Vanessa Thompson: Commentary on David Goldberg’s Conversation with Achille Mbembe

Repairing Worlds: On Radical Openness beyond Fugitivity and the Politics of Care

Comments on David Goldberg’s Conversation with Achille Mbembe

Vanessa Thompson

 

In their thought provoking and inspiring conversation on the driving themes in Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason, David Theo Goldberg and Mbembe discuss the multiplicity and ambiguity of Black reason within the complex archives that emerged from the heart of modernity, namely the enslavement of African people and the condition of unfreedom. Mbembe introduces Black reason through the reading of the contradictory imperatives of racial capitalism and its constitutive undersides, and by characterizing the history of modernity as the history of reason’s unreason. Black reason is not understood as an ontology but as the historical and shifting production and rationalization of the black as a thing (what Aimé Césaire called thingification). It simultaneously entails an emancipatory dimension as it also refers to the responses to the abjection of being human, the desire to freedom and self-determination. The genealogy of this form of reasoning is reconstructed from the knowledges, survival strategies and practices of the enslaved. However, Mbembe traces Black reason from the African continental experiences and knowledges as well as from marginalized diasporic experiences such as the Haitian experience and thereby shifts focus to settings bypassed in approaches that center Black US-American archives.

Exploring the configuration of modernity through Black reason enables Mbembe to analyze and historicize the necropolitical conjunctures of racial capitalism—that currently goes along with the global universalization of the black condition by turning humans into commodities and surplus populations as a matter of waste that can be detained, incarcerated, securitized and drowned in the “Black Mediterranean”. It simultaneously enables encounters with the permanent re-creation, reparation and labor of social life, even under the anti-human conditions of racial capitalism.

Thus, Black reason as it is discussed here confronts modernity’s moral imperatives of humanism, justice and democracy as well as responses to this history and presence that reproduce rather than alter the exclusionist logics that constitute the underside of modernity. Through a radically open approach, Black reason stimulates the composition of new possibilities of thinking through modernity. Mbembe’s and Goldberg’s conversation delves into these possibilities. I want to discuss three of the core themes which I see powerfully evolving in this conversation—the role of desire, the politics of care, and practices of repairing the injustices perpetrated in the name of humanism and European Enlightenment—and bring them into conversation with transnational articulations of the multiplicity of Black archives.

The Doubling of Desire

Re-reading the work of the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola with its focus on the permanent labor on the human subject to come, Mbembe argues that Black reason is not so much about social death, a dominant paradigm in black US-American archives, as it is about the permanent re-creation and reparation of the human from a history of waste caused by the horrors of enslavement and its legacies. This labor of freedom is structured by the economy of desire that racial capitalism reproduces. Through an understanding of the Atlantic system of enslavement that not only focuses on capture and the accumulation of capital by enslaved labor but also on the reshaping of the structures of desire, the doubling of the psychic matter of slavery can come into view. This doubling speaks to the inner workings of racism on the one hand, the interwoven and ambiguous relation of abjection and desire which characterizes antiblackness and other forms of racism. On the other hand, this perspective reveals the doubling of the economy of enslavement, as it commodifies humans who still desire freedom.

The existence of the white slaveholder presupposes the black other as the antithesis of being human, and thus the condition of possibility of white freedom. Alongside this necessary abjection and thingification of blackness, the black (as a thing, or a fetish object) is also desired. Frantz Fanon (1967) and after him various postcolonial critics have already compellingly pointed out this important psychological dimension of the workings of colonial enslavement. Mbembe and Goldberg discuss this notion of desire in relation to the accumulation of goods and objects, goods and objects that continue to be presented and give content to museums and research institutions in the Global North while the demands for repatriation and dialogues concerning the future homes of these stolen objects as well as the realization of international exhibitions articulated by the inheritors of these objects disappear from view within the frameworks of the politics of recognition. I think one could also turn to the libidinous economies of affect and their material conditions within the contemporary racialization of death and the affective spectacularization of black abjection when thinking of postcolonial structures of desire. The increasing spectacularization and cinematization of black death, be it black bodies drowning in the Mediterranean, videotaped killings of black people by police going viral on social media, or the graphic mobilization of the images of the 147 Kenyan university students killed by Al-Shabab militants, urges to think further about the structures of desire at play in the affective and normalized consumption of black death at this stage of neoliberal racial capitalism. This also points to the articulation of racism as pleasure as spelled out by Egbert Alejandro Martina (2013), who argues that race is “a form of pleasure in one’s body which is achieved through humiliation of the Other and, then, as the last step, through a denial of the entire process.” It is part of the postcolonial politics of dual narcissism (Fanon 1967) that the black body is desired, represented as a white colonial fiction that can be put on like a costume, as racist spectacles of Blackfacing continue to demonstrate, and simultaneously abjected to the “shipwreck”. This psychic matter of the legacy of colonial enslavement proves to be imperative when analyzing the economy of desire as part of the inner workings of racial capitalism.

