Achille Mbembe. | Foto: Erick Christian Ahounou

Achille Mbembe - “Why do we believe that difference is a problem?”

In an interview, the Cameroonian philosopher talks about xenophobia, nationalism, the place of the foreigner, the dangers of “single cultures” and spaces for articulating difference.

Mr. Mbembe, my first observation has to do with the question of difference.

The question is: What do we mean by difference? Why is it so naturalized? And what are we to do with difference? The premise here is that difference has to be recognized, accepted, and at the same time transcended. So the assumption is – not only in the world we live in today, but also at earlier periods of our human history – that difference is a problem that needs to be dealt with. So the first move one might want to make is to question that assumption. Why is it that we believe that difference is a problem? Why is it just not a state of fact? Difference is a problem only if we believe that sameness is the normal state of things. Difference became a political and cultural problem from the moment the violent contact between people, through conquest, colonialism and racism, led some to believe that they were better than others. The moment we start making classifications, institutionalizing hierarchies in the name of difference, pretending that differences are natural and not constructed, believing that they are unchangeable and therefore legitimate, we are in trouble.

And some perhaps are not only seen as better, but different in the sense that they think that everybody has to be like me?

Indeed the assumption is that everybody has to be “like me.” And whoever is not like me has a problem or, more precisely, is a problem. There is something wrong with him or her. In order to build a common world, we cannot start with questions such as: “Why are they not like me?” “Why don’t they behave like me?” “Why do they worship funny gods?”. We have to start with a common embrace of singularity and originality. Difference is that which I am missing. We need to get out of that conundrum whereby we institute ourselves as the norm against which everything else is either abnormal, deviant and therefore problematic. The power to institute what counts as the norm has to be equally redistributed. So is the capacity to contest the norm.

Otherwise, most of the time, difference comes under various names. It comes under the name of “tradition”, of “culture”, of “religion”, of “gender” or “race”, etc… Under certain circumstances, some embrace difference in the sense of wanting to preserve their ways of being, or what they call their ways of life. they believe that such ways of life are under threat. The threat is coming from outside, or from outsiders who have been transformed into insiders. And to protect oneself from this threat requires the expulsioof the outsider. Others use difference strategically, either as a way to secure rights they would not otherwise have or as a way to justify granting such rights to entire groups of people. Difference mostly matters in terms of the kind of use it is put to, by whom and with what effect.

People say there might be basic human rights, but then some cultures make it clear that women, for instance, have fewer rights, or are not supposed to be as free, or be looked at as men.

Nowadays, the term “culture” is often used to assert the impossibility of change. Many use this term to refer to biological supremacism. In such cases, we are dealing with ideological justifications of existing relations of power and domination. These are clumsy justifications of privileges of either power or status. Culture is fundamentally about becoming. It is about creativity, indeterminacy and transformation. It is not about pastness, fixed essences and customs.

Many use culture as a way of asserting established divisions, be they gender divisions, racial divisions or religious divisions. The fact is that many who argue like that would not want to be treated like women used to be treated or are still treated today in most conservative parts of the world. Many whites wouldn’t want to be treated like blacks were treated under segregation or in this age of the prison-industrial complex in America. Many Westerners would not want to be treated the way Muslims are treated nowadays in Euro-America. So, to wish for somebody else a treatment I would find abhorrent if it were applied to me and to try to justify this in the name of culture, tradition or religion is a form of imposture. We should not wish for the others what we would not wish for ourselves.

Would you say that if cultures cannot be stabilized, or fixed, and if it is possible to develop cultures through exchange, through influences from other cultures, wouldn’t there in the end be no differences any more? And we would end up having one single culture? Do you think that this could be the result of globalization? And since we know that difference is essential, would it not be very important to stick to the differences and to the individual cultures – meaning preserving them?

The idea of a single culture is a bad and dangerous idea. People have a huge investment in differences. Would we manage to believe in the same God, speak the same language, eat the same food, sing the same songs, play the same instruments, I am sure that this would not be the end. They would go and exhume some lost accents. Once again, a world of singularities is not a bad thing. Problems begin when we start legislating about difference, assigning positions on the basis of such arbitrary designations, discriminating on the basis of what often amounts to sheer prejudice. But I am afraid, in this age of generalized enmity, many only want to live among themselves. The desire for Apartheid has never been so overwhelming. History itself is being naturalized again. Difference is no longer about originality and singularity. It is all about separation, building walls, militarizing boundaries, immunizing bodies against external threats, real and manufactured.

