Humanitarians or Consumers? (Discussion Panel)

hum.cons poster copy


Public Lecture: Lilie Chouliaraki (15 September)

Lilie Chouliaraki PUBLIC LECTURE copy

Special Issue of ‘Critical Arts’ Launch

Special Issue Launch
A new Special Issue of ‘Critical Arts’ has recently been published and guest-edited by two of CRiCC’s network members; Mehita Iqani and Bridget Kenny. This edition is titled: ‘Consumption, media and culture in South Africa: perspectives on freedom and the public,’ and will be launched on the 9th of June at 4:30pm in the Humanities Graduate Centre on Wits East Campus. Please do join us as drinks and snacks will be served. See the attached image for further details.

New Special Issue of ‘Critical Arts’

critical arts pic

A new special issue of Critical Arts has recently been published and guest-edited by two of CRiCC’s very own network members: Mehita Iqani and Bridget Kenny. This edition is titled ‘Consumption, media and culture in South Africa: perspectives on freedom and the public’ and essentially emerged from a two-day symposium which was based on: ‘Consumer Practices, Media and Landscapes in South Africa: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives’ as well as the ongoing seminars of the CRiCC network. This special issue generally progresses the aforementioned work in an attempt to argue for the significance of ‘critical consumption studies’ as a powerful and prominent field of research in South Africa.

The present special issue builds on the foundational work of a 2010 special issue of Critical Arts which was edited by Sonja Narunsky-Laden and largely focused on ‘Cultural Economy’. This former issue provided a basis from which to think about central questions linked to consumer culture as well as theorising consumption in South Africa.

Though several studies of consumer culture have been founded globally, the significance of consumption in the South African context has only received minimal attention. As a result, this special issue of Critical Arts aims to provide a deeper understanding about the meaning of this particular subject, in addition to considering exactly how the unique lessons of our context could potentially feed into the broader global scholarship. This special issue further proves that by exploring what consumption means on the ‘local’ scale of South Africa, the possibility to trace new global links and dissonances arises.

The new special issue contains the following articles:

• Chewing on Japan: consumption, diplomacy and Kenny Kunene’s nyotaimori scandal by Cobus van Staden:

“In 2010, the South African entrepreneur Kenny Kunene caused a sensation in South Africa when he ate sushi off a naked woman’s body at his birthday party. The practice – called nyotaimori in Japanese – was swiftly characterised as a Japanese tradition. In the process, sushi itself came to stand in for nouveau riche consumption. This article analyses the construction of Japan in the subsequent South African and Japanese coverage of the scandal. It puts it in the context of attempts by the Japanese government to use elite consumption as a form of public diplomacy. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, this article shows that nyotaimori was used in the subsequent scandal as a way for South Africans to define themselves – a process that reveals how embedded South Africa remains in Western ideoscapes. Through comparing Japanese and South African accounts of the scandal, this article raises questions about the role of consumption in diplomacy and the construction of the foreign.”

• Agency and affordability: being black and ‘middle class’ in South Africa in 1989 by Mehita Iqani:

“This article analyses a 1991 documentary about the ‘black middle class’ in South Africa, called Nowhere to Play: Conversations with Sowetan Golfers, commissioned by Channel 4 (UK). Drawing on interviews with the filmmaker, Angus Gibson, and one of the individuals featured in the documentary, Peter Vundla, the article critically discusses the film’s representation of the black middle class at a crucial point in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Examining the discursive construction of the ‘black middle class’, as well as its claims to agency and affordability, the article contributes to broader debates on class, race, consumption and empowerment in the South African context.”

• Sartorial excess in Mary Sibande’s ‘Sophie’ by Mary Corrigall:

“Mary Sibande has evolved the Sophie character that has defined her art practice – the domestic worker-cum-Victorian garment associated with her has grown in scale, becoming excessive. These exaggerated style codes or adaptations work at liberating the domestic worker from her lowly position in society. Empowerment, or the fantasy of what that may entail, is therefore enacted through dress and the ‘excess’ attached to it that visualises a desire for social mobility. This article presents a critical analysis of the notion of ‘sartorial excess’, employing dandyism as a theoretical tool to access the mechanics of dress as an art form that feeds off and challenges fashion and consumerism. Drawing from fashion theories advanced by Thorstein Veblen and Jean Baudrillard, the article demonstrates how democratising forces allowed fashion to become a tool of mobility – and the illusion of it. This will contribute towards a multifarious definition of sartorial excess that is both inherent to fashion, but as in Sibande’s practice, is also a form of asserting difference and dislocating from the status quo.”

