Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Nathanael Vlachos
Doctoral Candidate

Ethics of Freedom, Pragmatics of Constraint: Theatre in a Post-Mandela South Africa

Tuesday, April 11, 2017
12:00 PM  to 2:00 PM

570  Sewall Hall

This dissertation, an ethnography of South African theatre artists, traces the moral and ethical contours of a “post-Mandela” South Africa. While “post-apartheid” South Africa is marked by moral and ethical nation-building projects like racial reconciliation and the push for a nonracial “rainbow nation,” “post-Mandela” South Africa is characterized by a growing skepticism of these projects and a sense that many South Africans have yet to enjoy the freedoms promised by Mandela and others. In dialogue with the anthropology of ethics and Foucauldian ethical frameworks in particular, I examine the implications of a post-Mandela South Africa with regard to processes of shaping and forming self and community. What moral and ethical resources are available for imagining and enacting a good life when moral nation-building projects collapse? What new moral exemplars and pedagogues emerge from a context where former icons of struggle are now seen as collaborators with a colonial past and insidious neoliberal present? How has this moment mutated those things most integral to understandings of self, like race, class, kinship, and politics? What forms do freedom and constraint currently take in this context? These questions and others are answered through an ethnographic study of South African theatre, drawing on fieldwork from Johannesburg, Soweto, and Grahamstown. Rather than undertaking a study of audience reception or conducting close readings of plays, I focus on the artists themselves, contextualizing their aesthetic sensibilities, the ethical journey of becoming and being an “artist,” and the inescapable historical entanglements with which they grapple. As I explore the freedoms and constraints at the heart of South African ethical life, I engage their implications for classic and contemporary conversations in anthropology, including kinship, political economy, epistemology, pedagogy, and whiteness. At the same time, the dissertation contributes new conversations to the landscape of South African anthropology, charting emergent ethical subjectivities, diverse understandings of freedom, and the shifting significance of race in South Africa and beyond.

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