I pick up a hardening of attitudes, and I pick up racism. And I think, more than anything else, the book (Gift of Tongues) is a plea – we have to start imagining ourselves the other. (Antjie Krog, Mail and Guardian, October 3-9, 2003) For at least the last two-and-a-half decades, critical theory in the humanities and social sciences has been concerned, amongst other things, with exploding the myths and fictions of nationalist thought. Instead of the coherence of the “imagined communities,” or even – poststructurally – the unity of the individual subject, it emphasises the multiple, shifting, fragmented and often contradictory modes of identification that characterise what are referred to variously as the “postmodern,” “postcolonial,” or, more controversially, “posthistorical” or “postideological” conditions of the contemporary world. Yet recent history, specifically the decade following the end of the Cold War, has seen a burgeoning of nationalist sentiments and struggles, and numerous bloody wars have been fought over inclusive and exclusive conceptions of identity. In less violent, although no less compelling ways, countries such as South Africa, which have only recently abolished legislated racism and division, have struggled with the competing demands of difference and unity as they seek to reconstruct themselves in more humane and equitable ways. Far from disappearing, arguments about national belonging and cultural difference have had increased prominence in the 1990’s.[1]

One of postmodernism’s most profound impacts is to be found in notions of how identities are constructed. It is simply not acceptable any more, it would seem, to speak of essentialist identities, by which I mean identities that are not ascribed, acquired, or assumed but are to do with inheritance, nationality, and culture. The idea of autochthonous identities, that is identities that are “vertically rooted, like home-grown plants in soil, in a body corporate,” are associated with racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, while identities based on citizenship and “deep horizontal fraternity” are associated with democracy, freedom, and equality. The “unity of the individual subject” has been replaced by “multiple, shifting, fragmented, and often contradictory, modes of identification.”[2] The question must be asked, therefore, why it is that since the end of the Cold War there has been a “burgeoning of nationalist sentiment” and “bloody wars are being fought globally over inclusive and exclusive conceptions of identity.” These include not only the wars associated with the collapse of the old Soviet Union but also wars of ethnicity in Africa, as well as those associated with the “Clash of Civilizations” and the so-called “War on Terror.” These conflicts not only contradict the idea that the post-modern world has gone beyond nationalism but also indicate that there is a profound human need to assert identity when it is perceived to be threatened or ignored. I wish to argue in this essay that the missing ingredient in post-modern constructions of identity lies in the need to recognize the radical otherness of the Other, that there needs to be a “crisis of alterity” that evokes this recognition, and that if this does not happen we will operate under the illusion that the Other is included in our discourses of the Self when, in fact, we have been “tricked” into thinking this. (Assmann in Budick 1996:4)[3] We need, in Sartrean terms, to rediscover the shock of the Other’s gaze. The tendency to emphasize sameness of identity, or a multiplicity of identities or fragmented identities, vitiates the crisis of alterity and in so doing fails to give people the space to assert difference. But in this something far more fundamental is also ignored – that is the necessity of otherness in our understanding of the self and of our understanding of the world around us. I wish therefore to explore a little further the notion that the distinction between the Self and the Other is a fundamental category not only in our construction of identity but in our construction of reality. I will do this by revisiting different theories that have been put forward that describe the relationship between the Self and the Other in the social construction of reality and then describe how these have been used to describe the encounter between the Self and the Other in the South African context.

Revisiting the Other in the social construction of reality

Three schools of thought seem relevant to the discussion of identity and the Other – the “empiricist”[4] school of Pierre Bourdieu, the “Common-Sense” school of Alfred Schutz and Peter Berger, and the Existentialist school of Jean-Paul Sartre. I will describe Bourdieu’s theory as supporting the notion of “shifting” identities, Shutz’s as supporting the notion of “fixed” identities, and Sartre’s as supporting the notion of “shocked” identities.

