The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses

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The much-vaunted Cartesian dualism was only an affirmation of a tradition8 in which the body was seen as a trap from which any rational person had to escape. Ironically, even as the body remained at the center of both sociopolitical categories and discourse, many thinkers denied its existence for certain categories of people, most notably themselves.

Women, primitives, Jews, Africans, the poor, and all those who qualified for the label "different" in varying historical epochs have been considered to be the embodied, dominated therefore by instinct and affect, reason being beyond them. They are the Other, and the Other is a body. The Marxist tradition is especially noteworthy in this regard in that it emphasized social relations as an explanation for class inequality. However, the critique of Marxism as androcentric by numerous feminist writers suggests that this paradigm is also implicated in Western somatocentricity.

On closer examination, however, one finds that the body has hardly been banished from social thought, not to mention its role in the constitution of social status. This can be illustrated in the discipline of sociology. In a monograph on the body and society, Bryan Turner laments what he perceives.

He attributes this phenomenon of "absent bodies"11 to the fact that "sociology emerged as a discipline which took the social meaning of human interaction as its principal object of inquiry, claiming that the meaning of social actions can never be reduced to biology or physiology. However, to say that bodies have been absent from sociological theories is to discount the fact that the social groups that are the subject matter of the discipline are essentially understood as rooted in biology.

They are categories based on perceptions of the different physical presence of various body-types. In the contemporary U. If the social realm is determined by the kinds of bodies occupying it, then to what extent is there a social realm, given that it is conceived to be biologically determined? For example, no one hearing the term "corporate executives" would assume them to be women; and in the s and s, neither would anyone spontaneously associate whites with the terms "underclass" or "gangs"; indeed, if someone were to construct an association between the terms, their meanings would have to be shifted.

Consequently, any sociologist who studies these categories cannot escape an underlying biological insidiousness. This omnipresence of biologically deterministic explanations in the social sciences can be demonstrated with the category of the criminal or criminal type in contemporary American society.

Troy Duster, in an excellent study of the resurgence of overt biological determinism in intellectual circles, berates the eagerness of many researchers to associate criminality with genetic inheritance; he goes on to argue that other interpretations of criminality are possible: The prevailing economic interpretation explains crime rates in terms of access to jobs and unemployment. A cultural interpretation tries to show differing cultural adjustments between the police and those apprehended for crimes.

A political interpretation sees criminal activity as political interpretation, or pre-revolutionary. A conflict interpretation sees this as an interest conflict over scarce resources. This is tied to the fact that because of the history of racism, the underlying research question even if it is unstated is not why certain individuals commit crimes: it is actually why black people have such a propensity to do so. The definition of what is criminal activity is very much tied up with who black, white, rich, poor is involved in the activity.

Similarly, when studies are done of leadership in American society, the researchers "discover" that most people in leadership positions are white males; no matter what account these researchers give for this result, their statements will be read as explaining the predisposition of this group to leadership. The integrity of researchers is not being questioned here; my purpose is not to label any group of scholars as racist in their intentions. On the contrary, since the civil rights movement, social-scientific research has been used to formulate policies that would abate if not end discrimination against subordinated groups.

What must be underscored, however, is how knowledge-production and dissemination in the United States are inevitably embedded in what Michael Omi and Howard Winant call the "everyday common sense of race a way of comprehending, explaining and acting in the world. It is institutionalized, and it functions irrespective of the action of individual actors. In the West, social identities are all interpreted through the "prism of heritability,"16 to borrow Duster's phrase. Biological determinism is a filter through which all knowledge about society is run. As mentioned in the preface, I refer to this kind of thinking as body-reasoning;17 it is a biologic interpretation of the social world.

The point, again, is that as long as social actors like managers, criminals, nurses, and the poor are presented as groups and not as individuals, and as long as such groupings are conceived to be genetically constituted, then there is no escape from biological determinism. Against this background, the issue of gender difference is particularly interesting in regard to the history and the constitution of difference in European social practice and thought.

The lengthy history of the embodiment of social categories is suggested by the myth fabricated by Socrates to convince citizens of different ranks to accept whatever status was imposed upon them. Socrates explained the myth to Glaucon in these terms:. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children An Oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the state, it will be destroyed.

