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<coqueryv@EXT.JUSSIEU.FR> [Editor's note: this is a translation of the review in French posted 30 Nov. 2001. H-AFRICA is greatly indebted to our translators, Tamba M'Bayo and Nicole Liva.] H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Africa@h-net.msu.edu (March, 2002) Achille Mbembe, _De la postcolonie. Essai sur l'imagination politique dans l'Afrique contemporaine_. Paris: Karthala, 2000, 294 p. Collection Les Afriques. ISBN 2845860781. [Published in English as: _On the Postcolony_. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Studies on the history of society and culture, 41. 274 pp. Bibliography + index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-20434-4; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-520-20435-2. Reviewed for H-Africa by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Universite Paris VII, Denis Diderot This work, published about the same time in both English and French, is a collection of texts as seductive as original, situated on the border between political philosophy, history and literature. The writing is superb. The language becomes an instrument of analysis, "at the same time descriptive, critical, analytical and poetic....Words become art, or even better become images and magic to the point where the text itself ends up partaking in a process of bewitchment." This way "of speaking of ugliness in so beautiful a manner" is at times "puzzling and disturbing." For the author is profoundly involved in postmodernist currents for which the text becomes significant in itself as much as the reality. Besides, the subtitle clarifies this without ambiguity, even if it is more a question of the "imaginary" than political "imagination." The work is a collection of essays, five in the French version [editor: six in the English version]. The major idea that binds the chapters together is that of the postcolony, that is, of "societies recently emerging from the experience that was colonization, one that must be considered a relation of violence par excellence," of servitude and domination (p. 139-140). The introduction, a beautiful and courageous piece, rests on a philosophical questioning sustained among others, by F. Hegel, M. Heidegger, F. Nietzsche, G. Fig, J. Habermas, or M. Foucault. Curiously, the author hardly makes any references, except in a brief note, to modern African philosophers criticizing the ethno-philosophy movement of the stature of Paulin Hountondji or Valentin Mudimbe and less still to Béchir Souleïmane Diagne. Nor does he subscribe, without really clarifying the reasons, to the problematics of "postcoloniality" as discussed by the Subaltern Studies that he nevertheless knows very well. He declares his resolve to go against the usual discourse in which Africa is seen only as antinomic to the West for, in spite of recent research, the convention remains that of a _pensee sauvage_: while being marked by the dominant thinking, one knows better, today, that Africa is actually not what it is in reality. About this reality, Achille Mbembe's judgments are severe and uncontestable: in the contemporary context of the plurality of knowledge and multiplicity of worlds, Africa remains characterized by the absence of outcome, except in absolute arbitrary power, arbitrariness all the more oppressive since it concerns the _longue durée_ from past to present and doubtless into the future, "the absolute power to give death at any time, anywhere, by any means, and for any reason." (p. 32). The question put forward is therefore desperate: how to escape this yoke through liberation from servitude and the eventuality of an autonomous African subject? The first two texts, "Of _Commandement_," and "On Private Indirect Government," belong to the _longue durée_ analysis, since the actions of the postcolonial rulers are understood and explained through historical inheritance, and in particular through the after-effects of colonial violence: violence founded through conquest, the violence of legitimization through a discourse and a vocabulary of universalizing will, the violence of permanence through the sedimentation of innumerable acts and rites, of which the most symptomatic was the regime known as the _indigenat_ (p. 42-43). The analysis is relentless. The methods of colonial subjugation, whose purpose was to reify the native, are at the root of evil. The power of the State stemming from this subjection is opposed to "civil society" as defined in the West. Yet, African societies are not reduced to external structures outside and hostile to the State: the restructuring of autochthonous interests (entrepreneurs, politicians, nationalists...) brings about the interrelationship of oppressive power and participating networks. The postcolonial potentate inherited from this complex possesses a rationality of its own resting on an overlapping trinity: violence, allocation, and transfer. The allocation (salary) legitimates subjection, the wage earner becoming