[NetBehaviour] Fw: <nettime> Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe
maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Wed Sep 11 18:54:40 CEST 2019
Alternative posting on Mbembe article, apologies for cross-posting.
From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: Wednesday, September 11, 2019 9:48 AM
To: nettime's avid reader <nettime at kein.org>; nettime <nettime-l at mx.kein.org>
Subject: Re: <nettime> Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe
There are a lot of interesting topics in this article! I've highlighted a few below.
A summarized list of possible interest (apologies for simplification):
* "Reticular" i.e. networked phenomena.
* A new understanding of reason beyond instrumentality (possibly as network, intelligence, consciousness, agency, communication, feeling, projection, aesthetics?); integration of faculties
* Curricular reform (derived from "curricle" or chariot); expanding/changing of "the archive," transformation of all fields and disciplines
* The key role of aesthetics, the human as artefact, and related ideas
* Limitations of math and computability, and their application to economic and environmental violence
* Recognition and restoration (comparable to truth and reconciliation), with "healing" as a model
* Acceleration of dynamics in technological and environmental systems
* Migration and economic inequality
* The problematics of individualized subjectivity, feeling, experience, perspectives
* A new "species" of human (is the new species "homo reticulum" or something like it?)
* References to sponsoring institutions of literature and "Church, Religion and Worldview Research."
The interview does almost seem to encompass all topics in a way. How might we assess its endeavor, map it to others, process it, and perhaps reply or just contemplate? I mean this to go beyond just agreeing with some points or disagreeing. Are there any nettimers attending the events in Oslo this week? A literary context could be extremely illuminating.
Some questions I find most interesting are:
* The study of literature from a network perspective, leading to new curricula. (Calvino's discussion in Six Memos of the novel as network and the self as network may be germane.)
* A new understanding of reason as more multifaceted (intelligence, consciousness, emotion, communication), and of a network nature. (Re-envisioning the Enlightenment discussion of reason.)
* Imperatives for reconciliation, relation, and restoration wherever possible.
One topic I might add is that of neuroscience. The latest neuroscience is finding that the brain is much more networked that previously thought, and differently so. (Olaf Sporns' Networks of the Brain and the network neuroscience model of intelligence are examples of this.) I think that neurobiology may be more of an aid to Mbembe's goals than an obstacle.
Also, research on mindfulness and its relation to neuroscience is one of the most active fields in neuroscience today. This is a way of bringing specific, individual experience into a less insular/reactive mode and into a more globally aware and creative framework of "reason" so to speak. Could this be a synergy helpful to the stated goals, addressing problems posed by personal experience and neurobiology? Mindfulness is non-denominational, while having a sound basis in science and secular art as well as ancient and indigenous traditions of meaning. Is it possible that mindfulness is part of or related to the human faculty for restoration, reconciliation, and relation (possibly by its role in neuroplasticity) and if so, is it relevant or applicable in any concrete way to the topics of the interview?
Finally, in terms of curriculum, it might make sense to develop an experimental "Network Studies" curriculum that could begin as an informal discussion with possible eventual application to a range of fields and educational settings. This might be contentious at times but in a constructive way. I'm sure nettime has more than enough creative capacity to write up a basic first draft at least! 🙂
Thanks for posting an interesting interview!
From: nettime-l-bounces at mail.kein.org <nettime-l-bounces at mail.kein.org> on behalf of nettime's avid reader <nettime at kein.org>
Sent: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 3:23 AM
To: nettime <nettime-l at mx.kein.org>
Subject: <nettime> Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe
Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe first visited Norway on the occasion of the annual
Holberg Debate organised by the Holberg Prize Secretariat at the
University of Bergen on 1 December 2018 where he gave a keynote address.
Mbembe is scheduled to give three invited lectures on “Bodies as
Borders” at the House of Literature in Oslo on 13 and 14 September 2019.
This interview was conducted in Bergen, Norway, on 30 November 2018 by
Torbjørn Tumyr Nilsen of the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. It is
published here for the first time.
Nilsen: In April 2015, the Rhodes statue fell in South Africa at the
University of Cape Town. How did you interpret that event?
Mbembe: For those who are not aware of who we are talking about, Cecil
John Rhodes was a privateer. He was a ruthless actor in the mercantile
expansionism that characterised 19th century settler colonialism in the
southern part of Africa. Through political alliances, sheer brutality
and expediency, he carved out for himself a huge chunk of South Africa’s
mineral wealth, in particular diamonds in Kimberley and gold in the
Witwatersrand. He bestowed some of the land he had grabbed in Cape Town
to the university which, in return, erected a statue in his honour on
the steps of one of its main buildings.
