- Writing Africa into the World and Writing the World from Africa: Mbembe’s Politics of Dis-enclosure
The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe is arguably the most important African thinker in the humanities today. He is best known in the Anglo-American academic community through On the Postcolony, which appeared in English translation in 2001. On the Postcolony sought to rectify a long history of corrupt Western readings of Africa that, when not imposing reductionist analyses on the continent’s cultural and political life, are plagued by essentialist visions of the “dark continent.” Its reception is still subject to an unfolding intellectual drama in postcolonial and race studies. Much of the book has still not faced the same critical scrutiny that the introduction (“Time on the Move”), or even the infamous third chapter (“The Aesthetic [End Page 228] of Vulgarity”), have undergone. The long-term reputation of Mbembe’s first English book will depend on the reception of his latest publication, Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique decolonisée, which begins where On the Postcolony—with its account of the inevitable oscillation between the real and the imagined and between multiple contingent African temporalities that decolonization inaugurated—leaves off. In Sortir Mbembe assesses the past, writes the present, and questions the future of this vast continent in the attempt to write Africa, from Africa, in a world in which Africa’s history and fate tend to be either oversimplified or simply dismissed.
Sortir is scheduled to appear in English translation in December 2013, three years after its original French publication. Like its predecessor, Sortir has aroused only faint interest among French academics in spite of Mbembe’s vehement attack against France’s deepening xenophobia and intellectual provincialism, and it is likely to attract more attention from its Anglophone readers than it has among readers in France. In Sortir, Mbembe confronts head on not only a local assessment of the African postcolonial lived experience but also the vital question of Africa’s role in a world undergoing globalization. Hence, whereas the theme of temporality was central to On the Postcolony, it is the question of space—geographically, politically, and philosophically construed—that dominates Sortir. From a critique of Europe’s gloomy dream of a community without strangers and its nations’ parallel efforts to build radically impenetrable borders, to portraying the picture of an exploding cosmopolitan African community, Sortir tackles the postcolonial subject’s central question: the question of the relation of identity to geographical position. Africans today more than ever inhabit multiple worlds – at times simultaneously – and in the process are radically redefining cosmopolitanism. For Mbembe, the politics of tomorrow, that political imaginary which would ultimately propel us in a humane era—the question of, to borrow a concept from Jacques Derrida, “a democracy to come”—is a politics of “disenclosure” and of the circulations of worlds.
In On the Postcolony, Mbembe attempted to offer a reading of Africa that could account for the complexity of human life in the postcolony and all the phenomena both purely unpredictable and acutely unspeakable, which plagued the continent for decades after the official end of formal colonization. Although, the period dealt with in On the Postcolony—as Mbembe himself points out—“is a period not only of unhappiness but of possibilities,”1 what remains of the seemingly interminable quest for self-determination and the bright promise of a liberated future is, he continues, an unreadable, often inarticulable shadow, a “chimera”, which “suggests [End Page 229] that Africa exists only as an absent object, an absence that those who try to decipher . . . only accentuate.”2 There is no description of Africa, Mbembe concludes, that “does not involve destructive functions.”3 The movement of our thinking will thus always oscillate “between the real and the imaginary” in such a way that “the imaginary realized and the real imagined permeates all form of life.”4
This characterization of African space and concrete experience does not change in Sortir de la grande nuit. A number of issues which played a significant role in On the Postcolony—foreignness, otherness, the question of the “absolute Other” of colonial Europe—retain their essential place while their...