dependent on the dominating State. This process accounts for all the misappropriations: "corruption," parallel collections, etc., which convert economic matters into social and political matters through the expediency of community social links. Thus, a multi-formed social debt binds all the elements of the system, prisoners to each other. Mbembe's thematic accords more obviously with the continuation of the "politics of the belly" and of the "criminalization of the State" proposed by Jean-François Bayart. He nevertheless insists much more than the latter on the role of the colonial episode, which would have been in the eyes of Bayart "only one contingent factor" of the process. The novelty of Mbembe's presentation lies in the link strongly established between arbitrary colonial power and postcolonial power, while the historical literature, following the dominant political discourse, rather tended in the past to connect contemporary potentates to pre-colonial chiefs. This tendency remains that of many present-day specialists, political analysts or journalists little informed about the history of the continent due to their training and specialty: for many, colonialism tends too much to represent only a digression. However, Mbembe has the vigor to demonstrate that, on the contrary, it is the foundation of contemporary African political concepts. This said, the analysis, very innovative in so far as it attacks the imaginary of the colonized modeled and corrupted by colonial arbitrary power, is not a discovery in itself concerning the mechanisms of power. Twenty years ago, Benoit Verhaegen had already proposed a scouring analysis of the despotic power of Mobutu in Zaire, where he distinguished a succession of overlapping concentric circles, from the "presidential clique" of the near relatives of the despot to the "ruling brotherhood" of the privileged members of the presidential "ethnic group" and, beyond, the "grande bourgeoisie potentielle" consisting of "all people whose competence, popularity or function designated them as possible candidates for entry to the brotherhood which constitutes the recruitment reserve." (p.374-75). What is new, nevertheless, is that Mbembe extends the analysis to the decades of independence. He does not separate political account from economic analysis. Thus, the economic contraction of the 1980s and the requirements of structural adjustment programs shake the relative equilibrium of postcolonial despotism. The inextricable difficulties that followed made the factions splinter and oppose each other. The resulting wars and chaos prevent them from finding a way out. It is the challenge of the twenty-first century: henceforth the competitiveness of economies on a worldwide scale demands from Africa, as from others, an increase in productivity. However, this can only intensify the ratio of violence resulting from the contradictions between the growth of inequalities and the exacerbation of distortions in accumulation of capital/social exclusion. This analysis has the merit of great intellectual coherence, even if one can reproach the author for proposing a model of general development necessarily a little disconnected from the realities and concrete alternatives on the ground. Inserted in an abrupt way in the middle of the others, is a text of dazzling beauty: "The Whip of God." It is a sort of poem in prose, a series of variations on the related themes of religious deed and erotic sexual act. In addition, there is a fascinating comparison between the Jewish God, Yahweh, ultimate expression of a closed monotheism, and the Christian religion which cross-fertilizes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (to which we must add the mother of Christ) to create a family fusion which inserts divinity in the framework of family relationships. The crucifixion of the Son, a very real death, is an ecstasy in suffering, a "salvatory orgasm" which has the character of an orgiastic mystery. At the very moment of his death, which is that of a man, God absorbs the world and is absorbed by the world, beyond time and beyond space. The discourse on God therefore becomes a discourse on human existence; the fusion of man and of God means that man, like God, is called to immortality. From this desire of "totalization" (p. 211) arises the idea of Christian universalism, which takes a political shape: that of conversion and of conquest. One only regrets that the author did not make a place for Islam, a missing link from his analysis in this confrontation of the evolution of monotheisms. The two remaining chapters, while dealing with contemporary political realities, resort directly to the literature, just as much through the style as by the references, where preference is given to texts of expressive novelists, in their very excesses, such Ahmadou Kourouma or Soni Labou Tansi. "The Aesthetics of vulgarity" is a ferocious attack on dictators who wallow in the grotesque, in sex and in blood, because violence and scatology are the keywords to