A conversation with Achille Mbembe A cultural institute needs to anticipate future developments

Achille Mbembe
Foto (Ausschnitt): Matthias Balk, picture alliance / dpa

Cameroon born political scientist and intellectual in the field of post-colonial studies Achille Mbembe speaks to Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, Director of the Goethe-Institut in Sub-Sahara Africa. 

Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte: The future of cultural institutions like the Goethe-Institut very much depends on their capability to adapt to the different processes that derive from globalisation. How can a European cultural institute deal with this? 

Achille Mbembe: It is true that we live in an epoch when the old hegemony, the Western world, exercised over the rest of the planet. When that hegemony is, if not declining, then at least in an economic crisis. If only because new economic powers are emerging, most of which are now challenging, quite seriously, western domination. But its hegemony is even more in crisis in the field of cultural production. The epicentre of global transformations is now located very firmly in the global South and in the East. It seems to me that these transformations call for new forms of engagement with foreign worlds and foreign cultures. They also call for a rethinking of cultural institutions that have to recalibrate their traditional roles in order to take into account the creative forces that are emerging in the South, in particular. As far as the Goethe-Institut is concerned, such a reappraisal has been going on for quite a while now. If only in terms of the capacity the Institut has evidenced in becoming a platform of encounter between various networks of cultural actors and institutions. The Institut will grow even stronger if it pursues more systematically that line of engagement, which implies a huge attentiveness to listening and an acuity in finding out what is new.

KvR: We still deal a lot with classical formats, like theatre, film, dance, visual arts, and of course you can build platforms with festivals. Do they still work?

AM: In certain countries traditional forms of engagement are still absolutely necessary; if only to create small nodes, sustainable nodes, of cultural activism. In places such as South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal – what strikes me is the high velocity of circulation of forms, and the huge desire from local actors to be connected to larger entities and ensembles. We will have to invent new forms of intervention, all of which aim at not only conciliating what already exists, but helping cultural creators to enter into cross-disciplinary conversations. Film enters into dialogue with music, which enters into dialogue with literature, which is regenerated by dance and by critical theory. That interdisciplinarity of genres and forms is one of the ways to the future and it requires some serious intellectual investment in analysing what’s going on and in finding out what is new, what speaks to the continent, but also to the world at large.

KvR: The theme of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism 2013 is “The Life of Forms” where you not only address existing forms, but also new forms and new formats. Will digitisation essentially change the way we deal with culture?

AM: The digital age won’t result in the obsolescence of face-to-face encounters. There is something in those human contacts, physical contacts, which is unique and will never be provided by any technology. But a digital age opens up a phase in which speed becomes an extraordinary resource. It also opens up a new era in which the way of thinking and the way of conceptualising, the way of designing things and projects, is much more flexible. And with a bigger amount of plasticity than in the earlier period. The consequences in terms of cultural or artistic creation are tremendous.

KvR: Taking this into account, will a national cultural institute like the Goethe-Institut still exist? Is there still a need for teaching the German language?

AM: Absolutely! It would be good if more people learned German. If I had, I would be able to read Hegel, Heidegger. I would have access to that philosophy, without any translation. The German language is the gift of the Germans to humanity. So the Goethe-Institut should keep teaching German. The loss of any language is a huge damage to the Human patrimony. And we should be able to move towards a world that is no longer monolingual, but a world that is multilingual in which translation is no longer necessary, because hopefully we will all be able to speak different languages.

KvR: You mentioned interdisciplinary platforms that combine theory and practice. What could these look like?

AM: They would definitely be the result of an inter-disciplinary dialogue of artists engaging with intellectuals and writers around questions of common concern. Interventions are the result of the identification of the specific issues, which are then targeted and addressed. That's what the experiment at WITS University with the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism shows us. Of course the Goethe-Institut is not a university, but has in its tradition a commitment to critical thought, critical thinking, and critical practices, which might be harnessed by all sorts of protagonists from the universities, from museums, from dance institutions – all the laboratories of cultural creativity that we see emerging in our world today.

KvR: Our work could therefore bring together the elements that we observe, which are the cultural essence of our countries?

AM: Yes, as you are doing right now. There is a forthcoming workshop organized by the Goeth- Institut titled “New Imaginaries”. You bring together urbanists, philosophers; there are people working in artistic domains, musicians, people working with digital technologies… all of this creates moments of emergency and crystallizes in one or two days the preoccupations people have in relation to where our cities are going, for instance. Those moments of crystallization are absolutely important if we want to foster not only the work of culture, but also the different connections I was referring to. This also translates in terms of what you have been publishing. I was reading the other day Afropolis, Shoe Shop, all of these things are absolutely the way we need to go.

KvR: Will the Goethe-Institut still be needed in the future to provide such spaces and support such networks?

AM: We need institutions like the Goethe-Institut. The institutions’ task is not only to facilitate various forms of encounters of people who otherwise would not be able to come together. We also need institutions that are flexible enough to allow for the unexpected – things which are emerging, which might not even have a name yet, but which are full of potentiality. So these institutions nurture those potentialities and bring them to fruition through a variety of interventions. Thirdly we need institutions whose primary function is to create spaces for the development of capabilities; capabilities in the sense of people’s ability to rely on their own strength and their own resources, intellectual as well as – if possible – financial. So institutions are not obsolete, they are not anachronistic as long as they adapt to a changing world and are able to point us to what is emerging.

