Living in the myths of others Letter to the Germans

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe | Photo (detail): David Harrison/Buchhandel Bayern © dpa

What are the issues of concern for Achille Mbembe? In the Tageszeitung (taz), he describes his “thinking about traversing identities”.

By Achille Mbembe

I don't see myself on the dock in Germany. However, I would like to present a few keys to comprehension for all those who wish to hold a constructive debate with my work, which is only partly available in German.
In order to understand the genesis of a work and its possible inconsistencies, one must know the context of its creation and its development: what major questions does it attempt to answer, with what form of expression, in what significant debates does it intervene, what major twists and turns does it make? This applies to any intellectual product, regardless of the region or language it comes from.
Interrogation methods will not help those who really desire to understand the meaning of my approach or the content of my thinking from the perspective of an intercultural dialogue. At a time when we are looking for scapegoats, a time of excommunication and vilification, I hope that these keys will open the way to an objective debate on the greater moral and political issues on which some of us disagree.
My intellectual approach can be described as an uninterrupted journey, or rather an endless migration from one boundary to another. I call this traversing. It forces us to leave the comfort zone of the known and to consciously expose ourselves to the danger of jolting our own certainties. Thinking in this context means taking risks, including the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. Perhaps this is a characteristic of those who were born somewhere or other, left very early and never returned.

The twofold legacy of my home country Cameroon

In Cameroon, where I was born, I inherited a twofold legacy. The first came from my education in excellent Christian institutions. I was not only exposed to classical European culture. The Catholic Church, its dogmas, its catechism and its mythology became part of my imagination very early on.
This may explain why Christianity as such became the object of my thinking later on. Since I understood it above all as a construct of truth, at the beginning of my intellectual career I devoted myself first of all to the critique of the Absolute.
Not only religions are based on theologies of the Absolute, but secular powers as well, including the state in our countries. The state, colonial or as postcolonial tyranny, became the next priority object of my work.
I received the second legacy from my grandmother, a farmer's wife who was unable to read or write and who had taken part in the struggle against colonialism, losing her only son who was murdered by the French army on 13 September 1958. She introduced me to the issue of anti-colonialism and to that of repressed memories, especially the memories of the defeated in history.
From whichever point of view one looks at it, the peoples of Africa are among those who have been defeated. How does a historical community escape defeat and learn to win again? This question has occupied me since my childhood.
Of all the French colonial territories in sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroon is the only one where the demand for autonomy led to an armed conflict. The nationalist movement that had led the resistance was defeated militarily. Those who seized power following independence used the tools of the state to erase the memory of this resistance at all costs.

“With the Bible, which we did not choose for ourselves, Israel invaded our world.”

My first academic papers were about this attempt to fabricate forgetting.
This experience of erasing the memory of the defeated has played an important role in my reflections on memory politics and my analyses of the post-colonial state and contemporary manifestations of tyranny. Only gradually did I come to realise that this was by no means a feature unique to African rulers.
I should add that my grandmother also introduced me to reading the Bible. As a teenager, I found in the Bible an extraordinary universe that gradually became familiar to me. Very early on, the narrative of the Bible and the anti-colonial narrative were united in my mind, until I was even more attached to the Bible and its characters than to the Church and its dogmas, to the forgotten memory of the defeated more than to state theology, which claims for itself the monopoly on truth.

A rebellious distrust

The core of my work is a rebellious distrust tempered by a utopian vein. Those who persecute me today are unaware that I have found this utopian vein, which is based on the idea of a radical rejection of real conditions and power games, in specific traditions of Jewish thought.
When I left Cameroon to continue my studies at French universities, I already had in mind the overall themes that would determine my intellectual project for the years 1980-2000.
The first was a political critique of Christianity. I had come to understand Christianity as a dream and vision rather than as an institution with a central power.
I wanted to know what would be left of this vision if it were stripped of its dogmatic expression. Is the church with its hierarchies ultimately an expression of communion? Or can one imagine communities that do not seek to exercise power first and foremost, but to share, to serve and to care for those most in need?
Beyond the Church, I wanted to reflect on the possibility of a sense of community, of being together, of communities based not on faith and origin, but on reason and solidarity. Not on the idea of the One, but on that of diversity. Not on the absolutising of the memory of suffering and defeat, be it provisional (Christian martyrdom), but on the expectation of resurrection, that is, the hope of a different life, never fulfilled, since it is always ahead of us.
Anyone who has read Afriques indociles (1988) attentively knows that this was a key moment in this search. In order to write this book, I had to devote myself to the history of monotheisms with the utmost exactitude.

I had to comprehend to what extent monotheism in our context in Africa is defined not in opposition to polytheism as it once was in Greece, but to what is known as animism.

In my further work on this theme, I have long studied the pre-colonial African systems of thought in order to understand how the cosmos and the entire universe were an integral part of the forces of life in our societies.

What I say and write can scarcely be understood at all if one does not know that it all has its origin in the African metaphysics of the living, in the African concepts of life energy, the circulation of the worlds and the metamorphosis of the spiritual. A very large part of my thinking is rooted in these systems in which the principle of diversity takes the place of the One.

Against identity politics

Work on the memory of the defeated and the politics of memory led to La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1996), and the critique of state tyranny to De la postcolonie (Paris, Karthala, 2000). This work, by the way, does not make me a thinker of post-colonialism, as many commentators often rashly claim.

