In 1957, Achille Mbembe was born in the midst of a “dirty war” waged by France to crush the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon. With France’s ultimate failure, the Republic of Cameroon won independence in 1960. After earning his Ph.D. in history from the Sorbonne, Mbembe established himself as a major voice in French critical theory.
Renowned for his reworking of vast sweeps of philosophical and political thought from a postcolonial perspective, Mbembe’s translated books include On the Postcolony (2001), Critique of Black Reason (2016), Necropolitics (2019) and Out of the Dark Night (2021). His 2003 article “Necropolitics” is a powerful intervention into topics largely dominated by figures such as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Ideas with relevance to political theology, such as the power of the commandment, a theology of catastrophe, and the use of God language to represent the Real are under-appreciated aspects of his work. I will explore Mbembe’s corpus through his account of postcolonial thinking, sovereignty, and the place of Africa in modernity.
A through line of Mbembe’s work is evident in Necropolitics, where he asks, “If ultimately humanity exists only through being in and of the world, can we found a relation with others based on the reciprocal recognition of our common vulnerability and finitude?” (3). Mbembe mines the historical and conceptual legacies that sustain denials of a shared humanity. His work examines and meditates on the relations of domination and enmity marking our time. A key aspect of this work is what Mbembe terms “postcolonial thinking.” This includes interrogating the philosophical, symbolic, and affective tools reconciling modernity’s triumphant humanism with the suffering of people under colonization.
Critical to this project is the dismantling of Western subjectivity as an identity rooted in a self-referential essentialism. This opens a space for postcolonial thinking in which identity is co-constituted through forms of multiplicity. This critique of Western humanism is not an end in itself. Mbembe’s corpus is filled with an eschatological impulse that bears the imprint of revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon.
In his postcolonial thinking, Mbembe keeps alive the Fanonian legacy of developing a new humanism. Drawing on liberation struggles, Mbembe offers an account of humanity always in process. As such, postcolonial thinking ought to be oriented toward the transformation of the world and reimaging the subject. Here Mbembe sees the “poetic productivity of the sacred” (2008) as a resource for the imagination. This sacred imagination bestows worth on peoples considered worthless while imaging a new social order rooted in mutual reciprocity rather than control.
Postcolonial Thinking and Political Theology
Mbembe’s postcolonial thinking includes an interest in political theology. Specifically, he engages what he calls the “theologico-political” to realize the political potential of the critique of religion and religion’s critique of the political. Here, the theological is a resource in the unfinished critique of secularization. Mbembe is concerned that liberal democracies fail to understand how they are shaped by theological ideas and influences. This results in a society unable to discern how religion, politics, and ethics inform and shape one another. For Mbembe, this contributes to radical uncertainty in society regarding moral questions, such as: What do I owe my neighbor? What is forgivable? What care is owned to the incarcerated? As such, the theological must not be bracketed from public arguments within democratic life.
Mbembe is not seeking to collapse the distinction between the religious and the political. Rather, he is wary that persons shaped by liberal democracies fail to identify the limits of secularity. Mbembe does not reinscribe a privatized account of religion, and he queries how we think about “politics as theology and theology as politics.” With scholars such as Saba Mahmood and Talal Asad, Mbembe questions assumptions about religion as antithetical to contemporary democracy.
Questioning such assumptions assists in understanding what Mbembe calls the “ordeal of the world,” the forms of destruction and violence being unleashed across the planet. His method of analysis transforms the theories being used while unashamedly engaging the poetic. Prose represents a world marked by the mutual imbrication of multiple overlapping histories, temporalities, and powers of death that is planetary in scope. This planetary renewal of enmity is the consequence of war as the “sacrament of our times” in the wake of decolonization (2019: 1-2). The use of the term “sacrament” in his analysis of the waning of liberal democracies is not haphazard. In Mbembe’s writings, one finds theological motifs, such as “God’s Phallus,” used to disclose the workings of power. To talk of the sacrament of our times is an invitation to critically examine the powers sustaining life through the involuntary sacrifice and death of entire populations.
Mbembe is also a thinker of borders. The border between the interpersonal and political is especially significant. A primary character of borders, according to Mbembe, is their inherent indeterminacy. Religious and cultural forms of thought are critical in maintaining borders’ appearance as natural, a technique of power. Mbembe asserts that the idea of “the Other” is constitutive of modernity and secures borders. He probes the meaning of Africa as the primordial source of otherness and difference legitimating the slavery, colonialism, and genocide that marks the underside of modernity.
