Politics of Representation: Semiotic Struggles in South Africa
Written by Tomaselli, Keyan   
Author: Tomaselli, Keyan
Date: 1995
Other Authors: Arnold Shepperson
Published: Caiet de Cinema, 11, 1995, 1-20.
Place: Timisoara, Romania
Copyright: Tomaselli and Shepperson
Though scholars in South Africa have been studying semiotics since the late 1960s, the method was only recently contextualized in African terms (Shepperson 1992a; Shepperson and Tomaselli 1993; Sekoni 1992). The reconstitution of semiotics in terms of African gnoses has followed two basic trajectories in South Africa: the first and most recent relates to specifically African ways of making sense, deriving from the oral consciousness. The second is a more conventional appropriation which has been applied to the study of academic disciplines such as literature, theatre, media and so on. Both are criss-crossed by political considerations.

The bulk of critical social semiotic work has been done by media and cinema studies scholars (Van Zyl 1977, Tomaselli 1985; Tomaselli et al 1986; Tomaselli R.E et al 1989). The semiotics of popular theatre flared in considerable depth during the 1980s (Steadman 1985, 1989; Dalrymple 1987; Tomaselli 1981a, 1981b). Literary criticism has a longer tradition of semiological application, but has tended to concentrate on internationally known writers.

In problematizing semiotics and semiotic discussion in South Africa during the 1980s, we discuss the following areas:

a) the politicising of semiotics - left-wing struggles over representation;

b) Reception theory - de-politicizing semiotics;

c) Locating semiotics in the concrete concerns of African social and political developments.

Each of the three areas will be examined in terms of domestic political dynamics. We concentrate on that specifically semiotic work -- which on the whole is rather little -- which is closest to our own concerns and knowledge and which applies the method within the African and South African contexts.


Problematizing Semiotics

The community as a Semiotic Subject is a problematic of peculiar relevance in the South African context. The apartheid state favoured a view that derived in its entirety from the North-European ethnos theoretical tradition. A major premise of this discourse was the idea that a subject's culture was somehow inherent as a genetic function of a subject's tribal or national origins. The defence of apartheid was that the ethnically defined `cultural community' (or `sign-community') of one's birth defined the life one officially lived and where, the language one officially spoke, and the practices that one officially appropriated in order to live (see Tomaselli and Shepperson 1991; Louw and Tomaselli 1991).

That this `community' was but `race' writ large in the language of science rather than of Divinity, imparted a special aspect to the idea of communication. Since practice generally subsumes action, and since action has to be justified in terms of one or more values that are held by the agent to be relevant in the context of activity, the exchange of signs across the racially defined South African `communities' inherently could not be communication. Values were held to be culture-specific, and the values of one community were as good as incommensurable relative to those of another. The matrices of signification employed by such a state do not communicate. Further, the apartheid state's appropriation of technologies of signification modelled on those of the industrial metropoles suggests that in our society the practice of `communication' under apartheid was at least twice removed from any practice that might have achieved or confirmed community in any real sense (Tomaselli and Shepperson 1991:16).

Language users can and do have proficiency in several discourses. Speakers in turn, develop within a practical/normative community that constitutes the discourse(s) within which the user becomes proficient (see Vygotski 1986: Chapter 5). Our position is that communication is fundamentally the interactive constitution of at least one discourse at the level of a community. This, in turn, necessitates that communities are dynamic entities defined, on the one hand, by the sum over the internal histories of these interactions, and, on the other hand, by the sum over the histories of interaction with other such communities that shared or came to share at least one discourse in common (that is to say: the history of communication). Cultural differences at the level of the `community' (in South African terms) have their genesis in an ensemble of historical interrelations, and not in the relevant subjects' DNA.


Radical Slogans: the Semiotics of Transformation

Following the global events of late 1980s, a general falsification of the theoretical standpoints that underpinned previous work occurred: socialism in its formal guise as the Soviet Union experienced a radical collapse; Africa's post-colonial countries' social programmes have been forced to reevaluate their priorities; and the theory that provided the motivating call for the struggle against apartheid has been largely repudiated by the leaders of that struggle.

However, the alternative forced onto the non-European world still does not seem to offer any solutions more valid than those applied in the past. Despite the adoption by African governments of policies based on catch phrases like `development', `pluralism' and so on, the poverty, starvation, and human degradation persist unabated. The real conditions in post-apartheid South Africa have largely been replaced on Western television screens with images of instability elsewhere in Africa, or with reports on the condition of the former Communist Bloc. But the poverty and violence continues nevertheless.

