Professor Achille Mbembe's Address at the 2018 Holberg Debate

Publisert 07.01.2019
The Holberg Prize is delighted to be able to publish the written version of Prof. Achille Mbembe's address, given at the Holberg Debate on 1 December, 2018, in Bergen, Norway.

The Holberg Debate 2018

First of all, I would like to genuinely thank Sigmund, Ole, Solveig, Ellen and the Holberg Prize team not only for inviting me here, but also for making me feel welcome.

I was at the center of a rather unfortunate incident at the airport in Bergen when I landed here two days ago, the details of which I will spare you from. Suffice it to mention that in spite of the perfectly legal nature of my brief presence in your country, I was subjected to a thorough racial profiling by three police officers.

I mention this incident (and please do not take it personally) - not only because you have the right to know how certain classes of people are daily treated at the borders of your country, or the price they may be requested to pay for your generosity and kind hospitality, but also because this incident is significant of the general temperament of our times. As such, I judge it to be highly relevant to the kind of  issues we are called upon to reflect upon here, this afternoon.

Indeed, there are different conceptualizations of affect. But there is a peculiar kind of affect I would like to call ‘racist affect’, which is definitely a key component of the current world climate or, if you want, world atmosphere and I use these two terms “climate” and “atmosphere” purposefully. 

Racist affect is partly about how negative and dark emotions circulate between bodies taken as signs of strangeness.

The work racist affect does is to isolate such bodies, to tear  them apart from other bodies until a point where this separation and this tearing apart reaches a moment of maximal intensity.

In the current climate and atmosphere, we can witness such moments of maximal intensity at various borders of our world.

Racist affect is about the disrupting encounter with a body that is not mine, a face that is not mine, a body and a face whose difference or alterity vividly interpellates me, a body and a face I refuze to recognize as made in the image of my own body and of my own face; a face and a body which profoundly disturbs me, even shocks me, to the point where in relation to it, I am likely to always act irrationally, I am likely to always act compulsively and in a destructive manner.

This compulsion to act in a destructive manner, this wilful misrecognition of the other’s face, this urge to mistreat the other’s body, to inflict injury to the self of the other - this is the kind of job our three policemen were performing at the border, or to put it precisely, this is the job they are expected to perform at most of the borders of Europe today, tracking and racially profiling.

Two days ago I happened to be their target, but of course, it could have been any other person with a skin like mine.

I mention all of this because - and this is the second kind of affect typical of the current world climate and atmosphere - I mention all of this because one of the major contradictions of liberal democratic order has always been the tension between freedom and security.

Today, this question seems to have been resolved. Security nowadays matters more than freedom.

Now, the fact is that a society of security is not necessarily a society of freedom.

A society of security is a society dominated by the irrepressible need for adherence to a collection of myths taken for certainties. It is a society that is fundamentally fearful of the truth; fearful of the unknown and ultimately fearful of itself. It is this deep-seated fear of itself that is then projected outside to whoever stands as its opposite.

This is why in a society of security, the priority is, at all cost, to identify what lurks behind each new arrival - who is who, who lives where, with whom and since when, who does what, who comes from where, who is going where, when, how, why, and so on and so forth. 

The aim of a society of security is not to affirm freedom, but to control and govern the modes of arrival, of public appearance.

The current myth claims that technology constitutes the best tool for governing these arrivals  or these modes of public appearance. For the time being, strangers, migrants and refugees are bearing the brunt of it. In the long run, it is by no means certain that they will be the only ones.

Racist affect is, paradoxically, governed by the affect of fear - the fear of the powerful when the mighty and the powerful meets vulnerable or powerless or unarmed people, people they can easily victimize, or victimize with impunity.

It manifests itself in the context of asymmetrical encounters, that is, encounters where power and the weight of arbitrariness it carries are concentrated on one side, while the other side is caught in a structural state of vulnerability.

Such encounters, I would like to argue, have become the norm, a constituent feature of these times of ours; of this peculiar moment our world is going through, a moment for which there doesn’t yet seem to be a proper name. 

Many names are being bandied around. For some, we are back to the European 1930s. For others, we are witnessing the return of fascism.

Still for others, we are entering the Age of Dark Enlightenment, of ‘illiberal  or authoritarian’ democracies.

