Social Theory: Achille Mbembe

12th Jul 2022 by Simon Mabon

Social Theory: Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe and the Afterlives of Interspecies Necropolitics in the Postcolony

By Madonna Kalousian


In an essay titled ‘Écrire l’Afrique à partir d’une faille’, Mbembe contends that “c’est parce que la colonisation fut ce qu’elle fut qu’il nous est interdit d’oublier F. Fanon”,[1] meaning that because colonization was what it was, we are forbidden from ever forgetting Fanon. With a critical recourse to Homi Bhabha’s “‘projective disincorporation’ by the marginal of the Master”,[2] Mbembe draws on Fanon’s psychoanalytic theorisation of race, subject formation, and the exclusion of colonised subjectivities in order to mediate a rereading of the construction of colonial relations and postcolonial institutional violence.[3] Spanning in many ways the complex paradoxes of a human-animal dichotomy, Mbembe’s intellectual approach to the necropolitical calculus of colonialism, postcolonialism, empire-building, and other forms of violence remediates the foundational interrogations of discourses of philosophy, political science, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism today.

  

In Theory

 

Mbembe’s rereading of postcolonial theory inaugurates a discourse around ‘the postcolony’. His On the Postcolony is an exposé of the implicit assumptions, operations, and epistemologies upon which the dehumanizing operations of colonial and post-colonial power in Africa are premised.[4] It traces the genealogy of sovereign power as it passes under many names, endures, and changes across time and space. For Mbembe, “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”.[5] While Mbemeb’s framework remains profoundly indebted to a long history of critical thought sketching out discourses of colonialism, On the Postcolony also redefines of the foundational interrogations of contemporary postcolonial theory:

 

Economic activity is increasingly like war activity. Roads are cut, cargoes high-jacked, convoys escorted, security services hired – making clear that the boundaries between production, extortion and predation have been blurred. No one knows very clearly any more what belongs to whom, and who has a right to what, still less who must be excluded and why. The immediate consequences of institutional violence and the logic of rioting are to prevent any effective consolidation of so-called civil society while rendering the State totally impotent.[6]

 

For Mbembe, processes of decolonisation reinforce and are accompanied by a systematic exercise of coercion administered by a state whose legitimacy is premised upon the regularisation of a postcolony’s resistant social sphere. These social spheres are gradually overtaken by a set of zones of exclusion managing the life and administering the death of subjects relegated into their margins. Grounding its operations in discreetly legalised forms of extreme violence, such as murder, torture, compulsory disappearance, mass killing, genocide, and war as noted by Mbembe himself above, the architecture of a zone of exclusion “defies easy imagination”.[7] It is “something for which we perhaps have no name”, as Agamben tells us.[8] The multifaceted interchange between this indefiniteness and perpetuality seeks to benefit from a suspension of the rule of law and from an intentionally ill-defined overlap between biopolitics, conformity, legality, rightfulness, legitimacy, and validity. Echoing Agamben’s emphasis on the unnameability of this space, Arthur Bradley identifies a set of “shadowy dramatis personae on the crowded stage of contemporary biopolitics”,[9] including, for example, Judith Butler’s precarious life, Eric Santner’s creaturely life, Roberto Esposito’s immunized life, as well as his own unbearable life.  

 

Mbembe’s necropolitics, as I conceive of it, evokes an interplay between these competing conceptualisations of biopolitics, reiterating and operating within what Mbembe terms “repressed topographies of cruelty”.[10] The correlation Mbembe envisages between anthropocentric violence perpetuated against animals, the dehumanisation of subjectivities under sovereign power, and contemporary manifestations of biopolitics retains a central position to his critique of nihilopower, or political erasure, as Bradley terms it, confining certain forms of life into not only an indeterminate zone of exclusion, but also into an indefinite inexistence where they are rendered unlived, consigned to a virtual sphere beyond both the living and the dead.

