Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Afropessimism, Afrofuturism, and Afropolitanism

AFRICA / For capitalists, disruption opens the door to new power and new revenues: People, society and nature are reduced to raw material. Author Achille Mbembe's horizon is always the broadest possible - the cosmic, earth-historical, and planetary. Despite all the harrowing problems, Africa is conjured up as a vibrant world centre that still has power in reserve, teeming with wildlife, and a wealth of cultures.

Author: Achille Mbembe
Publisher: Duke University Press, USA

Distinguished Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe’s new book Brutalism is an informal sequel to his previous publication with Duke University Press, the much-discussed Necropolitics, which deals with the commercialisation of political violence.

An Africa ravaged by history and the most dangerous contemporary tendencies is nevertheless held up as the continent of the future in this bold new essay.

Mbembe is known for his major historical overviews, in which he writes about the continuity between the slave trade and contemporary abuses: neoliberalism’s privatisation of military violence (read private armies and neo-colonialist corporate power) and murder as a luxury privilege. In his uncompromising and often stark analyses of the state of the world as seen from today’s Africa, characterised by neo-colonialist resource plundering and dehumanisation, Mbembe’s horizon is always the broadest possible – the cosmic, earth-historical and planetary.

Disruption and brutalism

Mbembe is in dialogue with a number of writers and philosophers, perhaps above all the strongest voices of postcolonialism, such as the revolutionary Marxist Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and the writer Édouard Glissant. He also refers to the critical French philosophical tradition and builds on analyses of power from Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. In the French context, he also had exchanges with the philosopher Bernard Stiegler on the concept of ‘disinhibition’, a tendency towards norm dissolution and violent abandonment that characterises the colonial era, capitalism and the recent history of technology.

«Move fast, break things,» they say in Silicon Valley: this notorious slogan has become an informal battle cry for the entire modern world and leads to disruption – which, for capitalists, opens the door to new power and new revenues. Where disinhibition is a gradual process, and disruption is often indirect or secondary, what Mbembe calls brutalism is intentional and direct destruction: «the harm and injuries that these
shifts cause are not accidental or simply collateral damage.» It is a deliberate «fracturing» for the purpose of power, control and profit.

Stifling and disintegration

«The project of brutalism is, above all, to break down the human and convert it into energy and matter,» Mbembe says. People, society, and nature are reduced to raw materials. Anything that resists such a reduction, i.e. their life (both internal and external), must therefore be broken, muddied, disintegrated and devitalised so that it can be put to use. Extending Mbembe’s description, we could speak about a kind of fracking of everything and everyone.

According to Mbembe, the working class is dead; the masses are depoliticised and desperate – they end up in prison or ghettos. The life animating these superfluous bodies is turned into fuel for various agendas, reduced to a sheer means, an instrument for political games. Colonisation, which was the starting point for Mbembe’s writing, is everywhere. Its reduction of life, of both humans and animals, to pure matter and energy is intensified in the age of techno-capitalism: «Whether we speak of bodies, nerves, matter, blood, cellular tissue, the brain or energy, the project remains the same: The goal is […] to tear everything from its underlying basis of life, corporeality or materiality […] to make it artificial, automate and isolate it […] to subject everything to the forces of quantification and abstraction.»

costumes for a night fest in chad
Costumes at a festival in Chad, Africa

Speed and brutality

In the current neo-fascist era, the power struggle waged by technological means is, first and foremost, a means of controlling movements, Mbembe points out, extending the argument from Necropolitics. The right and the ability to move are the crucial dividing line. It manifests itself in border controls, where Africans are stopped on their way into Europe, where refugees are fenced in like animals, where animals are locked up in concentration camps, and where even the migration routes of wild animals are cut off and blocked.

