The Dialectic of the I in Black Existentialist Quest for Authenticity

Wandile GanyaWandile Ganya is a published poet, medical doctor and part-time lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch. His philosophical interests include African hermeneutics, existentialism, ethics and phenomenology.


No Black subject is locked in an infantile transivity, unable to cognise himself or his agency from that of another. Each agential subjectivity conduces upon its own intrepid rhapsody of being-in-the-world in the great struggle for liberty and authenticity. In this short piece, I address the racial reality in South Africa by theorising about the socio-political hermeneutic implication that this colonial race discourses have on Black existentialism. I write this with the intimation of dispelling the monolithic colonial narrative of the Black subject, its univocalism, and the influence it continues to exert upon postcolonial identarian politics.

One need only to conduct a brief investigation on Lacanian psychoanalysis to legitimise this proposition. I focus mainly on Lacanian resources to socio-political hermeneutic investigations of the I in Black existentialism. A discourse on Lacanian psychoanalysis and Black existentialism warrants some justification as these may strike a horrid note upon the intellect, that is, seem unlikely or accidentally conjoined substrata of philosophic reflection. What I argue for, as Marcuse did with Freud is that the Lacanian mirror stage is indeed open to socio-political hermeneutic interpretation, and insofar as chronology is concerned, it is a social and historical theory. As Marcuse writes,

The psyche appears more and more immediately to be a piece of social totality, so that individuation is almost synonymous with apathy and even with guilt, but also with the principle of negation, of possible revolution. Moreover, the totality of which the psyche is a part becomes to an increasing extent less ‘society’ than ‘politics’.

The mirror stage may be conceived as ‘an identification’ that is ‘the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image – whose predestination to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic theory, of the ancient term imago.’ It is the incipient presentation of agential subjectivity. Importantly, the primordial I anticipates the incorporation of secondary identifications in the scheme of libidinal normalisation in its dialectic encounter with the other. The agency of the primordial I antecedes the dialectical construction of the socio-political subject and the functions it is made to hold.

Further, the mirror stage is the anticipation of individuation and unified body distinct from the other. They exist two interrelated observations, that is, firstly, a discordance between this incipient subjectivity and reality; and secondly, the idea that the body is indeed an exteriority more constituent than constituted of the I.

In the first observation I wish only to make manifest, setting aside its psychoanalytic or phenomenological density, the anxiety which invests the discordance between the I and reality; is of a natural order which endures even later in the span of existence of the I, creating what is understood in Lacanian psychoanalytic register as the Innenwelt and Umwelt that is the dyadic inner and outer experience of world. The mirror stage establishes a relation between the organism and reality.

In the second observation, that is, body as an exteriority constituent of the I, I hold that no secondary characterisation of body is ever complete and satisfying in itself. It is always, in a sense, riddled with falsity and deceit to self. For to the ego, body is always a site of openness. And by this I understand not a fixity but a unified material projection, a somethingness without form, which bears a first-order relation to the ego. It follows from this that all secondary identifications of the ego or body must maintain a falsity or stubborn delusion notwithstanding cultural topoi.

If we grant the above propositions, then it must follow that there exist no essence in the social category of race, it is but a construction whose cast invests socio-political discourse such as those we have observed in the recent past, in the lively insurrection of the decolonial movement which seeks, in one token, to return what was unjustly denied or taken away from the Black subject through dehumanising procedures. As Achille Mbembe argues, ostracisation from the I, that is loss of familiarity to the point that one is estranged or alienated to his identity where one is constituted out of an alterity is indeed one such procedure. The Black existentialist must seek to negate the amanuensic biography given to him/her. However, the onto-phenomenological quest for being and authenticity, I argue, must not cease at the point of negation ad absurdum. The Black existentialist must learn to work from without such constructions, and write his/her own biography and reinvent its political, social and economic spaces.


  • Marcuse, H., & Marcuse, H. (1970). Five lectures: Psychoanalysis, politics, and Utopia. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Mbembe, A. (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press.
  • Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A selection. New York: Norton Press.