Rhodes prefigured the extraction and privatisation of ill-gotten wealth
neoliberalism today has pushed to a refinement unseen in the history of
humankind. He was a precursor of the type of predatory economic system
and plutocratic politics at work in most parts of the world today, the
results of which are the raping of the biosphere and the destruction at
a massive scale of the basic conditions of life on Earth.
I interpret the toppling of his statue as a small, symbolic victory, in
the long and protracted struggle for universal justice.
Nilsen: So there is a lineage from Rhodes to the neoliberal order we see
Mbembe: There is an explicit kinship between plantation slavery,
colonial predation and contemporary forms of resource extraction and
appropriation. In each of these instances, there is a constitutive
denial of the fact that we, the humans, coevolve with the biosphere,
depend on it, are defined with and through it and owe each other a debt
of responsibility and care.
An important difference is the technological escalation that has led to
the emergence of computational capitalism in our times. We are no longer
in the era of the machine but in the age of the algorithm. Technological
escalation, in turn, is threatening to turn us all into artefacts – what
I have called elsewhere “the becoming-black-of-the world” – and to make
redundant a huge chunk of the muscular power capitalism relied upon for
a long time. It follows that today, although its main target remains the
human body and earthly matter, domination and exploitation are becoming
increasingly abstract and reticular. As a repository of our desires and
emotions, dreams, fears and fantasies, our mind and psychic life have
become the main raw material which digital capitalism aims at capturing
During Rhodes’ times, the exploitation of black labour went hand in hand
with a virulent form of racism. Contemporary capitalism still relies on
racial subsidies. But the technologies of racialisation have become ever
more insidious and ever more encompassing. As the world becomes a huge
data emporium, tomorrow’s technologies of racialisation will be more and
more generated and instituted through data, calculation and computation.
In short, racism is relocating both underneath and at the surface of the
skin. It reproduces itself via screens and mirrors of various kinds. It
is becoming both spectral and fractal.
Otherwise, as far as the toppling of Rhodes’ statue is concerned, my
argument has always been that the statue should have never been there in
the first instance.
Nilsen: As a symbol?
Mbembe: Yes, as a reminder of the various crimes this cruel man
committed in his attempt to deny black people any right to a human
future in South Africa. As a reminder, too, of the cynicism with which
he tried to launder his ill-gotten wealth under the guise of philanthropy.
But a proper critique of Rhodes’ style of predatory economics and
plutocratic politics cannot be limited to South Africa alone or to the
confines of a specific nation-state. The project he served was colonial
and imperial. Its horizon was not South Africa-centric. Ultimately,
Rhodes is the symbol of the double damage capitalism in its racial,
colonial and imperial form inflicted upon humankind and upon the
biosphere. Such should be the starting point of any critique of Rhodes
which strives to avoid the pitfalls of national chauvinism.
Nilsen: At the Holberg Debate at the University of Bergen tomorrow, you
will discuss social movements through history. How will you describe
this social movement, compared to, for example, the student movements in
the late 1960s?
Mbembe: These are two different events. They are happening at two
different historical moments in two different places. I am not even sure
that contemporary protagonists have any knowledge or memory of what
happened in 1968.
If my understanding is correct, one of the goals pursued by the
decolonisation movement in South Africa is to unbundle what is perceived
as a structure of repetition, an old racial order which keeps donning
the mantle of the new in its attempt at masking its degeneracy. In this
context, to dismantle “whiteness” implies the awakening to
self-knowledge and the reshaping of institutions inherited from a brutal
past. In this sense, the decolonisation project is both a critique of
institutions and a critique of knowledge.
The actual question is whether in this instance, such a critique has
been articulated in a way that is intellectually and politically
compelling. Indeed with the drive towards the automatisation of
existence, contemporary social movements operate in a context
characterised by huge changes in human experience. It is not only that
the economy is becoming the eminent site of the new struggles for life.
It is also that people and things, nature and objects, we are all
increasingly at risk of being transformed into artefacts.
Many of these changes are partly enabled by the technological escalation
represented by ubiquitous computing. A major consequence of this “great
transformation” is that the human of the first quarter of the 21st
century is not exactly the human of the late 1960s. The modes of
individuation are not the same. Nor are the forms of subjectivation or
its content. The complex entanglement of the human and the technological
so typical of our age has deeply transformed the ways in which cognitive
processes unfold, how people dream and what kind of change they dream
about, in short, how the political is configured and experienced. In
assessing the qualities and properties of contemporary mobilisations, we
must therefore factor in the impact of media technologies on the
formation of political subjectivity.
Striking in this regard is the apparent shift from a politics of reason
to a politics of experience, if not of viscerality. In the eyes of many,
personal experience has become the new way of being at home in the
world. It’s like the bubble that holds the foam at a distance.
