Toward a Postcolonial Universal Ontology
The critique of Western metaphysics outlines how the African other has been depicted as not fully human in relation to the western subject’s identity. Hence, on an ontological level, the other or difference has been denied or excluded, which accounts for the violence of the colonial logic of conceptualizing African alterity or difference. The challenge of thinking the postcolonial situation in the African context has mostly been how to think liberating difference and alterity outside the violent colonial paradigm constituted by the creation of race as Blackness, the Black man and the fiction of Africa. Hence the problem may be formulated accordingly in the following question: How may a sense of identity be thought that does not deny the existence of the other or difference as fully human? Restated: How may postcolonial African thought avoid constituting the same logic of race as it aims to overcome the colonial logic of alterity? Accordingly, this essay aims to critically engage with the thought of Achille Mbembe and his attempts to address the question. Even though Mbembe attends to the question of essentialism in African imaginations of otherness in On the Postcolony, he largely remains silent in this work on the ethical question of violent contemporary ways of conceptualizing otherness in African thoughts and sociopolitical practices. Therefore, while taking Mbembe’s social ontology that takes existence of difference and how difference constitutes identity (but largely remaining violent) as a point of departure, this essay will, subsequently, argue that in the Critique of Black Reason, one finds a step toward a postcolonial nonviolent notion of alterity based on the recognition of the in-common existence within one world we share, firstly, by outlining Mbembe’s formulation of a non-essentialist African identity that, in turn, opens the way for what we will call here a postcolonial ontology and, secondly, to outline how this ontology reimagines the relation of the universal and particular making it a postcolonial universal ontology.
KeywordsAchille Mbembe Race Ontology Postcolonial Otherness Alterity Blackness Reparation
Introduction: Knowing the Author
Joseph-Achille Mbembe is a contemporary Cameroonian-born historian, postcolonial political theorist, philosopher, and public intellectual. His work occupies a theoretical framework which borders existential phenomenology, poststructuralism, and psychoanalysis. Philosophically, Mbembe has been influenced by the works of thinkers such as Franz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Hegel, Jean Luc-Nancy, and Jean Jacque Lacan. The focus of his work has been on Africa and its relation to the West and the rest of the world. Most of his philosophical work focuses on conceptualizing the subject of African descent in the form of the African slavery in the United States (Necropolitics 2003, Critique of Black Reason 2017), the African colonial subject (African Modes of Self-Writing 2002), and the postcolonial African subject in relation to state power (On the Postcolony 2001). His most recent works focus on how the logic that constituted the African slave and colonial subject has permeated contemporary neoliberal global politics and economics (Critique of Black Reason 2017, Politics of the Enmity 2016).
Within the general framework of African philosophy, Mbembe’s work can be aligned with the works of thinkers such as Valentine Mudimbe (See Mudimbe (1988)) and Anthony K. Appiah (1992). Generally, anti-colonial and postcolonial (until the late 1990s), African philosophy has been mainly preoccupied with the question of African identity (for a better contextualization of the notion of identity in African philosophy during anti-colonial and postcolonial contexts, see Dirlik (2002) and Masolo (1997).). Drawing from Western racist and essentialist conception of human subjectivity and from the works of thinkers such as Wilmot Blyden and Alexander Crummell, African identity/Pan-Africanism has been mostly conceptualized in an essentialist fashion in opposition to Western identity. This often resulted in maintaining individual human subjectivities within racial boundaries with the idea that there is essentially an African identity in which all peoples of African descent share, and it is the springboard of their sociopolitical and cultural destiny. The same applied to the people of European origin. The works of Franz Fanon, Valentine Mudimbe, and Anthony Appiah contest this idea of an essential African identity which preexists the colonial encounter and which defines the destiny of the peoples of African descent for a more historically, sociopolitically, and culturally defined view of human subjectivity. Mbembe’s main preoccupation in his earlier works until the Critique of Black Reason occupies an ambivalent position which theoretically falls on the anti-essentialist position on African identity with emphasis given to individual capacities to style themselves within historically defined circumstances.
While siding with the anti-essentialists such as Mudimbe and Appiah, Mbembe goes beyond showing that the discourse on African identity has been constructed by Western essentialist epistemologies which breed nativism and the metaphysics of difference (racial essentialism), to account for how African subjects are constituted by different changing and inertia forces which constitute African living conditions. Contesting autochthonous views of African subjects, Mbembe understands that the African subject emerges in the entanglement of the African-Western global context in which the sociopolitical and cultural forces on a local and global level constantly fashion each other. It is in Mbembe’s continuous analysis of the African subject in relation to the West that has made Mbembe’s philosophical work not only relevant to the African people and peoples of African descent in other parts of the world, but also to the so-called Western world. His constant and deep analysis of both African philosophical work and Western philosophical chapter has placed him among the important thinkers of our time at least in the Africa, America, and Europe.
It is from his work on the African subject in relation to African and what he calls the world (Western world) that this work will construct his social ontology and further develop a postcolonial universal (The universal may be understood here in ontological terms as the in-common or co-belonging.) ontology with the focus on alterity. The chapter will mainly draw from Mbembe’s two main books, On the Postcolony and Critique of Black Reason, and suggests that the two works be read together, complementing each other in the task of rethinking alterity after colonialism and the logic of race in the African context(s) and in relation to the rest of the world. Accordingly, this chapter is divided into three sections. The first section “Ontology and Difference” will focus on ontology and difference within the pre-colonial and colonial periods. The second section “Race and Difference” will build on the discussion with an emphasis on the creation of race as a product of the metaphysics of modernity which underlined the colonial project and continuous within various postcolonial projects. The third section “Towards a Postcolonial Universal Ontology,” in turn, will focus on Mbembe’s attempts to address the violent problematic logic of race and alterity in his formulation of a postcolonial ontology and his subsequent proclamation of the universal task of responsibility and reparation in order to imagine a nonviolent postcolonial universal ontology.
