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Nelson Mandela’s recent death has been overshadowed, it seems, by two events which took place at his memorial service; the first a ‘selfie’ taken by Danish Prime Minister Hella Thorning-Schmidt, which also features Barack Obama and David Cameron, and the second a controversy surrounding the sign language interpreter employed to translate the speeches at the event. Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man in question, apparently employed signs which had no meaning in any recognisable system, though to many of those watching who did not know sign language, nothing seemed amiss. In plain parlance, he made it all up. Or perhaps, as he now claims, experienced a schizophrenic episode. The honesty and mental health of Mr Jantjie are not, however, the topics of this post. We are more interested in what the whole episode suggests about how we interpret signs, and indeed, how we interpret Nelson Mandela.

It is not just Mr Jantjie who failed to interpret correctly; many of those watching in the stadium and on television misinterpreted his signs when we assumed them to have meaning, or, more precisely, to be linked directly to the words spoken by those on stage. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, we read the signs as symbolic rather than allegorical. A symbol, Benjamin points out, is a kind of sign privileged in Romantic thought, where it stands for organic unity and completeness. A symbol always ‘insists on the indivisible unity of form and content’. If we view sign language as symbolic, we are also making a basic assumption about all language – that it conveys concepts, which are implicitly considered to be whole or complete, in something approximating a direct manner. It turns out, however, that Mr Jantjie’s signs were not symbolic but allegorical. For Benjamin, allegory is not defined by wholeness but by incompleteness and disjunction. In allegory: ‘Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face – or rather in a death’s head’. Allegory does not claim any sense of mastery over meaning but instead implies our own subjection, especially our subjection to death. From this perspective, the failure of the sign language at the memorial service to make sense does not render it meaningless but means that it comes to signify failure itself. The signs work against any attempt by the speakers to assign a sense of completion or wholeness to Nelson Mandela’s life. They are, at least for those who don’t understand sign language, the optical unconscious of the visual field: that which we do not at first recognise, but which once revealed transforms what we are seeing. This should make us doubt not just the particular signs in question, but the whole spectacle with which we have been presented.

It has become a commonplace, for example, to refer to Nelson Mandela himself as a symbol; a symbol of hope, a symbol of freedom, a symbol of a united South Africa, and so on. This constructs a Romantic image of Mandela which allows us to invest uncritically in the concepts of hope, freedom or nationalism themselves as if they are complete and self-evident phenomena. Such symbolisation is, of course, important, and even vital, during times of political struggle – not because it is true but because it offers a source of unity. But what if, post Apartheid, we read Mandela not as a symbol but as an allegory? In this case, his meaning is no longer fixed, since in allegory ‘[t]he false appearance of totality is extinguished’. To read Mandela as an allegory is to read him as the sign of an incomplete project, as part of the history of the subjected rather than the history of the victors. It is to insist that we cannot talk of Mandela’s victory, since placing him on the side of the victors would be to fix him within a political structure which ultimately serves to entrench power and privilege. Such a reading would protest against any suggestion that Mandela’s long walk to freedom was ever, or could ever be, completed, since this would imply a false image of totality. Far from closing down meaning, such a reading opens it up, since allegory is not fixed and restricted in the same way as symbolism. Seeing Mandela’s life in the form of an allegory draws attention to its incompletion rather than memorialising it, and in this way reminds us of the radical political possibilities which he left unfulfilled, or partly fulfilled. The major significance of Thamsanqa Jantjie’s hand signals is that they are the unexpected and unintended fracture of the visual field which allows this alternative reading to appear in plain view.

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