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it? Glaucon replies, "Not in the present generation; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons' sons, and posterity after them. In a context in which people were ranked according to association with certain metals, women were, so to speak, made of wood, and so were not even considered. Stephen Gould, a historian of science, calls Glaucon's observation a prophecy, since history shows that Socrates' tale has been promulgated and believed by subsequent generations.

Paradoxically, in European thought, despite the fact that society was seen to be inhabited by bodies, only women were perceived to be embodied; men had no bodies they were walking minds. Two social categories that emanated from this construction were the "man of reason" the thinker and the "woman of the body," and they were oppositionally constructed. The idea that the man of reason often had the woman of the body on his mind was clearly not entertained. As Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality suggests, however, the man of ideas often had the woman and indeed other bodies on his mind.

The feminist lens disrobes the man of ideas for all to see. Even discourses like science that were assumed to be objective have been shown to be male-biased. The extent to which the body is implicated in the construction of sociopolitical categories and epistemologies cannot be overemphasized. As noted earlier, Dorothy Smith has written that in Western societies "a man's body gives credibility to his utterance, whereas a woman's body takes it away from hers.

Connell notes that the body is inescapable in its construction and that a stark physicalness underlies gender categories in the Western worldview: "In our [Western] culture, at least, the physical sense of maleness and femaleness is central to the cultural interpretation of gender. Masculine gender is among other things a certain feel to the skin, certain muscular shapes and tensions, certain postures and ways of moving, certain possibilities in sex.

Hence, gender has been ontologically conceptualized. The category of the citizen, which has been the cornerstone of much of Western political theory, was male, despite the much-acclaimed Western democratic traditions. Lorna Schiebinger notes in a study of the origins of modern science and women's exclusion from European scientific institutions that "differences between the two sexes were reflections of a set of dualistic principles that penetrated the cosmos as well as the bodies of men and women. On the contrary, they have been dynamic.

Although the boundaries are shifting and the content of each category may change, the two categories have remained hierarchical and in binary opposition. For Stephen Gould, "the justification for ranking groups by inborn worth has varied with the tide of Western history. Plato relied on dialectic, the church upon dogma. For the past two centuries, scientific claims have become the primary agent of validating Plato's myth. That narrative is about the unwavering elaboration of the body as the site. In the West, so long as the issue is difference and social hierarchy, then the body is constantly positioned, posed, exposed, and reexposed as their cause.

Society, then, is seen as an accurate reflection of genetic endowment those with a superior biology inevitably are those in superior social positions. No difference is elaborated without bodies that are positioned hierarchically. In his book Making Sex,31 Thomas Laqueur gives a richly textured history of the construction of sex from classical Greece to the contemporary period, noting the changes in symbols and the shifts in meanings. The point, however, is the centrality and persistence of the body in the construction of social categories. In view of this history, Freud's dictum that anatomy is destiny was not original or exceptional; he was just more explicit than many of his predecessors.

Social Orders and Biology: Natural or Constructed? The idea that gender is socially constructed that differences between males and female are to be located in social practices, not in biological facts was one important insight that emerged early in second-wave feminist scholarship. This finding was understandably taken to be radical in a culture in which difference, particularly gender difference, had always been articulated as natural and, therefore, biologically determined. Gender as a social construction became the cornerstone of much feminist discourse.

The notion was particularly attractive because it was interpreted to mean that gender differences were not ordained by nature; they were mutable and therefore changeable. This in turn led to the opposition between social constructionism and biological determinism, as if they were mutually exclusive. Such a dichotomous presentation is unwarranted, however, because the ubiquity of biologically rooted explanations for difference in Western social thought and practices is a reflection of the extent to which biological explanations are found compelling.

The Western preoccupation with biology continues to generate constructions of "new biologies" even as some of the old biological assumptions are being dislodged. In fact, in the Western experience, social construction and biological determinism have been two sides of the same coin, since both ideas continue to reinforce each other. When social categories like gender are constructed, new biologies of difference can be invented.

When biological interpretations are found to be compelling, social categories do derive their legitimacy and power from biology. In short, the social and the biological feed on each other. The biologization inherent in the Western articulation of social difference is, however, by no means universal.