Ontology and Difference
What makes Mbembe’s work important for the question of alterity is Mbembe’s attempt to define what constitutes African subjects. By describing who African subjects are, Mbembe makes an ontological claim. And by explaining what and how African subjects are constituted, Mbembe gives us the social fabric from which African subjects are fashioned. Our work in this chapter therefore is drawn from Mbembe’s work on the nature of the presence (ontology) of African sociopolitical and cultural fabric and how he imagines otherness or alterity as a constitutive experience and idea in this social ontology. We name it postcolonial precisely because Mbembe’s construction or theorization of an African subject is within postcolonial social realities. The aim is to identify one general feature that makes the postcolonial subject formation possible, which is alterity. How does Mbembe articulate alterity or otherness, and what does it promise the postcolonial present and the postcolonial future (going beyond the violence of modern European notion of alterity)? By postcolonial, we wish to mean two things: first the present which comes after the end of formal colonization and, second, the going beyond or freeing ourselves from the colonial violence and the ontology of alterity which informs it. This distinction will later in the chapter take the difference between postcolonial ontology and postcolonial universal ontology. So in what follows in the section “Ontology and Difference,” we will construct and extrapolate three different historical moments and the kinds of ontologies of otherness that permit the kind of sociopolitical intercourse that transpired during these moments in the history of Africa.
Pre-Colonial Conception of Alterity
Mbembe does not explicitly articulate the notion of pre-colonial alterity. This section theorizes a pre-colonial conception of alterity from Mbembe’s ideas of how some pre-colonial African societies conceptualized and lived alterity in their sociopolitical and cultural contexts, informed by a particular conception of ontology. We think that this section on pre-colonial ideas of alterity is important for our purpose because the postcolonial in Mbembe’s view is the presence and the absence of the pre-colonial in its entanglement with multiple ages and times. It is also important to note that this idea of alterity is only a generalization which may not account for other societies of pre-colonial Africa.
In Mbembe’s views, the metaphysics that informs pre-colonial African societies, for instance, those of Cameroon, is a one which perceives reality as a dynamic unity with multiple faces or manifestations. Mbembe articulates the pre-colonial ontology of alterity implicitly in his chapter “The Thing and Its Double” (2001: 42–73) in On the Postcolony. In trying to show how power is articulated and contested in postcolonial Cameroon and other parts of Africa, Mbembe uses the discourse of representation through the category of the image to show at least two things. First, Mbembe shows how the discourse of the image persists (though transformed) from the pre-colonial era to the postcolonial as a medium of thought and communication. Second, he shows how the category of the image is used in postcolonial Africa to talk to power, talk with power, and without directly challenging power transforms power (state power). It is in explaining the role of the image in the postcolonial and how it has been sourced from the pre-colonial that Mbembe points us to what constituted the conception of alterity in some pre-colonial African societies.
Mbembe believes that the category of the image has been one of the main cultural characters of many African societies. What sustained some oral traditions in Africa was the category of the image which was used in the general process of communication such as thinking and making general political and cultural statements through masks, carvings, and the spoken word. In these cases, language was rather performed and not written (Mbembe 2001: 144). Consequently, “it was from language acts that a critical tradition was constituted – and was transmitted over time and space, recited in public and pondered in private” (Ibid.). This means that some African modes of critical sociopolitical engagement and critique have been utilizing images as a mode of public and private representation. As a result, the underlying rules of learning and knowledge production, reproduction, and transmission were carried out mostly through the category of the image. The center stage the image occupied should not be misunderstood as a magical attitude toward the word but rather to articulate knowledge in public meant to “make everything speak- that is, in constantly transforming reality into a sign and, on the other hand, filling with reality things empty and hollow in appearance” (Mbembe 2001: 144).
On the entanglement of ontology and epistemology, Mbembe here echoes Ramose (2005: 35) that “African ontology and epistemology must be understood as two aspects of the one and same reality.” In the human condition where not everything is accessible to the senses, and living in communities were magic and witchcraft played an important role in sociopolitical and cultural life, the category of the image best captured realms of the physical and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible (occult) at the same time. The function of a sociopolitical analyst and epistemologist therefore was to decipher what the image revealed by concealing the occult and what was not said by what was said by the image. But this language of the image pointed even to something deeper; it pointed to a particular ontology which constituted this life-world.
In these conditions, the great epistemological – and therefore social – break was not between what was seen and what was read, but between what was seen (the visible) and what was not seen (the occult), between what was heard, spoken, and memorized and what was concealed (the secret). (2001: 144)
For Mbembe, the dichotomy of the visible and invisible was a complex and a dynamic relation. That is why he states that to take this double in terms of presence as "'being there' (real presence) and the latter of a 'being elsewhere' or a 'nonbeing' (irremediable absence) – or, worse, of the order of unreality – would be to misunderstand” the ontological structure of these societies (2001: 144). The visible and the occult or the reverse of this world did not relate or commute with each other in an interplay of the categorical opposites such as the real vs. the copy or presence vs. absence, rather “they were marked by relations of similarity” which marked to unite and distinguish them through the indigenous notion of simultaneous multiplicities (2001: 144–5). The invisible was simultaneously the other side of the visible and was in the visible, and vice versa. On this understanding, the invisible aspects of the world were part and parcel of the visible and the visible an integral side of the invisible world. The notion of simultaneous multiplicities captures a constantly changing and stable world through its interchange and exchange within a single multiplicity of the visible and invisible, physical and spiritual, public and occult, and even good and evil. It is within this context of the changing and stable orientation to the world that the African indigenous “conceptions of figurative representation, appearances, and similarity, even of metamorphosis, rested” (2001: 145). The image therefore had the “capacity to provide a basis for, and to state the inseparability of, the being and the nonbeing of persons and things – that is, the radicality of their life and the violence of their death and their annihilation” (2001: 145).
