Review of Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Review of Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe. Translated by Lauren Dubois (Duke University Press, 2017) 240 pages £16.75

 Reviewed by Dr. Gabriel O Apata

Book website: https://www.dukeupress.edu/critique-of-black-reason

EXPLORING REASON THROUGH THE FRAMEWORK OF COLOUR

Abstract

Let us begin with a series of questions. Can there ever be such a thing as Black reason and if so what would that entail? Secondly, if there is to be Black reason could this idea of reason ever be objective? Thirdly, what kind of products may constitute black reason that only black people share? Fourth, does the idea of black reason not essentialize blackness in the sense of investing blackness with an essence? If this is the case does this not risk devaluing the entire social constructionist argument that there is no substance or essence to race or blackness? These are some of the questions that Achille Mbembe sets out to explore in his new book.

Keywords

Race, Blackness, Black Consciousness, White Consciousness, Slavery, Colonialism, Apartheid

 

Kant’s first Critique may be described as an attempt to hoist reason up out of the contamination and impurities of subjectivity and relativity onto to a transcendental plane where alone it can possess objectivity and universality. This then is pure reason, whose critique lays down the law for very basis for human knowledge, its limits and which asks whether metaphysics is at all possible. But Kant’s universality turns out not to be universal after all since it excludes or does not admit of certain groups, in particular black people on the basis that they lack reason. The question is can there be such a thing as black reason? If reason does come in colours could it ever be objective? This is the question that Achille Mbembe in his new six-chaptered book Critique of Black Reason (2017) sets out to explore. Mbembe not only believes there is such a thing as black reason but he thinks he knows what it is and what stuff it is made of.

So what is black reason? According to Mbembe ‘Black reason consists of a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary and nonsense, whose object is things or people of “African origin” (p.27). He goes on to say that ‘Black reason names not only a collection of discourses but also practices….’ (p.28). But this will not do since this definition of black reason can equally apply to any other group. For instance if we substitute the ‘black’ and ‘African origin’ in his statement for ‘white’ and ‘European origins’ we end up with nothing to distinguish between the two except difference in cultures. But hold that thought, because that is precisely Mbembe’s point. The Western idea of reason is different from black or African idea of reason because both are products of different geographies (Europe and Africa) and also experiences. Mbembe suggests that contact between both worlds has produced two narratives: the Western Consciousness of Blackness and Black Consciousness of Blackness.

With regards to White consciousness of blackness Mbembe takes us on a historical tour, through the vicissitudes of the black experience that have shaped black consciousness, which are the three most important epoch-making events in black history: slavery, colonialism and Apartheid. This is the familiar story of conquest, oppression, subjugation, persecution and so on. Western consciousness of blackness is thus a category construct that is like a prison within which are quartered cellars and doors through which the black man passes or is let through, at will, into rooms, as though on a production line where he is shaped, boxed, stamped and eventually produced, as blackness. Like the slaves in Plato’s cave, blackness is shackled against a wall where it sees only images and not reality and where he is denied not only freedom, but also the light of reason. It cannot attain knowledge of pure forms but only copies of reality, hence it cannot be admitted into Kant’s kingdom of ends. They have no access to the realms above because, as we mentioned, they lack reason. As Mbembe points out, ‘Reason in particular confers on the human a generic identity, a universal essence, from which flows a collection of rights and values. It unites all humans…. The question …was whether blacks were human beings like all others’ (p.85). The answer for many was no. Indeed, Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative that exhorts us to treat humanity not as a means but as an end in himself did not apply to black people. The idea of absolute or intrinsic value, of ‘supreme limiting condition’ that Kant thought is the very measure of humanity also did not apply to the black man for the same reasons as stated above. Hence the justification for their use as instrumental value.

With regards to black consciousness of blackness, Mbembe points out that ‘Black – we must not forget – aspires also to be a color. The color of obscurity. In this view Black is what lives in the night. Night is its original envelope, the tissue out of which its flesh is made. It is a coat of arms, its uniform’ (p.152). Psychologically, Black is like a victim of locked-in syndrome, within a skin that the bearer never chose but within the confines of which the victim is aware of what is happening to him but remains powerless to express thoughts and feelings. In this prison only two options are open to the black man, either to acquiesce and die or struggle and survive. Out of this fight for survival ‘the struggle to the death’ emerges the narrative of black consciousness.

But Mbembe’s idea of two consciousnesses is classic Hegelian master and slave dialect, a co-dependent relationship in which both are trapped, and within which each holds up a mirror to the other and from the ensuing reflection both become conscious (aware) of each other and of themselves. As Hegel puts it ‘…primitive consciousness does not regard the other as essentially real but sees its own self in the other’. We find similar idea in Fanon (1867) – from whom Mbembe also draws – in terms of the consciousness of blackness, a self-reflection or a psychopathology that is occasioned by the experience of victimhood. Whatever the black man does is never pure but tainted by his blackness, the indelible ink that stains his being and which he cannot rub off: the black writer, sportsman, academic, and even beauty becomes conditioned by blackness. Thus the category of blackness is never transcended, never surpassed and even when, with luck blackness emerges out of this prison, it is never into pure light or total freedom but into an open prison, where freedom and rights are only half granted.

Western intellectual framework has traditionally subsumed the emotions, the body and other aspects of the self under the sovereignty of reason, where Western man appears to believe is his natural dwelling place. Again all the same ideas apply. This high chamber is furnished by the categories of reason (pure, untainted) and where only whiteness (also pure and untainted) may reside. The black man on the other hand occupies, as we said, the lower chamber (the prison) of unreason, where he remains under the grip of his animalistic tendencies. Those in the upper chamber are superior and by virtue of their superiority dominate the feckless occupants of the lower chamber. This analogy merely reflects also the Cartesian binary distinction of the mind and the body – the top represented by the mind, the home of reason while the bottom half, the body, this site of shame, corruption and other impurities issue, is its natural home.