The debate in feminism about what roles and which identities are natural and what aspects are constructed only has meaning in a culture where social categories are conceived as having no independent logic of their own. This debate, of course, developed out of certain problems; therefore, it is logical that in societies where such problems do not exist, there should be no such debate.

But then, due to imperialism, this debate has been universalized to other cultures, and its immediate effect is to inject Western problems where such issues originally did not exist.

Even then, this debate does not take us very far in societies where social roles and identities are not conceived to be rooted in biology. By the same token, in cultures where the visual sense is not privileged, and the body is not read as a blueprint of society, invocations of biology are less likely to occur because such explanations do not carry much weight in the social realm. That many categories of difference are socially constructed in the West may well suggest the mutability of categories, but it is also an invitation to endless constructions of biology in that there is no limit to what can be explained by the body-appeal.

Thus biology is hardly mutable; it is much more a combination of the Hydra and the Phoenix of Greek mythology. Biology is forever mutating, not mutable. Ultimately, the most important point is not that gender is socially constructed but the extent to which biology itself is socially constructed and therefore inseparable from the social. The way in which the conceptual categories sex and gender functioned in feminist discourse was based on the assumption that biological and social conceptions could be separated and applied universally. Thus sex was presented as the natural category and gender as the social construction of the natural.

But, subsequently, it became apparent that even sex has elements of construction. In many feminist writings thereafter, sex has served as the base and gender as the superstructure. In Western conceptualization, gender cannot exist without sex since the body sits squarely at the base of both categories. Despite the preeminence of feminist social constructionism, which claims a social deterministic approach to society, biological foundationalism,34 if not reductionism, is still at the center of gender discourses, just as it is at the center of all other discussions of society in the West.

Nevertheless, the idea that gender is socially constructed is significant. In one of the earliest feminist texts to assert the constructionist thesis and its need for cross-cultural grounding, Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna wrote that "by viewing gender as a social construction, it is possible to see descriptions of other cultures as evidence for alternative but equally real conceptions of what it means to be woman or man. These two ideas are contradictory. The universality attributed to gender asymmetry suggests a biological basis rather than a cultural one, given that the human anatomy is universal whereas cultures speak in myriad voices.

That gender is socially constructed is said to mean that the criteria that make up male and female categories vary in different cultures. If this is so, then it challenges the notion that there is a biological imperative at work. From this standpoint, then, gender categories are mutable, and as such, gender then is denaturalized.

In fact, the categorization of women in feminist discourses as a homogeneous, bio-anatomically determined group which is always constituted as powerless and victimized does not reflect the fact that gender relations are social relations and, therefore, historically grounded and culturally bound. If gender is socially constructed, then gender cannot behave in the same way across time and space. Thus, gender, being a social construction, is also a historical and cultural phenomenon.

Consequently, it is logical to assume that in some societies, gender construction need not have existed at all. From a cross-cultural perspective, the significance of this observation is that one cannot assume the social organization of one culture the dominant West included as universal or the interpretations of the experiences of one culture as explaining another one. On the one hand, at a general, global level, the constructedness of gender does suggest its mutability. On the other hand, at the local level that is, within the bounds of any particular culture gender is mutable only if it is socially constructed as such.

Because, in Western societies, gender categories, like all other social categories, are constructed with biological building blocks, their mutability is questionable. The cultural logic of Western social categories is founded on an ideology of biological determinism: the conception that biology provides the rationale for the organization. Thus, as pointed out earlier, this cultural logic is actually a "bio-logic.

The "Sisterarchy": Feminism and Its "Other" From a cross-cultural perspective, the implications of Western bio-logic are far-reaching when one considers the fact that gender constructs in feminist theory originated in the West, where men and women are conceived oppositionally and projected as embodied, genetically derived social categories. This question is raised because despite the wonderful insight about the social construction of gender, the way cross-cultural data have been used by many feminist writers undermines the notion that differing cultures may construct social categories differently.

For one thing, if different cultures necessarily always construct gender as feminism proposes that they do and must, then the idea that gender is socially constructed is not sustainable.

The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses

The potential value of Western feminist social constructionism remains, therefore, largely unfulfilled, because feminism, like most other Western theoretical frameworks for interpreting the social world, cannot get away from the prism of biology that necessarily perceives social hierarchies as natural. Consequently, in cross-cultural gender studies, theorists impose Western categories on non-Western cultures and then project such categories as natural. The way in which dissimilar constructions of the social world in other cultures are used as "evidence" for the constructedness of gender and the insistence that these cross-cultural constructions are gender categories as they operate in the West nullify the alternatives offered by the non-Western cultures and undermine the claim that gender is a social construction.

