Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
by Nasrin Olla
This review has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial board.
While the human has always been the unstable and troubled ground of humanistic inquiry, one can’t help feeling that in our neoliberal and digital age, the very tectonics of that ground are shifting. Everywhere one looks, objects of technology are becoming phantom limbs of the human body, producing sensations of attachment, whilst remaining detachable. Alongside these spectral appendages, neoliberal forms of reason do much to encourage students, citizens, and workers to think of themselves not simply as producers of capital, but as human-capital. Today, we are faced with multiple scenes in which the human and non-human meet at a vanishing point. What forms of historical memory emerge at such a vanishing point? What modes of reading and critical attention does such a metamorphic humanity demand of us? Contemporary critical theory has provided a plethora of terms and concepts—posthuman, transhuman, cyborg, non-human agent, vibrant matter—in an attempt to answer these questions. Joining these debates, Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason, translated from the French by Laurent Dubois, offers an alternative genealogy of this current predicament.
“In a world set on objectifying everybody and every living thing in the name of profit,” writes Mbembe in a recent article entitled, ‘The Age of Humanism is Ending,’ “the erasure of the political by capital is the real threat. The transformation of the political into business raises the risk of the elimination of the very possibility of politics. Whether civilization can give rise at all to any form of political life is the problem of the 21st century” (Mbembe 2015). First published in France in 2013, Critique of Black Reason is an insightful and poetic reflection on this problem of political life in our neoliberal times. Best known to an anglophone audience as the author of On the Postcolony and the essay “Necropolitics,” Mbembe sets out an ambitious project of thinking through what it means to share the world, to live alongside one an-other, and to be in-common, in the midst of a world that increasingly understands all forms of relation through a market orientated metric.
Over the last twelve years, the pathbreaking work of Wendy Brown, Michel Feher, and David Harvey has charted the emergence of neoliberal forms of reason as they undo the basic tenets of Western democracy and reduce all forms of value to an economic metric.[i] This work has been indispensable in providing a language to trace the emergence of that new formation of the human that Michel Foucault aptly dubbed homo oeconomicus. Much of this work has tried to illustrate what is new about neoliberalism. Harvey, through a Marxist analysis, has focused on the political-economic development of a global neoliberal order. While Brown and Feher, leaning on a Foucaultian apparatus, have conceived of neoliberalism as a political rationality which insidiously expands into all quarters of life. In an attempt to illustrate the way neoliberalism is distinct and novel in its corrosive tactics, Brown, Harvey, and Feher’s work has tended to pay far less attention to the way neoliberalism borrows from the oppressive racialized tactics of the 20th century. What does neoliberalism co-opt from the logics of racism, colonialism, and slavery? What continuities exist between the tactics of race thinking, and neoliberal reason? How is racism today bolstered by a neoliberal agenda?[ii] It is precisely such questions that animate Critique of Black Reason.
In the opening pages of Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe describes the way neoliberalism, with its digital technologies, extends and supplements the borders of the human. Mbembe argues that neoliberal forms of reason give rise to a reality in which there is “little distinction remaining between psychic reflexes and technological reflexes,” and where the “subject is plastic and perpetually called on to reconfigure itself in relation to the artifacts of the age” (Mbembe 2017a: 3-4). He describes our era as one in which the human is not simply a producer of things, code, or machines, but emerges as a “human-thing, human-machine, human-code,” effectively a “human-in-flux” (4). But if in the age of the digital and neoliberal we find that the human is undergoing a transformation (becoming something other) we need not think that this process is unprecedented. Rather, Mbembe argues, this transformation is prefigured and haunted by the history of slavery and colonialism, through which black bodies vacillated between a commodity-form and a human being.
This history began with the Atlantic slave trade, but did not end there. Mbembe argues that the slave trade produced black humanity as “human-merchandise, human-metal, and human-money” (180). For Mbembe, this experience of fluctuating between a human and an object is the defining feature of black life in the modern world. He describes the black body as “…the only human in the modern order whose skin has been transformed into the form and spirit of merchandise—the living crypt of capital” (6). Mbembe’s attention to the dehumanizing capacity of race is in sync with Alexander Weheliye’s recent argument, in Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, that race is not well understood as a “biological or cultural classification,” but as “a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (4). Mbembe’s book provides an original contribution to debates around post-humanism, bio-politics, and neoliberalism by foregrounding “the gesture of race that, notably in the case of people of African origin, consists of dissolving human beings into things, objects, and merchandise,” (Mbembe 2017a:11) and suggesting that contemporary regimes of power, which reconfigure the human and the nonhuman, resemble this history in which blackness was placed in the zone of the infrahuman.
Today, Mbembe argues we are faced with an extension of a condition which modernity reserved for black bodies. Provocatively, Mbembe terms this contemporary induction of wider humanity into the living crypt of capital: the “becoming black of the world” (7). For Mbembe, the becoming black of the world is not a dead end. On the contrary, it occasions a return to and reexamination of black life in modernity in order to ask: how did black life survive a history of objectification and death-in-life? What forms of imaginative escape and creative reversal did it develop? And in what ways are critiques of race thinking and colonialism particularly useful in our neoliberal times?
