Considering the political project within Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony and “African Modes of Self Writing”
[Unless quoting from a particular text, quotation marks are used to indicate air quotes. Information within square brackets provides further context, in cases where for example Prof Mbembe referred to an idea that was discussed in the Master classes on 7 and 8 August.]
Erskog: Is there a particular notion or assumption that lies at the foundation of your work/thinking? (As, from what I have read, I would consider your conception of “subjectivity as time” (Mbembe, 2002:242) as the underlying concept towards rethinking African theorization.)
Mbembe: It is difficult to summarize my work because it is made up of many different streams that, at least in my mind, have not yet come together to make a river. I can mention the different themes and the key questions that animate each of them.
Part of the work is an attempt at taking seriously a reflection on history, a history of Africa that is not simply of victimization, but also a history of agency. To be sure, a history with many defeats…but the nature of those defeats and their meanings have not yet (as far as I am concerned) been the object of deep philosophical interrogation. One has to make a clear distinction between victimization and defeat. My critique of certain forms of modes of African self-writing has to do precisely with the confusion they make between the fact of having been defeated and the fact of victimization, [the latter] which presupposes some absence of agency, the fact of simply being a tool in the hands of somebody else and the fact of never taking responsibility for one’s own actions. So, that has been one stream and in fact my earlier work has been as an historian (I started my work as an historian writing in French, and therefore English-speaking people often see that context). So that was one stream that is a reflection on history that is historically inflected.
The other one is an attempt at rethinking Africa’s worldliness; rethinking Africa not as an entity that is out-of-the-world, that is separate from the world, but as an entity or force that has had and still has the capacity to shape the world in its own right. So that question of the world and worldliness has been a central part of my work.
The third has come from a critique of difference… A kind of work that has been preoccupied with shifting away from the obsession of difference and trying to think about something we could call the ‘common’.
In all three instances, I have found a lot of inspiration from the African diaspora archives in particular – people like Fanon… like Le Saux. Since I studied in France, and I speak and write in French, I have also found inspiration in Western archives of which in any case we are the co-creators – it is not as if the Western archives were strange to us, we are not a stranger to those archives. We are co-creators of those archives and as such it belongs to us too…
Erskog: When you say ‘co-creators’, even the absence of our literal participation in it?
Mbembe: There has been a literal participation if one takes into consideration for instance what African-Americans have done. There is also a more practical participation in the sense that it is impossible to think of modernity without our labour. So, we have rights of co-ownership of that modern Western archive and we shouldn’t believe anyone who tells us that it is only a property of the West.
Erskog: What of the more problematic archives in the West where there is a very obvious colonial perspective created to “fix” Africans, to fix the “African experience”? How does one, as an African scholar, interpret that in a way that will be fruitful in a contemporary time and space, and as you have remarked on before, in a way that does not get stuck within “metaphysics of difference” (Mbembe, 2002:240)?
Mbembe: I think that one does that by rereading history properly; that we read our own history and the modalities of its entanglement with other histories (either before colonialism or slavery or even after slavery or colonialism). If we read it carefully we will discover the extent to which in fact, first of all, that history has been constituted through mobility, movement and circulation rather than attachment to specific geographical localities. It is a history of circulations and it is a history of formations of Diasporas. That the African sign is found in every single part of the world, where it manifests itself under different intonations, accents and so on. It is a universal sign because of its physical presence but also its symbolic weight in the ways in which other worlds have constituted themselves either in opposition to “Africa” or via incorporation of Africa or by illation and repression of African sign. There is no part of the world where Africa is absent.
So, if we take that as a starting point of our thinking then we begin to move away from the obsession of difference in favor of a different kind of framework which has to do with movement, circulation… with multiplicity and proliferation… [Africa] is a receptacle of all kinds of migrations… So, we have to think of it in those terms, as a laboratory of the world and as a laboratory of forms which circulate.
Erskog: In “African Modes of Self Writing” (Mbembe, 2002), you consider much of African criticisms of the colonial paradigms as “within a purely instrumental and short term temporality” (2002: 260) that do not consider the “general question of being and time” (2002:263). As such, by thinking time in a more long-term and sustainable way, we are better able, as you have said, to see how Africa is a center of movement and migration, change and reimagining. But, one of the main criticisms that came up when our class was discussing your work (in particular On the Postcolony (2001)) was that it is all good and well to think creatively but when there are people dying, instrumentalism comes into being because of the practical need to address pressing issues... So, how does one tackle the ‘question of being and time’ in a meaningful way that will also address more urgent debates that deploy more “practical” ideas?
Mbembe: Of course, if people are dying we have to act. We have to make sure that the cycle of death and killing is broken. In some instances we have to recognize that that is a matter of urgency. That we cannot wait and that something must be done now. So the temporality of urgency, or even emergency, is a temporality that has to be factored in in any attempt at understanding social/political processes in the continent right now. One just has to think of all the wars, epidemics and all those disasters (most of which are human-made by the way), but we cannot entrap an entire continent, an entire history, in the temporalities of urgency. First of all, sociologically that would be misleading to say the least because Africa’s time precedes the time of slavery, the time of colonialism, the time of the now. It’s a history with very deep time. A continent with a deep, deep time. But it is also a continent with multiple times: times of acceleration, times of crystallization, times of saturation, collision, bifurcation… Times that cannot be captured by one single term. So the question is how is it we take into consideration the multiplicity, including in very practical policies aiming at alleviating poverty or for that matter creating capacities.
But personally, I am not a policy-maker. I am not interested in making policies. I think that we have, especially here in South Africa, a discourse on relevance that is extremely impoverishing. We are told to fight poverty but also told not to supply ideas [as is seen in the public discourse that frames the Humanities in particular and academia in general as irrelevant to matters of state governance]. We cannot fight poverty without ideas. The production of ideas, however, requires a certain detachment which is not indifference, detachment in relation to the current present if only to allow people to project themselves toward the future.
