Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Transcending Myth: A Reading of Achille Mbembe’s 'On the Postcolony'

by Paddy O’Halloran

‘And how can one live in death, be already dead, while being-there—while having not necessarily left the world or being part of the spectre—and when the shadow that overhangs existence has not disappeared, but on the contrary weights ever more heavily?’ – Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (2001, 201).

In a famous passage of The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes the dreams of colonized people.  The dreams are of ‘muscular prowess’, of going ‘beyond certain limits’: ‘I dream’, Fanon writes, ‘that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride […]. During the period of colonization, the native [le colonisé] never stops achieving his [sic] freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning’ ([1961] 1963, 52).  These are dreams which challenge, in the subconscious world, unfettered from reality, the limitations of the coerced reality of colonization.  They are dreams which the dreamers wish to make real, desiring to mimic the excess of action of their nightly fictions in waking life.  Fanon, later, imagining an uprising of the ‘slaves’ writes: ‘We were running like madmen; shots rang out . . . we were striking [….] Blood and sweat cooled and refreshed us’ and, as they burned the structures of the colonizers, ‘the flames flickered sweetly on our cheeks’ (1963, 88).

            The physical violence that Fanon depicts is, in his argument, an experiential stage of decolonization, a revolt of the body against the ‘static period’ (Fanon 1963, 69) and the physically confining forces of colonization, the violence of body against body that flows from being accounted for only as a body, even as ‘bestial’ (Fanon 1963, 42).  Yet, it is not a physical response only, if it ever even becomes manifest physically.  It is a revolt, too, of the mind, which is belittled, ignored, and patronized by the colonizer; the mind of the colonized will, in a profound and stifled anger, turn to visions and imagery of violence.  In the end, only a relative few will take up arms or risk their physical bodies in anti-colonial struggle.  The rest will dream for them; the futile but glorious reaction to the understanding of the colonized that ‘From his [sic] birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called into question by absolute violence’ (Fanon 1963, 37).  Yearning for release, the colonized dream the moment into existence.

Forty years after The Wretched of the Earth, when Fanon’s colonized world in the throes of dismantling had been transfigured into the modern, ‘post-colonial’ world, Achille Mbembe narrates in On the Postcolony (2001) a cartoon from a Cameroonian newspaper in which an ‘autocrat’, the ruler of a post-independence African country, dreams.  The cartoon and the dream together produce a sense of physicality, but without the muscular exceeding of the dreams Fanon depicts.  Instead there is a sense of muscular atrophy and unhealthy bodily excess.  Mbembe’s description emphasizes the autocrat’s body; the stomach, ‘like the sated rumen of a cow’, ‘collapses and sprawls’, the face is ‘puffed up’, the chest hairy and ‘podgy’, and more grotesque descriptions besides.  The general sense is of extreme ‘gluttony’. The dream that this ‘misshapen’ autocrat dreams is of being called to account by the people of his country, who remind him that the people are sovereign, and who threaten to burn him.  ‘[The autocrat]’, writes Mbembe, ‘has been a victim of terror by night, struck by a horrible feeling of choking, and by anguish; he has just had a nightmare (2001, 149-153). 

Granted, both Fanon’s account of dreams (though informed by his practice of psychiatry) and the nightmare related to us by Mbembe from the Cameroonian cartoonist are depictions and interpretations only.  Still, the shift in the imagination that must occur in order for dreams (in their political interpretation) to transform from positivity and overcoming to negativity and being overcome, ‘choking’, is a drastic one.  What is the nature of the postcolony that it can engender such a spectrum-sweeping change? Or is it the postcolony that affects this change, at all?

Mbembe writes, ‘The notion “postcolony” identifies specifically a given historical trajectory—that of societies recently emerging from the experience of colonization and the violence which the colonial relationship involves’ (2001, 102).  The plurality of the colonial and post-colonial situation is, in Mbembe’s view, obscured by an enveloping myth of the violent, of the corporeal, of the still essentialized body of the African person and the still essentially violent existence of and on the African continent.  The post-colonial world, in many ways, has not escaped its ‘coloniality’; colonial tropes persist, racism abounds, and power relations between the formerly colonized and former colonizers are still skewed.  Africa still exists, in a hegemonic imagination, as the physical, giving ‘nothing to anyone, apart from AIDS’, an entire continent of ‘permanently tumescent layabouts’ (Myers 2008).  The critique of Western (and also African) perceptions of Africa is not unique to Mbembe, but the way in which he pursues the problem is unique, perhaps, in its sophistication and in its recognition of the importance of fiction, of myth, in fictional representations, which is the focus here.  The argument that Mbembe proposes or substitutes lived experience in the stead of an essential Africa/n is true to an extent (Janz 2002, 1), but the arc of On the Postcolony traverses the realm of myth more seriously and deeply than it does the lived world.  To understand the post-colony requires exploring this unreal domain.