Experience nowadays trumps reason. We are led to believe that
sensibility, emotions, affect, sentiments and feelings are the real
stuff of subjecthood and therefore of radical agency. Paradoxically, in
the paranoid tenor of our epoch, this is very much in tune with the
dominant strictures of neoliberal individualism. It is also in line with
the ongoing reconfigurations of the relation between technology, reason
and other human faculties.
Whatever the case, this has given rise to ambiguous forms of collective
mobilisation, most of which we shouldn’t romanticise. Behind the mask of
radicalism, there is something fundamentally ambivalent in the political
discourse of decolonisation when, for instance, the injunction to
decolonise goes hand in hand with high tolerance for xenophobia or the
desire to control and defend what amounts to inverse racial borders.
There is something fundamentally debilitating when subaltern resistance
politics is limited to an endless performance of purity and
self-righteousness, or to a competition about who has suffered the most
on the spiralling scale of victimisation.
The same pathos is to be found in most debates on curriculum reform, on
what we must or must not read and why, in short, on how to reconfigure
or redesign the archive. Although fought in the name of equality and
justice, some of these mobilisations might end up reenacting a sectarian
logic of enclosure, underpinned as they are by flawed notions of
identity, gender or culture as spaces of protection and immunity, as
borders which allow for a closing off from “those who are not as radical
Finally, a number of these mobilisations grant a preeminent status to
notions of self and experience. The idea according to which self and
experience – or for that matter radical agency – must now be found in
the intimate microspheres of everyday life must be subjected to a
thorough critique. Too often, it is presumed that our intimate
interiorities, our moods, our states of mind are “safe spaces”, the only
spaces immune to racism and neoliberal intoxication. In fact, under
contemporary conditions, there is no longer any “zone of being” that is
free from “contamination”.
The political cannot be reduced to the painstaking management of
emotionally safe spaces and shared atmospheres. Radical agency is not
about the sharing of boundaries. It is about deborderisation. It is
simply not true that unless I have undergone the exact same experience
as the other, I know nothing about his or her pain and should simply
shut up. Insofar as to be human is to open oneself up to the possibility
always already there of becoming (an)other, such a conception of self
and identity is by definition antihuman. The political in our time must
start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common. For the
idea of decolonisation to have any purchase at a planetary scale, it
cannot start from the assumption that I am purer than my neighbour.
Nilsen: By using the term “planetary scale” here, I take it that you see
this decolonisation movement as important also on a global scale?
Mbembe: I am arguing that for the idea of decolonisation to truly become
a political, theoretical or aesthetic force on a global scale, a number
of conditions must be met and a lot of work still needs to be done. For
the time being, it is mostly a legitimate aspiration and, in some
unfortunate instances, a compensatory discourse.
Decolonisation never meant the return to some egosphere or to some
elective self-image that would procure a stable identity, protection,
safety and security and eventually immunity to an embattled self. The
search for safety and immunity and the fear of risk so typical of this
age is not at all part of, say, Frantz Fanon’s decolonisation lexicon
which is all about undergoing a trial, or even facing an ordeal.
Furthermore, historically the expansion of colonialism had to do with
the broader question, Who is it that the Earth belongs to? That was the
key question underlying colonial conquest and imperial expansion since
the 15th century. With the partition of Africa in the 19th century,
European powers had decided that the Earth in its entirety belonged to
them. They were its true owners, and they could occupy lands that were
populated by foreign people. They could exploit these lands as well as
the people who had always inhabited them, thereby carving out spheres of
influence each of them had control over.
To a large extent, colonial expansion was a planetary project. Although
driven in large part by national states and national business companies,
it mostly had to do with the reallocation of the Earth’s resources and
their privatisation by those who had the greatest military might and the
largest technological advantage. This is why in its most historical
sense, decolonisation is by definition a planetary enterprise, a radical
openness of and to the world, a deep breathing for the world as opposed
Nilsen: And cynicism?
Mbembe: And cynicism, of course. And racism. Because racism is in the
DNA of colonialism. There is no colonialism that doesn’t entail a huge
dose of structural racism. And there is no colonialism neither that is
not driven, let’s say, by some form or another of a genocidal impulse.
This genocidal potential can be actualised or it might not, but it is
always there. It is there as Hannah Arendt shows in her own work on race
and bureaucracy. This genocidal potential was put to work in the
Americas, in Australia. It was put to work by the Germans in Namibia. So
it is always there. Because where there is racism, this genocidal
potential exists. Where there is racism, being-in-the-world is the same
thing as being-against-others. The latter are treated as a threat
against which one’s own existence must be defended. At all cost, if
Nilsen: Some would then argue that there are still colonial or
postcolonial structures operating in the neoliberal project. Would you
say that there is then still a genocidal potential?
