Interview with Achille Mbembe

Author of On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2001) and Senior Researcher at the Wits Institute of
Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand,
Johannesburg (South Africa)

By Christian Hoeller
Editor of Springerin Magazine (
Quarterly art/theory/cultural studies journal
Based in Vienna, Austria

CH: In your book On the Postcolony, you set out to describe the
conditions under which contemporary social reality, or realities,
across the African continent came about. What is intriguing at
first sight is that you are targeting a single
political-historical constellation that spans the whole
continent. How important was it, or still is for you, to pay
close attention to the manifold local differences - different
marks of globalization so to speak that imprint themselves in
quite different ways in different African territories? What, on
the other hand, motivates the quest for a model of one

AM: In the conclusion of On the Postcolony, I explicitly distance
myself from this "montage." I argue that the reality with which I
have been concerned throughout the book exists only as a set of
sequences and connections that extend themselves only to
dissolve. It is a reality that is made up of superstitions,
narratives and fictions that claim to be true in the very act
through which they produce the false, while at the same time
giving rise to both terror, hilarity and astonishment. Indeed, I
define the postcolony as a timespace characterized by
proliferation and multiplicity. As a temporal formation, the
postcolony is definitely an era of dispersed entanglements, the
unity of which is produced out of differences. From a spatial
point of view, it is an overlapping of different, intersected and
entwined threads in tension with one another. Here, the task of
the analyst is to tease out those threads, to locate those
intersections and entwinements. This can only be done if, from
the start, we take seriously the very compositeness of the

Now if, as you suggest, there is a limit to the methodological
approach I use in the book, it is certainly that the latter still
relies, to a large extent, on social science epistemologies. In
spite of substantive attempts (especially in chapter 5 and 6) the
rupture with such epistemologies is still not radical enough. I
wish I could have made it clearer that what is called Africa is
first and foremost a geographical accident. It is this accident
that we subsequently invest with a multitude of significations,
diverse imaginary contents, or even fantasies, which, by force of
repetition, end up becoming authoritative narratives.

As a consequence of the above, what we call 'Africa' could well
be analyzed as a formation of desires, passions and
undifferentiated fantasies. It is a subjective economy that is
cultivated, nurtured, disciplined and reproduced. To nurture it,
to police it and to reproduce it involve an intensive work of the
imagination. But it also entails a tremendous labor of bad faith
social science discourse does not know how to deal with.

CH: What has mostly become known under the heading
"postcolonialism" in the West is a discourse vastly concerned
with the identity-formation and symbolic dwellings of migrant
subjects, now living in the Western metropolis. Your take on the
"postcolony" seems to substantially differ from that discourse in
several aspects, e.g. in so far as your focus of attention is
decidedly directed towards Africa, and as you particularly pay
attention to the material basis of contemporary social realities.
How exactly would you describe your departure from the "Western"
form of "postcolonialism"?

There is no doubt that postcolonial theory, under its many
guises, has decisively contributed to the "unmasking' of Western
hegemony in the field of the humanities and in other disciplines.
It has forced Western discourses on the self and the other, on
difference and alterity, or on particularity and universality, to
become accountable. In the process, postcolonial theory has
revealed the violence of Western epistemologies and the
dehumanizing impulses at the heart of their definition of the
human. This task is far from over. In fact, it has become all the
more urgent, especially in these times of ours when the ultimate
expression of imperial sovereignty seems to reside, to a large
extent, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and
who must die.

In such a context, it seems to me that postcolonial theory would
gain a lot in reframing its foundational interrogations. When
sovereign power has taken control over mortality and has defined
life as the very site of the manifestation of absolute power, we
need to start asking different questions. One such question is
under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to
live or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this
right? What does the implementation of such a right tell us about
the entity that is put to death and about the relation of enmity
that sets it against its murderer? How can we account for the
contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war,
of resistance or of the fight against terror, makes the murder of
the enemy its primary and absolute objective? Such a way of
defining the issues raises a number of empirical and
philosophical questions postcolonial theory has to address if it
is still to be intellectually relevant.

The other challenge to postcolonial theory is what is referred to
as 'globalization.' Whether this process is old or new is
somewhat irrelevant. What is clear is that it opens an awareness
beyond the postcolonial theory of the 80s and the 90s.

CH: Concerning the prefix "post" in "postcolony" one could wonder
(as you do yourself in the book) if history has really moved into
a stage past the colonial period. What qualitative differences
have occurred on the African continent that would legitimate the
use of the term "postcolony" (as opposed to, say, "ex-colony")?

AM: As far as Africa is concerned, colonialism is over. Apartheid
is over too. Africans are now the free masters of their own
destiny. This is why from an intellectual and political point of
view, there is no turning away from the difficult work of
freedom. It is very risky work because it involves a
transformative relation with our past as a condition sine qua non
of our control over our own future.

Unfortunately, African criticism has been slow to awake to this
new reality and its empowering possibilities. The discourse of
victimization and ressentiment is still pervasive. In most
African nativist, nationalist or Afro-Marxist discourses, history
is still interpreted as an endless process of sorcery. And
because history is akin to witchcraft, many feel the need to wear
masks and to blame everything on the past. In the process, they
forget to account for the self-destruction and self-inflicted
injuries that our boundless passions have always incited - and
continue to incite.