Western ideas are imposed when non-Western social categories are assimilated into the gender framework that emerged from a specific sociohistorical and philosophical tradition. An example is the "discovery" of what has been labeled "third gender"37 or "alternative genders"38 in a number of non-Western cultures. The fact that the African "woman marriage,"39 the Native American "berdache,"40 and the South Asian "hijra"41 are presented as gender categories incorporates them into the Western bio-logic and gendered framework without explication of their own sociocultural histories and constructions.

A number of questions are pertinent here. Are these social categories seen as gendered in the cultures in question? From whose perspective are. In fact, even the appropriateness of naming them "third gender" is questionable since the Western cultural system, which uses biology to map the social world, precludes the possibility of more than two genders because gender is the elaboration of the perceived sexual dimorphism of the human body into the social realm. The trajectory of feminist discourse in the last twenty-five years has been determined by the Western cultural environment of its founding and development.

Thus, in the beginning of second-wave feminism in Euro-America, sex was defined as the biological facts of male and female bodies, and gender was defined as the social consequences that flowed from these facts. Over time, sex tended to be understood as the base and gender as the superstructure. Subsequently, however, after much debate, even sex was interpreted as socially constructed. Kessler and McKenna, one of the earliest research teams in this area, wrote that they "use gender, rather than sex, even when referring to those aspects of being a woman girl or man boy that have been viewed as biological.

This will serve to emphasize our position that the element of social construction is primary in all aspects of being male or female. Gender ought not to be conceived merely as a cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven surface a juridical conception ; gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. To put this another way: since in Western constructions, physical bodies are always social bodies, there is really no distinction between sex and gender. The bare biological facts of pregnancy and parturition count only in regard to procreation, where they must.

Biological facts do not determine who can become the monarch or who can trade in the market. In indigenous Yoruba conception, these questions were properly social questions, not biological. Consequently, the Yoruba social order requires a different kind of map, not a gender map that assumes biology as the foundation for the social.

These concerns are not necessarily inherent in the discourse of society as such but are a culture-specific concern and issue. From a cross-cultural perspective, the more interesting point is the degree to which feminism, despite its radical local stance, exhibits the same ethnocentric and imperialistic characteristics of the Western discourses it sought to subvert. This has placed serious limitations on its applicability outside of the culture that produced it. As Kathy Ferguson reminds us: "The questions we can ask about the world are enabled, and other questions disabled, by the frame that orders the questioning.

When we are busy arguing about the questions that appear within a certain frame, the frame itself becomes invisible; we become enframed within it. As such, feminism remains enframed by the tunnel vision and the bio-logic of other Western discourses. Yoruba society of southwestern Nigeria suggests a different scenario, one in which the body is not always enlisted as the basis for social classification. From a Yoruba stance, the body appears to have an exaggerated presence in Western thought and social practice, including feminist theories.

In the Yoruba world, particularly in pre-nineteenthcentury49 Oyo culture, society was conceived to be inhabited by people in relation to one another. That is, the "physicality" of maleness or femaleness did not have social antecedents and therefore did not constitute social categories. Social hierarchy was determined by social relations. As noted earlier, how persons were situated in relationships shifted depending on those involved and the particular situation. The principle that determined social organization was seniority, which was based on chronological age.

Yoruba kinship terms did not denote gender, and other nonfamilial social categories were not gender-specific either. What these Yoruba categories tell us is that the body is not always in view. The classic example is the female who played the roles of oba ruler , omo offspring , gkg, aya, tyd mother , and aldivo diviner-priest all in one body. None of these kinship and nonkinship social categories are gender-specific. One cannot place persons in the Yoruba categories just by looking at them.

What they are heard to say may be the most important cue. Seniority as the foundation of Yoruba social intercourse is relational and dynamic; unlike gender, it is not focused on the body. A comparative research framework reveals that one major difference stems from which of the senses is privileged in the apprehension of reality sight in the West and a multiplicity of senses anchored by hearing in Yorubaland.