South African semiologists/semioticians operate within a society which, because of its institutionalised differences of cultural and linguistic practice, experiences a level of intense conflict deriving from these differences. The semiotizing of communication studies within an inter-disciplinary context based on Cultural Studies has promise as a validly alternative approach to the effective investigation of the conflict and oppression specific to the South African situation. Yet our national response seems to be little better than David Rotman's (1987) ruminations on The Semiotics of Zero. At the same time, trying to solve the conflict in the terms of Eurocentric paradigms common to the ideomythical discourse of both Capitalist and Socialist sides of the now-ended Cold War would be plainly ridiculous.

Conventional European approaches have little or no significance (pun intended) in the necessarily complex situation that is everyday life in Africa. By providing a ready-made non-dualistic model upon which we can begin our work, Peircean semiotics combined with Radical Philosophy has some distinct advantages over the standard models (Shepperson 1992b; Shepperson and Tomaselli 1993). We now turn to how some of these models have played out in the South African situation.


De-politicising Semiotics

During the apartheid era nothing escaped politicisation. The application of different strands of semiology and semiotics by South African academics thus indicated their ideological positions within the social formation as a whole. The use of European semiology within an interpretive theological framework was preferred by conservatives who sought to escape a confrontation with apartheid. An extreme formalism drawing on French structuralism found its way into literary studies, while a somewhat more open-ended approach was found in Afrikaans University communication studies. This latter communication semiology was derived from the Dutch formalist J.M. Peters (1977, 1989). It offered analysis within assumptions of high culture and the media providing a `model' for reality and social behaviour (Fourie 1982, 1988).

Reception studies, too, took a highly hermeneutical route, becoming little more than the study of the reception of reception theory in South Africa. The Reader and Beyond (1993), for example, is result of nationally sponsored project on reception theory. The chapters from this book were first presented at the January 1989 Knowledge and Method in the Human Sciences Conference held in Pretoria. Then, as in their published form, the bulk of the papers emphasize theory, and largely ignore reception - what sense ordinary people actually make of significant objects and events.

That the papers were presented at the height of the states of emergencies and the twilight of apartheid - and yet ignored the influences of these conditions in shaping the context of reception - is indicative of just how isolated certain groups of academics had become from society at large. The basic definition of reception derived from Jauss, Iser, Fish and Holland by Lategan's authors inevitably slips between contributions, and is firmly rooted in the academic factories of the First World.

The problem with the project as conceived lies in its conception of the communication process. For all the often engaging philosophising found in the book, it is upended by one simple assumption long discredited in media studies. The book's editor, Bernard Lategan, roots reception theory in the deterministic sender-message-receiver model. This technical transmission emphasis emerged out of mathematical telecommunications modelling studies conducted by Bell Laboratories in the 1940s. This results in the book's authors projecting the readers/audiences of the texts they examine rather than understanding what the readers themselves make of them (cf Sless 1986). The white, Western petty bourgeois, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, academic gaze remains paramount in this work.


The Reader and Beyond is not about reception theory in South Africa as Lategan's introductory heading claims. It is about unequivocal adoptions of theories developed in First World contexts imposed without reconstitution on South African readers assumed to evidence white Western individualistic Freudian type subjectivities. The bulk of the book, then, is really about the reception by a particular strata of white South African academics of particular interpretive kinds of reception theory. In some ways, Alan Brimer's (1992) cheeky anti-theoretical anecdotal observations about how his Indian South African students idiosyncratically rearticulate Western literature into their own cultural and class frames are more illuminating than the theory itself.


Politicising Semiotics

Academics allied to the Mass Democratic Movement and the anti-apartheid struggle more generally during the 1980s were divided over the use of semiotics. Ideological schisms over the use of semiotics occurred between the follwing tendencies:

a) activists who applied semiotics (mainly in language, media, performance and cultural studies) as part of the concrete anti-apartheid struggle (found mainly in Critical Arts and, to a lesser extent, in SA Theatre Journal; also see Steadman 1985; Dalrymple 1987);

b) the critical literary/philosophical strands which drew from an aesthetic tradition based on British literary studies after Raymond Williams, Frederick Jameson and Terry Eagleton (found mainly in Journal of Literary Studies and Pre-texts);

c) a hermeneutic theological semiotics of an esoteric interpretive kind (Lategan 1992) (also see Communicatio, Koers). This tendency included a marked formalism which distracted from contextual concerns and differing receptions of the wide spectrum of interpretive communities brought about by colonialism and apartheid;

d) applications of deconstruction and post-structuralism differed in terms of their applications - politically conscious popular culture analyses versus apolitical emphases of a different kind of literature (Journal of Literary Studies; Literator; Pre-Texts);

e) a Screen Theory materialist semiological emphasis (Literator 1991; specific chapters in Prinsloo and Criticos 1991).