The Empiricist School and “shifting” identities

Bourdieu appropriates from Aristotle the idea of the “habitus.” He is interested in the process of how “things” existing outside the self become “inculcated” into the self. Once “things” have got into the mind they become part of a realm of ideas, rules, values, practices, dispositions, and attitudes which he calls the “habitus.” For Bourdieu the world is “in” the individual in the form of the habitus which acts as a set of dispositions that incline agents to act and react in certain ways. The habitus generates “practices, perceptions, and attitudes which are ‘regular’ without being consciously co-ordinated or governed by any ‘rule.’” (1991:12) While it is the repository of cultural values, the habitus also enables us to improvise, compromise, negotiate, and adapt to different cultural situations. Rather than having stable identities people can “make do” with whatever is at hand from the repertoire of dispositions within the habitus. “Like ‘being’ according to Aristotle, the social world can be uttered and constructed in different ways ….in accordance with different principles of vision and division…” (1991:232) The habitus is constituted, therefore, in the nexus of encounter and practice. “It is always ‘of the moment,’ brought out when a set of dispositions meets a particular problem, choice or context.” (2002:38) The subconscious nature of the habitus means that social rules, laws, systems, structures, and categories of meaning can only function effectively when they submerge into the habitus. The habitus, moreover, makes a “virtue of necessity,” refuses what is anyway already denied, and “wills the inevitable.” (2002:42) Foundational to this analysis is an agonistic understanding of society in which self-interest and internal competition between protagonists are essential features. While he has reservations about some aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Bourdieu borrows from him the belief that action motivated by self-interest and the will to power are crucial in the creation of society. It is the desire for power, the need for control of capital, which ultimately determines what becomes “insinuated” or “inculcated” into the habitus and what doesn’t. The contestation that takes place in the encounter is around various forms of capital, both cultural and symbolic, as well as economic. Cultural capital is to do with things such as knowledge and skills, symbolic capital is to do with accumulated prestige and honour. In Bourdieu’s schema, while he does not deny the existence of group identity, the emphasis is more on individuals contesting space in order to gain capital and convert it in ways that will be beneficial to them in the wider society. The Other exists not as a social entity with a different culture or way of seeing things but as repository of potential “capital” – economic, cultural, or symbolic, which could become part of the repertoire of one’s own habitus. So encounter with the Other is both “transaction” and contest, the end result of which is the hegemonic appropriation of symbolic and cultural capital. In their two volume work describing the missionary encounter with the Tswana people John and Jean Comaroff demonstrate that they are classic exponents of Bourdieu’s model.[5] The following description is a good example of this.

In the long conversation between the colonizers and the colonized – a conversation full of arguments of words and images – many of the signifiers of the colonizing culture became unfixed. They were seized by the Africans and, sometimes refashioned, put to symbolic and practical ends previously unforeseen, certainly unintended. Conversely, some of the ways of the Africans interpolated themselves, again detached and transformed, into the habitus of the missionaries. Here, then, was a process in which signifiers were set afloat, fought over, and recaptured on both sides of the colonial encounter. (1991:17)

