Generosity or Brutalism? Comment on Mbembe

Comment on Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme. Ed. Decouverte Paris 2020. Forthcoming in English (translator not listed) Duke Univeristy Press 2024. ISBN 978-1-4780-2558-0

“ A logic of permutations, convergences and relationalities replaces a logic of oppositions. ”

Its difficult to settle on the key threads of Achille Mbembe’s book of editorials and essays, Brutalisme, a term he takes over from the post-World War II century architectural style which celebrated the materiality of the components elements of buildings, in particular concrete, which highlighted, exposed to the gaze and touch. Mbembe’s catchphrase turns on brute materiality and the transformations wrought upon it by brutal sociopolitical forces. Its materials are bodies, minerals, natural resources and energy itself. The reconfigurations wrought by architecture are thus akin to political ambitions to tear down and build up empires. Twenty-first century Brutalism designates not so much a form of operation as an epoch in which the appropriation of materials and bodies is accompanied by demolition on the scale of ecocide. Its ultimate ambition transcends the material and even life. See Achille’s talk, here. Thus, conquering time through the technological transformation of bodies and their corporality will ultimately “ cost us the world, ” Mbembe wryly remarks.

The Table of Contents reveals the range of concerns :

1. Universal Domination  9
2. Fracturing  27
3. Animism and Viscerality  40
4. Virilism  58
5. Border-Bodies  78
6. Circulations  91
7. The Community of Captives  105
8. Potential Humanity and the Politics of the Living

This analysis of neocapitalism’s transcendent ambition is anchored in critiques of neoliberal economics and corporate activity. It takes all life as a resource. By doing so, all persons have the status of enslaved negros, and not just of the past. Domination is universal. Revising his work on the Postcolony, Mbembe re-poses the question of negritude. This isn’t an entirely novel proposition in French as this appropriation of racial oppression can be found in 1960s FLQ critiques of the subordination of Québecois culture by Anglo culture (for example by Pierre Vallières). However, this is also anchored in Mbembe’s positionality as an African theorist writing from Africa in French. At the same time as representing the end of humanity as we know it, this new condition creates a new universalism.

The racial elision necessary to envision a universal negritude is based on Mbembe’s argument that bodies – and minds — are being reduced to finer and finer elements which dissolves both identities and difference. Bold characterizations of the global situation follow. What can follow Occidental Reason (p.101)? What is special is Mbembe’s viewpoint outside of textbook landscapes and certitudes of modernity from West Africa and from South Africa. He clearly sees that the extension of rationalization is not the linear process seen by the classics of sociology but is accompanied by irrational mystifications and conspiracy thinking. Shifting aside the certitudes of Western generalizations about ‘modernity,’ ‘globalization’ and so on is a major contribution. Mbembe tries, but it is difficult to reassemble new grand narratives. Can there be a new planetary consciousness? This would entail reconceiving the rôle of heros in such ideologies, as Mbembe’s critique of Virilism, genital power and patriarchy makes clear. Working against a grand narrative that emphasizes the rights of all “ the living ” rather than mere human rights, are countless solipsisms and provincial retreats into identity thinking, xenophobias and rightwing political reaction.

Divisions become blurred such as between humans and technology. “ The ultimate ambition of Brutalism is the transformation of humanity into energy. ”

Citing Abdourahme Nasser’s1 ‘Spatial collisions and discordant temporalities: Everyday life between camp and checkpoint’. Mbembe comments on the urban form of exclusion in much of the world: the Camp (of migrants, foreigners, the excluded…) which has been extended to the scale of entire territories via the enforcement of borders (Palestine, or in another way, post-Brexit UK). Global circulation across segmented spaces is a ‘dialectic of speed and immobilisation:’

“Like trapped animals, human beings turn in circles, a place of collision of spaces, where lives come crashing against large and small walls, barriers and checkpoints, leaving behind them debris of time and, often, bodies in pieces, under the effect of multiple states of siege, untimely closures, repeated blockades and, when necessary, fragmentation bombs, in short desolation.

Humanity in a cage, Palestine in general, and Gaza in particular, have become the emblems par excellence. They are the great laboratories of a regime of brutalization nearing technological completion and seeking to globalize. It is a question of generalizing and extending, on a global scale, the methods refined in the context of the management of “occupied territories” and other predatory wars. This regime of brutalization is based on the extreme fracturing of spaces deliberately made uninhabitable, the intense cracking of bodies constantly threatened with amputation, forced to live in hollows, often under rubble, in the interstices and unstable fissures of environments subjected to all sorts of devastation, abandonment, in short, universal dissection2. If we have indeed entered a reticular world, it is at the same time made up of enclaves, zones of erasure, including memory, dead ends and shifting, mobile and diffuse borders. It is worth repeating: the dissection of spaces which is its corollary is, itself, a key element of the contemporary regime of universal predation.3

The excision of territories and the power to decide who can move, where and under what conditions, are already at the heart of struggles for sovereignty.”

