Book Review: Drawing the Line

Carrol Clarkson. Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice.
New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. 224 pages.

With a clear and confident voice, Carrol Clarkson, in her book Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice, establishes an interdisciplinary connection between the arts, on the one hand and legal and philosophical understandings of justice, on the other. Clarkson, professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town and of modern literature at the University of Amsterdam, sets out to challenge the mutually exclusive dualism of art and law, and to show how the imagination, translated into works of art or “aesthetic acts”, are able to recalibrate the sociolegal order in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. The metaphor of the line and the symbolic actions of “imagining, drawing, crossing, erasing and redrawing” permeate the book, uniting its thematically diverse chapters. One major contribution of this monograph is that it theorises the transformative potential of art as the point of departure for the genesis of moral and legal lines of inquiry, tying the former to the latter in stimulating and original ways. In this, it proves inspiring for scholars, especially those from the disciplines that are brought together in this book (law, philosophy and the arts); it offers them an alternative, transdisciplinary approach to knowledge production.

Conceptualising very different examples of art works as relevant for the meaning of justice and injustice, Clarkson sometimes seems to lose herself in lengthy discussions of how these relate to the concepts and theories of continental philosophy. She draws on a range of texts by Sartre, Rancière, Wittgenstein and Derrida, to name a few, and even goes back to Plato, while hardly engaging in philosophy from other parts of the world or from Africa specifically, as one might have expected. Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, are two contemporary African philosophers who might have enriched the discussion. Nevertheless, her approach is critical, and she uses her examples to challenge and extend the theories of these philosophical centres of power, especially in the latter part of the book.

Chapter 1 of Part I, “Drawing the Line”, looks at the representation of fences and boundaries in contemporary literature and integrates these into a broader debate about colonial arrogations of land (and colonial authorship). Examining Herman Bosman’s intertextual style of writing and writing as a dialogic process in J. M. Coetzee’s works, Clarkson evolves an analogy between the drawings of boundaries in law and aesthetic authority in literature. Authorship, as well as law, always refers (“is responsive to”) what is beyond it, and thus invites a redrawing of the lines or “limits” that were defined through colonial territorial boundaries. This thesis leads over to the next chapter, “Redrawing the Lines”, which scrutinises the transformative force of Mandela’s statement in court and his own descriptions of his appearance at the Rivonia trial. Clarkson draws on Roman Jakobson’s and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of speech acts and speech events to delineate elegantly how Mandela exceeds the setting of the apartheid court room, thereby deconstructing apartheid authority and legitimacy and appealing to a larger sense of justice.

Part II of the book, “Crossing the Line”, opens with Chapter 3, “Justice and the Art of Transition”. Using Derrida’s essays on law and language to analyse art works by Willem Boshoff and the new Constitutional Court building in Hillbrow, Clarkson convincingly clarifies in this chapter the potential of the book’s argument. She proposes that a new order of society requires a moment of uncertainty, a suspension of old patterns of knowledge, and elucidates how this newness is generated by works of art. One of Boshoff’s works, for instance, re-enacts apartheid segregation spatially (e.g. by using different font sizes for text and translation), but then shifts the “superiority” of English to other South African languages. English speakers have to seek the expertise of speakers of these other languages in order to understand the installations. Since viewers are made, in this example, “to perform the protest raised against linguistic and hence cultural exclusions, against prejudicial social hierarchies”- a performance that has the potential to affect their “fundamental attitudes”-, the arts might play a vital role in the establishment of a new legal constitution (82). Chapter 4, “Ethics and Aesthetics”, offers a highly philosophical theorisation of everyday encounters with street vendors. Here, the transfer of Levinas’ ethical philosophy of the “self” and “other” to the relation of an art work with its viewer is one example of the many innovative and inspired connections that Clarkson establishes in this book. This chapter exemplifies the transdisciplinarity of her approach, bringing together philosophy and the aesthetics of daily life in post-apartheid South Africa.

The next chapter negotiates animal ethics and the boundary between “human and nonhuman animals” (108) and is as another example of the book’s original analogies. Clarkson reads Darwin’s and Levinas’ theories of ethics side by side in order to complicate the notion that humans have a higher moral status than animals. She aligns the traditional opposition between human rationality and animal sensation and affect to that between philosophers and poets, with the poet becoming the figure that troubles the boundary between human and animal. Due to their “accepted method of a definition of terms followed by logical argument” (128), science and philosophy are not able to provide Clarkson with an adequate approach in determining ethical obligations towards animals (a point at which, I think, other, non-Western epistemologies might have proved useful). This lack on the part of the sciences leads Clarkson to turn to literature. The conclusion that “literature has the capacity to call out the animal in man in ways that may be of positive ethical consequence” (134) is a promising one for further research.

Part III, “Lines of Force”, comprises the last two chapters of the book. Chapter 6 deals with the personal constructedness of lived reality in Johannesburg’s district Hillbrow and explores how this constructedness surfaces in three novels set in that area in the time of transition from apartheid to democracy. Clarkson delineates through their literary representations of Hillbrow, and with reference to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, how the past as well as the future is announced and anticipated in these novels, and how they intervene in the transition of South African society. Chapter 7, “Who Are We”, is preoccupied with different meanings of “we” as a linguistic shifter and as a social and cultural concept. Exploring this concept through continental and African philosophies, Clarkson also interprets the notion of community (and the position of the self within it) in a selection of South African novels. The conclusion finally returns to more explicitly socio-juridical questions (which move into the background from time to time) and the relevance of art and literature in answering them, as the book set out to do in the beginning. Clarkson evaluates how the philosophy of Ubuntu can contribute to the creation of a legitimate system of law, and develops this idea further in a concluding discussion of social justice.

Though the chapters can be read independently, they still collectively support Clarkson’s argument. The “aesthetic acts” that are examined, all embracing different aspects of culture and arts, range from artworks via literature to institutional buildings and public speeches, demonstrating how far Clarkson’s argument reaches. The author Clarkson similarly consults numerous aspects of law and morality, from land rights and the colonial arrogation of land, to human and citizen rights in comparison with the moral status of animals, to the meaning of the past as visible in the cityscape of Johannesburg. Clarkson explores the transformative potential of art, evaluating in provocative ways how art works are able to disrupt the foundations of the law. She makes an argument for the importance of art and its critical assessment, showing how it contributes to and forms our living together in human societies. That Clarkson gradually moves from a discussion of the ethics of self and other, of “I” and “you”, to a consideration of the meaning of “we” and the philosophy of Ubuntu illustrates the optimistic tenor of the book.

The strong presence of Clarkson in the text – through her voice, but also through the everyday anecdotes of life in South Africa that ground her philosophical enquiries – makes reading the chapters enjoyable and lends them a very personal stamp. The personal experiences that intersperse the chapters “activate” a deeper understanding of the relationship that the book draws between philosophical debates,literature, law and the challenges facing South African society today.

Miriam Pahl is a doctoral candidate in the Africa Department at SOAS, University of London. Her PhD examines concepts of the human in contemporary African genre fiction in relation to philosophical, political and legal theory. Her research interests include political philosophy, human rights, decolonial thought, and postcolonial and transnational literary studies. She currently splits her time between London and Nairobi.