For Mbembe, ours is a moment in which animism, neoliberalism, and capitalism are merging. Animism, the projection of life onto inanimate objects, is everywhere present in an age of digital technologies. For example, when digital technologies are endowed with human like qualities: voices, faces, and genders. Or in the world of augmented reality gaming where gamers follow, chase, and trace life-like digital projections in the physical world. Animism is also present in corporate culture: where we find corporations seeking to redefine themselves as persons in order to access rights traditionally reserved for human-persons.[iii] Alongside the rise of animism, we find that in neoliberal culture humans are increasingly objectified. The neoliberal subject thinks of herself as a kind of micro-corporation, and increasingly values herself in terms traditionally reserved for inanimate entities (such as market-oriented metrics, numerical ratings etc.). The neoliberal subject, Mbembe argues, must turn herself “into viable merchandise” that can be “put up for sale” (4). Lastly, Mbembe suggests, ours is an era in which capitalism does not simply exploit workers, but abandons them. Capital does not need workers to function: increasingly their labour can be replaced by artificial forms of intelligence, and digitized platforms. Such abandoned subjects are condemned to live their lives in the short-run and must constantly adapt to the demands of a changing market place.
In Critique of Black Reason Mbembe reads this contemporary metamorphosis of the human alongside black diasporic history, asking: Is the animism of our times comparable to the necromantic animism of colonial domination? In what ways does the so called ‘primitive’ animism of pre-colonial African cultures (which animated the lifeless as a form of survival, escape, and self-invention) relate to contemporary forms of animism? In what ways does the expulsion of the black (le nègre) from the category of the human prefigure the dehumanization of abandoned subjects today? How does the metamorphic figure of the slave haunt our neoliberal era?
Readers looking for one answer to these questions will be disappointed. The book does not proceed by offering a set of problems and a corresponding set of easy solutions. Rather, in Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers us a set of maps through which we might locate our present moment. On the one hand, Mbembe maps the fantasies, delusions, desires, and unreason that have propelled centuries of racism and, on the other hand, the alternative approaches to life, death, and being-in-common that emerge from traditions of anti-racist critique. The aim of these maps is not to produce an account of ‘what actually happened in the past,’ nor do they aim to produce a history of ideas. Rather, Mbembe focuses on those moments in the past that bear some resemblance to our present moment: those forms of power, modes of subjectivity, and practices of critique that might offer us ways of naming and escaping our present. Some readers will no doubt interpret Mbembe’s relation to the past as presentist, and in some senses this is true. Critique of Black Reason is not a book that accepts traditional demarcations between the present and the past. Rather, Mbembe pays attention to those parts of the past that will not be buried, and that are constantly resurrected in our present moment. The epigraph that opens the book, taken from Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, well describes the ghostly history that Mbembe returns too: “These heads of men, these collections of ears, these burned houses, these Gothic invasions, this steaming blood, these cities that evaporate at the edge of the sword, are not to be so easily disposed of” (1). Mbembe’s writing attempts to delve into the darkest moments of the past in order to see the present in a different light;[iv] thus he describes his writing as “a sort of reminiscence, half solar and half lunar, half day and half night” (8).[v]
Each chapter offers a set of historical situations and a set of concepts that navigate these settings. Concepts are not hierarchically presented but are horizontally interlinked. As the reader moves through the book, it becomes clear that the book does not start or end with one definitive conceptual framework or historical example, but creates constellations of multiple settings and concepts. In his excellent translator’s introduction, Laurent Dubois describes this writing style as cartographic: “What Mbembe offers us here is a cartography in two senses: a map of a terrain sedimented by centuries of history, and an invitation to find ourselves within this terrain so that we might choose a path through it—and perhaps even beyond it” (ix). The effect of this cartographical method is that in the end, Mbembe does not provide the reader with any final political orientation. Rather, he encourages readers to look for “resonances and interferences” between historically situated modes of thought, and pick our own paths through the deep complexity of our present moment (Mbembe 2015).
Throughout the book, the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work is present.[vi] Indeed, Mbembe’s cartographical style is reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari’s call in A Thousand Plateaus to: “Make a map, not a tracing” (12).[vii] For Deleuze and Guattari, a tracing is a ready-made shape or structure that explains a desire or gives meaning to an object; a tracing tends to privilege one master concept or example and reproduce it onto the world. In contrast, a map aims to be open, and to move in more than one direction simultaneously. To make a map is to connect different forms of thinking and frameworks in order to allow several stories, examples, and concepts to interact non-hierarchically. Mapping is also an attempt to encourage the reader to participate in the process of working through problems, concepts, and examples. To create a map is always to invite readers to find themselves, their own worlds, and situated knowledge within the authors account. Hence Rosi Braidotti, following this Deleuzian impulse, has argued that cartographic modes of analysis require the participation of the reader by asking, “Do we live in the same world? in the same time-zones? How do you account for the kind of world you are living in?” (6).[viii] Unlike colonial practices of mapping—which privileged opposition and enclosure—this kind of mapping aims to foster collaborative, open-ended and dynamic forms of alliance.
Like Deleuze and Guattari, Mbembe embraces both the open and invitational character of the rhizomatic map. And yet for Mbembe, the project of mapping is a not a way to escape Freudian dogma or the root-like structure of Western philosophy. Rather, it is a way to speak to the specificity of our present moment—to its “possibilities” and “present dangers” (Mbembe 2017a:1)—in a way that remobilizes the idea of a collective and shared future. Neoliberalism, Mbembe argues, can be identified through its “dispossession of the future” (5).[ix] In the era of neoliberalism, everything happens in the short-run and little attention is paid to what kind of future we collectively wish to create. Little attention is paid to what kind of world we want collectively to inhabit. Whether in relation to climate change or the refugee crisis, neoliberalism disavows the idea of collective responsibility, instead advancing a politics of enmity and separation.[x] Elsewhere, Mbembe has called this relation to the future a “negative messianism” that “feels no need to search for or to bring about some form of community” (Mbembe 2017b). The task of critical thought today, Mbembe argues, is to find ways to revitalize the idea of a collective future, a sense of shared responsibility for the world, and a practice of co-produced knowledge about the world.[xi] Cartography—in so far as it invites the reader to locate herself in a shared past, a present we must collaboratively name, and a future that remains open—becomes the experimental analytics of such collectivity.
