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Reconciliation through Estrangement

  • Mathias Thaler


While it is often assumed that reconciliation culminates in the comprehensive resolution of conflict between deeply alienated parties, the article argues that reconciliation can only be achieved through complex mechanisms of estrangement that reveal alternative vistas or collective renewal. Art performs an important role in this process. The article theorizes estrangement as both an artistic and a political technique that can have world-disclosing, rather than alienating, effects on its audience: what Svetlana Boym calls estrangement for, rather than from, the world. I tease out the implications of this insight by examining the South African theater piece Ubu and the Truth Commission, which employs a number of estrangements devices in order to problematize the ambiguities and uncertainties of the post-Apartheid transition period. By subverting audience identification, yet triggering emotional contagion, the play imaginatively opens up the possibility of a common world in which agonistic relations are productively negotiated, rather than fully suppressed.



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The author thanks Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Bronwyn Leebaw, Andrew Schaap, and Olga Taxidou for their generous advice; Maria-Alina Asavei, Lawrie Balfour, Thomas Brudholm, Louis Fletcher, Jaco Barnard-Naude, Toby Kelly, Mihaela Mihai, Deborah Silverman, and audiences at workshops in Prato, Oslo, and Stellenbosch; and Catherine Zuckert and the anonymous reviewers for the Review of Politics.



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1 The first quote is cited in Godby, Michael, “William Kentridge: Retrospective,” Art Journal 58, no. 3 (1999): 83, The second is from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in conversation with William Kentridge (1999),” in William Kentridge, ed. Krauss, Rosalind, October Files 21 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 21.

2 Taylor, Jane, Ubu and the Truth Commission (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1998), 63.

3 Graham, Shane, South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss, 3rd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 46.

4 For a video of the play, which I have consulted in my interpretation, see Handspring Puppet Company, Ubu and the Truth Commission (Full Feature),, accessed January 24, 2017.

5 Esquith, Stephen L., “Re-Enacting Mass Violence,” Polity 35, no. 4 (2003): 513,

6 For example, cultural re-enactments can problematize the responsibility of bystanders in a manner that is wholly alien to the victim-perpetrator model underwriting legal procedures. See Esquith, Stephen L., The Political Responsibilities of Everyday Bystanders (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 149–82.

7 Schaap, Andrew, Political Reconciliation, Routledge Innovations in Political Theory 15 (London: Routledge, 2005). See also Schaap, Andrew, “Agonism in Divided Societies,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 32, no. 2 (2006): 255–77,

8 Adorno, Theodor et al. , Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2010); see also Berman, Russell A., Modern Culture and Critical Theory: Art, Politics, and the Legacy of the Frankfurt School (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Henning, Christoph, “Theories of Culture in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory, ed. Thompson, Michael J. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 255–78.

9 Bleiker, Roland, Aesthetics and World Politics (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Hagberg, Garry L., ed., Fictional Characters, Real Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Lara, María Pía, Narrating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

10 Euben, J. Peter, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Butler, Judith, Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Honig, Bonnie, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Elliott, Gregory (London: Verso, 2009).

11 Fisher, Tony and Katsouraki, Eve, eds., Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance and Radical Democracy (Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Morgan, Margot, Politics and Theatre in Twentieth-Century Europe: Imagination and Resistance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

12 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 187.

13 Halpern, Richard, “Theater and Democratic Thought: Arendt to Rancière,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (2011): 548,

14 Euben, J. Peter, “Arendt's Hellenism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt, ed. Villa, Dana Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 159.

15 For a comprehensive study of the complex role of theater audiences see Bennett, Susan, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 1997).

16 A note on the very distinction between restorative and agonistic reconciliation: it is designed to be heuristic, rather than deductive. This means that I hope to cover a number of relevant family resemblances that most adherents to the restorative view share. However, this also implies that there is a zone of fuzzy intermediary positions, which incorporate features of the agonistic view as well. For an excellent example see Verdeja, Ernesto, Unchopping a Tree: Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Political Violence (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).

17 Bennett, Christopher, The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Murphy, Jeffrie G., Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Tavuchis, Nicholas, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).

