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Transcript: In conversation with Achille Mbembe


Paul Gilroy: Hello everybody, I'm Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. This morning I'm talking to Achille Mbembe, distinguished author, commentator and philosopher; works at the moment as a Research Professor in the WISER unit (Wits Institute For Social and Economic Research) of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; educated in Cameroon and in Paris; someone who's worked in the United States, worked in Africa, worked in Europe; so a very interesting formation and recently the author of a torrent of extraordinary books coming out very fast at the moment and I want to turn later in particular to talk about the latest these, Brutalisme, which was published by La Découverte in February, just very very recently - so we'll come to the contents of that in a moment. Achille, there's so many things to talk to you about, I don't really know where to start, but let me just say one thing: when I read you and I think about your work as I do frequently because I feel that we are, if I may say this, sort of working in a counterpoint much of the time, and that gives me a great interest in your evolving reflections on the world and its transformation. I suppose I've been very very struck by the idea that your latest book is devoted to the issue of brutalism, which seems to me to speak to questions of planetarity, questions of the- what would we call it- the end of European universalism, and of course to the omnipresent fact of the global ecological catastrophe. And this is an interesting- I know these elements have always been present, but there is a new emphasis I detect and perhaps we can begin just by talking about that new emphasis.

Achille Mbembe: It's a new emphasis and at the same time it seems to me that a lot of what I had done early on almost inevitably led me to this. So, the emphasis is in fact a natural manifestation of what was there subterraneously so to say. It strikes me that, or it suddenly came to appear to my mind, that a lot of what I though was specific to Africa is in fact becoming, or has always been, a condition we share beyond the continent as such. So if you want, it's my moment of deprovincialising the content and taking seriously the possibility that the becoming African of huge parts of the world, just as becoming black of huge parts of our world, is not simply a wish if we might speak in those terms, it's real.

Paul: What relationship would you say, if any, this forceful argument bears to the work of Senghor? Because maybe six-seven decades ago, he was calling on the world to come to the 'rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir' (the meeting place of giving and receiving). And I don't know if you speak with his ghost, there are a number of ghosts we commune with, but there's a certain side of his work which has never really- certainly the anglophone world- has not been engaged with at all; and it's less the statesman than the poet, but not only the poet actually, in him. So I'm curious how your project connects up with that little read, I would say, I mean maybe African intellectuals have always read those sides of the work and always struggled with them in relation to the other things that he accomplished and achieved diplomatically, in terms of his particular vision of socialism and so on, that for many in the anglophone world this is not familiar territory. So, I'm curious to know, because you are in some sense standing on some of the ground that he prepared, is that reasonable to say? So how do you see your urgent project in this context?

Achille: It's a very complex question and it requires a little bit of elaboration. First of all, it seems to me that both in the English speaking world and also in the francophone world, Senghor's intellectual work, poetic work, aesthetic work, has been done a huge disservice because of his political activities of him having being head of state, having run the first post-independence government in Senegal. So, it might be time to maybe not install a wall between these two dimensions of his work, but maybe assess each other on its own right. This effort has been ongoing, not as much as one would like, but it has been spearheaded by the likes of Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who is a Senegalese philosopher teaching at Columbia University, but also by younger scholars such as Donna Jones who works at UC Berkeley and she wrote a very powerful book on Senghor which seems to be going in the direction of a renewal of reacquaintance with his work. I should also mention Gary Wilder, CUNY university, who wrote extensively on Senghor's work 10 years ago. In this act of reacquaintance with Senghor we should definitely go beyond his apparently essentialist reading of 'Négritude' that is known. And yet in this essentialist reading of Négritude, we should be careful to not throw away the deep- I would say aesthetic- and spiritual dimension of his understanding of what it means to be black; and that aesthetic critique of blackness is still with us. It is all the more necessary in these times we live in when the black, and the body of the black, is once again on the cross. So, I would like to hold on to that poetic dimension and the insurrectionary aspect of Senghor's poetry which has not been taken into account as much as it should. I have in mind in particular a collection of poems he wrote when he was a prisoner in a German camp - prisoner of the Nazis - it's called Chants d'Ombre. I also would like to take seriously his comments, in fact more than comments, on what we would call 'the end of Europe' - or, to put it more precisely 'the ends of Europe' - the end in the sense of what comes to termination, the ends also in terms of what pertains to the order of the promise of the horizon of that which is still to come. And in fact, there is in Senghor's work a deep conversation with certain strands of Jewish thought, as we read them for instance in the likes of Frans Rosenzweig, to a certain extent. So we have to do that work of recovery and his concept of 'le rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir' (the meeting place of giving and receiving) is to be understood from within that broader perspective; and yes it's a project that speaks to me extremely directly in terms of what it tells us about the sharing of the world, the world we share in common, how we can shape our shared world and live on Earth with others. And that is, it seems to me, absolutely crucial for the times we live in.