One potential drawback of Mbembe’s style of writing is that it often gives rise to hyperbolic statements. For example, Mbembe writes that the potential fusion of capitalism and animism leads to “very distinct possibility that human beings will be transformed into animate things made up of coded digital data” (Mbembe 2017a:5). Such dramatic prose elides the fact that the human has never been the stable ground of any humanism and therefore, we need not be alarmed by the idea of human beings in flux. As Spinoza teaches us, we have always already been in a fluctuating and interdependent relation to the natural and inanimate world. Therefore, the question today should not be is the human in crisis? Or will the human be made into something inanimate? Rather, the question is what insidious forms of power are working today to dehumanize specific populations? How does this relate to the generalized animism of our digital and neoliberal age? We could ask similar questions about the idea that today blackness is being generalized. Are there not still forms of racism for which black bodies are the privileged subject? Do contemporary forms of white supremacy not differ from generalized forms of animistic objectification? Some of this subtlety gets lost in Mbembe’s far-reaching analysis.
On the other hand, this criticism is partially assuaged by recognizing that Critique of Black Reason does not offer us a framework that symptomatically represents or reproduces phenomena in the world. It offers us a map. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, maps do not attempt to reproduce the world on the page; rather they attempt to construct a platform that might lead to new ways of experiencing, feeling, and sensing the world. On my reading, the perspective of the becoming black of the world is not an overarching or unmovable regime of power, but an invitation constructed through hyperbole: to think about the important place that African history has in our world today. To think about the way traditions of global black criticism offer us alternative conceptions of the human. To think collectively about how we name our era and how we can foster multiple paths toward creating a shared future in the One World we inhabit. Depth is not the strength of this book. Neither is slowness. This is a book which speeds time up, which connects up large geographies, and searches for alliance among diverse thinkers. It sketches, locates, marks, and invites insights. Such a strategy leaves the burden on the reader to pay attention, engage, find points of alliance, and points of dissonance.
One of the crucial interventions of Mbembe’s study is to reread the central themes of the African American archive from the “other side of the Atlantic” (Mbembe 2018). Mbembe aims to map new paths and avenues for African American thought from the perspective of the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa, and Martinique. Over the last two decades, debates in black studies in the US have been dominated by the themes of social death and the liminal figure of the slave. In Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe attempts to shift this emphasis away from the paradigm of social death and towards questions of life, a humanism-to-come, and One World composed of a thousand parts. Mbembe hopes to make an intervention into African American thought through his conception of black reason, which paves the way toward an afro-futuristic humanism. Part of the difficulty of reading Critique of Black Reason is that its central terms—black reason and critique—are buried within the book rather than clearly defined. It is therefore helpful to offer a textual reading of these two terms as well as to offer an analysis of the contribution Mbembe makes to scholarly debates on racism and afro-humanism in our contemporary era.
In Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers a map—which spans the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries—of the fictive dimensions of racial difference. The book asks: who is the elusive subject that the term “black” refers to? What precisely does this term aspire to tell us about this subject? What kind of unity does the term “black” suppose? Mbembe argues that racial distinctions can only ever possess an illusionary unity. Of black identity he writes, “I mean to question the fiction of unity that it carries within it” (Mbembe 2017a: 25). However, Mbembe’s aim is not to rehash circular debates around the essentialism of identity categories; Critique of Black Reason is, rather, an exploration of race as the phantasmagoria of modernity. More precisely, Mbembe is interested in the entanglement of fiction and truth, life and death, madness and sanity, reason and unreason, which racialized forms of difference (what he calls “black reason”) inaugurate.
The voice that echoes off every page of this book is that of Frantz Fanon.[xii] In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote: “Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: Who am I in reality?” (Fanon 2004: 182). For Fanon, colonialism produced a kind of unreality because it constantly made the colonized question their statues as human-beings. Echoing this Fanonian insight, Mbembe argues that race is not a biological or empirical fact, but a “structure of the imagination;” and racism consists “most of all in substituting what is with something else, another reality” (Mbembe 2017a: 32). Like Fanon, Mbembe is interested in the “sensory life” (106) of race that works to mask and unmask subjects; he writes of race as a mask made up of a “massive coating of nonsense, lies, and fantasies” (39)—simultaneously “material and phantasmic” (2). The central term in this book, “black reason,” is exemplary of this Fanonian influence.
So, what is black reason? For Mbembe, black reason is not some essential form of reason that can be attributed to people of a certain race; rather, it is the reason that created race. What, Mbembe asks, does race do? What is the logic—the black reason—that propels racial distinctions? Broadly conceived, “black reason” is a term that names the process by which Western modernity produced Africa and its populations in a negative capacity—as a world outside, a world apart, or the klossonos of the world—in order to constitute itself positively (53-61). More specifically, black reason names a “complicated network” (10) of discourses, modes of governance, forms of subjection, and fantasies that used a racialized arithmetic to divide humanity—to separate out populations of similar beings (humanity-in-general) and populations made up of beings who were not “human like all others” (black-humanity) (85).
