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“An illuminating and brilliant addition to Mbembe’s corpus” – The Conversation reviews Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason

Critique of Black Reason

In Critique of Black Reason eminent critic Achille Mbembe offers a capacious genealogy of the category of Blackness – from the Atlantic slave trade to the present – to critically reevaluate history, racism, and the future of humanity.

Mbembe teases out the intellectual consequences of the reality that Europe is no longer the world’s center of gravity while mapping the relations between colonialism, slavery, and contemporary financial and extractive capital.

Tracing the conjunction of Blackness with the biological fiction of race, he theorizes Black reason as the collection of discourses and practices that equated Blackness with the nonhuman in order to uphold forms of oppression.

Mbembe powerfully argues that this equation of Blackness with the nonhuman will serve as the template for all new forms of exclusion. With Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe offers nothing less than a map of the world as it has been constituted through colonialism and racial thinking while providing the first glimpses of a more just future.

Manosa Nthunya recently reviewed Critique of Black Reason for The Conversation:

African philosopher, Achille Mbembe, has gained an enviable reputation as a scholar that challenges the tenets of modernity. Some aspects of modernity Mbembe is known to challenge are characterised by the move towards more capitalistic economies, an increase in social stratifications and the universalisation of Western European thought. From On Private Indirect Government (2000) to his recent book, Critique of Black Reason (2017), his interest has always been on how the world can account for the construction and consequences of race and racism.

In “Critique of Black Reason” Mbembe challenges us to rethink the present with the view of charting a future that, according to Mbembe, will differ from the past and the present.

A key interest of the book is on how race and racism have played a role in how the modern world is organised. However much the world might have benefited from modernity, what is unavoidable is the integral role of race and racism in the construction of modernity. This is why for Mbembe it is of utmost importance that we examine this aspect of modernity as it continues to exclude subjects and create new and old victims that are “the wretched of the earth”.

He writes:

race, operating over the past centuries as a fundamental category that is at once material and phantasmic, has been at the root of catastrophe, the cause of extraordinary psychic destruction and of innumerable crimes and massacres.

For Mbembe, the construction of race emanates from the symbolic. It accounts for the ways in which subjects live and where they live. It explains the kinds of debates that prohibit – or allow them – to lead meaningful lives.

The book focuses more on how discourses of race and other differences emerged in the eighteenth century during what is popularly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.

This was a period in which science, philosophy and other disciplines, and social debates, constructed differences between people.This was driven by two factors: material interests and an unwillingness to live with the unfamiliar. Mbembe’s book takes to task this idea of Enlightenment to show how it is responsible for the construction of race and racism:

The Black Man is the one (or the thing) that one sees when one sees nothing, when one understands nothing, and above all, when one wishes to understand nothing.

This, for Mbembe, is not coincidental.

Continue reading Nthunya’s review here.

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