Paul: Senghor has of course a fundamental concern with rhythm and for him the particularity of rhythm in the life of the black is traced not only to an external world - to tides, to dorms, to the rhythm of day and night, to that fact of two seasons in the African environment in which he placed himself - but also to the rhythm of the heartbeat, the pulse of life in the body, and also to the rhythm of respiration - to the rhythm of breathing - and I know that in things you've been writing recently, this question of breath in response to the horrible murders carried out in the United States but also by police forces in many many countries, in many many countries, a similar kind of capricious and cruel violence not always made spectacular in the way that it does seem to be when it's sourced in the nomos of racial life in the United States. So this question of the rhythm of breath, the rhythm of life, the rhythm of the blood in the body, the rhythm of the tides of the seasons and so on, this is a fundamental component in his imagination- I don't want to call it a political imagination, because that confuses it with the governmental to some extent, and also belittles it, it belittles it. So, in the same way that he calls for and summons, as many of his generation do, a different conception of politics, I'm wondering how important this emphasis on respiration is for you in your thinking at the moment?

Achille: It has been underlying my work. I first encountered it- this question of respiration- through my own mother from whom I understood that for the first time that in the African context that the air or respiration is at the beginning and at the end of life. I also encountered it in the work of Fanon; Fanon speaks constantly about breathing, and it strikes me that the last words of Eric Garner, of George Floyd, and countless others, seems to be repeating almost word for word that aeolian lexicon; and as you yourself say, it is a theme that underpins Senghor's poetry, in which it is deeply structurally correlated with the thematic of rhythm, and behind rhythm of course of music, of what he calls participation, and we might want to propose a little bit to reflect on that concept of participation. But it seems to me that both the idea of rhythm, of respiration, and participation in Senghor, in particular, lead us to an understanding of life in general, as by definition, 'bio-symbiosis'- bio-symbiosis in the sense of an emphasis on the commonalities that all humans do share with one another but also with other species, notwithstanding the differences which do indeed exist. So, it's in that context that I have come to pay bigger attention to the question of respiration. I wrote a piece called The Universal Right to Breathe just before the execution of George Floyd, and in the context of the outbreak of the Coronavirus, because it seems to me that in what we are witnessing, or in any case what has become even clearer to our mind since the death of George Floyd, is the intertwinement- the combination I would say of two histories - histories of the Coronavirus and the racial disparity of deaths it has led to, and histories of racially inflicted violence - both histories have in any case as far as I'm concerned made me even more conscious than before about the importance of the struggle for air, the struggle to breathe, which have been part of both our tradition and our struggles.

Paul: I've been thinking really about how we build or contribute to the life of political formations that are adequate to the task of the universal- of demanding the universal right to breath, and actualising it; and I'm thinking that those things are often so locally configured that it's hard to work up or out from that point into a more diasporic, a move vagrant, kind of formation that has a planetary possibility attached to it. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts about that? Fanon, for whom respiration is such a fundamental concern, is after all coming to it as a medical man, if you like, as a doctor, as a human being who's trying to heal other human beings; so this problem doesn't arise for him in the same way that it arises for those of us who lack that skill and that inclination. Do you have a view about that?

