Whose literature? Whose democracy? Which public space?

How can we, in a now globalized world, re-think the question of possible links between literature and democracy?[1]

This question comes from the prospectus for the international conference entitled ‘Literature and Democratic Public Spaces’ held at the Maison Française in Oxford, England in November 2013, which provided the prompt for this post. For me, the most striking word in this challenging question is ‘re-think’. As the prospectus mentioned no specific theorists, I trawled through my own archive of possible precursors, lighting in the first instance on Jacques Derrida and this sentence in particular, which comes from ‘Passions’ (1993): ‘No democracy without literature; no literature without democracy.’[2] Knowing that we were going speak at the Maison Française, this teasingly gnomic remark made at the end of the Cold War in turn led me back to Sartre’s more vatic pronouncement in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: ‘There is no guarantee that literature is immortal. Its chance today, its only chance, is the chance of Europe, of socialism, of democracy, and of peace.’[3]

Both these statements demand careful analysis, and each of course opens up only more challenging questions. In the space I have here, I shall simply comment on their relevance to a particular moment in the history of South African letters, which has an ongoing relevance to the debates about literature, democracy, and free expression today.

The lessons of 1988

The historical details of the occasion can be summarised too swiftly as follows. In late October 1988, the Weekly Mail, then a leading anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa, held one of its annual Book Weeks in Cape Town. This was essentially an arts festival designed to affirm the freedom of expression and dedicated to a democratic future, which, at that point, still seemed rather far off. Earlier that month, the government had closed a number of major newspapers, and, in the days preceding the festival, the Weekly Mail itself received a temporary banning order. The Book Week was entitled ‘Censorship under the State of Emergency’, and the headline event was to be a panel discussion about censorship involving three Booker Prize winners: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie had been invited jointly by the Weekly Mail and the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), the largest and most influential writers’ group to emerge during the apartheid era. By then, COSAW, following the ANC, had adopted a more flexible approach to the cultural boycott—hence the invitation to Rushdie. The proposed panel was, however, overtaken by events. Following the world-wide campaign against The Satanic Verses (1988), which was then gaining momentum, various Muslim groups in South Africa protested against the invitation, and some issued death threats against Rushdie (see The Satanic Verses Revisited post). Given the impact of technology on public space, it is worth noting that they were encouraged by Muslim organisations in the UK who faxed them marked up pages from the novel as well as other materials about it to help them frame their protest. As part of the same internationally concerted action, two local groups also lobbied the apartheid censors, asking for the book to be banned as a blasphemous insult to their religion. The censors duly complied and the novel was proscribed on 28 October, three days before Rushdie was due to speak. The oddly precipitous nature of this decision suggests they were under pressure from the government’s security apparatus who were seeking to disrupt the Book Week.[4] In the face of this campaign, and above all out of concern for Rushdie’s life, COSAW decided after much agonising debate to withdraw its invitation, much to the dismay of the now temporarily banned Weekly Mail. As a result, when the panel members eventually assembled on 31 October 1988, only Gordimer and Coetzee appeared on the platform.

Which public space?

That briefly is the background. My main interest lies not in the historical details, but in the questions this concatenation of events raises, beginning with ‘which public space?’ As the organizers of the Oxford conference rightly noted in their prospectus, the always-resonant ideals of the Republic of Letters, as articulated in Europe during the Enlightenment, carry little weight today. Perhaps with Habermas in mind, they pointed out that the ‘perimeter of public space has been extended and its structure transformed’ largely by the ‘mass media’ (now including the internet and social media) or the ‘market’ but also by the ongoing ‘forces of state control’. ‘Unless one chooses to idealize today’s public space’, they added, ‘it is only in theory that it can appear as the place of a community of ideal communication or of free expression, accessible to all’ (Prospectus). Their scepticism is clearly borne out by the circumstances I have just described, though the Weekly Mail’s ill-fated Book Week also shows how ‘autonomous frameworks of discussion’, no matter how fragile and compromised, can be created even in the most hostile environments.

