After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last by fuf15836


									6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              1
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
In the following abstract and the talk based on it, I would like to explore the
relationship between power and the body in a recent fictional text. I have chosen J.M.
Coetzee‟s novel Disgrace as an example to discuss this relationship, because the
novel manages to combine and discuss topics such as sexuality, violence, history
and power in a way that sheds an interesting light on the complex interrelations
between these aspects.
     Most importantly, the text does not represent bodies as mere symbols of
historical constellations; nor does the novel show bodies simply as victims of power
discourses. Although bodies in Coetzee‟s work do not exist beyond discourse, this is
by no means to say that discourse constructs a passive body, but that one cannot
refer to the body outside of discourse. The body does not exist in a „natural‟
pre-discursive condition on which social processes then inscribe themselves. The
construction of bodies is rather seen as a permanent process of discursive practices,
that determine which bodies are intelligible and which are not. This body concept
based on processes includes the possibility to perceive of the body as active.
     While Disgrace depicts how abstract forces like history and power literally
inscribe themselves upon the body and how in consequence these violent
inscriptions are constitutive for the construction of the individual subject, the novel
does not stop there. It does not view bodies as passive battlefields for history or as
empty surfaces which need to be inscribed upon to acquire meaning. Instead, in
Disgrace, as in Coetzee‟s work as a whole, bodies become important agents in the
processes of creating meaning, of writing history. The characters of the novel use the
norms that have been inscribed upon their bodies in a self-assertive manner and
redefine themselves through them. In Judith Butler‟s terms, one might say that they
quote these norms subversively. They exert power by turning themselves into bodies
and subjects that are knowable, readable to themselves and others.

     After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, the South African
author J.M. Coetzee has become known to a wider public. Still, I have the impression
that he is one of the authors who are more talked about than read. I shall therefore
provide a short introduction to the main text of reference of this talk.
     In 1999, Disgrace won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was Coetzee‟s
second Booker (after Life & Times of Michael K in 1983) and the novel was widely
praised. Nevertheless, its reception was by no means uniformly positive. Criticism
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              2
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
has ranged from enthusiasm to indignation, even disgust. Occasionally, the novel
itself has been described as a disgrace. These negative responses to the novel are
mainly based on the critics‟ readings of the events revolving around one of the
novel‟s minor characters: Lucy Lurie. In heated debates critics have tried to decide
whether the text is racist and/or misogynist or not. Opinions range from the charge
that Disgrace expresses white South Africans‟ fears to be marginalised in the new
South Africa to the claim that the novel promotes the unhealthy acceptance of this
marginal role. I would like to take up this point of criticism and provide a different
reading of the text. But first of all, I shall sum up the most important basic facts about
the novel and its plot.
     Disgrace is set in post-Apartheid South Africa, probably 1997 or 1998. The text
uses an impersonal extradiegetic narrator with the main protagonist David as
focaliser of the action. The novel‟s structure mirrors his character, it is dominated by
his language and tone, and from the first sentence the reader adopts David‟s point of
view. This is important to bear in mind when we try to judge what is allegedly the
novel‟s or the author‟s opinion on certain events. The reader has only access to
David‟s point of view, there is no narrator, let alone author, who offers ultimate
explanations or statements, which could be read as the novel‟s „intention‟.
     Lucy, the main protagonist‟s daughter, only enters the text when her father visits
her on her smallholding in the outback of the Eastern Cape about one third into the
text. He seeks refuge with her after having messed up his life in Cape Town in every
conceivable manner. When Lucy and David are attacked on the farm by three black
men, the attackers not only steal everything of value, shoot all the dogs and set
David‟s head on fire, they also gang rape Lucy. Despite her father‟s pleadings and
reproaches, Lucy refuses to report the rape to the police. He also suggests she
should leave the place and make a new start somewhere else. But Lucy insists that
she does not want to, indeed cannot live anywhere else. When she finds out that she
is pregnant from the rape, she decides to have the baby, again against David‟s
advice and wishes – and to the bewilderment of many readers. The following events
towards the end of the novel do not turn Lucy into a more comprehensible character:
Lucy and David are invited to a party by her black neighbour and co-proprietor
Petrus. At the gathering it turns out that one of the rapists is distantly related to
Petrus and will henceforth stay with him. Although she is shaken, Lucy decides to
stay on the farm. Petrus offers her a marriage-like arrangement, in which he gets her
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                                3
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
land in exchange for protection. Lucy accepts the deal. The novel ends with a
tentative re-establishment of friendly terms between Lucy and her father. So much for
a general outline of the plot. Maybe a few more words are necessary to characterise
Lucy and her function in the text.

