Achille Mbembe is a philosopher and political scientist. He was born in Cameroon in 1957. He obtained his Ph.D. in History at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France, in 1989. He subsequently obtained a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in the same city. He has held appointments at Columbia University in New York, Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Duke University and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal.
Mbembe is currently a member of the staff at WISER Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a contributing editor of the scholarly journal Public Culture. He also has an annual appointment as a visiting faculty member in the department of English at Duke University. His main research topics are African history and politics and social science. Although he is called a postcolonial theorist, namely due to the title of his first English book, he has thoroughly rejected this label more recently, because he sees his project as one of both acceptance and transcendence of difference, rather than of return to an original, marginal, non-metropolitan homeland.
His central work in English, entitled On the Postcolony, was released by University of California Press in 2001. In this text Mbembe argues that academic and popular discourse on Africa is caught within a variety of cliches tied to Western fantasies and fears. For instance, Africa is seen by the West, he argues, as “a headless figure threatened with madness and quite innocent of any notion of center, hierarchy, or stability…a vast dark cave where every benchmark and distinction come together in total confusion, and the rifts of a tragic and unhappy human history stand revealed: a mixture of the half-created and the incomplete…in short, a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gap, and primordial chaos” (3). Following Frantz Fanon and Sigmund Freud, Mbembe holds that this depiction is not simply a reflection of a real Africa but an unconscious projection tied to guilt, disavowal, and the compulsion to repeat. He adds, “Africa is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious and give a public account of its subjectivity” (3). In this sense, likeJames Ferguson, V.Y. Mudimbe, and others, Mbembe interprets Africa not as a defined, isolated place but as a fraught relation between itself and the rest of the world which plays out simultaneously on political, psychic, semiotic, and sexual levels.
In his work Necropolitics, Mbembe refers to necropolitics as the subjugation of life to the power of death. The authority to kill is no longer solely controlled by the state, but rather distributed throughout society. An example of this dispersion of a static sovereign to allow the right to kill can be seen through the situation in Darfur. The lack of a dominant sovereign resulted in the distribution of the right to kill amongst multiple social groups, most notably the Baggara Arabs and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. This particular version of sovereignty goes back to a definition by Carl Schmitt: “he who decides on the state of exception”. By invoking a state of exception, the sovereign is able to suspend the law, thus sanctioning any action. The sovereign avoids breaking the law because the sovereign chooses when the law applies. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the USA PATRIOT Act allowed the US to claim a state of exception in order to justify the violence, violation of rights, and war that characterized post-9/11 politics.
- 1985 Les Jeunes et l’ordre politique en Afrique noire.
- 1996 La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun, 1920-1960 : histoire des usages de la raison en colonie.
- 2000 Notes provisoires sur la postcolonie, essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemporaine. (English edition On the Postcolony, 2001. Second revised French edition, 2005.)
- 2000 Du Gouvernement prive indirect
- 2010 Sortir de la grande nuit – Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée