A life of movement

Achille Mbembe on philosophy and politics


Have you heard of Achille Mbembe, the famous Johannesburg-based philosopher from Cameroon, who graced our university with his visit in summer 2018? If you haven’t, read on to find out what makes him just the kind of person you want to quote at all the fancy cocktail parties we know you’re attending on a weekly basis. And if you have, you already know what you have to do: stay where you are to get the intellectual boost you so desperately need during exam season.

Katharina and Niklas from eMAG got a chance to interview Achille Mbembe in one of his few free hours. If you like the interview, don’t forget to read the second part, which will be published tomorrow.

Niklas: “What role can philosophy play in times of populism, as well as political and religious extremism?”

Achille: “I think that we live in a time when the need for a critical understanding of where our world is going is more urgent than ever before. And philosophy as the key discipline that teaches us how to exercise our reason is absolutely central, not only for training and education of students today, but also in helping to sustain a democratic public sphere – one in which rational deliberation is at the centre of exchange and communication among citizens. I believe that we need to put philosophy as the critical exercise of reason at the heart of what living together is all about, both nationally and globally.”

Niklas: “When you write and publish your books, what sort of audience do you usually have in mind? Whom do you expect to read your books?”

Achille: “The audience is composed of people of good will, who are interested in the types of questions the books address; people, who are interested in making our world habitable and hospitable. I believe that the current moment, we are in, is full of risks and dangers, and that the need to repair our planet is probably the most urgent task humanity is facing. And I take writing as part of the tools we use as we undertake the task of repair. And therefore, those I have in mind when I write are those who would like to take part in that planetary endeavour of repairing.”

Niklas: “When you were still a student in Cameroon, you used to work for a Christian student group. Would you say that your religious beliefs influence your work as a philosopher?”

Achille: “It is true that I grew up in a Catholic family, and I went through Catholic educational institutions, secondary school in particular. I also was involved with an organisation called the Young Catholic Students, which is an international organisation and a huge part of my world view was shaped by traditions of Christianity that had to do in particular with liberation theology.”

“But I am not a practitioner. I’m interested in Christianity as a set of ideas and in so far as it offers life ethics, parts of which speak to what I consider to be key problems of our time. So I have an interest in religion in general as a key dimension of people’s existence, how they make sense of their lives, how they relate to themselves and to others, as well as to the forces that are above them. In that sense, my interest in religion is not limited to Catholicism or Christianity. I’m just as interested in Jewish theology as in African pre-colonial modes of religion.”

“That being said, I still think I have taken a lot from Christianity, intellectually as well as in my own life. And what is very striking in Christianity is the way in which it puts at its centre the Other, with a capital O. In fact, in Christian thought the Other is the Alpha and Omega of every act of faith. That means you are not a believer if the Other is not at the centre of your thoughts. So that preoccupation with the Other is something I consider to be the kernel of faith itself – and of the practice of faith, if you want to speak in those terms.”

Niklas: “Talking about the Other, both Germany and Britain – and, of course, France – have a colonial past in Cameroon, and not exactly a glorious past. Does it feel in any way strange to you to be talking to an English-speaking magazine while in Germany? Is it hard for you to look over our shared past?”

Achille: “Not really. I’ve spent my entire life dealing with this kind of situation. And I need to speak many different languages. It’s true that the English language is one of the dominant languages of our world, but I also believe that the world that is coming will be a multilingual world, and that those who are the best-positioned to harness the beauty of our world in any way are people who can speak more than one language. Of course, translation is truly important, but multilingualism, I believe, is the way of the future. And monolingualism is the worst way to prepare oneself for what the future of the planet holds for each of us. So I don’t see it at all as a problem.”

“In fact, I think both English and French have become African languages. They have been thoroughly Africanized, just as they have been Asianized to a large extent. They are spoken by millions of people. They have been spoken by millions of people over centuries, and that’s enough to qualify them as African or Asian languages, I think.”

Katharina: “What are your associations concerning the term misfits, last term’s main topic for our paper magazine?”

Achille: “That’s an interesting concept. That which does not fit, which is out of place, and yet its very existence opens up a whole set of new possibilities. So, on the one hand, I think that it’s an unfortunate concept when one applies it, for instance, to those who are not us. Those who seem to not belong or those whose presence we think is abnormal, those who do not look like us, who suffer from maladaptation. We can tolerate them, but they don’t really fit with us, there is always a gap.”

