Mbiti & Glissant

Image | Wambui Mwangi
Image | Wambui Mwangi

A starting point.

Here is John Mbiti:

What then is the individual and where is his place in the community? In traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately. He owes his existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. . . . The community must therefore make, create or produce the individual.
. . .
Whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.’ (African Religions & Philosophy).

Here’s Édouard Glissant:

Summarizing what we know concerning the varieties of identity, we arrive at the following:

Root identity
-is founded in the distant past in a vision, a myth of the creation of the world;
-is sanctified by the hidden violence of a filiation that strictly follows from this founding episode;
-is ratified by a claim to legitimacy that allows a community to proclaim its entitlement to the possession of a land, which thus becomes a territory;
- is preserved by being projected onto other territories, making their conquest legitimate—and through the project of a discursive knowledge.

Root identity therefore rooted the thought of self and of territory and set in motion the thought of the other and of voyage.

-is linked not to a creation of the world but to the conscious and contradictory experience of contacts among cultures;
- is produced in the chaotic network of Relation and not in the hidden violence of filiation;
-does not devise any legitimacy as its guarantee of entitlement, but circulates, newly extended;
-does not think of a land as a territory from which to project toward other territories but as a place where one gives-on-and-with rather than grasps.

Relation identity exults the thought of errantry and of totality. (Poetics of Relation)

Here are passages by Alexander Weheliye that set me down this path:

How might we go about thinking and living enfleshment otherwise so as to usher in different genres of the human and how might we accomplish this task through the critical project of black studies? (Habeas Viscus)

Relation is not a waste product of established components; rather, it epitomizes the constitutive potentiality of a totality that is structured in dominance and composed of the particular processes of bringing-into-relation, which offer spheres of interconnected existences that are in constant motion. Relationality provides a productive mode for critical inquiry and political action within the context of black and critical ethnic studies, because it reveals the global and systemic dimensions of racialized, sexualized, and gendered subjugation, while not losing sight of the many ways political violence has given rise to ongoing practices of freedom within various traditions of the oppressed. (Habeas Viscus)

To get here, I need Gloria Wekker:

Mati is a highly charged volitional relationship, usually between two men, that dates back to the Middle Passage—matis¬ were originally “shipmates,” those who had survived the journey out form Africa together; by the eighteenth century, mati was a lifelong relationship entered into only with caution and when there was strong mutual affection and admiration (Richard and Sally Price, qtd. in Wekker)

My understanding is that slaves arrived in Suriname with the concept of mati, referring to the special relationship of shipmates. This special relationship acquired a sexual meaning for both Creole men and women, apart from its general, affectively laden meaning of friend. . . . On the ships men and women were kept apart, thus the special relationships were always between people of the same sex, and they were sometimes generated from generation to generation. (Politics of Passion)

I have been raiding African philosophy, trying to find something useful in its ethnopatriarchal formulations. Feminism teaches me to find what is useful—to suck stones. Black studies teaches me to honor the sea’s memories. Attachment—Whitman’s adhesiveness, but more and less—demands attention. I have been wondering how to write about “we-formations.”

Queer studies teaches me to distrust community (Miranda Joseph). From here (Kenya, personal history, Gikuyu supremacy, heteronormative ethnopatriarchy), family is too toxic to be useful—its demands too “root identity” to enable the worlds I need. My imagination was formed in green spaces, the land, not the sea. And I must think of how to be in toxic soils—of deracination and transplanting, obsolescent habits in climate-changed worlds.

We no longer know when the rains will fall.

And still “we” gather and are gathered—and need names to call ourselves: mati.
I come to Gloria Wekker through Omise’eke Tinsley. Omi (she said I could call her that many years ago, and I hold on to it) writes about working-class Afro-Caribbean (Surinamese) women:

Women do mati work or make zanmi, verbalizing sexuality not as identity but as praxis, something constantly constructed and reconstructed through daily actions. As the doubly signifying Creole vocabulary for these practices suggests, mati love women in a language and culture that at once leaves this eroticism unnamed or undifferentiated from other sharings between women and bend to communicate it without separating doing mati work from other aspects of their lives and languages in Caribbean working-class communities. (Thiefing Sugar)

We-work, the work of forming and sustaining “we” is “thiefing sugar,” to use Omi’s felicitous phrase: “Thiefing sugar has never been easy—sharp cane stalks can cut cane cutters—”

We-work, the work of forming and sustaining “we” is also “wake work”:

[W]e must be about the work of what I am calling “wake work.” Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory. Wakes allow those among the living to mourn the passing of the dead through ritual; they are the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the deceased from death to burial and the accompanying drinking, feasting, and other observances; a watching practiced as a religious observance. But wakes are also “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming, or one that is moved, in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow; in the line of sight of (an observed object); and (something) in the line of recoil of (a gun)”; finally, wake also means being awake and, most importantly, consciousness. (Christina Sharpe, “Black Studies in the Wake”)

We-formations are wake formations: we-formations might be about the mati work of wake work.

If Mbiti and Glissant offer models for how to imagine we-formations—as the always contingent and dynamic relation between an “I” and a “we,” Wekker, Tinsley, and Sharpe emphasize the labor of creating and sustaining we-formations: mati work and wake work.

I am wrestling—the angel marks Jacob with a limp—with how to think of “we-formations.” Struggling with what it means to be called and to hear the call (forthcoming work by Kenya’s Weaving Collective theorizes this calling and hearing beautifully); to be called and to turn toward the call (this is Althusser’s territory); to be assembled by capture and chains, assembled in the hold and on ocean floors (M. NourbeSe Philip takes me to both ungeographies); to be assembled on plantations and, later, in prisons (Katherine McKittrick takes me to the plantation; Mariame Kaba takes me to the prison); to be assembled in concentration camps by Europeans who are horrified by the idea of concentration camps in Europe but unhuman Africans using the same technologies (Kenya in the 1950s); to be assembled as the killable and the disposable. And, having been so assembled, before, during, and after, to undertake mati work and wake work.

How we begin matters. And so I would reverse this writing. To begin with mati work and wake work, with Gloria (who I met and who allows me to call her Gloria), with Christina (a wonderful friend), and with Omi, to get to Mbiti and Glissant and Weheliye. To unthink and rethink where African philosophy might take us if we unmake “tradition” as root-identity and, through mati work and wake work, position Mbiti’s formulation as “work.” Here, neither “I” nor “we” grounds the other. Instead, it is the always dynamic interaction between the two that is at stake. Glissant gets to this with “relation.”

I think I might also be saying something about the work of Black studies: as the location—a vestibule, Hortense Spillers might say—where certain encounters might take place. A queer imagination might say a backroom. But we must also recall the darkness of the hold.
I have been calling this kind of writing “frottage.” Not simply juxtaposition. Nor weaving. Though I like both of those terms. Frottage is both revelation of traces without origin (Max Ernst), evidence of a past that can’t be fully known. And irritation. Rubbing together, often with a sexual charge. The discomfort of wanted or unwanted proximity. I’m interested in those moments when even wanted proximity becomes unwanted—“we’ve had sex, now stop touching me.” In what happens with extended proximity, with unexpected proximity, with wanted proximity, with unwanted proximity. (I had been using “intimacy,” and still will in the book manuscript, but “proximity” gets closer to mati work and wake work, to the we-formations of being “thrown together,” assembled through deracination.

A final word: I have written that “tradition” believes in the myth of root-identity. This belief must also be seen as an effect of colonial modernity's deracination--as an effect of blackness.