Mbembe: Perhaps more than at any other moment in our recent past, we are
increasingly faced with the question of what to do with those whose very
existence does not seem to be necessary for our reproduction; those
whose mere existence or proximity is deemed to represent a physical or
biological threat to our own life.
Throughout history, and in response to this question, various paradigms
of rules have been designed for human bodies deemed either in excess,
unwanted, illegal, dispensable or superfluous. One historical response
has consisted in putting in place spatial exclusionary arrangements.
Such was, for instance, the case during the early phases of modern
settler or genocidal colonialism in relation to Native American
reservations in the United States, island prisons, penal colonies such
as Australia, camps and even Bantustans in South Africa.
Two late modern examples are Gaza and the encaging of migrant children
in the context of the ongoing planetary war on mobility. Gaza and the
encaging of migrant children might well prefigure what is yet to come.
In the case of Gaza, control of vulnerable, unwanted, surplus or
racialised people is exercised through a combination of tactics, chief
among which is modulated blockade or molecular strangulation. A blockade
prohibits, obstructs and limits who and what can enter and leave the
Strip. The goal might not be to cut the Strip off entirely from supply
lines, infrastructural grids or trade routes. The Strip is nevertheless
relatively sealed off and strangulated in a way that effectively turns
it into an imprisoned territory. Comprehensive or relative closure is
accompanied by periodic military escalations and the generalised use of
extrajudicial assassinations. Spatial violence, humanitarian strategies
and a peculiar biopolitics of punishment all combine to produce, in
turn, a peculiar carceral space in which people deemed surplus, unwanted
or illegal are governed through abdication of any responsibility for
their lives and their welfare.
But as I have intimated, there is another, early 21st century example,
which consists in waging new forms of wars, which can be called wars on
speed and mobility. Wars on mobility are wars whose aim is to turn
discounted bodies into borders. They generally begin by turning into
dust and piles of ruins the milieux as well as means of existence and
survival of vulnerable people thus forced to flee in search of a refuge.
These kinds of wars against milieux and ecosystems rendered toxic and
uninhabitable are not accidental. They are methodically programmed and
conducted. Such milieux and ecosystems are sites of experimentation of
new weapons. The targets of this kind of warfare are not by any means
singular bodies, but rather great swathes of humanity judged worthless
Nilsen: Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
Mbembe: Let me put it differently. Nowadays, the project is to render as
many people as superfluous as possible. The novelty is the production at
a massive scale of discounted bodies, a residual humanity that is akin
to waste. With our entry into a new climatic regime, this process will
only intensify. As the global conditions for the production and
reproduction of life on Earth keeps changing, population politics at a
planetary level will increasingly become synonymous with excess and
waste management. In terms of the future geopolitics of our world,
populations will be more and more treated not only in the Darwinian
terms of sexual selection, but also within an utilitarian and
Take a place such as South Africa where a very high percentage of the
total population is unemployed. This is not because there is no “work as
such”. This is not because people do not want to work.
In fact, here as elsewhere in Africa and other parts of the global
South, almost everything remains to be done. The amount of work needed
in order to create a better life for all is incalculable. But the
structure of the economy doesn’t really need us all. Nor does it need
our time. It doesn’t really need every single body, all of our muscles
or energies or even the bulk of our social and collective intelligence.
And this will be more and more the case in the future, as we move to a
phase of human history in which only that which is computable counts. As
we speak, many bodies already fall beyond the scope of calculation.
Unless we reinvent the terms of what counts and in the process resignify
what value stands for as well as the procedures of assigning value, of
measuring value, of exchanging value, things won’t change. These are
some of the key questions any decolonisation project worthy of its name
has to address if the injunction to decolonise is to be more than a mere
Nilsen: Back to the debate on decolonisation. There was a heated debate
in Norway, during the summer of 2018, about the decolonisation of
academia. How can #RhodesMustFall in South Africa be relevant for
Mbembe: The need for a critical reappraisal of the relationship between
knowledge, power and institutions is not an exclusively South African
preoccupation. In South Africa, the term “decolonisation” is one way in
which concerns about “deracialisation” are expressed. The imperative to
“deracialise” is also valid for Europe, for the United States, for
Brazil and for other parts of the world. The emergence of new varieties
of racism in Europe and elsewhere, the reassertion of global white
supremacy, of populism and retro-nationalism, the weaponisation of
difference and identity are not only symptoms of a deep distrust of the
world. They are also fostered by transnational forces capable of making
that same world inhospitable, uninhabitable and unbreathable for many of us.
All of this is, of course, important. But part of what truly frightens
me is the recolonisation of various fields of knowledge by all kinds of
determinisms. What frightens me is the active confusion between
knowledge and data, the reduction of knowledge to information. It’s the
idea that the world is a matter of numbers and the task of knowledge is
to handle quantities. Furthermore, it’s the belief that the best way to
generate information is with computers and that which is not computable
does not exist. It’s the creeping sense that the computer is our new brain.