So is it a basic need to be different?

It is probably if not a basic need, at least a deep instinct or drive for individuals as well as for larger entities. I do not think the desire for difference can ever be eradicated. It is probably a deep structure of what it means to be a human being. But to aspire to singularity is not the same as cultivating difference. It is not the same thing as instituting difference as something that is absolute, something one would want to die for or kill for. The world we live in today is one in which you will find many people who would rather die or kill in the name of difference than be willing to risk their existence or life in the name of sameness. We are in danger of completely losing sight of what we have in common. Not even the actual threat of ecological extinction has been able to wake us up from the dogmatic sleep of difference. And, as far as I am concerned, that is troubling.

Who decides where the balance is between sameness and the desire for difference? And what are the instruments to keep this balance, especially if you deal with cultures?

The obvious and subterranean forces pushing for some kind of homogenization are extremely powerful. Market forces and the kind of capitalism we are experimenting with in this phase of human history are powerful vectors in this regard. They accelerate the new dialectics of homogenization and difference. A number of universalistic religions - certain forms of Islam, of Pentecostalism – are driven by strong homogenizing forces. The biggest religion - the commodity - is definitely such a force. So we cannot underestimate those processes. Difference is the equivalent of today unconscious.

And there is another point to be addressed and this relates to the idea of human rights. I think it is a concept that is in crisis: the concept of human rights. Not only because the ideology of human rights is manipulated today by all sorts of people. It is part of a global struggle for hegemony. So I will easily accuse my enemies of violating human rights while conveniently forgetting the ways in which I myself am involved in their not being taken seriously. And the selective use of the ideology of human rights to achieve geopolitical goals is something we all know about very well. But the crisis I am referring to is even more important, because there is no agreement today about what constitutes the human. Is the human purely a kind of natural accident, or is it more than an accident of nature?

Which role do you think culture would play in this?

Cultural acts or cultural practices will have to be invented that attend to an all-encompassing vision of rights. We will probably have to start from the assumption that our planet is populated by a bit more than just humans. Humans cannot have a monopoly of rights to the Planet. Democracy itself, at least in its Western incarnation, has been but a democracy of those who look alike. For cultural creativity to play a role in the recalibrations that are urgently needed, we will need to think beyond the human as such.

We will need to think in terms of the living more generally. What that kind of vision calls for is a set of new cultural practices, the aim of which would therefore be to foster that kind of openness to the entirety of our world, of the world we inhabit, and it would be less about the preservation of what we think our origins or our specificities are, but something that has to do more with the care, the kind of ethics of care, and ethics of openness towards the unknown. Because for the time being we imagine traditions or cultures not as something we know. We know what they are and want to protect them, defend them and preserve them.

And they are property.

An exit from a proprietary understanding of culture is urgently needed. It must come with a conscious embrace of the faraway and the unknown and therefore the creation of different dispositions and sensibilities seems to me to be absolutely necessary.

This has to come out of one’s own cultural sphere, because if it’s coming from a different culture triggering something new, then you will have a clash, or at least you wouldn’t achieve acceptance.

Examples from Africa seem to suggest otherwise. What is striking here is the capacity of people to mobilize indigenous cultural resources in order to embrace what is new, whether it comes from outside or not. Take for instance religions, systems of government, market economies. Africa is an extraordinary laboratory. Here, people have shown an amazing capacity of ingesting a lot of things that were not of their own making. They have turned them into things that are of use for them and it would be somewhat lazy to conclude that in so doing, they have only shown the extent of their alienation. A different logic has been at work in this laboratory - the logic of composition as opposed to that of boundaries.

This having been said, in a world in which racism is more and more centered upon culture while biological justifications of racism are re-emerging, we need to be extra-careful. In the name of, say, the “emancipation of women”, “gender development” and “reproductive rights”, we cannot be blind to the slippage between the promotion of human rights and the exercise of cultural domination or the perpetuation of global hierarchies.

