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Achille Mbembe on how to restore the humanity stolen by racism

African philosopher, Achille Mbembe, has gained an enviable reputation as a scholar that challenges the tenets of modernity. Some aspects of modernity Mbembe is known to challenge are characterised by the move towards more capitalistic economies, an increase in social stratifications and the universalisation of Western European thought. From “On Private Indirect Government” (2000) to his recent book, “Critique of Black Reason” (2017), his interest has always been on how the world can account for the construction and consequences of race and racism.

In “Critique of Black Reason” Mbembe challenges us to rethink the present with the view of charting a future that, according to Mbembe, will differ from the past and the present.

A key interest of the book is on how race and racism have played a role in how the modern world is organised. However much the world might have benefited from modernity, what is unavoidable is the integral role of race and racism in the construction of modernity. This is why for Mbembe it is of utmost importance that we examine this aspect of modernity as it continues to exclude subjects and create new and old victims that are “the wretched of the earth”.

He writes:

race, operating over the past centuries as a fundamental category that is at once material and phantasmic, has been at the root of catastrophe, the cause of extraordinary psychic destruction and of innumerable crimes and massacres.

For Mbembe, the construction of race emanates from the symbolic. It accounts for the ways in which subjects live and where they live. It explains the kinds of debates that prohibit – or allow them – to lead meaningful lives.

Age of Reason

Cover of ‘Critique of Black Reason’. Wits University Press

The book focuses more on how discourses of race and other differences emerged in the eighteenth century during what is popularly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.

This was a period in which science, philosophy and other disciplines, and social debates, constructed differences between people.This was driven by two factors: material interests and an unwillingness to live with the unfamiliar. Mbembe’s book takes to task this idea of Enlightenment to show how it is responsible for the construction of race and racism:

The Black Man is the one (or the thing) that one sees when one sees nothing, when one understands nothing, and above all, when one wishes to understand nothing.

This, for Mbembe, is not coincidental. This is because,

the term ‘Black’ was the product of a social and technological machine tightly linked to the emergence and globalisation of capitalism. It was invented to signify exclusion, brutalisation, and degradation, to point to a limit constantly conjured and abhorred.

Capitalism, from this perspective, is only possible because it’s exclusionary. For much of our contemporary history, this has been through the discourse of race.

History of Africa

Africa is the continent where most “black” people live. Mbembe’s book therefore looks into the history of Africa and how it has been used, and abused, as the antithesis of Western modernity. Since the West depends on the “rest” in order to construct itself, it is not surprising, Mbembe writes, that,

when Africa comes up, correspondence between words, images, and the thing itself matters very little. It is not necessary for the name to correspond to the thing, or for the thing to respond to its name.

This is because,

when one says the word ‘Africa’ one generally abdicates all responsibility.

And it is in this abdication of responsibility that Mbembe argues for a different way of being in the world, and of living with others that are different from oneself.

While, then, the word Africa might speak to a historical and present suffering, there is also something in the word, Mbembe writes,

that judges the world and calls for reparation, restitution, and justice. Its spectral presence in the world can be understood only as part of a critique of race.

Mbembe argues that while race and racism still play an important role in the present, it is also clear that there is a “Becoming Black of the world” that has to do with the numerous forms of exclusion and violence that haunt the contemporary.

For instance, Mbembe writes,

If yesterday’s drama of the subject was exploitation by capital, the tragedy of the multitude today is that they are unable to be exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects relegated to the role of a ‘superfluous humanity.

To be hopeful

How, then, does one continue to live, and to be hopeful, when it seems as though the history of the world is a history of depredation and cruelty? To answer this question, Mbembe turns to philosopher Frantz Fanon (as he does in much of the book) and writes that one of the important lessons that he taught us is,

the idea 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.

It is here that the possibility of a different future is possible.

This is because for Mbembe,

until we have eliminated racism from our current lives and imagination, we will have to continue to struggle for the creation of a world beyond - race. But to achieve it, to sit down at a table to which everyone has been invited, we must undertake an exacting political and ethical critique of racism and of the ideologies of difference…

And that is precisely what this book does.

In bringing together thinkers us such as Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Michel Foucault and many others, “Critique of Black Reason” is an impressive book. It offers readers insight into how the construction of race and racism underpins our understanding of modernity and therefore of the world we inhabit.

More than this though, it challenges readers to undo forms of exclusionary thinking that still haunt the ways we live. It is only in doing this, according to Mbembe, that we can,

restore the humanity stolen from those who have historically been subjected to processes of abstraction and objectification.

“Critique of Black Reason” is an illuminating and brilliant addition to Mbembe’s corpus. It is the kind of book, I suspect, that will become compulsory reading for undergraduate and graduate classes worldwide.

“Critique of Black Reason” is published by Wits University Press

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