In such a context, “to decolonise” must start from the assumption that
knowledge cannot be reduced to computational information processing.
There is therefore a massive need to recover the ability to think. And
for me, knowledge is on the verge of being reduced to a reified
metaphor. As a result, we are witnessing almost everywhere a tremendous
impoverishment of thought.
Nilsen: In the Norwegian debate on decolonisation, one of the demands
from the young student activists was to have a more global curriculum.
What’s your take on that?
Mbembe: Right now we are literally assaulted by forces that want to
retreat from the world and rebuild a certain idea of the nation, of the
community, of identity and difference that is premised on the capacity
to determine who belongs, who must be excluded and shouldn’t belong, who
can settle where, why, how and for how long. Such forces are preoccupied
with the erection of all kinds of borders and how they must be policed.
They buy in the dream of a “pure” community, a community of people who
look the same and act the same. They are sustained by the belief that we
can go back to the past because the past is, in truth, our future. Let
me just call it the dream of apartheid.
There is another dream, maybe not unrelated to the first. As I have just
highlighted, it’s the dream of reducing knowledge to calculation by
computers. In fact, it’s the dream of reducing everything to calculation
and explaining everything from within biological and neurological
strictures. A planetary library, archive or, for that matter, curriculum
is one whose strategic project is to understand the incalculable and the
incomputable. It can only be based on the will to go beyond cognitivism.
I am not against calculation or mathematics. Nor am I against
computation. I am simply saying that neither calculation, nor
mathematics, nor computation are sufficient for explaining life. It
can’t be enough to do correct mathematics. Once we have done correct
mathematics, we still need to determine what this exercise implies for
the life of beings. Pushed to a certain level, correct mathematics alone
impoverishes thought and destroys theory.
Otherwise, we only have one world. We might dream about colonising Mars
or Venus or other unknown planets in the future, but for the time being
that is not part of our actuality. We only have one world, one solar
system and for this world to last as long as possible and for this solar
system to not calcinate life as such, we need to become a bit more
intelligent and wiser. This Earth is our shared roof and our shared
shelter. Sharing this roof and shelter is the great condition for the
sustainability of life on Earth. We have to share it as equitably as
possible. And, in any case, our lives, here and elsewhere, have become
so entangled, that trying to separate them will require a tremendous
amount of violence. It will require a lot of violence to disentangle
humanity from itself and from the rest of the living species. And
therefore, especially in the face of the kinds of ecological challenges
we face, it is absolutely important to reinvent forms of life in common
that go beyond the requisite of the nation state, ethnicity, race,
religion, and so on. A curriculum that takes seriously such concerns is
Nilsen: And you see these two forces visible in the debate on the
composition of the curriculum?
Mbembe: Yes, I do. I would go further and argue that to design a truly
planetary curriculum implies salvaging whatever remains of reason as a
shared human faculty. To be sure and in view of its own history of
violence and unreason, reason must be reformed. But I cannot possibly
see how, without it, we can adequately answer one of the most urgent
questions that will haunt the human race in this century – the question
of life futures.
For a long time, we have been concerned with how life emerges and the
conditions of its evolution. The key question today is how it can be
repaired, reproduced, sustained and cared for, made durable, preserved
and universally shared, and under what conditions it ends. Overall,
these debates about how life on Earth can be reproduced and sustained
and under what conditions it ends are forced upon us by the epoch
itself, characterised as it is by the impending ecological catastrophe
and by technological escalation. I am not sure that they can be properly
answered from a purely market logic perspective that addresses life as
a commodity to be manipulated and replicated under conditions of volatility.
On the other hand, there is a shifting distribution of powers between
the human and the technological in the sense that technologies are
moving towards “general intelligence” and self-replication. Over the
last decades, we have witnessed the development of algorithmic forms of
intelligence. They have been growing in parallel with genetic research,
and often in its alliance. The integration of algorithms and big data
analysis in the biological sphere does not only bring with it a greater
and greater belief in techno-positivism and modes of statistical
thought. It also paves the way for regimes of assessment of the natural
world, and modes of prediction and analysis that treat life itself as a
Concomitantly, algorithms inspired by the natural world, and ideas of
natural selection and evolution are on the rise. Such is the case with
genetic algorithms. As Margarida Mendes (“Molecular Colonialism”) has
shown, the belief today is that everything is potentially computable and
predictable. In the process, what is rejected is the fact that life
itself is an open system, nonlinear and exponentially chaotic.
