Monday, 24 October 2011

Fidelity to me, myself and I: the dramatics of a self split and continually reconfigured

by Danielle Bowler

Fidelity to me, myself and I:
the dramatics of a self split and continually reconfigured


The short answer is yes”.

He said it. Quite flippantly. I had asked a question: “If I’m understanding you right, are you saying the existential crisis is indefinite, that coloured people will forever be doing Derridean “double duty” to multiple identities?” …“the short answer is yes”. With that I felt the cracks deepen, pieces break away. And he moved on to the next query. And I alone, heard the crack, louder than the splintering before it, I heard the interminable sound of parts of a soul break into, in two maybe.

The prologue, in its historical relationship to text establishes setting and scene, intoning statements necessary to render the ensuing drama intelligible. Ushering the audience in to the world of the authors making, the prologues marks the first encounter, and this first encounter in turn marks all subsequent encounters within the theatrical drama. The prologue, is much like the event, the event which setting the tone for all subsequent happenings, marking the self as it is violently removed from its habitat and cast into a new cosmos. Emanating from this new cosmos, the drama begins…

Setting the scene

To question existence so profoundly that one is caged in by the existential questions that stem from a body/mind/soul in crisis is to exist in a world that is marked by event. Each scene of this event, distinct from those before it yet inextricably connected, plays its role, with the exits and entrances of multiple characters that enable you, the protagonist, to embark on this journey of the self. Akin to Big Bang Theory, in the moment of the individuals encounter with a life-altering event, the world explodes out from one point such that existence as it was before is no longer. This one point, the event, creates the world you now occupy: a world of questions, complications, complexity and most fundamentally, fidelity. Because the world of the existential is inwardly projected this fidelity asserts the utmost importance. Whilst the event definitively alters your relationship to the outward world, it could be ignored, or even lessened in significance, not altering the existential drama as you do not question the change that has been effected. But when, in fidelity to the event, you attempt to make sense of the reorganisation of everything you knew, to deal with the remnants of the explosion, everything gets complicated and life begins to take on dramatics, full of the twists and turns and plot complications that so excite, unnerve and challenge a captive audience of one. I speak of the existential effects of being that are not unique to my personal experience, but of an experience of “millions of men who have been skilfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement”1. This essay represents meditations on the event that have marked my navigation of an attempt to understand a self multiplied: to exist as a coloured body, not simply coloured but at once tripled: coloured, white and black, in a motley organisation of the self. As it follows, four scenes stand in a symbiotic relationship with each other, four men amongst each other, unintentionally the dramatis personae of the following scenes, caught up in the existential drama that has come to personify a personal existential navigation. 
Written through the chronological line they followed, these scenes allow an understanding of a neurotic obsession with race that so underscores my encounter with the world: a world that is constantly remade and refashioned in an attempt to yield answers to the questions that emanate from my consciousness.

Scene One: For generations, and generations and…

Er no, I am not your father. No. our cultures they don't they don't ... er.. er they don't... they clash, you see. But er, don't worry about this, ne? You don't worry about this, ne? You see, this existential crisis that you are having, it is very common amongst coloured people. So you are not unique in that respect umfaansee, this existential crisis which you are having, it is very common for colored people. so you are not unique in that respect umfaan. you see. ya. so, hamba galshe ne, zong bona some time umfanyan. ne?"

(Kurt Egelhof, Four Generations: 2009)

Four generations, in forty minutes, uncovered the patrilineal story of the lives of four generations of men. Grandfather, Father, Protagonist and Son, held together by how race had so irrevocably marked their lives. Kurt Egelhof, the autobiographical protagonist, tried to make sense of his life through tracing his lineage and embodying the characters of his ancestry and offspring, as well as himself. Midway through the play, following the death of his father, Kurt tells of how he approached numerous men, spoken of only by the proper names of their races, asking “are you my father?” Upon approaching Black Man, he proceeds to say the above, most importantly, “You see, this existential crisis that you are having, it is very common amongst coloured people”. This is the event, 6 lines of text spoken in a play, held in a tiny, dusty hall as laughter bounced back and forth, off the walls. But comedy’s congenital characteristic is laughter from truth. We laughed not because it was simply funny, but because these six lines spoke of truth. I laughed and suddenly became conscious of a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. At this point, that the world exploded outwards. Reconstituted, the world now presented itself a question, wholly constituted by this question and the numerous variations of “what does it mean to be me?” This question was now the ever-thumping bass-line in the score of the personal drama, the subtext to which characters spoke to and about, and I, as protagonist and reader, actor and director, was not allowed the ignorance of being unaware of the subtext and its implications. I became fully conscious of myself in the first and third person, acting and watching my self act. Kurt Egelhof and his one-man play could exit stage left: their role had been played. The stage had been set. The drama continued.

