The panoramic work of Achille Mbembe defies categorisation, engaging in subjects as wide-ranging as (post-)modernity, statehood, violence, death, slavery, capital, sexuality, urbanity and political economies of brutality imaged, imagined and objectified by race, racism and colonialism. All of which are detailed through his captivating, humane, and idiosyncratic voice and style. Though, on the opening page of the most recently translated book, Critique of Black Reason (2017), he makes a claim which provides us with an insight into the core thrusts of his work. He writes “Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. This is the significant event, the fundamental experience, of our era. And we are only just now beginning the work of measuring its implications and weighing its consequences. Whether such a revelation is an occasion for joy or cause for surprise or worry, one thing remains certain: the demotion of Europe opens up possibilities—and presents dangers—for critical thought.”
Mbembe is concerned with the past as much as the future of humanity; past and future injustices, past and future hopes. He calls on us to reflect closely on the twin figures of race and Blackness in the formation of the modern world. What he calls, the “vertiginous assemblage” that is Blackness and race: beginning with the Atlantic slave trade (15th-19th century); later, the writings of Black people in a language of their own demanding the status of full subjects (18th century onwards); and most recently, the globalisation of markets and the privatisation of the world (21st century). In sum, the very concrete, entangled historical and presently mutating relation between race (and the Blackness-Whiteness nexus), violence and death in the emergence of modern capitalism. In modernity he reminds us, Whiteness quickly “became the mark of a certain mode of Western presence in the world, a certain figure of brutality and cruelty, a singular form of predation with an unequaled capacity for the subjection and exploitation of foreign peoples” (2017:pp. 45, 46). This presence endures but with the new challenges, added complexities and contradictions of neoliberalism, whose predominant expression is the overwhelming presence of the technologies and thought structures of the industries of Silicon Valley.
His well-known concept of “necropolitics” (2003) – the coming together of Foucauldian biopolitics and the Schmittian state of siege and exception – produces an ever-present cultural impulse not simply to let die but to kill that is all too evident today. Mbembe’s deft tracing of the historical processes of the Middle Passage and the triangular traffic of human-beings made “human-metal, human-merchandise” situate these modern impulses, of extraction and to kill, of Whiteness-as-presence, in a more comprehensive genealogy. The increasing complexity of technologies of control and coercion (from the drone to biometry), measurement and (synthetic) reproduction (from the algorithm to genomic manipulation), all undergirded by the autonomous figure of race make Mbembe’s thought profoundly urgent, and disruptive of the humanistic pretensions of liberal modernity. Those values that are only more visibly being cast aside in the provinces of Europe and America.
In Mbembe, Europe is never simply provincialized. He is a keen reader and critic of African modes of self-expression and self-writing, simultaneously highlighting the inadequacy of the vocabularies deployed in dominant theorisation about Africa, its history, its peoples and universes – conceptual and real – in the many (mis)understandings of the continent. He has “sought to inhabit several worlds at the same time, not in an easy gesture of fragmentation, but in one of coming and going, able to authorize the articulation, from Africa, of a thinking of circulation and crossings.” (2017: 8). And he mobilises a number of figures and forms to accomplish this in his work. From Césaire’s “volcanic thought” (2017: 156-62) to Fanon’s “metamorphic” and “situated thinking,” (2012); the life-worlds found in the work of African novelists Amos Tutuola and Sony Labou Tansi, and the figurative expressions (cartoons and sketches) in Cameroonian newspapers; to the complex textures of old and new traces in – and left by – the lives of Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, and the contemporary inhabitants of the Afropolis of Johannesburg. Mbembe’s analytical eye and archival treatments are wide and deep.
In Mbembe’s concept of the Becoming Black of the World we are given an insight into the potential future(s) of race. Mbembe says, “Across early capitalism, the term “Black” referred only to the condition imposed on peoples of African origin (different forms of depredation, dispossession of all power of self-determination, and, most of all, dispossession of the future and of time, the two matrices of the possible). Now, for the first time in human history, the term “Black” has been generalized. This new fungibility, this solubility, institutionalized as a new norm of existence and expanded to the entire planet, is what I call the Becoming Black of the world” (2017: 5-6). Under the aegis of a racial neoliberalism, capitalism’s impulse is:
“to break all taboos in order to then be able to usher the disappearance of all kinds of species and/or their transformation into myriad other object species. I believe that at its core, capitalism is fundamentally anti-human or at the very least, anthropophobic. Its final aim is to replace the human species with another, which would combine the attributes of various natural, mineral, organic, machinic, and nowadays digital entities. In fact, it might be entirely possible that the transformation of blacks into commodities or into “object-humans” or humans-with-prostheses – which happened in that early stage of American, Atlantic capitalism – is a process that could be universalized. It could be extended to more than just blacks. That’s what, in the book, I call the becoming-black-of-the- world, a distinct possibility particularly in this contemporary phase of our lives” (2018).
This has immense implications for our orientation towards the future, one in which the decentring of the Euro-American world is taken as a given. Effects significant for increasingly prominent issues as the ‘management’ of human mobility; decolonisation – whether of race, racism and coloniality in the world or of the university; bordering and border violence; and crucially for Achille Mbembe, Africa’s increasingly significant role in an unfolding century witness to capitalism’s contradictions and humanity’s fast-track to ecological collapse. Accordingly, our openness to Other archives, the de-/re-constructive value of Otherwiseness, with a recognition of what he calls our age of “planetary entanglement,” (2017) is critical. That “in every human subject there is something indomitable and fundamentally intangible that no domination – no matter what form it takes – can eliminate, contain, or suppress, at least not completely” (2017: 170). That there are alternative epistemologies, ways of seeing and being in the world which point towards new liberatory models of community and humanity, paths out of the dark night, from which we must learn.
Mbembe, A. (2001) On the Postcolony. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press
Mbembe, A. (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Durham: Duke University Press
Mbembe, A. and Goldberg, D. (2018) “The Reason of Unreason”: Achille Mbembe and David Theo Goldberg in conversation about Critique of Black Reason.
Mbembe, A. (2003) ‘Necropolitics’ Public Culture 15(1): pp.11-40
Mbembe, A. (2016) “Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Viscerality” Duke Franklin Humanities Institute
Mbembe, A. (2017) “Future Knowledges and the Dilemmas of Decolonization” Duke Franklin Humanities Institute
Mbembe, A. (2018) “The idea of a borderless world” Africa is a Country
Mbembe, A. (2018) “The idea of a borderless world” Universität Augsburg
Nuttall, S. and Mbembe, A. (2015) ‘Secrecy’s Software’ Current Anthropology 56(12): pp.318-324
Selasi, T., Goldberg, D. and Mbembe, A. (2017) “Violence” Dictionary of Now.
What is the place of Africa and Africanity in Mbembe’s work?
What does the decentring of Europe signal for the future(s) of race and racism?
How does Mbembe speak of Black and Blackness?
Discuss the importance of the (Black) archive in our search for the instruments of humanity’s repair?
Submitted by Muneeb Hafiz