Raw, naked, and masculine

AFRICA / Before, it was the Baroque that seduced Achille Mbembe, now it's brutalism – used as an analytical breakthrough to understand Africa and its relationship to Europe.

Author: Achille Mbembe
Publisher: La Découverte, France

I am a big fan of Achille Mbembe, but when I strive through his new book Brutalisme, it strikes me that I find it difficult to put into words the reason for this love. I became fond of him in 1992 when I read his article «The banality of power and the aesthetics of vulgarity in the postcolony» in the journal Public Culture. The essay was so controversial that the journal devoted the entire next issue to the reactions it caused. Some praised Mbembe and felt that he analyzed the postcolonial state in Africa with the irony of everyday language and great intellectual capacity. Others wrote that he had misunderstood what power and dominance meant in postcolonial Africa and that he was only concerned with his own seductive but content-less language.

Mbembe himself was very aware that he was using language in a way that could be perceived as ambiguous, open, and dynamic. Still, he claimed that the language use safeguarded people in the postcolonies: «What defines the postcolonial subject is the ability to engage in baroque practices, which are fundamentally ambiguous, fluid, and modifiable even in instances where there are clear, written, and precise rules.»

Back then, it was the Baroque that seduced Mbembe. Now it’s Brutalism, another art style, that he uses as an analytical tool to understand Africa and its relationship to Europe. Brutalism is understood as raw, naked, and masculine, where the essence is to «transform humanity into matter and energy.» (p.15).

Photo: Pixabay

Brutalism and virilism

I was still a Mbembe enthusiast when he published the essay «Sexe, bouffe et obscénité politique» in 1995. In French, the title has a number of subtle interpretive possibilities since «sexe» can mean both sex and gender, «bouffe» is slang for food but also corruption, and «obscénité politique» can be translated either as obscene politics or as political indecency. In a short text, such subtleties are seductive. But it becomes tiring to read a whole book where almost every sentence can have several different meanings and where I feel that the seductive language takes over. Brutalisme is such a book.

For example, one of the book’s eight chapters is called «Virilism.» Virilism is usually used in zoology to describe female animals that develop appearance and behaviour that resemble male animals. In Mbembe’s language use, however, it means that the values in the postcolonial society are based on masculine dominance and female oppression. One of the headlines in this chapter is «sociétés onanistes et pulsion d’ejaculation.» You do not need to speak French to understand what it’s about – or rather, speaking French does not help you understand it. Here you just have to sit with the wordplay and think long before the headline, possibly, makes sense. The chapter is about how colonial power France ruled its African colonies in the same way that a sex-centred, selfish man treats the women he lays: without respect, reciprocity, without care… with only one goal in mind: short-term self-interest – here referred to as colonial semen discharge.

Brutalism’s raw concrete and hard lines rather than the Baroque’s direct drama and lavish ornaments.

«Captive society»

The entire book is written with this critical proximity. Mbembe is critical of the postcolonial society and argues that it is a captive society where the relationship between Africa and Europe is characterized by domination and exploitation. The book is dense and difficult to read but also fascinating and thought-provoking. I recommend it to anyone interested in postcolonial practices.

The book Brutalisme describes Europe, mainly France and Africa’s politics, where racism, exploitation, and violence are the main ingredients. Several chapters focus on migration or lack of mobility opportunities. With chapter titles like «Captivity Society», «Circulation», and «Body Borders», Mbembe analyzes different forms of immobility- economic and technological limitations to mobility, politically imposed immobility, and inequality or «entrapments» based on gender. Mbembe moves back and forth from the slave trade in the 16th century to today’s migration attempts through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean.

While 500 years ago, we needed Africans to work on plantations in South America and willingly transported 12 million Africans across the Pacific, today, we fear the same Africans and prefer that they drown in the Mediterranean rather than damage our job market and welfare system. Capitalism and violence rule at the expense of humanity and morality. It is cheaper with border controls, refugee camps, and deportations. Mbembe reminds us that of Africa’s 1.3 billion inhabitants, only 4 million have emigrated to Europe. Among Europe’s approximately 420 million inhabitants, Africans make up barely one percent.


French is a rich language. Achille Mbembe makes it even richer. But does his abundance of words do anything more than enrich the French language? Does he give us a better, or different, understanding of postcolonial Africa and French colonial politics? Well, it’s very strenuous to read him; I spent many, many evenings on the 240 pages of Brutalisme.

But it was worth it.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansenhttp://stavanger.academia.edu/KetilHansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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