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Is nudity our zeitgeist? A response to Busani Ngcaweni

OPINION

The two articles by Busani Ngcaweni in the Opinion pages of Eyewitness News would provoke any literary theory enthusiast. Punctuated by wit, theory and hard facts, the Saturday article on the Durban July (horse race) touched the nerve of many readers who observe with concern the prevailing culture of conspicuous consumption in South Africa.

Then came the Sunday evening sequel, which put a perspective on the phenomenon Zodwa Wabantu, who broke the internet with her choice of dress, or lack thereof.

In reading the second article, one could not help but think of theorist Mikhail Bakhtin who spoke of the spectacle of nudity as “the carnivalesque”, whereby such crass form as Zodwa Wabantu’s (un-)dress code “subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos”.

While the temptation is to lean more towards the chaos that Wabantu humorously ushers in as she turns the Western fashion fetish against itself, it is noteworthy that “carnivals proper, with their long and complex pageants and processions, there was the 'feast of fools' [festa stultorum] and the 'feast of the ass'; there was a special free 'Easter laughter' [risus paschalis], consecrated by tradition... Such, for instance, were the parish feasts, usually marked by fairs and varied open-air amusements [like the Durban July horse-racing event], with the participation of giants, dwarfs, monsters, and trained animals.”

In no small measure, Wits School of Government adjunct professor Ngcaweni demonstrates that the Vodacom Durban July, a confluence of the “Feast of Fools with the Feast of the Ass” as embodied by Wabantu, is meant to ridicule the material and corporal excesses of consumerist culture - especially when the body is not only consuming but is being consumed as visual spectacle and sexual object.

This image of Wabantu is a trope of the signifying body at stake, in short. This is best captured by the following quotation from Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World by Helene Iswolsky. She writes: "In fact, carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators... Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time, life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part. Such is the essence of carnival, vividly felt by all its participants.”

Therefore, through this short, theoretical memory lane we are reminded that the body is a consumer and can also be consumed in the carnival of capitalism. Many people judge Zodwa Wabantu, seeing her as one who lacks morals. The fact is, Wabantu has agency, she owns her body, she makes choices in order to live and leave others gasping. She is staring back at patriarchy through acts of subversion, thus liberating the female body from the prison culture and patriarchy that threatens to consume us all.

It is not in church but in capitalism where the female body will be liberated. For now let’s agree, as Ngcaweni argues that in this era of hyper-masculinity and conspicuous consumption, nudity is our zeitgeist, both as a sexual symbol and as a political weapon.

Masemola is Professor of English Literature at UNISA and author of Black South African Autobiography After Deleuze : Belonging and Becoming in Self-Testimony (Brill, 2017)

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