I keep raising these issues because they are not unrelated to a
problématique of “decolonisation” that would not be a mere ideological
phantasm. In fact, these issues may be symptomatic of a truly momentous
event we might not be willing or ready to contemplate. Reason may well
have reached its final limits. Or, in any case, reason is on trial. On
the one hand, it is increasingly replaced and subsumed by instrumental
rationality when it is not simply reduced to procedural or algorithmic
processing of information. In other words, the logic of reason is
morphing from within machines and computers and algorithms while the
human brain is being “downloaded” into nano-machines and all kinds of
As we are increasingly surrounded by multiple and expanding wavefronts
of calculation, all we are willing to ask from it is to detect patterns
or to recover artifacts whose existence is derived from financial models
built on technologies of miniaturisation and automation. As a result,
techne is becoming the quintessential language of reason, its only
legitimate manifestation. Furthermore, instrumental reason, or reason in
the guise of techne is increasingly weaponised. Life itself is
increasingly construed via statistics, metadata, modelling, mathematics.
If my description of current trends is accurate, then one of the
questions a planetary curriculum must ask is the following: What remains
of the human subject in an age when the instrumentality of reason is
carried out by and through information machines and technologies of
The second is: Who will define the threshold or set the boundary that
distinguishes between the calculable and the incalculable, between that
which is deemed worthy and that which is deemed worthless, and therefore
The third is whether we can turn these new instruments of calculation
and power into instruments of liberation. In other words, will we be
able to invent different modes of measuring that might open up the
possibility of a different aesthetics, a different politics of
inhabiting the Earth, of repairing and sharing the planet?
Nilsen: But what about those who are concerned about loosening texts
from canonised European theorists and thinkers in this process?
Mbembe: I am talking about expanding the archive, not excising it. For
this to happen, it must be clear to all that the European archive alone
can no longer account for the complexities, both of history, of the
present, and of the future of our human and other-than-human world. What
we all inherit are the archives of the world at large. Not just one kind
of archive. For me, this is a matter of common sense. I am in favour of
expanding the archive, reading the different archives of the world
critically, each with and against the others. There can’t be any other
meaning to a planetary curriculum.
Nilsen: In all fields?
Mbembe: In all fields. Naturally. In any subject that has any impact
whatsoever on the future history of the world and of life. Or let me put
it this way: I feel sorry for any young person who might go through the
Norwegian educational system without ever having learned anything about
Africa, Asia or China, without having read any African, Indian or
Chinese novels or poetry, or without having studied any African,
Japanese or Chinese thinker of note. I am deeply sorry for that person.
His or her situation makes me genuinely sad. For it is a kind of mental
self-amputation, a form of active or passive rejection of the world. The
purpose of a planetary curriculum would be to cure our souls from such
Nilsen: In the debate in Norway, the demand for a more global curriculum
was labelled by detractors as a campaign for “identity politics”. How
do you see this argument?
Mbembe: It is a mischaracterisation of what is at stake. Because that is
not what it is. Actually, it is not about identity politics. It’s about
the challenges we spoke about earlier. It is about how we locate
ourselves in the world today. In a world that has to be sustainable,
that has to be built in common. It has nothing to do with the dream of
There is a critique of “identity politics” that is a right-wing
critique. It usually comes from those forces that have used the trope of
identity precisely to oppress and exclude certain people, to racialise
and dehumanise them. Identity politics has historically been used the
most by those who were keen to stigmatise different “races”, those who
in the first place did not believe in our common humanity. They
worshipped difference, which they weaponised.
The drama is that the people who were thus objectified and pushed aside,
unfortunately embraced these prejudices and internalised them, as Frantz
Fanon and many others have shown. In their attempt to reclaim a voice,
they ended up defining themselves in the terms of the “difference” to
which they had been assigned. So when we say “identity politics”, we
have to know exactly what is the historical genealogy of this term, and
who is practicing it. Those who are practicing it are, for instance,
those who, when a black African lands at an airport in Norway, in the
midst of a group of many other people, select exactly that person and
racially “profile” him or her.
To talk about a planetary curriculum has nothing to do with racially
profiling people or texts or archives. It has to do with bringing as
equitably as possible everybody, every person and every text, every
archive and every memory in the sphere of care and concern. It has to do
with proximity as opposed to insulation, with the invention in common of
a shared inside, a shared roof and a shared shelter.
Nilsen: Did “racial profiling” happen to you at a Norwegian airport?
Mbembe: For many people of African descent travelling in the world
today, these are regular occurrences. I don’t want to say more than that.
But since you opened that door, it seems to me that identity politics
and other forms of the politics of difference, that is the new opium for
the masses. By expressing myself in this way, I am in no way trying to
hurt many people who, today, must still fight to reclaim a voice or to
recover a face we can truly identify as a human voice and a human face.
