Whither African Suicide?

December 20, 2012 § 7 Comments

Even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it, and to protect what optimism they have for that, at least.

—Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

A friend from DR Congo assures me that Africans don’t do depression. White people do depression. No matter what we’re going through, Africans always manage to laugh and smile. I have heard this from many a fellow African and always wondered what labor we want this smile to perform. Is smiling defiant enough? In one rendition, say NGO catalogs and videos, the African smile is a reward for Western donors. It incarnates Africans as the grateful subjects of philanthropy. I find this subjectivity produced by gratefulness troubling.

In another no less problematic rendition, the African smile registers endurance. Against the vicissitudes of African life, the African smile. Following Berlant, the African smile is a strategy to “stay attached to life.” It signals persistence, stubbornness, holding fast, planting oneself, the varieties of clinging and staying. The African smile is not so much about optimism as it is about survival. And yet survival risks Sisyphus: the drudgery of repetition. One must survive again and again. By repetition I mean both the deliberate and the Lacanian Real which returns over and again independently of the will to replicate it.

Africans smile because we want to and also because we must. Ours is a categorical imperative: we can’t help but smile, which is to say we can’t help but survive. Against all odds. I want to track how to come to terms with this obligation to persistence. What and how does it mean to survive? What strategies are necessary for managing the chronic suffering of diffuse violence? The question Berlant pursues—and which interests me—is why persist in surviving? What anchors that will to survive? Why not kill oneself? Or give up.

More to the point, why not African suicide?
*

Up until now in this post, I have referred to “African” endurance; “African” suicide; “African” obligation. I find myself rolling my eyes the same way I do when someone invokes an “African” proverb or even “African” wisdom. The specificity marked by “African” is belabored and essentialist. Specifity here is not (f)actual, but rather descriptive, and at best axiomatic. It marks the way African subjects are interpellated by the invention of Africa and normative African-ness. Following Žižek, the Western imaginary gives war, horror and violence a very specific location: there (in Africa), not here (in the West).

If Africa is produced as “there,” as the locale of war, horror, terror and violence, the African is incarnated as the traumatized subject: the raped woman, the child soldier, the refugee. In rebuttal to these portrayals, Africans speak of African resilience. African survival. African endurance. We invoke the African smile as the last word, as defiance against trauma. In this frame, survival is not only compulsory but also inherently African, while suicide is taboo and un-African. How to think of trauma and the African obligation to survive.
*

To be surviving is very different from having survived. This is a matter of tense: what Elizabeth Povinelli calls the durative present. Trauma pervades both tense and time. Trauma-time is disjointed, time out of time, so that one can be retraumatized. It is often marked by anteriority, overlap. It is the already happened yet not past and with a possibility of “now” time, even as now is not now but rather the material present and the spectral past that haunts it. The past is not past; it has a prosthesis with which it reaches and touches the present. Tenses becomes bricolage.

Against this recursive trauma, the persistence of African survival. I want to claim that there is an obligation to survive, a particularly African obligation demanded by the social. Amidst the exigencies of late capitalism, the alienation, loneliness and uber-individualism of postmodernity, Africans repeatedly invoke Ubuntu to claim that sociality still matters among us, that relations still matter. That blood is still thicker than water. Sociality then becomes a way to manage and endure trauma: we survive because we are together.
*

With Povinelli I am interested in the persistence of unbearability, in what she calls endurance and exhaustion. Moments when surviving is translated as thriving or accomplishment. And because trauma-time and tense are shared, co-created, inherited, claimed, experienced, and observed, I want to think about the cost of surviving. This because, following Žižek, to insist on those who cannot be defeated is to indulge the fantasy of subjects/bodies that can endure trauma endlessly without dying.

Defeat has its uses.

At the end of this post I am wondering how to be against the management of trauma, how to be against survival. Literal suicide remains unthinkable and reveals the impossible of a social that both compels and disavows it. I reached for metaphorical African suicide as a way to disrupt Ubuntu, the social incarnated by the obligation of surviving together. What might it mean to banish sociality? And if “suicide” is “defeat,” who is the agent, the winner in this scenario? If we kill the African, even metaphorically, what remains—or to put it another way, what happens when a figuration is killed twice?

