Achille Mbembe
Critique of Black Reason
Duke University Press, 2017
215 pages

Reviewed by Nicholas Bloom

In Chapter 1 of Critique of Black Reason, Cameroonian political philosopher Achille Mbembe offers a deceptively simple definition of “Black reason:”

…Black reason consists of a collection of voices, pronouncements, discourses, forms of knowledge, commentary, and nonsense, whose object is things or people of African origin.

On one level, Critique of Black Reason is an examination and elucidation of these “voices, pronouncements, discourses,” etc. But Mbembe’s text might be more accurately described as a plea—an explication of the stakes of “Black reason,” in the context of what Mbembe refers to as the contemporary “Becoming Black of the world.” To study the ways that both non-Black and Black peoples have articulated “Black reason” over the course of the last five-hundred years is, for Mbembe, a task of existential clarification and ethical urgency, for anyone interested in preserving the possibility of human community on earth in the contemporary era.

Mbembe’s first three chapters lucidly trace the structural importance of the early-modern European invention of “Blackness” to the shape and machinations of the modern world. While the theoretical ground that he covers in these chapters is not necessarily new, Mbembe effectively elucidates the multilayered, often paradoxical social functions of Blackness and the “Black man” for the colonial Europeans who invented and subsequently employed these signifiers. For example, while the meanings of Blackness—and race generally—are defined by their “mobility…inconstancy and capriciousness,” they are also physically fixed, located indelibly upon the body.And while Blackness, per the dominant colonial and capitalist epistemic regimes that have defined the modern Atlantic world, signified that people marked as Black were “human-merchandise, human-metal, and human-money,” according to Mbembe, Blackness is no subordinate derivative of class relations. Rather, race, capitalist relations of production, and the construction of colonial empires are inextricable not only from one another, but also from traumatic and repressed confrontations with fundamental, existential questions about the purpose and meaning of human life. The psychic investment in race for white people, per Mbembe, is both the engine and product of a social, material, epistemic, and libidinal regime that constantly reproduces and cordons off an alterity—an outside, or a shadow “Other”—in order to shore up both material and imagined power vis-à-vis the unanswerable and infinite conundrums of human existence. As Mbembe writes:

[Race’s] power comes from its capacity to produce schizophrenic objects constantly, peopling and re-peopling the world with substitutes, beings to point to, to break, in a hopeless attempt to support a failing I.

Blackness, for Mbembe, is the paradigmatic creation of race in the modern world, precisely because it emerged in tandem with capitalism’s ascendance, merging the desires and logics associated with commodity fetishism and enclosure with the racialist logics of alterity and “Otherness” that pre-dated modern capitalism. As bourgeois Europeans enriched themselves materially via the material flows associated with the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, they also constructed understandings of themselves as individual liberal subjects with the hegemonic conception of the “Black man”—a surplus sea of human commodity, “a being whose life is made of ashes”—as their foil. In other words, as the advent of modern capitalism and its attendant social logics created new existential conundrums for the white people who understood themselves as this new order’s protagonists, Blackness—and Black people—functioned as the essential “substitutes” for these protagonists, shadow selves through which to work out these ever-evolving conundrums and neuroses. Thus, Blackness and Africa have functioned as “signs of an alterity that is impossible to assimilate” within the dominant Euro-American epistemic paradigm since at least the advent of the Atlantic slave trade, according to Mbembe. Within this dominant epistemic paradigm, the term “Blackness” is “a vandalism of meaning itself,” per Mbembe, as—by definition—it offers itself up to be changed, mutilated, redefined, and used by the individual liberal subject, whenever and however that subject sees fit.

Mbembe’s last three chapters turn to the ways in which African and diasporic Black people have understood and taken up the meaning of Blackness.  Here, Mbembe most poignantly—and perhaps controversially—interrogates “Black reason.” On the one hand, Mbembe is sympathetic to the ways in which Black thinkers and movements have claimed Blackness as an affirmative assertion of their own dignity and humanity. In the context and wake of the material and epistemic regimes that birthed the term “Black”—colonial regimes that attempted to strip people of African descent of all social and cultural identity besides “Black”—Black meant, in essence, to be surplus, to be pure use-value and socially dead except when animated by the master’s force of will. Thus, the conscious creation of “Black community,” particularly during the eras of legally sanctioned plantation slavery and the explicit European colonial rule of Africa, was a necessarily a radical act of revolutionary self-affirmation. “By its very existence,” Mbembe writes, “the community of the enslaved constantly tore at the veil of hypocrisy and lies in which slave-owning societies clothed themselves.” Even in the wake of slavery’s official abolition, to claim Blackness affirmatively, in willed community with other Black people, was to put the lie to the invention of Blackness in the first place. The affirmative claim to Black identity thus existed (and exists), per Mbembe, as “an island of repose in the midst of racial oppression and objective dehumanization.”

