Long Read | Africa: Strength in reserve for Earth

Achille Mbembe’s book Brutalisme was published in Paris in February. In the French-speaking world, it quickly became one of the most read books during the Covid-19 confinement.

Achille Mbembe’s latest work, Brutalisme, was published by Éditions La Découverte in France just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Western Europe. A few months earlier, the political theorist, arguably the most influential intellectual in Africa, had been granted a diplomatic passport by Senegal’s President Macky Sall. Seen as a dissident, Mbembe’s home country, Cameroon, had decided not to renew the ordinary passport he has carried since his birth. Mbembe has been teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa since 2001.

In the book, he recasts the notion of “brutalism” drawn from architecture to describe a contemporary situation in which humanity’s essence is transformed at the same time as its very existence is threatened. He also seeks to bring both Western and non-Western epistemologies into play in order to release the energies and ideas that can help confront the contemporary feeling of vertigo. In this interview with Mediapart, an independent French online journal, Mbembe also responds to the anxieties expressed in many a newspaper column in France over postcolonial and decolonial discourses as well as the recent reconfigurations of identity politics.

Joseph Confavreux: This book is dedicated to your “three countries [Cameroon, South Africa and Senegal], in equal parts”. How far did they feed into your book, and how did each of them hold up?

Achille Mbembe: Without doubt, the one that comes out of it the worst is Cameroon, which I deal with in barely veiled terms in a chapter titled “The Community of Captives”. South Africa is also present in many passages in the book, especially those that I devote to the both crucial and futile question of identity. Senegal is present in the passages that talk about what I call the déclosion [dis-enclosure] of the world – that is, the possibility of a world without borders and unlocked out into the open. 

But beyond these three national territories, I also sought to address the “big questions” of our time and reflect on the politics of life – living things and beings – today. At the beginning of the 21st century, as the Earth never stops burning and some seek to force through the project of an infinite extension of capital, both human societies and living things as a whole are being reconfigured by the yardstick of digital technology. Old debates on human nature are coming back to the surface and I wanted to take part in them – starting from my own moorings in Africa, of course, but also from the position of someone who has constantly been criss-crossing the world these past 25 years.

Confavreux: In your book, we also encounter your two adoptive countries, France and the United States.

Mbembe: We can’t skirt around them, condemned as we are to fight simultaneously both with and against them. But beyond all these geo-national entities, I wanted to reflect on life futures and the futures of reason in a period of our history characterised by an irreversible technological escalation, or what we can term the “computational turn” in our lives – the conversion of material production into digital production and the transformation of the economy into neurobiology.

We are on the brink of an unprecedented rupture. The process currently under way risks driving the birth of a biosynthetic humanity susceptible to encoding. Such a humanity has little to do with the flesh-and-blood individuals endowed with reason that we inherited from the so-called Age of Enlightenment. This downloading of the living and the non-living, or even of consciousness itself, into increasingly artificial formats and ever more dematerialised devices – and this against the backdrop of the infinite extension of the market and the combustion of the planet – fundamentally puts back into question the form of organising our common life known as democracy. 

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Amid this tumult, many no longer shy from speaking of “illiberal” or “authoritarian democracies”. For me, the term “brutalism” summarises simultaneously both this process and the measure of force that the advent of this new figure of the human requires.

Confavreux: In what sense are we seeing unprecedented figures of the human appear?

Mbembe: Since the beginning of modern times, we have believed that our happiness, our freedom and our good health necessitated a sharp separation between the world of humans and the world of objects. Human persons, we thought, could not be treated like objects or tools. Most of the great emancipatory struggles waged over recent centuries were driven by the dream of unshackling humanity from the universe of matter, objects and nature, in a sharp separation between our species and all the rest. Alienation, conversely, consisted of the merger of the human subject and the object.

Today, this separation between the human subject and the world of animate and inanimate objects is no longer entirely at the basis of the idea of human liberation and of universalism. Now that the relationship between means and ends has been turned inside out, what rather more prevails is the idea that the human is the product of technology, or even a simple economic agent that one can use as one pleases – and, moreover, whose desires and expectations can be anticipated, her behaviours fixed and her fundamental traits sculpted. Today the belief is that everything, including consciousness itself, can be reduced to matter. In short, there is, it would seem, no longer anything that cannot be organised by artefacts or turned into an artefact in a world and a universe that are nothing but a vast market stall.

One path I constantly explore in this book is the status of the human and the object in this new secular religion. To this end, I make recourse to certain so-called non-Western traditions, in particular to those metaphysics sometimes dismissed by calling them “animist”. Indeed, precolonial African metaphysics as well as Amerindian metaphysics allow us to de-dramatise the human-object relationship. This is especially possible because these metaphysics are less dichotomous than those elaborated in the West, with its dichotomies of nature and culture, subject and object, and human and non-human.