The Comaroffs have clearly appropriated Bourdieu’s schema here to describe their version of the encounter between the missionaries and the Tswana. The “bricolage” that makes up the reality of the protagonists in the encounter means that “signifiers” at the interface of the two cultures can become unfixed, set afloat, and recaptured on both sides of the encounter. Bourdieu’s theory allows for constant negotiation between the Self and the Other. The identity of the Self is never fixed, it is always shifting, there is constant “give and take,” the end result of which is the accumulation of capital in the habitus both of the Self and the Other. Although the relationship between the Self and the Other is essentially competitive the fact that there is constantly the exchange of “cultural capital” taking place between them – an exchange that is “unconsciously coordinated,” “of the moment” and that “makes a virtue of necessity” – means that there is little conscious recognition by the Self of the Other in this process. In the continual, but subliminal, negotiation that is taking place there is recognition not of identity but of commodity. The Other has things that the Self wants. In this way, theoretically, the habitus of each of the protagonists inculcates aspects of the other’s identity. The colonial project, in other words, is not about the subjugation of the colonial object by the colonial subject. It is about a mutual exchange of goods in which both subject and object become empowered. While control is the ultimate intent of both the protagonists the fact that it is mutual presupposes that there is symmetry of power between the two sides. In this way the inherent violence of the colonial project is vitiated. And the idea that there was some kind of mutualist exchange of identity between the conqueror and the conquered in the history of colonialism suggests that the colonizer’s intent was not to extract resources and impart “civilization” – which it clearly was.[6] The history of the modern encounter between the Self and the Other is part of a trajectory that has an antecedent in slavery, then passes through colonialism, and ultimately finds its current expression in what has been called neo-colonialism or, for want of a better word, globalization. Bourdieu’s thesis, couched as it is in the language of commodity capitalism, lends itself appropriately as a tool for analysis in the globalized world, on the proviso, once more, that the traffic is seen to be fairly uni-directional. Both the incitements and the values of western consumerism have been exported to the whole world. The signifiers, in the words of John and Jean Comaroff, of the capitalist world have become detached from their original moorings in the colonizing culture and “seized by the Africans and, sometimes refashioned, put to symbolic and practical ends previously unforeseen, certainly unintended.” In the habitus of the newly colonized culture they frequently take on a kind of extreme fetishism. In modern South Africa, for example, people have been known to kill to possess a cell phone. The consequence of the deluge of such goods and their advertisements in the two-thirds world are twofold. The first is associated with what I would like to call the syndrome of acceptance and the second with the syndrome of rejection. Acceptance, wholeheartedly, of the consumer culture, elicits an enormous pressure to gain the goods. This pressure is brought to bear on the have-nots, who have to witness the all too visible successful accumulation of these goods by the haves or the new capitalist elite. When this is exacerbated by the inability through poverty and disadvantage to accumulate them through normal and legitimate means, a number of anti-social and dangerous kinds of behaviour ensue. These are mainly crime, witchcraft, and the commodification of sex. One South African scholar has coined the phrase the “eroticisation of liberation” and the eroticization of consumerism. “Sex has become a sphere – perhaps even pre-eminently the sphere,” she says, “within which newfound freedoms are vigorously asserted.” Both political and consumer freedom are associated with sexual freedom. Sex and sexuality are now democratic rights, as are cell-phones, designer clothes, and flashy cars.[7]With respect to witchcraft a recent major study in South Africa suggests that there has been a sharp rise in the phenomenon in places such as Soweto.[8] This is the consequence of a condition the author of this study calls “spiritual insecurity.” There are a multiplicity of factors that make up such a condition, but they all relate back to the incentives and incitements of consumerism. The presence of goods but their accessibility only to the few gives rise to the root problem of witchcraft in Africa – “social jealousy.” Social jealousy works through particular close knit relationships. It is expressed in resentment, based in envy, and caused by a non-fulfilment of desire premised on the false notion that the person envied is the cause of privation. Such jealousy is usually assumed in the intimate networks of human relationships, wherever they occur. Bourdieu’s habitus, used by the Comaroff’s to understand the relationship between the Self and the Other in the early colonial encounters, thus takes on new significance in an African township, in a new democracy attempting to become a full member of the neo-liberal global economy. What I have called the syndrome of acceptance of the economic imperialism of the west has its counterpart in the syndrome of rejection. However this is more evident in the context not of shifting identities but fixed identities, to which I now turn my attention.

