Friday, 29 November 2013

Does 'On the Postcolony' break with the colonial library?

Mlamuli Hlatswayo, November 2013


This essay takes the position that Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony (hereafter referred to as Mbembe’s text) does to a large extent, break with the colonial library. Furthermore, Mbembe’s text offers a critical analysis of postcolonial Africa through the privileging of African subjectivities, and a rejection of dominant modes of representations, which is largely found in Marxism and neo liberal discussions on Africa. Mary Porter argues that Mbembe rejects these simplistic binaries (“West” and “South”, “Developed” and “Developing” etc) and the segmented historical trajectories which not only influence the different modes of representations in Africa, but they are also influenced and informed by the Colonial archive (Porter, 2003: 274).

This means that dominant scholarships on Africa and about Africa (which usually refer to Sub Saharan Africa and tend to ignore North Africa), are shaped by the Manichean allegoric framework, in how Africa is often perceived as the world par excellence of everything that is incomplete, destructive, brutal and characterized by extremes (whether its poverty, corruption, maladministration, warfare and others) (Mbembe, 2001: 9) (this will be discussed further in the essay). Using this understanding as a point of departure, the essay will critically engage with the idea of the colonial library, using various scholars such as V.Y. Mudimbe and Guarav Desai, in showing the manner in the colonial archive is not only compromised but actually has consequences on the current representations of Africa. Centrally, the essay will be showing the various ways in which Mbembe’s text could be argued, breaks away from the colonial archive, and the other instances where it could be said to be working within that library. The essay will also offer a critical comment, in problematizing the notion of “Africa”, and what that actually means, in context to the colonial library and Mbembe’s text. Thus the essay will offer a conclusion based on the aforementioned discussion points.

On the colonial archive

Before the essay goes on to critically discuss Mbembe’s text and its attempt to break with the colonial library, it will first discuss the structural aim of the colonial library, its role in knowledge production about Africans and the various ways in which it continues to shape thoughts and the frameworks of writings on Africa. In his book, The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe defines the colonial library as the “set of representations and texts that have collectively ‘invented’ Africa as a locus of difference and alterity” (Praeg, 2013: 8). This refers to the various ways in which science, anthropology and religion (as signified by the missionaries), created a hegemonic colonial discourse in which they sought to “study” what they considered “Africans” and “African behavior”, which ultimately came to represent and form the colonial library, which one could argue, acts as a referral point in informing the current discourse on Africa and about Africans. This leads to the colonial library constructing Africans’ knowledge about themselves and their presupposed singular mode of being in the world (Mbembe, 2001: 9). It should be emphasized that the colonial library’s primary function was to “study” African societies so as to help facilitate and help make colonization efficient. Thus knowledge accumulation and its production lacked thorough methodological research, and was structurally engineered to deny the African lived experience of human agency - through the consistent representations of Africans as a singular people, who are primitive and who are inherently at an antithesis to western civilization. This colonial discourse, which has informed the colonial library, manifests itself in contemporary postcolonial writings about Africa, as seen in Peyi Soyinka-Airewele and Rita Edozie’s argument that contemporary discourses on Africa are largely shaped by the frameworks of the colonial library, and thus resort to showing Africa as the “uncivilized” “Global Other” that lacks international institutions, civil society, dynamic cultures and is without a history prior colonization (Soyinka-Airewele and Edozie, 2010: 13). Thus one could argue, and echo Mbembe’s point in the chapter “Time on the Move”, in suggesting that with regard to the colonial library, its impact cannot be restricted to a specific time or space (only during the colonial period), its consequences and effects transcend that time and that particularly space, and are (as argued in the essay) still continued to been seen and felt, especially when the simplistic binaries are employed to again position Africa as the Deformed Other that is not at par with the world (Mbembe, 2001: 10) (the importance of time will be further discussed in detail in the essay).

Mbembe and the attempt to reject the colonial archive: Focus on African subjectivities

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s novella employs the typical colonial stereotypes to describe how his central character, Marlow, travels to the “dark place” (which signifies the Congo, and thereby represents Africa) in pursuit of not only of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz (who is a colonial official), but also uses the Congo as a performance space for colonial authorities to prove their masculinity, and to assert their dominance over the “pre-historical”, and “bestial” Africans. The Congo In the novel is consistently being represented as a space of vast pre-historical yet paradoxically ahistorical savage creatures who appear human but are not really human beings, who like animals, require white male leadership to be put to use which is best suited for the creation of the colonial hegemonic masculinity – thus the Africans are viewed through an instrumentalist framework (Conrad, 2006: 63). Perhaps what is interesting about Conrad’s text is the manner in which Africa and the agency of Africans is seemingly silenced, as they are not given a voice, they are not even allowed to speak so as to prove their collective agency – thus they portrayed as bodies that lack collective wills and thought processes. The Conradian perspective on Africa and African agency, has largely being informed by the colonial library and has come to represent the typical contemporary discourse on Africa, especially on how the West uses the continent to assert their “absolute otherness” and in the process, continue showing the series of lacks that seem to define their understanding of what “Africa” is, or rather ought to be.                     