Nonetheless, the return to these old figures of animism isn’t without its risks, especially in this current moment where reason finds itself under siege and it is absolutely imperative that we hone our critical faculties. The critique of reason must, therefore, be distinguished from a war against reason; this, even though many contemporary political struggles seek to rehabilitate the affects, personal experience, feelings and emotions. Most of the identitarian struggles that animate politics today make up part of this configuration. In my view, they will divert us from the essential problems we face if they aim only to demarcate frontiers and if they are not explicitly articulated to a wider, more planetary design: namely, to repair the world itself.

Confavreux: Identitarian struggles emerged from minorities but have been reformulated by the extreme Right – often to the detriment of these same minorities. How do you see identity politics?

Identitarian struggles are no longer the monopoly of minorities – indeed, I’d question whether they ever have been. In Europe, in particular, people of so-called European stock have always profited from the wages of autochthony. The whole history of racism boils down to a permanent battle to consolidate this unearned advantage. 

That said, there was a moment in recent history during which struggles for identity did make up part of general struggles for human emancipation. Such was the case of the struggles to abolish slavery and colonialism, of the struggles for women’s liberation, of the US civil rights struggles and the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. Such struggles’ ultimate goal was not to enshrine differences. They were, first and foremost, struggles for the recognition of the greater number, of each and of all, as humans among other humans, called on together with these others to build a world that all can inhabit. 

At stake here was the call to build something that could be shared as equitably as possible – in other words, because it had to do with an original, foundational “something in common”. These struggles were thus endowed with a major coefficient of universalism – if, that is, by “universal” we mean the possibility of making a world in common and not making a world to the advantage only of some, or a world made regardless of, despite or against others. 

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For this reason, ongoing debates in France on the notions of universal and universalism, communalism or separatism are an utter trap. Often these categories are mobilised in the barely masked objective of stigmatising minorities and concealing systemic racism. The same goes for the endlessly rehashed controversies around postcolonial and decolonial theories. For those who have taken the time to read postcolonial texts, which aren’t exactly the same thing as decolonial discourse, it is obvious that most of these are hardly a celebration of identity politics. 

In truth, paradoxically, so-called postcolonial theories ought to be interpreted as the latest avatars of a certain tradition of Western humanism: a critical and inclusive humanism. It is these discourses that champion cosmopolitanism and clearly oppose autochthony. Their intention is precisely to extend this critical humanism to a planetary scale, denying that it should remain the privilege of the West alone. This is the reason – although I make no claim to be a postcolonial theorist – I am amazed that some here in France try to characterise postcolonial theories as particularist discourse calling for separation and opposed to universalism.

Confavreux: What differences would you make between the postcolonial and the decolonial?

Mbembe: Postcolonial currents speak up for a cosmopolitan and hybrid world. And it’s no accident that this discourse has often been theorised by exiles, by migrants, by stateless people like Edward Saïd, nomads from the Indian subcontinent like Gayatri Spivak and Dipesh Chakrabarty, theorists of the “tout-monde” [the world in its entirety] like Édouard Glissant, or champions of a “planetary humanism” like Paul Gilroy. They’ve all opposed any form of essentialism. Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism” notwithstanding, we hardly find a celebration of particularism, communalism or autochthony among any of them. 

What unites them is their interest in the historical event that was the encounter between heterogeneous worlds – an encounter that took place in the course of the slave trade, colonisation, commerce, migration and population movements, including forced ones, evangelism, the circulation of forms and ideas. Postcolonial currents interrogated what this encounter had, in its multiple modalities, produced – the share of reinvention, adjustments and recompositions that it demanded from all the protagonists, the play of ambivalences, the mimetism, hybridity and resistance which it made possible.

I think that decolonial discourse, especially as it has been theorised by Latin Americans, is something slightly different. It puts on trial “Western reason”, its historical forms of predation and the genocidal impulse inherent to modern colonialism. What decolonial theorists call the “coloniality of power” refers not only to mechanisms for exploiting and predating upon bodies, natural resources and living things. It also refers to the false belief according to which there is just one knowledge, a single site for the production of truth, one universal and, outside of that, only superstitions. Decolonial discourse wants to tear apart this sort of monism and overthrow this means of bulldozing the different knowledges, practices and forms of existence.

I do not want to set up a complete opposition between postcolonial and decolonial theories, which are, in fact, in dialogue with each other. But we ought to identify the lines of tension that do exist and see that they do not set out from the same concepts and categories, that they do not elaborate the same arguments, and perhaps they do not set themselves the same political objectives.

