The Cameroon-born philosopher Achille Mbembe (born 1957) has created a body of writings that unite the African tradition of anticolonial and postcolonial thinking with the French philosophical tradition. Opposing Eurocentric views, Mbembe has nevertheless emphasized that it is necessary for Africans to develop distinctive and unique world views rather than defining themselves purely in opposition to Western modes of thought.
Joseph-Achille Mbembe was born in July of 1957 in the tiny town of Otélé in central Cameroon. His early education came in a boarding school run by the Dominican religious order; although he has not been an orthodox follower of Roman Catholicism, Mbembe has pointed to early studies of the Christian New Testament as a formative influence. “The Bible and to a certain extent Christianity have exercised the single most crucial influences on my intellectual itinerary,” he told Annalisa Oboe, an interviewer for the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism website.
Mbembe, in fact, has drawn parallels between the Christian account of Jesus's crucifixion and the struggles of contemporary Africa, telling Oboe that his writings on the continent have “been up to now an endless commentary on the drama of crucifixion and the hope for resurrection; on what it means to perish—the encounter with an irrecusable boundary that tells us about the essential connection between death, life and freedom; about how to shape the world within the self in order to re-emerge on the other side of life.” Christianity's mixture of philosophical ideas with literature, music, and art appealed to Mbembe, whose own writings showed a similar combination.
At the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon's capital city of the same name, Mbembe headed an organization of Christian students and edited its magazine. At first he was committed to working in Cameroon. He served on literacy campaigns in the country's rural area and traveled to Tanzania to observe the efforts of the nation's progressive government under president Julius Nyerere. Mbembe's studies were ultimately interrupted by political instability, however, as labor unrest plagued the government of Cameroon president Ahmadou Ahidjo. When Ahidjo stepped down in 1982, Mbembe took the opportunity to leave a situation that had become politically untenable for him. He moved to Paris, France, and enrolled in the history program at one of Europe's leading educational institutions, Panthéon-Sorbonne University.
There Mbembe came under the mentorship of scholar and journal editor Jean-François Bayart, who published the Cameroon student's early work in the journal Politique africaine. Mbembe finished a Ph.D. in history at the Panthéon-Sorbonne in 1989, by that time already accepting several prestigious posts abroad. From 1988 to 1991, he served as assistant professor of history at Columbia University in New York City, taking a post as senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1991 and 1992, and moving on to a post as associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996.
The time he spent in New York City exerted strong influences on Mbembe's intellectual development. The city allowed him, as he later explained to Oboe, “to enter into contact with the global world. For instance, New York allowed me to realize how the French version of universalism expressed itself in a language that was, in the end, quite narcissistic, monocolored and provincial…. For the first time in my life, I could distinctly hear the clamoring of worlds, the rustling echoes of that juxtaposition of races and nations and ethnicities the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor had spoken of.” Mbembe spent his free time in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Harlem, buying books and music, listening to street preachers, and taking in shows at the historic Apollo Theater. The experience helped him begin to think of the cultural ways shared by Africans in general: regardless of the specific culture from which they came, they all shared the experience of having been colonized by Europeans and then, after independence, having to make their way on their own.
In 1996 Mbembe returned to French-speaking West Africa, becoming executive director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research (Codesria) in Dakar, Senegal. Disillusioned by the bruising ideological struggles at that organization, he left in 2000, taking prestigious visiting professor posts at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001 and Yale University in 2003. For much of the 2000s, he was active as a scholar; he was a contributing editor to the journal Public Culture and wrote articles for numerous periodicals and anthologies. He taught at Duke University's Franklin Humanities Institute, and in the 2010s he became Research Professor of History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mbembe is married to Wits Institute director Sarah Nuttall, and together the couple edited the 2008 book Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis.
Mbembe's first book, Les jeunes et l’order politique en Afrique noire (“The Young and the Political Order in Black Africa” ), was published in 1986, while he was still a graduate student in Paris. Two years later he issued Afriques indociles: Christianisme, pouvoir et état en sociétépostcoloniale (“Indiscreet Africas: Christianity, Power, and State in Postcolonial Society” ). This work established Mbembe's status as a scholar in the field of postcolonial studies, the examination of culture and politics in countries that had won their independence from colonial powers, generally in the second half of the 20th century.
Mbembe's work has been rooted in the critique of colonialism of Frantz Fanon and other left-wing writers who explored the destructive cultural effects of colonization on indigenous peoples. He is more interested in the cultural forms that have emerged in Africa since independence, however, than in colonialism itself. Mbembe has been interested in the commonalities among African cultures, a development he has termed Afro-cosmopolitan culture, and his characterizations of these new cultures include artistic as well as social and political factors. Violence has been a prominent feature of life in many African societies since independence, and Mbembe has explored its philosophical underpinnings as well.
Many of Mbembe's ideas were contained in the essay De la postcolonie: Essai sur l'imagination dan l’Afrique contemporaine, published in 2000 and translated the following year as On the Postcolony. That book has also been translated into Italian, German, and Spanish, and it serves as the foundation of Mbembe's international reputation. His other books include La Naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (“The Birth of the Underground in South Cameroon,” published in 1996; the English-language On Private Indirect Government, released in 2000, 2010's Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (“Leaving the Great Night: An Essay on Decolonized Africa” ), 2013's Critique de la raison nègre (“Critique of Black Reason” ), the title a pun on 19th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; and Politiques d'inimitié (“Politics of Enmity” ), published in 2016.
Although his academic writings are cast in the dense language of formal philosophy, Mbembe is a public intellectual, an academic figure who takes an interest in public issues of the day. In South Africa, his commentaries on the unrest within the country's public university system in the mid-2010s, appeared in a number of newspapers.
Although he has lived in Johannesburg for a many years, Mbembe told Oboe that he is “a citizen of nowhere in particular.” Although “not so long ago, one could still find its arts of cursing in the underneath of whatever I wrote,” he added, “I find it harder and harder to come to grips with the place where I was born.” Mbembe has “kept moving along the Atlantic triangle” formed by South Africa, France, and the United States but he told the interviewer that he does not consider himself a native of any of these places. “Belonging to nowhere in particular, I have become my own home, a portable house I take with me wherever I happen to find a roof. I have to find a center that is not tangible, some form of interiority that gives me a sense of inner stability amidst the turbulence and vagaries of where life takes me,” he explained to Oboe.
Baets, Antoon de, Censorship of Thought: A World Guide, 1945–2000, Greenwood Press, 2001.
Africa News Service, September 22, 2016.
Africa Is a Country website, http://africasacountry.com/ (November 20, 2013), Thomas M. Blaser, “Africa and the Future” (interview).
AfriCultures online, http://www.africultures.com/ (November 4, 2016), “Achille Mbembe.
European Graduate School website, http://egs.edu/ (November 4, 2016), “Achille Mbembe.”
Eurozine, http://www.eurozine.com/ (January 9, 2008), “Achille Mbembe: What Is Postcolonial Thinking?”
Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism website, http://jwtc.org.za/ (March, 2008), Annalia Oboe, “Africa and the Night of Language” (interview).
University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa/Wits Institute website, http://wiser.wits.ac.za/ (November 4, 2016), “Achille Mbembe.”❑