The tonality of Yoruba language predisposes one toward an apprehension of reality that cannot marginalize the auditory.

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Consequently, relative to Western societies, there is a stronger need for a broader contextualization in order to make sense of the world. A concentration on vision as the primary mode of comprehending reality promotes what can be seen over that which is not apparent to the eye; it misses the other levels and the nuances of existence.

David Lowe's comparison of sight and the sense of hearing encapsulates some of the issues to which I wish to draw attention.


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He writes: Of the five senses, hearing is the most pervasive and penetrating. I say this, although many, from Aristotle in Metaphysics to Hans Jonas in Phenomenon of Life, have said that sight is most noble. But sight is always directed at what is straight ahead And sight cannot turn a corner, at least without the aid of a mirror.

On the other hand, sound comes to one, surrounds one for the time being with an acoustic space, full of timbre and nuances. It is more proximate and suggestive than sight. Sight is always the perception of the surface from a particular angle. But sound is that perception able to penetrate beneath the surface Speech is the communica-. Therefore, the quality of sound is fundamentally more vital and moving than that of sight. In an interesting paper appropriately entitled "The Mind's Eye," feminist theorists Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine Grontkowski make the following observation: "We [Euro-Americans] speak of knowledge as illumination, knowing as seeing, truth as light.

How is it, we might ask, that vision came to seem so apt a model for knowledge? And having accepted it as such, how has the metaphor colored our conceptions of knowledge? They examine the linkages between the privileging of vision and patriarchy, noting that the roots of Western thought in the visual have yielded a dominant male logic. They link the distance that seeing entails to the concept of objectivity and the lack of engagement between the "I" and the subject the Self and the Other. Feminism has not escaped the visual logic of Western thought. The feminist focus on sexual difference, for instance, stems from this legacy.

Feminist theorist Nancy Chodorow has noted the primacy and limitations of this feminist concentration on difference: For our part as feminists, even as we want to eliminate gender inequality, hierarchy, and difference, we expect to find such features in most social settings We have begun from the assumption that gender is always a salient feature of social life, and we do not have theoretical approaches that emphasize sex similarities over differences. I am not suggesting that. Rather, I am suggesting that discussions of social categories should be defined and grounded in the local milieu, rather than based on "universal" findings made in the West.

A number of feminist scholars have questioned the assumption of universal patriarchy. For example, the editors of a volume on Hausa women of northern Nigeria write: "A preconceived assumption of gender asymmetry actually distorts many analyses, since it precludes the exploration of gender as a fundamental component of social relations, inequality, processes of production and reproduction, and ideology. If the investigator assumes gender, then gender categories will be found whether they exist or not.

Feminism is one of the latest Western theoretical fashions to be applied to African societies. Following the one-size-fits-all or better still, the Western-size-fits-all approach to intellectual theorizing, it has taken its place in a long series of Western paradigms including Marxism, functionalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism imposed on African subjects. Academics have become one of the most effective international hegemonizing forces, producing not homogenous social experiences but a homogeny of hegemonic forces. Western theories become tools of hegemony as they are applied universally, on the assumption that Western experiences define the human.

For example, a study of Ga residents of a neighborhood in Accra, Ghana, starts thus: "Improving our analysis of women and class formation is necessary to refine our perceptions. What women? Who qualifies to be women in this cultural setting, and on what bases are they to be identified? These questions are legitimate ones to raise if researchers take the constructedness of social categories seriously and take into account local conceptions of reality. The pitfalls of preconceived notions and ethnocentricity become obvious when the author of the study admits: Another bias I began with I was forced to change.

Before starting fieldwork I was not particularly interested in economics, causal or otherwise. But by the time I had tried an initial presurvey, And when the time came to analyze the data in depth, the most cogent explanations often were economic ones. I started out to work with women; I ended by working with traders. What if she had started with traders? Would she have ended up with women? Beginnings are important; adding other variables in midstream does not prevent or solve distortions and misapprehensions.

Like many studies on Africans, half of Robertson's study seems to have been completed and categories were already in place before she met the Ga people. Robertson's monograph is not atypical in African studies; in fact, it is one of the better ones, particularly because unlike many scholars, she is aware of some of her biases. The fundamental bias that many Westerners, including Robertson, bring to the study of other societies is "body-reasoning," the assumption that biology determines social position.