     Above all, it is significant that she is constructed in opposition to her father
David. While David lives an urban, intellectual and markedly heterosexual life, Lucy is
a lesbian, chooses a rural life and supports herself by the work of her hands. Lucy
seeks to live in harmony with the people and nature surrounding her, while David
sports the ideal of the Byronic hero and claims he does not need anyone. She
represents the generation of young white South Africans who are more influenced by
the historical change leading to the elections in 1994 than by the apartheid-regime.
Lucy endeavours to overcome apartheid even to the extent of ignoring its long-term
effects. She wants to tear down the colonial patterns of master and servant and
seems to have established a little working model on her farm with Petrus. Her
concern about historical repercussions even makes her refuse the term „farm‟ for her
smallholding, because it bears appropriating colonial connotations. (200) 1 She does
not want to exert white authority over the country. Then history in the guise of the
three rapists breaks into her life and literally inscribes upon her body that the past
cannot be ignored or redeemed by an individual. However, the novel does not end
with Lucy as a defeated, passive construct of history. It redefines her as a
representative of the new South Africa, as a bearer of hope.

     Lucy is an example of the text‟s tendency to turn women into objects and
commodities. From her function as a Mother Earth figure at the beginning she is at
the end of the novel reduced to the value of her farm. She, who is intensely in love
with the piece of land that she owns, is turned into an appendage to a business of
land exchange. Before she becomes the victim of a rape, Lucy is an object of her
father‟s desire and a means for him to define himself. In the end she is again
transformed into an abstract idea of femininity: the fertile woman, who gives birth to a
child and makes the barren soil bear fruit.
     Lucy enters the novel as a woman who is unlike any other female character the

 All quotes and references are taken from the following edition: Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. 1999.
London: Vintage, 2000.
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              4
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
reader has met with until then. She does not correspond to David‟s ideal of beauty,
and as his daughter she does not readily suggest herself as an object of his desire
(although this assumption is soon proved wrong, when David toys with sexual
fantasies revolving around his daughter – incest is a recurring source of unease in
the text). Lucy is not presented in an urban context but immediately connected to the
earth she lives on; her physique and her self-confident bearing suggest a hidden
      From the shade of the stoep Lucy emerges into the sunlight. For a moment he
      does not recognise her. A year has passed, and she has put on weight. Her
      hips and breasts are now (he searches for the best word) ample. Comfortably
      barefoot, she comes to greet him, holding her arms wide, embracing him,
      kissing him on the cheek. What a nice girl, he thinks, hugging her; what a nice
      welcome at the end of a long trip! (59)

This description brings to mind associations of fertility, harmony, all-embracing love
and ease. The impression is rounded off by images of domesticity and contentment.
The description of Lucy‟s body is particularly important. It evokes the idea of solidity
and health. Her body is constructed as a counterpart to David‟s initially weightless,
disembodied presence in the text.
      She had fallen in love with the place, she said; she wanted to farm it properly.
      He helped her buy it. Now here she is, flowered dress, bare feet and all, in a
      house full of the smell of baking, no longer a child playing at farming but a solid
      countrywoman, a boervrou. (60)
      Lucy‟s bare toes grip the red earth, leaving clear prints. A solid woman,
      embedded in her new life. Good! If this is to be what he leaves behind – this
      daughter, this woman – then he does not have to be ashamed. (62)

     After the rape, when Lucy is reduced to the role of a victim of history, she seems
to have lost all her strength, all her interest in the things that used to make up her life.
This extreme physical experience alters her own attitude to her body and the way in
which her body is mediated in the text. It becomes an object of a crime and of
medical observation (“‟[…] I have seen a doctor, I have had tests, I have done
everything one can reasonably do.[…]‟”, 125). During the phase in which Lucy feels
alienated from her body, the reader likewise does not perceive of it anymore as a
signifier of solidity and security. It turns into a bearer of the mark of history. Her body
becomes a material presence that is not under the control of its owner anymore; Lucy
neglects herself.
      Now that he is close to her, a faint smell of staleness, unwashedness, reaches
      him. (125)
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              5
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
      Lucy opens the door wearing a shapeless smock that might as well be a
      nightdress. Her old air of brisk good health is gone. Her complexion is pasty,
      she has not washed her hair. Without warmth she returns his embrace. (197)
      She sits in her housecoat and slippers with yesterday‟s newspaper on her lap.
      Her hair hangs lank; she is overweight in a slack, unhealthy way. More and
      more she has begun to look like one of those women who shuffle around the
      corridors of nursing homes whispering to themselves. […] She cannot last:
      leave her alone and in due course she will fall like rotten fruit. (205)