Scene Two : Enter Alain Badiou, s’il vous plait

Suddenly, the entrance of event was heralded, as the incarnation of Alain Badiou made its ghostly entrance. Constituting Four Generations as the event, Badiou’s account of the subject and ontology named and framed the existential experience. I, the subject, had experienced an event, viewing Four Generations, which had marked a point of rupture with my present ontological understanding, as an ontology that was not previously present began to take hold. The two integral themes of event, central to this drama, waited in the wings for their cue: “fidelity” and “truth”. With their relationship marked by reciprocity, the subject seeks truth through fidelity to the event, faithful to what the meaning the event holds for their conception of being in the world. Thus, it requires the individual to be active agent and not passive receptor. Reliant on the active decision of the subject, I acquiesced and Fidelity and Truth made their melodramatic entrance. The violent disruption of the established order of things had now set its course, an order in ardent pursuit of truth, a magisterial truth: “definitively unknowable”, yet “made a matter of knowledge by the activity of the subject who acts to integrate it into the discernable and epistemological regime of the situation.”2

Simply put, to understand this truth is to understand what it means to occupy your body, to fully inhabit the phenomenon of being locked in your skin. Multiple intellectuals, like a Greek chorus, enjoy asserting intellectual superiority by uniformly chanting “race is mere “arbitrary” melanin” whenever people’s experience of race comes into question. To this I am tempted to assert Fanon’s statement: “There are too many idiots in the world”. I assert this fully aware of Fanon’s subsequent proviso, that having said that I now have the dilemma of having to prove it. 
Simply put, these intellectuals would have more authority if we could excise ourselves from our skin. But in a world where the skin you are in encompasses more than your material self, when it encompasses your being in the world, it seems this arbitrary melanin does not leave experience to chance. It seems melanin is experience.

The bodily experience of being coloured

What does it mean to be in a body that so fully rejects its wholeness? A body existing as a fraction: instead of wholes, we speak of halves, further split into thirds, a sectioned existence. In a body that architecturally reveals its ambiguity, to exist is to live at a strange and perfidious distance from wholeness as your body is absolutely not an absolute. To be coloured, punctuated by an ancestry on competing ends of the colour spectrum, is to be caught manifold existence, both in the way that racial miscegenation causes people to think of you as simultaneously white and black, and in the way the experience differs so profoundly for every person caught in this grey area: neither white nor black, but simultaneously white and black…and coloured. Instead of the self replicated in the standard black/white binary, there is a self multiplied by three.

In the incidence of the “event”, to arrive here is always to arrive there: each moment an evanescent step towards a shifting end point. Much of this can be attributed to encountering yourself as third person: “as I arrive here. She arrives there”. The self in perpetual process seems never destined to reach any sense of the absolute, never to fully arrive, set down ones baggage and rest. To question the self is to be a perpetual wanderer: restless at heart. Multiplied, the coloured body seems constantly attempting mastery over Derridean “double duty” in an attempt to reconcile a self that is split: having not duty to one identity but to multiple. Lamentably, it seems a world is marked by proximities: perpetually a site of nearly; close to; almost; but never completely black or white. It is the proximity to both these worlds that marks the puzzling complexity that has emerged in being simultaneously multiple races. And right on cue enters a man in a suit, red shirt and red shoes.

Scene Three: Double Duty

Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has to place himself - Fanon, 1967: 83

the short answer is yes”, we return to the prologue, that setting of the dramatic action that often makes its reappearance after the exposition of the action. Grant Farred read his Apostrophizing Algeria: The Ghost In Derrida to a crowd expecting football and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. What they got was football and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but read through the philosophical lens of French/Algerian Jacques Derrida. Not quite what a crowd of first year students expected. In a poignant lecture, peppered with spectres of Marx, overwhelmingly filled with Derrida, and constituted by Zinedine Zidane and other football players doing double duty to their Algerian and French identities, Farred read his lyrical text. It was football and identity but in and amongst this, I found “colouredness” and identity. For every idea, notion, suggestion, presupposition, I saw “colouredness” with remarkable clarity. Unfolding was the notion of double duty, in the most seamless relation between theory and lived realities, the idea of being a self continually at the mercy of two identities such that the self vacillated between the two. I forgot my beloved football, and thought only on the implications for my understanding of a being at once two. Knee deep in writing a dissertation on being coloured in the world, I was caught within the boundaries of constantly questioning being, constantly having to face myself in the production of this scholarship and personal existential questioning, everything related back to considering my own racial constitution. I had been able to subtly ignore the still unanswered questions that chased me, constantly pursuing my shadow, my self and its numerous projections, in the wake of Four Generations. I had been able to out-run it. But, suddenly, it took hold, I found myself forced me open, unable to continue as I had been: suturing each fragmented part together everyday to be able to be ignore the splinters – ignoring how I had been unable to pull them out before they pulled me apart. “I think I saw Jacques Derrida at the World Cup” he kept saying, and I translated it into my own questions of being and belonging– fashioning it into a framework that would enable me to understand this identity that so haunted me: the identity that had been the subject of acute and sustained enquiry.