Since naming our time is part of what is at stake, I suggest that, in the midst of the current dread and confusion, one thing at least is clear - ours is a time of planetary entanglement.

We are, more than ever before at any other time in human history, exposed to each other.

Worldwide, the combination of ‘fast capitalism’, soft-power warfare and the saturation of the everyday by digital and computational technologies have led to the acceleration of speed and the intensification of connections.

But entanglement is not all that characterizes the now.

Indeed, wherever we look, the drive is simultaneously and decisively towards contraction, containment and enclosure

Typical of this triple logic of contraction, containment and enclosurer is the development has been the erection, worldwide, of all kinds of walls and fortifications, gates and enclaves - in other words, various practices of partitioning space, of offshoring and fencing off wealth, of splintering territories, of fragmenting spaces, saddling them with various kinds of borders so as to better control movement and speed, accelerating it here, decelerating it there and in the process, sorting, recategorizing, reclassifying people with the goal of better selecting anew who is whom, who should be where and who shouldn’t - all in the name of security.

For their full deployment, affects need infrastructures. The border is one such key infrastructure sustaining the proliferation of racist affect in our contemporary world.

As a result, borders are increasingly the name we should use to describe the organised racial violence that underpins both contemporary capitalism and our world order in general.

And as it happens, physical and virtual barriers of separation, digitalisation of databases, filing systems, the development  of new tracking devices, sensors, drones, satellites and sentinel robots, infrared detectors and various other cameras, biometric controls, and new micro chips containing personal details - everything is put in place to transform the very nature of the border; to turn the border into a mobile, portable and omnipresent, ubiquitous reality; to turn the skin itself into a liability, race playing here a crucial role.

Technological Escalation

This is therefore a moment in which technological escalation is resulting in the creation of a segmented planet of multiple speeds.

Let me now turn to my second observation which has to do with technological escalation and the kind of subjects it seems to produce, or the kind of affect it seems to generate.

First of all, it is a fact that unprecedented numbers of human beings are today embedded in increasingly complex technostructures while significantly intervening in the dynamics of the Earth system on a planetary scale.

This has led to the transgression of planetary boundaries such as those related to anthropogenic climate change, degenerative land-use change, accelerated biodiversity loss, perturbation of the global biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, and the creation and release of novel entities such as nanoparticles and genetically engineered organisms (Jonathan F. Donges and al., “The technosphere in Earth system analysis: a coevolutionary perspective”).

Second, it is true that technologies are becoming more and more tied in complex networks of extraction and predation.

Take, for instance, what is going on in the domain of genes and molecules.

The genetic codes of humans, plants, and animals has been cracked. This, in turn, has given way to an exponential rise of biological patents. Nearly 20% of the human genome is now privately owned.

Life itself is increasingly seen as  a commodity to be manipulated and replicated, while corporations are intervening directly in the natural cycles of life and ecosystems through the widespread genetic modification of key elements in the food chain.

Thus, to some extent, there is a shifting distribution of powers between the human and the technological in the sense that technologies are moving towards “general intelligence” and self-replication.

 

To all of this, we have to add what is going on in the field of knowledge where, along with the predominance of statistical forms of reasoning, we have witnessed the development of algorithmic forms of intelligence growing in parallel with genetic research, and often in alliance with it.

The integration of algorithms and big data analysis in the biological sphere brings with it a greater belief in technopositivism and the idea that everything is computable, everything can be turned into a data, or a code.

So, a dominant affect of our times is the belief that everything is potentially computable and predictable.

It is the belief that the fundaments of truth can now better be expressed in the form of algorithmic thinking by machines of different kinds capable of making decisions.

Of course this new state of being has dramatic consequences on the future of knowledge and the future of democracy itself.

As far as knowledge is concerned, we have reached a point where knowledge is increasingly defined as knowledge for the market.

Since markets themselves are increasingly turning into algorithmic structures, the only useful knowledge today is supposed to be algorithmic.

As a result of the conflation of knowledge, computation and markets, contempt has been extended to anyone who has nothing to sell and nothing to buy, or anything that cannot be bought.

The Enlightenment notion of the rational subject capable of deliberation and choice is gradually replaced by the consciously deliberating and choosing consumer.