For Mbembe, and also for Fanon, the moment of crucial import comes after decolonization.  It is this lengthy and ill-defined moment on which Mbembe focuses in his book, On the Postcolony (2001).  Let us remember Fanon’s assertion, that, ‘for 95% of the population in underdeveloped countries, independence brings no immediate change’ (1963, 75).  In many ways, what Mbembe writes at the turn of the twenty-first century is a revitalization of the argument Fanon put forward forty years earlier in his chapter titled ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ in which he foresaw the troubles that could befall African countries after independence.  Consider the autocrat’s nightmare: it reveals the ‘misshapen’ distribution of power and resources in the post-colony.  For Fanon, it is revolution that is (ever) incomplete.  For Mbembe, with the advantage of hindsight, the post-colony not only betrays the struggle and the moment of independence, but also reveals the necessity of shedding colonial fictions which did not depart with the colonial troops and administrations.

Mbembe puts forward a myth of the post-colony which he shows, perhaps, to have stifled the completion of an emancipatory project.  The world is not subject only to myth, of course. Certainly, there are lived realities—the colonized did in fact experience their dispossession, their oppression, and their dehumanization at the hands of the colonizers; the wars of independence were fought and concluded; and the good and the bad of independence are felt by ordinary people—but what is ‘fact’ is overlain with and often overshadowed by various fictions which are perceived to be and are accepted as reality.  This is the curse of the post-colony: that it is conceived in and from myth. Mbembe wants to move beyond the ‘dead’ conceptions of the post-colony, stillborn, as it were, at independence.

            We are not talking simply about the frequently invoked menace of ‘social constructions’, which loom problematically over any and all human experiences.  These fictions are less particular, more ambitiously broad-sweeping in their essentializing of people and places.  Perhaps something along the lines of Geertz’s ‘controlling political idea’ is most accurate (in Midgal 1997, 213).  Indeed the myths in question are movers of culture.  These myths are part of the thick and multifold ‘entanglement’ that Mbembe identifies in and as the post-colonial experience (2001, 14).  The myths in question are narratives of origin, of history, and of the present which inform and merge with the peculiar gestalt of the post-colony: the internal and external explanations of ‘pre-colonial’, ‘colonial’, and ‘post-colonial’ that engender a moment in which African people and polities are seemingly at once triumphant and damned.  Notably, futurity is absent.  ‘I felt’, writes Mbembe, that what distinguishes the contemporary African experience is that this emerging time is appearing in a context—today—in which the future horizon is apparently closed, while the horizon of the past has apparently receded’ (2001, 16).

            Myth is not about the future; that is the prerogative of prophecy.  Myth stretches indefinitely into the past, a past which was once stirred by action and heavy with meaning (in contrast with the stillness and determinedness of the present).  It marks the present, but there stops.  The ‘static period begun by colonization’ of which Fanon writes is weighted and constrained by myth.  Fanon’s life ended on what seemed to be a future-oriented triumph (in the devices of myth, the fulfillment of an anti-colonial prophecy), but myth persisted.  Mbembe, in On the Postcolony, attempts to demystify the mythic post-colony, to set us, instead, to tracing its ‘entangled’ pluralities, hoping to emerge at a point from which a future is again visible, again possible.  Future, in the case of the post-colony, means stripping away the old, negative myths of violence, of the irreclaimably vulgar, of a profound physicality, and writing new narratives with positive trajectories.

Mbembe and Rethinking Narratives of Africa

Let us examine Mbembe’s project in practical terms before pursuing the more abstract aspects of his argument concerning myth.  In general, Mbembe’s work tries to shift the focus of thinking about Africa from what he considers to be a theoretical dead-end provided by the ‘postcolonial’ modes and narratives of thought to a more dynamic theory that truly considers and accepts the plural complexity of post-colonial Africa.  He writes that ‘whether produced by outsiders or by indigenous people, end-of-the-century discourses on the continent are not necessarily applicable to their object’ (2001, 242).  His writing moves between outright critique, as in his essay, ‘African Modes of Self Writing’ (2002), and phenomenological exploration through prose in On the Postcolony.

            In ‘African Modes of Self-Writing’, Mbembe critiques the way in which African scholars in the humanities have studied and written about Africa.  Importantly, the concept of futurity is at the forefront of his argument.  He focuses on the unwillingness, in general, of African thinking on Africa to deal with the future. He writes, ‘Various factors have prevented the full development of conceptions that might have explained the meaning of the African past and present by reference to the future…’ (2002, 240), echoing, to some extent, Lewis Gordon’s formulation on ‘bad faith, in which the ability to construct a tomorrow is concealed in a totalization of the present’ (1995, 86, emphasis in original).