Yet for Mbembe, too little critical attention has been paid to the ways in which Black epistemological traditions have relied upon—if perhaps in transmuted form— “the fundamental foundations of [racist] nineteenth-century anthropology…”  Or, in more blunt terms, Mbembe wonders if much Black thought “rebels not against the idea that Blacks constitute a distinct race but against the prejudice of inferiority attached to the race,” a stance with which Mbembe takes issue. He does so not because he finds this stance offensive or unreasonable, but because he believes it covers for a deeply held refusal to confront and confess a core truth—and core shame—about Black peoples’ experience with and memory of the confrontation with colonial capitalist regimes. Namely, not only were Black peoples subjected to European political and material power, they also were “seduced and fooled by ‘the great threat of the machinery of the imaginary’ that was the commodity.” In other words, it has been extremely difficult for Black folks to accept and confess the ways in which, even as they were themselves transformed into commodities by the logics and machinations of European colonialism, Black peoples became enchanted and enthralled by the libidinal logics of commodity fetishism and enclosure. “Blacks remember the colonial [regime] as a founding trauma,” Mbembe writes, “yet at the same time refuse to admit their unconscious investment in the colony as a desire-producing machine.”

Indeed, it is only through the confession of such investments and histories that a repaired world is possible, per Mbembe. Mbembe ultimately looks to several mid-twentieth-century Black theorists as exemplars of this reparative approach, particularly canonical Black Martinican thinkers Aimé Cesairé and Frantz Fanon. At their best, these thinkers claimed their Black identity—and the racialization of humanity more generally—as an identity always in emergence. Though they acknowledge that Blackness was invented in order to kill, commodify, and enclose, these thinkers’ active, nuanced, shifting claim to Blackness consciously recognizes race—and social identity generally—as something always in relationship to multitudinous alterities, never actually enclosed or cordoned off from oneself, and thus, paradoxically, a rich form of universalism. It is this universalism from the “underside” that must be the model for thinking through the meanings and uses of Blackness going forward, Mbembe contends. In this way, the “Becoming Black of the world” functions dually for Mbembe—as a dire warning about the possible cordoning off, enclosure, and commodification of all life, but also as a prophetic vision, the possible manifestation of the best of radical “Black reason” as the world finds itself more and more in need of this tradition.

Critique of Black Reason’sepilogue is entitled “There Is Only One World.” It concludes with this declaration:

…the proclamation of difference is only one facet of a larger project—the project of a world that is coming, a world before us, one whose destination is universal, a world freed from the burden of race, from resentment, and from the desire for vengeance that all racism calls into being.

In making this argument, Mbembe places himself squarely in a tradition of Black radical prophetic thought that has, in the last few decades, come under increasing scrutiny and even derision from Black intellectuals both in and outside of the academy. Indeed, though Mbembe maintains his vigorous critique of normative neocolonial post-racial fantasies—a critique that informed much of his earlier work—Black Reason’s polemic against the idea of racial ontology as a static, fixed force seems to be a response to the work of contemporary “Afro-pessimist” thinkers.   In fact, it is hard to read the epilogue’s title—“There is Only One World”—without thinking about Frank Wilderson’s famous 2014 published interview, “We’re Trying to Destroy the World,” in which Wilderson cites many of Mbembe’s own favorite source texts, especially Fanon, to buttress his argument that the structural antagonism between non-Black and Black peoples is so great that only a catastrophically violent war is capable of rupturing it—certainly not the project that Mbembe seems to be invested in. Given that Mbembe has himself been cited by many of the thinkers associated with this powerful trend in Black political thought, it would have been interesting to see him directly and explicitly engage these contemporary thinkers who have clearly, at the very least, pushed and informed the direction of Mbembe’s current line of inquiry and argumentation.

Though at times mystifyingly dense and virtually hallucinatory (perhaps intentionally, especially in the later chapters), Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason is ultimately a supremely engaging work of political philosophy, and an effective call for further curiosity and further study into the foundational antagonisms, neuroses, possibilities, and “reservoirs of human life” that comprise the fabric of our modern world. For those interested in the importance of race and racism to the construction of the modern world; genealogies of radical political thought and Black political thought; race and psychoanalysis; and postcolonial and postmodern thought, Critique of Black Reason is an essential text.