Then we should factor in the quasi-hallucinatory power unleashed by contemporary computational technologies.

One of the many functions of computational media and digital technologies is to format as many minds as possible, to shape people’s desires, to recraft their symbolic world, blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, truth and lies and, eventually, to colonize their unconscious.

As such,  I think, these technologies have, maybe in spite of their originary intention, become key devices in the dissemination of micro-fascism in the interstices of the real.

Computational technologies and social media make us believe that there can be a world without opacity, a translucent world transparent to itself, without any nocturnal attribute.

To some extent, a different kind of human entangled with objects is therefore being constituted through and within digital technologies and new media forms. This is not at all the liberal individual who, not so long ago, we believed could be the subject of democracy.

New media forms have not only lifted the lid previous cultural eras had put on the unconscious. They have become the new infrastructures of the unconscious.

Yesterday, human sociality consisted in keeping a tab on the unconscious. For the social to thrive at all meant exercising vigilance on ourselves, or delegating to specific authorities the right to enforce such vigilance. This was called repression.

Repression’s main function was to set the conditions for sublimation. Not all desires could be fulfilled. Not everything could be said or enacted. The capacity to limit oneself was the essence of one’s freedom and the freedom of all.

Partly thanks to new media forms and the post-repressive era it has unleashed, the unconscious can now roam free.

Sublimation is no longer necessary. The content is in the form and the form is beyond, or in excess of, the content. We are now led to believe that mediation is no longer necessary.

Direct, originary experience is the new norm. This explains the growing anti-humanist stance that now goes hand in hand with a general contempt for democracy. 

To sum it up, finance capitalism and technological escalation have left in their wake a multitude of destroyed subjects, many of whom are deeply convinced that their immediate future will be one of continuous exposure to violence and existential threat.

They genuinely long for a return to some sense of certainty, the sacred, hierarchy, religion and tradition. 

They believe that nations have become akin to swamps that need to be drained and the world as it is should be brought to the end.

They believe that for this to happen, everything should be cleansed off.

They are convinced that they can only be saved in a violent struggle to restore their masculinity and virility, the loss of which they unfortunately attribute to the weaker amongst them, the weak they do not want to become.

In this context, the most successful political entrepreneurs  are increasingly those who convincingly speak to the losers, to the destroyed men and women of globalization and to their ruined identities.

In the street fight politics has become, reason hardly matters any longer. Nor do facts. Politics is in danger of reverting into an endless game of suspicion and brutal survivalism in an ultra-competitive environment.

Under such conditions, it is very difficult to see how affect, as such, can be mobilized for the benefit of a progressive and future-oriented mass politics of the left.

The transformation of the political into business raises the risk of the elimination of the very possibility of politics. Whether human civilization can give rise at all to any form of political life is the problem of the 21st-century. 

Conclusion

Neoliberalism has created the conditions for a renewed convergence, and at times fusion, between the living human being and the objects, artefacts or the technologies which supplement or augment us.

This event, which we can equate to a return to animism, is nevertheless not without danger for the idea of freedom and emancipation.

The concept of evidence has been discredited, throwing into confusion the related forms of accountability since there is no accountability without some form or other of evidence.

How do we get to the reality of reality is now at the center of public debate, as recently illustrated by the notion of a post-truth world or that of so-called alternative facts.

The main casualty of a ‘post-fact world’ is arguably democracy itself.

Democracy has no future in a fact-less world. Such a world is, by definition, hostile to the very idea of reason and of freedom.

It is also hostile to democracy understood not as ending at the borders of any national state, but as a kind of planetary and shared responsibility and agency in relation to the future of all inhabitants of the Earth, humans and other-than-humans.
 

Achille Mbembe, December 1, 2018, Bergen.

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian historian, philosopher and political theorist who specializes in African history and politics. He is Professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Mbembe is particularly well known for his work on post-colonialism and race.

This speech was delivered at the December 1, 2018, Holberg Debate. The topic was "Politics and Affects: The Dynamics of Social Mobilization". In addition to Prof. Mbeme, the panellists included Prof. Kathleen Cleaver and Mr. George Galloway. The event was moderated by Ms. Martine Dennis. Video of the entire event is available below.