Critique of Black Reason

Critique of Black Reason


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Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe

In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness—from the Atlantic slave trade to the present—to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity. Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world's center of gravity while mapping the relations among colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital. Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression. Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion. With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822363439
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/10/2017
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 782,421
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Achille Mbembe is Research Professor in History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is coeditor of Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, also published by Duke University Press, and the author of On the Postcolony as well as several books in French.

Laurent Dubois is Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and Director of the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University.

Read an Excerpt

Critique of Black Reason

By Achille Mbembe, Laurent Dubois

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7323-0



The pages that follow deal with "Black reason." By this ambiguous and polemical term I mean to identify several things at once: forms of knowledge; a model of extraction and depredation; a paradigm of subjection, including the modalities governing its eradication; and, finally, a psycho-oneiric complex. Like a kind of giant cage, Black reason is in truth a complicated network of doubling, uncertainty, and equivocation, built with race as its chassis.

We can speak of race (or racism) only in a fatally imperfect language, gray and inadequate. Let it suffice to say, for now, that race is a form of primal representation. Unable to distinguish between the outside and the inside, between envelopes and their contents, it sends us, above all, back to surface simulacra. Taken to its limit, race becomes a perverse complex, a generator of fears and torments, of disturbed thoughts and terror, but especially of infinite sufferings and, ultimately, catastrophe. In its phantasmagoric dimensions, it is a sign of neurosis — phobic, obsessive, at times hysterical. Otherwise, it is what reassures itself by hating, deploying dread, and practicing altruicide: the constitution of the Other not as similar to oneself but as a menacing object from which one must be protected or escape, or which must simply be destroyed if it cannot be subdued. As Frantz Fanon has noted, "race" is also the name for bitter resentment and the irrepressible desire for vengeance. "Race" is the name for the rage of those who, constrained by subjection, suffer injuries, all manner of violations and humiliations, and bear countless wounds.We will therefore ask, in this book, about the nature of this resentment. We will provide an account of what race does, of its depth, at once real and fictive, and of the relationships through which it expresses itself. And we will examine the gesture of race that, notably in the case of people of African origin, consists in dissolving human beings into things, objects, and merchandise.

Fantasy and the Closing of the Spirit

It may seem surprising to resort to the concept of race, at least in the way that it is sketched out here. In fact, race does not exist as a physical, anthropological, or genetic fact. But it is not just a useful fiction, a phantasmagoric construction, or an ideological projection whose function is to draw attention away from conflicts judged to be more real — the struggle between classes or genders, for example. In many cases race is an autonomous figure of the real whose force and density can be explained by its characteristic mobility, inconstancy, and capriciousness. It wasn't all that long ago, after all, that the world was founded on an inaugural dualism that sought justification in the old myth of racial superiority. In its avid need for myths through which to justify its power, the Western world considered itself the center of the earth and the birthplace of reason, universal life, and the truth of humanity. The most "civilized" region of the world, the West alone had invented the "rights of the people." It alone had succeeded in constituting a civil society of nations understood as a public space of legal reciprocity. It alone was at the origin of the idea that to be human was to possess civil and political rights that allowed individuals to develop private and public powers as citizens of the human race who, as such, were shaped by all that was human. And it alone had codified a range of customs accepted by different peoples that included diplomatic rituals, the rules of engagement, the right of conquest, public morality and polite behavior, and practices of business, religion, and government.

The Remainder — the ultimate sign of the dissimilar, of difference and the pure power of the negative — constituted the manifestation of existence as an object. Africa in general and Blackness in particular were presented as accomplished symbols of a vegetative, limited state. The Black Man, a sign in excess of all signs and therefore fundamentally unrepresentable, was the ideal example of this other-being, powerfully possessed by emptiness, for whom the negative had ended up penetrating all moments of existence — the death of the day, destruction and peril, the unnameable night of the world. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described such figures as statues without language or awareness of themselves, human entities incapable of ridding themselves definitively of the animal presence with which they were mixed. In fact, their nature was to contain what was already dead.