Mbembe is talking about thinking only within the constrictions formed and determined by a particular past.  Such past-oriented explanations of Africa he terms ‘historicist’, which—in two different strains, ‘Afro-radicalism’ and nativism’—is an intellectual manifestation of the limitations imposed by the mythic ‘Africa’ which Mbembe finds to be so persistent in the post-colony.  Focusing on three events in African history—slavery, colonization, and apartheid (2002, 241)—the former strain of historicist thought responds to what non-Africans have done to and think about Africa, while the latter deals with what they have done to or think about Africans.  Mbembe argues that both are inappropriate modes of thinking because they rely on narratives of victimization and on ‘the West’s fictional representations’ and, most importantly, do not advance beyond these (2002, 244).  These modes of thinking are reactionary in the way that the dreams of the colonized are reactionary; the imposition of violence is answered in like terms—a ‘great organism of violence which has surged upward in reaction to the settler’s violence’ (Fanon 1963, 94).  The ‘state of war’ that Mbembe ascribes (a bit too generally) to ‘contemporary Africa’ is, like the muscular tension and spasm of the colonized in Fanon, a reaction to constriction, to confinement and objectification that do not permit self-formed subjectivities to Africans.  War and violence create the space for such formations (2002, 267).  Intellectual and philosophical work on African subjectivity thus far do not, in Mbembe’s view, create such a space.  That is to say that the system of colonial violence (not only physical violence and war but the system of violence which dehumanized the minds and the bodies of Africans) and the troubles of the post-colony are explained from within their systemic limitations.  Thinking about Africa in these ways relies on the narratives and actions of the colonizer, and, in doing so, reifies Africa and essentializes Africans within the framework of European myth.  Mbembe proposes an alternative: ‘we must clear an intellectual space for rethinking those temporalities that are always branching out toward several different futures and, in so doing, open the way for the possibility of multiple ancestries’ (2002, 241).

            But such ancestries are swallowed by the continent itself: for many, ‘Africa’ is, and that is all that need be said.  As Mbembe writes in an essay that depicts the constrained intellectual traditions of the post-colony as a ‘ghetto’, ‘[d]eplorably, legitimate criticism of the damaging effects of occidental Africanism has been transformed into an extreme fetishizing of geographical identities’ (1999, 3).  Africans, in such a view as Mbembe is describing, are determined simply by their being from the continent of Africa (of course perceived, too, to be more or less homogenous).  Their identity as geographically African (or more local versions of such) is all that is necessary to fully describe them.  Mbembe employs the figurative ghetto to show that the ‘place’ where Africans ‘have been put’, intellectually, has come to provide their reference point when thinking about modern Africa.

            It is a simple argument, complicated by the vast differences in experience in different corners of the African continent now and historically; complicated, too, by the myths which overshadow how Africans are thought about and how they think.  This is what we will focus on in regard, especially, to On the Postcolony, and in particular the elusive chapter, ‘God’s Phallus’, in which Mbembe has most fully entered the realm of myth.

            A word might be said about why the theme of myth has been chosen when so much of On the Postcolony provides opportunities for comment and analysis on a number of themes.  The decision to focus on myth and fiction is based on Mbembe’s frequent use of words which conjure up ideas of sleeping and dreaming, of the imaginary, of the grotesque, of the hallucinatory, and of myth itself (Mbembe 2001; 2002).  Reviewers allude to this attention to the imaginary (Pouchedepass 2006; Quayson 2001), but do not fully engage with it.  Another reason is Mbembe’s attending to this ‘genre’ of the fantastic by ‘performing’ it—the phenomenological experiment through prose and poetic license which was mentioned above.  On the whole, engaging with the shadowy and abstract realm of fiction offers the best way to access what is at times an obscure book in On the Postcolony and an ‘African reality [...] of the order of fantasy and narrative’ (Pouchepadass 2006, 192).  Speaking about On the Postcolony, Mbembe says that Africans must not ‘fool ourselves’ or ‘tell ourselves stories that have no meaning’ (Erskog, 2014).  What are needed are stories with meaning.  It is this logic which motivated Mbembe when he engaged with the post-colonial world of his experience.

