Some Notes on Mbembe’s Postcolony

by zunguzungu

A bit of text from the chapter I’m working on, only slightly torn from its context and edited to stand alone. I’ve always found Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony both incredibly provocative and frustrating, so I’m trying to frame this chapter by the problem it presents, the way (as I see it), it manages to reproduce the original problem in its theoretical framing, even while — in practice — formulating some of the most interesting solutions to that problem in the body of the text. Once he gets into the meat of his argument, in his chapters, he does some profoundly important things on the subjects of governance and culture in Africa (though, as always, most specifically applicable to the Cameroonian context and less so elsewhere). Yet it seems symptomatic (of something) that his theoretical staging in the introduction is an argument about the perniciousness of dehistoricizing Africa which proceeds precisely by dehistoricizing the very discourse which is seen to do it, rendering it a single fetishized entity onto which the dehistoricizing of Africa can be blamed.

It is quite conventional to position “Africa” as either wholly itself or wholly an expression of not-itself, and to problematize the study of Africa in terms of this opposition. Achille Mbembe, for example, argues that Africa has been persistently characterized in terms of its fundamental stasis, what he calls its “facticity” and “arbitrariness,” and he takes Hegel’s statement that “the thing is; and it is merely because it is” to reference both the manner in which the continent get conceptualized according to its fundamental self-referentiality and the manner in which this underdetermined ontology defined by its underdetermination gets imposed on the continent from without. The legibility and explicability of “African historicities” therefore gets subsumed under the sign of what he calls the continent’s “special unreality,” the manner in which, because “narrative about Africa is always a pretext for a comment about something else,” the continent itself becomes “the very figure of what is null, abolished, and, in its essence, in opposition to what is: the very expression of that nothing whose special feature is to be nothing at all.” Against this “prior discourse against which any comment by an African about Africa is deployed,” his project attempts to recover what he approvingly cites J.F. Bayart’s attention to “the true historicity of African societies,” an attempt to recover a sense of their “relation to nothing other than themselves.”

This formulation of the problem, however, reproduces itself in its solution, presenting African studies with two equally limited options: Africa as expression of itself and Africa as expression of not-itself. In practice, of course, Mbembe and Bayart have been supremely attentive to the manner in which the “true historicity” of African societies has been a function of its globalizing relation with its own externalities, an extraversion which not only troubles the distinction between “Africa” and “not-Africa,” but which presumes the basic inadequacy of those terms for explaining their own emergence as terms with real-world referents. But the fact that such theoretical formulations so persistently reproduce the very paradigm which their practice shows to be insufficient helps me articulate the theoretical problem to which my project is addressed: the extent to which American writers like Stanley and Roosevelt have, explicitly and fundamentally, understood Africa not as a static function of its own arbitrary identity, but as a continent implanted in time, on the move, and in development.

To say so is not to exonerate them (or the colonial edifice which they helped build), but to suggest that if such developmental narratives have been a part of colonialism’s raison d’etre from the beginning, perhaps restoring “the true historicity of African societies” is neither so simple as it may sometimes seem, nor quite such an unambiguously positive undertaken. The ahistorical Africa of “timeless tradition” is certainly no straw man, but to characterize the “prior discourse against which any comment by an African about Africa is deployed” as a simple singularity is to vastly underestimate the complexity of the problem; there is not one discourse about Africa, but many, and the dialectical relationship between those discourses is as much a part of what they are as is the relationship between Africa and not-Africa­ in conceptualizing the continents. In short, we are presented not with a choice between history or its absence, but with a proliferation of historicities, a variety of different narratives not only in dialogue with each other, but told by actors in active political contention. Whether Africa is historicized as resisting development or embracing it is a distinction with real political consequences, yet a blanket embrace of “true historicity” subsumes under the sign of truth the problem that no historical narrative is true in an absolute sense, while all are true in differently contingent senses. The key, then, is not to extol the virtues of “historicity” as such, but to interrogate such historical narratives in the historical context of their production, reception, and reproduction.