Because "women" is a body-based category, it tends to be privileged by Western researchers over "traders," which is non-body-based. Even when traders are taken seriously, they are embodied such that the trader category, which in many West African societies is non-genderspecific, is turned into "market women," as if the explanation for their involvement in this occupation is to be found in their breasts, or to put it more scientifically, in the X chromosome. It is not clear that the body is a site of such elaboration of the social in the Ga world-sense or in other African cultures.

This warrants investigation before one can draw conclusions that many studies are drawing on gender in African cultures. Why have African studies remained so dependent on Western theories, and what are the implications for the constitution of knowledge about African realities? Contrary to the most basic tenets of body-reasoning, all kinds of people, irrespective of body-type, are implicated in constructing this biologically deterministic discourse.

Body-reasoning is a cultural approach. Its origins are easily locatable in European thought, but its tentacles have become all pervasive. Western hegemony appears in many different ways in African studies, but the focus here will be on the hand-me-down theories that are used to interpret African societies without any regard to fit or how ragged they have become.

Western Hegemony in African Studies An assessment of African studies as an interdisciplinary field will reveal that it is by and large "reactionary. It does not matter whether any particular scholar is reacting for or against the West; the point is that the West is at the center of. African knowledge-production.

For instance, a whole generation of African historians have reconstructed African history, complete with kings, empires, and even wars, to disprove European claims that Africans are peoples without history. Now, in the closing years of the twentieth century, arguably the hottest debate in African studies is whether Africans had philosophy before European contact or whether Africans are best described as "philosophyless" peoples. Whether the discussion focuses on history or historylessness, on having a state or being stateless, it is clear that the West is the norm against which Africans continue to be measured by others and often by themselves.

The questions that inform research are developed in the West, and the operative theories and concepts are derived from Western experiences. African experiences rarely inform theory in any field of study; at best such experiences are exceptionalized. Consequently, African studies continues to be "Westocentric," a term that reaches beyond "Eurocentric" to include North America. The presence of Africans in the academy is important in and of itself and has made possible some important changes.

However, it has not brought about fundamental changes despite the sociology-of-knowledge thesis and the politics of identity. But what accounts for the persistent Westocentricity of a lot of African scholarship? This question is posed against the background of a debate among African scholars about the inability of many studies conducted by Africans to grapple with the real issues facing African countries.

A number of African thinkers have tried to explain why many studies conducted by Africans fail to deal with those issues. The argument has been put forward that many writings by Africans are too focused on exhibiting Africa as different from Europe, instead of dealing with those real issues. Africa is undoubtedly in the midst of a crisis of global proportions, and this fact has lent an urgency to self-examination by African intellectuals. I shall call one group of scholars the antinativists69 because of their very critical stance toward any espousals of an African culture.

The other group, who entertain a notion of an African way of being, are referred to as nativist70 in their orientation. For the antinativist, the problem of the avoidance of central issues stems from the fact that many African thinkers are cultural nationalists; the charge is that these thinkers are. The antinativists argue further that the nativists set themselves apart from the West in order to shore up their self-esteem. Literary critic Abiola Irele sums up this antinativist viewpoint very well: The whole movement in modern African thought has been to define this identity African id, located in traditional culture.

The intellectual reaction to our humiliation under the colonial system and to our devaluation has consisted in affirming our difference from the white man, the European. This conscious effort of differentiation has produced the well-known ideologies of African personality and negritude. In Senghor's formulation of the latter, the idea of the African identity takes the form of an irreducible essence of the race whose objective correlative is the traditional culture.

Wiredu argues that the African subject challenges Western assumptions of metaphysics, epistemology and subjectivity in so far as, in Africa, the subject is understood to be ontologically and metaphysically dependent on its being in relations with others. Rather than the subject pre-existing relationships as complete and fully coherent autonomous entity, Wiredu shows throughout his work how human capacities and personhood emerge from and through relationships and socialising processes with other humans and the environment.