 

 

In Practice

 

Mbembe’s outline of the abjectification of ‘the animal’ in the postcolony merits further theoretical reflection. Capturing the realities of political erasure through a pervasive logic of dehumanisation parallels the conception of animality as a category in need of rehabilitation in order for the sovereign to be able to claim to be offering a “legitimate, but good, […] service to the community” which resides outside.[11] Paradigms of excluding ‘the animal’ are replicated in exclusionary colonial definitions of ‘the human’: 

 

That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life [italics in original], a horrifying experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension. In fact, according to Arendt, what makes the savages different from other human beings is less the colour of their skin than the fear that they behave like a part of nature.[12]

 

Similarly, in his introduction to On the Postcolony, Mbembe argues that

 

Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature.’ Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value little importance, and poor quality. It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest of humankind […]. Discourse on Africa is almost always deployed in the framework (or on the fringes) of a meta-text about the animal – to be exact, about the beast [italics and brackets  in original].[13]

 

In Mbembe’s evocation of the above human-animal dichotomy, the question is not whether Mbembe reduces colonisation and its aftermath into a discourse of depoliticization, subjugation, and exclusion as experienced by ‘the animal’. What is at stake here is to identify parallel paradigms through which colonialism turns targeted sites into sites of exclusion in which life becomes the mere subject of a deliberately arbitrary political rule. Therefore, ‘the animal’ is not a metaphor or a literary allegory for exclusion, but rather a paradigm and an analytical tool through which one can rethink the anthropocentrism of both sovereignty and colonialism.[14]

 

A comprehensive engagement with the various contexts against which Mbembe’s theoretical programme can be read is beyond the scope of this short essay. His theorisation of anthropocentric violence, colonialism, capitalism, the right to kill, and the redefining of the human under these conditions have been widely used by scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds in order to navigate a variety of pressing questions in and for the region of West Asia. Some recent examples include Revolutions Aesthetic by Max Weiss who builds on Mbembe’s necropolitics in order to advance an understanding of the management of life and arrangement of death within the context of the war in Syria. Developing a framework for reading Syrian war literature, Weiss deploys what he refers to as a necroaesthetics, “the assemblage of literary, cinematic, artistic, and performative discourses orientated around representation of various dimensions of death, dying, and dead bodies”.[15] Deepening an understanding of the dead and/or missing body in occupied Palestine, Buried in the Red Dirt by Frances Hasso builds on Mbembe’s necro-colonial sovereignty in order to expose the complex mechanisms through which British and Zionist settler colonialism has reduced the body into political capital. Within this framework of analysis, Hasso contends that “the necropolitics of the Department of Health, which answered to the Colonial Office and the Treasury in London, was built on a logic of austerity and developmental extraction from a Palestinian population considered disposable”.[16] Finally, evoking an understanding of places where colonial violence coincides, reproduces, and is dependent on the redefining of the refugee child “as both biopolitical figure and as post/colonial subject”,[17] Anna Ball brings together complementing readings of Mbembe’s necropolitics, further advancing an understanding of the impact Europe’s immigration policies have had on the lives of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.[18]

 

In Retrospect

 

Wadiwel contends that, in Mbembe’s approach to the biopolitical capture of animal life within the postcolony, “the opportunity for linking violence towards animals with the colonial experience […] appears missed”.[19] While Wadiwel’s critique of Mbembe’s rethinking of colonial violence within the framework of a human-animal dialectic does not itself illuminate what exact interrelations between the two experiences have been missed, I believe that what is at stake here is not these interrelations themselves, but rather what Mbembe’s implementation of this dynamic reveals about his own critical assessment of the extent to which one can assume that human sovereignty over ‘the animal’ is necessarily necropolitical. Grounding his critique of colonial sovereignty in a discourse of human sovereignty, Mbembe argues that the fact that “colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life”.[20]

 

In overlooking the possibility that ‘the human’, however, may not, by default and at any time, be able to exercise sovereignty over an ‘inferior’ animal other, Mbembe also overlooks the possibility that ‘the animal’ too enacts its own manifestations of a particular form of life within a realm of existence where a materialisation of a distinctive type of biosis not unthinkable. Mbembe’s conceptualisation of necropolitics, therefore, remains anthropocentric as it “takes for granted the human dominance of animals”.[21] Echoing an Agambanian within-man caesura,[22] Mbembe overlooks the possibility that animal/other lives are already in possession of a political gesturality that does manifest itself outside the realm of ‘the human’. 