Such figures, he wrote, were the province of "a host of separate, antagonistic national Spirits who hate and fight each other to the death," dismembering and destroying themselves like animals — a kind of humanity staggering through life, confusing becoming-human and becoming-animal, and all along "unconscious of their universality." Others, more charitable, admitted that such entities were not completely devoid of humanity. They were, rather, in a state of slumber and had not yet become engaged in the adventure of what Paul Valéry called the "leap of no return." It was possible, they claimed, to raise them up to our level, and shouldering that burden did not grant the right to take advantage of their inferiority. On the contrary, it was Europe's duty to help and protect them. This made the colonial enterprise a fundamentally "civilizing" and "humanitarian" enterprise. The violence that was its corollary could only ever be moral.

European discourse, both scholarly and popular, had a way of thinking, of classifying and imagining distant worlds, that was often based on modes of fantasizing. By presenting facts, often invented, as real, certain, and exact, it evaded what it claimed to capture and maintained a relationship to other worlds that was fundamentally imaginary, even as it sought to develop forms of knowledge aimed at representing them objectively. The essential qualities of the imaginary relationship remain to be elucidated, but the procedures that enabled the work of fantasy to take shape, as well as the violence that resulted from it, are now sufficiently well known. At this point, there are very few things we can add. But if there is one space in which the imaginary relationship and the fictional economy undergirding it existed in their most brutal, distinct, and obvious form, it is in the sign that we call Blackness and, as if by ricochet, in the seeming outer zone that we call Africa, both of which are fated to be not common nouns, or even proper nouns, but rather mere indicators of an absence of achievement.

Clearly, not all Blacks are Africans, and not all Africans are Blacks. But it matters little where they are located. As objects of discourse and objects of knowledge, Africa and Blackness have, since the beginning of the modern age, plunged the theory of the name as well as the status and function of the sign and of representation into deep crisis. The same was true of the relation between being and appearance, truth and falsehood, reason and unreason, even language and life. Every time it confronted the question of Blacks and Africa, reason found itself ruined and emptied, turning constantly in on itself, shipwrecked in a seemingly inaccessible place where language was destroyed and words themselves no longer had memory. Language, its ordinary functions extinguished, became a fabulous machine whose power resided in its vulgarity, in its remarkable capacity for violation, and in its indefinite proliferation. Still today, as soon as the subject of Blacks and Africa is raised, words do not necessarily represent things; the true and the false become inextricable; the signification of the sign is not always adequate to what is being signified. It is not only that the sign is substituted for the thing. Word and image often have little to say about the objective world. The world of words and signs has become autonomous to such a degree that it exists not only as a screen possessed by its subject, its life, and the conditions of its production but as a force of its own, capable of emancipating itself from all anchoring in reality. That this is the case must be attributed, to a large extent, to the law of race.

It would be a mistake to believe that we have left behind the regime that began with the slave trade and flourished in plantation and extraction colonies. In these baptismal fonts of modernity, the principle of race and the subject of the same name were put to work under the sign of capital. This is what distinguishes the slave trade and its institutions from indigenous forms of servitude. Between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the spatial horizon of Europe expanded considerably. The Atlantic gradually became the epicenter of a new concatenation of worlds, the locus of a new planetary consciousness. The shift into the Atlantic followed European attempts at expansion in the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores, and the islands of Cape Verde and culminated in the establishment of a plantation economy dependent on African slave labor.