Some everyday citizens of the world enjoy an almost unprecedented freedom of movement, while others are slowed down and hindered, deprived of what Immanuel Kant called man’s inviolable right to visit other countries on a shared earth which no one owns. We see a retreat to the old territories and, with it, a reawakening of national borders as an ethnic container, an understanding of races as separate species, a new fear of hybridisation, as well as a dream of endogamy as the norm: intermarriage within defined groups. «Africans were first spread around the world through the slave trade, and now they are hardly welcome anywhere,» Mbembe notes laconically.

Some everyday citizens of the world enjoy an almost unprecedented freedom of movement, while others are slowed down and hindered.

Africa’s planetary turn

«Most Africans who live outside their birthplace live elsewhere in Africa,» he continues. Even the ancient populations that have actually remained where they have always lived are subjected to extreme abuse, making life almost impossible. As a result Africa’s populations must reinvent themselves and reconstruct communities under extreme living conditions. They have already lived through the future that awaits other parts of the world in an era on the brink of collapse.

For all its harrowing problems, Mbembe conjures a vision of Africa as a vibrant centre of the world which still has a vast power in reserve; a teeming wildlife, and a wealth of cultures—a wealth that can neither be calculated nor fully exploited because it is unknown, incomprehensible, hidden in darkness, animistic, and vital.

«We have only seen the beginning of ‘Africa’s planetary turn’,» Mbembe says—and he is not afraid to concretise: While the West and the East are heading towards population decline and stagnation, by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to 2 billion people and it has unimaginable mineral wealth. It’s a constellation that harbours unparalleled dangers, as well as hope, something Mbembe of course is acutely aware of.

Mbembe also reflects on what he has observed first-hand and described in an African context as a «laboratory for mutations on a planetary level.» Africa is a vantage point, perhaps even a privileged one, from which look forward and view the fate of the world. Afropessimism, Afrofuturism, and #3Afropolitanism are not necessarily just regional movements, but keys to understanding the planet’s future. He boldly writes that he starts out from the hypothesis that « […] it is on the African continent, the birthplace of humanity, that the question of the Earth is now posed, and is posed in the most unexpected, complex, and paradoxical manner.»

Mbembe also writes about how the technological acceleration and political extremism of our time push us towards a sense that we are at the end of history.

Defiance and hope

The brutalist ravages of late modernity clearly can’t go on much longer – and Mbembe also writes about how the technological acceleration and political extremism of our time push us towards a sense that we are at the end of history. Yet – thankfully – he emphasises that man’s adventure on Earth and its new mutations are far from over. There is something uplifting and surprising about so much hope in a book that depicts almost hopeless situations and developments.

What does hope mean in this context? Mbembe turns to the great philosopher of hope, Ernst Block, in a succinct paraphrase: «faith in the idea that ‘all is certainly not yet lost’ and that the future remains open.» A belief that, despite all cynicism, resignation and pessimism, it is possible to believe in higher goals and dedicate oneself to a struggle for «what has not yet succeeded.»

Mbembe also draws more practical hope from African communities who, in almost impossible circumstances, having been smashed, broken and shattered, have managed to reinvent themselves, reconnecting within themselves and with the landscapes in which they live.

Fragmentation – the fraying of of ties and connections – is our real enemy. Wholeness is regained locally by restoring and rebuilding communities and connections to landscapes, animals and plants. Globally, Mbembe insists, this must not be done by resorting once again to a watered-down, false universalism but a real community of those who share a planetary commons, a shared common home. Such a community, which also involves the biosphere and the will to protect it, is precisely what is needed: That is, something that «has not yet succeeded» but which is nevertheless necessary to survive, to live, to want to live through dark times.

Those looking for systematic and sober historical analyses can find them in Mbembe’s main work, On the Postcolony. His new book Brutalism offers some experimental analyses but is, on the whole, something quite different: a poetico-political vision, or a «panoramic fresco,» as he promises in the introduction: a suggestive image painted in broad strokes of dark, vital, earthy colours – and accents of hopeful green.

Anders Dunker
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor. He lives in Los Angeles.

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