Fragility and resilience in amaXhosa orthodoxy
The ethical dilemma in this critical moment has - like a coin - two faces; the one exposes immense vulnerability, pathology, and the other potential resilience. As representational of Xolile’s individual experience it has an exchange value within an amaXhosa patriarchy or differently, within a biomedical one. The coin challenges assumptions about resilience and harm or vulnerability. Suffering with psychosis, Xolile was vulnerable, yet underscoring his illness lay a Xhosa cultural substratum which, when instigated by the nurse, held the possibility of resolving his psychotic disorder (Vivian, 2011). Psychologically, vulnerability and resilience, as human potential, are intangible, the outcome unknown. Thereby a state of good health or of manhood, hangs in the balance and poses an ethical dilemma for biomedical diagnoses and in circumcision practices. For this reason, a benevolent potential is aspired to, but confounded in a clinical setting by the fact that each patriarchy interprets an engendering of resilience differently. The intangible is therefore salient to the predicted (hoped for) outcome and symbolically negotiated in cultural artefact and functional practices. The nurse stood in for the amaXhosa to safeguard Xolile’s uncertain outcome, especially as he could read his psychotic symbolism and how it would reveal the ritual process. A person’s original language and culture of origin anchor psychotic symbols and just as amaXhosa men born in rural areas experience hallucinations that depict leopards or baboons, European Capetonians feature computer imagery (Vivian, 2011). Unguarded by conscious reflection in psychotic states these images stand as indicators of extreme mental fragility and linguistic and cultural orientation. Paradoxically, it is this that opens the possibility of therapeutically restoring a sense of agency.
Gender orientation showed the same fragile quality in the Xhosa men I interviewed. Inherently, gender during engendering states but also in mental illness becomes intangible. In men who suffer with psychosis, gender orientation, because of its connectedness to a state of mind, can manifest as more labile and undifferentiated especially as the disease strips bare the masks and appearances of normality (Patel et al., 2005). Understanding a Xhosa patient’s gender orientation therefore needs culturally sensitive questions. Doctors should not pre-suppose gendered categories but enquire into the young man’s circumstance and the meaning he attributes to the ritual process (Vivian, 2011). The nurse acted to stop questions that might distort Xolile’s emerging and fragile gendered identity as a Xhosa man. In clinical settings doctors interpret uncertainty about one’s gender as ambiguity, while Xhosa traditional healers see this as a symbolic challenge in the attainment of adulthood. Culturally inscribed states of vulnerability and resilience thereby pose diverse ways of working through gendered identity. In this respect, the circumcision cut instigates a singular aim amongst the amaXhosa and this is agency for the achievement of manhood. Even though the men I interviewed experienced cognitive dissonance, their symbolic references rooted into subconscious phenomena and referred to the concrete challenges’ men faced in engendering.
A muddy bottom to human consciousness
Obeyesekere (1990), in his ethnography about the Sinhalese people, argues for a shared, universal, “muddy bottom” or commonality of representations in the subliminal unconscious. From this substratum, appear culturally distinctive symbolic images to shape both subconscious and conscious cultural dispositions and language. This roots the conscious moment in the nurse’s intervention into a shared Xhosa subconscious. In a similar vein, Bloch (2013) argues that a divide exists between anthropologists who explain culturally variable representations and symbols producing distinctive cognitive processes versus those who distinguish knowledge that “all human beings require in order to be able to make the continual and innumerable inferences that render everyday life possible, but also...seem unreflexive” (Bloch, 2013, p. 115). These authors elucidate the profound nature of our human being which in manifesting in language and behavioural predispositions slips between the distinctly cultural and universal sameness. Both agree a universal
Negotiating patriarchy 43 substratum to consciousness and that our immense similarities mean we engage with diverse others. Thus, like the nurse, much of what we act out has individual characteristics but is scripted. My interviews with amaXhosa people, within the psychiatric institution and without, support Obeyesekere (1990) thesis that the origin of this script lies in a culturally patterned, subconscious. This interestingly contrasts with Benhabib’s (2002) theory on the prevalence of a more superficial cultural eclecticism in our post-modern, cosmopolitan worlds.
In the context of a culturally comparative discourse, Obeyesekere’s (1990) description on hallucinatory experience amongst Sinhalese people, relates to mine on the amaXhosa. His argument, stemming from psychoanalytical anthropology, interrogates visionary experience and religious beliefs amongst the Sinhalese people. He suggests that when conscious checks are diminished, symbols and linguistic formations embedded from inception in the subliminal unconscious, appear in cognitive processes to manifest in hallucinatory and visionary experience. In hallucination these portray as vivid, phenomenal displays of image, word, and gesture. In his Sinhalese ethnographic data, Obeyesekere described these as distinctively culturally patterned and therefore contrasted against other ethnic discourses. This method, of situating the symbolic in psychotic image into a culturally orientated subliminal unconscious has aided my interpretation of discourses that fluctuated from mundane, eclecticism to psychic, symbolic phenomena in cultural ritual.
