The question here is whether and how certain forms of augmented, patterned and foregrounded language known as “poetry” matter in times of extreme crisis. The crisis of the Anthropocene involves a paradigm shift of the notion of the “human” itself and also the relationship of the “human” to “Nature”.
Since 1950 humans have become a marked geophysical force that has changed earth systems to such a degree that several planetary boundaries are already seriously violated. In her response (climate warming, biodiversity loss, acidification of the seas, the disturbance of the nitrogen/phosphate cycles), the earth, now understood as a secular Gaia, has revealed herself as a finely tuned reactive entity – not only wholly materially transcendent but also utterly indifferent to us. We now relate to her, not necessarily as exceptional human beings but as one type of earthbound critter amongst others that need to survive in the severely damaged and increasingly dangerous conditions of our own making, the ravenous excesses of the Capitalocene. As poets we have to find radical and critical alternatives to our Beautiful Soul habits of aesthetic distancing from/objectification of and immersion in “Nature”. We have to face Gaia with a new respons-ability. What kind of ethos, modes and voices, what kinds of political interventions, can one try to map for the earthbound poet? And who cares?
Marlene van Niekerk is one of South Africa’s most influential and thought provoking writers. She is a poet, novelist as well as professor of Literature at the University of Stellenbosch. Her most renowned works are Triomf (1994), Agaat (2004) and Memorandum (2006), all translated into several languages, amongst them Dutch and English. Recently she has published a volume of poetry called Kaar, which deals extensively with the relation between people, the environment and politics (2014).
This lecture is part of a larger symposium about contemporary Afrikaans literature organised by the Literary and Cultural Analysis department at the Unversity of Amsterdam in collaboration with the Week van de Afrikaanse roman and the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
With: Ena Jansen, Marlene van Niekerk, Francois Smith, Lien Botha, Simon Bruinders, Carrol Clarkson, Luc Renders, Ksenia Robbe, Hanneke Stuit.