Mbembe provides many examples of the ways in which people of African descent have been excluded from the category of the human. This exclusion is accompanied by hysterical and fantastic images of Africa and its populations as a primitive people who have fallen out of time and history—essentially, a socially dead people. For example, when Hegel wrote of Africa he did not simply refer to a mappable geographical location, but to an unhistorical place populated by a “humanity staggering through life, confusing becoming-human and becoming-animal” (12). Mbembe writes:
The notion of race made it possible to represent non-European human groups as trapped in a lesser form of being. They were impoverished reflections of the ideal man, separated from him by an insurmountable temporal divide, a difference nearly impossible to overcome. To talk of them was, most of all, to point to an absence—the absence of the same—or, rather, to a second presence, that of monsters and fossils (17).
When one speaks of Africa, Mbembe argues, one gives up responsibility, and the relation between words and things begin to deteriorate. We enter a symbolic realm that is governed by delirium, hysteria, and phantasy. Hegel’s Reason in History marks the high point of a “gregarious phase of Western thinking” in which “grasping ideas became gradually detached from the effort to know deeply and intimately” (17). For Mbembe, this crisis of meaning-making is not simply a relic of a bygone age, rather it finds its way into our contemporary imaginary: “Still today, as soon as the subject of Blacks and Africa is raised, words do not necessarily represent things” (13).
In Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe is not simply interested in the fact that black life is historically seen as non-human; he is interested in the form of power that constitutes this non-human status. What kind of (un)reason allows Hegel to imagine Africans as “human entities incapable of ridding themselves definitively of the animal presence which they were mixed”(17)? To explore this question, Mbembe dwells on the dark magic of modernity—its ability to transmogrify human beings into human-objects, human-animals, or transform a geographical location into a heart of darkness, a non-place—which, he argues haunts black life today. For Mbembe, it is this dark magic of modernity—which distorts reality and produces regimes of fantasy—that penetrates the postcolony.
For example, Mbembe argues that colonial-era statues and monuments in the postcolony “perform” the function of “entrapment” through a practice of necromancy (126). These statues and monuments work, on a daily basis, to resurrect or conjure up those who had terrorized and “threatened Blacks with the sword and with death” (128). Mbembe writes:
The presence of the lugubrious dead in the public arena is meant to ensure that both murder and cruelty, which the dead personify, continue to haunt the memories of the ex-colonized to saturate their imaginary and the spaces of their lives (128).
Through a practice of necromancy and geomancy, the colonizer lives on and continues to haunt the ex-colonized. This means that the ex-colonized cannot think “clearly” (128) because they are constantly accosted by this unyielding spectral presence. Mbembe calls this a funerary power which is propelled through a circulation of taking life and resurrecting the dead.
This analysis of the funerary power of colonial statues is uncannily prescient. Two years after the French edition of Critique of Black Reason was published a wave of demonstrations swept through South African university campuses protesting the presence of colonial-era statues. The protests were sparked by a group of students at the University of Cape Town who demanded the removal of a prominently placed statue of the colonial mining magnet Cecil John Rhodes. In South Africa, these protests produced much public debate. Some asked: are colonial remnants not a part of South Africa’s divided history? Should they not be left standing in order to be learnt from? If we remove these statues are we denying and repressing South Africa’s painful past? (In the United States a somewhat similar debate has emerged in relation to confederate flags. What do these flags represent? Are they a harmless part of Southern history?) The power of Mbembe’s attention to the magical and enchanting dimensions of racial domination is vivid in relation to these debates.
Mbembe argues that colonial power aimed to dominating both the living and the dead or the animate and the inanimate. Therefore, we must never underestimate the capacity of those ‘mute things,’ which the colonizer left behind, to enchant the public arena. Colonial era statues are ritualistic: they aim to remind the colonized that the colonizer is a subject who not only conquered all forms of life, but who also “outruns death” (126). These statutes “envelop the subjugated” (127) by appearing in victorious garb at the entrance of government buildings, in the walkways of public gardens, or the foot of institutions of learning. They are placed prominently in order to make the colonized feel uneasy, out of place, and inhibited in the public arena. Mbembe’s language of enchantment, alchemy, and magic allows us to see that these statues are not passive features of the built environment. Nor are they simply commemorative remnants of a traumatic past. Rather, they are spatial actors who work to haunt, disturb, and confuse those they encounter.
Significantly, all these moments in which black life is trapped in the unending circuit of death-in-life—whether through Hegel’s dreams of primitive Africans or the necromancy of colonial-era statues—are examples of black reason. In short, black reason is the fictional economy that facilitates this oppressive circulation of death and life: a logic that partitions the world, and closes off the category of the human, using race as its modus operandi.
This conception of black reason sets up the central dilemma that Mbembe wishes to tackle. Namely, what resources can be found in the capacious corpus of black criticism that can offer a critique of black reason? Which critiques are successful and which simply reproduce the violent logics of black reason? Importantly, for Mbembe, “the work of race” is fundamentally “the very negation of the idea of the common, or of a common humanity” (54). Hence the question that faces black criticism is how to foster a form of belonging, and being-in-common that is not founded upon the ejection of black life from humanity. Significantly, what do we do with race—that form of difference that has through-out history been used to banish life to a space of crisis and a death-in-life—in such a project? It is in answering this question that Mbembe introduces his conception of a humanism-to-come.