I end here as Donald Barthelme concluded his short story “The Dolt”:

I myself have these problems. Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.

§ 7 Responses to Whither African Suicide?

  • jomul7 says:

    i have a such a long winded response to this that I can’t remember all I have to say so I’m just going to be content with fragments thoughts. This reminds me of two classes I took, Genocide literature and Race theory which I highly recommend for a good dose of depression but don’t take them both at the same time, just might be a tiny bit too much. I remember reading back home about Richard Wurmbrand and how he suffered for his faith for 14 years. In those days and still today, I always search narratives that display a worst suffering than the state I’m in. My world found its balance in a voyeuristic feeling of others’ suffering.
    I discovered the language of depression and trauma here in the US even though I must have had the symptoms all those years and no one diagnosed me back home. I guess at one point, I was sent to a spiritual counselor and went to a couple of prayers but that’s it. There was just no time or space for it. I just had to stuff it down.
    There’s actually a chronic african suicide taking place. Here I’m borrowing the motivational speaker’s language: Everytime an African doesn’t live up to his/her potential, he or she is committing suicide.
    I think suicide happens all the time and everywhere in more subtle ways than we like to admit and it’s not just for Africans.
    I do think some people are resilient, they are able to laugh, smile in the face of adversity and get depressed when everything is all right.
    Normalcy is so hideously and overwhelmingly boring that people search extremes for a jolt of life so I guess normalcy is another form of suicide for some people.
    Yes, I stretching the meaning of that word suicide and like I said. I had a better response to this, but I just can’t find it.

  • hanabonanza says:

    I was once told that Nigerians were the happiest people on earth (according to the NYT). I experienced an urge to search out the “researcher” and, well, kill. I hate this whole African Smile Syndrome (ASS!). I agree with Jomul, maybe if there were other markers for suicide, Africans would score higher. Like you, I wonder what this all means. Sigh. Off to my dinner.

  • Mike says:

    That is an excellent post/article…Had the same feelings but cannot articulate it so well.

  • Jo Dawkins says:

    I don’t trust that Africans don’t do suicide any more as kids have died without proper mental health treatment and we in America are seeing it more. I know we will be considered western converts trying to learn eastern culture. The point is our children have committed suicide at an alarming rate . We know one thing that mental health is a wane that can go up and down. At any given point in life all people may gain from good counseling or even treatment. The social workers in America are really finding mental health issues in poverty today. In recent times previous this would of been nothing something the child hasn’t learned to live with- my point is why as Africans most we learn to live with instead of reject ill health completely? If we are to gain the significance of who we are we too must trust great health practices.

  • Will says:

    Congratulations on another excellent, thought-provoing post. I can’t begin to approach your academic analysis, but wanted to offer some observations of my own. As a recent immigrant to South Africa from Europe I am experiencing first hand a seemingly more positive and ‘happy’ environment, but I see it to different extents among various communities here (white, black and Cape coloured). I am forced to contemplate perspectives daily. Do ‘Africans’ get depressed less, or is it that ‘westerners’ get depressed more. Why do those who have more material goods seem less content with what they have in comparison to others, than the people who live on the streets outside my house? These are all stereotypes, but why do people rarely smile on the London tube, but occasionally the taxi queues here sing and dance? That doesn’t appear to me to be about gratitude, but perhaps about community.

  • eve says:

    …interesting article -i think what africans lack in my opinion is a form of self entitlement. we take suffering as a part of life anyway and we somewhat never really see ourselves as deserving of something-pain is part of “making it” and thats what ur mother n my mother taught us- it is about sacrifice….our journey is always directed towards a better life unlike the euro upper and middle class who are somewhat already content with their lives. Although i do agree that depression is a disease, i feel we should research into the resilience of the human being on the basis of the african-rather then take something found in the west and apply it in the 3rd world like we always do. for me it is more what is smiling african syndrome? can it be scientifically proven? ;))

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