     While she loses her sense of her body, her life is out of control; as soon as she
redefines her violated body as her own and as a literally productive body, Lucy again
personifies stability and hope. She redefines herself as a mother, although the role
assigned to her by others is that of a passive victim. During a phase after the rape,
this formerly fiercely active woman becomes completely passive and even regresses
to the state of a child. Only when she assumes the role of mother does she regain
her power and resolution. In the end she is again represented as „Mother Earth‟ in an
image that mirrors her introduction to the text.
      Lucy, with her back to him, has not yet noticed him. She is wearing a pale
      summer dress, boots, and a wide straw hat. As she bends over, clipping or
      pruning or tying, he can see the milky, blue-veined skin and broad, vulnerable
      tendons of the backs of her knees: the least beautiful part of a woman‟s body,
      the least expressive, and therefore perhaps the most endearing. (217)
      She is flushed from her labours and perhaps a little sunburnt. She looks,
      suddenly, the picture of health. (218)

     While it would be an unpardonable simplification to read Lucy‟s body as an
allegory of South Africa, the parallels between her fate and her country‟s fate are
striking. I would rather like to see her body as a site of negotiation where
comprehensive questions of history and politics are being dealt with.
     Like South Africa, Lucy has Dutch and English ancestors: Her mother is Dutch;
after divorcing David, she goes back to the Netherlands with her daughter, where she
remarries, supposedly a Dutch man. It is mentioned that Lucy does not get on with
her stepfather and decides to go back to South Africa, to her English (or at least
anglophile) father. This decision can be read as a conscious break with her Dutch
ancestry, yet her return by no means signifies an acceptance of her English heritage.
Lucy chooses a life that is in every respect different from the example that her father
provides: As I have already mentioned, she exchanges an urban life style for the life
of a countrywoman on a remote farm; she earns her money by physical, not
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              6
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
intellectual work; and she prefers lesbian to heterosexual love.
     Her fear of repeating behavioural patterns from the times of apartheid is so great
that she even refuses to view the crime that is committed against her as a racially
motivated crime. Lucy thereby enacts a dilemma which many South African readers
presumably share: To charge a black man with rape would feel dangerously close to
reiterating negative stereotypes from the days of apartheid. What is however
forgotten in this overanxiousness to act politically correct is that if one categorically
denies the possibility that these black men are criminals one also denies their status
of equal human beings, who are as capable of doing good as of being criminals.
     With Lucy‟s decision to bear the child from the rape the black inheritance of the
country is literally incorporated into her body. “‟[…] It will be, after all, a child of this
earth. […]‟”, as David comments (216). Although her choice is baffling on a personal
level, it offers a view of a future South Africa in which black and white merge. It
seems that this can only be achieved at the price of violence. Lucy‟s body becomes
the place where historical change takes place.
     I would like to add another aspect of the relationship between history and Lucy‟s
body. In various scenes, the novel plays with the traditional colonial connotation of
the Other with femininity. The Other is thus associated with nature, irrationality and
often sexual deviance. In a parodistic twist Disgrace quotes and subverts this cliché
and thereby emphasises its absurdity. In the novel rurality, menial work, and
non-heterosexuality are also personified by a woman, but by a white woman.
Moreover, these characteristics are reassessed: Lucy‟s life is represented as a
positive counterpart to David‟s urban, intellectual, hyper-heterosexual – and failed –
life. In the end, he adapts his life to Lucy‟s, so that a negative colonial discourse is
transformed into a positive approach to life.
     Lucy also serves to subvert another colonial stereotype: Colonial texts and
pictures usually use the bodies of native women to represent the conquered land.
This associates female fertility and the promise of plenty of the colonised territory. In
the case of Disgrace, it is the body of the white female „postcoloniser‟ that
symbolises the country and its fertility. It should be stressed that the polyvalent
character of Lucy also plays the role of the traditional „postcoloniser‟ – in spite of
herself. Her rapists certainly see her as such and use her body as a site on which the
„postcolonised‟ enact their revenge. David also casts her as coloniser when he
describes her in the stereotypical images of “boervrou” and “sturdy settler”. Thus,
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              7
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
stereotypical connotations are quoted and subverted and quoted again, so that their
legitimacy and value is called into question.