Black reason, Mbembe argues, is the fictional economy that produces, and uses race to divide humanity into humans and non-humans. It is a logic that produces the word ‘black’ in an attempt to wound, dehumanize, and objectify. Some strands of black thought (such as: Pan-Africanism, Negritude, and those writers who affirmed “a so-called politics of Africanity”) tried to reverse the racist telos of black reason by arguing that African people have their own histories and cultures which constitute a distinct, but not inferior humanity (88). These forms of criticism closed themselves off from the rest of humanity, because they failed to critique the false partition of black humanity from humanity-in-general. On Mbembe’s account, to claim that blackness is a sign of ontological, cultural, or national distinction is an inversion and not a critique of black reason. Against these modes of writing, Mbembe argues that African and black identities have never been distinct or unique, rather these identities were always “nourished” by multiple “ethnic, geographic, and linguistic differences” (95). Therefore the name ‘black’ ought to be reclaimed not as a retreat from humanity, but as a call to a future-to-come in which black people are part of a common humanity composed of a thousand parts.
Mbembe’s conception of black reason suggests that racial distinctions are historical and contingent.[xiii] And that it is not race (or blackness) but the idea of a common humanity that ought to be the basis of revolutionary thinking today. Indeed, throughout Critique of Black Reason Mbembe affirms those modes of black criticism which look forward to, and desire a world without racial difference. For example, in his reading of Césaire’s work he asks: why does Césaire use the word black and not simply human being? He argues that for Césaire the word ‘black’ is not connected to the “idolatry of race,” (159) but is “the ultimate metaphor” for a humanism-to-come that would include black people not as black, but as human (159). Similarly, he writes of Glissant’s thought as consistently affirming the idea that all races and cultures share One World which is made up of “a thousand parts. Of everyone. Of all worlds” (180). And he writes of Nelson Mandela as ultimately “seeking an idea that in the end was quite simple: how to live free from race and the domination that results from it” (172). Indeed, Mbembe affirms those “strands” of black criticism in which “difference is only one facet of a larger project” (183). Within these modes of thought the word “black” is not used with the “goal of finding solace within it,” but as a way of “clouding the term in order to gain distance from it” (173).[xiv]
Thus far, I have traced the development of black reason as it turns into a critique of black reason in order to illustrate Mbembe’s four major interventions into African American thought. The first is to centralize the archive of Africa and the Caribbean. The second is to provide a historical (and not an ontological or national) reading of race. The third is to couple the practice of critique with the creation of a future. The fourth, finally, is to reinvigorate the idea of a humanism-to-come which would reject the hierarchical division between humans and non-humans. Thus, Mbembe writes: “The path is clear: on the basis of a critique of the past, we must create a future that is inseparable from notions of justice, dignity, and the in-common” (177). In a general sense, Mbembe aims to shift the emphasis away from blackness as a form of social death, toward blackness as a prophetic call for a new humanism that would be grounded in ideas of a shared world, an expanding horizon of the possible, and a shared future.
I would argue that while this intervention is compelling—particularly, in so far as it attempts to expand the archive, terms, and conceptual apparatus of the middle passage paradigm that has dominated US based black studies—Mbembe risks overlooking complicated debates around positionality and placement of ‘blackness’ by refusing to directly engage with the archive of contemporary African American thought. For example, the work of Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, and Frank Wilderson has emphasized the way the figure of the slave continues to haunt black life. In different ways, each has argued that lived experience of black populations continue to be shaped by the oppressive structures of slavery. Hartman in Lose Your Mother argues that if “slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America” is it not because of an obsessive or melancholic relation to the past, but because “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic” that was “entrenched centuries ago” (6). Black people live in what Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery” which is made up of “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” (6). On this account, to be ‘black’ is to constantly negotiate dehumanizing forces, and to live under the constant threat of death. If the ‘future’ is not a category that is emphasized in these accounts it is because the legacy of slavery structures the present in ways that are not easy to overcome.
Moreover, Moten, Sexton, and Wilderson have argued that black subjection (in so far as it excludes black subjects from the category if the ‘human’) troubles the categories which traditionally humanistic discourses have taken for granted. For example, Moten (following Nahum Dimitri Chandler) has argued that the subaltern condition of blackness is well understood as a “paraontological” force which resists, and disrupts traditional demarcations between: the subject and the object, or the outside and inside, or the ugly and the beautiful (Moten 2008). Similarly, Sexton writes of blackness as a “paralogical” force which allows us to think “differently about space, time, being, existence” (Sexton 2017). Importantly, for these theorists—whether we call them Afro-optimists or Afro-pessimists—blackness works to put in question traditional conceptions of the body, the human, humanism, the present, the past, critique, and judgment. In this sense, blackness fugitively escapes and exceeds the terms and categories of modernity’s humanist discourse. Thus Wilderson writes, “the explanatory power of Humanist discourse, is bankrupt in the face of the Black. It is inadequate and inessential to, as well as parasitic on, the ensemble of questions which the dead but sentient thing, the Black, struggles to articulate in a world of living subjects” (55).
On Mbembe’s reading, the name ‘black’ ought to be re-claimed not as something that stands besides or on the side of (para-) the human, humanity, logic, or ontology. Nor should it signify a form of being that is always already facing death. For Mbembe, seeing blackness as apart from humanity-in-general or the name for a socially dead population is to be blinded by the logic of black reason, which we must attempt to move beyond. Successful critiques of black reason are those that move through the history of racism propelled by “hope of escaping the world as it has been,” and desire to be “reborn into life, to lead the festival once again” (Mbembe 2017a:173). The name ‘black’ in such a project prophetically calls on a new humanism, which would embrace difference as the basis of what is common among humanity. How does such prophetic conception of the name ‘black’ relate to the lived experience of the after-life of slavery? How do we negotiate the desire for a future beyond the idolatry of race, and the desire to bear witness to the ongoing legacies of slavery, and colonialism? What is the relation between a futuristic humanism-to-come, and the critiques of humanistic discourse that theorists such as Moten, Wilderson, and Sexton have offered? By avoiding these questions Mbembe has produced a conception of a humanism-to-come which stands in a clearly critical, but also vague relation to the important work of theorists such a Hartman, Moten, Sexton, and Wilderson.