The Essential Africa: Mythic Time and Death

The concept of performance really opens a route into the form and structure of On the Postcolony, and, in extension, the way in which it presents its thesis.  Achille Mbembe speaks about the ‘viscerality’ of his book, which ‘is formal in the sense that the book is written, designed, and crafted like that, willfully’ (Erskog 2014).  He explains about writing while listening to Congolese music, and how the rhythms of this music were transposed into the cadence of the prose.  Considering this idea of physicality and rhythm and the book’s engagement with ‘the dramaturgy of the political domination of Africa’ (Ferme, in Pouchepadass 2006, 193), the idea of ‘performance’ is seemingly appropriate.  We can adopt a hermeneutics similar to the dramaturgical method of reading that Ato Sekyi-Otu (1996) brings to the works of Fanon.  Sekyi-Otu writes, ‘We need to read [Fanon’s] texts and scenes within texts dialectically rather than sequentially or as discrete entities’ (1996, 22, emphasis in original); he later adds, ‘The result of this dramaturgical procedure is that the finality of propositions made in various scenes is rendered suspect’ (1996, 35).  Employing the same method, literal readings of the often disjointed chapters—an ‘itinerary of discursive forms’ to use Quayson’s phrase (2001, 152); or a ‘set of exercises in existence’ for Janz (2002, 2)—and extended metaphors of On the Postcolony should be replaced by an attention to different themes and figurative extrapolations in interaction with each other and around Mbembe’s argument.

            What exactly is Mbembe performing? In part, he is engaging with negative depictions of Africa by employing their imagery; demonstrating an essentialized, brutal vision of Africa that we see much more clearly in his acquiescing, momentarily, to its tropes than if Mbembe were to dismiss it with curt disdain (as is not unjustifiably done).  The critique levelled at Mbembe that he fails to ‘escape the influence of the very same body of works [of Western essentializations of Africa]’ that he denounces is unfounded on this view (Obarrio, in Pouchepadass 2006, 199).  It is necessary, if we are to fruitfully engage with myth, to enter into its ontology.  Beginning with relatively clear and concrete matters, On the Postcolony steadily moves deeper and deeper into the abstract, culminating in the chapter ‘God’s Phallus’ with a theological enquiry and a discursive form that does not divorce history from myth; that is, it accepts myth in its own terms, considering it independently of (but not detached from) reality.

Africa, begins Mbembe in On the Postcolony, is interpreted under two ‘signs’: that of the ‘strange and the monstrous’ and that of ‘intimacy’ (2001, 1).  The words themselves arouse images of the unknown, of witchcraft, the grotesque, the deformed, the animal, and the body, particularly the sexualized body.  Conrad’s brooding Heart of Darkness is suggested by Mbembe’s vocabulary.  Furthermore, these are words which, in the colonial imagination, contextualize the notion (the invention) of ‘traditional societies’ (2001, 3).  Mbembe characterizes ‘traditional societies’ as innately definable by ‘facticity’ and ‘arbitrariness’.  To quote Mbembe at length: ‘By facticity is meant that, in Hegel’s words, “the thing is; and it is merely because it is . . . and this simple immediacy constitutes its truth.” […] By arbitrariness is meant that, in contrast to reason in the West, myth and fable are seen as what, in such [traditional] societies, denote order and time’ (2001, 3, emphasis in original). 

            Myth, in Mbembe’s argument, continues to denote order and time, whether through the old colonial ideas or through certain Africanist concepts that equally homogenize and mythologize an African past and, in so doing, cannot produce a viable future.  It is this homogenizing tendency of myth that Mbembe seeks to excise from post-colonial explanations.  In addition to objectifying (or, at least, de-subjectifying) African people and the African continent, myth determines and proscribes African time.

            Time is fundamental to understanding Mbembe’s argument.  In ‘African Modes of Self-Writing’, he makes the point explicitly, that his purpose is ‘to reinterpret subjectivity as time’ so that ‘criticisms of African imaginations of the self and the world’ can escape entrapment ‘within a conception of identity [facticity] as geography—in other words, of time as space’ (2002, 242; 271).  Underpinning the essentialized Africa/n, determining their place, is Time, but Time without the motion that we usually understand; rather, Time as myth, afforded an inertia that smothers the societies over which it is lain. What is at stake here is an ontological reduction of the past to a single experience—or, rather, a collection of experiences understood from the single perspective of European renaissance, exploration, conquest, or, according to Mbembe’s opposite formulation, of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid.  It is a solemnized, essential past.

