Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

WITS University’s Prof Achille Mbembe recently published an essay titled The State Of South African Political Life. Broadly speaking, the essay offers an explanation for the emergence of a confrontational, somewhat militant "politics of impatience" in SA, most recently exemplified by student calls for decolonisation in formerly white universities. In describing the growing sense of impatience and political malaise, Mbembe says "this is the only country in which a revolution took place which resulted in not one single former oppressor losing anything".

My focus here, however, is the critique Mbembe levels at this new politics of decolonisation, particularly its tendency to speak through political narratives of "self" in what he describes as a "fusion of self and suffering in this astonishing age of solipsism and narcissism". He argues: "Ironically, among the emerging black middle class, current narratives of selfhood and identity are saturated by the tropes of pain and suffering. The latter have become the register through which many now represent themselves to themselves and to the world.… Often under the pretext that the personal is political, this type of autobiographical and at times self-indulgent ‘petit bourgeois’ discourse has replaced structural analysis. Personal feelings now suffice."

I agree with Mbembe that the narratives of "black pain" in student movements and among the black literati appear to be taking on a "self-absorbed" manner — what a colleague of mine calls a "me-too-ism" victimhood narrative emanating from the black middle class. But I would argue that this style of politicking is not so much the result of the students’ politics being innately narcissistic, but from the subtle influences of the university lecture hall and what is sometimes called the humanities "way of speaking".

Many of the students are drawing from what I call a "grammar of the particular", or "particularism", in advancing their arguments for the problem of black alienation on campuses. Particularism is a method of approaching social research in which a single case is given an exaggerated sense of visibility and importance because the research is narrated through story-like form and with the use of the word "I".

This method of conducting and presenting research conveys the sense that one can justify the significance of something because of its "particularity", and also because of the personal investment of the researcher. Thus, it is not uncommon to encounter an humanities presentation narrated in this vein: "I particularly chose this case because it had a particular significance for me in the context of my research, and its significance is that this single story has given voice to others in similar circumstances."

If this rendition sounds comical, that is only half of my intention. The reality is that any academic can tell you that this mode of scholarly self-justification is common and we transmit this mode of engagement to our students. Students get inducted into academic register and must reproduce it to pass their degree.

The students’ shortcomings in articulating a radically open universalism is thus partly a reflection of the intellectual failures of South African universities. Part of that failure occurs because the humanities are also attached to a tradition of vanguardist leftism in which the most significant processes of human life are those codified as resistance and struggle. We continue to impart outdated radical theories that purport to answer the universal problems of humanity, by, for example "smashing the ruling classes".

I am not bashing theory; we can make no universal claims without it. All I am saying is that if the students sound overindulgent, it is partly because our universities are failing to impart new, compelling ideas to grapple with complicated African realities.

• Mkhize lectures in history at Rhodes University