I recently spent an evening with Achille Mbembe. No big news in that. But then I met a programmer from Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, who wearily told me how she had unsuccessfully tried, on three occasions, to get the Cameroonian social theorist, essayist and philosopher to speak in the German capital. Mbembe – whose landmark 2001 book, On the Postcolony, argues that ‘the African subject is like any other human being: he or she engages in meaningful acts’ – is a busy guy. Even when he confirms engagements, things don’t always go as planned. In May this year, Mbembe was scheduled to speak alongside political philosopher Drucilla Cornell and Marxist geographer David Harvey at Tate Modern, on ‘Spaces of Transformation’, part of a conversation series that sought to reveal how theorists ‘make use of topology in their thinking, writing and making’.
Mbembe, who has described Johannesburg, his adopted city, as an ‘elusive metropolis’, was a no-show. Visa problems. The organizers failingly tried to include him in the conversation via Skype. Dakar’s electrical grid had other plans. Mbembe is not an unwilling public speaker. Two years ago, I saw him genially entertain questions from a well-known football commentator in a fake television studio built for the opening of a football-themed exhibition in Johannesburg. ‘Prof’ this and ‘prof’ that, he was asked about the possible interconnectedness of art, soccer and Africa. Note to talks organizers: Mbembe is a keen commentator on football.
Speaking on a US radio show in 2010, a few weeks after being roped into the peculiar opening of curator Fiona Rankin-Smith’s exhibition ‘Halakasha!’ (It’s in!) at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in Johannesburg, Mbembe spoke of the success of South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup as ‘a huge symbolic boost’ for the continent. While more renowned for his insights into the ‘imaginary of state sovereignty’, the ‘aesthetics of vulgarity’, ‘necropower’ and ‘Afropolitanism’, Mbembe is an alert and mobile intellect, able figuratively to dribble the ball when necessary.
He has, for instance, written lovingly of Congolese rumba, describing this big-band, guitar-led musical form as ‘the most successful expression of serenity in the face of tragedy’. His diverse writings on visual culture include essays on the painter Marlene Dumas and political cartoons in Cameroon, as well as an intriguing critique of western photographic theory’s preoccupation with stabilizing, restoring and recentering the real, which he read in draft form at a conference coinciding with the ‘Figures & Fictions’ exhibition at the V&A Museum last year. But it is his interest in football that I want to pause on. Writing in 2010, he described the modern game as emblematic of the four main features of contemporary global capitalism: ‘rampant speculation, the creation of new bundles of rights of ownership, the emergence of new commodity forms and possibilities for profit, and the dematerialization of labour’.
Mbembe’s interest in football is not only theoretical. After a mutual speaking engagement in Johannesburg recently, we shared dinner. He was seated next to our host with his back to the restaurant’s television. After some obligatory chitchat, he turned to watch the live feed from EURO 2012 for most of the second half. Earlier in the evening, Mbembe, who grew up in a steadfastly Catholic household in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, told me that he originally wanted to be a journalist, but the opportunities were grim, so he decided to study history.
Mbembe arrived at his studies with a particular orientation. ‘Catholicism helped me to avoid Marxism,’ he stated in a 2008 interview. ‘It always seemed to me that Marxism was spiritually poor. And that it was too bound up with matter. To be human is not simply to have material wants.’ In 1980 he won a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, obtaining his doctorate there in 1989. A decade later he moved to Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife, literary theorist Sarah Nuttall.
Despite a prolific academic career grounded in the diffuse but interconnected theories of Frantz Fanon, Paul Gilroy, Edward Said and Léopold Sédar Senghor (as well as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre), Mbembe has managed to nonetheless fulfil his journalistic ambitions, writing regular newspaper editorials in both French and English. Broaching a wider public than dense, intertextual theoretical work, this journalism has won him an appreciative audience.
The expressionist Cameroonian painter Joël Mpah Dooh cites Mbembe as an intellectual mentor. Dramaturge and choreographer Brett Bailey follows him. When Bailey recently staged a version of Exhibit A (2010), a multi-part live performance tableaux narrating various abusive colonial histories – the ongoing series will be touring Belgium and France in 2012–13, and Britain and Portugal in 2014 – his programme note prominently quoted Mbembe’s riff on Brett Murray’s The Spear (2012), a dumb painting that prompted an even dumber response from the ruling party because of its portrayal of President Jacob Zuma with his phallus exposed.
The article begins with a précis of the role of the artist in traditional African society – like the dog, the artist is a ‘slippery and highly ambiguous’ cipher, ‘positioned at the interface of the human and the natural worlds’. But principally Mbembe set out to criticize contemporary artistic foolishness. ‘To pretend to critique contemporary forms of patriarchy with the categories used in the past to dehumanize the black man is, at best, stupid – a cruel lack of imagination,’ he writes. The word imagination is central to Mbembe’s lexicon, which, quite simply, is why you should read him.
First published in Issue 149