In On the Postcolony, Mbembe argues that the idea of Africa mirrors back images constituting ‘the civilized’ and ‘the rational.’ Africa appears as the beast, the animal, and an “absolute otherness” (2). Africa, as a sign, represents irreducible alterity in Western philosophy and in its understanding of the human. The emergence of the subject in modernity is investigated through two moves: a genealogical critique of the present and establishing a mimetic relationship with Western philosophy. In this mimesis, the categories and logics reveal the dynamics of Africa. In doing so, Mbembe makes Africa legible by interrogating the very terms constituting its illegibility and misrepresentation, the very terms that justify colonial domination.
Religious traditions also serve as vehicles in the production of subjects under colonialism. For Mbembe, the theological is a resource for understanding the development of a political body with autonomous subjects possessed of “self-understanding, self-consciousness, and self-representation” (2019: 67). Reason is positioned as the vehicle through which the truth of the subject is expressed in public. Through this linguistic and theoretical mimesis, Mbembe opens up the enclosure of colonial reason.
The Violence of Colonial Reason and “The Commandment”
Necropolitics, according to Mbembe, is the “generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” (2019: 68). This generates a new interpretation of politics, sovereignty, and subjectivity. This centering of death is not in opposition to reason or another perspective from the margins or the underside. The claim is stronger. Mbembe argues that the destruction of human populations is the nomos, the normative political logic in which we live. Ironically, it is the role of myth, which modernity supposedly delivered us from, that prevents a confrontation with death within liberal democracies. This leads to Mbembe’s account of the political.
To confront the ordeal of the world is to face the abyss where sovereignty occasions the rule of law in non-law. Political philosophy’s division between the state of nature and the political community is a mythology concealing its founding violence or externalizing it to non-places such as plantations, colonies, concentration camps, and prisons. This non-law has its corollary in the construction of the ‘native,’ ‘the slave,’ and ‘the savage’ as objects whose value is determined by usability. These cannot be considered subjects. The violence of colonization is rooted in an imaginary that empties ‘the Other’ of self-consciousness, invests it with animality, irrationality, and the inability to experience transcendence. The arbitrariness of the violence originating in this imaginary is colonization’s inaugural act.
The power of this act is profoundly theological. The theological for Mbembe marks how colonial power interprets what is real and unreal, nothing or potentially something, without reference to cause and effect. This power for Mbembe is “the commandment.” Such power lets a thing be or lets it not be, and experiences itself as without limit. The commandment as the experience of colonization establishes itself as sovereign through the very Other that is called into existence only to be subjugated. This theologically inflected form of colonial power also brings into being a form of belonging based on division and separation. Mbembe discerns this paradox in the ways religion serves as a conduit of salvation and terror, offering important entry points for thinking about political theology.
Political theology can illuminate the ways political concepts are modeled on theological ideas. Political theorist Wendy Brown argues that the emergence of political liberalism simultaneously contains and appropriates religious authority. The consequence is a political sovereignty with God-like characteristics: “Ontologically, sovereignty is the unmoved mover. Epistemologically, it is a priori. As a power, it is supreme, unified, unaccountable, and generative. It is the source, condition, and protector of civic life and a unique form of power insofar as it brings a new entity into being and sustains control over its creation. It punishes and protects. It is the source of law and above the law.” Brown’s account is helpful in providing a contrast to the workings of political sovereignty in Mbembe’s thought.
Sovereignty on Mbembe’s terms brings new entities into being through the objectification and subjection of entities that already exist. It establishes itself as epistemologically a priori by denying and disavowing the experiential limits of its own knowledge. It punishes and protects by imagining entire peoples whose unreality, whose nothingness, justifies the powers that govern what exists and constitutes the real. Mbembe’s account opens political theology beyond certain canonical concepts and figures.
For example, in Carl Schmitt’s political theology, sovereignty manifests in the power to decide the exception to established legal authorities, norms, and precedents. Whatever entity is the source of this power is the sovereign. Such exceptions for Schmitt have the theological quality of a miracle. In thinking with Mbembe, sovereignty is not enacted in the decision. It is enacted in the commandment occasioning cycles of creating and destroying that is arbitrary and gratuitous (2001: 189). For Mbembe, the act of colonizing, not deciding, is the miracle. Thus, the true power of the miracle is not deciding what is an exception to what currently is. Rather, it is the power that empties what is by transforming it into something that it never was. Mbembe’s account challenges us to ask if political theology marked by Schmitt’s legacy is complicit in concealing the dynamics of death in the heart of modernity.