A “muddy bottom" is equally relevant to a centuries-old concept of shared humanity amongst amaXhosa people. As one people within the Southern Nguni, they hold to an African philosophical and moral tradition, uBuntu (Tangwa, 2004). Circumcision practices root into this moral sphere which informs thought and action in states of gendered identity, personhood, and diversity amongst human beings. In Africa, uBuntu takes precedence over competing moral philosophies, gendered discourses, and politically shows colonisation and apartheid as distinctive and foreign (Silverman, 2004). Phenomenally, the philosophy of uBuntu is inherently subliminal; a collective subconsciousness from which African ethnic interpretations vary in their social practice of its tenets. These advocate for a modicum in behaviour; personal disposition, social engagement, and negotiated, socio-political relations. The practice of circumcision amongst diverse African autochthons functions to contain egoistic behaviour through a familial negotiation of responsibilities and disputes. In principle, this demands tolerance towards diverse ‘others’, rather than judging them. A more egalitarian African politics once imbued this principle in circumcision practices to school adult behaviour. Circumcision functioned in reciprocity with women to inculcate an African belief that embraced a lived reality of shared ‘human-ness’ into a man and his peers. This posed a moral equivalence for all human beings. This allows for competing practices in the conduct of the rite of passage between the Southern Nguni and other African people (Maggs, 1986; Siweya, Sodi & Douglas, 2018).
Circumcision’s significance in embedding this African philosophy in conscious and subconscious disposition manifests in the saying that, “not to have uBuntu” is to be morally deficient (Bell, 2002). Circumcision is thus, instrumental in setting up the practice of moral worthiness which is displayed in a man’s ability to employ words strategically and to act as a moral agent and with intention. By virtue of this moral philosophy an African person has agency but not privilege over another person. Thereby gendered relations become instantiated not as oppositional constructs but to accommodate the diverse nature of being human (Tangwa, 2004). Moral worth thus required that autochthons show humility in disposition and behaviour in the face of others’ humanity. This politics of showing humility is instantiated in oral communication and anchored in symbolic references. Moreover, the manifestation of psychic phenomena in image and symbol describe and re-inscribe cultural belonging within uBuntu. Unlike in biomedicine, their appearance in consciousness, enables a social negotiation of their meaning; this does not compromise a man’s state of personhood or place his moral worth in question. In its ideal, this philosophy means that an African person never loses their rights as a person because the nature and existence of ‘their’ being supersedes the individual. Furthermore, this philosophical discourse holds that it is incumbent on amaXhosa communities to alleviate suffering (Murove, 2009). Agency stands, therefore, as relational to family, clan, community, diverse foreigners and to aspects of the animate and inanimate landscape.
It is hard, as an anthropologist, in confronting psychosis, to keep in mind that beneath the distorted, anguish of psychotic image lies a cultural and moral rationale, and this underscores the sufferer’s mind and cognition. Even more difficult, is to sustain a quiet observation that can distinguish between culturally nuanced and universal, very ordinary, images and translate these sensibly to one’s reader. I found that coping with such contention was disturbing and take heed of Bloch (2013) who argues that it is important in bearing witness to ritualistic image to exist with dissonance. This speaks to the difficulty anthropologists experience in objectively describing the person they have met in the world, against the inner person’s mind and body image, and their context as in a cultural, gendered, and spiritual worldview (Bloch, 2013; Obeyesekere, 1981,2012). Obeyesekere’s(1981, 1990,2012) ethnography addresses this in finding depth of meaning. A symbol becomes a signifies representational and named but as metaphor enables a translation of reciprocity relations with meaningful others (Lakofif and Johnson, 2008). Social reciprocity, especially in engendering relationships, eases a transaction of meaning and metaphor in symbol. Actors seize and translate these culturally familiar images and in linking them into discourse, interleave fact and fiction into their own genres (Mauss, 1922). This articulation of symbol, signifier and reciprocity sits comfortably with the descriptions of cultural belonging and engendering through circumcision in my ethnography. At the nurse’s instigation what became apparent was that a vivid display of detail from the rite
Negotiating patriarchy 45 of passage in Xolile’s psychotic imagery, with his agency being absented, was claimed differently by each patriarchy to frame meaning.