For the real world to be fully represented, it needed a relation to the world of spirits and “the image could not but be the visible and constructed form of something that had always to conceal itself” (Mbembe 2001: 146). To capture the visible and the occult entailed not so much the capacity to mirror exactly the conformity between the image and its referent but rather the “capacity of the thing represented to mirror resemblances and, through the interplay of bewitchment and enchantment – and, if need be, extravagance and excess – to make the signs speak” (Mbembe 2001: 145). So, to produce images in this language life or having the capacity to represent reality fully in its double or simultaneous multiplicities meant having access to “magic and double sight, imagination, even fabrication, that consisted in clothing the signs with appearances of the thing for which they were the metaphor” (Mbembe 2001: 145).
By summoning up the world of shade in a context where there was no forced correspondence between what was seen, heard, and said – or between what was and what was not, what was apparent and what partook of the spectre and the phantom – one was appealing to a particular ontology of violence and the marvellous. One was bringing to life not simply “something other” but “another side of all things,” which, in its ceaseless dispersal, abolished – and thus more emphatically confirmed – the distinction between being and appearance, the world of the living and the world of spirits. (2001: 145)
What we do with Mbembe’s striptease of alterity in his analysis of the place of the category of the image in some pre-colonial African societies is to show that these communities, first, understood difference as an intrinsic part of reality in persons, spirits, and things. Second, otherness is not necessarily oppositional or binary. Third, difference must not be denied because it is the constitutive nature of reality in its simultaneous multiplicities. Fourth, difference is to be accepted on the understanding that difference is part of the same, and the same is fully known and lived through difference. Lastly, with an ethical responsibility attached, there is always an exchange between different aspects of reality and when summoned upon without forced necessity, one traverses the ontology of violence and excess which has “disturbing powers” (2001: 146).
In this case, pre-colonial social ontology had a conception of alterity as simultaneous multiplicities of the same reality. To be ontologically different is to be a different aspect of the same reality. Mbembe’s implicit conception of alterity focuses on the realms of the living and the spirits at a fundamental level, of the living and the living dead or living invisibly. He does not give us a clear conception of difference among human beings and its political consequence. We think that the reason why Mbembe falls short in this regard is that his aim for writing this pre-colonial social ontology in On the Postcolony was to capture the function or place of the category of the image in some pre-colonial African societies and how later the category of the image was adapted for political critique and power contestation in the postcolonial.
Colonial African Conception of Alterity
In this section we will define the colonial conception of alterity which will later be expanded to discuss the logic of race and become a point of departure for a postcolonial universal ontology. What characterize the colonial context in Mbembe’s view is the phenomenon of violence or a state of deprivation. In explaining the phenomena of violence, Mbembe explains that the Western ontology of alterity constituted the colonial violence which legitimizes the need for a different mode of imagining African alterity and human alterity in general.
The colonial context is a construction of Western European philosophical and political tradition. And what mainly has come to be known as Africa and African is the invention of European alterity. In modern Western philosophical and political tradition, to be different from Europe meant to be none or less human. This conception of human alterity was based on absolute alterity which conceives of difference as “nonbeing” or as “not there” or as pure absence. This explains why the discourse that has been coming from Western modernity has almost always presented what it constructs of Africa and other non-European peoples as a lack, an absence. On this point, Mbembe writes:
We should first remind ourselves that, as a general rule, the experience of the Other, or the problem of the “I” of others and of human beings we perceive as foreign to us, has almost always posed virtually insurmountable difficulties to the Western philosophical and political tradition. [...] The theoretical and practical recognition of the body and flesh of “the stranger” as flesh and body just like mine, the idea of a common human nature, a humanity shared with others, long posed, and still poses, a problem for Western consciousness. (2001: 2)
Difference on this view is taken to mean absence of the same in the other. Therefore, if the European represents humanity, then the difference that constitutes the African is the absence of humanity. At the height of the colonial context, the West constructed African alterity as “the animal – to be exact… the beast” (2001: 1), that is, the absolute opposite of what is human. Difference as absence in this discourse is the absence of humanness in the African. The humanity of the African was denied, and what was constructed of Africa is the animal: the beast. This kind of othering emanates from the ontology of deprivation. It is the ontology of deprivation because by othering the African in this way, the West deprived the Africa of the humanity which is the African’s ontological constitution. The notion that separated the West from the rest of the world was race. It has been argued that human beings exist in races which are hierarchical with the West according itself the highest place which is supposed to be the paragon of humanity. The people of African descent are relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy as subhumans and sometimes not human at all, based on the ontology of absolute alterity.
Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of “human nature.” Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance, and poor quality. It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind. (2001: 1)
But this ontology constituted or still constitutes two kinds of violence. First, by forcing human subjects to fit into the constructed racial identities, it denies human individuals to flourish as individual beyond the defined characteristics of a particular so-called race. Second, by racial exclusivity, this ontology denies all human beings to realize what they have in common as human beings.