More importantly, the fraught circumstances of the Book Week show how difficult it is to frame an analysis of ‘public space’ in a ‘now globalized world’, even when we look back to the relatively simple world of 1988, which had yet to experience the digital revolution. If we frame it in broadly political terms, then, we have a highly constrained public space defined by South Africa’s territorial borders, threatened by the apartheid regime’s censorship apparatus, and, no less importantly, impoverished by its language policies. South Africa, at that point, recognised only English and Afrikaans as official languages not the eleven it does today. If we frame the analysis in broadly cultural terms, then we have to take into consideration a much larger, though still not quite global, and much less constrained, though still not quite free, linguistic territory, dominated in this case by the English language, mapped primarily by international copyright law, transformed by the advent of the fax machine, and underwritten by the British and the American state, in fact, by European legal structures as well. (In 1990, the European Court endorsed a decision by the English High courts not to ban The Satanic Verses under English blasphemy law.) Though Coetzee and Gordimer often negotiated particular co-licensing agreements with the most significant anti-apartheid publishers in South Africa, their novels, like Rushdie’s, circulated for the most part under the imprints of major commercial publishers based in London and New York. They entered very different spaces once they moved beyond the transnational Anglosphere via the always unpredictable mechanisms of translation. It hardly needs to be said that for writers using minority languages public space looks very different, and a lot less global.

Given these complexities, to re-think the question of literature and democracy today, we need to begin by addressing two issues. First, we need to acknowledge that, when it comes to ‘autonomous frameworks of public discussion’, the state, like the market, is both a threat and a guarantor.  Second, we need to take as our primary object not ‘the public space’ but the multiple, often intersecting, public spaces that are shaped not just by the market and the state, but by language, technologies of writing and transmission, international law, supranational structures like the European court, cultural institutions with a global reach like the Booker Prize, and ultimately by complex, often asymmetrical economies of power and prestige. Focusing on these two issues might usefully curb any tendency ‘to idealize today’s public space’ or to frame the analysis in exclusively theoretical terms. As importantly, it might direct our attention away from free expression as such, which is too often brandished as conversation-stopping slogan, and towards the more demanding questions relating to the often complex conditions that make that freedom possible and the sometimes far from obvious forces that threaten it — particularly considering the rise of social media and non-state actors today.

It is these forces that produce varieties of what the legal theorist Rae Langton has eloquently called ‘illocutionary disablement’, effectively extrajudicial, broadly cultural, economic and pragmatic forms of public silencing.[5] After all, it was these broader conditions and forces, which were both enabling and disabling, as well as local, national, regional and transnational, that made Rushdie, Gordimer and Coetzee into names worth inviting to speak on the topic of censorship in the first place. Seen in this way, the question for any democratic public space, whether actual or potential, is not so much ‘who speaks out?’, but ‘who and what authorises particular citizens to speak out and to be heard?’ in a particular public space, or, to put it in Langton’s term, ‘what are the conditions of illocutionary enablement?’ For better or worse, the state, the mass media, technology, the market, a host of other institutions, including universities, and various ideas of literature all have a part to play in this always highly debatable process of authorisation.

Whose literature? Whose democracy?

So much for the question of public space. I shall take the other two questions ‘whose literature?’ and ‘whose democracy?’ together. With only Gordimer and Coetzee on the platform, the discussion inevitably focussed on the meaning of Rushdie’s absence, not on censorship as such. On this issue, Gordimer and Coetzee found themselves to be fundamentally at odds, not just because they saw things differently but because they spoke in different capacities. As an ANC-aligned writer, and founding member of COSAW, Gordimer was obliged to defend the collective decision to withdraw Rushdie’s invitation; whereas Coetzee, who always guarded his autonomy as a non-aligned writer, was free to speak his own mind.