Mbembe’s seeks to understand the relationship between “salvation, destruction and transfiguration” (2007: 153). Through postcolonial thinking the question of religion as a ‘pharmakon,’ disclosing poison and cure, healing and disease, terror and salvation, creativity and destruction is raised anew. He recognizes a peculiar alterity in the Western tradition. He notes ancient African traditions approach human existence through the category of relation rather than being. Such traditions constitute identity through plasticity rather than substance. Moreover, history itself is an ongoing transformation, assembling and reassembling without cataclysmic rupture.
This contrasts with the “theology of catastrophe,” an ethos animating Western culture where progress comes through apocalyptic forms of destruction. For Mbembe, the world has already ended for a large swath of people. Those living in the wake of destruction must find ways to re-create in relation to loss and separation. This requires wrestling with the material, symbolic, and psychic investments of the world that was and what remains. This is a complex discerning of what must be forgotten, left behind, and renounced for the life that continues. The salience of the theologico-political emerges in the language of God, a primary expression of hope in the midst of the production of death. God in these contexts represents the Real (2007: 165).
Theological Considerations with Mbembe
Mbembe’s work might benefit from a deeper engagement with religious and theological studies. Mbembe is careful not to interpret the theological as being irrational. However, his account situates contemporary expressions of faith in Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. as being marked by affect, desire, passion, and an openness to the Holy Spirit beyond reason. He argues that truth is constituted through experience more than argument, departing from the religion of modernity that determines the boundaries of reason.
This line of argument from Mbembe is striking. It assumes a genealogy that misses significant pendulum swings and conflicts in religious history. Missing are the tensions between the truth of personal experience and received traditions, mysticism and scholasticism, personal piety and political praxis. Also missing are the ways religious fundamentalism, often viewed as the antithesis of modernity, are modernity’s product. The critical question of fundamentalism is if one believes the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. The subject is the final arbiter of truth. The areas of religious life Mbembe describes as beyond reason are the forms of reason he argues we need to understand. Such religious life needs to be intelligible for future of democracy.
Mbembe’s postcolonial thinking in its theological register holds new possibilities for interpreting political life. In the U.S. context, political theology can demonstrate that political actions interpreted as irrational are quite intelligible. What pundits have called the “big lie” is actually the normative truth of an American political theology whose ultimate concern is whiteness. It is the higher law. This higher law legitimates voter suppression, overturning the 2020 election, storming the capitol, and legislative maneuvers banning critical race theory. In Mbembe’s terms, there may be large swaths of citizens whose political actions are not predicated on misinformation, but possession. An attribute of monotheism for Mbembe is the “fantasm of the One,” where God takes possession, not of a particular person, but of a people. This infused power of possession creates a collective identity that writes itself into history (2001: 213). The theological opens up the possibility of populism as possession by a jealous God whose enemy is racialized Others.
In Out of the Dark Night, Mbembe’s most recently translated work, he returns to the exploration of the profound philosophical and political implications of decolonization. He argues that decolonization is primarily a will to community which is also a will to life. This arduous process of reassembling and refashioning community is the source of insight about the possibilities of human community and a world without borders.
Mbembe is well aware that such talk engenders chuckles and easy dismissals. He is also aware that the COVID-19 virus continues to circle the globe refusing to conform to well-established enmities that determine whose lives are disposable. The pandemic has brought necropolitics home to our own bodies. The global is not local, it’s personal. As Mbembe persuasively argues, “We must answer for here and now for our life on Earth with others (including viruses) and our shared fate” (2021). It may be that developing a vision of being together, a global will to live born of a radical imagination, may be the pathway beyond the ordeal of this world.
2001 On the Postcolony. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001.
Achille Mbembe’s major reconstruction of the relationship of power to subjectivity from the perspective of postcolonial Africa. This book includes theological themes in interpreting the contours of this constitution of power, including a chapter titled “God’s Phallus.”
2007 “Religion, Politics, Theology: A Conversation with Achille Mbembe.” boundary 2 34:2
This conversation between Achille Mbembe and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discusses the contemporary relationship of religion to politics.
2008 “What is Postcolonial Thinking?” Eurozine.
Achille Mbembe provides an in-depth account of his relationship with postcolonial studies. This includes an overview of his account of postcolonial thinking.
2017 Critique of Black Reason. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mbembe’s full-length critique of the ways Blackness is constitutive of reason in creating the modern world.
2019 Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Building on Mbembe’s influential article “Necropolitics,” this book examines the contemporary currents of necropolitics threating democracies and considers possibilities of co-belonging across the globe.
2021 Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mbembe examines the philosophical insights of yielded from decolonization and their relevance for humanity’s possible futures.
2021 “The Universal Right to Breathe.” Critical Inquiry 47:S2.
This article interprets the global coronavirus pandemic in light of our ongoing denials of the interdependence and vulnerability of humanity.