The Common Sense School and “fixed” identities

If for Bourdieu the relationship between the Self and the Other is to do with the accumulation of capital for Shutz and Berger it is to do with the construction of meaning. There are two processes, according to Schutz, that are fundamental in the Common-Sense interpretation of human action: experience or sense impressions and the construction of hypothetical structures that make sense of them. All our knowledge of the world revolves essentially around interpreting our experiences by constructing abstractions, generalizations, formalizations, idealizations.[9] According to Schutz there are no such things as facts as all “facts” are “selected from a universal context by the activities of our mind.” In other words they are continually being interpreted by the framework that we have constructed for the purpose of understanding our reality. In this way our everyday experiences become ordered within a horizon of familiarity and “pre-acquaintanceship.” Those that share the same horizon as mine and the same space which I occupy become part of the same common-sense world, and ultimately symbolic universe, that I am part of. These become what Schutz calls “consociates.” There is a “reciprocity of perspectives” between myself and my consociates which means that I am able to put myself in the shoes, as it were, of others who share my common-sense world because we construct and interpret the world in the same way. There is thus an interchangeability of standpoints between consociates. Reciprocity of perspectives means that “common” knowledge may be conceived of as objective and anonymous, that it is “detached from and independent of my and my fellow-man’s definition of the situation.” This process enables me to be “objective” and “rational,” bearing in mind that these are relative terms that I can share only with those who share my system of relevance within the context of the life that we (that is myself and the members of my “in-group”) understand to be the natural, good, right and “obvious” way of life. Berger and Luckmann build on Schutz’s ideas but introduce the crucial dimension of experience of the Other in the socially constructed reality.[10] Every day face to face experiences, they say, are constantly being subjected to a process of objectification, sedimentation and accumulation which roughly means that everyday experiences are detached from their contexts in the form of symbols and become part of the stock of knowledge of the culture. It is a process whereby meaning or sense is constructed from the apparent “non” sense of everyday reality. It results in the construction of a symbolic universe that serves as “the matrix of all socially objectivated and subjectively real meanings; the entire historic society and the entire biography of the individual are seen as events taking place within this universe.” The symbolic world has not only to be constructed, it has also to be maintained, or serviced, to make sure that it still “works,” that it still can be used to explain, predict, and control a perennial tendency towards chaos or meaninglessness. Berger graphically describes how this symbolic universe is applied in the spatial locations of everyday life. My “here” is your “there”; your “there” is my “here.” What is important is that the experiences occurring in the immediate space around me are ordered and meaningful. Unusual behaviour by colleagues at work, for example, will be explained in terms that are familiar to me. If they cannot be explained then my colleagues will be deemed to have gone “mad” in some way. Alternatively I might have gone mad in which case my symbolic universe is in a state of serious disrepair. A similar, and just as shocking a possibility, is when I encounter an “other” understanding of reality, quite different from my own but by all accounts very effective in that its power to explain, predict, and control reality appears as good, if not better, than my own. Such occasions, Berger argues, usually call not so much for an overhaul of my own symbolic universe as an (irrational) assertion of the superiority of mine over that of the other. So intimately intertwined has the symbolic construction of my universe become with my very identity that my survival, in some strange way, has become dependent on its continued existence. This is because along with the construction of the world there is the construction of the self. “The processes that internalise the socially objectivated world are the same processes that internalise the socially assigned identities.” (1969:16). Thus the data of the individual’s objective world become the data of his or her own consciousness and the “institutional programmes set up by the society are subjectively real as attitudes, motives, and life projects.” (1969:17) In other words the identity of the individual is embedded in the symbolic universe – built into this universe in the process of construction. It is therefore no wonder, within this schema, that the symbolic universe needs to be maintained, legitimated, and even sacralized (which for Berger is the role of religion) and threats to destroy it will be greeted with profound alarm. In such circumstances, argues Berger, initial encounters with those who understand the world differently would be to convert them to my understanding. Failing this, however, the next reaction would be to turn to violence – in other words the forced assertion of my symbolic universe over that of the Other’s. Berger describes this as “nihilation” or, simply, the denial of the validity of anything outside one’s own symbolic universe and the assignment of it to an inferior ontological status.