While he admonished COSAW for ‘conniving in censorship’ for the ‘sake of the unity of the anti-apartheid alliance’ and in order not to make ‘life too difficult for Muslims in the alliance’, he characteristically did not claim the moral high ground for himself.[6] In his deliberately double-edged concluding remarks, he said: ‘I am here with my tail between my legs like the rest of the participants, like the organizers too. That loose and fragile alliance of people, those who believe in freedom of expression and those who believe in freedom of expression for some people, we have suffered a crushing defeat’ (Harber). Looking to the future, he worried that the whole ‘sorry spectacle’ would ‘go down in history as the moment after which people simply got tired of pretending there was any place for the liberal shibboleths like freedom of expression in the anti-apartheid struggle’ (Harber). Gordimer, for her part, recognised Coetzee’s ‘democratic right’ to his views, but she was, as she put it, ‘extremely shocked and surprised and distressed’ by his unexpected ‘public attack on us’ (Harber). She accepted that the decision to withdraw Rushdie’s invitation was a ‘defeat’, but, she said, ‘we still think the man’s life was more important than our principles’ (Harber). As it happens, Coetzee later came to think she was right.[7] Much more needs to be said about the intricate ethics of this particular situation, which turn, in part, on the very Sartrean problematic of alignment, but to address my two remaining questions I shall focus on the very different ideas of literature and of democracy Coetzee and Gordimer stood for on that Cape Town platform in 1988.

As the spokesperson for COSAW, Gordimer represented a collective understanding of the link between literature and democracy, as articulated in the organisation’s constitution, which had been drafted only the year before. Taking up the kind of language to which the ANC had committed itself in the early 1980s, COSAW’s overarching strategic objective was ‘to advance the struggle for the creation of a non-racial, non-exploitative, non-sexist, united and democratic South Africa’.[8] After making a pledge to ‘resist all forms of censorship’, the constitution set out the terms on which writers and literature in particular could play a legitimate part in this broader struggle. Echoing the Maoist phrasing which the ANC had adopted in the early 1980s, when it initiated a movement of mass mobilisation under the banner of a new ‘People’s Culture’, it insisted that ‘writers and cultural workers, generally, are products of and belong to the community’ and that ‘as such they have a responsibility to serve the community.’ Which ‘community’ was left open, though, as the name COSAW, and as the preamble’s opening phrasing affirmed—it began ‘We, the writers of South Africa’—the assumption throughout was that it referred primarily to the territorially defined national community, or, more accurately, the democratic unitary South Africa that was yet to come.

The COSAW constitution also specifically noted the ‘critical role that literature and the other arts must play in the struggle for liberation’ and encouraged its members ‘to promote literature, other arts and culture that are directed to the creation of a new and democratic South Africa’. These formulations owed much to the ANC’s Maoist influences and to the Black Consciousness movement, which had emerged in South Africa in the 1970s, both of which repudiated liberal individualism—hence the stress on communities. Yet COSAW’s principles were also recognisably Sartrean. While Sartre had, revealingly and questionably, linked the ‘only chance’ of literature to the ‘chance’ of Europe, Socialism, democracy and peace in 1948, COSAW forty years later tied it to the ‘chance’ of South Africa, a Maoist-inspired ‘People’s Culture’, democracy, and the struggle against apartheid. For Gordimer, who had long been sympathetic not just to Sartre’s ideas of commitment but to his belief in the novel as an antidote to various forms of bad faith, this was what it meant to stand for literature and democracy on that platform in 1988. Like COSAW, she saw literature as having a ‘critical role’ to play in the struggle for democracy, which meant, first and foremost, a political system based on the principle of universal franchise in a unitary state.

As some of his more specific remarks about The Satanic Verses suggest, Coetzee understood both terms, and their linkage, differently. For him, COSAW had not only ‘connived in censorship’ by withdrawing Rushdie’s invitation, it had appeased ‘religious fundamentalism’ (Harber). Most immediately, this meant ‘Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation’ (Harber). With South Africa’s white Christian government in mind, however, he also mentioned ‘Calvinist fundamentalism’, which, he said, ‘has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history’. He then extended his scope further still.

Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed, narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante (ministers), giving their blessings. (Harber)

For Coetzee, the primary source of such violence lay in fundamentalist hatred of books and writing. Fundamentalism, he said, ‘stands for the one founding book and thereafter no more books’, and since it ‘means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there’, it ‘abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing’ (Harber). ‘As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon’ (Harber). According to Coetzee, this hatred of writing is what The Satanic Verses is about and what explained its murderous effects: ‘Rushdie presents the prophet not as a prophet but as a writer’ and that is ‘why the fundamentalists want him dead’ (Harber).

This was not the prophet as Sartre’s ‘committed’ or COSAW’s ‘critical’ writer, however. It was the prophet as Derrida’s ‘democratic’ writer who owed much to the tradition of Mallarme, Joyce, Beckett and many other European modernists of the early twentieth century. It was, after all, these writers and this tradition that Derrida had in mind when he insisted on the impossibility of dissociating literature and democracy. For this kind of writer, there can be ‘no literature without democracy’, that is, without all the fragile rights and freedoms associated with the world’s many democratic traditions; but, equally, and less obviously, there can be ‘no democracy without literature’, that is, without the ‘endlessness of writing’, which posits no stable origin and guarantees no final destination. On this analysis, democracy is not just a form of society, a problem or a moment in time. It is also a politically humane but ethically demanding vision of communal life, seen not as a determinate artefact but as ‘sinuous, protean, and forward-gliding’ process. Communal life modelled, in effect, on the open-endedness of writing, not on the boundedness of the book.

For Coetzee, The Satanic Verses was a work of literature and of democracy in this sense, an instance of writing as an anti-fundamentalist act. I am not so sure, but it would take more space than I have here to start developing this argument fully (see Chapter 8 of my book Artefacts of Writing, 2017). In my view, if you focus on The Satanic Verses that caused so much offence to Muslim readers and unleashed so much destructive violence in the world, then Coetzee is probably right. On this reading, the irreverent poet Baal looms large, as do the dream sequences that desacralize the Qur’an, turning it into an all too human artefact of writing subject to the vagaries of transmission, translation and interpretation. However, if you focus on The Satanic Verses that took post-war British racism and hostility to immigrants as its primary object, then Rushdie looks rather more like a writer in the Sartrean tradition that Gordimer and COSAW revived in the South Africa of the late 1980s. I am not claiming this to quibble with Coetzee’s reading, but to underscore the point the organisers of the Oxford conference rightly emphasised in their the announcement for this conference, namely, that ‘each literary work represents a singular way of questioning the commonplaces of cultural discourse’. As the singular concatenation of events in 1988 shows, and as The Satanic Verses testifies in its own no less singular way, these necessarily include the ‘commonplaces’ of literature and democracy, of public space, and, as Derrida noted in 1993, ‘of the ethics or the politics of responsibility’.[9]


[1] Philippe Roussin and Sebastian Veg, ‘Literature and Democratic Public Spaces’, conference prospectus, November 2013. All subsequent references in the main text.

[2] Jacques Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995, 28. The English version of ‘Passions’, which originally appeared in French in 1993, was translated by David Wood.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London, Routledge, 2001, 229. This English translation first appeared in 1950, two years after the French original.

[4] I discuss the details of this decision more fully in The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, 211-16.

[5] See Rae Langton, Sexual Solipsism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, 5 and passim.

[6] Anton Harber, ‘South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans’, UK Guardian online, 28 May 2013. A former editor of the Weekly Mail, Harber offers the only full account of Coetzee’s speech. All subsequent references to this article are indicated in the main text.

[7] For his further reflections, see The Literature Police, 214-15.

[8] All quotations from the constitution come from The Literature Police, 205.

[9] Derrida, On the Name, 28.


This post is a slightly revised version of ‘Quelle littérature? Quelle démocratie? Quel espace public?’, Communications, 99 (2016), 123-31.

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