Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are

Emotional Utopia of the Abstracted Self

MALICK SIDIBÉ/JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Since Descartes, Western philosophy has grappled in metaphysical agony with the notion of reunifying the object and the self.

Cartesian dualism, as it has become known — the separation of spirit from body, reason from empiricism, thought from experience — has haunted the obsessive riddle-making of Western thinkers for almost 400 years. Heidegger and Nietzsche tried to smash the dualism into substantive bits, bridging unity out of the mess, but subject and object, you and the world, are still at the polar ends of the philosophical magnet.

Today, the archetypal Western philosopher is a neurotic academic obsessed with word equations and sophisticated translations of obscurity, as if the point of philosophy is not to solve questions of meaning, but to pass time with endless struggle… to fill the void in the soul that individualism ripped wide open.

Southern African philosophy has never endured such a finicky, yet debilitating rapture. Rather than endless staring into the self, the Southern African philosophy of Ubuntu accepts at the outset that a human is only a human through others. Subject and object are inherently bound, in flux at times, but in essence collective, allowing room to breathe, but not the great selfish gasps of the Western mind.

In the vibrant cultures of Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, most Westerners feel an incredible sense of presence and realism, a feeling they rarely ever recover from. They experience the African continent as a type of emotional utopia of the abstracted self, forever forced to grapple with the contradiction that such an objectively difficult place for living — starvation, war, famine, poverty, disease — could be filled with such a subjectively abundant joy of life.