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Helen Zille's Liberal Kitsch

Helen Zille is hardly unique as an exponent of liberal kitsch, but her unusual candour is useful because it makes manifest what is often implicit.

21/03/2017 10:24 SAST | Updated 21/03/2017 11:27 SAST
SIPHIWE SIBEKO / Reuters
Helen Zille in 2012.

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
- Derek Walcott

In his book on Gogol, Nabokov offers us his account of 'poshlust', a famously untranslatable Russian concept, but one that bears at least a family resemblance to kitsch. Nabokov notes that "poshlust is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive".

I think about Nabokov's definition whenever I travel through the Cape Winelands, with its fugitive architecture, gratuitous French names (a distant Huguenot ancestor may not be sufficient reason to call your bakery La Boulangerie) and precious ornamentation.

The wine and the food is world-beating, the scenery is nonpareil, why the endless baubles of an imported sophistication, each tasting at the fromagerie and game of petanque assuring us that we're not just getting sloshed on cab sav, we're partaking in a culture more rarified than the Simonsberg mountain air.

I used to think of 'lifestyle' projects of this sort as a kind of Disneyland for adults, but that's not quite right. Disneyland, at least, is what it is. Nabokov: "Obvious trash, curiously enough, contains sometimes a wholesome ingredient ... Superman is undoubtable poshlust, but it is poshlust in such a mild, unpretentious form that it is not worth talking about."

Honest schlock, brandies mixed with Coke and karaoke (my easy condescension here is at least, I hope, evidence of the problem) rather than the faux-minimalistic kitsch that has become the universal signifier of haute bourgeois taste.

I can't drink a great flat white without wondering what actually is the point of late capitalism (a term Nabokov would deplore as irredeemable poshlust), a simulacrum of a simulacrum - more Nabokovian than Baudrillardian - a theme park of our imagination in which the theme is that our decadence somehow transcends entertainment.

I don't mean to knock those who take light opera on a wine estate to be the highest realisation of civilisation; I can testify that being stolidly middlebrow has it charm. But the chattering of this same class includes recurrent sneering at the putative gaudiness of Guptas, at the politicians mixing single malt with cola.

Cape Town is a sad city, though its sadness isn't visible if you train yourself not to see it, and it's also a banal city, where graffiti is criminalised and sculptural versions of Hallmark card greetings are commissioned as public art.

There is no bourgeois passion more consoling than hauteur (I should know) but our snobbery isn't just a vice, it's a vice that inhibits intellectual virtue.

Cape Town is a sad city, though its sadness isn't visible if you train yourself not to see it, and it's also a banal city, where graffiti is criminalised and sculptural versions of Hallmark card greetings are commissioned as public art, where, against reason, people are proud to be social media ninjas and Instagram curators, 'creative' as professional designation stands against the possibility of art as anything that can't be quantified in terms of return on investment.

Not to scorn the many lovely things produced in that city, it is, rather, the cultural configuration that is banal, the socially regulated insistence on taking hackneyed sophistication, if you're old, or the modishly pretty, if young, to saturate the field of art. Hegemonic middlebrow, in which the abstruse and the authentically vulgar are equally repudiated, is a political achievement.

No wonder the DA sees Cape Town as the South African ideal (admittedly, no Singapore), neoliberal even down to its philistine aesthetics, constructed to homogenise the voice of the rich and silence the poor.

Beauty is truth, and the truth of liberal kitsch, like its beauty, rests comfortably on the surface of things. Dissent can only be a wilful perversion, cover for special interests. Just be honest, please!

The irony is plain: an exclusionary cultural and economic programme with universalist pretensions needs to expend endless energy to buttress its glossy surface. If what you see simply is what you get, a successful defence of the liberal project demands that you see the right things.

The upshot is a series of curious reversals. Is there an insult the bien pensant liberal columnist relishes more than 'anti-intellectual'? Any effort to probe under the surface of things, to expand the discourse, to identify distortions in the marketplace of ideas, to historicise the conditions that make crude empiricism possible, these highly intellectual activities are all tarred with the brush of anti-intellectual. Now I don't know if being intellectual is good or useful, and god knows intellectualism has led us down some dark paths, but the South African liberal commentariat's philistine deprecations cannot be ignored because they are not innocent.

For Zille, it isn't simply the case that the truth is what it is, but also that what is is so plainly the case that dissenting opinions can only be a conspiracy waged by the wokus pocus brigade.

Helen Zille is hardly unique as an exponent of liberal kitsch, but her unusual candour is useful because it makes manifest what is often implicit. For Zille, it isn't simply the case that the truth is what it is, but also that what is is so plainly the case that dissenting opinions can only be a conspiracy waged by the wokus pocus brigade.

To choose one example from the premier's untiring social media feed: HIV is transmitted through human action, therefore, Zille seems to suggest, opening your eyes and facing uncomfortable truths leads obviously to the conclusions that we need to focus more on changing people's behaviour, not wring our hands about social diseases, as if global AIDS conferences amount to little more than lavish enactments of Officer Krupke.

The truth, revealed by a cursory engagement with the literature, is that broader sociological analyses of the epidemic developed out of the failure of reductive emphases on behaviour, and that more nuanced approaches do more than help us better understand transmission, they produce more effective interventions. Far from being a concerted attempt to shield special snowflakes from responsibility, perceiving human agency within a complex social network can in fact be a liberatory programme, an effort to create space in which we can all act more autonomously.

Why focus beyond the horizon when the truth is in front of our noses? The fallists, the Fanonists, the Bikoists, the decolonisers, the radical womxn, why try to understand when their methods transgress the accepted terms of liberal discourse?

Because that truth is an article of faith, advancing self-justifying incuriosity. As Perry Anderson once put it, "an empiricism which is unable - or unwilling - to read is worth very little. It amounts to not much more than the reflexes of prejudice."

That prejudice is stultifying. Dissidence in South Africa produces plenty that should disturb us all, but also so much that is beautiful. What effort of will it takes not to see it. FeesMustFall precipitated a crisis without obvious solution; the protests were also sites of extraordinary human awakening, of solidarity realised through song, dance and collaborative intellectual effort, a glimmer of a future in which creative and intellectual energies are liberated from the bland tyranny of liberal taste. But the beautiful is not always neatly assimilable to neat aesthetic categories, and present also were students from less celebrated campuses, who did not come to sing old songs and melt into the background.

How do we read these confluences? I don't know. I understand very little about South Africa, it is in so many ways alien to me. Or rather I am an alien in it, the country of my birth. Perhaps that is we, the white middle class, keep trying to reshape our territory in our own image, never looking directly, only recognising the pieces that reflect ourselves.