Confavreux: Can we escape a political configuration where questions of identity seem to have become the sole coordinate?

We shouldn’t sweepingly dismiss so-called identity politics. But in many regards, the identitarian struggles of our times are the new opium of the people, among elites as well as the masses. Moreover, neoliberalism is very well able to co-opt them. These identitarian struggles make up part of two of the defining logics of the present era.  

The first logic is governed by a desire for boundaries, which goes hand in hand with what might seem a commendable desire to take back one’s own self. But this is a fetishised self, a consumable self, totally bound to its dreams, its feelings, its emotions, its body, against the backdrop of a mass narcissism relayed by social media and digital technologies. This figure of the self is a decisive cog in the project for the infinite expansion of the market, in this era dominated by the reflex of quantity – one in which selling images by way of images seems to have become the ultimate meaning of life.

30 November 2015: Achille Mbembe’s new book considers ways to confront humanity’s greatest contemporary issues. (Photograph by Heike Huslage-Koch/ Wikicommons)
30 November 2015: Achille Mbembe’s new book considers ways to confront humanity’s greatest contemporary issues. (Photograph by Heike Huslage-Koch/ Wikicommons)

The second logic is marked by a deep desire for partition, separatism and secession. The propensity toward endogamy is a powerful characteristic of our era. Many no longer want to live outside their own bubbles and echo chambers, among themselves, with those like them. Witch-hunts, the incessant manufacturing of outrage, various practices of excommunication and quarantine have made a comeback. This is plain to see, and hear, in the carceral landscape that we find increasingly pockmarks the planet: territorial segmentation and fragmentation, camps, enclaves, all mechanisms designed to separate people and cut the ties that bind them.

By that, I do not mean to imply any symmetry between the “identities” held up as a banner by the radicalised Right and those in which minorities wrap themselves, sometimes for want of anything else to defend. But I fear that in such a context, toxic varieties of identity politics effectively stand in the way of forging the necessary coalitions to stand together in meeting the great planetary challenges. 

Confavreux: How far is this desire for secession — which is not exactly the same thing as a desire for domination — transforming the way we think about contemporary politics?

Mbembe: New mechanisms of domination are constantly emerging. Most are abstract and dematerialised – this, even if matter, bodies and nerves are still their main targets. Predation, draining and extraction remain the rule, as does the recourse to brute force. But the new domination also operates implicitly, through the proliferation of means of surveillance, the use of technological ingenuity, the practices that set each of us in competition with everyone else, and the revision of laws in order to extend capital’s reach. 

Today, domination proceeds through the draining of the critical faculties, the drying up of the imaginaries that would be necessary for refounding a project for life and the living at the planetary scale. That is what is currently under way, and what I call brutalism. It’s not spontaneous – it’s planned and calculated.

Faced with all this, many continue to resist. But I find two responses in particular are striking. The first is the reflex to flee. In some parts of the world, flight is coming to look like a real mass movement. Mass migrations and desertions are potential weapons. The world’s powerful have well understood this and are trying to combat these phenomena of defection by ramping up the number of camps and an unequal distribution of the ability to move and travel. 

The second response is the reflex of secession. If the rich could emigrate to other planets and set up new colonies in which no poor people would be admitted, they would do it. For the powerful, the main obsession now is how they can get rid of those whom they think are nothing and count for nothing. This desire for secession marks a rupture compared to previous periods characterised by conquest. What Carl Schmitt called “seizing land” is today succeeded by the building of fortifications. 

The classic political question of the modern period was built around the right to appropriation, the right to conquest, occupation and colonisation. Added to this today, therefore, is another question: what fate should be reserved for those who have nothing and who are, for that very reason, considered as being nothing? The great contemporary problem is what to do with those considered to count for nothing, or not for much, and whose contemporary figure is that of the migrant. What juridical status, what mechanism, what treatment should be put in place for those who are, in practice, reduced to the level of mere waste? And finally, who does the world belong to? That’s the essential political question posed in the era of what I call “brutalism”. 

Confavreux: How does this architectural metaphor help us think through the present moment?

Mbembe: This term refers to a way of distributing force, of applying it to materials – in particular concrete – in order to give them a form that we hope will last a long time, if not make up part of what can never be destroyed. It is thus a calculated and planned destruction operation whose ultimate purpose is to build the indestructible. 

So, outside of architecture, the concept of brutalism can be understood as a forcing of bodies which are treated as concrete, subjecting them to a combination of pressures. Brutalism is the programme that consists of reducing all that exists to the category of objects and matter, integrated into the sphere of calculation. This is integral functionalism, a way of organising the recourse to force.