The politics that flow from this ontology and alterity of deprivation has been violent, and its legacies are still being experienced today mostly by the victims of such an ontology and the consequent conception of alterity. The image of the African as the other to the West has not fundamentally changed even after the end of formal colonialism, as Mbembe states:
By arbitrariness is meant that, in contrast to reason in the West, myth and fable are seen as what, in such societies, denote order and time. Since myth and fable are seen as expressing the very power of the originaire, nothing in these societies requires, as noted above, justification, and there is little place for open argument; it is enough to invoke the time of origins. Caught in a relation of pure immediacy to the world and to themselves, such societies are incapable of uttering the universal. (2001: 4)
Despite the West’s commitment to this absolute otherness of violence, the struggle for liberation from colonialism and Western racism ushered in the age of postcoloniality. To be sure, anti-colonial and some postcolonial imagination of alterity still operated within the Western ontology of alterity with an attempt to avoid certain kinds of violence such as racial hierarchy, but nonetheless insisting on racial differences or what Mbembe calls the metaphysics of difference or nativism. In the postcolonial, even though social realities still mirror some colonial logics, Mbembe see postcolonial African experience as constituting a different social ontology that is constantly changing and permitting different forms of otherness. Before outlining Mbembe’s attempt at a postcolonial ontology and later postcolonial universal ontology, the next section turns to focus the discussion of alterity more specifically in terms of race, which did not only constitute difference in terms of the colony but also slavery and apartheid, as dissected by Mbembe in Critique of Black Reason.
But it is in relation to Africa that the notion of “absolute otherness” has been taken farthest. It is now widely acknowledged that Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world. In several respects, Africa still constitutes one of the metaphors through which the West represents the origin of its own norms, develops a self-image, and integrates this image into the set of signifiers asserting what it supposes to be its identity. (2001: 2)
Race and Difference
Where in On the Postcolony Mbembe focuses on the question of alterity in terms of ontology in relation to colonization, the focus shifts in Critique of Black Reason to the relationship of the universal and the particular (Mbembe briefly discussed this problem of the universal and particular in his earlier work African Modes of Self-Writing (2002a) before giving it new impetus and wider context in the Critique of Black Reason (2017).), of Africa and the rest of the world, and of the Black man and humanity to be considered in this section. The discussion of difference concerns here, firstly, the creation of race in terms of the Black man, Blackness, and Africa (The translation of Black man as used in the English translation of the text comes from le Nègre referring also to Black people in general. See the translator’s explanation of this choice of translation and the gender problematic it entails (Mbembe 2017: xiv)). The creation and construction of race in the form of absolute difference in relation to Africa may historically be understood along three periods, namely, slavery, colonialization, and apartheid. More importantly, when speaking of the discourse on Blackness, Mbembe (2017: 28) argues that one has to distinguish between the two discourses or two sides of Black reason. One, constituted by the West, is an imaginary constructed discourse on race that made it possible to represent non-Europeans as ontologically inferior, or lesser beings, less than human. To understand this rationale, a brief outline of the constitution of the metaphysics of modernity, which builds on the colonial conception of ontology discussed above, is required that will be discussed under “The Logic of Race.” The second discourse concerns Africa or the Black man’s attempts at self-determination through reclaiming the meaning of the racial category, which will be discussed under “Black Thought and Difference.” Hence, it is important to understand the logic that created race, in order to make sense of how the question of difference has played itself out within African thought in its attempts at self-determination. But, these attempts at self-determination in the name of Blackness do not escape criticism. For Mbembe, although one has to understand these paths of thought within their historic context and give credit to their attempts at self-determination, movements like Negritude and Pan-Africanism tend to reinforce the logic of race and the categories of difference, which they seek to overcome. Hence, these attempts fall back into the metaphysics of difference with its imaginary characteristics that create myths concerning the Black man. Mbembe’s own standpoint concerns rethinking what we introduced earlier as a postcolonial universal ontology that aims to avoid the logic of race by picking up where thinkers like Fanon and Cesaire left off. It is this proclamation of a universalist project that Mbembe puts forward in Critique of Black Reason with the goal to take forward African thinking of difference that we consider in the section “Towards a Postcolonial Universal Ontology.”
The Logic of Race
To understand how race was and still is being constructed, we might ask: what constitutes the logic of race? As Mbembe (2017: 25) outlines, the logic of race is a product of the metaphysics of Western modernity and is the way in which the so-called West classified and divided the world with Europe at its center. The logic functions by placing a substantialized figure, in the instance of race-Whiteness, as its highest and grounding principle, according to which the world is to be structured. Corresponding to this logic, everything is related back to the subject, to the same, to be classified and placed in a hierarchy. The problem, however, arises when the subject of sameness and Whiteness is confronted with difference. Instead of an encounter with the other, the logic of race is imposed by one on another. There is no reciprocal recognition and co-creation of what race might have been, race ends up being fictional, a phantasmic myth created around both the self and the other from the standpoint of the White man. On the one side, the myth of the other takes on a monstrous form, a threat that leads to what Mbembe calls Altruicide: “the constitution of the Other not as similar to oneself but as a menacing object from which one must be protected or escape, or which must simply be destroyed if it cannot be subdued” (ibid., 10) (On this point also see also Kearney (2003) on the various ways in which the West have created myths around the stranger or other, Gerber and Van der Merwe (2017) on a critique of Western metaphysics in terms of alterity, and Mudimbe’s The Idea of Africa (1994) on various historical conceptions of what Africa meant.). On the other hand, the myth of the self takes on a godlike form, with myth of the superior race as its result: “In its avid need for myths through which to justify its power, the Western world considered itself the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity. The most ‘civilized’ region of the world, the West alone had invented the ‘rights of the people’” (ibid., 11).
