The stranger’s words addressed to the hero in J.M. Coetzee’s Life and
Times of Michael K bring home in a very concrete way the relentless
binarism not only of the apartheid order (revealingly figured in its
truth as the disorder of civil war), but also of many Western forms of
life and thinking: a typically high-modern technology sums up an epistemology
no less typical. The train abolishes the age-old institution of
the crossroads, the three- or four-way junction which puts before the
traveller two or more options besides the one of retracing his steps
back along the way he came. Daredevils who ‘ride staff’ on township
trains may be rebellious terms in a system, but terms of that system
they remain. Yesterday’s staffrider on the train of progress is today’s
builder of his own locomotive. This is the logic whereby we have seen
in South Africa rival nationalisms arising out of the early transcultural
flux of Empire and then, at length, imposing their different inflections
of the modern project upon the rest of their compatriots.
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