Lewis Gordon asks (1995, 53), ‘Can essences be used without essentialization or essentializing?’ Mbembe’s project of reinvigorating post-colonial analysis with plurality in the face of monolithic, mythic time seems in a similar vein.  If we consider the possibility of multiple pasts, a fact of African history and present, then the ‘essence’ of the past becomes rather complicated.  Essence must be an aggregation of action—past, present, future, and un-acted—neither the ‘sum’ nor the ‘average’ meaning of all performances and abstractions.  Essence might exist, but it is fleeting and unstable.  Even an individual’s essence, in these terms, cannot be apprehended by another except as a necessarily past moment, and this essence will exclude immense portions of a particular, essential action-identity; ‘essence, that is, without necessity nor presumed, rigid, ontological commitments beyond the reality of the world in which one lives’ (Gordon, 1995, 56).  Yet, we perceive, and purport to apprehend, African-ness via the other, the West.  It is a timeless vision, even ‘hallucinatory’ to borrow Mbembe’s expression in the idiom of the fictive.

What is timelessness?  Mbembe identifies in it an overarching necessity: death.  Where ‘time […] is supposedly stationary,’ in the post-colony, in Africa, where myth reigns, we are dealing with ‘the indefinite’ and ‘interminable time of death’ (Mbembe 2001, 4; 200).  Such is the tone of many passages in On the Postcolony.

            The images become gruesome.  Mbembe describes the decomposition of the dead body, and, worse, of cannibalization:

The fact is that power, in the postcolony, is carnivorous. It grips its subjects by the throat and squeezes them to the point of breaking their bones, making their eyes pop out of their sockets, making them weep blood. It cuts them in pieces and, sometimes, eats them raw (2001, 201).

This and other scenes of gore, of violence most basic, are, perhaps, reminiscent of Fanon’s phrase ‘descent into a real hell’, to which we will return ([1952] 1967, 2).  The post-colony, in these images, becomes a place of death: The colonial condition of ‘cannibalism’—the destruction of some people to satisfy, to engorge, some others—persists in the post-colony, where power eats. ‘Once killed, the animal [can we read as ‘the colony’?] is no more than a mass of flesh to be cut up’ (2001, 200).  With the departure of the Europeans—the alive and life-giving Europeans, who through slavery, colonization and apartheid enlivened the Conradian deadness of Africa—the colony, affixed with the chronological prefix ‘post-’, is dead, is death, again.  In death, there is no future, and therefore there is none for ‘Africa’.  We can see Mbembe’s concern with—his fright at the prospect of—interpreting an Africa through the actions and history of the colonizers, through the myth of a dead or dying Africa or of a glorified timeless Africa which is of necessity mythic and dead.

            According to Mbembe, ‘More than any other region, Africa […] stands out as the supreme receptacle of the West’s obsession with, and circular discourse about, the facts of “absence,” “lack,” and “non-being,” of identity and difference, of negativeness—in short, of nothingness’, a place of ‘special unreality’ which is ‘null, abolished, and in its essence, in opposition to what is’ (2001, 4).  Africa, in its emptiness, is also a ‘receptacle’ for myth.  We will explore this concept before continuing on to the important ‘God’s Phallus’ chapter and analyzing its implications as regards this discussion of myth.

Myths of Origin and Origins of Myth

In many ways, the ‘essential’ Africa that Mbembe portrays in On the Postcolony refers back to the ideas of V. Y. Mudimbe, who, corresponding with the idiom of Mbembe, denotes that essence through words like ‘exotic’, ‘savage’, and ‘evil’ (1994).  In The Idea of Africa (1994), Mudimbe details at length some of the earliest representations of the African continent in European tradition, one written by Philostratus before the Common Era, part of a tradition of Western scholarship as ‘“fantasies” and “constructs” made up by writers since Greek times’(xv).  In this particular tale, ant-like men of Libya (Africa) called pygmies, ‘who live according to the passions of the body, completely subservient to its pleasures and violences’, combat Hercules of Europe (Mudimbe 1994, 4).  Reading such a fantasy reminds one of Swift’s Gullivers Travels, or, once again, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, colonial literature that create discourses that move beyond, even render obsolete, ‘the present-day opposition between true and false’ (Mudimbe 1994, 4).  As Mbembe writes, in combining ‘bits of the actual, colonial discourse ends up producing a closed, solitary totality that it elevates to the rank of a generality.  And so reality becomes enclosed within a pre-ordained madness’ (2001, 178), which madness, in Conrad, is the fate awaiting a person entering the dark and irrational world of myth, of Africa—taking the death-abundant and ‘weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares’ to ‘the earliest beginnings of the earth’, an empty wilderness (in Knowles, 2010, 55; 77).

