“Playing the Game: Vladislavic, Aesthetics, Politics”

2007. Current Writing 19(1): 69-86.

This paper begins with a brief analysis of Ivan Vladislavic’s short story “Alphabets for Surplus People”, which is read both as political satire and as an exercise in linguistic ‘play’. The discussion foregrounds a device that is characteristic of Vladislavic’s work: creating lists. His more recent novels, like his earlier short fiction, demonstrate both a keen eye for the physical characteristics of objects and a lexicographer’s delight in manipulating words-as-objects. Although these often seem mundane, they are rendered in such a way that they exhibit the qualities of a work of art; simultaneously, however, this rendering highlights broader (social) processes of ‘reification’. This is discussed in light of the aesthetic theories of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. John Dewey’s definition of the work of art as it informs or is informed by shared experience also has a bearing on the South African socio-political context. Vladislavic’s fascination with objects – and with the words that represent those objects – is shown to offer a non-polemical critique of the consumerism effacing extant class divides. This balance of the ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘political’ suggests a new direction for South African literature, a form of the “new aesthetic” anticipated by Fredric Jameson almost two decades ago.