But this idea of Western reason is itself a prison that traps the subject into believing in the rightness of its actions. Like Hegel’s the ‘cunning of reason’ which demonstrates how reason’s sovereignty cleverly avoids being implicated or being made complicit in the mess that goes on under its direction. But reason cannot avoid the things that have been done in its name and its cunningness cannot absolve it of complicity in this dangerous myth and mess-making, or what Gilroy (1993) refers to as the ‘complicity of reason’ where the lovely notions of reason have become tarnished by being used as instruments oppression and degradation. The knife that cuts the bread also has blood running down its serrated edges.

In the end Mbembe’s Black reason is the consciousness of the conglomeration of experiences of being black in a world conditioned largely by white ideology and the struggle against the acts that white reason has sanctioned. Since blackness is a fault, a sin for which salvation can only be achieved through the repudiation of the associated forms of blackness ‘a process of conversion to Christianity, the introduction of market economy…and the adoption of rational, enlightened forms of government’ (p.87-88). In other words, Blackness must wash itself with the soap of white reason by adopting the practices of whiteness where alone it can attain something close to reason, pure reason.

But much of this is not new – we are familiar with the effects of slavery, colonialism and apartheid and the historical narrative through which each has unfolded. What Mbembe has done is to tie them all together in a bundle and under the rubric of black reason to trace the way these experiences have shaped blacks’ people view of themselves.

This is also in part a challenge to Western idea of objective reason, where reason is regarded as like a light on a hill, which everyone can see regardless of the perspective from which they are looking at it (universality). From different points of view we can all see the same thing, (objectivity). In which case there can be no such thing as feminist reason or black reason or any other kind of particularized reason. But for all the claims of objectivity, reason does not come down to us from heaven ready-made; human beings are themselves the shapers of reason in the sense that reason emerges out of particular human social or cultural experiences. The light of reason is that with which see our way through the dark paths of life but often through cultural and social situations. Objectivity is itself particularized notions formed by different perspectives. Certain experiences are not vouchsafed to others just as certain ways of knowing or being are privileged only to those that inhabit particular social spaces, often marginalized, who alone can tell us what the experience is like. And from that experience they bring something different to our knowledge of the world. ‘Strong objectivity’ therefore can only be achieved through a consideration of different perspectives.

Mbembe’s idea is not is unlike standpoint theory the kind that we have been sketched in some feminist thought that are associated with thinkers like Donna Haraway (1988) Nancy Hartsock (2004), Sandra Harding (1993) and others. Standpoint theory posits that a particular standpoint or perspective offers a unique insight into the world and that no particular standpoint is privileged over another since they all possess unique epistemic merits offered by those perspectives. Harding calls this ‘socially situated knowledge’, which in the end provides ‘strong objectivity’ in the sense that it offers a balance (strong tightened objectivity) to the sum of human knowledge. The top cannot know what it is like to occupy the bottom while the bottom cannot know what it is like to occupy the top and so on. This then is the idea of a coherence of knowledge, which cannot be achieved is a perspective is ignored or dismissed.

The danger for Mbembe’s black reason is that we risk essentializing blackness. To particularize reason in this way is to concretize blackness and invoke the very category construct of race upon which a great deal of damaging historical store has been set and much harm done, the very narrative against which centuries of struggle had sought to overcome. It suggests a return to the idea of a black essence or blackness as a substantive thing that inheres in anyone that is black and which like cordage binds all black people together. Is this idea of black reason shared across the black world, from America to Brazil to Cuba, the Caribbean all the way to Zimbabwe? As Mbembe himself acknowledges, ‘not all Africans are blacks and not all blacks are Africans’ so what kind of reason draws all black people of Africa and the blacks in the diaspora into one pool? Beyond the common ancestry and geography what else do black people share? To be black in America is not quite the same thing as to be black in South Africa or Brazil or Cuba or even in even in Saudi Arabia and allowance must be made from the different evolution and particularities of blackness across the world and the differences that each has acquired in their new locations. Blackness is now a fragmented notion and one that is difficult to piece together into one single homogenous essence. Languages and customs are different and with that come different conceptual thought-worlds. Brazilian blacks speak Portuguese, Columbian blacks speak Spanish and American blacks speak English and hardly any of these can speak or understand any African languages, much of which is a factor in the way that they see the world. In which case they really do not share similar experiences and the only thing that they all have in common is not an essence but similar skin colour and ancestry, which are the very thing that many have argued are superficial and unimportant.

So how do we reconcile the different experiences of subjectivity and objectivity where a black essence is denied yet blackness still prevails as a significant phenomenon that is worth pursuing? Mbembe has already provided the answer, which is that blackness is indeed consciousness of black experiences, but these experiences do not necessarily imply essentialism but a kind of fellow-feeling, a brotherhood or sisterhood that black people share. Black reason is the consciousness of the inescapable experiences that have shaped all black people in one way of another, which is that every black man and woman alive today have all to some extent been products of slavery or colonialism or apartheid.

References

Fanon, F. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Haraway, D. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Feminist Studies. (1988) 14 (3): 575–599

Harding, S. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is Strong Objectivity” in Feminist Epistemologies ed., Alcoff, L., Potter, E. (1993). Routledge.

Harstock. N “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” in Harding, Sandra; Hintikka, Merrill B., The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies (2004). New York: Routledge

Hegel, W. (1807[1976]) Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

Gabriel O. Apata obtained his PhD at Goldsmiths College.

He is currently working on a book titled The Analogies of Race: A Theoretical Perspective