What this means is that the "post" in "postcolony" does not refer
at all to the idea of a regulated transition from one form to
another form or duration. We cannot think in terms of a
mechanical succession of ages. But in our attempt to create an
impression of continuity, we cannot refer to the present and to
its actors as simply shadow puppets of something or of somebody
else. In my mind, the notion of the "postcolony" refers to a
timescape which is simultaneously in the process of being formed
and of being dissolved through a movement that brings both the
"being formed" and the "being dissolved " into collision. The
term "postcolony" indicates my desire to take very seriously the
intrinsic qualities and power of "contemporaneousness" while
firmly keeping in mind the fact that the present itself is a
concatenation of multiple temporalities. Because of the
entanglement of these multiple temporalities, Africa is evolving
in multiple and overlapping directions simultaneously.

CH: In close relation to the issue of the "post-ness" of
contemporary African living situations stands the specific
time-model you develop with respect to the age of decolonization.
How could this model of "entanglement" - that is, of multiple
temporalities overlapping and superseding each other, sometimes
inside each other, which is clearly non-linear - warrant the
assumption that we have actually moved beyond the framework
installed by the colonial regimes?

AM: To say that colonialism or apartheid is over does not mean to
negate history or to erase memory. It simply means to be
attentive to those signs of the times which signal the entry into
other configurations of human experience, hope and possibilities,
or if you wish, other temporalities. As we can clearly infer from
everyday life examples, those temporalities almost always carry
with them bits and pieces, traces and fragments of the past.
These fragments are recycled and imbued with new meanings.

Whether in the cultural, political or symbolic realms, the
African present is formed by an assemblage of signs and symbols
and artefacts that mean different things in various languages and
contexts. These signs, symbols and artefacts are then organised
around multiple central tropes that come to function as both
images and mirages, parables and allegories. As a result, because
it succeeds in weaving onomatopoeic relations between the thing
and its double, African cultural history is the perfect archive
of resemblance. This is valid for the past and for the present.

CH: What is particularly striking and original about your
approach is the way you theorize power or "commandement" in the
"postcolony." Concerned with "the banality of power", you put
the Bakhtinian model of the grotesque and the obscene (as
possible models of resistance against the oppressor) to a quite
distinctive use, in so far as these categories are exactly the
modes in which power is exercised (mostly by autocrats) in
African postcolonies. What kind of power constellation did, or
does, this process exactly engender - for example, you talk of a
"mutual zombification" resulting from this?

AM: The book is not a reflection on power in general, but on that
specific formation of will, desire and fantasy the postcolonial
potentate is. This formation of will, fantasy and passions
operates predominantly through the mediation of the body and the
senses. It is a formation in which power is ubiquitous both in
presence and in the realm of the tactile. Its language is that of
jouissance. It appeals not to reason as a category of public
life, but to sensations (the eye, the ear, the mouth, the
phallus, taste, smell, a range of pleasures and pains of varying
intensities). Such a power formation indeed has a historicity and
a materiality as I show in chapters 1 and 2. But more
importantly, it is a bundle of energies and brutal fantasies
which always end up taking on lives of their own. Because of
sheer coercive repetition, these fantasies end up becoming a
"habitus" or at least part of the stylistics of everyday life, a

More radically, the starkness and the brutality of these
fantasies may, on occasion, assume a nightmarish appearance, as
reality and fable reflect each other, thereby transforming the
very identity of the original and its referents. This is why an
analysis a la Foucault or a reading from within the usual
categories of political economy are unable to highlight its
complexities. In this kind of power formation, reality is each
time erased, recreated, and duplicated. It is this power of
proliferation (and its ability to obliterate the distinctions
between truth and falsehood, the visible and the occult) that
turns domination and subjection into a magical song, at that
point where the originary arbitariness produces terror and

CH: This specific "banality of power" creates a particular
closeness between ruler and ruled, a form of "conviviality" or
"intimate tyranny" that goes far beyond the binarist conceptions
of oppressor and oppressed, resulting in powerlessness. In which
parts of Africa does this constellation still apply today, and
which parts have - in what ways - moved ahead of this
excess-driven intimacies of postcolonial domination?

AM: These power formations are still alive in varying degrees and
qualities in those countries where the limits of democratization
are the most evident: Cameroon, Togo, Gabon, Kenya, Ivory Coast,
Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina-Faso,
Liberia or even Nigeria. This said, one can argue that by the end
of the 90s, the political economy of statehood in Africa had
dramatically changed. As countries such as South Africa moved
away from the most grotesque and ugly forms of violation, other
regions of the continent became engulfed in bloody processes of
destruction of human bodies and populations (Congo, Angola,
Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia, Erythrea, Rwanda, Burundi). In
those instances, the calculus of domination ceased to be embedded
in the myriad dispositifs of disciplinary power that had
characterized the postcolonial commandement. After all, what was
so typical of the commandement was the exchange between obedience
and theatricality on one hand, and the redistributive imperative
on the other.

