Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mbembe’s Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality

Achille Mbembe

The Workshop has drawn together a thrilling mix of students and teachers, initiates and sages, from south and north, for an ambitious attempt to “rethink the political”. Whether consciously or not, much is being staked not only in the concepts and conclusions of this Workshop but in the mode of conversation and the quality of mutual regard that such a commitment to this topic invites.

Achille Mbembe’s morning address on Monday 6 June has opened up an array of questions, concepts, methodologies, that will no doubt provoke us for the duration of our time together and after. I must acknowledge the richness of the discussion around the many provocations that Professor Mbembe offered with his characteristic generosity. I take up here only a tiny portion of the rich fabric that was sown collectively, in the hopes that others will pursue equally provocative lines that enrich their own thinking, and throughout the week, our collective enterprise.

There were a number of themes that struck me on Monday morning. The first was the possibility of rethinking the political. The immediate challenge of delimiting the political – ie. What is the political? did not settle despite many a plea and return to the question, and much dispute as to its limits, paradoxes, and bleeds. Are we correct to assume that the proper object of the political is the state and attendant contests of inclusion? What other forms of life might be given to the political? Secondly, in this formulation, what is it to “re-think” the political? I would like to see more attention to the question, for us, of what is called “thinking”. Following from this, what is it to re-think? A confession of earlier hastiness? Of newfound inadequacy? Acknowledgement of doubt and incompleteness of the project? Empirical insistence? This return, this (re)doubling of thought, feels to be critical to the formulation of time that Professor Mbembe offered as vital to the problem of the human and its rendering as expendable under “late” capitalism. The return of the repressed, perhaps, in this double-motion, as if we what we had first thought had now become excrement, spent, wasted, unto our (re)new(ed) commitments, sensibilities, compassionate entanglements.

The problematic most provocatively outlined by Mbembe, of the necessity of redeeming the human from capitalism’s capacity (and tendency) to make waste of human material, was the springboard for multiple lines of flight. He suggested that South Africa offers us a privileged place from which to ask about the human because of the centrality of race to the history of capitalism here. What is crucial here is the specific configuration of capitalism in which the human takes the form of waste. Not only waste as produced bodily and socially by humans, but waste as result of a process of excretion; of the capacity of capitalism to waste human life; of waste as that which is other than human.

(Central to the imaginary of waste here is Marx’s sense of the fate of the human: Marx, Capital Volume 3, the Transformation of Surplus-Value into Profit, p. 182: “If we consider capitalist production in the narrow sense and ignore the process of circulation and the excesses of competition, it (capitalist production) is extremely sparing with the realised labour that is objectified in commodities. Yet it squanders human beings, living labour, more readily than does any other mode of production, squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerves and brain as well. In fact it is only through the most tremendous waste of individual development that the development of humanity in general is secured and pursued, in that epoch of history that directly precedes the conscious reconstruction of human society. Since the whole of the economising we are discussing here arises from the social character of labour, it is in fact precisely this directly social character of labour that produces this waste of the workers' life and health”.)

Thus Mbembe’s project, namely how to retrieve the human from a history of waste, is hinged crucially on the possibility of the event – as singularity, as newness – as that which allows the future itself to be imagined, staked, redeemed – and it relies on a formulation of human and political that deserves further excavation. What is the picture of the human here? What is excessive or exceeds (and can therefore be disposed of)? What difference does it make to think in terms of “becoming human”, ie, what are the ontological stakes of “the human” in this vision of politics? Mbembe’s suggestion that we are no longer able to live with difference, and hence we build walls to live only with ourselves, speaks to a sense of “ontological insecurity” that some have suggested marks relations in South Africa. I wonder whether we might ask instead (additionally, excessively) what our notion of human is here, as an epistemological challenge immanent to a politics of hope, and whether other histories and alternative forms of life might not be at work beneath our attention? Thus, ethnographically, what could we learn from the ways in which the worlds under our study produce relations, novelty, perdurance?

As enriching to our conceptual and political armoury as the image of human-as-waste might be, what would an archaeology of waste reveal? What other possibilities ride on the coat-tails of this notion? A European history of the humoral body and our late “forgotten fear of excrement”, as Kuriyama suggests, might be the beginnings of a history of waste that takes into account, archaeologically, the psychoanalytic, the social, the ethical, and the political. (Cf. Dominic Laporte’s History of Shit, in which he suggests that the management of human waste is crucial to our identities as modern individuals—including the organization of the city, the rise of the nation-state, the development of capitalism, and the mandate for clean and proper language).

Talk of disposability and excess inevitably raised the spectre of sacrifice in our conversation. I wonder if proved a source of great misunderstanding and site of superficial agreement as to the importance of the unaccountability of sacrifice, of the logic of sacrifice to all concepts of value. Bataille’s much-appreciated reflections on the notion of excess themselves draw foundationally on the ethnographic material that has inspired the massive literature on the irrationality, and impossibility, of the gift, of the madness of the destruction of value as a form of politics.

Thus, after our first faltering steps toward a mutually shared language, what place are we to give the notion of sacrifice? What is its status in Mbembe’s formulation of hope and a redemptive, almost messianic desire for retrieval of the human from the waste-dumps of capitalism? How are we to accommodate the ethnographic record of sacrifice and its importance to politico-religious life for many people, even those not of the Abrahamic traditions? What are we to do with the new secular theodicies that circumscribe our “late” sensibilities, that make us wary/weary of reminders of the importance of the religious in our thinking “neighbour”, “enemy”, “future”, “hope”... ?

A last thought on the rich notion of excrement: Rendering the human as waste must actively destroy not only the relations of production that render the poor (once “fortunately”) exploitable (which presumably leaves only relations of consumption as inadequate grounds for any kinds of politics or possibilities for the human) but also must discount, even destroy again and again, analytically at the very least, the actual forms of value that arise in everyday life, the actual survival of real flesh and blood human relations in some form or another, however brutish they appear to our sensitive dispositions. The material gestures, at least to this anthropologist, to the importance of paying attention to the humble, mundane, impure complexities of lives borne up and sometimes jettisoned in these “late” times. Comments, additions and subtractions are welcomed. Mutuality in/deed.

Thomas Cousins

1 comment:

Thomas Michael Blaser said...

Thanks for this interesting summary. For a philosophical treatment of waste in Western civilisation see also Michel Tournier's novel 'Gemini'.

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