[11] Just as Bourdieu’s ideas have been appropriated by scholars attempting to interpret the encounter between the Self and the Other in South African history so have those of Schutz and Berger. The encounter between the Xhosa and the British in the nineteenth century has been described as a “collision of universes.”[12] The Newtonian cosmology of early nineteenth century Europe meant not only the belief in an ordered physical universe obedient to mechanistic laws under the control of an omnipotent God but that this natural order included a hierarchy of racial ranking with Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom. The symbolic universe of the Xhosa, on the other hand, was based, among other things, on an indivisible continuity between the spiritual and physical worlds and the necessity to constantly negotiate power relations between the forces operant in this (monistic) universe. Encounter between these universes, according to Ashley, classically followed the route outlined by Berger – that is the need to demonstrate the superiority of one symbolic universe over the other and the consequent steps towards “nihilation” of the side that did not have the capacity, particularly in the military sense, to enforce their view. Ashley’s example is the encounter between the Xhosa and the British in the Eastern Cape in the latter part of the 19th century, which was particularly violent. This violent encounter reached a denouement in the Great Cattle Killing of the 1860’s. This outrageous event is probably the greatest tragedy ever to occur in South African history and continues to reverberate into contemporary history. The ancestors allegedly spoke to a young prophetess by the name of Nongqawuse and told her that the only way that her people would get rid of the British was to kill all the cattle. The ancestors would then rise from the dead and chase the British into the sea. The veracity of this revelation has been the cause of much debate and controversy.ef12″>[12] What is clear is that the revelation was influenced by the Christian message of the resurrection which was mixed with African belief in the ancestors. “Internal and external pressure
s fused the Christian, traditional and personal elements …. into a comprehensive cosmological synthesis.”(1989:71) This, in turn, arose out of the shocking realization that an “other” understanding of reality had been encountered with the arrival of the British, that this understanding was as equally valid to that of the Xhosa’s, and that drastic action had to be taken to re-establish the structures of normality. The rest is history.[14] The term “collision of universes” used by Ashley to describe the encounter between the British and the Xhosa in the 19th century resonates rather well with the phrase “clash of civilizations” used by Samuel Huntington to describe the contemporary encounter between “fundamentalist” Islam and the West. Both involve the confrontation with another society having a greatly different history, both involve the conception of an “other” universe that “must be met with the best possible reasons for the superiority of one’s own” and both involve “a threat because (their) very existence demonstrates empirically that one’s own universe is less than inevitable.” The resonances between these two scenarios, one contemporary and one 150 years ago, go even further. There is an ominous resemblance between the self destruction of the Great Cattle Killing of the Xhosa in 1865 because of the presence of the British and the self destruction of the suicide bombers who hurl themselves onto the oncoming juggernaut of a culture that they believe is annihilating their identity. Nongqawuse, that young Xhosa prophetess of the nineteenth century, has her counterpart in the scores of suicide bombers who are queuing up for martyrdom. Just as she, with her people, stood helpless in the presence of the behemoth of the British army, so too do they stand helpless in the presence of the behemoth of United States power, represented so intensely in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. It is this helplessness of the Self in the presence of the Other that Sartre draws our attention to in his construction of the encounter, to which I now turn.

