A blue coat: The addict and the unspeakable girl in South Africa’s colonial archive

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Can a colonial archive render up form-of-life? To what ends? This essay explores these questions through a methodological exercise that casts a specific historical subject in the role of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘unspeakable girl’. The subject is a woman identified in a 1910 Cape Town police report as a habitual opium smoker. The unspeakable girl is a philosophical construction through which Agamben develops a concept of initiated (or initiating) knowledge. At stake in my forensic re/deconstruction of this case is how a concept of the ‘unspeakable’ may help to unsettle the figure of the ‘addict’ as a stigmatised object of knowledge and paternalism, in service of more humane policy and treatment regimes in the present. The transformative potential of initiating knowledge supports current practice as the ‘come as you are’ motto of harm reduction, and as a bridge between academic analysis and the more intimate concerns of the heart.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-55
Number of pages19
JournalThesis Eleven
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


  • Agamben
  • addiction
  • drug policy reform
  • historical methods
  • ontological politics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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