The transformation of Spain and Portugal from peripheral colonies of the Arab world into the driving forces of European expansion across the Atlantic coincided with the flow of Africans into the Iberian Peninsula itself. They contributed to the reconstruction of the Iberian principalities in the wake of the Black Death and the Great Famine of the fourteenth century. Most were slaves, but certainly not all. Among them were freemen. Slaves had previously been supplied to the peninsula via trans-Saharan routes controlled by the Moors. Around 1440 the Iberians opened up direct contact with West and Central Africa via the Atlantic Ocean. The first public sale of Black victims captured in a raid took place in Portugal in 1444. The number of "captives" increased substantially between 1450 and 1500, and the African presence grew as a consequence. Thousands of slaves disembarked in Portugal each year, destabilizing the demographic equilibrium of certain Iberian cities. Such was the case in Lisbon, Seville, and Cádiz, where nearly 10 percent of the population was African at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Most were assigned to agricultural and domestic work. Once the conquest of the Americas began, Afro-Iberians and African slaves could be found among ship's crews, at commercial outposts, on plantations, and in the urban centers of the empire. They participated in different military campaigns (in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Florida) and in 1519 were among Hernán Cortés's regiments when they invaded Mexico.

After 1492 the triangular trade transformed the Atlantic into an entangled economy connecting Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. Relatively autonomous regions became interconnected, part of a vast Oceanic-Continental formation. The new multi-hemispheric ensemble engendered a series of transformations without parallel in the history of the world. People of African origin were at the heart of new and frenzied dynamics of coming and going, from one side to the other of the same ocean, from the slave ports of West and Central Africa to those in the Americas and Europe. The economy on which the new structure of circulation was based required colossal capital. It also involved the transfer of metals, agricultural products, and manufactures, alongside the dissemination of knowledge, the circulation of cultural practices that were previously unknown, and the development of insurance, accounting, and finance. The increasing traffic of religions, languages, technologies, and cultures set in motion new processes of creolization. Black consciousness during early capitalism emerged in part within this dynamic of movement and circulation. It was the product of a tradition of travel and displacement, one rooted in a logic that denationalized the imagination. Such processes of denationalization continued through the middle of the twentieth century and marked most of the great movements of Black emancipation.

Between 1630 and 1780, far more Africans than Europeans disembarked in Great Britain's Atlantic colonies. In this sense the height of Black presence within the British Empire was at the end of the eighteenth century. Ships leaving the slave forts and ports of West Africa and the Bay of Biafra with human cargoes deposited their wares in Jamaica and the United States. But alongside the macabre commerce in slaves, whose only objective was profit, was the movement of free Africans, the new colonists — the "black poor" in England, or refugees from the War of Independence in the United States who left Newfoundland, Virginia, or Carolina to settle in the new colonies of Africa itself, such as Sierra Leone.

The transnationalization of the Black condition was therefore a constitutive moment for modernity, with the Atlantic serving as its incubator. The Black condition incorporated a range of contrasting states and statuses: those sold through the transatlantic slave trade, convict laborers, subsistence slaves (whose lives were spent as domestics), feudal slaves, house slaves, those who were emancipated, and those who were born slaves. Between 1776 and 1825, Europe lost most of its American colonies as a result of revolutions, independence movements, and rebellions. Afro-Latins played an eminent role in the constitution of the Iberian-Hispanic empires. They served not only as servile laborers but also as ship's crewmen, explorers, officers, settlers, property owners, and, in some cases, freemen who owned slaves. In the anticolonial uprisings of the nineteenth century that resulted in the dissolution of empire, they played diverse roles as soldiers and leaders of political movements. The collapse of the imperial structures of the Atlantic world and the rise of new nation-states transformed the relationships between metropoles and colonies. A class of Creole Whites asserted and consolidated their influence. Old questions of heterogeneity, difference, and liberty were once again posed, with new elites using the ideology of mestizaje to deny and disqualify the racial question. The contribution of Afro-Latins and Black slaves to the historical development of South America has been, if not erased, at least severely obscured.