The Existentialist School and “shocked” identities

Sartre is not interested in the mechanisms of knowledge construction and the role that the Other might play in such a construction. He goes straight to the existential encounter between the Self and the Other and describes what happens. He depicts this encounter as taking place in a park. The objects that occupy the space in the park are of little significance before the Other enters because they constituted the unseen, the usual, and the everyday. On the entrance of the Other, however, “there is a … regrouping of all the objects which people my universe.” This means, in Sartre’s terms, that the things that occupy this space must now be seen in relation to the Other. The very proximity of the Other – both potential and real – means an entire re-orientation, re-structuring, of the symbolic universe.

This regrouping does not stop there. The grass is something qualified; it is this green grass which exists for the Other; in this sense the very quality of the object, its deep, raw green is in direct relation to this man. This green turns toward the Other an aspect which escapes me. I apprehend the relation of the green to the Other as an objective relation, but I cannot apprehend the green as it appears to the Other. Thus, suddenly an object has appeared which has stolen the world from me. Everything is in place; everything still exists for me; but everything is traversed by an invisible flight and congealed in the direction of a new object. The appearance of the Other in the world corresponds…to a congealed sliding of the whole universe, to a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting. (1965:192)

The crucial observation that Sartre makes here is also profoundly simple – that “I cannot apprehend the green as it appears to the Other.” This simple fact means that the green is no longer mine alone. That it belongs to someone else in a way that it cannot belong to me. This means that there is a part of the world that is “stolen” from me. But the implication too is that I am no longer centre of the universe. That the world belongs also to another. This might have the effect of me attempting violently to take it back, or it may have the effect of me attempting to understand how it is that the other sees the green, which means being willing to share the world. This latter possibility implies, however, that there occurs also an examination of the Self. The net result may thus be that the recognition of the existence of the Other means a new recognition of the Self. Seeing the Other means to be seen by the Other which makes me immediately aware “that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I cannot in any case escape from the space in which I am without defence – in short, that I am seen.”[15] (1965:196) The potency of the Sartrean account of the encounter between the Self and the Other lies in the space that it provides for the self-discovery of the Self. Theoretically, the degree of potential self-discovery is directly proportional to the degree of the “otherness” of the Other. But this self-discovery is predicated on several things. First a realization that mutuality is an illusion, secondly a realization that the Self is unable to perceive the situation as the Other perceives it, thirdly the realization of the “congealed sliding of the whole universe” in the direction of the Other and thus the decentralization of the position of the Self and the experience of vulnerability, which is concomitant with the “standing up” of the gagged Other. One of the most powerful depictions of an “original” encounter between the colonizer and the colonized has come from a well-known South African novelist – the Nobel prize winning author J.M. Coetzee. The following description is found in his novel Dusklands.

Thus we approached each other. We could make out their number, twenty, one riding an ox. All were men …. They carried spears. It was a long time since I had seen a Hottentot with a spear. They made no warlike sign, neither did we. On the contrary, we rode out peacefully to meet each other, as pretty a sight as you could wish, two little bands of men under a sun only a few degrees above the horizon, and the mountains blue behind us. When we came near enough to make out each other’s faces I held up my hand and the wagon stopped. The Hottentots stopped too, the mounted man in the middle, the others shuffling up in a cluster around him. I should doubtless interpolate here something about man in his wild state. Let me only say that the wild Hottentots stood or sat with an assurance pleasing to the eye. A Hottentot gains much by contact with civilization but one cannot deny that he also loses something. In body he is not an impressive creature. He is short and yellow, he wrinkles early, his face has little animation, his belly is slack. Put him in Christian clothes and he begins to cringe, his shoulders bend, his eyes shift, he cannot keep still in our presence but must incessantly twitch. No longer can you get a truthful answer to a simple question, his only study is in how to placate you, and that means little more than telling you what he thinks you want to hear. … Whereas a wild Hottentot, the kind of Hottentot that met us that day, one who has lived all his life in a state of nature, has his Hottentot integrity. He sits straight, he stands straight, he looks you in the eye. It is a pretty thing to see, the confidence, for a change, for one who has moved so long among the cunning and the cowardly, though based on an illusion of course, a delusion of strength, of equivalence. There they stood before us in a clump, twenty of them gazing at the six of us; there we stood before them, three muskets, mine loaded with swan-shot, the others’ with ball; they secure in their delusion, we in our strength. So we could look at each other like men, for the last time. They had never seen a white man.[16]