Beyond that, Mbembe and Goldberg importantly draw on the archives of the practice of survival and re-creation of the enslaved, and thereby put a note on the capacity of the enslaved to desire freedom. The multiple and heterogeneous insurgent black movements, not only the visible rebellions but the smaller, sometimes unseen and subversive micro-politics of insurgency, doomed as apolitical and “manic” (as Goldberg highlights) in Western social thought cannot simply be reduced to the survival of the bare life (Agamben 1998) but moreover represent radical and open imaginaries and visions of freedom. As Mbembe powerfully elaborates through the reading of Fanon as well as of Jean-Luc Nancy (2008), beyond colonial alienation and fugitivity, there is the desire to freedom as a radical openness to the world and dis-enclosure of the world. This capacity to desire freedom as a human condition and one that brings about the practices of survival and creation puts the social death paradigm even further to test. As Mbembe stresses: “no death of social life actually occurred. The work of producing symbols and rituals, language, memory and meaning – and therefore the substance necessary to sustain life – never stopped.” The production of knowledge, of archives, the creation of new meanings, cultures, music and holding on to joy and love are part of the freedom dreams of transnational black archives. These practices of life-making and of black creativity appear at the fissures of the thingification of those who can never be fully turned into objects and commodities.

They also point to the limits of conceptions of fugitivity and marronage, as important as they might be, as they cannot represent the multiplicity of practices and desires of the African archives of freedom. Turning to the “Black Mediterranean” and the crisis of Europe (instead of calling it a refugee crisis or crisis of migration): African people rendered migrants and refugees, fleeing their homes and countries of origins from socio-economic deprivation, climate catastrophes, military dictatorships or state and extra-state persecutions because of political convictions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or gender expression – postcolonial conditions that are also heavily linked to the long durée of European enslavement and colonialism – are not only being fugitive but also and moreover desire freedom and a good life. The struggle for freedom of movement articulated by moving is one of the greatest expressions of the human condition.

The Politics of Care

Mbembe and Goldberg stress the point that these desires and practices are neither merely desires and practices of survival, nor do they simply re-pair what has been lost. These practices rather do the work of the human condition to become, as they thrive through the multiple registers of reparation. Goldberg stresses that reparation in this sense expands its reduction to the material or economic compensation and Mbembe goes on to draw on reparation as an everyday practice of movement, of care, of action and of being alive. “To repair is to be alive.” Characterized by the condition of one’s survival and being with others and the care that comes with it, reparation is deeply relational, entangled, transgenerational and transtemporal. Mbembe thus redirects reparation from its overemphasis on the past to a transtemporal politics of care; caring for the being and matter of the world one inhabits. Leaving behind the liberal politics of recognition, which Fanon in his critique of the Hegelian paradigm of recognition has already compellingly described as being structured by a dependency of the other which is absent in the colonial relation, Mbembe and Goldberg imagine a politics of care which is the necessary condition of the social as in-common and the “becoming other of the living”.

Turning to the African archive, also understood as a “lived archive” (Mama 2018) the everyday struggles for land rights and for an ethical engagement with land, often pushed forward by African women’s movements, provide crucial examples of the politics of care as reparation. The creation and sustainment of social infrastructures in African urban contexts which are dominantly characterized as messy, chaotic and ruined, provides further crucial examples of how black people engage in practices of care as caring for each other on an everyday basis and in banal ordinariness. The reproduction of the social, cultural and political life of the everyday, reworking what is there within limited means, is part of the reparation of worlds which all can inhabit.