Mudimbe discusses the writing of one Robert Burton, living in seventeenth century England.  In Burton’s view, Africa does not represent even a ‘geographical body’ but is exclusively a site of values (or of the absence of values), a space—that wilderness—where ideas rather than facts are contestable (Mudimbe 1994, 9).  It is contestable only insofar as it can be ‘filled’ with the values of Europe.  According to Mudimbe:

Concretely, the spatial marginalism of the non-Western space [Africa and America, in Mudimbe’s discussion] would be dissolved in the expansion of European geography and history, to the extent that these consider themselves sufficiently powerful to re-establish the uniformity of Genesis by deleting the accidental monstrosities that resulted from the diverse marches of history (Mudimbe 1994, 10).

‘Burton’, continues Mudimbe, ‘proposes a utopia in which myths and mythmaking interact and are interdependent’ (1994, 14).  In short, Europe will determine, mythically, through colonization and civilization, the ‘historical’ course of the rest of the world.  It is a ‘mission’ which is accomplished through a symbolic enactment of sexual intercourse, in Mbembe’s metaphor. The ‘coitus’ of the colonial moment is made possible through language as narration and myth.  Singling out Hegel from the many possible options, Mbembe writes that ‘long before the colony was conquered and penetrated, a web of words had been woven around these distant lands and their peoples’ (2001, 175), words which portray Africa as a ‘vast tumultuous world of drives and sensations’, and words which ‘grasp and anchor in pre-set certainty’ ‘the land of motionless substance and of the blinding, joyful, and tragic disorder of creation’, that is, sex and the sexual (2001, 176). 

            What is important to the discussion here is that myth is intrinsic to the Africa ‘of Europe’; it is a place of myth (or ‘values’) to be dominated through and by the power of an alternative myth, external to itself, which will, in covering Africa, explicate it.  As Mbembe puts it, ‘Since fable and myth are seen as expressing the very power of the originaire, nothing [requires justification]; it is enough to invoke the time of origins’ (2001, 4).
What is the ‘time of origins’ for colonial Europe? The passage from Mudimbe included above alludes to it.  The myth of origin of Europe is found in Genesis, in the Jewish Torah, in the New Testament of Christians, and ultimately in Christianity itself, creating colonialism as a ‘holy saga of mythic proportions’ with the ‘silent permanence’ of religion behind it (Mudimbe 1994, xii; xiii). 

Following on this, Mudimbe shows how the Christian myth was injected into what later became the European imperial projects through Papal bulls of the fifteenth century that denied earthly rights to non-Christians in favor of the divine right of Christians to the earth.  The bull Romanus Pontifex (1454), particularly, decrees that non-Christians have no rights to land, or possessions, or even to life, all of which can justly be taken by Christians.  The Christian symbolism in colonization was explicit and prompt.  Upon landing on ‘heathen’ coasts, the Christians raised the cross and celebrated mass, transplanting their originary myths into the lands they would conquer (Mudimbe 1994, 30-33).

The Mythic Climax: ‘God’s Phallus’

We will now attempt a gloss of the sixth chapter of On the Postcolony, ‘God’s Phallus’.  It is important to carry forward the themes discussed up until now that relate to the significance of myth in Mbembe’s interpretation of post-colonial Africa: the realm of the imaginary, the essentialized Africa/n as violent and sexual, performance, the importance of time and timelessness, and the omnipresence of death.  The chapter itself is crucial to the completion of Mbembe’s project around myth, and therefore the seeming lack of attention the chapter has received, and in some cases its dismissal, is surprising.  Theological and abstract it might be, but ‘God’s Phallus’ is the climax of the metaphors and the performance of On the Postcolony that provide important insights into contemporary Africa.  The remainder of this discussion will clarify the key points of the metaphor in resolving Mbembe’s variegated text towards a conclusion that takes into account the centrality of myth in the political.

            Reviews of On the Postcolony have sorely understated and, in my view, misinterpreted the sixth chapter.  Ato Quayson calls its connection with the important themes of the rest of the book ‘not at all straightforward’ and ‘tenuous’, while at the same time making points that would, if developed, elucidate just the ways in which ‘God’s Phallus’ does indeed signify, and powerfully, the thematic core of On the Postcolony.  Quayson talks about ‘some of the ways in which monotheism can be seen as imperializing’ and, notably, how in Christianity is found a myth in which ‘all contradiction is subsumed under the discursive disposition of a transcendental signified of ultimate value’ (Quayson 2001, 159), which forms, given our discussion here, a more than ‘tenuous link with the problem of arbitrariness’ and myth.