Fleshing out the Positions

The 1980s was a time of extreme hegemonic struggle. Apartheid had entered its last dark decade fighting for its life. Lines of tension crossed all classes and groups within the social formation as a whole. The state itself was wracked with conflict, internal dissension, and contrary political positions which, by the end of the decade, saw the decline of the `securocrats' and the ascendance of those who preferred to jettison apartheid in favour of a negotiated settlement. Academic practices during this period reflected the politial and ideological schisms of the society as a whole, as well as those within particular tendencies, whether on the left- or the right- wings. We discuss some of these tendencies within MDM-aligned academics below.

Left-wing discourses in conceptual conflict were found amongst academics working in alliance with the MDM and labour movement. These acadeic activists were located at the anti-apartheid English-language universities within disciplines such as labour sociology, anthropology and history, cultural and media studies, popular performance studies and education.

One particular tendency coalesced around historical materialist correspondence theorists. This position, known as `workerist', developed an analysis based on realism with objective, `out-there', concretely referable objects, independent of textual contamination, about which absolute knowledge could be obtained. The brutality of real conditions impacted real people, they argued, irrespective of their ways of making sense of it. The crucial mobilizing role of language and representation was not a major dmension in the work of this tendency.

Intellectually, this materialist position was informed by an E.P. Thompson-type of culturalism. Culturalism is hostile to structuralist theory and formalist semiology. Structuralism is argued by culturalists to suppress human agency and the authenticity of the experience of the oppressed classes (Sitas 1981).

The workerists accused historical materialist cultural studies semioticians of intellectualising and reifying experiences which had a hard and brutal repressive edge under apartheid. The conflict between the culturalists and cultural studies scholars centred on discussions on the semiotics of popular anti-apartheid theatre versus a strident anti-semiotic position. These cultural studies theorists of popular theatre applied historical materialist semiotics (derived from Peirce)/semiology to the study of performance genres found in the work of black consciousness, labour and community theatre practitioners (Steadman 1985, 1987; Dalrymple 1987; Tomaselli 1981a; 1981b; Tomaselli and Muller 1987). The conflict arose over the intersection of semiotic analyses and worker plays arising out of the FOSATU (later COSATU) trade union movement

The confrontation was triggered by an article which semiotized a worker strike, the role playing exercise used by the union lawyer to recreate the incident for presentation in court, and its final mutation into a worker play (Tomaselli 1981b). Some labour theatre activists working within the culturalist perspective felt that the semiotic analysis was an untimely and inappropriate intellectual imposition which had the effect of disempowering the strategic significance of their cultural work within the union movement. They argued that structuralist analysis objectified and dehumanised people already dehumanised under apartheid - and that this had seriously negative effects on how cultural work was viewed within the labour movement itself. The article, it was felt, provided ammunition for those within the movement opposing cultural work as a means to consciousness-raising amongst the black working class.

This unpublished culturalist critique remained in the face of the cultural studies-informed counter-argument. The latter position argued that popularising semiotics provided a weapon to critique both apartheid social practices and dominant social constructions of reality. Contestation of representation was a necessary ingredient of struggle which enhanced the cultural work of the labour movement. These theorists agreed that structuralist semiology was guilty of determinist and de-humanising tendencies, but it was only somewhat later that the actual differences between structuralist semiology and the more pragmatist Peircean semiotics were elaborated in an attempt to bridge this gap.

The cultural studies mesh of historical materialist and Peircean approaches tried to explain and interpret enactments of class experiences in an affirmative way not possible in semiology. At the root of the difference were the issues of language and interpretation - the two positions were unable to talk to each other constructively because of their epistemological divergences - the one examined the metonymic relationship between role playing representations and actual events - the other denied the metonymic dimension.