KvR: The Goethe-Institut should thus be some sort of seismograph for the future. As a European institution, operating in a post-colonial environment where cultures are traumatized by perpetrators from the North, isn’t that a very sensitive situation?

AM: It’s a delicate task. One doesn’t want to repeat violent mechanisms of encounter that characterise an earlier period of history. Sensibility is important. It also has an ethical dimension. What is at play in the encounter between human beings is our capacity to recognise our own face in their own face. So there are deep political and ethical implications that have to be constantly borne in mind in the work of institutions to accomplish in the South. The best way is to really enter into those engagements with a sense of freedom too, because the trauma of the past can hamper the future. The task is to open up a different kind of future for everybody, including for the North. Through the engagement with the South we come to re-evaluate what the North is all about and what it is that our world is all about. Institutions like the Goethe-Institut are dialogic institutions that allow precisely for all these processes of memorisation to be turned into a projection into the future. So that element of futurity is absolutely essential if you want to transcend the North-South dichotomy.

KvR: You are a big soccer fan; we had the World Championships 2010 in South Africa and it is a fantastic platform not only for sports and soccer fans, but for intercultural dialogues throughout the world. What do you think about using global events to address cultural issues?

AM: We haven’t really harnessed mega events as big moments for cultural creativity. In South Africa we recently had the African Cup of Nations. It's a continental event that has attracted a lot of attention throughout Africa and even abroad. But it entirely lacked a cultural dimension. We should find ways to organize around those events a whole set of cultural activities. So in 2014 the World Cup is coming to Brazil and maybe the Goethe-Institut in Brazil might want to organize something around it which fills this lacuna. I think that sports and culture belong to the same family.

KvR: Are there other areas where cultural interventions could be effective or lead us to new dimensions?

AM: The future of the city as an idea, as well as the city as a human form is something we absolutely need to work on. Africa is on the verge of some very dramatic changes. For instance, the continent pretty soon will count more than a billion people. The demographic question is absolutely important in any reflection on the future of culture and the sheer power of numbers. The number of people who have to be housed, who have to be fed, taken care of, seems to me absolutely worthy of the most urgent attention. The other area has to do with the fact that the continent is undergoing a new historical cycle of trans-nationalization. People moving out, people coming in, people going back and forth, not limited to the question of migration as such, but a question of circulation, that it’s a continent on the move.

KvR: The African Union is trying to generate a combined identity and other regions are also trying to merge. Will the idea of a nation or a national institution vanish as we see Europe growing together more and more?

AM: No, it won’t vanish but it will be under increasing pressure. It’s not obsolete to work on a national basis, but it is not the line of the future, which will be trans-regional. One in which the channels and the flows become the main vehicle for the constitution not only of spaces, but of the entire continental public spheres. But national situations vary a lot. The nation will remain an important container and locus for action. But it will be under tremendous pressure from forces that are trans-national, trans-local and trans-regional. And that is why circulation becomes absolutely important and the power of numbersKvR: you can't concentrate big numbers at one space, they move around. They create new things, they invent new modes of conviviality, ways of resolving conflicts and making it from today to tomorrow, which is the task of culture.

KvR: A cultural institute should thus create flexible projects…

AM: An institution that is capable of anticipation; a future-orientated institution that is mobile, dealing with an object itself which is on the move constantly and that is absolutely attuned to where it is that the new is emerging in order to accompany it. But it means taking a lot of risks. Bureaucracies are heavy machines with their routines, and their lines of accountability, and commandments. They are a bit instituted for the kind of world we are entering inKvR: the mention of the digital age. And we need a kind of institution that attends to that kind of wounded motion. If there is anything about people in Africa, it's that life is movement.

KvR: Are you saying we should harness this movement?

AM: Yes. Culture is movement. It is motion. It is mobility as opposed to stagnation.

KvR: What do you think are Germany’s motives for this commitment?

AM: I think it's hope. Germany believes in the possibility of a world in which all the resources of the human mind might be harnessed and be put at the service of the entire humankind. The hope is that the best of what it supports somewhat would be available to the people in Germany. And it would help in creating an understanding between Germans and Africans, an understanding that would become an example of how different people, cultures, (and) histories can cohabit at a time when our world is driven by conflicts. But all of this is purely speculative, and probably far away from the logic of state interest, which you know is very much realistic. But I guess it is up to you Germans to answer that question.

KvR: What are your hopes?

AM: We hope that beyond money and material resources, there is a bigger idea behind it that helps us to renew what we mean by a common humanity that shares and opens up a horizon to imagine a different world. So it wouldn’t be something material, but something entirely different. Maybe that is the difference between China and GermanyKvR: They come and we give them all our natural resources. You come and give us something, but we will not give you anything in return, not of the same kind. So this is a different kind of relationship.

KvR: You give us new ideas, new creations….

AM: So let's hope that will be just as valuable as the raw materials that China is extracting.