A metaphor of epistemology of the self, in African terms, would be in terms of proximity or distance. This is my hypothesis.
As one moves across the land, in physical space, one values and relates to that which one encounters. This metaphor of distance is produced by experiencing a sense of personal identity as a relationality to concrete objects which have been imbued with personal emotional meaning. Distance or closeness to such personal objects (including people) defines the true, underlying sense of self. When one is not in touch with such personal objects, and when their presence is not invoked through language, one may truly feel as if one is set at a distance from one’s truer, actual self.
Such a dimension of thinking and relating is often missing from ways of relating defined and imparted within relatively confined urban and post-industrial cultures. By contrast, there is lack of conceptualising of the dimension of distance in the Western concept of personhood, in general. Rather, there is the tendency of the Western mind to see the “individual” as pretty much an open book at all times. There is a tendency towards an epistemological positivism and absolutism in relation to the “individual”.
Within a pre-modernist society, one’s idea of a self is strongly defined by one’s relationships to physical, concrete objects, as compared to a modernist (or postmodernist) one. In a more modernist context, one’s sense of self has relatively more to do with one’s relationship to concepts rather than to concrete objects (eg. ‘success’, ‘power’, ‘capital’ — concepts primarily, rather than physical presences of anything). Once again, epistemological differences regarding a person’s culturally engendered sense of self are relative, rather than absolute. Broadly, the sense of the Western self is marked by a metaphor of “presence” and the sense of the African self is marked by a metaphor of “distance”. And the “presence” of the western self is defined in practice by a conceptualised sense of an “impossibility of distance”.
In this sense, the African self may be seen to have another dimension to it: depth. This depth relates specifically to a sense of the person as being immersed in power relationships, which may cause the more genuine self to withdraw, effectively to depart, despite the physical presence of the person remaining in a particular place. A more dynamic power force may be allowed to dominate at the expense of my “individual” self. This is a feature of African deference to collectivism and/or tribalistic organisational forces. Allowance for such organisational forces is often ad hoc, and relies upon one feeling what the dynamic is, which needs to be accommodated. This dimension of sensing power is often missing from the Westernised psyche, in my experiences.
The Western sense of self, conversely, is mostly understood as self-evidently present. One simply has to be physically present for everything important about one’s identity to be layed out on the table. One may be hiding something, but that can theoretically be brought out into the open and layed out, too. There is no sense that the “individual” may actually be able to hide anything about herself. A Westerner has one less dimension by which she can define herself: She lacks, as part of her self-identity, an acute sense of her relationality to power, and the option to keep her real self hidden in relation to the forces of power.
What I found most lacking when I immigrated to the West, was a sense that identity mattered beyond the immediate sense of “what one did”– the positivistic, materialist aspects of life. Concomitantly, people were afraid to try anything that “wasn’t who I am”, for fear of making a fool out of themselves by somehow becoming at odds with the image they were setting out to define as “who I am”. The sense I had was that people didn’t have a very robust sense of self, at al: Rather, a highly conceptualised one, defined by a relationship to a network of concepts/ethereal ideas, rather than by one’s ability to experience actual concrete reality. I also found that nobody seemed sensitive enough to the complex relationship to power, which I felt, in order to pursue my selfhood, which was at a distance from the situation I was in, and hardly present.
As I was unable to find where I fit into a collectivist power relationship in the Western environment, I had merely retreated – psychologically removed myself to a distance from the situation I was in. Nobody had enough of a sense of the subjective dimension of power, and how I had situated myself in relationship to it, to pull me out of my shell. When I finally adjusted to the Western way of seeing and doing, I also felt like I had lost a whole dimension of complexity in the way that I could experience life. I really missed the sense of ad hoc collectivism, where you would somehow feel out a situation for its power dynamics and then allow the winds of the power dynamic to inflate your sails, taking you where-ever it might go. Conversely, I found Australians to be relatively stiff, conventional, judgmental and narrowly competitive with each other over very, very small aspects of life, like style of dress.
Toyin Falola said, in his autobiography, that in the West, nobody really knows him, because they do not know his secret African name (Isola). They know neither the word nor the meaning of it, which is defined by the context of Nigeria, and his childhood in that country. To know who Toyin Falola is, one would need to know this concrete and experiential context. If one does not, then for many intents and purposes, the real Falola is hidden at a distance from his Western physical location – his spiritual self is only to be found in Africa.
This is a conceptualisation of psychological and spiritual distance – even distance from one’s physical self – which I do not often encounter in the West. In the West, so long as one is physically present, one is generally considered to be psychologically and spiritually present as well!
In Africa, it would appear that this is not always the case. In the West, when one greets another, one says, “hi!” In Africa, there are long, drawn out and prescriptive rituals for greeting and for acknowledgment of another person. I’m suggesting that in a way, these greetings are intended to “invoke” the real self of the other person, and draw them back from the distance in relation to power, which they may be immersed in. There is something ritualistic about the greetings, which also serve a purpose of invoking a particular individual to respond on the basis of what is held in common:
Good morning, how did you sleep?
I slept well, but only if you did!
I slept well.
Then so did I.
A sensitivity to power relationships is very present in the above greeting. There is a shyness, within this speech, concerning what is to be acknowledged. There is protection of a desire not to stand out by one’s differences. Recognition of differences in a non-ritual context thereby become a source of mirth. One is highly amused (and perhaps a little embarrassed) by what is different in another. One is vitally interested in it, and investigates it thoroughly (and often a little teasingly or unkindly). This is also something I recognise as African.
A high sensitivity to power differentials, and the need of a person to hide themselves from the force of power is also a feature of the African culture I was brought up in. A teacher will not, for example, approach a student and automatically expect them to tell the truth about a situation or themselves. The student’s right to hide from the direct questioning of the teacher and not to divulge personal information is tacitly protected in most contexts. It would be rare for a teacher to expect a student to relate to him or her on equal terms, because both parties are acutely aware of the power differential, and how that creates a more complex dimension of the self (represented by the metaphor of distance). So, the teacher will in effect, coax and beg the student to reveal the truth, by performing various ritual gestures to invoke respect.
Eventually, the student will succumb to such coaxing, after a ritual period of resistance. They will divulge the information that the teacher needs to know. By contrast, the western approach to getting information is usually much cruder and more presumptuous – mostly because the westerner assumes that whatever information they need to know is really already there, on the surface! (The quintessential western individual is always already “present” for interrogation). The westerner usually culturally ready and able to justify the “reasoning” which is purportedly behind their actions. This is considered necessary in order to justify oneself as a rational identity. (One needs to demonstrate the quality of one’s thinking: “I think therefore I am!”) The “individual” is thus easily dismissed if the thinking is not considered up to scratch – the western individual is a very tenuous and fragile construction!
Chinua Achebe said (The Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, 2002) that, “I think therefore I am,’ is the basis for defining the Western individual. For Africans, “I am a human being because of other human beings.”
Earlier this year I saw on American television an interview of Mr. Mandela in the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah was suitably deferential, but there was something she refused to accept. Mr. Mandela was at pains to explain to her that the victory was not his alone but the work of a group and the whole country. He kept stressing the collegiate, the co-operative; she kept insisting on the self, the individual. It all seemed to me like a little war game between the Western and African psychologies, between “I think, therefore I am” and “A human is human because of other humans”.
This implies a higher level of reliance upon conceptual thought – ideas – for self-definition, on the part of the Western individual. It implies a much more fragile basis for self-definition than having as an epistemological basis for selfhood the concrete quality of being human, which rather tends to invoke a higher sense of relationality between other human beings, within various flexible relationships of power.