Unpacking Whose Library? Borrowing History in the Postcolony


I am unpacking my library.  Yes, I am.
Walter Benjamin.


This paper emerges out of a larger enquiry into the library in colonial and postcolonial contexts: as an institution which produces (and polices) certain forms of knowledge, but also as an unpredictable resource and catalyst for the literary imagination.  Via three case studies from South Africa, I hope to trace how seemingly conservative archives and idiosyncratic, often derivative collections were put to uses for which they were never intended.  In each encounter, one is offered a distinctive shape for understanding how writers in southern Africa have managed to explore (and perform) what might be termed the future unconscious of the archive. The complex play of the anachronistic and the emergent that this involves can, I argue, be fruitfully approached through the lens of post-apartheid literary production.

Drawing on the Robben Island Collection of the Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape, the first line of enquiry considers how apartheid prison libraries are figured in the memoirs of political prisoners: how these individuals were required (in the words of Antonio Gramsci) to ‘squeeze blood from stones’ when encountering constrained and often censored assemblages of printed matter.  The second approach probes the oeuvre of one of contemporary South Africa’s most compelling and uncategorisable writers, Ivan Vladislavić.  Both his early, experimental short fiction and his more recent, documentary texts continually return to sites where printed matter is exchanged and circulated in the city of Johannesburg – the Public Library, second-hand bookshops, charity stalls.  Offering a deep meditation on what it means to ‘provincialise’ English and to abandon prescriptive grammars for descriptive ones, his writing repeatedly gives us the paradox of bookish, dictionary-loving protagonists who are at the same time able to log the textures of a changing African metropolis with uncommon acuity.

The final case study explores the radical approach of Chimurenga magazine, a self-described ‘Afro-futurist’ publication produced in Cape Town, but with an ebulliently pan-African ambition and aesthetic. In mid-2009, the Chimurenga Library was launched, an online archive of pan-African periodicals – ‘living, extinct and, at times, fictional’.  The launch involved a take-over of the Cape Town Central Library, where an array of writers, visual artists and musicians used maps (‘clearly subjective and affective’), installations and listening-posts to invent ‘new categories that quietly encroach on the Central Library’s classification system’. 

These various encounters, I would suggest, offer rich models for understanding the complexity of engaging ‘the colonial library’ and all that it signifies.  In the first, we find prisoners (in Gayatri Spivak’s formulation) not accusing, not excusing but turning unpromising texts to their own purpose.  Vladislavić’s work explores the possibilities of working aleatorically and serendipitously from the random and scattershot libraries of the postcolony – sites where the very absence of any claim to completeness enables new forms of creativity.  In the avant-garde installations and ‘extracurriculums’ of Chimurenga (motto: who no know go know), existing collections are re-catalogued and joyously abstruse alternate knowledge-systems invented so as to create entirely new routes through the colonial edifices that stand at the centre of our cities.

Background to the project

In the first part of this project, I have explored the Grey Collection at the National Library of South Africa. Forthcoming in a major new volume on South African print cultures, this piece charts how a once celebrated but now largely forgotten bequest might be (or might not be) approached, used or appreciated; the complex networks of exchange across the southern hemisphere through which it was constituted under British imperialism; its curiously dual nature and its afterlives, or lack of them. Its point of departure is an attempt to balance an attention to that rather abstract imaginary of accumulated texts and tropes – ‘the colonial library’ as delineated by V. Y. Mudimbe – with a more materialist account of ‘the library in the colony’. How are specific institutions and collections established within an expanding “world system” in the nineteenth century? How are they marked by their local context and in what ways does this determine the problems and possibilities associated with their use today?

As I develop the project and move toward more recent materials, I hold in mind a series of other significant encounters with libraries in South African literary history: Peter Abrahams discovering W.E.B. du Bois in Johannesburg’s Bantu Men’s Social Centre in 1937; J. M. Coetzee coming across the records of German South West Africa while pursuing doctoral research in Texas; Nadine Gordimer escaping from a mining town into 19th-century Russia. And even Mohandas Gandhi receiving John Ruskin’s Unto this Last in 1904 and being inspired to create his experiments in communal living near Durban and at Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg. Throughout, I hope to ask how the future unconscious of these found texts might have shaped the course of South African cultural history.