Translated by Steven Corcoran
Duke University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Lauren Nelson
“If you want to make use of a book, simply picking it up will not suffice. My original aim was to write a book that not a hint of mystery shrouded.” These opening lines of Achille Mbembe’s extended treatment of his now-famous neologism gestures at the central tension of his project: pharmakon, a medication that is simultaneously remedy and poison. Mbembe, admitting the near-impossibility of writing a book that evades all ambiguity, also hints at the pain of writing as political action. “In any case,” he writes, “this text is one on whose surface the reader can glide freely, without control points or visas, sojourning as long as desired, moving about at will, returning and leaving at any moment and through any door.” The project of Necropolitics is totalizing: it is about war as the “sacrament of our times,” about the planetary effects of colonialism and enmity, and about the politics of living beyond humanism. If you want to make use of a book, simply picking it up will not suffice: the force of the necropolitical, Mbembe argues, eludes the enclosure of reading and writing. “The roughness of the topic did not afford a violin note.” Newly translated from the original French by Steven Corcoran, Necropolitics is composed of eight chapters, inclusive of the introduction and conclusion. While the core of the text does not significantly depart from his seminal 2003 Public Culture essay, the full-length monograph expands the reach of Mbembe’s ideas, offering new concepts, terms, and case-studies that reconfigure and revitalize his theorization of vulnerability and finitude.
The first chapter, “Exit from Democracy,” rewrites the history of imperial control and domination in terms of the “narrowing of the world” and the “repopulation of the Earth.” Mbembe implies that conceptualizing the violence of modernity as repeopling allows for a more sustained examination of the ways in which colonization intersects with religious emigration, commerce, war, and ecological disaster. As he argues in his introduction, the brutality of borders is a “fundamental given” of the contemporary condition and the history of geographical, racial, nationalistic divisions is inextricably linked to the ability of the state to “exit” democracy—to paradoxically tout a “pure” citizenship as a means to refuse the guarantee of life and freedom. The human, the citizen, the national subject have been made “plastic” and the advent of the “digital subject” problematizes the safeguarding of once tightly-held humanistic values. In an era of technomedicine, what constitutes the “natural” human being, what separates the screen from life, and how do these questions index the intensification of the “power over the living”? However, these questions are not presented as a declensionist narrative of globalization or technological advancement but, instead, as the surface effects of democracy’s “nocturnal body”—the violence of colonialism that has always subtended the democratic project. Mbembe’s point is that what a long history of borders, war, and enmity demonstrate is that the process of exiting democracy—suspending rights and freedoms—is actually the result of the purported protection of these same rights and freedoms. To exit democracy is to construct walls, camps, and tunnels: to end life in the name of its protection.
The second and third chapters, “The Society of Enmity” and “Necropolitics,” respectively, will feel the most familiar to audiences already familiar with Mbembe’s Public Culture essay. Like the article, both chapters examine the occupation of Palestine, which serves as the backdrop to more fully explicate his conceptualizations of enmity (the desire for “separation and enclaving”) and necropolitics (“death that lives a human life.”) In the fourth chapter, “Viscerality,” Mbembe expands his geographical scope, thinking through the “planetary entanglement” brought on by the global forces of fast capitalism, digital technology, and “soft-power warfare.” Mbembe names two main anxieties of Western metaphysics that haunt our contemporary condition: the “proper” (read: stable) relation between humans and objects, and the nostalgia for a (lost) time when humans could manipulate their environment at will. In these two anxieties, the problem of technology finds its stronghold. What are the effects of the increasing embeddedness of humans within elaborate, global technostructures? What resonates between the onset of anthropogenic climate change and the malleability of the human genome (i.e. the potential for biological subjugation by capitalist infrastructure)? The fifth chapter, “Fanon’s Pharmacy,” builds on the premise that enmity is constitutive of present liberal democracies by examining the tension between the “principle of destruction” and the “principle of life.” Here, he builds on Fanon’s dual interests in histories of violence (destruction) and the therapeutic process (life), and asks whether Fanon’s theory of decolonization still holds if violence does not create anything but chaos and loss. The sixth and final chapter, “This Stifling Noonday,” tackles the problems posed by humanism vis-à-vis the contemporary capacities of technology, connecting these anxieties to the work of Afropessimist and Afrofuturist writers and artists.
Ending with the figure of the passerby (from Fanon’s passant), Mbembe asks what it might mean to move beyond democracy’s nocturnal body, what it might look like to smuggle into some “elsewhere,” the passenger of a moment of rupture? What is the future of the human beyond humanism? “What,” he asks, “could the human person resemble beyond the accidents of birth, nationality, and citizenship?” If we cannot escape from the society of enmity, how can we reconstitute what Edouard Glissant has called “World Relation,” or world-sharing? Not without hope, Mbembe asks how we can re-create our world and re-envision community. Throughout the chapters, Mbembe’s writing is electric, affectively complex, and relentlessly insightful. Corcoran’s remarkable translation significantly expands the linguistic reach of this intricate volume, highly anticipated after the original essay’s publication. The sixteen-year gap between both versions should not be seen as a limitation: this newest instantiation of Mbembe’s theory thinks with the acceleration of capital, violence, and technology, foregrounding the extent to which necropolitics is not a static Foucauldian revision but an anticipatory critique that poses different sets of questions at different moments. Despite the considerable traction of Mbembe’s neologism, the full-length version of Necropolitics demands reconsideration. Simply picking it up will not suffice.