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Reinterpreting it in this light, the concept of brutalism allows me to reinterrogate not so much the already widely documented sociology of violence in the neoliberal era, but rather to understand the dynamic of the contemporary moment. In my view, this is a moment characterised by the escalation of technology, the transformation of economy into neurobiology and the appearance of digital bodies made up of metal and other prosthetics – which are also cogs of capital – as well as flesh.

The term could also bring to mind the German-American historian George L Mosse’s analyses of the “brutalisation” of European societies, between the Great War and the totalitarian regimes. To put it briefly, Mosse’s reasoning was that the logics of war had extended into peace time, ultimately resulting in fascism. 

Confavreux: When you speak of contemporary “brutalism”, is this a way of drawing a parallel with a history which consisted of the banalisation of violence, the resurgence of nationalism and a rapid downward spiral?

Mbembe: No. Of course, I’ve read the texts of Mosse, [Ernst] Jünger and others, but I’ve also read works starting from the inverse hypothesis, holding that the history of European societies is a long history of “pacification” or, as Norbert Elias put it, the “civilising process”. In this view, even if violence has not been entirely eradicated, it has been domesticated and sublimated. We should also mention a third family of considerations, which underline that this “civilising” process was possible only because the potential for violence internal to European societies was turned outward to other places, like the colonies.

My intention is not to repeat any of these three currents of analysis. Rather, it is to grasp an unprecedented moment of our present that is marked, above all, by a technological acceleration without precedent in human history. This acceleration does not only bring an implosion of our conceptions of time. It implicitly outlines the advent of a new regime of historicity, which I call “chronophagic”, because it devours time in general and in particular the future, at the same time as it builds up a systematic amnesia. Time as such is replaced by flux and noise.

These technologies have also pushed back the frontiers of speed, making it a complement to power and a key resource in struggles for sovereignty. Moreover, in this new regime of historicity, there is no longer anything human that is not also consumable, that is to say, which escapes the realm of calculation. Even more so, there is no longer anything human that does not have a digital double. Capital now seeks to extend its grip not only to the bottom of the ocean or to the stars, but also to atoms, cells and neurons. 

Confavreux: In what sense does Africa, as what you call a “reserve of strength [puissance] and strength in reserve”, constitute, if not the panacea, at least a space of possibilities for the future of humanity, which today seems so fragile?

Mbembe: First, on account of its physique, its monumentality, which continues to fascinate me. It is a gigantic continent, and it’d be hard to convince me that this extensiveness, this gigantism, the fact that it occupies such an eminent place in the planetary mass, all means nothing. Even if I don’t know what this extensiveness really means, I find it intriguing. 

Speaking of its physique, I would also like to refer to what Africa contains or holds in store – by which I, of course, mean humans. Their numbers will keep on growing at least till the end of this century, and it is doubtless here that the most phenomenal changes will take place. Living humanity, in its multiplicity and in its most multicoloured character, will have one of its vastest abodes in Africa. To speak of what Africa contains is not, however, only to speak of the different species populating its surface, but also to think of its rivers, forests, mountains, sun, savannahs, of deserts that are not at all deserted and everything we find in its subsoil and at the bottom of the oceans surrounding it: rare minerals, precious stones…

There is also, most importantly, a vast reserve of elements, many of which remain unknown – forces critical for the future history of life on Earth in the Anthropocene era. The colossal character of what we don’t yet know on this continent, of that which still escapes calculation and appropriation, is the second important factor that leads me to think that Africa represents strength in reserve for the entire Earth. 

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Recently I was in Kinshasa, and before I set off again I spent two hours watching the river Congo flow past. Impressive were the sheer volume of water and its power – we don’t know how long they have existed and how long they will last. But as I contemplated the river, it was difficult for me not to feel, in my own flesh, the turbulent stirring of untamed forces and energy – ones which perhaps can’t even be tamed. For me, Africa is that. The big question is how to free up these energies, these deposits of life, deposits of a thousand-faceted life, for the good of Africans but also the good of all humanity.

What we need is to imagine new models of life and the living that will allow the refoundation of a politics that stands outside the religion of the market and its corollary in consumption hedonism. Perhaps here African metaphysics have something to offer, another starting point, starting from the certainty that the human is not just matter. In the human there exists an incalculable, inappropriable dimension, which does not only belong to the realm of physical-chemical processes – in short, a dimension that you can’t download into artificial devices. That is why we should treat idolising technology [technolâtrie, or the technology cult] and collapsology as twins. A smoother landing is not the only option available to us. When we look at a wider set of archives and draw on a wider array of materials, we will find the experiences of peoples who have been able to create life on the basis of objectively unliveable situations. That provides no guarantees, in terms of the future. But it does at least remind us that everything is in our own hands. And that is key at a time when the prevalent feeling is that everything is now getting out of our control.

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