Gordimer, Race, and the Impossibility of Communicative Action in Apartheid South Africa.

Humanities Bulletin [London Academic Publishing] 2 (2):123-144 (2019)
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Drawing from Bakhtin and Habermas, I will show how the different voices in Gordimer's novel seem to be enacting a democratic public sphere in which no voice is granted authority over others – a public sphere which carries the promise of countering the social and political hierarchies established by the racist South African regime. The promise, however, turns out to be an illusion. As I will demonstrate, the possibility of an Enlightenment bourgeois public sphere which the novel seems to be gesturing at is being irreparably undermined by racism. In a country where the Enlightenment aspiration to universalism and equality before the law are glaringly contravened by racism, Rosa Burger is painfully aware of her inability to fully access the predicament of the blacks. As such, Burger’s daughter remains only Burger’s daughter, and the children of Soweto the children of Soweto; at no point in the novel do they truly intermingle. Despite the fact that both are fighting racism – and the novel is devoted to the “coming-of-age” of both kinds of children – Rosa Burger remains only the daughter of a Bürger at the end of the novel, not the daughter of South Africa, much less to say the daughter of Black South Africa. She has finally “come into her own,” but the “self” she manages to realize is at best that of a disillusioned bourgeois individual (that of a disillusioned Bürger, so to speak) – a “self” that recalls Hegel’s “beautiful soul.” To appropriate György Lukács’s language, Bürger’s Daughter could be described as “modern bourgeois literature bear[ing] witness against bourgeois society.”

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Sinkwan Cheng
Duke University


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