In this imaginary account of an original encounter between the colonial subject and the colonized object Coetzee lets us know in no uncertain terms that he views the former to be in complete control. This is communicated primarily through the fact that it is only the colonizer’s voice that Coetzee allows us to hear, and we seem to hear it interminably. But our attention is also consciously drawn to the loaded musket of the European, as opposed to the spear, quaintly viewed, of the Hottentot. But the most disturbing aspect of the encounter is the chief protagonist’s philosophical reflections that are taking place throughout the entire episode. Equivalence is mooted as a possibility, even a desirable possibility, but one that will never be realized. The delusion, of course, is with the Hottentot, not with himself. Which means he thinks he is able, supreme power that he has, even to understand what is going on in the Hottentot’s mind. The fact that he is able to reflect thus on the possibilities of equality makes the colonizer, in Coetzee’s view, totally culpable. Having acknowledged equivalence as a superior and desirable outcome of the encounter he will then knowingly proceed to emasculate the Hottentot and reduce him to one of the domesticated “specimens” that he already has in his party. One might ask why it is that this depiction has been chosen as an example of a Sartrean encounter between the Self and the Other. Quite clearly it is not such an encounter. But it is nevertheless highly reminiscent of the Sartrean encounter. The setting is not a park but it is an open field in which the protagonists “approached each other;” “came near enough to make out each others’ faces,” and gazed at each other, like men, “for the last time.” This phrase “for the last time” means that the Sartrean gaze never happened, for the Hottentot’s gag was never removed. When reading Coetzee’s account we long for the gag, which Sartre says was placed on the mouths of Africans by the Europeans, to be removed from the Hottentot. We long for him to speak, but all we are subjected to is the drone of the voice of the colonizer. It is as though Coetzee is tantalizing us with the possibility of the gaze that will elicit the shock, with all of its self-revealing consequences. But he does not remove the gag and therefore the Hottentot does not “raise himself up again,” we never see him “standing, looking at us” and we never “feel the shock of having been seen.” Instead, the encounter is kept on the level of the utterly banal and we are forced to live only with what might have been, and not what is. Theoretically, nineteenth century Europeans knew little of themselves, because all they knew was nineteenth century Europe, until they stepped onto the shores of Africa and other countries of the South and encountered the Other. When they did this the potential for their self-discovery increased exponentially. Arguably all of the above pre-requisites have been fulfilled to one degree or another and the colonial powers of the nineteenth century – Britain and the European countries – have eventually undergone something of a self-discovery as a result of their colonial exploits, though in the process entire civilizations and cultures have been destroyed. However if the North is to be characterized as the Self and the South as the Other it is clear that the Self continues to be hegemonic. What is more disturbing, however, is the fact the chief protagonist in the post 911 phase of neo-colonialism – the United States – seems to be completely impervious to self-discovery. Certainly there is no mutuality between the US and most of the rest of the world, but more especially Islam, secondly there seems to be neither willingness nor ability to perceive reality as the Other perceives it, thirdly there is quite clearly no diminution in the hegemonic intent of the present United States government to maintain central status globally, and fourthly they are impervious to the voice of the Other, who thus remains gagged. Under such circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that violence is perceived to be the only option of the Other.


I have attempted in this essay to unpack notions of identity construction that are linked with the relationship between the Self and the Other. The post-modern idea of “soft” notions of identity – that is flexible and constantly changing identities – does not account for the strenuous and usually violent attempts in the post-colonized world and since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall to assert national, ethnic, and religious identities. In the dynamics of the encounter between the Self and the Other we discover different modes of identity construction. One mode, that of Bourdieu and his followers, leads to an emphasis on shifting identities, another, that of Schutz and his followers, leads to emphasizing fixed identities, and another, that of Sartre and his followers, to shocked identities. The characterizations are only important in that they are premised on the relationship between the Self and the Other. And it is this relationship and how it played out during the 19th century on the African continent and how it is currently playing out in the post 911 world that forms the nub of this essay. I have located it in the historical trajectory that started with slavery, passed through colonialism and is currently in a phase of globalization under the hegemony of the United States. I have attempted to show that each of the three modes analyzed can be applied both to the history of colonialism as well as to contemporary neo-colonialism. The notion of the habitus and shifting identities is problematic in that it assumes that the relationship between the Self and the Other is based on mutual interaction and exchange and symmetry of power. However its emphasis on accumulation into the habitus of cultural capital lends itself well to a context which is dictated by consumer capitalism and for this reason is relevant in interpreting the problems related to the imposition of a consumer culture in contemporary Africa where the unintended consequences have been particularly destructive. When identity construction is linked not with the exchange of commodities between the Self and the Other but with the construction of symbolic universes that give meaning and in which the Self is embedded, then identities tend to be fixed, not shifting. The appearance of the universe of the Other means a direct confrontation and a battle for hegemony because to sacrifice identity is to sacrifice meaning. This scenario has been effectively used to describe the confrontation between the British and the Xhosa in the mid-19th century and the ultimate destruction of the Xhosa people through the Great Cattle Killing. I have drawn parallels between this tragic episode and the suicide bombings of contemporary Islamic fundamentalists. The model happens to be freighted with significance when applied to the historic confrontation between two kinds of fundamentalism represented in George Bush on the one hand and Osama Bin Laden on the other. The difference between the notion of fixed identities and shocked identities is that there is little possibility in the former for change and self-discovery. The potency of the Sartrean model is that the appearance of the Other means the decentralization of the Self. But this appearance, if it is to lead to self-discovery, must be accompanied by a realization of the vulnerability of the Self. The Sartrean Gaze is that gaze upon the Self by the Other that provokes a crisis of alterity that moves the subject away from the self-delusion of power to the recognition of the power of the Other. I have shown how this model can be applied to the confrontation between the colonizer and the colonized in yet another (imaginary) incident in the history of colonialism, depicted by J.M. Coetzee. I have also consciously located the Sartrean model in the present context of the so-called War on Terror and Clash of Civilizations and bemoaned the fact that the tragedy of the present bloody conflicts is that there seems to be no self-discovery. I wish to end with a final quote from Sartre which should be read not simply in the context of the encounter between Europe and Africa, in which it found its original inspiration, but in the context of all the present global confrontations around identity, wherever they are, which involve the domination by powerful Selves, over subjugated Others.