18 Arneil, Barbara and Tockman, Jason, “The Impossible Machine: A Genealogy of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Contemporary Political Theory 14, no. 4 (Nov. 2015): 14,; Dyzenhaus, David, “Debating South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” University of Toronto Law Journal 49, no. 3 (1999): 311–14; Leebaw, Bronwyn, “Legitimation or Judgment? South Africa's Restorative Approach to Transitional Justice,” Polity 36, no. 1 (Oct. 2003): 2351.

19 Shore, Megan, Religion and Conflict Resolution: Christianity and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

20 Tutu, Desmond, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999); Tutu, Desmond and Abrams, Douglas Carlton, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

21 Battle, Michael, “A Theology of Community: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu,” Interpretation 54, no. 2 (2000): 173–82.

22 Moon, Claire, “Healing Past Violence: Traumatic Assumptions and Therapeutic Interventions in War and Reconciliation,” Journal of Human Rights 8, no. 1 (2009): 73,

23 Ruti Teitel associates the restorative model with a particular historical phase of transitional justice mechanisms, where criminal trials were replaced with truth commissions: Teitel, Ruti G., Globalizing Transitional Justice: Contemporary Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 5657. See also Mamdani, Mahmood, “Beyond Nuremberg: The Historical Significance of the Post-Apartheid Transition in South Africa,” Politics & Society 43, no. 1 (2015): 6188.

24 Schaap, Political Reconciliation, 4.

25 Arendt, Hannah, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 151.

26 The foregrounding of struggle and conflict also sets the agonistic approach on a different track from deliberative models of reconciliation and transitional justice, which emphasize the importance of reasoned justifications for political claim-making. For a prominent defense of the deliberative view in the context of the South African TRC, see Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), chap. 6. For a thorough rebuttal, see Maddison, Sarah, “When Deliberation Remains Out of Reach: The Role of Agonistic Engagement in Divided Societies,” in Democratic Deliberation in Deeply Divided Societies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 189205.

27 Schaap, Political Reconciliation, 81–137. Arendt's thoughts on forgiveness, which Schaap discusses in depth, are especially relevant to our topic. Arendt argued that forgiveness is essential for dealing with the irreversible nature of the past. Human action, for Arendt, depends on the possibility “to be released from the consequences of what we have done” (Arendt, Human Condition, 237).

28 Mihai, Mihaela, Negative Emotions and Transitional Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

29 Celermajer, Danielle, The Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

30 Balfour, Lawrie, Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

31 For yet another book that explores similar themes, see Chakravarti, Sonali, Sing the Rage: Listening to Anger after Mass Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

32 Ginzburg, Carlo, “Making Things Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device,” Representations, no. 56 (1996): 828,

33 For the wider context see Robinson, Douglas, Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature: Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Brecht (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). On formalism in literary theory see Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), pt. 1; Steiner, Peter, Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).

34 Shklovsky, Viktor, “Art, as Device,” trans. Berlina, Alexandra, Poetics Today 36, no. 3 (2015): 151–74, For a recently published collection of Shklovsky's writings in English, see Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, ed. Berlina, Alexandra (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). This book also contains a helpful introduction to Shklovsky's thinking by Alexandra Berlina.

35 Cuddon, J. A., “Defamiliarization,” in A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, ed. Birchwood, Matthew et al. (Malden, MA: Wiley, 2013).

36 Shklovsky, “Art, as Device,” 162.

37 Ibid., 163.

38 Shklovsky, Viktor, Theory of Prose (Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991).

39 Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, “The Subversive Potential of Leo Tolstoy's ‘Defamiliarisation’: A Case Study in Drawing on the Imagination to Denounce Violence,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (forthcoming); Knapp, Liza, “The Development of Style and Theme in Tolstoy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Orwin, Donna Tussing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 161–75.

40 Robinson, Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature, 79.

41 Brecht, Bertolt, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. Willett, John (London: Eyre Methuen, 1974), 179205.

42 Mitchell, Stanley, “From Shklovsky to Brecht: Some Preliminary Remarks towards a History of the Politicisation of Russian Formalism,” Screen 15, no. 2 (1974): 7481. Another important source of inspiration for Brecht was the Chinese theater tradition. See Brecht, Bertolt, “On Chinese Acting,” Tulane Drama Review 6, no. 1 (1961): 130–36,; Bai, Ronnie, “Dances with Mei Lanfang: Brecht and the Alienation Effect,” Comparative Drama 32, no. 3 (1998): 389433,

43 Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” 195.