 --

[1] Achille Mbembe, “Écrire l’Afrique à partir d’une faille”, Politique Africaine, 51, 1993, p. 85.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha, “Postcolonial Authority and Postmodern Guilt”, in Lawrence Grossberg et al., eds, Cultural Studies: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 66. 

[3] See, Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1967).

[4] Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: the University of California Press, 2011).

[5] Ibid., p. 102. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[7] Dinesh Wadiwel, The War against Animals (Boston: Brill, 2015), p. 90.

[8][8] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. by Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 83.

[9] Arthur Bradley, Unbearable Life: A Genealogy of Political Erasure (New York: Colombia University Press, 2019), p. 7.

[10] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15(1), p. 23.

[11] Alba Montes Sanchez and Dan Zahavi, ‘Unravelling the Meaning of Survivor Shame’, in Emotions and Mass Atrocity: Philosophical and Theoretical Explorations, ed. by Thomas Brudholm and Johannes Lang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 171. 

[12] Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, trans. by Steve Corcoran (New York: Duke University Press, 2019), p. 24.

[13] Mbembe, On the Postcolony, p. 1.

[14] See also Mbembe’s understanding of the nonhuman within the context of colonial oppression in Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. by Laurent Dubois (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

[15] Max Weiss, Revolutions Aesthetic: A Cultural History of Ba’thist Syria (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), p. 272.

[16] Frances Hasso, Buried in the Red Dirt: Race, Reproduction, and Death in Modern Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), p. 57.

[17] Anna Ball, “Biopolitical Landscapes of the ‘Small Human’: Figuring the Child in the Contemporary Middle Eastern Refugee Crisis in Europe’, in Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, ed. by Anna Ball and Karim Mattar (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p. 447.

[18] Mbembe’s nexus of postcolonial studies, animal studies, and environmental humanities brings into a new light the wider implications of interspecies necropolitics in the postcolony. See, for example, Jonathan Saha, Colonizing Animals: Interspecies Empire in Myanmar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022); Paula Butler, Colonia; Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015); and Sundhya Walther, Multispecies Modernity: Disorderly Life in Postcolonial Literature (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021).

[19] Wadiwel, p. 91.

[20] Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, p. 24.

[21] Saha, p. 84.

[22] Agamben, p. 81.

Bibliography

 

Agamben, Giorgio, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. by Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002)

Anna Ball, ‘Biopolitical Landscapes of the “Small Human”: Figuring the Child in the Contemporary Middle Eastern Refugee Crisis in Europe’, in Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, ed. by Anna Ball and Karim Mattar (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), pp. 446-468

Bhabha, Homi K., ‘Postcolonial Authority and Postmodern Guilt’, in Cultural Studies: A Reader, ed. by Lawrence Grossberg (New York: Routledge, 1992)

Bradley, Arthur, Unbearable Life: A Genealogy of Political Erasure (New York: Colombia University Press, 2019)

Butler, Paula, Colonia; Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015)

Fanon, Franz, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1967)

Hasso, Frances, Buried in the Red Dirt: Race, Reproduction, and Death in Modern Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)

Mbembe, Achille, Critique of Black Reason, trans. by Laurent Dubois (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017)

___. “Écrire l’Afrique à partir d’une faille”, Politique Africaine, 51, 1993

___. On the Postcolony (Berkeley: the University of California Press, 2011)

___. “Necropolitics”, trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15(1), 2003, pp. 56-68.

___. Necropolitics, trans. by Steve Corcoran (New York: Duke University Press, 2019)

Saha, Jonathan, Colonizing Animals: Interspecies Empire in Myanmar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022)

Sanchez, Alba Montes and Dan Zahavi, ‘Unravelling the Meaning of Survivor Shame’, in Emotions and Mass Atrocity: Philosophical and Theoretical Explorations, ed. by Thomas Brudholm and Johannes Lang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Wadiwel, Dinesh, The War against Animals (Boston: Brill, 2015)

Walther, Sundhya, Multispecies Modernity: Disorderly Life in Postcolonial Literature (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021)

Weiss, Max, Revolutions Aesthetic: A Cultural History of Ba’thist Syria (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022)