When you remove the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the shock of having been seen. (Sartre:1948)


[1]“National Belonging and Cultural Difference: South Africa and the Global Imaginary” D. Brown, in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 27, No 4, December 2001, pgs 757-769.

[2]See “Nurturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State”, J. and J. Comaroff, in Journal of Southern African Studies, vol 27, No 3, September 2001, pgs 627-651.

[3]The Curse and Blessing of Babel; or Looking Back on Universalisms, A. Assman, in The Translatability of Cultures – figurations of the space between, S. Budick and W. Iser, Stanford University Press, California, 1996, pgs 101-126.

[4]The word is put in quotation marks because Bourdieu’s work is so eclectic in origin that to put him in a particular school is to invite contradiction. However he has been associated with this tradition and therefore for convenience sake I have dubbed him as such.

[5]Of Revelation and Revolution – Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, vol 1, University of Chicago Press, 1991 and Of Revelation and Revolution – the Dialectics of Modernity on South African Frontier, Vol 2, the University of Chicago Press, 1997, John and Jean Comaroff.

[6]For a more extended critique of the Comaroff’s position see: “Of Radical Refusers and Very Willing Victims – Interpolations of the Missionary Message in the stories of Nongqawuse, Nxele, Ntsikana, and Soga”, Balcomb A. in Bulletin for Contextual Theology in Southern Africa and Africa, Vol 5 Number 1 and 2, 1998, pgs 4-15.

[7]Sex, Death and the Fate of the Nation:Reflections on the Politicisation of Sexuality in Post-Apartheid South Africa , Posel D in Africa, vol. 75 no 2, June 2005.

[8]Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa, Ashforth A, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[9]See “Problems of the Life-World”, A. Gurwitsch, in Phenomenology and Social Reality – essays in memory of Alfred Schutz, M. Natanson (ed), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1970, pgs 17-61.

[10]The Social Construction of Reality, Berger, P. and Luckmann, T, Penguin, 1976.

[11]There are, of course, other ways of stating what Berger is trying to say, as there are many other ways of accounting for the interactions between people whose understandings of reality are quite different. Alasdair MacIntyre writes very articulately, for example, about epistemological crisis and the dire consequences of not having a metanarrative to explain and order reality.(1977:453) Indeed those who believe in the narrative construction of reality moot the possibility of a more benign outcome to the encounter. Your story is different from my story, so let’s listen to each other’s stories and learn from each other.

[12] “Universes in Collision, Xhosa, Missionaries and Education in 19th Century South Africa”, M. J. Ashley, Journal of Theology in Southern Africa, no. 32, September, 1980, pgs 28-38.

[13]See Heart of Redness, Mda Z. Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 2000.

[14]For a full account of the Xhosa Cattle Killing see The Dead Will Arise – Nongqawuse and the Great Cattle Killing Movement of 1856-57, J. Peires, Ravan Press, 1989.

[15]The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, R.D. Cumming (ed), Methuen, London, 1965. 

[16]J.M. Coetzee Dusklands, Ravan Press, 1974, pg 69.