One might also understand the logic of race according to the relation of the universal to the particular. Colonization might be understood as a pseudo-universalization imposed on the particular or in Mbembe’s words: “We should add that Whiteness in turn was, in many ways, a fantasy produced by the European imagination, one that the West has worked hard to naturalize and universalize” (ibid., 43). Apartheid may be understood as the overemphasis on the particular with the misrecognition of the universal in its extreme form. This is the double violence we earlier pointed out that emanate from the ontology of absolute alterity.
To capture the precise contours of these dangers and possibilities, we need first to remember that, throughout its history, European thought has tended to conceive of identity less in terms of mutual belonging (cobelonging) to a common world than in terms of a relation between similar beings – of being itself emerging and manifesting itself in its own state, or its own mirror. But it is also crucial for us to understand that as the direct consequence of the logic of self-fictionalization and self- contemplation, indeed of closure, Blackness and race have played multiple roles in the imaginaries of European societies. (ibid., 2)
The Creation of Blackness
Furthermore, to understand the creation of Blackness apart from the logic of race outlined above, there are three important events Mbembe (2017: 78) holds that need to be considered. Colonization as discussed above, slavery, and apartheid are the three events that imprison the way in which Black discourse expresses itself (Also see African Modes of Self-Writing by Mbembe (2002a: 240–242, 258–263).). Furthermore, the three historical events of slavery, colonization, and apartheid have three canonical meanings with regard to alterity. Firstly, the discourse of Blackness, i.e., the construction of race, takes place as separation from the self. Here the Black man, through separation based on alterity, leads to a loss of familiarity with the self. Hence, there is an identity imposed on the self, so that the subject has two identities or wears two masks. But, the self becomes estranged and relegated to the identity imposed by the construction of race and the category of Black, which is an alienated and almost lifeless identity. Hence, “in place of the being-connected-to-itself (another name for tradition) that might have shaped experience, one is constituted out of an alterity in which the self becomes unrecognizable to itself” (ibid., 78).
It designated a particular kind of human: those who, because of their physical appearance, their habits and customs, and their ways of being in the world, seemed to represent difference in its raw manifestation – somatic, affective, aesthetic, imaginary. The so-called Blacks appeared subsequently as individuals who, because of the fact of their ontological difference, represented a caricature of the principle of exteriority (as opposed to the principle of inclusion).
The second meaning regarding the discourse of Blackness concerns the idea of disappropriation. Whereas the first meaning might refer to an abstract notion of the self and the other, the second refers to the juridical and economic procedures and practices that lead to material expropriation and disposition. In other words, the creation of race and the category of Blackness, that is, the “falsification of oneself by the other,” allowed for the experience of subjection. The combination of the first two meaning leads to a state of maximal exteriority of the self and ontological impoverishment. Consequently, the third meaning concerns the idea of degradation. The subject who is categorized as black is plunged into humiliation and abjection with the accompanied social death through the denial of dignity.
Similarly, the creation of the fiction of Africa is intertwined with the creation of the racial subject, both notions of alterity impossible to assimilate (ibid., 38). The name Africa has come to signify a geographical point, but Africa also signifies a state of things with a collection of attributes or properties connected to a racial condition. In the present modern age, the state of things accordingly consists of the figure of the human as an emptiness of being and the inextricability of humans, animals, nature, life, and death. Moreover, “‘Africa’ is the name generally given to societies that are judged impotent – that is, incapable of producing the universal and of attesting to its existence” (ibid., 49). Therefore, life down there in Africa is not human; it is elsewhere – separated. “They (Africans) and we” lack accordingly the ability to share a common world. Moreover, Africa becomes the negation of responsibility and justice.
the ultimate sign of the dissimilar, of difference and the pure power of the negative – constituted the manifestation of existence as an object. Africa in general and Blackness in particular were presented as accomplished symbols of a vegetative, limited state. The Black Man, a sign in excess of all signs and therefore fundamentally unrepresentable, was the ideal example of this other-being, powerfully possessed by emptiness, for whom the negative had ended up penetrating all moments of existence – the death of the day, destruction and peril, the unnameable night of the world (ibid., 11).
Importantly, one might ask what was the function of making such a distinction between humans? Apart from logic of race in terms of identity, Mbembe (2017: 10) reminds us that one of the main reasons for creating, classifying, and hierarchizing races was with the ultimate aim of economic exploitation. In other words, in order to justify power also on an economical level, the myth of race was created (ibid., 11).
Black Thought and Difference
As noted, the discourse on Blackness has two sides, one constructed by the West according to the logic of race, and the second concerns attempts at self-determination through reclaiming the racial category. These attempts may be understood historically: “In all three cases, the foundational events that were slavery, colonialism, and apartheid played a key role: they condensed and unified the desire of the Black Man to know himself (the moment of sovereignty) and hold himself in the world (the moment of autonomy)” (ibid., 78). The movements that make up the second discourse on Blackness include the various versions of Pan-Africanism and Negritude. And, although Mbembe acknowledges the efforts of these discourses concerning “the reaffirmation of a human identity denied by others” (ibid.) and thereby aims at a rehabilitation of the Black subject, the critique against these discourses is that they do not escape the logic that they seek to overcome: “But if the discourse of rehabilitation seeks to confirm the cobelonging of Blacks to humanity in general, it does not – except in a few rare cases – set aside the fiction of a racial subject or of race in general. In fact, it embraces the fiction" (For a broad overview of the second discourse on Blackness and its most important figures, see Mbembe (2017: 153–164). Mbembe (2002a, b) also gives an analysis of how Western metaphysics of difference was appropriated by African imaginations of the self.).
