I am very fond of Achille Mbembe, but as I strive through his new book brutalism, it strikes me that I can hardly put into words the cause of this love.
I fell in love with 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 magazine devoted its entire next issue to the reactions it caused. Some praised Mbembe, believing that he analyzed the post-colonial state of Africa with the irony of everyday language and great intellectual capacity. Others wrote he had misunderstood what power and dominance meant in the post-colonial Africa, and that he was only preoccupied with his own seductive but content-less language.
Mbembe himself was very clear that he used the language in a way that could be seen as ambiguous, open and dynamic, but claimed that the language used to protect people in the postal colonies: “What defines the postcolonial subject is the ability to engage in Baroque Practices that are fundamentally ambiguous, fluid and modifiable even in instances where there are clear, written and precise rules. ”
So it was Baroque who seduced Mbembe. Now it is brutal ism, another artistic style, he uses as analytical breakthrough to understand Africa and its relationship to Europe. Brutalism is understood as raw, naked, masculine, the essence of which is to "transform humanity into matter and energy" (p.15).
Brutalism and virilism
I was still an Mbembe enthusiast when in 1995 he published the essay "Sexe, bouffe et obscénité politique". In French, the title has a number of subtle interpretations, since "sex" can mean both sex and gender, "bouffe" is a slang for food but also for corruption, and "obscénité politique" can be translated either with obscene politics or with political obscenity. In a short text, such subtleties are seductive. But it becomes exhausting to read an entire book where almost every sentence can have several different meanings, and where I feel the seductive language takes over. brutalism is one such book.
Just to give one example: One of the book's eight chapters is called "Virilism." virilism is commonly used in the zoology of females that develop looks and behaviors similar to those of males. In Mbembe's language use, however, this means that the values of the post-colonial society are based on masculine domination and oppression of women. One of the headings in this chapter is "sociétés onanistes et pulsion d'ejaculation". You do not need to know French to understand what it is about – or rather, it does not help to know French to understand it. Here you just have to sit with the word clover and think, long before the headline, possibly, makes sense. The chapter is about the colonial power France ruled its African colonies in the same way as one sex-centered, selfish man treats the ladies he puts down: without respect, without reciprocity, without consideration ... with only one goal in mind: short-term self-efficacy – here referred to as colonial sperm ejaculation.
The entire book is written with this critical closeness. Mbembe is critical of neoliberal politics, critical of the world being governed by algorithms and technology rather than people, emotions, affections, reciprocity. Brutalism's raw concrete and hard lines rather than the Baroque's direct drama and lavish ornaments. Does this mean that Mbembe's ways of analyzing the world have changed fundamentally? No, the baroque in his 1992 article and, not least from his international academic bestseller On the Postcolony (2001), described Africans' reactions to postcolonial practices.
Brutalism's raw concrete and hard lines rather than the Baroque's direct drama and lavish ornaments.
Brutalism in this year's book describes Europe's policies, mainly France and Africa, where racism, exploitation and violence are the main ingredients. Several of the chapters are devoted migration or lack of mobility.
With chapter titles such as "captive society," "circulation," and "body boundaries," Mbembe describes and analyzes various forms of tenure – economic and technological constraints on mobility, politically determined tenure, and inequality or "tenure" based on gender. Mbembe moves back and forth from the slave trade in the 1500th century to today's migration attempts across the Sahara and across the Mediterranean.
While we needed Africans to work on the plantations in South America 500 years ago and volunteered to transport 12 million Africans involuntarily across the Pacific Ocean, we fear the same Africans today and prefer they drown in the Mediterranean rather than destroying our labor market and welfare system. Capitalism and violence rule at the expense of humanity and morality. It's cheaper with border controls, refugee camps and deportations. Mbeme reminds us that of Africa's 1,3 billion inhabitants, only 4 million have emigrated to Europe. Among Europe's approx. 420 million inhabitants make up just under one percent of Africans.
French is a rich language. Achille Mbembe makes it even richer. But Mbembe's word flood does nothing more than enrich it Frenche language? Does he give us a better or a different understanding of post-colonial Africa and French colonial politics? Well, it's very hard to read him; I spent many, many evenings on the 240 pages in brutalism.
But it was worth it.
ALSO READ our second review of Mbembe: «The disciplinary community was born out of the great plague epidemics»