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  • “Thinking in Lightning and Thunder”An Interview with Achille Mbembe
  • Translated from the French by Axelle Karera and Daniel Palumbo Pennsylvania State University

Achille Mbembe has followed a singular path that led him to live and think in several continents at once: Africa, Europe, North America. He is one of the most innovative contemporary thinkers today, liberating the analysis of Africa (both myth and reality) from the classic economic and institutional approach, freeing this approach from its privileged axes (ancient vs. modern, colony vs. metropole, etc.), and displacing the point of view of rationality to the imaginary. From book to book, from position to position, he has developed an intra- and intercontinental migrant thought that has recently given birth to a “critique of negro reason [critque de la raison nègre],” since the Negro [le Nègre], he explains, is the only one whose flesh was made, under the empire of race, into a commodity. How does Achille Mbembe understand his work? How does he accomplish it? That is the guiding thread of this interview.


It seems to me that the author of Critique of Negro Reason could, in the end, “go into literature.”


Before “going into literature” one must first come to writing. Indeed, it is not enough to identify certain themes, to move to narration or descriptions, or to develop arguments. To come to writing presupposes [End Page 145] that one has found one’s own way to translate into a new language the great questions that an age poses itself; that one has found one’s own way to formulate certain problems or to develop certain hypotheses; to forge a vocabulary and, if needed, concepts.

For me, writing consists in the capacity to exist in a language. One breaks into writing when one succeeds in making a thought live in a language and a language live in a thought. Nowadays, the problem is that many of our writers produce tons of texts, but they have never truly been able to gain access to writing. And so the danger that threatens us is that of having a literature without writing.


I believe that the biggest difference between this book and La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun has less to do with its subject matter than with the progressive appearance of a genuine writing. In fact, I don’t think that one writes a book, but that writing shapes the research’s direction in a way that has as much to do with the style as with the methods. This is even more true of speculative discourses. What do you think?


Let’s say that there are several kinds of writing. There is writing in the strong sense that I just suggested, that is, a certain dialectical relation between language and thought. There is also writing in the sense of a politics and an aesthetics of words, of a grammar. In fact, I think that one recognizes all genuine writing by its capacity to resist translation. This doesn’t mean that it would be in principle untranslatable.

That said, there is a set of questions that one poses oneself, that an epoch poses itself, that a tradition has not ceased posing itself. They are not necessarily new, but they require unprecedented responses. The problem is to know how to pose the questions in such a way that possibilities for new responses (or those that are relatively different from those one has inherited) arise.

To achieve this one must necessarily be able to decipher one’s time, to be able to say a few words about what is proper to one’s epoch and about the questions that epoch poses itself. The method alone is not enough; the style even less so. One must be able to interpret. One will never avoid interpretation.


In Interpretation and Social Criticism, Michael Walzer, who has worked extensively on social criticism, distinguishes three paths: the path of discovery, of invention, and finally of interpretation. The last happens [End Page 146] through “thick descriptions.” It is not vertical (perpendicular or on top of) but horizontal. It is not a method but a posture. Finally, he relates social criticism...


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pp. 145-162
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