the short answer is yes”

I had asked the question having made the link between how French/Algerian football players do double duty to two nations and identities, and how the phenomenon of being coloured in South Africa often meant double duty between black and white racial identities.

the short answer is yes”.

In that answer I found nothing but chaos. Violently thrown from my current state of being, I was thrust into radical crisis: the excessive of questions of the self.

Plagued by this critical state of being, I walked around with the world on my back, not Atlas but Quasimodo, crippled under the weight of this understanding. I felt a self eviscerated from itself, simply pieces. I stood at a distance from myself and pondered my self. In a zone of heightened being, I existed only to question existence at every turn: from waking to sleeping, walking down the road, on the telephone to a friend, or standing in the grocery store. Each second was occupied by the repercussions of Farred’s answer: questioning racial strictures. It is an invidious position to find yourself in.

Ryland Fisher writes “I am obsessed with race because it has always been obsessed with me”. My obsession with race is similar. I can at every moment of my life point to some instance where race has reared its ugly head: whether a baby, toddler, teenager, or young adult. Every day I am confronted with race, which only impacts so deeply as I have been so engaged in questioning it. I cannot forget, the world will not let me, but most importantly I will not let me, not until I have understood what it means, until fidelity has led to some sense of truth. In The Other Healing, Jacques Derrida writes:

I am European, I am no doubt a European intellectual, and I like to recall this, I like to recall this to myself, and why would I deny it? In the name of what? But I am not, nor do I feel, European in every part, that is, European through and through. By which I mean, by which I wish to say, or must say: I do not want to be and must not be European through and through, European in every part. Being a part, belonging as ‘fully a part’, should be incompatible with belonging ‘in every part’. My cultural identity, that in the name of which I speak, is not only European, it is not identical to itself, and I am not ‘cultural’ through and through, ‘cultural’ in every part. (OH, 82)

If you substitute “European” with coloured, you can begin to understand my neurosis, the pathological obsession with race. Experiencing a self as parts, you begin to pick apart each piece, questioning, why do I not feel completely whole? Why does each part look different from the one before, why am I not identical to myself, not coloured through and through coloured in every part. Arbitrary melanin, but not arbitrary questions.

the short answer is yes”

The interminable nature of this double duty is what unsettled me most.

How the past would haunt both the present and the future. I stood, a person divorced from a people, apart from the crown, feeling at once foolish that I was so taunted and haunted by 5 words, but feeling the same sinking feeling return, descend upon me once more.Viscerally, I felt only rupture. Numb to other sensations. Usually you shift and the world shifts with you. But in that moment the world had suddenly shifted and I was the split-second delay: tardily chasing my shifting world, trying to keep up with it, understand it: and failing on every account. I heard the spectre of Yeats as I fell apart, and the centre did not hold3. My world was mere anarchy.

Scene Four: Fanon enters to the sound of Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini4

I burst apart, now the fragments have been put together again by another self5

Into the morass entered Fanon, first appearing in the play as the stock character of “knight in shining armour”, soon to be followed by ancestor and brother. In Fanon I found solace, a valiant ancestor who had walked the path I now trod and rendered my crisis intelligible. No longer in woeful solitude, or paralysing crisis, to find Fanon was to make a joyful discovery. Finding Fanon feels akin to an archaeologist making a great, historically significant find that suddenly unleashes a wave of possibles: most crucially the act of reconstituting the self but a self reconstituted. Fanon held the answer to the questions that had plagued, through the notion of transcendence. A notion that had never entered the realms of what had been I’d thought possible, but which holds out the hope of ending an all-consuming pathology. Deceptively simple, this notion of transcending your race is not an answer, but the only answer to a world in which race matters, often more than the content of character. The only way out is beyond.

