First inscription, second emergence

It’s worth reading to the end of this long essay of Sylvia Wynter’s on “female circumcision”, in spite of any misgivings one might have about its apparent premises or argumentative stance. It really does argue that Western feminists’ campaigning opposition to FGM — along with that of urbanised or bourgeoisified African feminists — is tangled up in an uninterrogated assumption that femaleness, as a site of physical and moral injury, is a pre-culturally self-evident fact about human bodies, such that FGM can be immediately and unproblematically understood as violence against such bodies: as “mutilation” or “torture”, rather than (as male circumcision is more commonly, if not uncontroversially, understood) as symbolic initiation through which the subject is inscribed into human social being. (In choosing to place “female circumcision” in inverted commas here, and FGM not, I’m picking a side of course).

In spite of the expectations this framing might set up, Wynter is not “defending” FGM, as such, but arguing for an understanding of the rationality (in the sense of “having a rationale”) of its practitioners which is not heedlessly overcoded by Western anthropology; she’s accordingly skeptical of Alice Walker’s Jungian hermeneutics, in Possessing the Secret of Joy, which presents the familiar argument that the practice is grounded in male terror of female sexual enjoyment. It’s worth at least reflecting on the severity of genital injury sustained by male initiates under some symbolic regimes, which suggests something other than a fear of sexual enjoyment (and certainly female sexual enjoyment) per se. And of course some very urbanised and bourgeoisified people in the West sometimes do or consent to have done extraordinary things to their own bodies out of a variety of motives, of which hatred of their own physical embodiment should not always be presumed to be foremost.

The first interesting turn in Wynter’s article is the comparison she draws between circumcision as symbolic initiation, which establishes a correlative position of symbolic death for the uncircumcised, and the “excisions” effected by Western conceptions of personhood (as homo economicus, for example, such that the economically unproductive are effectively unpersoned; or as the inhabitant of a socio-biological order governed by natural selection, in which social “fitness” and “unfitness” function as analogues for evolutionary fitness and unfitness, and the “unfit” are determined as unworthy of social reproduction). This suggests that something other than a relativising defence of FGM as just one practice of symbolic initiation amongst others is afoot - rather, FGM is explicitly compared to systematic racism and social inequality, in a manner that suggests that the authority of symbolic initiation should not simply be accepted: we must find some way to move beyond this schema of inclusion/exclusion in sociogenic humanity. (I am grateful to Peli Grietzer for clarifying this aspect of the argument for me).

Wynter’s article is a crisp and comprehensive exposition of her cosmology of the “Third Event”, which I find useful as perhaps the most baldly stated and explicitly justified version of the underlying culturalism of the humanities: human being is symbolically co-ordinated through and through, such that our “second nature” has fully supplanted our “nature” as biological creatures, and any projection of universal “human nature” is thus the elevation of a particular set of symbolic co-ordinates to the position of “man”, or universal humanity, and necessarily entails the dehumanisation of all human beings governed by different symbolic co-ordinates. However, the dehumanisation operated by the Western schema is not Wynter’s sole target: she has her eye on the larger problem of how humanisation and dehumanisation are entangled as a result of humanity’s self-authorisation through cultural practices.

Wynter’s argument has some odd collateral effects, like placing cultural differences between ethnic groups in the position of ontological dividers: people of culture X having a different sociogeny to people of culture Y are for most purposes just as different as if they had distinct racial essences — there is a set of pre-determined characteristics that all products of a certain genetic procedure bear, it’s just that the genesis takes place within language rather than within the subject’s DNA. This doesn’t make no difference to things, of course. Wynter’s argument against the Western natural-biological schema of human being is that it ontologises a struggle for survival between the fit and the unfit, the selected and the dysselected, and is thus inherently hierarchical. A first task, for Wynter, is to throw off this kind of acultural framing, which supplies a stable and super-cultural evaluative matrix from within which cultures can be placed and ranked. However, this does not lead her simply to a position of cultural relativism, in which all cultures are of equal value; rather, the task of evaluating culture from a proper vantage point has yet to begin.

If Wynter is a (first-order) cultural determinist, she is also a believer in the possibility of a transition from being unthinkingly determined, in our social being, by the symbolic co-ordinates of our sociogeny, to adopting something like a consciously pluralist position in which we are able to take stock of the mythemes to which we are beholden, and approach other cultural constellations with due curiosity and respect (rather than just assuming them to be primitive and misguided). This leads to a (second-order) form of cultural agency, in which we can start to get to grips with the mythemes to which we are beholden, and contest harmful practices — FGM included — without having to do so from the vantage point of a superior, colonising culture.

Here there is a kind of active paradox in play: Wynter fully believes (as I fully do not) in “cognitive closure”, in the complete efficacy of the symbolic inscription which assigns us, upon initiation, to our symbolic place; and yet she also holds out hope for the possibility of a “Second Emergence” in which this closure becomes visible as such, and tractable to a new understanding of human social being in its true diversity, free from any schema of domination. This is something like a classically Sartrean view of freedom, in which recognition of what (first-order) determines our social being can give rise to a (second-order) form of agency over that determination. But the theme of cognitive closure presents an impediment here, a problem that needs solving.

For Wynter, it is the “liminal perspective of alterity” of “members of an intelligentsia of African hereditary descent who are also women” which opens the possibility of such an emergence, as this is “the only perspective…that can free us from the cognitive closure defining all human orders”. But this rests on a constellation of notions about liminality and cognitive constraint which is not spelled out so clearly, but rather hoisted abruptly into the heavens as a moral lodestar. It’s true that the “perspective” does not immediately and automatically arise from the “situation” of this intelligentsia, and might be accessible via other routes, but there remains a kind of mystery about how this is meant to happen.

I think this is a kind of false problem generated by a too-constricting sense of what “cognitive closure” must entail. It’s true that we are often faced with antagonists who are seemingly impervious to, or epistemically walled-off from, the kinds of arguments we would find persuasive amongst ourselves. And Wynter is addressing just such a situation, in which Western feminism faces off against African practices of symbolic initiation and, making little headway through moral exhortation, resorts instead to legal violence. Her question is, what can a female intelligentsia of African hereditary descent do in this situation? And her argument is that only a fundamental revision in our understanding of the sociogenic production of humanity will enable this deadlock to be broken. But such a revision — the “Second Emergence” — requires a novel form of epistemic agency, which cannot itself be grounded in membership of an intelligentsia, or even “liminality” as such. How does this form of consciousness arise, and how might it be incited to do so?