Achille: If we take what is going on as we speak, it seems to me that of course all of this is very local, but it also does have of necessity a transnational dimension. Floyd was killed on a pavement in Minnesota, but his death did reverberate throughout the entire planet; as we speak people are still protesting here in South Africa, not only against what happened to him over there - a place many South Africans, ordinary South Africans, will never see - but also here in this very country. And it seems to me it all started with witnessing; I don't know whether we would have had what's going on without the video recorded by that young person whose name doesn't come to my mind right now. So, the question of a universal right to breathe- it begins probably with things like that, like witnessing all those small instances where some are, so to say, expropriated of their breath. It goes on then with the demand for justice. But I want to insist on that element of witnessing because, as we speak, it's very difficult for anybody to deny that racism exists. In some parts of the world the denial of the fact of racism was still alive- people didn't believe that it existed. It's now impossible, including in places like France, to- you can of course rhetorically deny it, but not many people will believe you. So we make it impossible through certain forms of witnessing, we make it impossible for many to deny that racism exists; we make it difficult for them to make us believe, as they have for a long time, it's just an accident, that it's not part of a structure. For me this is part of preventing many from being expropriated from their breath. And those small acts are just as important as what Fanon was doing and through his own medical practice; in fact, it seems to me very difficult in this age of ours to de-link medical acts from political acts.

Paul: Yeah I agree, especially now. And I think you're right about the planetary reverberations of this death and this spectacle and this cruelty. In a way we can say that Covid- I'm not inclined to say that Covid-19 is the first planetary event, because human beings have lived with epidemics for a very long period of time and they have shaped the history of colonialism and imperialism and the European domination of the planet in a really interesting way that is sometimes overlooked. I found myself reading Frank Snowden's extraordinary history of these questions and looking in a new way the Haitian revolution with the question of yellow fever in mind. So I think you're right. But there does seem to have been a planetary threshold crossed in the way that this spectacle of cruelty and horror and its systematic character - the fact that it extends into the lives of so many populations who aren't normally in a networked relationship outside of the pleasures of consumer culture - to discover this very vivid- this very visceral- response is a remarkable thing.  And I'm not used to it yet, I'm really not used to it, I'm not habituated to it at all; and I think you're right to say that, even though the global news cycles have moved on a little bit now, these demonstrations are still happening and they're huge, and they are repeated; so let's work with that and think about what's on the other side of that. And I feel that from what I know of your new work on this question of brutalism, perhaps you've anticipated some of these possibilities. I know that the sort of training that we share in our schooling and so on inclines us to a set of practices that are quite generationally specific - close reading, a certain sensitivity to philological dimensions of language. and so on - and so for me the question of the brute is a fundamental issue because in the English language 'brute' is one word which can be applied to humans and to animal life, and also to some- what Du Bois called the 'tertium quid', the third thing, which is somewhere lodged in between the two. But when you were talking I found myself thinking about las Casas's message to Charles V, from nearly 500 years ago, when he says to Charles V 'these people, these savages, they weren't treated as animals; if they were only treated as animals I wouldn't be so angry about it', but he basically says politely 'they were treated worse than manure, they were treated worse than manure'; now that's nearly 500 years of making that argument in print, in public. So, I'm wondering about the brute, and I'm wondering where the figure of the brute as this ambiguous figure, for the problem that you're exploring, sits in relation to longer set of commentaries which relate to the kind of objecthood of the black. And we have to deal with that because of the significance of that objecthood argument at the moment is so powerful and so fundamental to the buoyancy of the Afro-pessimist view of these processes. Now your emphasis on brutalism seems to break with that in an interesting way- am I pushing that too far or is there continuity there as well?