What I mean is that in this age of globalised capitalism, identity is
increasingly used both as a weapon to further brutalise the weakest in
our midst and as a leverage to claim a status of pure or authentic
victim. To have been brutalised or to have been victimised, in turn, is
increasingly seen as the most potent way to claim one’s rights or one’s
access to care, justice, redress or reparation. The question I would
like to ask is, why is this the case? In the conditions of our times,
what are the reasons why vengeance or vengefulness is increasing
confused with justice? Is it because we have reached a point where the
form of capitalism we live in, the kind of technological progress we
have achieved, are no longer compatible with liberal democracies?
The two figures of identity politics I have highlighted will not save
liberal democracy from its deadly entanglement with neoliberalism and
retronationalism. We can direct as many people as we want to the things
that ultimately don’t matter – who is wearing a burka in public, who is
sporting a Muslim beard, those foreigners who steal our jobs and “our
women” and corrupt our culture – such subterfuges won’t address what is
at the core of the present malaise worldwide. They will only accentuate
the present distress that many people feel, inflame negative passions
and pave the way for brutalism.
Nilsen: Also in your own country Cameroon you see these forms of
Mbembe: In Cameroon in particular, a similar pathos surrounds the
question of identities and languages inherited from colonialism. One of
the ongoing disputes is about who is more British than French or more
French than British. It is totally absurd. Having said that, the
question we need to ask is the following: Why is it that various
struggles for selfhood and common rights necessarily express themselves
in these exclusionary idioms? Why are they not conducted in terms other
than those that merely mimic the very categories of oppression? Why do
people keep colluding with the forces that objectively work against
their own material self-interest? What are the forms of compensation or
enjoyment they derive from what appears to be self-servitude?
Nilsen: What is the solution then?
Mbembe: We need to develop a better understanding of what we are up
against and throw out a number of old assumptions. This can’t happen if
we do not recover the faculty of critique, re-educate our desires and
rehabilitate reason as a key faculty for any project of freedom or
emancipation. Reason is under siege, reduced as it is to its
instrumental dimension. It is being replaced by technicism on the one
hand and all forms of negative passions on the other hand.
I am, of course, aware of the violent and tragic histories of reason and
not only in our part of the world. So maybe it is more a matter of
reforming reason than anything else. Maybe it’s about educating reason
to cohabit with other faculties. But I cannot see how we can possibly
dismiss reason wholesale without deeply damaging the category of truth
itself. I deeply believe that democracy cannot survive in the absence of
reason, that we cannot share the world, repair it or properly take care
of life in the absence of a reformed notion of reason, one that marries
thinking, feeling and projecting.
Nilsen: Another critique of the decolonisation movement in Norway was
that this was smelling of “American campus activism” and that it was
therefore not relevant for a Norwegian context.
Mbembe: A proper critique of the decolonisation movement must be well
informed. I myself have produced a number of critical observations
relating to this project. It is true that there is a circulation of
tropes, concepts and categories between activists in the United States
and activists in the rest of the world. In the South African case, it is
true that the movement has at times been tempted to rely wholesale on
concepts and modes of action drawn from the African-American experience
or lexicon, in particular insofar as the critique of race or even gender
is concerned. This probably has to do with South Africa’s own inability
to theorise its own historical experience, to speak to its potential
This having been said, But to our Norwegian friends, I would simply say
this. On matters of decolonisation, you should invent forms of student
activism relevant to your specific context. But to deny the necessity of
decolonising is part of what Jean-Paul Sartre characterised as “bad faith”.
Nilsen: But underlying that argument is probably the idea that the
Norwegian universities are not connected to colonialism such as other
universities in other countries might be.
Mbembe: Throughout our conversation, I have tried to offer a theory of
decolonisation that is as expansive as possible. Norway is not an island
in the world. Norway is entangled with the rest of the world and has to
respond to the address the rest of the world is putting to it. And it
has to take this address very seriously, just as South Africa has to
respond to the address that is put to her by the rest of the continent,
by other parts of the world. That is how we will salvage reason and
build a world that is sustainable.
Nilsen: To what extent are our knowledge systems of today still
determined by colonialism or oppression?
Mbembe: We need to develop a broader understanding of “colonisation”.
Knowledge systems worldwide are still underpinned by the logic of value
extraction. In fact, knowledge as such is increasingly designed as the
principal means for value extraction. Colonisation is going on when the
world we inhabit is understood as a vast field of data awaiting
extraction. Colonisation is going on when we throw out of the window the
role of critical reason and theoretical thinking, and we reduce
knowledge to the mere collection of data, its analysis and its use by
governments, military bureaucracies and corporations. Colonisation is
going on when we are surrounded by so-called smart devices that
constantly watch us and record us, harvesting vast quantities of data,
or when every activity is captured by sensors and cameras embedded
within them. This is what colonisation in the 21st century is all about.