As mentioned in the introduction, Mbembe’s text rejects the binary that is enforced by the contemporary discourses, including various modes of writing on Africa, through a focus on the idea of African subjectivities. Mbembe does this through a critical analysis of what could be referred to as the mutual zombification and mutual brutalization that shows how postcolonial African states lack the collective project for social transformation. This is seen in how Mbembe adopts what is seemingly an Afro-pessimistic view about postcolonial Africa, in how he discusses the various ways in which postcolonial African regimes have sought to maintain the same colonial superstructure - which had relations between subjects and citizens – into the contemporary politics needed for their survival (Mbembe, 2001: 40). This is seen in how the colonial neo-patrimonialism of creating a small class of “citizens” who had privileges and were loyal to the colonial project manifested itself in postcolonial African states as they too adopted a similar approach in how they maintained (and to some extent, still continue to maintain) the economic and political superstructure of colonization, and merely replaced the elites with individuals who are sensitive to their regimes (idea of the political petty bourgeoisie). This was especially seen with the Mobutu Sese Seko regime in the then Zaire, in how he created a shifting patronage system of corruption whereby he hired, fired and rehired cabinet ministers randomly (including also detaining and sometimes killing them) so as to ensure that their loyalty to him were unquestionable and thus reduce dissent in the process (Meredith, 2006: 302). One could argue that although Mbembe’s text attempts to transcend the colonial library, he inadvertently finds himself accepting it and confirming its stereotypes about postcolonial Africa. This is seen in how he structures his text by beginning to acknowledge the power of the colonial library and its impact on how it continues to frame references, discussions and discourses on Africa. He goes on to essentialize his understanding of “Africa”, by continuing to talk about the Otherness of Africa, in terms of how its corruption, geometry of violence, social dislocation and neo-patrimonialism is seemingly unparalleled in the world, and thus Africa is again the performance space of being the signifier of the world par excellence of all the negatives in a singular entity. Thus one could even take this argument further and argue that Mbembe’s understanding of what “Africa” is could be similar to the colonial library, not necessarily because of the apparent Afro-pessimism but because of the absence of the collective agency of postcolonial African states.      

In addition, Mbembe could be said to be adopting a Sartrean mode of thinking about postcolonial Africa, in how he especially discusses the various ways in which postcolonial African states have retained the indigenous social bases of their economy (still continuing with agriculture only, still continuing to mine that particular resource), which was instrumental during the colonial administration, however they have not chosen to diversify their markets and thus have opted to continue with the colonial economic superstructure (Mbembe, 2001: 41). Mbembe frames and positions his arguments (not just the point being made here) as entirely being the fault of the postcolonial African states, and thus he gives them agency with regard to their responsibility for their status quo. With this mode of thinking, Mbembe ignores (or rather chooses to disregard) arguments made by African scholars such as Dani Nabudere, Siba Grovogui and Jacque Depelchin who argue that states don’t exist in isolation, they exist within the international system of states (Grovogui, 2012: 228). Thus the challenges faced by postcolonial African states should be looked at in context to the pressures of multinational corporations, regional and global organizations (with superpowers) and the international financial institutions – and especially how they negotiate these presented challenges within the global system of states. This, one must emphasize, does not mean that postcolonial African states lack agency and should be represented as always being acted upon, rather it means that in order to commit to a more holistic understanding of the challenges faced by postcolonial African states, there is a need for us to understand the challenges being faced, both domestic and international, and especially how they choose to respond to these challenges. Thus Mbembe’s approach of adopting what could be characterized as a Sartrean mode of thinking appears to rob us of the opportunity of understanding the aforementioned dynamic challenges that are being faced by the postcolonial African states, and the potentially innovative and creative ways that they are being problematized, negotiated and even solved.

