CMSI Lecture: Michelle Kelly

CMSI Lecture: Michelle Kelly

Event date: Thursday 24 November, 5.30 – 7 p.m
Location: Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 120.015

“The Confessing Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Repeated Confession”, given by Dr. Michelle Kelly (University of Oxford)


In her account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Deborah Posel emphasizes the ‘humanizing’ function of confession; that everyone is fallible or everyone has suffered ‘become markers of our shared humanity’, ‘the ethical currency of a post-Holocaust humanism’ (140). If confession’s ‘humanizing’ quality has become something of a commonplace, informing legal institutions like the TRC as well as underpinning a world of popular confession, the literature, philosophy and theory of confession frequently suggest that the emancipatory logic that underpins its humanizing role is at the very least coupled with a disciplinary logic, and that these dual functions coexist in its main institutional guises in law and religion.

This paper will trace some of the meanings accruing to the concept and form of confession across the oeuvre of J. M. Coetzee, a body of work in which confession is both historical context and literary inheritance; a structuring device and repeated motif; a currency to exchange and a pathology to worry at. Coetzee’s repeated engagement with confession across his writing career demands to be read in relation to the theory and philosophy of confession, as well as the shifting historical contexts within and against which his writing emerged. Bearing in mind the disciplinary and emancipatory logics that inform confession, the paper will explore the implications of Coetzee’s repeated engagement with confession as it mediates his relationship to South Africa and acts as a figure for writing itself.


Michelle Kelly is a Departmental Lecturer in World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford. Her research interests are in the field of world and postcolonial literature, with a particular emphasis on South African literature and on the work of J. M. Coetzee. Her current research includes a study of Coetzee and confession, a collaborative project with colleagues at the University of the Western Cape on ‘Coetzee’s Other Arts’, and work in the area of law and literature, including a British Academy-funded project on PEN International’s Writers in Prison campaigns and a co-edited book on prison writing.

All are welcome. Admission is free, and registration is not required. For more information, please contact Stef Craps.