“So in that sense, it’s an unfortunate concept, but on the other hand the beauty of the concept is that a misfit always allows for unexpected possibilities to emerge. I think there is a productive dimension to the concept, in the sense that it allows for the emergence of the unexpected.”

“And in that sense, for all that’s to it, it’s a paradoxical concept. It’s a double-edged concept. If you have a misfit in your midst, you cannot predict what will happen. It makes it impossible to predict what happens when you bring in a foreign body, or something that shouldn’t be there. It’s a way of creating a new form.”

Niklas: “Talking about foreign bodies, both Cameroon and Germany are countries that have accepted lots of refugees. Refugees from different conflicts maybe, but refugees all the same. What are your thoughts on welcoming refugees, on how we should live together?”

Achille: “Let’s start by defining what a refugee is. Strictly speaking, a refugee is a human person who has been forced to leave the place he or she used to inhabit, his or her home country, as a result of a catastrophe. Whether a natural catastrophe or a human-made catastrophe – war, famine – an event that has made it impossible for that person to fully enjoy his or her existence in that place. This is what a refugee is: A human being running away from danger and in search of protection.”

“And usually, in the strictest sense of the term, a refugee is a human being whose life is in danger if he or she doesn’t leave. So the choice refugees have is pretty simple: either you stay and run the risk of losing your life, or you go. Most people don’t want to leave their home, the place where they were born. This is what people would prefer, to conduct their lives in the place where they were born. Refugees are people who have no choice but to go.”

“So the question is, when they knock on our door, do we open the door or do we tell them, ‘We’re not here, go somewhere else.’ I think that each society has to make this decision and it’s a good thing that, in the midst of the dramatic crises of the last few years, Germany has decided to open its doors to a number of people who would have been in danger otherwise. And Germany has done much more than many other European countries, both in terms of numbers and in terms of creating the conditions for receiving people in a way that ensures their dignity. But of course, as we know, everywhere this is a very complicated issue. Of course, you have people who do not want to see refugees for all kinds of reasons. The fact is that they don’t want them, they want to keep the doors closed.”

“So, Germany, Cameroon, other places like Turkey – these are choices those societies have to make, they have to decide whether or not this is something they want to do. I believe lots of people think that the German government made the right choice. Now, of course that raises all kinds of issues. I guess that’s part of the democratic debate. Society has to decide if it wants to live by a certain set of values, including the value of hospitality and assistance to the part of humanity that is in danger, or whether it simply wants to be indifferent to what happens to human life elsewhere. Europe has to make that choice. Our entire planet has to make a choice of how we deal with that part of our humanity that is in danger.”

“But you also have to look at the issues that are at stake. For instance, the West cannot go on destroying entire countries and bomb them to the ground, like in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in many other parts of the world, and expect people to just stay there. Of course, people will want to run away from danger. So it’s also a question of responsibility. We can’t go and destroy entire environments, entire people’s histories, cultures, and then say, ‘No, no, you stay there. Don’t come here.’ This is not responsible. So if we don’t want people to come here, let’s make sure we do not aggravate the situation where they are, we don’t render life in their homeland unsustainable. So I think these are also dimensions that have to be brought into these kinds of discussions. You cannot keep your door closed if you mess up with the little they have.”

“This can be done with a whole variety of means, with pillaging their natural resources, their wealth, rendering the environment toxic, extract all we can, leave with nothing behind. It can be done by selling weapons to dictators who do the destruction indirectly. Responsibility is absolutely key; responsibility is justice. A huge part of what sets people in motion is the weight of injustice. So it’s a debate we have to have, and I hope that this year it will be conducted beyond just hate and passion.”

Niklas: “You mentioned home, and that most people would prefer to stay there. What does that term mean to you, since you’ve been around more than most of us.“

Achille: “I have no idea what my home is. I’ve spent my entire life moving from one place to another. I guess if you spend your life like that, moving from one place to another, what you end up doing is that you carry them with yourself, bits and pieces of the many places you have inhabited. So they accompany you along the way. You carry memories. Your home is memory, if you want. Memory becomes your home. The memory of the many places you have been to find yourself. So home is no longer just a physical space you enter or exit. It travels with you throughout a life of movement.”

(This text has been edited for length and clarity.)

Authors: Katharina Tancré, Niklas Schmidt

Picture: Fotostelle Universität Augsburg