Out from the Dark Night: For a "Decolonised" Post-Colonial Approach
9 February 2023
Condemnation Without Trial, Chéri Samba, 1989-90; Image credit: MOMA
Sarah Perret reviews Achille Mbembe's book "Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization", New York, Columbia University Press, p. 280. Perret shows that there are as many colonisations as decolonisations. This plurality implies deconstruction for Mbembe, and precisely the deconstruction of the imperial sciences that have made the many colonisations possible.
"Inferiorisation is the indigenous correlative of European superiority".
- Frantz Fanon (1)
The issue of colonisation, or even decolonisation, is still particularly marked by misunderstandings and ignorance, often resulting from a rewriting of history marked by silence and denial, the consequences and traumatic effects of which are transmitted from generation to generation. The former colonial powers are still struggling with an ambivalent representation of this history. For them, the period of colonisation contributed to materialising their power on the scale of international relations, while legitimising this domination as a civilising mission for the colonised peoples. Thus, at the same time as racial hierarchisation, oppression, spoliation and exploitation of the territories of local populations and peoples, the idea of a civilising universalism was disseminated.
In this book, Achille Mbembe examines precisely this asymmetrical relationship. He proposes to analyse this history and its 'aftermath'. "This book (...) is an investigation into the 'decolonised community'" (224), he summarises, and I would add that it also sheds light on the figure of the 'African' in the former colonial powers.
It focuses on the ambiguities of democratisation in Africa and attempts to map the different imaginaries of the state and the nation, as well as the practices of institutionalisation that have emerged since the process of decolonisation. Drawing on numerous postcolonial authors, including Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Arjun Appadurai, Paul Gilroy, Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant, he analyses these different African decolonisations as a desire to create a 'community', but above all as a desire to be able to 'know' and above all 'live' (3).
Initially, Out of the Dark Night was intended to be a translation of an earlier book entitled Sortir de la Grande nuit. But as Achille Mbembe explains in the preface, it does not correspond exactly to that publication. Indeed, this book was published about 10 years later. Here he develops new reflections on colonisation and decolonisation, in particular around the question of knowledge, but also of non-knowledge. This reworked version, we might say, borrows again the words of Frantz Fanon in Les Damnés de la terre, which evokes with the term 'great night', the colonial period, a period of domination, servitude and death.
Decolonising "knowledge" to emerge from the "Big Night".
In Out of the Dark night, Mbembe succeeds in synthesising the different issues that shaped both colonisation and decolonisation, as well as those still at work today. Indeed, he addresses issues of borders, violence, religion, war and identity, but also sex, the body, gender, art, ecology and technologies such as smartphones. His ambition here is to invite the 'decolonised community' to disengage from the reality defined by the complex relations between settlers and the colonised and the 'capitalist and humanist interventions' (11), in order to fully enter the truly postcolonial time.
For him, the entry into the postcolonial era requires first of all "an experience of decentring" (4). It is then a matter of reclaiming the "knowledge of oneself" on the part of this community of the decolonised (44), as well as resorting to "creation" as a key anti-colonial tool to make possible a politics of "conviviality" (64), of "solidarity" (73), and finally to achieve what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the "decomposition of the world", (2) which means "that what had been locked up can emerge and blossom" (61).
In this way, Mbembe finally proposes a psychoanalysis of post-colonialism by studying the 'chaotic' aspects of colonial history; the repetition of events in the changes, the 'asthenia of the will', 'a mixture of secularisation of consciousness, radical immanence (...), and a seemingly unmediated plunge into the divine' (5). We understand here that for Mbembe, the question of knowledge and that of ignorance are major elements in the understanding of this history, both on an epistemological and practical level. Indeed, for him, in contemporary postcolonial politics, and more particularly in France, 'ignorance has been exploited as a resource, allowing knowledge to be deviated, obscured or concealed in a way that has increased the scope of what remains unintelligible' (11). He denounces traditional approaches to studies on the African continent, which speak of 'Africa as a pathological case, (...) what Africa is not' rather than 'what it really is' (26). There is therefore a 'will not to know' (148), especially in the French case, which requires the involvement of all the actors in society who are supposed to make this history intelligible. He particularly emphasises here the involvement of research and academics in this production of ignorance, who, among other things, often suffer from the 'shortage of funding', pushing them 'to move quickly from one subject to another, a practice that increases the atomisation of knowledge rather than the in-depth understanding of entire fields' (11).