A third tendency which existed in parallel to, rather than intersecting the above debates, was a highly determinist structuralism, found in Screen Theory applications. These read Saussure's formalism through Lacanian psychoanalysis and Louis Althusser's (1971) theory of ideology. The assumption is that the Text `positions' ahistorical and unlocated viewers into `reading' films in terms of a Metzian "narrative inscription" (see, eg., Higgins 1991, 1993; Sey 1991). For Higgins (1991:112), the question is "how film for the analyst becomes the object of knowledge distinct from film as the object of commonsense understanding".

Higgins mercilessly attacked Mike Chapman's (1991a:86) cultural studies emphasis which calls for dialectically derived "useful insights about the relation of `texts' to social reality". This is the old Text vs Context argument - Screen Theory continues the Leavisite emphasis on Texts providing their own rules for interpretion which hold no matter the context of exhibition or the differing ways that interpretive communities make sense of these texts.

Chapman argues for multi-accentuated analysis involving context - he is less concerned with the Text than the social, cultural and political conditions within which texts are interpreted. Like the waspish debates over labour theatre discussed above, this testy interchange occurred within leftwing theoretical discourses. But in this instance it was over questions of representation - Screen Theory semiology emphasizing the hegemony of the `Text' versus arguments for analysis which is "ultimately responsible to systems of value in the surrounding world", a point which the later Metz himself came to realise (Chapman 1991b:123). Where Higgins (1991:111) accuses Chapman of reducing film to an example of bourgeois ideology, Chapman is calling for recognition of the experience brought to the viewing of films by South African school children - something of the culturalist position.

When reception is called up, it is the scholar's theory of textual reception that is offered rather than that of film audiences (Olivier 1992a), though in some cases an additional section on `relevance for South Africa' is tacked on at the end of post-structuralist critiques of Hollywood movies (Olivier 1992b). Or, an uncritical importation of European/American post-structuralist theories argues for analysis of reception in mainly theoretical terms. This emphasis then occurs to the exclusion of all other kinds of analysis (see Bertelsen 1991). An attempt to mediate between theories of narrative and newspaper reviewer reception, is Jeanne Prinsloo's (1992) Proppian analysis drawing on psychoanalytical insights of two African films. The next stage would be reception analysis of real audiences of such films (See Botha and Van Aswegan 1993).

Very detailed discussions on the semiotics of apartheid education drawing on discourse theory (Williams 1988/9), of apartheid as material practice (Louw and Tomaselli 1991) and apartheid imaging on film and TV using Peirce later meshed with Volosinov appeared in the late 1980s (Tomaselli et al 1986; Tomaselli et al 1990). A monumental piece of work is Ruth Teer-Tomaselli's (1993) analysis of how the national broadcaster imaged political violence and the demonization of the then exiled African National Congress. These studies discussed how apartheid meanings were materialised into everyday social practices, ideology and institutions, and how language planners tried to specifically construct apartheid-led sign communities in terms of their divide-and-rule strategies.

Other work examined the politics of Zulu nationalism as both appropriated by, and used in, the internationally successful TV series, Shaka Zulu. Gary Mersham's (1993) in-depth analysis reveals the discursive political interests served by the series in the context of the last decade of apartheid. A spate of work was also presented at the Southern African Association for Semiotics (SAAS) Conference analysing white right wing symbols, Namibian election logos and hunger strikes, all issues relating to attempts to assist, or impede, the political transformation of South Africa during the period that transition from apartheid to a democracy was occurring (Van den Bergh 1992a, 1992b; Van der Walt and Van den Bergh 1992; Erasmus and van den Bergh 1992).

Seeing apartheid as a system of domination shaped and legitimised through language and representation, the Department of Afrikaans at the University of Western Cape aimed their anti-apartheid work at grassroots populations and schoolchildren (see, eg., Pokpas 1989). These language scholars developed theories and strategies which taught people how to critically read popular media, comics, legends and music: "our efforts to subvert current [primary school] curricula ... can serve as a starting point to make inroads into secondary (and tertiary) education" (Botha, et al 1991, 1992). They avoided the term, "semiotics", because of its "subversive connotations" to the repressive agencies of apartheid. The term `semiotics', then, was caught between opposing ideologies coterminous with the right and left wings, though for different reasons.

What separated the two positions, then, was that the media/language scholars/activists examined reality in terms of discourse and representation. The culturalists, in contrast, assumed the existence of a real referable reality independent of mediation which could be changed irrespective of how it was represented.