To make this point Wiredu refers to Alexis Kagame, the famous Rwandan philosopher, metaphysician and linguist, who writes that:. Thus the utterance [ Accordingly, Wiredu and Kagame argue the cartesian dualistic self, which sits at the basis of the dominant modern Western view of the subject, to be wholly inapplicable to the African context. According to them, existence cannot be conceived of abstractly in the absence of concrete relations to the environment and other persons. Contrasting this to the axiom of Descartes reveals a key difference in understanding of subjectivity in African and Western thought.

According to Mbiti the essence of subjectivity in African cultures and thought is the capacity to enter into concrete relations with others, rather than having a disembodied rational mind. Existence is thought with and through material otherness rather than against or beyond it. For Eze, a Nigerian anthropologist, the defining characteristic of personhood is to be in a dialogical relationship with others within a community Eze, , p. Subjectivity is in part constituted by other persons with whom the subject shares the social world and that social world is constituted by shared social intercourse Eze, , p.

Similarly, Ifeanyi Menkiti, Nigerian poet and philosopher, writes that it is the community that defines the person as a person rather than an isolated quality like rationality or will Ifeanyi, , p. Accordingly, the African communal subject is defined with reference to its embodied existence and interaction with other subjects. Subjectivity is always intersubjectivity. This means also that, unlike the modern Western subject who is supposedly autonomous, singular and insulated in so far as its true and unchanging existence sits outside the body, the subject of African communalism is embodied, exposed, socially dependent and inherently fluid because it is continuously re constituted in dynamic relations with other concrete others.

In this sense the self is open-ended and vulnerable, rather than clearly delineated, closed off, fixed and autonomous. Murungi emphasises the fluidity of the relational subject. What the subject is, is therefore never complete or final, it is determined through continuous mutual engagement with others. Subjectivity is therefore always provisional, and it is a communal and never ending endeavour in so far as it is continuously forged in dialogue with others.

Nigerian feminist scholar Amina Mama summarises the core of this relational ontology very well when she writes:. There is no word for "identity" in any of the African languages with which I can claim any degree of familiarity. Perhaps there is good reason for this. In English the word "identity" implies a singular, individual subject with clear ego boundaries.

In Africa, if I were to generalise, ask a person who her or she is and a name will be followed by a qualifier, a communal term that will indicate ethnic or clan origins Mama, , p. She also writes that not only is there no all-encompassing concept for identity in big parts of Africa, but the kind of singularity that the term seemed to require is not attainable in African contexts where personhood constituted within communities Mama, , p. She argues that "identity [or subjectivity] is at best a gross simplification of self-hood, a denial and negation of the complexity and multiplicity at the roots of most African communities" Mama, , p.

Mama thus emphasises the multiplicity, fluidity and relationality of subjectivity in African thought and cultures. She contrasts this to the singularity and stability of the Western subject. In terms of this framework, subjectivity is rooted in exchange between concrete persons and is therefore not given or predetermined. She writes:. The upshot of this [Western] cultural logic is that men and women are perceived as essentially different creatures.

Each category is defined by its own essence. With this I interpret her to mean that seniority is determined in interaction with others in so far as one can be the oldest in one context while the youngest in another while gender she reads to be a pre-established and essentialist notion that clings to individual identity individual identity being a contradiction in terms in relational African thinking. This seniority-based organization is dynamic, fluid, and egalitarian in that all members of the lineage have the opportunity to be senior or junior depending on the situation.

The seniority-based categories are relational and do not draw attention to the body. Although there is hierarchy involved, the hierarchy is always provisional, never permanent. Persons are different things in relation to different people, so that every person is many things. Rather, it is rooted in a different construction of the subject. In her latest book What Gender is Motherhood?

Accordingly, the subject is not singular and unified, and the subject does not have clear boundaries that separate it from what is other. Otherness is not understood as antithetical to the self, but part of the self because the self exists primarily in relation to the m other. Accordingly, Nzegwu argues the intersubjective and interrelational mother-child relationship to be the model for relationships among all persons. The communal ontology and ethics of the Igbo people are then rooted in the notion of motherhood.

This implies that the radical acknowledgement of the bond with the mother creates a certain kind of subject that does not view itself as an autonomous individual, but as an inherently dependent and interrelational one. This is in contrast to the dominant notion of the universal subject of modern Western philosophy and thought, which feminism has unmasked as implicitly masculine, and defined in opposition to the feminine and material this is a crucial theme that runs through the work of Western feminist scholars like Simone De Beauvoir, Irigaray, Christine Battersby and Adriana Cavarero among others.

