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.