In 2001 I settled in South Africa. I lived in this country, but taught in the USA for part of the year. At the same time, I still have deep ties to France, where I often travel and where my entire work is published.
Between 2001 and 2010, my life in South Africa and the course of the world compelled me to deepen the theme of memory, no longer from the point of view of forgetting and defeat, but from that of identities suffering from their relationship to the ethics of freedom. So I examined two cases more closely: the experience of African Americans in the USA and the history of racial segregation in South Africa.
In view of these very different experiences, the idea was to question the concept of black identity (blackness), to no longer declare it the fundamental paradigm of difference and distinction, but rather to return to the traditions of thought of Africa and the African diaspora, which emphasise similarity, sameness and openness to the wider world. I wanted to work out the character of the universality of the Negro condition in the modern world.
Through relativising racial identities, rejecting their essentialisation and turning my back on ideologies of difference, I sought to develop a theory of what I call being together. This work led to Sortir de la grande nuit (2010) and Critique de la raison nègre (2013). They and all that follows end with an urgent call for hope and reparation.
Since then, my reflections have focused on the conditions under which a common world was created under the given circumstances of technological escalation, the climate crisis and the gradual incineration of the earth. When I speak in Critique de la raison nègre of the “universalisation of the Negro condition”, it is to turn my back on identity politics, a source of enmity in the present. In the past, theories of difference and identity served as levers in the struggles for equality and justice. Today this is no longer the case. They have been co-opted by the forces of intransigence and transformed into instruments of absolute division.
In these circumstances, the search for the possibility of a humanity in solidarity with the whole of the living world must be re-launched with renewed vigour. I am trying to link this return to the idea of a “human race” with the idea of the living in its entirety, with the integration of the indivisible biosphere. This is the meaning of the critique of enmity in Politiques de l'inimitié and other recent texts.

The Bible brought Israel into our world

Those who persecute me today for no apparent reason and demand a public apology from me claim to have found proof in my travel report on Israel 1992 that Israel is the starting point for my reflections.
In so doing they do not even notice their own racism and paternalism. In truth, I am working on developing a thinking of traversing - traversing oceans, borders, identities and de-fetishising origins. Perhaps that is precisely what they reject, convinced that now is the time for borders and border fortifications.
The West has a long tradition of travelogues. They are not historical or sociological treatises. Very often they are anecdotes. They serve as inspiration to those who want to question themselves.
European literature is chock-full of such texts in which the traveller presents an idea of Africa, China, Persia or other regions of the world. Depicting who the Africans, Chinese or Iranians really are is not the point here.

“What does it mean to live in the traditions of others? Every colonised person asks him- or herself this question.”

It is invariably like a distorting mirror that you hold up to yourself to make sure who you are or who you think you are.
In my travel notes from 1992 I tell in a very fleeting, even naive and embellished form, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes poetic, my travel impressions following a seminar in Israel.
Here and there I deliberately take the position of an astonished child in order to make the Cameroonian reader aware of the dream and visionary aspect of my story.  There, I refer the reader to my childhood days, when I read the Bible to my grandmother, who was illiterate.
With the Bible, which we did not choose for ourselves, Israel has penetrated into the world of our imagination and has established itself there. Like all the cultural elements that came to us with colonisation, we have given it a place in our imagination, especially in that of Christians. Anyone who has taken the trouble to observe our societies and study our cultures can testify that this receptiveness was never simulated.

The colonisation of thought

The following questions occupied me at the time. What does it mean to live in the myths and traditions of others? What happens when one realises that these myths and dreams, which one thought were truths, turn out to be legends? Does one reject them completely, or does one adopt them in the hope that they will orient one's existence in a life-affirming way?
Every colonised person asks him- or herself these questions. They are not abstract. They determine our existence. In our intellectual traditions, they affect every generation. Because in our culture, heritage has often been imposed. Often it was not freely chosen, especially religion, language and the state.
Under these circumstances, part of the work of critical thinkers from formerly colonised countries has consisted, and continues to consist, of organising this critique; we often grope our way forward because there are no definitive answers. Just as there are no final questions. The questions themselves must be constantly reformulated. And we accept that errors and inaccuracies can creep into the act of reformulation.
At least that's what South Africa has taught me. Israel is one of the myths we have inherited. For some of us, it has become an indispensable myth. How to deal with it in the awareness of this fact, not as a dogma, while at the same time trying to free oneself from all philosophies of the Absolute? These questions are shared with the readers in these travel notes from Israel. They are not about the precise nature of Israel itself, but about the myth we have inherited, the part of it that is still useful for orientation and the dispensable part.

Against the advocates of ready-made truths

I believe that our world can be divided in two. On the one hand, those who, like me, are convinced that we are just passers-by and who know that to follow a path means to search in the uncertain and unknown. On the other, those who think they are in possession of ready-made truths and want to impose them on everyone, no matter how different the experiences and situations are. The gulf between us is getting deeper and deeper.
Today we must all ask ourselves whether the suffering of a people belongs to that people alone, and whether only they themselves are permitted to reference it. Is it possible to share the entirety of the world's memory, and under what conditions? I found these questions in South Africa in the early 2000s, as well as those of forgiveness, reparation and reconciliation. They still occupy me today.
May I in conclusion remind you that I am not German? I have no intention of living or working in Germany. In view of the great moral and political problems of our time, it is not for me to dictate to Germans how they should behave in a pluralistic world in which many peoples still yearn for freedom.
All I have to contribute is one voice among many, one voice from some other place, from those regions of the world that are mistakenly assumed to have nothing to say and that need to have others tell them what to think.
Germany must decide for itself whether it wants to hear these voices of others or whether it wants to turn its back on our deepest aspirations and indeed even impose our very consciousness upon us.
For its part, Germany does not need foreign scapegoats to tackle its many problems. That part of Germany which is obviously hostile to me in principle does not have the right to take my thinking hostage. The sooner my work can express itself in Germany in a self-directed way, in its own mode of expression and in the diversity of languages and accents, the better for all of us.
This article was first published in the Tageszeitung (taz) of 11.05.2020.