On the Rejection of Time as a linear construct

One of the significant ways in which Mbembe’s text breaks with the colonial library is the manner in which it problematizes the idea of time as a linear construct (Mbembe, 2001: 8). This means that for Mbembe, discourses on Africa have failed to account for time as lived, in its multiplicity and simultaneities (Mbembe, 2001: 8). This refers to the way in the colonial library and contemporary discourses on Africa have sought to diagnose the problems facing postcolonial Africa without considering the complexities of different societies, and the different challenges facing them. The consistent need for discourses on Africa, and Mbembe critically engages well with this, to construct a general or singular understanding of African states not only limits the understanding of the complexities and difficulties faced and their understanding, but actually undermines the scholarship itself in how it becomes fundamentally flawed from a methodological perspective. This means that if the scholarship on postcolonial Africa uses the understanding of “Africa” as a place of sameness and critically engages with its challenges without the sensitivity that the challenges of Sub Saharan Africa are very different to the challenges facing North Africa (and how even in Sub-Saharan Africa, concerns facing the South African state are very different to the ones facing the Kenyan state) – then becomes methodologically compromised as it would not be taking into consideration Mbembe’s notion of entanglement in how different societal traditions, factors, challenges, issues and even the various ways of negotiating them all contribute to creating the different postcolonial African states (Mbembe, 2001: 14). Furthermore, Mbembe critically discusses what he refers to as the “long dogmatic sleep” regarding the long held discourses on Africa which prioritize the interpretation of looking at African traditional societies as simple, immemorial and without development or progress (Mbembe, 2001: 3). This discourse is rooted on the colonial obsession with difference as a means of legitimization and asserting dominance and power. In addition, the seemingly “long dogmatic sleep” of postcolonial Africa is also consolidated by the colonial idea of consistently looking at African cultures and traditional societies as being ahistorical and without a future, perpetually trapped in the present. This was classically seeing by the South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which the central character, Xi, a khoisan from a small community, goes to the end of the world in pursuit of getting rid of “the evil thing”, which is a Coca Cola bottle (Uys, 1980). The movie employs the colonial discourse in how the Coke bottle, which Xi and the Khoisan community are not familiar with, is used to signify their level of separation from development and progress, as Coke, which is a global brand, cannot be recognized. The movie continues to show a parallel in how the Khoisan communities are always portrayed as a peaceful, inquisitive, childlike “little people”, who continue their nomadic lifestyle while the white man (Mr. Andrew Steyn) is always there to help Xi and guide him. The uses of the colonial discourse are very much many in the movie, however the point of emphasize is that the continued and sustained contemporary discourse on Africa continues to portray the African traditional societies as simple, cultural societies that are outside of globalization and its impact on culture and identity. As mentioned before in the essay, this discourse not only undermines the complexities of traditional African societies, it also perpetuates the far more detrimental idea of a singular African identity and undermines the notion of African subjectivities which Mbembe focuses on.

On violence and the post-colonial African body

Porter argues that in the text, Mbembe attempts to balance the interplay between bodily needs in the text, and their significance for autocratic domination in postcolonial Africa (Porter, 2003: 636). This is seeing in how Mbembe critically discusses the relationship between the autocrat and the subject, and the way violence is used as a political tool of legitimization, on the consciousness of the subjects (Mbembe, 2003: 151). This relationship between the body senses, subjects and the autocrat is discussed well when Mbembe provides a context and exams political cartoons in Cameroon, in how is one instance, he discusses how a powerful autocrat is asleep, dreams of being overthrown, questioned and held accountable by the people, when is he about to be burned, he wakes up in panic, sweating, vulnerable and paranoid (Mbembe, 2003: 151). This shows well Mbembe’s notion of the inherent relationship between the autocrat and the subject, and how even in power, the autocrat are, like the governed subjects, always vulnerable and paranoid about their safety, and mainly use violence, and its brutality as a means of legitimation and consolidating their authorities. The autocrat’s vulnerability is again discussed through what could be called bio-politics, in how Mbembe looks at his sweating, his hot face, phallus, the legs and wrists which are becoming thin and his overhang abdomen – which signifies excess (Mbembe, 2001: 151). Mbembe makes a similar point in his public lecture at Stellenbosch University, in which he discusses the global rise of biopolitics, in which the body becomes a contested space for identities, understandings and could essentially be read as a text (Graham, 2011). This focus on the body and its meaning in relation to the relationship between the autocrat and the subjects, is significant in that it allows us to explore in detail the use of violence as an instrumental of vulnerability, and allows us to understand, how postcolonial regimes such as General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Mobutu in Zaire and Jean Bidel Bokassa in the Central African Republic (CAR) used violence as a tool of smashing resistance and soliciting conformity. With Mbembe’s approach of using biopolitics as a framework of analysis with regard to violence and autocracy, one could perhaps begin to understanding the notion of the use of rape as a political tool during warfare. This is largely seen in the Great Lakes region, where rebel movements such as Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who have kidnapped roughly over 66 000 children and have used them as child soldiers and sex slaves (Green, 2008: 20). The LRA could be interpreted as coming out of a marginalized society, who have sought to use rape and child soldering as an instrumental tool of regaining their dispossessed power through the use of dominance, violence and brutality on the bodies of the most vulnerable members of society, especially children and women.