The lack of engagement with contemporary African American thought is not the only weakness of Mbembe’s archival practice. In the public discussions of this book that have taken place over the last few months—both in South Africa and the United States—readers have wondered what this book would have looked like if the tradition of critique which it explored had included the voices of black women. Indeed, despite Critique of Black Reason’s far-reaching scope, the archive of black criticism relied on is almost entirely masculine: Fanon, Glissant, Césaire, Garvey, Mandela, Tutuola, Tansi, Baldwin. Given that the scope of this project is so large (a critique of the racist logic that undergirds the modern order) the reader is left wondering what blind-spots this book reproduces through its archival bias.
Despite these criticisms, the strength of Critique of Black Reason‘s indirect intervention lies in the language of enchantment, dreamworlds, necromancy, and alchemy which the book develops. In Critique of Black Reason, the workings of racism are described not in sociological or historical terms, but as a form of enchantment which closes off the category of the human. In a similar way, anti-racist critique is described as a prophetic incantation, and a search for a world-to-come within this world. This mapping of competing phantasmagoric worlds opens up multiple questions, and suggests multiple paths to rethinking the legacy of decolonial, and abolitionist thought in our contemporary world. Moreover, I have suggested that Mbembe does not sufficiently address the critiques of humanism which contemporary African America thought has produced, but this does not mean that he resorts to any traditional conception of the human (or humanism). On the contrary, one of the powerful interventions of Critique of Back Reason is the way it shows how the human has been re-enchanted, and re-made through African aesthetic traditions. In these traditions, the human is thought of in several different forms, and is always a subject in process. In order to explore this non-traditional conception of the human, I will offer a reading of the central chapter of this book, “Requiem for the Slave,” in which the reader is introduced to the idea of a metamorphic human.
In Critique of Black Reason, several kinds of metamorphic subjectivities are mapped. At the start of the book, Mbembe maps the metamorphic subject of our digital and neoliberal world. This subject is one who must constantly transform herself in order to remain competitive and valuable; moreover, this is a subject who must constantly negotiate the ever blurring boundary between things and persons or the animate and the inanimate. He goes on to show the way in which this contemporary subject is prefigured by the human-in-flux—”at once outside and within the human” (135)—that slavery, colonialism, and race thinking (black reason) produced. The metamorphic power of neoliberalism, and black reason are both aimed at destructively trapping the human in a space between death and life. How do we resist such morphing? How do we critique the necromantic power of such transmogrification? In the second half of the book, Mbembe aims to answer these questions by mapping another mode of metamorphosis, which blurs the boundary between the animate and the inanimate, as a mode of survival, and an affirmation of life. By turning to experimental African literature, Mbembe explores the immanent modes of critique which re-inscribed tradition using the resources of dreams, fantasies, and orphic knowledge; and resisted death by reclaiming the powers of necromancy, enchantment, animism, and metamorphosis.
The quintessential example of this mode of critique is found in the experimental aesthetics of the Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi and the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola. Both authors create fictional worlds that linger between life and death. In the case of Tutuola’s literature, this liminal space is expressed through the figure of the ghost; in Lansi’s literature it is explored through the creation of what he calls “rag-humans,” which are neither alive nor dead, but exist in a half-world and live a half-life (134). These fictional worlds explore the capacity of racism to turn people into human-things, human-animals, or ghosts whose liminal status prevents them from fully joining the world of the living or the dead. Both these authors critique this liminal space by creating unexpected relations among life, loss, and death. Tansi and Tutuola, Mbembe argues, bear witness to the destructive transformations of black reason by embodying and reversing its cannibalistic logic for their own means. Like the schizophrenic subject in the work of Deleuze and Guattari this literature produces a critique of black reason by scrambling “all the codes” (148).
In these literary landscapes, characters leap through the realms of death and life. They constantly transform themselves—into animals or inanimate objects or different people—in order to preserve life. For example, Tansi’s experimental novel Life and a Half opens with a scene of torture in which what he calls a rag-father is being eaten alive by a character referred to as the Provincial Guide. The rag-father’s body is torn asunder and his organs are strewn all over the room, but he does not die. The Provincial Guide repeatedly asks: “Now, what are you waiting for?” And the rag-father repeatedly answers: “I do not want to die this death” (6). In Tansi’s universe, even at the moment where the human is in some sense already dead, there is a kind of agency, and a resilient desire for life. This desire for life is present even if it can only be articulated as a desire for another kind of death. And so, the rag-human transforms himself into a being who dies a thousand deaths, because he will not accept the unwanted death offered to him. In a similar way, in Tutuola’s literary landscapes we find people who are constantly chased by death. In order to escape death, they transform themselves into animals or other humans. Sometimes these transformations lead to death anyways. However, these transformations are always aimed at survival. One transforms oneself, morphs into something else and enchants the world, in order to continue living and to resist an unwanted, and pre-mature death. What Mbembe tries to offer here is another way of remembering the slave, not only as that human who was always already dead, but also as that metamorphic human who danced with death, in order to resurrect the lifeless a thousand times over.