He thus proposes to rethink, in an academic sense, the practice of criticism. In other words, he seeks to 'locate ourselves in nodes that draw in other texts, forms of discourse that have the potential to be transmitted, redistributed, quoted and translated into other languages and texts, including video and audio' (20). He shows how the sciences attempt to theorise subjectivity through the measurement of thought, belief or intention 'at the same time as biometric devices of all kinds attempt to measure and visualise bodily data' (16). For him, 'knowledge of the empirical world is acquired through the acceptance of multiplicity, of a plurality of narratives from many voices and many places'. Here, multiplicity does not only mean 'difference' or 'singularity' (88), but contributes to a kind of empirical validation.
The false French universalist model
Mbembe is particularly interested in the way French society and its intellectuals think about the former French colonial empire. He observes, on the one hand, a kind of 'nostalgia' for its position as a colonial power; and on the other hand, a postcolonial approach that minimises the specificity of French colonisation by integrating it into 'a very long 'indigenous' history' (115). For Mbembe, French identity has been constructed on the basis of an opposition between 'universalism and cosmopolitanism' (100), 'incapable of thinking about the Other (the ex-slave, the ex-colonised) (...)' (91). Indeed, he notes that 'the barrier of race has always stood between French citizenship and identity' (61). The French Republic has not succeeded in 'decolonisation' (99), and 'French-style universalism' still continues today to disseminate its colonial vision of ignorance of differences (90), while refusing to accept its past of imperialist and colonial domination.
This history has contributed to forging its democratic model, as well as its capacity to integrate all citizens, especially those from former colonies, "rendered invisible by mechanisms that produce daily forms of exclusion justified by nothing other than race" (108). The French constitution does not recognise differences between citizens. Yet, as Mbembe points out, 'the perverse effect of this indifference to differences is a relative indifference to discrimination' (123). Thus, the recognition of one's responsibility, the will to know and transmit this knowledge to current and future generations, as well as the end of indifference to 'singularity' (109), appear to be the prerequisites for emerging from what Mbembe calls 'the long French imperial winter' (112).
Where the author refers to 'decolonisations' in the plural, it is in the singular that the author speaks here of colonisation. While we readily agree that colonialism can be defined as a very specific process, like decolonisation, it would also seem interesting to speak of colonisations in the plural, for both analytical and methodological reasons. Like 'decolonisation', colonisations have taken very different forms depending on the territories, populations and their histories, thus giving rise to often very varied relations between colonisers and colonised, as well as ex-colonisers and de-colonised. As an example, and to follow the main subject of the book, French colonisation in Senegal required the support of the local population, whereas in Algeria European colonists settled permanently, locking the local colonised populations into the specific penal regime of the 'indigénat'. (3) These different colonisations help us to understand the nature of the relations that these two former colonies have today with their former settlers: for the former, an understanding that is both political and economic, and for the latter, tense diplomatic relations, which can be explained in particular by very different 'collision' relationships.