44 This negative appraisal of empathy echoes Arendt's scathing view of compassion as solitary, unpolitical “cosuffering.” Arendt conceived of compassion as an apolitical emotion that is unable to sustain freedom and plurality. See Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 8185.

45 Jameson, Fredric, Brecht and Method (London: Verso, 2000), 25.

46 Barnett, David, A History of the Berliner Ensemble (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

47 Brecht's rejection of catharsis is especially relevant for our engagement with agonistic reconciliation, because the TRC entailed the therapeutic promise of individual and collective healing through truth telling. See Moon, Claire, “Narrating Political Reconciliation: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa,” Social & Legal Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 257–75,

48 Squiers, Anthony, An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014), 5580.

49 Suvin, Darko, “Emotion, Brecht, Empathy vs. Sympathy,” Brecht-Jahrbuch, no. 33 (2008): 64.

50 For a helpful reconstruction of the argument, see Curran, Angela, “Brecht's Criticisms of Aristotle's Aesthetics of Tragedy,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59, no. 2 (Feb. 2001): 167–84,

51 For general introductions see Meier, Christian, The Political Art of Greek Tragedy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Goldhill, Simon, “Greek Drama and Political Theory,” in The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, ed. Rowe, Christopher and Schofield, Malcolm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 6088.

52 Euben, J. Peter, editor's introduction to Greek Tragedy and Political Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 28.

53 Jestrovic, Silvija, Theatre of Estrangement: Theory, Practice, Ideology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), chap. 3.

54 Dobrenko, Evgeny, “Literary Criticism and the Transformations of the Literary Field during the Cultural Revolution, 1928–1932,” in A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Tihanov, Galin and Dobrenko, Evgeny (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), 4363.

55 Boym, Svetlana, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement: Victor Shklovsky and Hannah Arendt,” Poetics Today 26, no. 4 (2005): 599,

56 Ibid., 602.

57 Arendt, Hannah, “On Hannah Arendt,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Hill, Melvyn A. (New York: St. Martin's, 1979), 336–37.

58 Boym, “Poetics and Politics of Estrangement,” 603.

59 With a view to the next section, it is worth noting that, in a short piece, Boym also applies her reading of estrangement to William Kentridge's oeuvre, focusing on an installation from 2008. See Boym, Svetlana, “Defamiliarized Human,” in The Off-Modern (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 107–12.

60 William Kentridge: Fortuna, ed. Tone, Lilian (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

61 Later on, the Handspring Puppet Company would produce the global smash hit War Horse. See Kohler, Adrian, Jones, Basil, and Luther, Tommy, “Handspring Puppet Company,” Journal of Modern Craft 2, no. 3 (Nov. 2009): 345–54, Kentridge also worked with them for the Georg Büchner adaptation Woyzeck in the Highveld (1992) and for Faustus in Africa (1995).

62 Marx, Lesley, “Slouching towards Bethlehem: Ubu and the Truth Commission,” African Studies 57, no. 2 (Dec. 1998): 213,

63 Burns, Hilary, “The Market Theatre of Johannesburg in the New South Africa,” New Theatre Quarterly 18, no. 4 (2002): 359,

64 The films, separately assembled in Kentridge's Ubu Tells the Truth (1997), are produced by using a stop-action camera to repeatedly photograph drawings made with charcoal and pastel. See Israel, Nico, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 190–97; Beschara Sharlene Karam, “Landscapes of the Unconscious Mind: A Dialectic of Self and Memory on a Post-Colonial, South African Landscape in the Hand-Animated, Charcoal-Medium Films of William Kentridge” (PhD diss., University of South Africa, 2011),

65 Taylor, Ubu and the Truth Commission, 17.

66 Mamdani, Mahmood, “Amnesty or Impunity? A Preliminary Critique of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC),” Diacritics 32, no. 3/4 (2002): 3359; van der Walt, Clint, Franchi, Vijé, and Stevens, Garth, “The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: ‘Race,’ Historical Compromise and Transitional Democracy,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 27, no. 2 (2003): 251–67,

67 Grossman, Manuel L., “Alfred Jarry and the Theatre of the Absurd,” Educational Theatre Journal 19, no. 4 (1967): 473–77,; Hubert, Renée Riese, “Ubu Roi and the Surrealist Livre de Peintre,” Word & Image 3, no. 4 (1987): 259–78,; Taxidou, Olga, Modernism and Performance: Jarry to Brecht (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

68 Taylor, Jane, “Writer's Note,” in Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Taylor, Jane (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1998), iv.

