Geschwister-Scholl-Preis 2015 - Achille Mbembe

Laudatio von Paul Gilroy

W.E.B. Du Bois, the twentieth century’s leading black intellectual, returned home to the United States in 1894. Transformed by his experiences as a postgraduate student in Germany, he published a book, The Souls of Black Folk, that swiftly made him a leader of his people. Literary and political contingencies of that kind are rare. In his case, the role of leadership was not something he had sought or a position that he had anticipated. However, his 1903 book, guided by its founding question “how does it feel to be a problem?” and an acute, historical grasp of where “the color line” would become a fundamental issue of twentieth-century political culture, propelled the young savant irresistibly towards that fate. It is still a book that we read today, a foundational volume in the dissident library to which Achille Mbembe has also made such a notable contribution. Some years later, the publication of Aimée Césaire’s Notebook of A Return to the Native Land, another text with a complicated publishing history, provided a second relevant example of similar cultural and political dynamics. It is my belief that Professor Mbembe has penned an extraordinary volume that is moving him in exactly these directions. His rich and useful book will doubtless furnish him with many opportunities to lead. Long before its appearance in the English tongue, it has already increased the burdens upon him not only in speaking for black life in several parts of the world but also in the more difficult task of expressing the attenuated solidarity between those locations and populations at a time when their differing fates--inside and outside the fortifications of overdevelopment--appear to be divergent.

It’s not long since Hans-Georg Gadamer took the lead in defining a new role for intellectuals beyond their modern mission as legislators. He suggested that they could respond responsibly to their contemporary predicament by developing special expertise in cultural translation. They could become, in effect, interpreters capable of moving between plural, contrasting worlds. Mbembe’s example provides an instance of that vocational reorientation though it operates in a very different political geography than the one Gadamer had in mind and on an expanded scale that he and his various interlocutors could not have been expected to anticipate. Here, even as it becomes a multiplicity, Africa is omnipresent.

Before I comment in greater detail on the arguments in Mbembe’s text, I should acknowledge and discuss the historical formation of its distinguished author. His record of scholarly achievements and his previous outstanding and influential publications need not be resumed in detail on this occasion. Instead, it seems essential to stress the extent of the very alienation he has managed so conspicuously to turn into an interpretative asset. In his case, that estrangement has been both formative and repeated. He was displaced initially from the seminary which has left its negative imprint upon his imagination. Then he moved away from Cameroon to France where he obtained his doctoral degree in 1989. He traversed the elite campuses of the USA whence he found his way via Senegal to South Africa. There, amidst difficult professional and political circumstances for an alien resident, he has made a new home and a new life. From that place he has begun to address the whole world in an increasingly distinctive tone of voice. It resounds with the embattled, emphatically southern predicament from which his inimitable shards of wisdom are directed.

Those bold interventions carry a range of distinctive messages. They have been addressed to the immediate difficulties evident in his troubled, adoptive homeland which was, thanks to the struggle against Apartheid, for so long a moral centre of global politics. They have been spoken prospectively on behalf of the continent of Africa which is once again an object of intensified geopolitical interest. They have been offered politely and respectfully as a corrective to provincial debates emanating from the United States which still exports many of its racial codes and habits to the rest of the world with woeful results. Most importantly for us this evening, Mbembe’s pointed words have also been directed towards Europe where the legitimacy of anti-racism’s contributions to the defence and the renewal of ebbing democracy have lately come under attack from several different quarters and where the figure of the Muslim has emerged catastrophically in a racialized form, under the eye of a burgeoning often xenophobic securitocracy.

The homelessness or itinerancy that has guided Mbembe’s intellectual and political project is not enumerated in his book but supplies its enabling premises nonetheless. This text bespeaks a cosmopolitan or to put it more precisely, a planetary outlook which summons new universals and invites us to engage imaginatively with the epiphany of new worlds in which the racial-corporeal schema is no longer what it was and the difficult, often impossible-seeming, reparative task of working through the effects of the racial order can proceed.

The sophistry and mystification that have characterized so much of the effluvia of postcolonial commentary transmitted from north American universities clearly hold no appeal for Professor Mbembe. Instead, a consistent flow of philosophically-informed insights delivered strategically at the interface of Anglophone and Francophone cultures has revealed the breadth of his interests while his multi-disciplinary perspective has offered to Africa’s expansive public sphere a unique, authoritative voice as comfortable under the immediate imperatives of advocacy as it is with the deconstruction and critique of the metaphysics of white supremacy.

Refusing the standard orientation of an era that increasingly understands itself historically through the idea that the practice of critique has become redundant, Mbembe’s book seeks to account for and represent the significance of race-thinking and racial habits in the making of Europe and the conquest of the Americas as well as in Africa’s bloody subordination. Its historical component is a philosophers’ history that counterpoints his rich synthesis with an accompanying sketch of the genealogy of black thought on its travels from the barracoons and the slave ships, through countless rebellions and insurgencies into the vexed phase of decolonization and then beyond it into our own bleak circumstances characterized by neocolonization and apparently endless, asymmetrical warfare.