This understanding of the politics of care as a politics of reparation is transformational in terms of transforming the world and reinventing justice and democracy anew. By going beyond the modern binary of individualism and communalism, the mind and the body, the human and the non-human, the politics of care at stake here present a third space that is radically open and thus not confined by the politics of impossibility and closure that underlie liberal democracies on the one hand and racial pessimism on the other. In fact, Mbembe and Goldberg, following Goldberg’s strands of thought in his crucial work on the anatomy of liberal democracies and their inherent racist implications, argue that both of these liberal racialisms are dependent on the exclusion of the other and remain within the binary that lies at the heart of colonial modernity.

Contemporary Practices of Repairing Injustice

Missing in this conversation, however, is an engagement with contemporary political and social Black movements and their transnational relations, as the critique of violence Mbembe and Goldberg are compellingly and dialogically pursuing here is timely as ever. Contemporary movements like the refugee movements organized around the Black Mediterranean, which are characterized by their transnational dimension, are engaging in a practice of action towards new beginnings that disrupt the racist and enclosed epistemological, embodied, spatial and habitual order. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in the US but travels, is translated within black archives and articulates itself in transnational black places like Brazil, various countries in Europe, in South Africa and Kenya as well as other countries on the African continent, not only calls for an end to structural and institutional anti-black violence but imagines and engages in freedom visions of a world without racism and intersectional oppression, racialized gendered capitalism and its production and reproduction of economic, social, political, environmental, spatial and global injustices.

Though Mbembe and Goldberg engage with historical social movements such as the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and crucial historical figures such as Mandela in discussing the politics of reparations, transformation and the non-violent violence as making a beginning and as action, the interwoven and intergenerational implications of the politics of reparation that are articulated through contemporary movements prove to speak to the transtemporal dimension in action that they both emphasize. As many contemporary movements depart from and simultaneously transform black and anti-colonial historical social movements, become more inclusive and democratic in terms of organizing structures, pay more attention to intersecting and multiple positionalities, develop strategies for care and support against neoliberal tendencies, and work towards an intersectionaliy of struggles (Davis 2016), they enact the concrete politics of reparation that Mbembe and Goldberg so powerfully speak about. It is especially in the freedom archives where gender and race cross-cut, that one can see transnational abolitionist practices and geographies (Gilmore 2007) emerging that have politicized care towards a repairing care for the world. And they often rely on practices of restorative and transformative justice from the continental African archive.

Based on the concepts of Ubuntu philosophy and indigenous knowledges and practices, restorative justice concepts focus on healing and care instead of the reproduction of harm and punishment as in criminal law and criminal justice systems. Centering the person who has experienced harm, the survivor, instead of centering punishment, calling upon the responsibility of the harm doer and involving the community in the process of reparation, restorative justice de-individualizes violence and seeks forms of justice that are not rooted in violence. In recent years especially Black/African and indigenous women, queers, transpeople and non-binary folks have developed these approaches further in terms of integrating an analysis of the structural implications of violence and their interlockings and how they can be dismantled and challenged through restorative and transformative justice. The focus is not on a state in a romanticized lost past but on a future to come in the present.

These politics of care are enacted in intersecting struggles against state violence and genocidal migration regimes, domestic and sexual violence; in struggles against gentrification, privatization, for land rights, environmental, social and political justice. Many of these movements also engage in practices of becoming, aspiring and building another world in the everyday in the sense of what Mbembe, drawing again on Tutuola, describes as composition. Composing the world as a form of dis-enclosure and inhabitation of a heterogenous and frictionous world by engaging with the world through radical openness of its multiplicity, movements and contradictions instead of closure or flight is what the African continental archive brings to freedom archives as Black reason. Composing these archives of Black reason in their multiplicities and transnational formations radically opens up the possibilities for repairing the imperatives of modernity from its colonial complexions and for a world yet to come.

 

References

Agamben G (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, Calf.: Stanford University Press.

Césaire A (2000) Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Davis A (2016) Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Fanon F (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mama A (2018) In the Pursuit of Freedom: Feminist Intellectuals in African Contexts. Lecture at the Cornelia Goethe Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt, July 4, 2018.

Martina EA (2013) The Delicious Pleasures of Racism. Available at: https://processedlives.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/the-delicious-pleasures-of-racism/ (accessed 25 May 2018).

Nancy JL (2008) Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

 

Vanessa E. Thompson obtained her PhD at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Sociology at Goethe University in the areas of critical racism studies, black studies, postcolonial and decolonial studies, feminist studies, critical security studies, and theories and practices of transformative justice. In her current project Vanessa analyses racial profiling in Europe and engages with abolitionist alternatives to policing.