• Queer skin, straight masks: same-sex weddings and the discursive construction of identities and affects on a South African website by Tommaso M. Milani & Brandon Wolff:

“This article showcases an exploratory study of the website of a Cape Town-based company specialising in arranging same-sex weddings. Informed by queer theory, the article deconstructs the discursive strategies – both linguistic and visual – through which same-sex weddings, and the affects attached to them, are represented on the website. Essentially the argument is that the identitarian and affective constructions on this website are not so radically anti-normative, but are a ‘homo’ version of a well-established heterosexual normality. Same-sex couples who make the choice to get married are portrayed as the epitome of a responsible lifestyle, whereas those who do not are constructed by implication/omission as immoral and irresponsible. Moreover, the queer skin under the otherwise straight masks remains predominantly white. On a more theoretical level, the article argues for an affective turn in the study of consumerism, culture and media in South Africa in order to appreciate how some emotions (but not others) are attached to social class, race, gender and sexuality for marketing purposes.”

• The promise of happiness: desire, attachment and freedom in post/apartheid South Africa by Danai Mupotsa:

“This article examines wedding photographs. The wedding day is read as a staging of the achievement of desire and love, articulated through the use of space, objects and artefacts to project a vision of the self. The wedding ritual is not only framed by the presence of the camera, the gaze of the camera actually makes sure that the script is followed. This staging of romance is read through the notion of the ‘bridal gaze’, which places the figure of the bride at the centre of the achievement of fairytale romance and the promise of a future ‘happily ever after’. The images and affects of happiness in these ‘love plots’ are implicated in processes of identification and subjectivation that rely on relations of the gaze and ‘the look’, logics of self-image and self-possession, and the ritualised performance of romantic love as a site of freedom. I argue that nostalgia is invoked as a narrative strategy in wedding photographs in ways that place wedding rituals and the photographs produced out of them in and out of time with the present. The promise of happiness shared by the individuals ‘in love’, and the audiences that share in the ritualised performance of it, reflect the desire for inclusion within the progressive narrative of freedom in post/apartheid South Africa and the recognition of its flimsy presence, absence, promises and failures.”

• Retail, the service worker and the polity: attaching labour and consumption by Bridget Kenny:

“This article argues for viewing debates about consumption – here specifically focused on retail spaces – as attachments to fantasies about participation. It uses the figure of the service worker as index, tracking how she appears and disappears at different historical moments in South African public discussions on consumption. Discussing four moments of debate where the service worker is represented in relation to commitments to consumption, the article argues that the figure stands in (variously) for what is at stake in claims to service and retail spaces. Paying attention to the shifting and sometimes shadowy figure of this worker in public debate, we can begin to comment on the longer history of ambivalence toward consumption, linked to labour, as well as recent triumphant claims to access to the market as sphere of democracy, for instance, in Wal-Mart’s entry to South Africa.”

• Contradictions in consumer credit: innovations in South African super-exploitation by Patrick Bond:

“Half of the 20 million credit-active consumers in South Africa (out of 53 million residents) were, by the 2010s, experiencing over-indebtedness. ‘Impaired credit’ ratings soared to the point that ratings agencies were compelled to restore the borrowing capacity of 2.3 million (albeit without forgiving outstanding loans). The increase in the rate of unsecured credit extensions by a variety of lenders hit extreme levels and led to demands for a ban on garnishee orders. Underlying the surface explosion of consumer credit and resulting increase in social tension was the overall economic downturn since 2008. This reflected not only the prior five years of dramatic over-borrowing, but a generalised condition of ‘financialisation’ that emerged during capitalist crisis management in the context of political democratisation. The retail financial sector witnessed an unprecedented degree of liberalisation, especially higher interest rates and new credit products. Moreover, the National Credit Act of 2005 stressed the role of debt counsellors rather than shared liability for debt workouts. The growing contradictions in consumer credit have in the past generated fierce resistance. A quarter century earlier, a more aggressive collective default strategy characterised a similar era: the ‘bond boycott’. Whether the contradictions generate a similar collective reaction depends upon political agency, and the emergence of a ‘United Front’ can potentially relink labour and community self-interests in a decisive manner.”

• Trading in freedom: rethinking conspicuous consumption in post-apartheid political economy by Ulrike Kistner:

“This article investigates some accounts of conspicuous consumption in South Africa, tracing their variously linear, circular and disjunctive paths, identifying and explaining some methodological impasses, and concluding with reflections on the interrelation between distinct armatures of value and exchange. The first kind of trajectory that impinges in looking at accounts of conspicuous consumption post-apartheid is a linear one, indicating the direction ‘up from’ and ‘out of’ racially based discrimination and oppression structuring sumptuary regulations. With regard to this trajectory, I will show that this is not as linear as it may initially appear, proceeding from apartheid to its ‘post-’, but that it is indicated both in the liberation movement’s programmatics and in the aspirationalism mobilised by advertising and marketing strategies at an earlier stage. In considering the association of freedom with de-regulated consumption, a circularity emerges, in relation to which I would like to posit, for purposes of critical analysis, distinct forms of exchange implicit in the contexts described for the emergence of a new ‘middle class’ at a specific conjuncture, to then spell out some of their complex interrelations and dynamics.”