From this perspective, the manifold problems created by the institutionalization of racial hierarchy and the various theoretical and philosophical discourses that have warranted it are not secondary issues. They are not decorative or superstructural additions that merely embellish the global machinery of capitalist expropriation and insatiable growth. Those problems must, he suggests, be recognized as constitutive forces that are still shaping and making the world. Though raciology has been articulated together with governmental, legal, aesthetic, scientific and military processes in modernity’s gordian knot, they have their own history and historicity which—and this is the most important point—we are all now obliged to know.

In that bold provocation, Mbembe returns implicitly to the challenging definition of black studies bequeathed to our time by the Trinidadian polymath CLR James who functions in the Anglophone world at least as a headmasterly figure—a kind of black Plato. James insisted that it was essential to avoid talking “about black studies as if it’s something that [only] concerned black people”. That outcome, he continued would be “an utter denial.” He concludes: “This is the history of Western Civilization. I can’t see it otherwise. This is the history that black people and white people and all serious students of modern history and the history of the world have to know. To say it’s some kind of ethnic problem is a lot of nonsense.”

To James’ old humanist wisdom Achille Mbembe adds a timely commitment. He affords us a new conceptual vocabulary operating beyond the worn out rhetoric that defined the literature of decolonization in its emergent and Cold War phases. That necessary additional step proceeds through a demythologization of whiteness and it is aimed, as decolonization’s most distinguished analyst, Frantz Fanon suggested that it should be, at a salvaging of our species-life, a resumption of humanity in the face of its loss in the workings any and all racial orders.

The connection to Dr. Fanon and his archive is a deep one. An important part of Mbembe’s strategy has been to restore to the French polity and to French intellectual life the titanic figure of the impatient, revolutionary psychiatrist from Martinique who has been misread, discredited and overlooked for too long. The existential flavours of Fanon’s juvenilia may not to be to Mbembe’s taste but he clearly shares the older man’s ethic of embodied curiosity as well as his commitment to the creative invention of a “new humanism”. That assemblage can only exist outside of epidermalised interaction and in stern opposition to the alienating force of the racial-corporal schema which waits to be surpassed by a real dialectic between the body and the world.

Those hopes sound utopian in our political environment dominated as it is by extractivism and indebtedness, by violence both fast and slow and not so much postcolonial as neo-colonial and neo-liberal. However, that dissonance has not discouraged Achille Mbembe. He remains determined to ask the most difficult questions about the impact of this accelerating transformation on the networked nomos of our ailing planet. His book’s explicit engagement with the restoration and expansion of democracy jeopardized everywhere by its divorce from capitalism, is all the more important because it is being delivered from the global South towards which the pathologies of overdevelopment might seem to be evolving. That confluence is not as bleak as it might at first appear to be. What makes this organic and protracted crisis into an important opportunity is Mbembe’s exemplary commitment to the patient labour involved in education and the promise of new kinds of learning and development conducted so as to foster a novel set of institutional habits from which the university might itself be revitalised. These hopeful speculations are licensed in turn by the sustained critique of racism and racial orders. It is that critical encounter with the past which will enable the liberating possibility of living now on new terms and in a new time, that is, with reference to a common future. The process compressed sixty years ago into Fanon’s tantalizingly underdeveloped idea of disalienation is being unpacked here into an extensive programme of vernacular pedagogy for which this book might serve as a manifesto.

The dismal effects of Europe’s colonial history have never been more deeply or disastrously inscribed on its post-cold war, post- and neo-colonial present than they are today. The aftershocks from that departed period of global pre-eminence are still being registered in contemporary European culture. Those decaying reverberations are, for example, palpable in the ultra-nationalism and xenological racism that animate the various manifestations of neo-fascism which are so close at hand these days. Resentful, angry voices are shouting loudly—though not yet overwhelmingly— in different languages and from several directions simultaneously. These residues condition the ways in which discussions of immigration and refugees, security and conflict are routinely thematised. Those exchanges are still organized by the assumptions of racial and cultural hierarchy—which may or may not be in retreat. This can be true even if the unwanted settlers who are to be excluded, criminalised and surveilled, can, like some of the recent arrivals, be ushered inside the unstable, porous world of racialised identities. Nobody can be certain any longer what Europe’s beleaguered whiteness might now be worth. However, what goes for whiteness now holds true for all generic specifications of racial difference. Achille Mbembe’s conspicuous achievement has been to offer us a welcome alternative to them and to highlight the possibility not of alternative identities but of another world made concrete in the liberating conceptions of being human that are to be defined without the restrictions that derive from all racial schemata.

Professor Mbembe, we commend your vision and your boldness. We savour the scholarly fruits of your creativity and thank you for your extraordinary book.

© Prof. Paul Gilroy, Kings Collage London

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.

Die Rede ist urheberrechtlich geschützt. Wenn Sie die Rede oder Teile daraus für eine Veröffentlichung nutzen möchten, wenden Sie sich bitte an die Geschäftsstelle des Börsenvereins - Landesverband Bayern. Wir sind Ihnen bei der Klärung der Rechtefrage gerne behilflich.


Landenshauptstadt München Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels | Bayern Literaturfest München

Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels - Landesverband Bayern e.V.

Literaturhaus/Salvatorplatz 1, 80333 München
Tel. 089 / 29 19 42 41, Fax 089 / 29 19 42 49,