The case of Haiti was crucial from this standpoint. The country's declaration of independence came in 1804, only twenty years after that of the United States, and it marked a turning point in the modern history of human emancipation. Over the course of the eighteenth century — the age of Enlightenment — the colony of Saint-Domingue was the classic example of a plantocracy, a hierarchical social, political, and economic order led by a relatively small number of rival White groups ruling in the midst of freemen of color and those of mixed heritage and over a large majority of slaves, more than half of them born in Africa. In contrast to other independence movements, the Haitian Revolution was the result of an insurrection of the enslaved. It resulted, in 1805, in one of the most radical constitutions of the New World. It outlawed nobility, instituted freedom of religion, and attacked the two concepts of property and slavery, something that the American Revolution had not dared to do. Not only did the new Haitian Constitution abolish slavery. It also authorized the confiscation of lands belonging to French settlers, decapitating most of the dominant class along the way. It abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate birth and pushed then-revolutionary ideas of racial equality and universal liberty to their ultimate conclusion.

In the United States, the first Black slaves disembarked in 1619. On the eve of the revolution against the English, there were more than 500,000 slaves in the rebel colonies. In 1776 about five thousand enlisted as soldiers on the side of the Patriots, even though most of them were not considered citizens. The struggle against British domination and the fight against the slave system went hand in hand for most. Yet nearly ten thousand slaves in Georgia and South Carolina deserted plantations to join the English troops. Others fought for their own liberation by escaping into swamps and forest. At the end of the war, roughly fourteen thousand Blacks, some of them now free, were evacuated from Savannah, Charleston, and New York and transported to Florida, Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and, later, Africa. The anticolonial revolution against the English gave rise to a paradox: on the one hand, the expansion of the spheres of liberty for Whites and, on the other, an unprecedented consolidation of the slave system. To a large extent, the planters of the South had bought their freedom with the labor of slaves. Because of the existence of servile labor, the United States largely avoided class divisions within the White population, divisions that would have led to internal power struggles with incalculable consequences.

Over the course of the Atlantic period briefly described here, the small province of the planet that is Europe gradually gained control over the rest of the world. In parallel, particularly during the eighteenth century, there emerged discourses of truth relating to nature, the specificity and forms of the living, and the qualities, traits, and characteristics of human beings. Entire populations were categorized as species, kinds, or races, classified along vertical lines.


Excerpted from Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe, Laurent Dubois. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Translator's Introduction  ix
Acknowledgments  xvii
Introduction. The Becoming Black of the World  1
1. The Subject of Race  10
2. The Well of Fantasies  38
3. Difference and Self-Determination  78
4. The Little Secret  103
5. Requiem for the Slave  129
6. The Clinic of the Subject  131
Epilogue. There Is Only One World  179
Notes  185
Index 209

What People are Saying About This

Dipesh Chakrabarty

"With Critique of Black Reason, Achille Mbembe reaffirms his position as one of the most original and significant thinkers of our times working out of Francophone traditions of anti-imperial and postcolonial criticism. His voyages in this book through a painstakingly assembled archive of empire, race, slavery, blackness, and liberation—an archive that Mbembe both reconfigures and interrogates at the same time—produce profound moments of reflection on the origin and nature of modernity and its mutations in the contemporary phase of global capital. A tour de force that will renew debates on capital, race, and freedom in today's world."

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

"Achille Mbembe has placed the discourse of ‘Africa’ squarely in the center of both postmodernism and continental philosophy. Every page of this signifying riff on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is a delight to read. African philosophy is currently enjoying a renaissance, and Mbembe is to its continental pole what Kwame Anthony Appiah is to its analytical pole. Every student of postmodernist theory should read this book."

Paul Gilroy

"Achille Mbembe speaks authoritatively for black life, addressing the whole world in an increasingly distinctive tone of voice. This long-anticipated book resounds with the embattled, southern predicament from which its precious shards of wisdom originate. There is nothing provincial about the philosopher’s history it articulates. Mbembe sketches the entangled genealogies of racism and black thought on their worldly travels from the barracoons and the slave ships, through countless insurgencies, into the vexed mechanisms of decolonization and then beyond them, into our own bleak and desperate circumstances."

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