understand and to analyze the unbearable climate of the postcolony. "Out of the World" identifies actually existing Africa with the violence of death which "has become the normal state of things" (p. 217), after the violence of the colonist had been expressed in a raw way: "Thanks to his phallus, the colonizer's cruelty stand quite naked: erect" (p. 221). Mbembe underscores with good reason the convergence of the variations of the vocabulary of conquest and of penetration, whether about coitus or colonization. Referring to Fanon who treats the colonies as "spaces of terror" populated with maleficent spirits (p. 229), he also echoes other recent studies such as that of Louise White on vampires, about the generalized belief in East Africa in blood suckers embodied by certain occupations of whites, notably doctors or firemen. Mbembe analyzes at length, in a hard-hitting way, the construction of colonial images, such as that the "Negro...[who] is first and foremost, a rather haphazardly developed set of almost naked organs: fuzzy hair, flat nose, thick lips, face covered with cuts. He stinks" (p. 227). The native is for the colonist not a man but a thing, an animal. The author has already compared, in the chapter "Of _Commandement_", colonization with the domestication of wild animals, dominated by a global constraint, that of arbitrary power, which did not exclude some forms of sympathy. Just like the animal, one could "love" the native, provided that he returns the same affection to his master; relations of domestication remained a process of training (p. 45). This time, Mbembe makes the colonizer a hunter. Therefore "the act of killing an animal or, likewise, a colonized, can also, as in hunting, take on a simple function of recreation" (p. 247). "The slave, the animal and the native" are one (Epilogue: p. 265). The drama is that this entertainment, which leads to servility, to venality and to the pretense of individuals so reified, has become the savage rule of the postcolony. The tone is that of despair: "How thus to live when the time to die is spent, and even when it is forbidden to be alive?" (p. 257). It is ultimately what one could criticize the author for: although he sets up, in his introduction, Afrocentrism versus Afropessimism (thus synonymous with Eurocentrism) (p. 20), he gives Africa, an echo of "the absolute rupture of our time," a desperate image; condemning the exclusive usage, by political science and economics, of reductive Western paradigms, he pleads for an Afrocentric vision. But at the same time, dedicating most of his pages to analyzing the gaze of Whites on Blacks, he loses the possibility of a view from within. He demonstrates how the current African imaginary interiorizes the violence and tyranny of absolute powers imposed in the past in the longue durée, from the slave trade through colonialism. He apparently finds issues only in denunciation and derision. Are not these nihilist accents just like the person of the author, who belongs to a generation particularly perturbed, torn between two collided cultures? The dreamlike and resolutely sexual vision of realities raises the problem quasi-exclusively on the individual level; the emergence of the political will of societies and collective _mentalites_ being transformed does not appear anywhere. Achille Mbembe is right to draw up a merciless indictment against the internal responsibility of modern despots without scruples, who are not only accepted but indeed flattered by crowds impregnated by mortifying ideas inherited from a terrible past. The very account of this inheritance that underlines the harshness of the present shows the inevitable character of the resulting excesses. But does one have to stumble on this fatality? It would be, in one blow, the same as authorizing them, even legitimizing them. Must the writer and the poet have to resort to the role of distanced witness, thus powerless? The text is lucid and caustic, but it reveals more of a state of mind than a scientific report. It informs at least as much on the personality of the authortorn, multiple, impenetrable and tragicas on Africa. [Translated for H-Africa by Tamba M'Bayo and Nicole Livar.] References . Marcel Kabasele, "Après Fanon: commentaires sur l'ouvrage d'Achille Mbembe," H-Africa, 23 August 2001, <H-AFRICA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>, p. 1. . Jean-François Bayart, L'État en Afrique. La politique du ventre, Paris: Fayard, 1989, et (en coll.) La criminalisation de l'État en Afrique, Éd. Complexe, 1997. . Bayart, L'illusion identitaire, Paris: Fayard, 1996, p. 95. . Benoît Verhaegen, "Impérialisme technologique et bourgeoisie nationale au Zaïre", in Connaissance du tiers-monde. Approche pluridisciplinaire, Paris, 10/18/ Université PARIS-7, pp. 347-380. . Louise White, Speaking with vampires : rumor and history in colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Copyright 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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