But let’s come back to difference. Questioning specific cultures or traditions is of course essential for development. But can it not also lead to clashes? Terrible things happen in the name of culture.

Indeed terrible things happen in the name of culture. Clashes happen when a powerful entity goes around and starts defining as “culture” or “civilisation” what, in fact, is but a partial rendition of human experience. Clashes start when we take it upon ourselves to impose onto others what, in fact, is a local language. This is what happened with colonialism.

But how could you trigger it from the inside?

It can come from the inside, because those things have always been contested. The discourse of the big, powerful men, justifying why they do what they do in the name of culture, that discourse has always been there, but there are counter-discourses if one examines the archaeology of those formations. You will find all sorts of forms of counter-discourses and counter narratives in fables, in songs, in sculptures. There has always been a culture of dissidence, the history of which we tend to have forgotten, so I would argue that a rediscovery of those sedimented layers of dissidence is the first step for anyone who wants to provoke a transformation from within.

A kind of transformation that cannot be immediately dismissed as something that is foreign. The best example is that homosexuality is something that is un-African; and that is not true at all. It does not come from outside. But that’s where the work of knowledge and critical knowledge becomes extremely important to fertilize new movements and especially to open up the realm of the imagination, the thinking that even if things were like that before, it does not mean they should always be like that. But we can imagine it creates something completely new and radically new and it is that kind of aspiration to create something radically new that has to be cultivated instead of the attachments to small differences. But to do that you of course need social movements, you need people who are organized. You need institutions.

Whether it is actually a cultural effort to accept the transcendence and difference, or if it’s not the contrary, meaning that we might not want to accept and transcend the difference and culture is actually the way to preserve the difference.

The recognition of difference requires cultural effort, but it also requires political work, institutional work, especially in contexts such as the one in South Africa. But I am thinking of other contexts as well, in which difference is used as leverage to institute relations of inequality and injustice. And this culture is deployed as other instruments of transformation in the political area, in terms of equality in the economic area, in terms of addressing the question of maldistribution. Institutionally in terms of equal access to resources of citizenship for men, women, blacks, whites and so forth.

Cultural expression needs difference, because it derives from difference, otherwise it would not have developed. But we also said that cultural expression can be the vehicle for resolving crisis, the start of the dialogue, because difference is interesting. So, on the one hand, we might say that cultures are the reason for clashes and on the other hand, they may be the way forward, to find common ground for sharing spaces. I would be interested in the ways, in which formats, through which ideas this kind of positive approach of trying to achieve a dialogue could be addressed?

In one way it is addressed through knowledge - knowledge of the contested nature and meanings of various forms of cultural expressions. What is usually described as “the clash of cultures” or the “clash of civilizations” is nothing but the clash of ignorance. Deep knowledge is necessary because understanding can only be the result of knowledge. But knowledge in and of itself is not enough. It’s not because we know that we will necessarily agree. And I really do not believe that the ultimate goal should be agreement at all costs. The ultimate goal should be to allow for as many manifestations of the human as possible. And therefore the task of a democratic society is to provide a space where this pluralism is expressed and is lived. The problem arises when we have a conflict of values and when the state in particular has to adjudicate between different value claims.

So, in what way, in your view, can this knowledge be achieved through the acceptance of others?

Knowledge itself is contested, of course. But at least people can agree on a set of facts even if their interpretation is an entirely different matter. For instance, no one will contest the fact that some Muslim women are veiled, but they will contest the meaning assigned to the act of veiling oneself. It is also a fact that not everybody will agree with a decision such as banning the veil in public spaces. But I also think that that conflict of interpretations is absolutely fine. Cultural difference becomes problematic the moment a judgment is made to the effect of classification or hierarchization, to the effect of saying: what you do is not normal and therefore you should change it and do it the way I do it. That’s what the colonial definition of culture amounted to. It amounted to the fact that I come here and I think that the way you do things is not modern, it is primitive and it is irrational and it has to change. You have to stop doing things the way you do them, and do them the way I tell you to do it. That is when we have clashes. Culture cannot be a matter of determinism.