Accordingly, one might pose the question what might come after the logic of race? Or, what might be an alternative ontology that aims not to reinforce the oppressive logic it proclaims to overcome?
It was a discourse of inversion, drawing its fundamental categories from the myths that it claimed to op-pose and reproducing their dichotomies: the racial difference between Black and White, the cultural confrontation between the civilized and the savage, the religious opposition between Christians and pagans, the conviction that race founded nation and vice versa. (ibid., 92)
Toward a Postcolonial Universal Ontology
Following from the analysis of the problem of difference, which is embodied in the concept of race and Blackness and concerns a double discourse of imposed identity and the self-determination, the question stands: what is to be done? Or, how to rethink difference ontologically without reinforcing the same logic of race or the metaphysics of difference, which it aims to overcome? As noted, Mbembe aims to formulate what we call a postcolonial universal ontology. We firstly turn to the postcolonial before we move to the postcolonial universal ontology. It is here that we will discuss the postcolonial in its double as differentiated at the beginning of the chapter. The first meaning of the postcolonial is the end of formal colonialism, as after colonialism, while the second meaning of postcolonial is freeing ourselves from the constraints and ravages of the colonial ontology of alterity.
In imagining the Postcolony, Mbembe attempts at least to do two things. First, by theorizing the Postcolony, Mbembe wants to move away from thinking about African subjects and human difference from the Western metaphysics of difference that reduces people to the category of race. Second, he wants to describe or theorize what Africa “actually is.” He states that “the upshot is that while we now feel we know nearly everything that African states, societies, and economies are not, we still know absolutely nothing about what they actually are” (Mbembe 2001: 9). In Mbembe’s view, what is mostly theorized about Africa, particularly on African subjects and their sociopolitical realities, does not mirror actually what constitutes African sociopolitical realities and subjects today. The reason for this is that Africa is almost always imagined from the Western discourse that continues, even after the end of formal colonization, to imagine Africa as an absolute other of the West. By subtly theorizing Africa through the metaphysics of difference which by far does not represent African realities, Africa then becomes a sign of unreality. The fake representation of Africa is not only articulated by the West, and it has also been appropriated by the former colonized to imagine an Africa that is reduced to a racial category as pointed out in the previous section on race, an absolute and inferior other to the West.
It is at this point were Mbembe situates his theoretical position. He challenges essentialist Pan-African views for their appropriation of the colonial racial ontology that fixes human subjects into the problematic and violent definitions of race. But he also attempts to depart from the postmodern cliché of non-substantiality of identity by framing the postcolonial African realities into what he calls multiple durées. Mbembe claims that essentialist Pan-Africanism, postmodern cliché of non-essentialism, and Western mutilated views of Africa are detrimental to understanding what African really is. He also claims that these views perform certain kinds of violence and mask the dominant geography of power in postcolonial Africa that is constituted by a multiple durées.
By focusing on what he believes to be the actual sociological and anthropological constituents of postcolonial Africa, Mbembe’s theorization of the postcolonial therefore becomes a theorization of African social ontology as experienced by contemporary Africans (existential phenomenology) (Weate (2003) argues that Mbembe’s existential phenomenology is however ambivalent because of his insistence on thinking about Africa as a way of writing.). It also becomes an effort to think about African postcolonial social ontology from within a different experience of alterity. An alterity not predefined by the colonial ontological of alterity, but that flows from the pre-colonial and colonial heritage culminating into something different, new, and unstable.
Unlike the colonial discourse that fixes African social realities and subjectivity in metaphysics of difference, a linear movement of time, and in antagonism with the West, the postcolonial properly understood is different. It is made up of “rich in unexpected turns, meanders, and changes of course, without this implying their necessary abolition in an absence of center, the torment of nonfulfillment and incompleteness, the labyrinthine entanglement” (Mbembe 2001: 8). These unstable conditions, which are often associated with African backwardness, subhumanity, and the lack of reason, Mbembe argues, are not specific features that make up Africa nor backwardness. To the contrary, human experiences in general are marked by instabilities, unexpected turns, and the absence of the center. “Fluctuations and indeterminacy do not necessarily amount to lack of order. Every representation of an unstable world cannot automatically be subsumed under the heading ‘chaos’” (Mbembe 2001: 8). Therefore, the ontology of multiple durées is the condition of all human experiences, and it is not unique to Africa and does not represent backwardness and racial inferiority because it defies the fix linear conception of human history as proposed of modern Western Europe.
For Mbembe, there is a relationship between subjectivity and temporality, which implies that human subjectivity is itself a temporality. He believes that “for each time and each age, there exists something distinctive and particular – or, to use the term, a ‘spirit’ (Zeitgeist)” (Mbembe 2001: 15). The particularity of this spirit or Zeitgeist is constituted by distinct things which are made up of “material practices, signs, figures, superstitions, images, and fictions that, because they are available to individuals’ imagination and intelligence and actually experienced, form what might be called ‘languages of life’” at that specific historical juncture (Ibid.). Individuality or human subjectivity (Mbembe’s idea that individual African practice freedom through self-craft has faced criticism which exposes his silence on violence, see Tembo (2018).) therefore is realized within a specific historical context as defined by “living in the concrete world”:
not a simple category of time but a number of relationships and a configuration of events – often visible and perceptible, sometimes diffuse, “hydra-headed,” but to which contemporaries could testify since very aware of them. As an age, the postcolony encloses multiple durées made up of discontinuities, reversals, inertias, and swings that overlay one another, interpenetrate one another, and envelope one another an entanglement. (2001: 14)
In holding this view, Mbembe challenges the idea that what constitutes African difference is in relation to the West based on the metaphysics of difference/race. Africa in this way is not seen as an absolute other to the West, but rather, it is an entanglement of a multiple durées constituted by the Zeitgeist of the age. In postulating this view, we see a similarity between how Mbembe see the social ontology that constitute the postcolonial as a multiple durées and what he claims constituted a pre-colonial social ontology as understood by members of those societies through what he calls simultaneous multiplicities.