However, Mbembe nevertheless invites us to return to the process of colonisation itself. Drawing on the work of Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, he reminds us that colonisation is initially an 'exercise in force', 'conquest', 'control' and domination, and an exercise 'based on a compromise between constraint and collaboration' (102). What he calls 'collisions and collusions' are at play, responding to a process of mutual constitution of a double movement of 'extraction' and 'abstraction' (30-31). He dwells at length on one of the symbols of this exercise, which can be found in all colonial practices, namely the appropriation of a certain number of "indigenous" objects. The question of the restitution of these objects to the former colonised territories is a controversial issue, and one that becomes clear when reading Out of the Dark Night. Indeed, Mbembe recalls the epistemic and practical effects of the non-restitution of such objects: "The attribution of subjectivity to any inanimate object was done through rituals, ceremonies and these relations of reciprocity. (...) This world is a world that no one can ever return to us" (166). The memory of an object, of its function and above all of the relationship it created and developed, either with other objects or with humans, is gradually fading away as they are uprooted. It is therefore a whole area of self-knowledge that becomes inaccessible.
For Mbembe, another element is constitutive of any colonisation process, namely this logic of division through the practice of erecting geographical as well as mental borders. Here he observes several consequences on an economic level, notably as being at the origin of a market violence and a social violence specific to all African economies (185), which remain extremely marked by patriarchy (196-7). Indeed, Mbembe explains that 'for those in power, as for ordinary men and women, it is always a question of maximising their masculine or feminine assets at every opportunity, as the case may be. (...) Because of this neurotic compulsion to repeat, the male-female relationship is fundamentally one of frustration" (204). The violence of patriarchy is materialised in the modes of power that have been exercised in both colonial and post-colonial regimes. The gender assignments finally shed light on those that feed the imaginary of any "Other" who is not a white man. It is this paternalistic relationship that women undergo in all societies constituted by the patriarchal model, which configures the relations between former colonists and the de-colonised, and which is reproduced in the regimes of the 'post-colony' (126) (4).
As Mbembe puts it, 'we do not yet have a clear idea of what a "true decolonised knowledge" might look like' today (56), but the African experience already tells us a lot about what the 'future of global capitalism' has in store for us across the globe, especially in terms of this logic of entanglement of 'collisions and collusions' between the dominant and the dominated (30-31).
Once again, the case of the French Empire provides food for thought about what is needed to be elaborated mentally and politically in order to achieve what he calls an 'Afropolitanism'. Indeed, Mbembe develops this concept to describe this ambition to identify and understand the African territory as a 'body' in movement, constituting 'a very open universe of multiplicities and pluralities' (6). Here he is obviously in direct opposition to the idea of a homogeneous Africa, whose history would be similar, whatever the territory, or whose population would logically be 'black' and not 'white' (213). For him, 'democracy to come is a democracy that will have taken seriously the task of deconstructing the imperial sciences that previously allowed for the domination of non-European societies' (106). He reminds us here that the history of this "African body" is also the history of numerous migrations from "Asia, the Middle East, Europe", of the quest for self-writing (210), which cannot be understood "outside the paradigm of itinerancy, mobility and displacement" that colonisation precisely tried to freeze with the "frontier" (214).
What Mbembe finally proposes is not to wait for the 'Other', the former coloniser or colonised, to do the work of elaborating decolonised knowledge for all parties. This work must be done on all sides and at different levels. It is thus up to the former colonial power to recognise its responsibilities in the implementation of a violent system of control and constraint, as well as its own specificity with regard to its colonial enterprise; just as it also seems essential for the African democracies 'to come' to distinguish between the effects of 'collusion' and 'collisions' that took place during and after the colonial period, in order to create the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a resolutely post-colonial, autonomised, and therefore decolonised knowledge.
1. Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, Masques blancs, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952, p. 90.
2. Jean-Luc Nancy, La déclosion, Déconstruction du christianisme, Vol. 1, Paris: Galilée, 2005.
3. Sylvie Thénault, "Le régime pénal de l'indigénat dans l'Algérie coloniale", in Sénat, Algérie-France: comprendre le passé pour mieux construire l'avenir, Paris, 30 June 2012.
4. Mbembe uses the term 'postcolony' to describe this post-decolonisation space-time that is not quite 'postcolonial', since it is still characterised by the presence of colonial violence. See in particular Achille Mbembe, De la postcolonie. Essai sur l'imagination politique dans l'Afrique contemporaine, Paris: La Découverte, 2020.