(p.152-4 my translation)

Exclusion through Imperio . However, circulation, and multilocality, the dispersion of family residences to work overseas short or long term confronts the extractive spatialisation such as State closure and enclosure, the use of duty-free enclaves and production and tax offshoring to exclaves. For Mbembe these also highlight the role of women and the impact this generalized mobility has had on gender relations in these more distanciated, far-flung households. The book needs more of this sort of nuance. Despite the attention to patriarchy, in this text it is hard to grasp the intersecting oppressions that accompany gender discrimination – and in countries such as Afghanistan, what the UN has called “gender apartheid.” Women in particular were so easily abandoned by Western powers who had for years exhibited contradictions between discourses of empowerment and the practices of an occupying army and puppet government.

The becoming-artificial of the human implies new forms of life, as a matter of blood and soil. This then is not just a shift in the players on a chessboard, but new moves on a board that itself is taken up, changed in the neocapitalist mill that extracts all possible resources: a Nomos of the Earth rises from the new divisions and spatial orders.4 To continue the metaphor, imagine a chessboard with not only changed powers for existing chess pieces and new pieces with new moves but a new spatialisations of these actors and powers, on a board gridded in triangles.

“Ordinarily, the Earth refers to a spatial category, to an expanse. It (She) is made of a more or less firm ground, landscapes, reliefs, depths and foundations, traces, enclosures, wastelands, sanctuaries. She is understood, we think, in a bundle of directions (east, west, south, north). Made from mineral or vegetable matter, that is, soil, it is round and therefore circumscribed. And, above all, it is inhabited. As such, humans in particular exert their hold on it, mapping it according to the surveyor’s cadastre and exploiting it. They cultivate it and perhaps take care of it. Their life and their destiny play out on this ground. A common home, it is the residence of humans and other species, the object of a primitive sharing between all beings and, from this point of view, both their shared cognomen (leur nom commun) and their maternal body.

There would therefore be, behind the generic image that is the ‘Earth’ something of the order of a specific power — a foundational power, of that on which the work or project (oeuvre), whatever the form and author, stands. But also something of the breadth, the depths and roots — the root, if not the place of origin of all things, that whose limits escape the gaze, that which we mine and which serves as a fundamental shelter for those who inhabit it. Although round, the Earth would actually beckon to the unlimited.… in the background, surrounded by a dark night, the Earth would always remain distinct from its inhabitants….in its substance and materiality…”

(p.58 my translation)

Written before climate warming amplified wildfires into conflagrations on almost every continent, Combustion (of everything) is a key word for Mbembe. This text is also prior to the Russian war against NATO-backed Ukraine or the 2020s re-emergence of climate conflict and refugees of from the Sub-Sahara and Sahel, Mbembe remains within the Enlightenment project of seeking a fulcrum point from which to theorize the global, to hold the whole in view and think on behalf of the interests of an expanding totality. Despite his scepticism, “humanity” still rolls easily off the tongue. Decentred to African and Afro-diasporic voices, humanity is still at the heart of this project. Any post-humanism is defined here in terms of more-than-humanism, but still humanism. And yet, a new hybrid humanism in which the body and consciousness is broken down, “ brutalised ” and reassembled at the neurological, biomechanical and cellular scale. Although this has been treated as a “becoming-black” of the world.

A recognition of this new Being requires a humility which characterizes the voice Mbembe brings to these grand challenges. I suggest this must also be a new gratitude, a New Generosity, however utopian that may seem in the forever war, years on from the Russian invasion of Crimea, Georgia and Ukraine. A new gratitude to those multitudinous and even parasitical Others, human and more than. Each/Others. Unfortunately, this may easily be perverted into an ideology and demand that we humans be grateful to machines and institutions, to the State. While humans may be benefiting from neuro-bio-computational progress of devices such as cochlear implants that allow the deaf to hear, States and other institutions benefit faster. An example is the spread of authoritarianism backed by video and digital surveillance, a model pushed furthest in China and exported to countries, again one thinks of Afghanistan where the Taliban government hope to cement coercive control by video surveillance.

Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)

  1. Abdourahme Nasser,  Spatial collisions and discordant temporalities : Everyday life between camp and checkpoint , International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 35, no 2, 2016, p. 453-461 ↩︎
  2. Aee Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni et Sari Hanafi, The Power of Inclusive Exclusion : Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Ocupied Palestinian Territories, Zone Books, New York, 2009 ↩︎
  3. Ruben Andersson,  Profits and predation in the human bioeconomy, Public Culture, vol. 30, no 3, 2018, p. 413-439. ↩︎
  4. cf. Carl Schmitt Nomos de la Terre PUF 2001 p.83 ↩︎