Today, in many instances, the commandement has been replaced by a
new form of sovereign power: "necropower." Why necropower? Well,
because the ultimate site of deployment of this new form of
sovereignty is no longer the body as such, but the dead body of
the "civilian." Necropower is wielded both by states and by
what, following Deleuze and Guattari, we should call "war
machines." War machines are made up of segments of armed men that
split up, merge and superimpose each other depending on the
circumstances. Polymorphous and diffuse organizations, war
machines are characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis.
They combine a plurality of functions and operate through
capture, looting and predation.

In the context of the multiplication of war machines,
technologies of destruction have become more tactile, more
anatomical, in a context where the choice today is no longer
between obedience and simulation but between life and death.
Whether in Sierra Leone or in the Congo, it is easy to note that
technologies of destruction are less concerned with inscribing
bodies within disciplinary apparatuses as inscribing them, when
the time comes, within the order of the maximal economy now
represented by the "massacre." We have seen how, during the war
in Sierra Leone for example, physical amputation replaced
immediate death, and how the cutting off limbs opened the way to
the deployment of techniques of incision, ablation that had bones
as their target.

CH: Projected transitions to democracy seem to be hunted, across
the continent, by the emergence of what you call "private
indirect government." Within this new configurations of power,
the privatization of violence (as evidenced in the myriad
militias and private armies) and of sovereignty goes hand in hand
with the "informalization" of large parts of the economy. How did
this new form of domination come about and what role did
international institutions such as the IMF and the World bank
play in it?

AM: Democracy as a form of government and as a culture of public
life does not have a future in Africa - or for that matter,
elsewhere in the world - if it is not rethought precisely from
the crucible of "necropower." By "necropower," I have in mind the
various ways in which, in our contemporary world, sovereign power
imagines itself and is deployed in the interest of maximum
destruction of persons and the creation of deathscapes, new and
unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are
subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status
of living dead.

Let me hasten to say that this is far from being a typically
African phenomenon. Deathscapes have emerged in such faraway
places as Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, Colombia, Sri-Lanka, or
Kashmir. Recent U.S.-led wars in Iraq or in the Balkans can be
characterized as such. Another configuration of terror and
violence is embodied in a set of economic policies fostered by
international financial institutions such as the World Bank and
the IMF. The implementation of such policies in the absence of a
significant reduction of African debt has led to the
"spectralization" of the economies of the continent, as evidenced
by the growth of casinos and gambling activities. Millions of
people have been deprived of jobs, food and shelter and are now
reduced to struggling for daily survival. Instead of curbing the
corruption of local elites, the brutality of the international
system has increased their greed and carelessness. Under the
pretext of privatization, looting has become a norm as well as a
cultural practice. Partial democratization under conditions of
structural adjustment has opened the way for the privatization of

CH: Under which conditions could a positive transition
successfully be effected?

Successful transition can only be effected under conditions of
sustained economic growth and cultural aggiornamento. The current
dilemma is how to unleash such a cycle of growth. I imagine that
for this to happen, wars have to end. Internal frontiers have to
be erased. Massive investments are needed in the fields of
infrastructure, education and health. Transnational global
connections have to be harnessed.

But economic growth alone will not be enough. It should be
accompanied by a serious shift in the terms of cultural rendition
of contemporary African experiences. People, images and
commodities have to circulate. A continental public sphere has to
be nurtured through the development of mass media and new
technologies. A renewal of the virtue of intellectual curiosity
has to replace the current syndrome of victimization. Bridges
have to be built between a new social science and the various
domains of the humanities, including philosophy, the arts, music,
architecture, film and design. Such would be some of the
attributes of an Afro-cosmopolitanism firmly rooted in the
continent, but mindful of the force and wealth Africa's multiple
internal and external diasporas represent.

CH: Recently, you have spoken out against the still widespread
"cult" or "neurosis of victimization" with respect to the
aftermath of colonialism. What kind, if any, of cosmopolitanism
could be the proper remedy against this neurosis?

AM: This is a difficult issue. We cannot evade the violent
aspects of our history. We have to confront in the same breath
the terror visited upon us by racial imperialism as well as our
own self-inflicted brutalities. For this to happen, we have to
widen the scope of cultural and political critique and renew the
archives of our past and of our present.

But there is no way we will overcome the neurosis of
victimization if, by transforming the past into our subjective
present, we root our identities in injury alone. For the past to
become a principle of action in the present, we have to manage to
admit the reality of loss and stop living in the past instead of
integrating it in to the present as that which must sustain human
dialogue. In any case, the complete restitution of the past is
not only terrifying, but also a clear impossibility.

In order to build a truly cosmopolitan culture in Africa, the
present has somewhat to be liberated from the past. It should be
clear that I am not advocating the erasure of the past. I am
preoccupied with ways in which we can open avenues for memorial
practices that foster the work of remembrance - but remembrance
as part of the work of freedom, the ultimate ethical frontier.
This cannot be achieved through black racial romanticism.