69 Graham, Shane, “The Truth Commission and Postapartheid Literature in South Africa,” Research in African Literatures 34, no. 1 (March 2003): 19,

70 Taylor, “Writer's Note,” vii.

71 Coetzee, Yvette, “Visibly Invisible: How Shifting the Conventions of the Traditionally Invisible Puppeteer Allows for More Dimensions in Both the Puppeteer-Puppet Relationship and the Creation of Theatrical Meaning in Ubu and the Truth Commission,” South African Theatre Journal 12, no. 1–2 (Jan. 1998): 4546,

72 Ukpokodu, Peter, “Puppets as Witnesses and Perpetrators in Ubu and the Truth Commission,” in A Companion to Modern African Art, ed. Salami, Gitti and Visonà, Monica Blackmun (Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 408–25.

73 Taxidou, Olga, “Actor or Puppet: The Body in the Theatres of the Avant-Garde,” in Avant-Garde/Neo-Avant-Garde, ed. Scheunemann, Dietrich (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 228–29.

74 William Kentridge, “Director's Note: The Crocodile's Mouth,” in Ubu and the Truth Commission, xi.

75 Marlin-Curiel, Stephanie, “A Little Too Close to the Truth: Anxieties of Testimony and Confession in ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’ and ‘The Story I Am About to Tell,’South African Theatre Journal 15, no. 1 (Jan. 2001): 80, For a discussion of the role of testimony from an agonistic perspective, see Chakravarti, Sonali, “Agonism and the Power of Victim Testimony,” in Theorizing Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Agonism, Restitution and Repair, ed. Hirsch, Alexander Keller (Milton Park: Routledge, 2012), 1126.

76 Hutchison, Yvette, “Truth or Bust: Consensualising a Historic Narrative or Provoking through Theatre: The Place of the Personal Narrative in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Contemporary Theatre Review 15, no. 3 (2005): 361,

77 Marlin-Curiel, “A Little Too Close to the Truth,” 98.

78 Leebaw, Bronwyn, Judging State-Sponsored Violence, Imagining Political Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

79 Taylor, “Writer's Note,” v.

80 “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in conversation with William Kentridge (1999),” 21.

81 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); Butler, Judith, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009).

82 Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, “Puppeteers’ Note,” in Ubu and the Truth Commission, xvi–xvii.

83 Bennett, Jill, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 123.

84 Stavrakakis, Yannis, “Challenges of Re-Politicisation,” Third Text 26, no. 5 (Sept. 2012): 565,

85 Hutchison, Yvette, “Post-1990s Verbatim Theatre in South Africa: Exploring an African Concept of ‘Truth,’” in Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, ed. Martin, Carol (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 66.

86 Kentridge, “Director's Note: The Crocodile's Mouth,” xv.

87 See Marlin-Curiel, Stephanie, “The Long Road to Healing: From the TRC to TfD,” Theatre Research International 27, no. 3 (Oct. 2002),

88 Norval, Aletta J., “‘No Reconciliation without Redress’: Articulating Political Demands in Post-Transitional South Africa,” Critical Discourse Studies 6, no. 4 (2009): 311–21,

89 Marlin-Curiel, “A Little Too Close to the Truth,” 94.

90 Goldhill, Simon, “The Audience of Athenian Tragedy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. Easterling, P. E. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5468.

91 Funding for research for this article was provided by a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant from the European Commission, FP7 People: Marie-Curie Actions, 618277.

The author thanks Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Bronwyn Leebaw, Andrew Schaap, and Olga Taxidou for their generous advice; Maria-Alina Asavei, Lawrie Balfour, Thomas Brudholm, Louis Fletcher, Jaco Barnard-Naude, Toby Kelly, Mihaela Mihai, Deborah Silverman, and audiences at workshops in Prato, Oslo, and Stellenbosch; and Catherine Zuckert and the anonymous reviewers for the Review of Politics.

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Reconciliation through Estrangement

  • Mathias Thaler


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