Achille: No, it's the same logic we spoke about at the beginning that in fact it's like a journey and then at some point you see in a new light things that were there in an incipient state, not really property elaborated on. I started with the idea of brutalism as it was expounded upon in the architectural movement in England in particular, but also elsewhere, during the second half of the 20th century. I was very interested in the ways in which in this movement 'matter' was central; not whatever matter, but the term in French is 'le béton' (concrete); this matter we use to build houses, strong structures, in the hope that they will last forever, or in any case that they will last for a very very long time. And in the process of building these structures, aim of which is to last for a very long time, deployment of force without reserve is necessary- becomes necessary to break things up in order to reshape them along shapers' will, so to say. And it seems to me that of course a number of people are trying to define the times we are in; for some we are witnessing the renewal of fascism or the return to fascism or neo-fascism; for some the epoch is characterised by the hollowing out of democracy; for others the triumph of neo-liberalism, and so forth and so on. But it seems to me that by repurposing the term brutalism we would be able to maybe extend those classical decipherings of the moment and give the moment a stamp; it seems to me that is a characteristic of its properties, its qualities and attributes; the desire by the system, and I use that term purposefully, to go a long way in breaking up whatever we thought was important and reshaping it in an image we don't even recognise. And of course, the racial dimension too, there is a genealogy, there is a long history of reshaping by force, of depleting, of exhausting both physical-psychic energies, and of basically reinventing the human- or human forms in general. So, my use of brutalism- that's the trajectory.

Paul: So that double movement then, of the becoming artificial of humanity and the becoming human of machines, is contrasted in the work, as I understood it, with a different sensitivity to the- as you put it a moment ago- symbiotic or complex forms of interdependency established between humankind of all varieties of life.

Achille: Yes.

Paul: And that's more than the multi-species language that's coming from California, because it seems to me to be infused with a certain African spirituality which takes us I suppose back to Senghor and where we started out, although of course when I think of him I also remember that he and Levinas were born in the same year, so a lot of the stamp in their thinking or the resonance that we see in the projects, however we would want to criticise both of them, is in a sense a manifestation of their generational experience and exposure to the horrors of the 20th century. So let's talk about the Africanisation of this symbiotic sense; and for me I guess I've not use the idea of symbiosis in my own work, but I have tried to think about, in a philosophical way, about the idea of a continuum; about what it is to- why does philosophical thinking do so badly when faced with a continuum? What is it about the continuum that demands from the philosophical imagination the desire to break, to quantify, to fragment? And there is- obviously there are wonderful philosophers of quantification, there are wonderful philosophical stimulation in the idea of fragmentation, but I'm thinking about now is for me the time of the continuum really and how the challenge of the continuum - and that applies not only to how one forces back the weight, you would put it as the weight of racial categorisation - but actually about the continuum of life actually, the continuum of all varieties of life and what we share, and that's not just the same as saying 'oh well your DNA is 96% the same as the sea cucumber' or whatever it is, it's a different sense of the value of that continuum for us in our urgent predicament.

Achille: Yes. I would take that term continuum and I really didn't want to go along the path of the multi-species term as expounded in California, because of course I'm aware of it but there are many different archives of what you call the continuum, and what I call bio-symbiosis. It seems to me that among them, we know a lot about the archive coming from the cultures of the Amazon as written about by various anthropologists, Kohler and a number of others. We haven't tapped into the resources coming from the African continent; the rich conceptual resources which Africa has offered the world at large, in many different disciplines; what would be 'fetishism' in Marxist thought in anthropology without the continent? What would be the 'fetish' in psychoanalysis without the continent? So, the point is that there's still a lot to draw from there.

Paul: Yeah not least- not to say nothing of the fetishism of statues.