In Fanon I see myself reflected, often identically, some times more abstractly and most acutely in Black Skin, White Masks. The Lived Experience of Blackness, the oft-quoted fifth chapter is Fanon’s personal, poetic and poignant engagement with his own existential crisis. In a world of constant liberal claims, multiple distractions and the apparent inurgency in dealing with being, there is a reassuring sense of solidarity felt in the recognition of a similar pathology. To read Fanon was to read a resounding yes that echoed with manifold truths, resounding from a dizzying height to the deepest foundations. The similarities in racial experience are uncanny, particularly given the different contexts and eras. Suddenly I began to see spectres of Fanon everywhere; he became the omnipotent god of all things race related: the first and last word in all situations. Fanon became the answer in a place where there had previously been none. Gradually, as it must, the godly status afforded waned in the realisation of Fanon’s humanness, and the knightly armour saw a costume change into a dapper suit, but the respect of a life lived with profound insight and fidelity remained intact. Fanon became not the answer, but holds glimmer of hope: the hope of transcendence.

Transcendence: unmasking façade

The coloured body has always been enigmatic, a shape-shifter of sorts: at times able to take on other races with relative ease. To possess a body able to transcend its skin has been the will of many of my ancestors, but this has been regrettably towards one side of the colour spectrum. 
There is a sick pleasure that washes over one in this recognition of the body’s ability to transcend itself through the proximity to whiteness that means coloured people can try for/play white. The joy is not having white skin, you know your own perjury. The delight is the achievement of neutrality. A world where your body is yes, your mind is a yes and you inhabit the world in affirmation…until your lie reveals itself and you begin again, attempting this fraudulent transcendence. As Fanon says: “out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white”, and it is this I vehemently detest. This is not “hurrah for Schoeler6” but a “hurrah for Verwoerd”, a shout which sticks in the throat, malignantly beginning to take on the disease of corporeal malediction. In recognition of this suspicious and deceptive victory, I strip off the ill-gotten, abhorrent coat of Mayotte Capacia and now proceed as Malcolm X, adopting his swagger and rhetoric. And it tastes like freedom.

True transcendence, it is the possibility of truly moving past and beyond race's grip, getting beyond an skin under which something perpetually crawls; leaving one constantly scratching at the stitches one has sutured in the attempt to keep it all in. It is the thought that perhaps the ground will not keep giving way, and the world will stop its relentless and tiresome reconstitution. That perhaps it is possible to imagine a world in which the body is not constantly abraded by looks, gestures, words and actions that reveal race’s malevolence; perhaps it is possible for there to be a world where to be coloured is not to occupy a neither here nor there existence, as the product of miscegenation; perhaps it is possible to be free from the chains of an existence in duality, an existence characterised by assuming a persona akin to the dilemma of French/Algerian football players.

Scene five: Je suis Zidane

Yet, it is in the last scene that I drape myself in the uniform of Zidane, taking on not the colours of Les Bleus, not the double duty implicit in the indistinct identity. Rather taking on the state of mind and technical mastery that enabled Zidane to emerge as one of the greatest footballers of all time. For if I am to play as a midfielder, caught in the racial interstices and bound by the rules of this racial game, then I hope to play with the skill of Zidane: a midfielder, controlling and receiving the ball with ease, skill and technical precision. A midfielder who was capable of launching a crippling defence as a master controller and receiver of the ball, and possessing, in his virtuosic facility, the capacity to score game-winning goals. Ultimately, not simply a player of the game, but a playmaker. In being locked in this perpetual football game where the stadium lights are always on, highlighting every manoeuvre and the rules dictate possible action, emancipation can only be achieved by our own active pursuit as “none but ourselves can free our minds”7.
Recognising the façade of emancipation that emanates from liberal rights discourse, the battle still wages from within the confines of the mind. In this embattled territory, it then seems apt that games are won or lost in the midfield8.

The final soliloquy

So we return to the self, ending where we began: questioning existence and event. We have seen the entrances and exits of the dramatis personae, the action has taken place, and there has been climax, melodrama, violence and sorrow. All that seems to remain is for the curtain to descend upon this drama…yet it does not. Rather, a voice bellows:

All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts9


The epilogue is not. In its place is the ellipsis. Without end, conclusion, dénouement, catharsis. The exhumed ghosts resist burial. The body, in its mental and physical capacity, continues its perpetual journey, “surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty”10


1 Aime Cesaire, Discours sur le Colonialisme
2 Roffe, 2006: 336
3 W.E.B Yeats, The Second Coming
4 A composition by Sergei Rachmaninov, in tribute to the virtuosic violinist Niccolo Paganini, with subtle sanguine tones building to an elated climax
5 Fanon, F., 1967: 82. Black Skin, White Masks.
6 Fanon cites a story of a black negro in bed with a blonde, at the moment of orgasm the negro is said to shout “Hurrah fro Schoeler”
7 Bob Marley, Redemption Song
8 Farred, 2000
9 Shakespeare, As You Like It
10 Fanon, 1967: 83