The colossal violence of black reason is its capacity to turn life into a death-in-life. To banish certain subjects into a liminal state in which life can no longer be affirmed, but must be lived out as, what Tansi called, a half-life. What fascinates Mbembe about black critique is its capacity to celebrate “the ineradicability of life” in defiance of this “long life-denying history” (Mbembe 2005). For Mbembe, this defense of and desire for life is the force behind the thought of Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, and Frantz Fanon. These traditions of critique aim to bring back to life dead subjects, deserted spaces, and barren languages:
The durability of the world depends on our capacity to reanimate beings and things that seem lifeless—the dead man, turned to dust by the desiccated economy; an order poor in worldliness that traffics in bodies and life. The world will not survive unless humanity devotes itself to the task of sustaining what can be called the reservoirs of life. The refusal to perish may yet turn us into historical beings and make it possible for the world to be a world. But our vocation to survive depends on making the desire for life the cornerstone of a new way of thinking about politics and culture. (Mbembe 2017a:181)
If racist logic is powerful because of its ability to harness the power of metamorphosis as a form of entrapment and social death, then in critiques of black reason this power of metamorphosis is immanently reclaimed and turned into a life-affirming force. Fanon’s work, Mbembe tells us, was propelled by the conviction that every human being—no matter how much violence they have undergone—has “something indomitable and fundamentally intangible that no domination” can “eliminate” (170). Throughout his work, Mbembe argues, Fanon tried to create modes of thought and practice through which this ineffable resilience “could be reanimated and brought back to life” (170). For this reason, Mbembe calls Fanon’s thought a “metamorphic thought” (162).
For Mbembe, black identity is not exceptional or distinct (black subjects are human like all others), but if there is a characteristic that is historically original or innovative about black life, it is the capacity to survive the dehumanization of racist imaginaries by learning to morph, transform, and enchant hegemonic traditions; to produced immanent forms of critique by delving into the depths of black reason’s “nocturnal economy” (130) in order to rework and transform its logic from within. In this sense, what Mbembe offers as a humanism-to-come is not grounded in a traditional understanding of the human. It is grounded in an archive of black criticism that uses “play, leisure, spectacle, and the principle of metamorphosis” in order to produce several modalities of being human, and approaches to life (176). In the end then, Critique of Black Reason seeks to remind readers that while social death is a paradigm that dominates the history of racism there is also a hidden tradition of metamorphic critique that moves through death in order to affirm life.
Throughout the book, Mbembe’s writing is marked by a double gesture: simultaneously he maps the racist forms of reason that produce modes of death-in-life and unveils the traditions of critique that rise up to immanently deconstruct such racism. For example, we will recall that in the opening pages of this book he argued that today we are faced with the looming perspective of the becoming black of the world. Mbembe offers us this phrase in an attempt to map the dangers that emerge from the potential consolidation of neoliberalism, capitalism, and animism; to show the way this fusion borrows much from the logics of racism and colonialism. It is also an attempt to suggest that as we think through, resist, and critique these contemporary forces of dehumanization we can fruitfully borrow much from metamorphic anti-racist modes of critique. In other words, in so far as our neoliberal-animistic culture inherits and expands the cannibalistic logics of race thinking it also (potentially) makes itself vulnerable to those critiques of black reason that—in another time—creatively resisted similar forms of depredation.
This much is implied in Mbembe’s use of the word becoming. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari explain the idea of becoming by using the example of a wasp and an orchid. They argue that the wasp and the orchid are not well understood as two different types or categories of things. When the wasp flies around the orchid, moving pollen from one flower to the next, it becomes categorically indissociable from the orchid. Therefore, we should therefore think of them in symbiotic, but not equivalent relation: “a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp”(10). In a similar way, Mbembe seems to suggest that the looming threat of the ‘becoming black of the world’ is always already coupled with a counter or minor, but not equivalent perspective which we might call the becoming world of the black. This perspective is one in which the search for a common world, and the desire for life which animated critiques of black reason becomes a universal, and generalizable project. On my reading, the aim of this book is to make such a liminal perspective available. And it is only by recognizing this implicit perspective that we can interpret the otherwise unexplained optimism that runs through this book and is encapsulated in the opening sentence: “I envision this book as a river with many tributaries, since history and all things flow toward us now” (1, emphasis mine).
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Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, with forwards by Ziauddin Sardar and Homi K. Bhabha. London: Pluto Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox, with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Grove Press.
Flately, Jonathan. 2008. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Boston: Harvard University Press.
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Goldberg, Theo David. 2008. The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hartman, Saidiya. 2008. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Harvey, David. 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Marriott, David. 2018. “The becoming-black of the world? On Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason.” Radical Philosophy, no.2.02: 61-71.
Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Translated by A. M. Berrett, Murray Last, Achille Mbembe, Steven Rendall and Janet Roitman. Berkeley: University of California Press.
______________. 2005. “Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds.” Politique Africaine, no. 100: 69-91.
______________.”Africa and the Future: An Interview with Achille Mbembe.” Africa is a Country. March 2013. https://africasacountry.com/2013/11/africa-and-the-future-an-interview-with-achille-mbembe/
______________. 2015. “The value of Africa’s aesthetics.” Mail & Guardian, May 15, 2015. https://mg.co.za/article/2015-05-14-the-value-of-africas-aesthetics.
______________. 2016a. “The Age of Humanism is Ending.” Mail & Guardian, December 22, 2016. https://mg.co.za/article/2016-12-22-00-the-age-of-humanism-is-ending/.