Achille: [laughing]... to say nothing of the fetishism of the statues. So, in fact I have been trying to draw from that archive and for some time now. There is a chapter in Critique of Black Reason, which for me is really the foundational chapter of the whole book, which is called Requiem for the Slave, which is an attempt at rethinking in a dynamic way what objecthood might all mean. Objecthood doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. And I know that it is very central to the work of a number of so-called Afro-pessimists, but the chapter was really an attempt at debating with them on that question of either social death or objecthood; but in this case foregrounding conceptual resources coming from the continent. And it's the same thing that I tried to do in Brutalisme. I use it also to reflect on the question of technology and its relationship with what I call 'animism'; the term animism is not mine, it's an old anthropological term which meant something totally different from what I have in mind. Animism in anthropological literature meant the belief children have that things animated by forms of agency- it's the kind of belief we mature men and women stop having, but they kept having them because they never really reached any stage of maturity. So it's not in that sense that I use animism; I use it in an entirely different sense in the spirit of continuity,  bio-symbiosis- the fact of a shared ecology if you want, a shared ecosystem, circulation of life, of vital fluids- organs- between different types of species, and in the process the co-transformation, co-evolution, and so forth and so on. But this might be a rather complicated response, let's just leave it at that for the time being.

Paul: Okay. I'm curious to know just quickly whether you feel that you received any responses from that quarter, because they're not known for their close and careful reading of the work of others, particularly those who they claim to have been so deeply influenced by; so I'm just curious to know whether that's been a fruitful conversation for you so far.

Achille: No, I think they have picked up rather on the idea of becoming black of the world, which of course they have disparaged, but they haven't gone to what is really the core: what do we mean by an object? How do we rethink death politically, as well as for that matter, theologically or spiritually

Paul: Well, we've drifted towards matters of the spirit. I know in an earlier life you had a certain prowess on the football field and I've been thinking- I always like to mark these conversations as belonging to a particular moment because things are moving very very fast and it's important not to invite being held hostage by the abstractions; we have to locate ourselves very carefully. And of course today, if you will forgive me in speaking parochially, we discovered that our celebrity footballers have discovered a political backbone that we didn't know that they had and that they belong to the generation - the angry generation - which has got governments on the run everywhere in every corner of the planet. And I was thinking really about football and morality and politics, and thinking about Marcus Rashford and his generation, the others, who've received very often very harsh treatment in the international media as well as the local media as 'spoilt, as privileged, as contemptuous of the life of ordinary people who invest so much in their superhuman actions' and so on; and I was thinking these days a lot of people have been rereading Camus, thinking about La Peste, but less perhaps sensitive to his wise and thoughtful provocations in regard to the value of football- not just the value of sport in general but the value of football in particular. Before he died in the car crash one of the last things he wrote claimed to say that 'everything he knew most surely about morality, about duty, he owed to football'. So, what does this moment in which football discovers, with new energy, a kind of political perspective? Does that hold any promise for you in this rising generation- this tide of feeling that we see sweeping everything around us? It's very interesting to see that they can defeat a government, even on this small question of- it's not a small question of food- having enough food is not a small question for the people who don't have enough food, but in the political world, in the world of our government, that's seen to be a trifle. But it seems to me to be something bigger than that.

Achille: Oh let's hope that it's something really big. There is a- probably you are better placed than I am really to comment on this- in the case of France in particular, we did have a few instances, not as much as there could have been, of soccer players standing up and speaking in public in the political sense of the term. One such player was of course Lilian Thuram, hasn't stopped talking, still is writing books and all of that. But in view of the number of for black players in French teams, and in particular in the French national team, one would have expected their voice to be a bit louder; it has not always been loud. So I find it hopeful that Rashford, or Raheem, and a number of others, are finally standing up; they are finally standing up and realising that they do exert huge amount of influence; their voice counts, and it can count even more than if they were to speak individually. So my hope is that as individuals who are right there in the cog of the beast, they will become ever more conscious of the debt they owe to others in society, not only to black people, but to all those who are under the threat of becoming black, let's just put it like that.

Paul: Achille Mbembe thank you so very much for taking the time to have this conversation with me this morning and let's keep the conversation running. I'm sure that this moment is going to be attenuated, it's going to last for a while, so we will need to check in with you and see how you're looking at things over the next few months in particular. And we hope eventually to have the chance to bring you to the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for an extended visit to work with our students and to be part of a conversation here in London. So thank you very very much for that.

Achille: Thanks so much Paul, thank you very much, thanks.