Accordingly, on a metaphysical level, the subject does not exist singularly, but always in connection with the other. It is about understanding the self as always already and inevitably being in relation to others so that that the advancement of the well-being of the community as a whole, is central to the advancement of the well-being of the self and vice versa.

Third, it helps to bridge the disciplinary rift between African feminist thought and African philosophy. In what follows I discuss these implications. Inherent to the alternative gender dynamics she is asserting, is a radically different construction of the subject. However, if you approach the same reality through the relational lens of African philosophy, a much more fluid picture emerges, one that is not compatible or commensurate with a rigid scheme of gender binaries.

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In this way it shows the key strategic relevance of the way in which she separates Africa and the West in her analysis — as an attempt to highlight and resist the epistemic erasure of African realities. Importantly, I do not mean to deny the fact that feminisms sometimes do operate in a recolonising way in Africa by relying on exclusively Western paradigms. Argentinian feminist philosopher Maria Lugones , argues that the categories of man and woman, where man is an active subject of reason and woman is his passive, material negative, are creations of colonial modernity that were and still are imposed on the realities of the colonised.

Her work shows that indigenous African thought and cultures can be fundamentally congruent with certain forms of gender equivalence. In so far as the self is understood as an extended self that exists in connection with the m other, a self that does not exist in exclusion of the other, but through the other, sexual difference is freed from the hierarchical and dichotomous logic that results in the exclusion, subjugation and marginalisation of femininity that is historically dominant in the colonial Western gender system and in the construction of modern Western subjectivity.

It shows that African feminist thought could contribute in significant ways to develop African philosophy and addressing some of its weak spots. A major example here is the implicit masculinity of subjectivity as it is theorised in African philosophy. Musa W. They explain this as follows:. What they have apparently achieved is to conceptualise what it means to be an African man while ignoring what it means to be an African woman.

The masculine represents the subject while the feminine is the other. In contrast to this, Oyowe, Yurkivska and Dube are highlighting the way in which, implicit to African philosophy, there is a rigid gender dichotomy in terms of which the feminine is subsumed by the masculine. Her work shows that the relational subject is not singular, but plural in the sense that it also contains the other or exists in connection and in exchange with the m other. In this framework, subjectivity cannot be understood as singularly and immutably masculine in exclusion of that which is other.

Her work therefore suggests that the relational subject of African philosophy should be explicitly reframed and theorised to reflect the gender multiplicity, fluidity and equivalence that relationality implies. It was seen that many African philosophers assert, in different ways and with regard to many different African cultures, the existence of a fluid, relational and non-dichotomous subjectivity where identity is not constituted in opposition to that which is other, but in relation to otherness. Rather, woman as an inherently inferior being, with a determined and static gender and sexual position and defined in opposition to and as negative to man, did not exist.

She therefore presents an order in which gender cannot exist in the same way as it does in the Western symbolic order. On this basis I use these terms interchangeably in this article. An obvious example of this is how the practice of female circumcision is vehemently defended and upheld in many parts of Africa in the name of protecting culture. However, importantly, feminist voices remain marginal to most African intellectual contexts and completely absent from others, most notably philosophy.

See also Mignolo, African philosophy, although rather young, constitutes a vast and diverse body of work, and deals with thought emerging from countless different cultural groupings and histories. For every point I make it is thus probably possible to find an African philosopher who asserts the opposite. However, that said, I do think African philosophies of communality or relationality are characterised by certain overarching trends and themes that mark some central differences between this body of thought and traditional Western philosophy.

However, to describe the Western philosophical subject like this, also constitutes a generalisation. It can be said that both Descartes and Kant theorised the subject in more nuanced terms than what they are often credited for in the philosophical tradition. Moreover, this view of the subject as disembodied thinking substance has recently been subjected to extensive criticism within the Western philosophical tradition, starting with Husserl, Nietsche and Heidegger and culminating in the work of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.

Raymond Wacks. Marshall Sahlins. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. On Human Rights. James Griffin. Sex and Social Justice. Martha C. Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament. Thomas Nagel. Can the Subaltern Speak? Rosalind Morris. Feminists Theorize the Political.

Judith Butler. Michael Jackson. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Sam O.


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