The question is one of disposition towards the future. We have to be able to develop those capacities to project towards the future in the midst of emergency because what colonialism, racism and developmentalism do is to cripple our capacity to think in future-orientated terms, and they try to justify it in the name of relevance. A relevance that is understood in purely instrumental terms. Development is also about the capacity to create meanings and symbols to symbolize our world – that is what makes us humans. We cannot reshape the world without constituting a reservoir of symbols and meanings. That is the task of the Humanities and of critical thought… We have to be able to do what we do [think critically and often ‘distantly’] and not have to apologize for doing it. Put more positively, we have to expand our concept of relevance rather than shrinking it so that it corresponds to a purely materialist project which negates the other dimensions of what it means to be a human being… We cannot pretend that all questions in South African and Africa are purely technical questions.
Erskog: Which leads me to part of my next question. In your public lecture on “Non-racialism and the New Native Question in South Africa” (2014), what really struck me was your proposal (correct me if I am wrong) that South Africa is fixated with past and present temporalities, without really considering what a future should look like let alone what it should mean. Based on my understanding of your concept that “the only subjectivity is time” (Mbembe, 2002: 240), am I correct in understanding that in that particular public lecture, you propose that South African society may be stagnating because the subjectivities employed are too tied to frames of reference of the past/of historical spaces that deny reconceptualization in the present towards the future? How does this exhibit the importance of considering subjectivity as time?
Mbembe: It is not necessarily stagnating but is not producing what it could produce. By doing that, it is not realizing its full potentialities. It is limiting itself. It is getting itself entrapped in a historical trajectory that negates or does not make use of all its potentialities. By doing that, it does not allow itself to reshape itself in meaningful ways, meaning in such a way as to address the burden it inherited from the past, especially the racial burden. It does not equip itself to reshape the world or to bring to the world a contribution that only South Africa could bring if it were to realize its full potentialities. By limiting itself in that way [to past and present temporalities] it forces South Africa to be but a provincial nation not a universal nation.
Erskog: Back tracking slightly now, I consider On the Postcolony, to be an indictment of the colonial period, its legacy and (as you have mentioned before) the lack of real historical reflection that could produce more constructive meaning in the contemporary Africa and the African Diaspora. What I found most interesting was, quoting you, “what today remains of the recognition of oneself as free will—a recognition that has marked African intelligence since at least the nineteenth century” (Mbembe, 2001:238) and then when you later conclude with, “We must first learn to enjoy as complete men…a way of living and existing in uncertainty, chance, irreality, even absurdity?” (Mbembe, 2001:242). Some colleagues of mine felt perplexed by the ambiguity and generality of this statement. I considered it to have an existential grounding. So is this an existentialist call to embrace the unknowable and contingent, as a starting point towards self-determination?
Is that the spirit on should read it in?
Can you elaborate on how living ‘as complete humans’ is fundamental to the project of realizing self-determination and/or self-writing? Or is more of sobering reality check?
Mbembe: First of all, On the Postcolony was written in the 90s. The 90s were a very difficult time in the continent. The late 80s, mid 90s. Difficult time in the sense that this was when Africans realized that the promises of decolonization had not been realized. You found that observation in most of the literature of the time, in fiction and such. This is just after the time of Structural Adjustment Programs. Meaning these were the kinds of policy constraints that were imposed on countries that had been defeated in wars and had to pay for whatever damage was done, whether they were responsible or not… It was also a moment of serious conflict, with many wars going on. Entire states literally collapsing because they have lost the monopoly of the exercise of power and violence, the emergence of warlords and the attempt by many Africans to live everywhere else except in their own country – illustrated by the number of refugee camps at the time. So, it was an almost apocalyptic moment.
So, what On the Postcolony is trying to do is to not necessarily capture that apocalyptic moment but to sense it. What does it mean to sense it? It means taking it seriously, not fooling ourselves (the biggest drama that can happen to us Africans is to fool ourselves). But what that moment required, it seemed to me then, was a certain practice of self-scrutiny. Self-scrutiny that is uncompromising because we don’t want to tell ourselves stories that have no meaning (especially since we have been told so many by others, so the last thing we should do is tell them to ourselves). So an uncompromising practice of self-scrutiny but also an empathy, sympathy, and commitment to Africa. That one does not speak about Africa as it was something external to me. Of course, it is not something external to me, I want to be able to speak about it almost viscerally. So there is a viscerality [in the text] that is formal in the sense that the book is written, designed and crafted like that, willfully. In order to do that I had taken inspiration from a number of African writers… so it is not outside of a certain tradition about how we speak of ourselves and write about ourselves…Of a dissident tradition within the African canon, a dissident tradition of speaking about ourselves viscerally…Every time I was writing it, I would listen to music. I would listen to Congolese music so if you read it carefully you can hear the Congolese music behind it. And what the Congo was in those years was somewhat of a Haiti under the equator, and that historical depth, you try to carry all of that [in the text] otherwise all that suffering in our history becomes superfluous, We have to collect it and give it some meaning and symbolism. If not it becomes wasted. So that is what the book is about. It is about, how is it that you collect that suffering that has been going on for such a long time and give it some kind of meaning that…cannot be dissipated.
And it ends like that, not as a call to dwell in suffering but as we were saying earlier with Fanon to “recognize the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 1952: 181). To ask, how can you, in spite of all of this, engage in aesthetic of existence that gives a place for joy… That is the project.
Fanon, F. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press: London, 1967
Mbembe. A. On the Postcolony. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 2001Mbembe, A. “African Modes of Self Writing”, Public Culture, Vol. 14, No.1, 2002