Africanizing Semiotics: the route via film theory

A post-apartheid development is the study of semiotics and oral consciousnesses of languages that were subordinated during the colonial and post-colonial impositions of industrial culture. The effects of this culture in academic terms has been a subjection by alienating and misleading post-Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic critique on textual analysis. These theories are often inappropriately imported into African critical canons by travelling scholars trying to secure their First World relevance by recreating the neo-colonial bastions of Western psychocentric Screen Theory in a continent still resolving the tensions and problems of colonialism, let alone post-modernism.

Psychoanalytically-based theory fails to account for films made by directors or communities whose cultures emphasize orality over literacy, or where competing world views exist between literate, even Westernised groups. Further, the current psychocentric semiological paradigm of Western media theory is largely inappropriate when applied to subject-generated films and videos made by primarily oral people, or even cultures within secondary orality. 21

Some idea of the use of radical philosophy coupled with a semiotically-informed realism in this context can be gained from the emerging emphasis on the role of exhibition rather than representation in the theorizing of film in Africa (Shepperson 1994; Tomaselli 1994). The idea that the classical conception of film as representing some kind of ideology or class interest, has been supplemented with analyses which follow the extent to which film exhibition reproduces specific identifiable contexts of oppression and marginalization.

This has proved fruitful in debates not only on mass-entertainment film, but also when applied to genres like popular documentary and television sitcoms. More specialized forms such as ethnographic film have also been found amenable to similar realist approaches (Shepperson, 1994).

Semiotically speaking, the context within which this approach is formulated derives from a variation on a theme discussed by Roman Esqueda (1993). Basically, the Peircean concept of Secondness with its association with communities of habit and the active notion of the interpretant, is reinterpreted through problematics engaged by the later Wittgenstein and the earlier Heidegger. Film and other visual mass-media are analyzed, on the one hand, in terms of how they are encountered in the forms of life (Wittgenstein) peculiar to the communities within which they are exhibited, and on the other in terms of the pragmatic readiness-to-hand (Heidegger) of the activity of viewing relative to the overall cultural context of everyday activity.

In our own sphere of work, the categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness are recast in terms of this reproblematization as the realms of Encounter, Experience and Intelligibility (Tomaselli, 1994a, 1994b). A project is under way, currently without funding, to examine other triadic approaches to social and political theory (as for example in Ricoeur, Habermas and Arendt) for further material which can enrich the potential of our work. At the end of the day, however, the primary focus of the leftist project has yet to be reformulated in order to accommodate the changed conditions in Southern Africa relevant after April 1994.

The problematization of the human aspect of reconstruction and development should, and ought to, occupy a prominent place on the stage of future theoretical semiotics in South Africa and its neighbours. It is the intention of SAAS to engage and publicize this work and its relevance as widely as possible.



1. Patrice Pavis (1989a, 1980b), introduced theatre semiology to South Africa in his 1980 nationwide tour. Semiology was also taken up briefly by John Van Zyl (1977; 1990) in his work on theatre and film, and both the de Saussurean semiological and Peircean strands developed by his students (see, eg., Grové 1980).

2. We make a clear distinction between semiotics, derived from Peirce's attempts to replace Kant's phenomenological project, and semiology, derived from De saussure's structuralist linguistics. See Tomaselli and Shepperson (1991) and Shepperson and Tomaselli (1993).

3. The sponsoring organisation was the Human Sciences Research Council (Pretoria) through its Institute for Methodological Research. The Council also sponsored the 1989 Conference from which the chapters in this book are largely drawn.

4. There were exceptions, of course. One of the contributions dealing with semiotics and apartheid was Nan van den Bergh's (1991) paper on interpretations of a sit in by three anti-apartheid activists at the US Consulate in Johannesburg.

5. Alan Brimer (1992; see also McCullum), examines the extraordinary instability of Indian student responses to English poetry in the context of their social and cultural conditions under apartheid, is the exception.

6. The correct target for this kind of charge would have been Johan Grové's (1981) bourgeois semiological pedagogy for teaching films at white Transvaal schools - which in a vaguely perverse and ironical kind of way is Chapman's counter-critique of Higgens. For a critique of Grové's pedagogical assumptions and his semiology see Ballot (1991, 1993).



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Keyan Tomaselli is Professor and Director, and Arnold Shepperson is a researcher and MA student, Centre for Cultural and media Studies, University of Natal, Durban 4001, South Africa. They have published on semiotics in Acta Semiotica Fennica and Research in African Literatures.