            ‘God’s Phallus’ begins with a discussion on ‘divine libido’, a sexualization of monotheism.  Key to this discussion is the fact, explicitly made by Mbembe, that ‘behind the metaphor of the divine libido may […] be glimpsed a very special form of power, the power of the fantasm and the fantasm of power’ which ‘make it possible to attain a certain peace and plenitude for which the ultimate reference is salvation’ (2001, 212, emphasis in original).  Considering the imperializing tendency (an historical one) of Christianity-bearing-Christians, we can see in the mention of power a reference to colonization: sexualized in a way both ‘monstrous’ and ‘intimate’.  The power is itself fantastic, derived from a theological, mythical referent.  Behind the practical violence of colonization lies the illusory power of God (see Mudimbe), ‘the fantasm of the One’, which, writes Mbembe, ‘circumscribes [the] collective subject’s connections with itself and with the world’ (2001, 213). The myth of unitary truth penetrates the colonized world, its reality cast aside—rather, immediately negated—in favor of a non-reality with mythic (historical) and prophetic (future) extrapolations that do not apply either to the land or the people that are colonized—an uncompromising and incompatible ontology.  It is Mbembe’s argument that neither a past nor a future have been reclaimed in the post-colony.

            Again, we need to observe Mbembe’s vocabulary.  The chapter is replete with words and phrases like ‘genesis’, ‘beyond time’, ‘totalization’, ‘ultimate’, ‘truth’, ‘omnipotence,’ ‘universal’, ‘irreducible’, ‘originary phantasm’, and ‘absolute arbitrariness’ (2001, 214; 215; 217; 230; 231, emphases in original).  All refer to the Judeo-Christian ontology of monotheism in which ‘divine sovereignty’ is simultaneous with ‘liberation from time’ (Mbembe 2001, 217).  We have seen that ‘timelessness’ is central to the imposition of myth, and also that inherent in timelessness is death.

            Yet, Christianity is premised on transcending death, is it not, and the resurrection denotes the victory of life over death?  In a strange reversal, it is possible to interpret the event as victory of death over life.  Through the death of the incarnate god, all (faithful) humans are invited to participate in everlasting life in the presence of a singular god.  So is ‘truth’, in Conrad, ‘stripped of its cloak of time’ (in Knowles 2010, 80).  Such a ‘life’—eternal and unsubtle—is an invitation to existence in myth, the god having enveloped the real.  ‘At the moment of death, the godabsorbs” the world and is “absorbed” by the world, beyond time and beyond space’ (Mbembe 2001, 222, my emphasis).  Moreover, it is through an act of ‘magical excitement’ and release that this is accomplished (Mbembe 2001, 222) —therein the essence of Mbembe’s ‘god’s phallus’ metaphor.  God is made incarnate—embodied, physical, sexual—and then vanquishes the bodily via pain/orgasm to proclaim the triumph of the mythic over the real.  In extending the empire of Christendom into Africa and other parts of the non-Christian world, through conversion—to be ‘involved in the destruction of worlds’, and ‘an entry into the time of the other’ (Mbembe 2001, 228; 231)—Europeans were reenacting the victory through the violence of myth over actual, of death over life.  Timelessness could reign.  As Mbembe eloquently frames it, ‘creation and redemption subtend the exit from, and then the transcendence of, an original, primordial state of disorder and sin—mortality’ (2001, 229).  In mythic Africa is found the site of the ‘most mortal’; of the un-reclaimed, perhaps irreclaimable humanity without god, already extant in death-timelessness-myth. The missionizing Europeans, bringing ‘life’ to a ‘dead’ continent, killed its future ability to imagine itself as alive.

            We must consider this in the context of the post-colony that is the challenge of Mbembe’s book.  Mbembe, discussing power in the post-colony, demonstrates it to be an interaction, a system of reflections, between the ruler and the ruled: ‘the masses join in the madness’ and ‘within the confines of this intimacy’, a sensual, sometimes sexual exchange, is the production of power enacted, but it is a dead power—without future, even—and in its ‘vulgarity’, a figment of the ‘burlesque’ (Mbembe 2001, 133).  Later, Mbembe proposes that the autocrat, introduced earlier, is a function (functionary) of the arbitrary, wielding a ‘magical power’ which ‘magic consists in making something come into being—better, in making nothing exist, but nothing, in the sense that, voided of what he takes to be his substance, the autocrat, raw power, no longer belongs to that universe of crude, laughable, capricious things’ (2001, 164), of the ‘lugubrious drollery’ that characterizes Conrad’s Africa (in Knowles 2010, 47).  It is a renewal of the Christ moment: making from the physical the aphysical. Let us consider the conclusion of the ‘God’s Phallus’ chapter:

[To] produce religious truth, faith and a certain stupefaction must overlap.  All religious truth, especially when the latter aspires to universality, is always exposed to being seen as in some way an experience of madness […. Madness] as the point where discourse on the divine that seeks to explain itself and make itself understood by others is suddenly exhausted, exhausts its meaning, and provokes a kind of astonishment and incredulity, to the point that people laugh (Mbembe 2001, 231).

