacy “SOWS”. Would that be more amenable to you? You see Reducto, English is a strange language, almost like an art form with multiple interpretations – like that Spear painting that you loved so much. So its seems like you’re now beginning to infringe on my freedom of expression – this right that many in the ANC fought and died for that’s now enshrined in our Constitution.

      June 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm
    16. Reducto #

      @Harris: No, nobody is debating who and who is not a beneficiary of apartheid. The point is your use of the term. You had no counter-argument to my valid concerns about the Traditional Court Bills, so what was your way out? Call me a “BOA” and not offer any argument. Your whole debating style revolves around avoiding valid points people raise and throwing terms at them in abusive fashion when you have no counter-argument.

      Face it, you are abusive and anti-intellectual, you simply can’t debate intelligently.

      June 16, 2012 at 8:03 pm
    17. Max #

      Harris today:

      “many are pseudo-intellectuals, with blind-spots to their racism and condescending attitudes. They frequently engage in name-calling and puerile personal attacks instead of addressing the real issues with the reasoning, logic and honesty required of an intellectual.”

      Harris the other day (addressing a blogger on thoughtleader):

      “Yet another tirade from a washed up wanna be guitar hero taking a swing at political commentary. Eish!”

      LOL

      June 16, 2012 at 8:05 pm
    18. J.J. #

      @ I Legardien
      @ Tofolux & Dave Harris (in relation to your first comments in this thread)

      I fully agree.

      As we can see on these comment boards, many (in not most) formally educated intellectuals will hold on their proven, set economic (and other) models, which dominates their entire world view, (which they super-impose on a complex environment such as South Africa, which is not a European or North American state CULTURALLY) even in the face of the failure (or weaknesses & limitations) of many of these theories (as we can see now very clearly, globally) in the real practical world of day-to-day living for the average joe.

      You do however need to live (in your mind) in an elitist, privileged, aristocratic bubble, surrounded by like-minded friends, to smugly discard opinions by the “uneducated classes” as “populist”, or “folk economics” or “not fitting into an “epistemological framework”, etc, to continue to ignore what’s going on, in reality (outside of your own). Ask the poor – they “feel” real reality first and most acutely. And they are in the majority.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:23 pm
    19. J.J. #

      Correction: IF not most…

      June 16, 2012 at 11:23 pm
    20. A very interesting look at the role “analysts” and “intellectuals” think they play in this country. Most are self appointed and annointed as experts. Insulting the person when one cannot be bothered to actually read their book or properly digest their argument is kindergarten stuff.
      Throwing labels, like racist and products of Christian Nationalist education, around like confetti is also juvenile.
      The South African dynamic has moved past those antiquated labels of segregation.
      Big questions are firstly, whether agreeing with Malema in his observations on Zuma makes one a Malema supporter.
      And secondly, whether is one racist simply because one has a white skin.
      Lastly, whether the spear was really a black versus white issue
      Come 2014 people will vote for different reasons compared to 1994.
      Being anti the ANC does not make one a racist it simply means evolving and reacting to inefficiency, incompetence and corruption.
      The “masses” are evolving while the intellectuals play fiddles and insult those not admitted to the inner sanctum.

      June 18, 2012 at 10:09 am
    21. So Richard, rather than insulting others with terms like juvenile/kindergarten etc, kindly explain why:.
      - You don’t believe festering racism from CENTURIES of white supremacy is not one of our most important issues for us a society to overcome?
      - Christianity was foisted onto African culture for CENTURIES? And how did we arrive at our current education system still dominated by western Christian culture? Do you think our Christian National Education system is applicable to our diverse society with deep roots in African, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist etc. traditions?

      June 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm
    22. Tofolux #

      @Richard, if ” the SA dynamic has moved past those antiquated labels of segregation”, please give me some examples. Also its quite contradictory for you to make this ‘bold’ statement and still conclude whilst making a black/white argument. Also, can you tell me what you believe non-racism/racialism to be?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm
    23. Reducto #

      Harris: Funny, I don’t read Richard’s post as saying racism isn’t a problem or defending the apartheid education system. Rather it criticizes you for throwing around terms indiscriminately and in an abusive fashion when you can’t counter someone’s argument. Which is what I have been criticizing you for the whole time.

      Face it, you like to be abusive and throw terms at people, but when someone points out your debating style is kindergarten and juvenile, now all of a sudden that person is “insulting” you. What the hell?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:50 pm

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