In Africa today, the subject who accomplishes the age and validates it, who lives and espouses his/her contemporaneousness – that is, what is “distinctive” or “particular” to his/her present real world – is first a subject who has an experience of “living in the concrete world.” (2001: 17)
As earlier intimated, Mbembe states that in some pre-colonial societies, the category of the image played a fundamental role in the constitution of languages and the characters of the cultures. The category of the image was the mode through which reality was represented and constructed. Underlying the usage of the category of the image was a particular ontology, the ontology of the multiple manifestation/presence or simultaneous multiplicities of the same reality. From Mbembe’s presentation of pre-colonial ontology through the category of the image, we were logically led to the conclusion that alterity in this ontology is not absolute otherness or nonbeing as propounded by most dominant modern Western philosophies and politics, but rather, it is another side of the same reality, just different manifestation. Alterity understood as another side of the same reality permits us to acknowledge that there can be human beings who are different from us without denying their humanity because it is in the essence of reality to have simultaneous multiplicities of the same reality. Further, this ontology permits us to understand that everything, spirits, persons, and things, is not made up of one aspect but many. This means that spirits, persons, and things are presence of not one but many aspects of reality. That is why a person, though physically present, can also be an embodiment of the spirit world, spirits. Witchcraft is one case where a witch (person) is an embodiment of multiple presence, visible and invisible. In the ontology of simultaneous multiplicities, we can further deduce that there is always a relation and communication between the different aspects of the same reality which culminate into a person, a witch, a chief, ancestors, etc. As earlier intimated, a clear understanding of who a person actually is, demands an approach of simultaneous multiplicities. It is this approach that Mbembe takes in theorizing the postcolonial. With the influences of postmodernism as reflected in the philosophy of Fanon, Foucault, and Deleuze but to mention a few, Mbembe augments the notion of multiple durées with his pre-colonial ontology of simultaneous multiplicities.
Taking the simultaneous multiplicities’ ontological and theoretical approach to theorizing the postcolonial, Mbembe arrives at the conclusion that, besides both the African, the sociopolitical, and the human subject being a temporality, they are also simultaneously multifariously constituted. What makes Africa and the African today is the presence of these simultaneous multiplicities’ actualities and potentials which can neither be reduced to the individual or the community, race or ethnicity.
In the postcolonial, the simultaneous multiplicities of things converge in what Mbembe calls arbitrariness. Arbitrariness, as defined above, means a certain kind of rationality that does not demand justification for the existence of sociopolitical and cultural institutions and the kind of power that flows from them besides the fact of their immediacy or facticity. Arbitrariness is what distinguishes the postcolonial age, or it is what marks the Zeitgeist of our time (postcolonial). To be sure, arbitrariness in the postcolonial is the heritage from the colonial exercise of power over the natives. The colonial exercise of power found its justification from the facticity of conquest and violence, not in the interests of the governed natives, or the sociopolitical and ethical demands which arose out of condition of the common humanity. It therefore lacked justice of means and legitimacy of ends: “The lack of justice of the means, and the lack of legitimacy of the ends, conspired to allow an arbitrariness and intrinsic unconditionality that may be said to have been the distinctive feature of colonial sovereignty” (Mbembe 2001: 26).
The lack of justice of means and legitimacy of ends produces its foundation which was arbitrariness that validates its own power without recourse to anything but its self. But because the power is exercised and works within a simultaneous multiplicities of persons and things, it unleashes a social ontology of violence that permeated colonial situations: “the arbitrariness that accomplishes its own work and validates itself through its own sovereignty, and thereby permits power to be exercised as a right to kill and invests Africa with deaths at once at the heart of every age and above time” (Mbembe 2001: 13).
This arbitrariness reappears in the postcolonial as its distinguishing aspects together with the “extreme material scarcity, uncertainty, and inertia” (Mbembe 2001: 24). These and many other conditionalities augmenting as a presence of simultaneous multiplicities of the postcolonial which produce politics of access as a postcolonial form of alterity. To be existentially “othered” or altered is to be given/to gain or be denied access to extremely scarce resources. In this form of othering granted by arbitrariness, the postcolonial become invested with an ontology of violence which exercise “a right to kill and invests Africa with deaths” (Ibid.). In the struggle for access to extremely scarce resources, the inertia of racism, corruption, authoritarian regimes, etc. becomes hard to disperse because these become means through which to access extremely scarce resource. Keeping in mind that the exercise of power in the postcolonial is legitimized by arbitrariness which allows intrinsic unconditionality of racism, corruption, and authoritarian regimes to justify the scarcity of resources, and in turn the scarcity of resources justify the existence of racism, corruption, and authoritarian regimes unconditionally. Hence, we have a circular entanglement. A circular entanglement is based on absolute alterity, those having access vs. those denied access. This is the inertia of Black Reason.