The formations and derivations of power in the post-colony are ‘religious’, or mimic religion, to the extent that they are prefigured by faith and stupefaction with myths of power and origin.  Mbembe wants thinkers of the African post-colony (post-colonies!) to escape the imperialized modes of thought which have at their center both a reified history of Africa and a blanketing myth of Africa.  In this there is some concept of transcendence. 

It is the reviewer Janz’s understanding that Mbembe, in the argument of ‘God’s Phallus’, does not permit for transcendence, and therefore that Mbembe’s argument is framed only in the negative. He writes, ‘One might be led to suspect that Mbembe is suggesting that one might transcend the mundane and alienating conditions [of colonization/the post-colony]. This would be a serious misunderstanding of what he intends…’ (Janz 2002, 4).  This is a narrow reading that only takes into account a half, as it were, of Mbembe’s argument.

            Simply put, for Mbembe, transcendence cannot be achieved through the ‘unique’ but only through the ‘plural’.  There cannot be, certainly, a salvation (see above) in the idiom of Christian myth.  Salvation premises, falsely, both an external savior from another world—Heaven, Europe—and a bundling into timeless time, which, promising life, only allots death.  ‘A new subject’, says Janz, correctly, ‘cannot be created by a deferral of death such as Christianity might imagine’ (2002, 5), but the alternative, a purely Nietzschean acceptance of disorder and violence in the interest of ‘enjoy[ing] as complete men [sic]’ (Janz 2002, 5) is unsatisfying and not the only way to read Mbembe.  Such a reading is decidedly unsatisfying, not only as an attitude towards the African continent, which, in looking toward futures, Mbembe seems not to hold, but also as the end to a long and intricate thesis, which indicates that Mbembe had more purpose in writing On the Postcolony than to conclude in relative despondency.  Certainly, there is no deus ex machina for the African continent on any of its many ‘trajectories’, but there are possibilities.  These are the other half of Mbembe’s argument.

            Let us flesh out a passage from Fanon quoted only in part above.  In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon says, ‘There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. In most cases, the black man [sic] lacks the advantage of being able to accomplish this descent into a real hell’ (1967, 2).  In another of the long, visceral passages from On the Postcolony (2001, 220-224), Mbembe describes the torture and crucifixion of Christ, which reads indeed, in its nervous violence, like a descent into hell.  Mbembe makes special mention of the ‘humiliation of [Jesus’s] nudity’, his exposure, and also his sense of abandonment and utter aloneness (2001, 221).  Such a moment of death which does not yet mean absorption into the mythic space, but which is rather a celebratory performance of mortality, is that ‘naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born’.  The ‘hell’ is denied ‘black men’ (Africans) through a perpetual objectification: their very mortality, their humanity, is circumscribed by the living death of the mythic.  Unbounding the human requires violence. This is not to be taken to mean that in the corruption of power, the frequent violence and suffering of the post-colony there is inherent a regenerative or redemptive power—that is, salvation—but rather should be understood to be about radical, emancipatory subjectivity formation, which necessarily means doing some violence to the power of hegemonic myths (hegemonic in the Gramscian sense).  This line of thinking follows, again, Lewis Gordon: ‘Man [sic] needs a radical form of self-reflection.  For whatever may be abstracted from him as contingent faces its own delusion of reality’ (1995, 11).

            Plurality will be transcendent.  “The thing cannot be expressed in a single proposition’ (Mbembe 2001, 241, emphasis in original), unlike the myth, the arbitrary which is itself a proposition of the singular. It is in its very nature as ‘entangling’—as unbounded and moving time and times, perspective and perspectives that Mbembe imagines to ‘overlay’, ‘interpenetrate’ and ‘envelope one another’, neither ‘linear’ nor a ‘simple sequence’ (Mbembe 2001, 13; 16)—it is in the difficulty of ‘entanglement’ that the post-colony is capable of positivity.  In the real, in the human, there is life, in utter opposition to the deadness and deadliness of myth.  There are neither ‘timeless truths’ (Fanon 1967, 1), nor a timeless truth.  There are many, moving, confusing truths of the living world.  This does not only mean the replacement of the constructed with the lived experience (Janz 2002), which substitutes one savior for another, but also a turn, with such a project of the experiential in mind, towards the future, a turn impossible while living in the past-oriented mythic and thinking ‘in a historical trajectory [of victimization through slavery, colonialism, and apartheid] that negates or does not makes use of all its potentialities’ (Erskog, 2014). 

In short, an effort must be made to again dream the postcolony, but to dream while waking.  Each waking dream is a future, and in a future, unlike a past, is the possibility of being alive. 


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