     Let me now return to the question of misogyny. As I have already mentioned,
the case of Lucy has led to a series of violent responses by readers and literary
critics, who have condemned the novel as amoral and unhealthy. While her story is
certainly shocking and the question whether her depiction is misogynist is certainly
not far-fetched, I would like to argue that the accusations brought forth against the
Lucy-plot are based on a fatal and fundamental misreading of the novel, its poetics
and strategies.
     Lucy has been cast in traditionally female roles by the narrative: as victim and
as mother; she is integrated into a patriarchal system. Yet, she rejects these roles
that have been inscribed upon her body, or rather she rejects to play these roles as
marginal parts. She employs her marked body for her own purposes and makes
herself readable again, most of all to herself.
     David is the focaliser of the text and therefore women and their bodies are
judged and classified according to his ideals and tastes. However, this narrative
constellation does not simply serve to propagate David‟s point of view. As the text
concentrates on the development of David‟s personality, his attitude to women
undergoes a change. It slowly turns into a non-appropriating, respectful and tentative
approach. Nevertheless, the representation of women before David‟s transformation
may well be called misogynist. They are constructed in contrast to David and
personify the Other: the female, the colonial, the textual, the bodily Other. Women
are often reduced to their physical functions. They are lovers and mothers, and their
bodies serve to evoke David‟s body. Women are turned into commodities by male
behaviour. Furthermore, women are assigned a marginal role on the narrative level:
Female characters do not gain a significant voice in the text, and no female point of
view alternative to David‟s is offered. The novel focuses on David, and although it
does not wholly explain him, the female characters remain even more inexplicable.
But the example of Lucy serves to show that it is exactly the acceptance of this
inexplicability which marks a non-appropriating attitude toward the female Other.
     It would be easy, too easy in my opinion, to read Lucy along familiar lines of
feminist criticism and focus on the fact that she is an independent lesbian woman
who is forced into the traditional role of mother and wife by male violence. If one
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              8
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
considers the role women play in the development of David‟s identity, the example of
Lucy reveals that David only finds a voice of his own, which successfully connects
him with others, once he gives up the attempt to explain the Other by the standards
of his Self. The respect for the Other implied in accepting its otherness cannot, in my
opinion, be translated into misogyny. The text may not write the story of the
marginalised back into the centre, but, in not doing so, it does not foreclose on the
Other, either. It concentrates on the process in which the centred Self experiences
itself as Other and consequently learns to view the Other not only in reference to the
centre, but as an other Self. The Self becomes de-centred in the process, which
destabilises the principle of the categories „Self‟ and „Other‟.
     The binaries which seem to be solid in their traditionality at the beginning of the
novel are exposed as artificial, constructed and untenable. The male, white, urban,
intellectual coloniser is utterly marginalised and approaches toward the other side of
the polar opposition. In that sense, David‟s body becomes the more important site for
a re-negotiation of South African history. His example radically redefines the status of
the Self, so that the ascriptions of „Self‟ and „Other‟ lose their appearance of
naturalness and stability.
     In the face of the violence that troubles modern South Africa it is difficult to
understand why some literary critics do not see Disgrace as a worrying, albeit apt,
description of South African society. That they instead accuse the text of enforcing
the problems it pictures, is even more difficult to fathom. The novel describes a crime
that is being committed every day, not only in South Africa – rape –, and links it to a
specifically South African historical crime – racial discrimination. What actually
enrages most of these critics are the readings of Lucy‟s behaviour that David offers.
Among them are the suggestions that Lucy tries to redeem the crimes committed by
whites, that she wants to set herself apart from other white, racist farmers, or that she
wants to buy her future peace by accepting the „an eye for an eye‟-justice of the
attack. All of these interpretations are, however, rejected by Lucy. She remains
inexplicable until the very end.
     The novel repeatedly uses the strategy of deconstructing the explanations it
offers, thereby drawing attention to the process of creating meaning. The novel does
not as a consequence propagate arbitrariness of meaning, it merely refuses to
simplify complex matters. Its strength is the ability to highlight certain issues and to
stimulate thought about them, not to solve them. Disgrace insists that art will not be
6. Erlanger Graduiertenkonferenz “Grenz // Gänge”                                              9
Panel „Power Incorporated: Theories and Materialisations of Power”
Abstract “J.M. Coetzee‟s Disgrace: Bodies as Sites of Inscription and/or as Agents of Power”
Maisun Sharif
overwhelmed by the discourses of history, that fiction will not be inscribed upon by
the power of history.

     I have tried to demonstrate that bodies in Disgrace cannot be simplistically
described as either a surface which is given meaning by discourses that inscribe
themselves upon the body or as a naturally given entity that only refers to its own
materiality. Whilst bodies are certainly determined and constituted by norms and
forces that inscribe themselves upon the body in a more or less literal way, bodies in
Disgrace always manage to escape from this passive position and regain active
power. They are important agents themselves, so that the relationship between
power and the body cannot be described as one-directional but must be conceived of
as interrelated.
     The novel does not claim that Lucy can exist outside of and independent of
discourse – bodies are quite clearly shown as products of ongoing discursive
processes. But the text lays bare that naturalness, materiality and stability are
illusions created by a permanent repetition and citation of certain discursive norms.
Disgrace also shows that this includes the possibility of citing subversively. In the
end, it is Lucy herself who determines how her body is intelligible, how it is to be read
as material. While Lucy cannot shake off the meanings that have been inscribed
upon her body, she can use them to redefine herself on her own terms. She reclaims
the power to make her body readable.
     In Coetzee‟s novel bodies are conceived of as processes which show no signs
of ever being finished. They are not passive objects – be it the object of cultural
inscription or a naturally given object. Bodies are presented as possibilities, not as
states. They remain unstable and elusive.

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