What would you do to make somebody accept –for instance in France - that women are not allowed to cover their hair, without having prejudices, without thinking this is something that curtails your freedom. Because forbidding it is obviously not working.

There is strictly no reason why women who wish to cover their hair shouldn’t be allowed to do so. What I do or don’t do with my hair is, strictly speaking, nobody’s business. In such matters the law is of course important. But the law is limited when it comes to matters of culture, meaning matters of value. It’s very difficult to legislate on matters of value, interpretation and meaning. What the law usually does is to try to close the space of deliberation and we know very well that in trying to close the space of deliberation the law usually simply introduces changes to the terms of the contestation. So what is really important is to keep that field of deliberation open. Next to that of course everything else is subsidiary. To change other people’s mind through cinema, through literature, through music, through the arts is important, but what is most important is to keep open the space of artculations of different possibilities of being.

So it is a kind of multiculturalism and the right to live it, without hindering each other? Is there a place on this Earth where this happens?

In fact, there have been very few closed societies including societies that try to define themselves as homogeneous. There has hardly ever been such a thing as a closed society. So we do have in the history of humankind a huge archive of cohabitation or coexistence, entanglement and intermingling. This is what empires were all about. This is what some religions allow. I would argue that to some extent, humanity has a very deep tradition of ecumenism, which we have not excavated as we could.

So the problem comes from the contradiction between democracy and nationalism. When nationalism supersedes democracy in its double character of the universal project then the cosmopolitan project and cultural differences become a problem. So the question is how to deepen democracy? The problem of human rights as a cultural problem is inseparable from democracy and the way to transcend difference is first of all to recognize it, and second to deepen democracy and a cosmopolitan ethos as opposed to nationalism and various forms of indigenism.

Of course it also has a long history of terrible conflicts, some of them deadly and bloody, but since we are speaking from within the contextual horizon of a democratic society, of human rights, it calls upon two things. On the one hand, the project of democracy, - because there is no democracy that would be divorced from the exigencies of human rights -. And on the other hand the project of a broader human community, a cosmopolitan project. Democracy fundamentally is by essence cosmopolitan.

Nationalism often does not derive from the state - is not caused by the form of the state, but often arises through indigenous culture, from the feeling of identity, of having the same culture, the same language, the same education, that you are being born in the same area, and that you have common ancestors. It leads to a kind of chauvinism that normally isn’t a good basis for democracy.

The conclusion derived from that as your commonality is always to have a state; so the combination of the nation form and the state form is not always very conducive to the kind of cosmopolitan version of the democracy we are talking about. In fact it limits, including the very idea of human rights, because a nation-state basically only imagines human rights as the rights of its citizens as opposed to the rights of non-citizens. So cultural difference is manipulated to establish a division between citizens and non-citizens, nationals and non-nationals, men and women.

This is the reason for xenophobia or for instance for the unclear status of refugees. Would movement be an alternative to the cultural stagnation of the Nation? And if so could you promote movement? I mean people move all around throughout the world. It is becoming more and more common to move back and forth. Could this lead to a kind of acceptance of the differences?

Mobility is the other. Mobility and circulation and the other, which does not mean that everyone who moves around necessarily becomes a cosmopolitan subject, but one is more likely to embrace difference when one has been exposed to other worlds and other modes of life. And therefore I believe that yes they are, because the other thing nation-states do is to try to create boundaries around themselves. So the question is to what extent the recognition of difference and transcending difference fundamentally requires a borderless world - a world without borders.

Achille Mbembe is a philosopher, historian and intellectual living in Johannesburg. The Cameroonian is a research professor at WISER, the University of the Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and is, with Felwine Sarr, the Convenor of The Ateliers de la pensee (Dakar and Saint-Louis). He obtained his PHD from the University of Sorbonne and has held appointments at Columbia University in New York, Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., Yale University, New Haven and is currently at Duke University. He has published a number of monographs in the field of post-colonial studies.

Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte studied Comparative Literature and Art History in Bonn. She has been the director of the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg and Sub-Saharan Africa for five years. Since 2013 she is the head of the Goethe-Institut in South America.

This interview is an edited version of the discussion with Achille Mbembe published in the volume “Human Rights and Culture” (Editora Steidl).