On the absence of history

One could argue that history is central to the understanding of contemporary discourses and events, especially in providing a historical period in what has shaped it, influenced it and shaped it into its current status quo. Mbembe, in his text, focuses on African subjectivities, and does not provide a historical perspective to as the current challenges that are facing postcolonial Africa. The historical analysis he provided only sought to address the power of colonial discourse, and how it informed the undermined colonial library. The absence of a historical perspective in Mbembe’s text, robs us of the opportunity to understand the complexities of the relationship between the colonizer and subject, and how that has manifested itself into the relationship between the autocrat and the ruled. Furthermore, with regard to violence, one could argue that violence and its effects cannot be contained and contextualized within a certain period. Its effects and consequences transcend time and could have far reaching effects on a long term period. Mbembe’s lack of historical analysis deprives us of the long term understanding of the role of how the colonial project’s use of violence changed on a long term period, and whether the effects of violence and its understanding during the colonial period had any effects on the postcolonial leaders and their use (and understanding) of violence. Thus a historical understanding would have engaged with these questions and ensured a much more holistic understanding.

“Africa”:  its invention and its geographical location

One could argue that understanding of “Africa” and discourse about Africa have largely reflected the Hegelian argument of how because “the thing is, and it is merely because it is… and this simply immediacy constitutes its truth” (Mbembe, 2001: 3). This means that due to the colonial project, and for the colonial scholarship to underpin that enterprise, there was a need to” study” “Africa” and “African behavior”, this approach culminated not only in the sustained and continued “thingi-fication” of the Colonized African Self in the colonial library, it also led to the essential invention of Africa, as Mudimbe argued, in the colonial sense (Mudimbe, 2013: 8). This led to certain misinformed, derogatory and racialized ideas about the African lived experience, and thus gave legitimization to the colonial enterprise (“because they are not one us us, they are not fully human”). With this as a background, thus there is contestations within Postcolonial African Studies with Mudimbe and others arguing whether its possible to explain and talk about Africa without invoking the already corrupted and compromised colonial library? And Mbembe, who continued the argument asked in African Modes of Self Writing, whether we can continue talking about slavery, colonialism and apartheid as the three key events that shape the identity of Africa (forming essentially what Africa is)? (Mbembe, 2002: 239). Whether, like Leonard Praeg has argued, is it possible to talk about Africa only as a geographic area without alluding to anything else, or rather continue to produce and reproduce continuously about Africa and its changing dynamics, without essentializing and looking for its sine qua non (central core)? One is therefore suspicious of the “Africa” that Mbembe’s text is critically engaging with, it re-affirms the colonial discourse about “Africa” as the violent, dark and brutal continent that is ahistorical and illogical. It should be emphasized that one is aware that the atrocities, corruption and violence that Mbembe is talking about as happening in postcolonial Africa, with countries like Cameroon, the DRC, Sudan and others experiencing the worst of the atrocities. However the point one is focusing on is rooted in Chimamanda Adichie’s argument of the dangers of the single story, on how the picture of Africa that Mbembe is examining may have contemporary and historical relevance, however it is not the only one, and the insistent on only portraying it as the only one appears to conform to the colonial discourse and thus re-establishes the problematic understanding of Africa.


In conclusion, the essay did take a position and argued that to a large extent, Mbembe’s On the Postcolony could be said to be breaking with the colonial library. The essay also tried showing the limitations of the text in how it could be seeing to be at times confirming to the colonial archive, especially regarding its understanding of postcolonial Africa and the re-affirming the colonial stereotypes. Furthermore, the essay did critically engage with the idea of the colonial library, using various scholars such as V.Y. Mudimbe and others, in showing the manner in the colonial archive is not only compromised but actually has consequences on the current representations of Africa. The essay, in conclusion, did offer a critical comment, in problematizing the notion of “Africa”, and what that actually means, in context to the colonial library and Mbembe’s text.

Conrad, J., 2006, Heart of Darkness, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Graham, L., 2011, “Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality: Notes from the South African Experiment”, The Stellenbosch Literary Project.
Green, M., 2008, The Wizard of the Nile, London: Free Press.
Grovogui, S. N., 2012 [2002], Regimes of Sovereignty: International Morality and the African Condition, in African Studies Reader, Politics III, edited by S. Matthews, Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University.
Mbembe, A., 2001, On the Postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mbembe, A., 2002, African Modes of Self-Writing, Public Culture, 14 (1): 239-273.
Meredith, M., 2006, The State of Africa, London: Free Press.
Praeg, L., 2013, V.Y. Mudimbe in African Theory Reader, Rhodes University: Political and International Studies Department.
Porter, M.A., 2001, “Subject to Colonialism and On the Postcolony: Combined Reviews”, American Anthropologist 105 (3): 635-637.

Soyinka-Airewele, P., and Edozie, R., 2012 [2010], Reframing Contemporary Africa: Beyond Global Imaginaries, in African Studies Reader, Politics III, edited by S. Matthews, Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University.