What Does the Debate Have to Do with Colonial Memory, Racism and Anti-Semitism? Critique of Mbembian Reason

Decolonisation: Freedom Monument near Windhoek, Namibia, former colony of German Southwest Africa, inaugurated in 2002, allegorical representation of the Herero and Nama uprising against the German colonial power in 1904/05.
Freedom Monument near Windhoek, Namibia, former colony of German Southwest Africa, inaugurated in 2002, allegorical representation of the Herero and Nama uprising against the German colonial power in 1904/05. | Photo (detail): Juergen Sorges © picture alliance / akg-images

What is the debate about Achille Bembe's statements on Israel actually all about? Is it about the question of how racism can be addressed or about postcolonial memory? Or is it about combating anti-Semitism? It is to be feared that none of this is at issue. A commentary by Mark Terkessidis.

By Mark Terkessidis

The debate remains astonishingly abstract, consisting primarily of identitarian positions and mutual reprimands. The trigger was a reference to “German identity” that was presented with a new self-confidence. The German government's anti-Semitism commissioner felt called upon to intervene because he saw passages in Mbembe's book Politiques de l'inimitié (The Politics of Enmity) as endangering a relevant narrative of remembrance culture in Germany. He feared a “relativisation of the Holocaust” and referred to the assertion by a former Federal President: “As Joachim Gauck once put it: The Holocaust and the confrontation with it are part of German identity”. For Felix Klein, however, “confrontation” simply means defining what may be expressed on the territory of the Federal Republic: If “foreign experts” (Klein) can contribute here, then they can be reprimanded by “us”.

“Nègre” – the new universal victim

In an interesting volte-face with recourse to their own identity, the descendants of one of the greatest crimes of humanity now watch over the singularity of the experience of their former victims. In this sense, the debate has mainly been about who may legitimately claim to be a victim at all. This dispute is based on different - as the Anglicist Michael Rothberg puts it: competitive - forms of universalising the status of victim. In recent years, the assertion of the singularity of the Shoah has been challenged by the memory of slavery and colonialism. Achille Mbembe has taken this memory to a whole new level in his book Critique de la raison nègre. Not only does he declare “race” to be the dominant principle in the history of European expansion since the 16th century, but the reification of the human being, embodied in the figure of the “nègre”, also appears to him to be the pivotal point in the operation of current “neo-liberalism”. For the first time in history, states Mbembe, the term “nègre” not only refers to people of African origin, but also to the global victims of capitalism: nomadic workers, immigrants, refugees, the “superfluous”; those subjected to drone attacks, zoning practices or bonded labour. According to Mbembe, we are experiencing a “devenir-nègre du monde” (a becoming-negro of the world), which conversely also means that all these practices can be explained as a continuation of the history of racism: Racism thus becomes an explanatory paradigm per se for all the “dark sides” of the global system.

Usefulness for the German debate on racism

To support his claims, Mbembe jumps quite shamelessly through the various theories and epochs, making it difficult to refute his decidedly questionable theses. In this respect, the question whether those who constantly praise Mbembe's “brilliance” have actually read his works is a legitimate one. It seems that the difficulty in understanding his texts is the proof of their “brilliance”.  

Interestingly, Mbembe is often praised as a non-identitary thinker, because he writes sentences like: “My intellectual approach can be described as an uninterrupted journey, or rather as an endless wandering from one shore to the other. I call it traversing.” But they are actually fairly crude platitudes that are counteracted by the fact that he thinks “the Germans” can be addressed at all. In the meantime, the Federal Republic has become a society in which people with migration backgrounds are already in the majority in some cities. Even black Germans are homogenised in his address. Do editors of the FAZ represent “the Germans” for Mbembe?

In addition, the universalisation of the “nègre” and the absolutisation of racism turn out to be of no use whatever for addressing racism in Germany. The term “nègre” has been translated into English as “black” and into German as “schwarz” for reasons of deference, but this destroys the meaning of the term's objectifying character. Similar to the theories of “critical whiteness”, the global description of the victim suddenly oscillates between a description of the condition and the actual skin colour. Die Skin colour then proves to be decisive in determining whether this experience of victimhood may actually be claimed: With the “wrong” skin colour, things become somewhat absurd when victims of racism call themselves “nègre”, let alone black, to give voice to their experiences. An autonomous migrant perspective on racism no longer features here at all. Ultimately, this goes back to Stuart Hall's insight, who critically noted in 1991 that “black” as a basis for mobilising the anti-racist struggles in Great Britain in the 1980s would have excluded many other experiences, such as those of Britons of Asian origin.

Identitary positions and reprimands

This new universalisation of the “black” experience of victimhood challenges the other universal experience of victimhood, the Jewish one - which is, however, represented, especially on the foreign policy level, by the Israeli government, various associated organisations and also by the German government. The assertion of the singularity of the Jewish experience is entirely legitimate and politically understandable, but it unquestionably triggers conflict when this claim is accompanied by policies of division, exclusion and land seizure. Criticism of Israeli politics in the “post-colonial” milieu (whatever that may be these days) is ubiquitous and all too often undifferentiated, but attempting to prohibit such statements on the grounds of anti-Semitism makes the space available for expression narrow indeed. If someone like Achille Mbembe is suspected of anti-Semitism, a problem with freedom of expression definitely exists, because there is undoubtedly a consensus in this country that anti-Semitism disqualifies a person for participating in discourse. It also seems questionable whether such an approach is helpful in combating anti-Semitism within Germany.
In the end, only identity-related positions are facing off with each other - and many of the so-called contributions to the debate are not an exchange of arguments at all, but reprimands. If you say this or that, then you are either anti-Semitic or racist. If you have been in contact with such or such people, then you cannot be invited with funding from German tax revenue. The “debate” is further hardened by the fact that many of the participants have neither any particular knowledge of racism nor anti-Semitism theory, nor first-hand experience on location in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. This is how Achille Mbembe can also become a prime exponent of the themes of colonialism and racism, which in turn are expected to bring no less than salvation itself. Aleida Assmann, for instance, has stated: “We are no longer the pure-bred (‘biodeutsche’) German collective of perpetrators, but an immigrant society and need new approaches to our history. We could enter into conversation by crossings and traversings, Mbembe would be the key here.”

Academic battles, Halle, Hanau

Why would Mbembe be the key? What does he have to tell people of Polish, Turkish, Russian or Greek origin about their experiences with Germany's previous post-imperialism or with current discrimination? Indeed, although Mbembe presents himself as a “fragile voice” from the periphery, he is part of an international university milieu that views authoring books and teaching as “academic activism”. This milieu often has little to say about a discussion of the concrete local conditions of structural racism. The question is thus whether primarily academic and other claims to space are being debated here from positions defined from the outset as minoritarian. In this sense, the theory itself also looks extremely academic; it recognises no political subject, no connection to social movements, only universal victims. In the time before the Mbembe debate, two people died in Halle in an attack on a synagogue and a further nine with migration background in an attack in Hanau. Would it not be reasonable to expect that in such an in-depth debate on “German identity”, racism and anti-Semitism, those involved would have something to say about these events?