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Dr Achille Mbembe
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Dr Achille Mbembe

Fables of Responsibility

(Transcription from live event at the Drill Hall, Johannesburg, 4 February 2006).

 

First of all I would like to apologise because I will have to leave after my presentation. Gregg was talking about real time, I have to write a weekly column for a number of newspapers in Franco-phone Africa. And the topic I have to write about this week is the African cup of nations going on in Egypt right now. And I have to indeed watch those games in order to talk about them. So I apologise about that. I would like to thank Gregg and Dorothee for inviting me here tonight.

 

I will speak rather indirectly to the two issues picked for our conversations tonight. On the one hand the question of ‘intimate rituals of self-preservation' and on the other ‘love sex and intimate relations' … why is it that I speak to them indirectly? I speak to them indirectly because it seems to me that these two questions are raised in a context we need to pause a little bit and reflect on. They are raised in a context in which world wide, here in South Africa , else where in the continent, in Europe , Latin America , in the Arab world, world wide there seems to be an urgent need for a new combination of aesthetic creativity and political activism. This is a discussion that is going on, as I said world wide. We live in a time when this need emerges…at a time when the rhetoric of human emancipation, human redemption or what we used to call liberation, when that rhetoric is, if not in question, at least discredited. Or in any case the faith in that rhetoric is diminishing world wide. It's also a time in which very clearly it appears that we cannot rely any longer on the old concept of the avant-garde to reanimate what we would call the project of emancipation. Third, it is a time when therefore we are forced to produce art (when I say art, I mean thought, so for me art and thought go to together) in the absence of a political or social utopia. And in an intellectual and cultural atmosphere in which the dream of absolute beauty, which is after all central to artistic creativity… appears as such, meaning a dream in face of the ugliness of our world. It's also a time when for millions of people, faith in the present and future appear to be diminishing, at the same time the past doesn't seem to be providing any stable referent for identity or for action.

 

So what does it mean to use a term like ‘very real time' in such a context? It seems to me that the term ‘very real time' might mean, if we agree that is part of the context I have described, in fact, how do we reanimate the possibility of radical art, radical thought and radical politics in an age of uncertainty. So, what I would like to share with you are some general reflections on this. How do we reanimate the possibility of radical art and thought in an age of uncertainty, and at times, of radical uncertainty? I think that, and that's the hypothesis I would like to put here, the first step to reanimating that project is to revisit a mode of conceptualising our current political and cultural situation. In other terms we have to understand not only what is real time, but what is our present made of. What is our present… that we are living in and experiencing in such a way that we can say we are our own contemporaries? In what consists our contemporaneity if you wish. So it seems to me to do that, this means at least three things and I would like to go through them briefly.

 

I think to do this we need to reinvent a way of deciphering the signs of times that we live in, which implies that those signs are not automatically legible, and they might not be automatically transparent and therefore the question is how to bring them to their full clarity. What does it mean to walk here, or drive here coming from Melville, driving along Bree Street, looking into the changes that have occurred through the history of that place, from the formation of the city of Johannesburg until, what time is it, a quarter to seven. How do we begin to identify what's going on? Who is there? What is being written on the walls? What is the meaning of the garbage we see along the pavement? What has been consumed in that garbage? That is what I mean by deciphering the signs of the time, but in very specific circumstances: in the lives of people, who move around, go back and forth and so on.

 

Second, it seems to me to respond to that question ‘what are the times that we live in?' this means to make a judgement, to pronounce a verdict on those times. It also means that we need an archive, because it is indeed very difficult to theorise in the absence of an archive or to decipher anything in the absence of an archive. An archive that is contradictory or if you wish a set of archives set against each other, the archive is what you would call a mediation in this process.

 

What I mean by those three steps that might appear to you to be terribly abstract is that the present is a matter of accountability and there is no way in which as artists or as thinkers, we will escape that duty of accountability. We can not produce an art that is meaningful, neither at the level of the personal, the level of the intimate or the political level, if this is not somehow accountable to something else, because even in intimate relationships we are accountable to each other. It seems to me one way of reinvigorating the project of emancipation both in art and thought in the place in which we live in today is to place very squarely at the centre of both our thought and practice what I would call the question of the ethical order of human proximity. Because it's the question of human proximity that is indeed at the centre of love, sex, rituals of self-preservation, which are themselves unthinkable without out the rituals of preservation of the other. So bringing all of this, bringing the question of the ethical order of human proximity at the centre of our thought and practice today seems to me to be one way in which we can account what Gregg and Dorothee you call ‘very real time'.

 

Indeed, just following on those lines, the question of the ethical order of human proximity, what is it? It is the question of the encounter with the other. It seems to me that radical art, radical thought, radical politics is losing that edge because the question of the encounter with the other has been somewhat displaced. The encounter with the other meaning what? Meaning the act of making the other's death my business. My encounter with the mortality of the other speaking to my own mortality. It seems to me in the world in which we live in today there are three haunting figures around whom the questions I have just raised are coalescing. There is the figure of the enemy. We live in a time when the question of the enemy has become absolutely central to the ways in which we relate to each other. Which raises another question: how to be human in times of terror? (Being those times in which politics… are reduced to identifying who your enemy is, going after your enemy, killing your enemy). So the figure of the enemy is indeed that point of coalescence of the question of the ethical order of human proximity.

 

The other figure is the figure of the neighbour, what do I do with my neighbour... in the full knowledge that my neighbour might have been my enemy very recently. How do I live with my enemy who has turned out to be my neighbour? This is a typical South African question. In the aftermath of apartheid, the question is today how do we rebuild a society in which there is a mutuality of recognition in our shared humanity. It is a very powerful utopia, I would think, which has been dealt with in many many ways, in art, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in a dream of building a world beyond race. How do we reactivate all of those things in such a way as to indeed counter that other politics in which the enemy becomes indeed dear? And in so doing, seeing that from Johannesburg we speak from Africa, how do we build indeed a modern African society we can call ‘Afro-politan', meaning sure of itself and its identity and embracing the world without fear, because it has something to contribute to human universal questions.

 

The third haunting figure in this trilogy is the figure of the stranger. It seems to me that we are all aware of questions of migration, the rebuilding of walls fifteen years ago the Berlin wall was demolished. If you travel from North Africa to Spain you will see new walls being built. You go Palestine , new walls are being built. Some of them are material walls, many others are invisible: we don't see them until we hit them. And what those walls are aiming at separating, we see it in our very city, the way in which Johannesburg is built, gated communities, questions of security, the fact that many people don't want to live together. People want to live with those who look like them. When we bring all of that at the centre of our thought in this world we live in, the question of the stranger becomes absolutely central.

 

So, I will end it there, because I only have 15 minutes and can go on and on. It seems to me then that we cannot really say the age of politics has evaporated now let's go to the personal, or let's go to the intimate. The problem is to read: what are those signs of the times we live in which are questioning in a very radical manner the very possibility of being human. So there is a new question of being human which I think, those of us who live in societies like this, those of us who live far away from the old civilisations who think they have resolved it long ago. We have an opportunity to produce around those issues a proposition that is new and radical enough so that when it is heard people stop and listen to it. And as far as I'm concerned that is what is at stake when we begin to think about this concept of real time. So I'll stop it there.

 

 

Achille Mbembe was born in Cameroon, obtained his Ph.D in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Paris). He was Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University, New York, from 1988-1991 , a Senior Research Fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., from 1991 to 1992, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996, Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) in Dakar, Senegal, from 1996 to 2000.  Achille was also a visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001, and a visiting Professor at Yale University in 2003. He has written extensively in African history and politics, including La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (Paris, Karthala, 1996).