______________. 2016b. “The society of enmity.” Radical Philosophy, no. 200: 23-35.
______________. 2017a. Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham: Duke University Press.
______________. 2017b. “Negative messianism marks our times.” Mail & Guardian, February 3, 2017.
______________. 2018. “Conversation: Achille Mbembe and David Theo Goldberg on Critique of Black Reason.” Theory, Culture, and Society, July 3, 2018. https://www.theoryculturesociety.org/conversation-achille-mbembe-and-david-theo-goldberg-on-critique-of-black-reason/
Moten, Fred. 2008. “Black Op.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5: 1743-1747.
Sexton, Jared. 2017. “On Black Negativity, or the Affirmation of Nothing.” Interviewed by Daniel Colucciello Barber, Society + Space, September 18th, 2017. http://societyandspace.org/2017/09/18/on-black-negativity-or-the-affirmation-of-nothing/
__________. 2011 “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions Journal no. 5:1-47.
Tansi, Sony. 2011. Life and a Half: A Novel. Translated by Alison Dunby. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Weheliye, Alexander. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press.
Wilderson, Frank. 2010. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms Durham: Duke University Press.
My thanks to Bilkish Vahed, Cathy Caruth, and Christopher Newfield for generously commenting on this essay.
[i] See Brown 2015, Harvey 2007, and Feher 2009.
[ii] David Theo Goldberg has recently argued that today we need to mold “a critical analytics” which might enable us to comprehend “racially driven neoliberalisms and neoliberally fueled racism” (viii). Such a suggestion is in sync with Mbembe’s project in Critique of Black Reason.
[iii] See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
[iv] “Critique,” Mbembe writes in a recent preface to On the Postcolony, “is witnessing as well as endless vigilance, interrogation and anticipation. A proper critique requires us first to dwell in the chaos of the night in order precisely to better break through into the dazzling light of the day” (Mbembe 2005).
[v] Although I have not discussed it here the influence of music, particularly Congolese music of the 1980’s, on Mbembe’s style of writing is significant. Mbembe writes: “The emotional sublimity of the Congolese musical imagination taught me how indispensable it was to think with the bodily senses, to write with the musicality of one’s own flesh” (Mbembe 2015). For an extended reading of Congolese music see Mbembe 2005.
[vi] See especially chapter three (92-102) and chapter five (143-150) of Critique of Black Reason where Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of becoming, itinerant identity, and schizophrenic subjectivity are referenced in key moments.
[vii] For an exploration of mapping see Flately 2008. Flately writes of Deleuze and Guattari’s project of mapping: “The revisable, rhizomatic affective map not only gives us a view of a terrain shared with others in the present but also traces the paths, resting places, dead ends, and detours we might share with those who came before us” (7).
[viii] Brain Massumi puts it succinctly: “The question is not, Is it true? But, Does it work? What new thoughts does it make possible to think? What new emotions does it make possible to feel? What new sensations and perceptions does it open in the body?” (1992, 8).
[ix] See Mbembe 2013 where he says of his work at WISER in Johannesburg: “The time of the market, especially under the current capitalist conditions, is a time that is very fragmented and the time of consumption is really a time of the instant. So we wanted to recapture that category of the future and see to what extent it could be remobilized in the attempt at critiquing the present, and reopening up a space not only for imagination, but also for the politics of possibility.”
[x] See Mbembe 2016b for a discussion the role of separation contemporary politics.
[xi] This argument is in sync Wendy Brown’s recent suggestion that the question that stands at the center of political life today, “What kind of world do we want to live in?” (Brown, 2018) is simple in its formulation, but profound in its burden.
[xii] As Laurent Dubois notes in the translator’s introduction to Critique of Black Reason: “…the greatest guide throughout is Frantz Fanon, whose writings Mbembe has engaged with throughout much of his work. Fanon’s “situated thinking, born of a lived experience that was always in progress, unstable, and changing,” provided a model of critical thought that was “aimed at smashing, puncturing, and transforming” colonialism and racism. His was always a “metamorphic thought,” and as such an ever-present and ever-relevant guide through the ruins of the present.” (xiii)
[xiii] In a conversation with David Theo Goldberg, Mbembe says: “As a matter of fact, to speak about modernity is to confront the fact of capitalism. And there is hardly any way in which we can think about capitalism without having to account for racial slavery and its aftermath. I wanted to explore this genealogy of modernity that places racial capitalism at its heart as the cauldron in which the idea of Black, of blackness, was produced. I wanted to take seriously the idea that Black, or blackness, is not so much a matter of ontology as it is a matter of historicity or even contingency. I also wanted to contest those lineages of blackness that use memories of trauma to develop discourses of blackness as ontology” (Mbembe, 2018).
[xiv] David Marriott in a recent essay on Critique of Black Reason has argued that the conception of black reason and a humanism-to-come are inconsistent or mismatched. If black reason is a realm of magic, enchantment, necromancy, then how can it so seamlessly be tamed by a well reasoned humanistic intervention? Marriott asks, how can blackness both name “a primordial difference within the human” and be overcome through a rational and all inclusive form of humanism? (67) On my reading, some of these questions would clarified if Mbembe engaged with contemporary African American thought.
Isn’t Mbembe’s scope of the new humanism correlated to the critical stance of Afro-optimism by Fred Moten? The former might be a more optimistic vision with its erasure of the liminality of black lives but both stress the escape from the social death; the latter philosophical investigation, rooted in the social death, however, mirrors a respite while exploring the richness of the black aesthetics.