Despite Mbembe’s indifference to violence in his commitment to challenge the metaphysics of difference that informs most African imaginations of human subjectivity, we find some ideas that can transgress the logic of race and his indifference to violence in his work, especially the Critique of Black Reason. From Mbembe’s ontology of simultaneous multiplicities and its development in the Critique of Black Reason, we can postulate a postcolonial universal ontology that disrupts and disperses the colonial violence of absolute alterity constructed by the sociopolitical and cultural rationale of arbitrariness. In the Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe takes an ethical tone in his analysis of the persistence of the colonial racial logic and violence. He does not only say “what the thing really is” but also what it ought not to be. In what remains of the chapter, we will draw from Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason to imagine the postcolonial universal ontology that may disrupt the postcolonial rationale of arbitrariness which continues to constitute absolute alterity.
It is within these conditions of violence – which minimise and diminish independent conduct – that Mbembe argues that the African practices self-styling through which s/he (can) become(s) a work of art. Foucault, on the other hand, argues that practices of the self come with ethical responsibility towards Others. Foucault (1987, 118) states that “care for the self is ethical in itself, but it implies complex relations with others, in the measure where this ethos of freedom is also a way of caring for others.” States of war with its technologies of violent struggle and killing cannot easily, if at all, be equated to any form of caring for others.
A Universal Responsibility
Here Mbembe gives the ontology of simultaneous multiplicities political and ethical flesh. By stating that “the other is at once difference and similarity united” is to argue that human difference is an aspect of the same reality of the human in-common. To realize the political and ethical responsibility of the alternative alterity, he takes the task a step further to the realm of the universal. Hence, an additional question may be added here, namely: how does this alternative ontology and the task of reparation and responsibility relate to the rest of the world, that is, how does this postcolonial ontology avoid becoming overly particularly and thereby not relate to the universal? In reply to this question, one can outline two responses within Mbembe’s thought. Firstly, there is only one world. Thus, the principle of separation on which the logic of race with its ontology of inferiority is based does not do justice to our co-belonging to the world. “But there is only one world. We are all part of it, and we all have a right to it. The world belongs to all of us, equally, and we are all its coinheritors, even if our ways of living in it are not the same, hence the real pluralism of cultures and ways of being” (ibid., 187).
to be African is first and foremost to be a free man, or, as Fanon always proclaimed, “a man among other men.” A man free from everything, and therefore able to invent himself. A true politics of identity consists in constantly nourishing, fulfilling, and refulfilling the capacity for self-invention. Afrocentrism is a hypostatic variant of the desire of those of African origin to need only to justify themselves to themselves. It is true that such a world is above all a form of relation to oneself. But there is no relation to oneself that does not also implicate the Other. The Other is at once difference and similarity, united. What we must imagine is a politics of humanity that is fundamentally a politics of the similar, but in a context in which what we all share from the beginning is difference. It is our differences that, paradoxically, we must share. And all of this depends on reparation, on the expansion of our conception of justice and responsibility.
In other words, our coexistence in the world is given and does need to be justified by some elaborated theory or reference to the possession of a characteristic like rationality that would form a common being. Rather, what is to be thought is our in-common existence or co-belonging, our being-in-the-world always with others where co-creation takes place based on lived experience. Meaning is not based on fixed essences imposed on the world but rather to be created in taking up the universal task posed to us all, namely: “The project of a world in common founded on the principle of ‘equal shares’ and on the principle of the fundamental unity of human beings is a universal project” (ibid., 176). Moreover, Mbembe (2017: 177) goes on to suggest the methodology to take up phrased as follows: “The path is clear: on the basis of a critique of the past, we must create a future that is inseparable from the notions of justice, dignity, and the in-common.” That is, we need to think the in-common beyond the logic of race and toward an postcolonial universal ontology. And we want to make clear that by universal, we mean the in-common of the human condition based on the ontology of simultaneous multiplicities. As discussed thus far, we clearly shy away from the pseudo-universalism or in-common as experienced through Western modernity.
Put differently, within the one world we share, if we like it or not, we all therefore have in common the feeling or desire that each of us must be a full human being. “The desire for the fullness of humanity is something we all share” (ibid., 187). But for this desire to be met, reparation is required to build a world we share, that is, “we must restore the humanity stolen from those who have historically been subjected to processes of abstraction and objectification” (ibid.)
The task of reparation correspondingly has a dual approach. On the one side, a break with “good conscience” that continue to make people believe that slavery, colonialism, and apartheid were great feats of “civilization” and in the idea of only doing justice to your own kind with the notion of unequal races and peoples. This approach is merely met with a mobilization of reparation by the historical victims of these events. On the other hand, one must escape the status of victimhood. “It is through this dual approach that we will be able to articulate a new politics and ethics founded on a call for justice” (ibid, 178).
As with On the Postcolony, the critique against Mbembe may be put that he starts to outline what is to be done in Critique of Black Reason but that by no means is the program complete. The incompleteness may be exactly the task of thinking to be taken up, that is, to rethink the task of the relation to the universal/in-common and the particular in order to go beyond reducing difference to identities of race. It is here that we argue for a postcolonial universal ontology that understands alterity/difference/otherness from the ontology of simultaneous multiplicities. In this postcolonial universal ontology, there is no way a person can traverse the path of difference by transgressing sameness without invoking an ontology of violence and excess. The political and ethical responsibility therefore becomes one which allows the flourishing of the particular in-common. And alterity becomes, as necessitated by our human condition, an aspect of the same. The flourishing of the in-common depends on the flourishing of the particular and vice versa.
Until we have eliminated racism from our current lives and imaginations, we will have to continue to struggle for the creation of a world- beyond-race. But to achieve it, to sit down at a table to which everyone has been invited, we must undertake an exacting political and ethical critique of racism and of the ideologies of difference. The celebration of difference will be meaningful only if it opens onto the fundamental question of our time, that of sharing, of the common, of the expansion of our horizon. (ibid., 177)
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