It is about extraction, capture, the cult of data, the commodification
of human capacity for thought and the dismissal of critical reason in
favour of programming.
These are some of the issues the decolonisation project has to embrace
if it is to be more than a slogan. Now more than ever before, what we
need is a new critique of technology, of the experience of technical
life. For all kinds of reasons. What we are witnessing, whether we see
it or not, is the emergence of an entirely new species of humans. It is
not the human of the Renaissance or of the 18th century, nor the human
of the early or mid-20th century. It’s an entirely different species of
human, which is coupled with it its object.
The distinctions we used to make between the human and the object are no
longer entirely valid. Because nowadays there is no human being without
its prosthesis. Our environment is not only saturated with all kinds of
technological devices. In fact, we spend most of our lives living with
or thorough screens. This experience has very serious implications in
terms of the new natures of cognition, in terms of how we perceive
things and reality itself, in terms of what it is that we know or must
know, in terms of how we know what we know, in terms of the distinction
between fact and fiction, matter and substance or in terms of the
monopolisation of thought within technical infrastructures.
For “decolonisation” to be more than a slogan and be given an edge, we
need to attend to these shifts, particularly in relation to the
anthropocene as well as in relation to the reticular nature of
computational technologies and the “softwarisation” of our existence and
that of every other living entity on Earth. We must resist the push to
reduce knowledge to what can be bought and sold and reinvent the
category of “relevance”. This can only happen if we put a renewed
emphasis on the questions of “ends”, and not only of “means”. Saying
this, I am fully aware of the fact that our world is going through a
period when nihilism is lurking, brutalism is the new norm and the
desire for an apocalypse is not far.
Nilsen: Recently you have also been writing about what you call “savage
objects”. What does it mean that these objects are still in the
possession of European museums and how can restitution be done in
Mbembe: This is a complex question that has been thoroughly studied by
Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy. Together they have produced a
compelling report on these matters, and I would advise anyone who is
concerned about the ongoing presence of African objects in Western
museums to read it. I have been trying to relate the call for
restitution to broader questions of debt, reparation and universal justice.
In precolonial systems of African thought, restitution was an obligation
in the case that a conscious, malicious and deliberate act of violation
was undertaken on another’s life. The most damaging wrongs were
considered those causing harm to one’s “vital force”. In contexts such
as these, where life was fragile or was liable to being diminished,
every attack on the integrity and life force of being, human or any
other entity, however slight, merited restoration.
The damages or injury could be calculated in economic terms. But in the
last instance, damages, injury or loss were assessed according to a
measure of the value of life. In line with this philosophy, veritable
restitution is therefore one that participates in making reparations to
life. The law subtending it is more person- than property-oriented.
Wherever material damages and interests came into play, the only sense
they had was to undertake that restoration of life.
Ultimately, no real restitution could occur without what we must indeed
call avowal, that is to say, the capacity to tell the truth. From this
viewpoint, to restitute was part of an unconditional duty – part of the
infinitely irrecusable thing that is life, all life, of that form of
debt that was the debt of truth.
The truth is that Europe took things from us that it will never be able
to restitute. We will learn to live with this loss. Europe, for its
part, will have to take responsibility for its acts, for that shady part
of our shared history which it keeps denying or of which it has sought
to divest itself. The risk is that by restituting our objects without
giving an account of itself, it concludes that, with the restitution
complete, our right to remind it of the truth is removed. If new ties
are to be woven, Europe must honour the truth, as the truth is the
teacher of responsibility. This debt of truth cannot be erased as a
matter of principle. It will haunt us until the end of times.
Honouring truth comes with the commitment to learn and remember
together. As Édouard Glissant never ceased to reiterate, each of us
needs the memory of the other. This is not a matter of charity or
compassion. It is a condition for the survival of our world. If we want
to share the world’s beauty, he would add, we ought to learn to be
united with all its suffering. We will have to learn to remember
together, and this doing, to repair together the world’s fabric and its
visage. Restitution will always be partial. There are irreparable losses
that no compensation can ever bring back – which does not mean it is not
necessary to compensate. To have compensated, does not mean to have
erased the wrong. To compensate, as Kwame Anthony Appiah underlines, is
about offering to repair the relation.
An early Norwegian version of the interview was first published by
Klassekampen on 1 December 2018. The transcript has been edited,
footnoted, referenced and amended for clarity by Sindre Bangstad,
Research Professor, Institute For Church, Religion and Worldview
Research in Oslo, Norway. Achille Mbembe has revisited the transcript
and substantially amended it where necessary. It is now published with
Amendment, 5 September 2019: The date for the removal of the statue of
Cecil John Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town was
corrected to April 2015.
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