Achille Mbembe

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Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe 2.JPG
Born1957 (age 65–66)
Academic background
Alma materSorbonne
Instituts d'études politiques
InfluencesJean-Marc Ela, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Bernard Stiegler, Hannah Arendt
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of the Witwatersrand, Duke University
Main interestshistory, political science
Notable ideasNecropolitics

Joseph-Achille Mbembe, known as Achille Mbembe (/əmˈbɛmb/; born 1957), is a Cameroonian historian, political theorist, and public intellectual who is a research professor in history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economy Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is well known for his writings on colonialism and its consequences and is a leading figure in new wave French critical theory.[1][2]


Mbembe was born near Otélé in Cameroon in 1957. He obtained his Ph.D. in history at the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France, in 1989. He subsequently obtained a D.E.A. in political science at the Instituts d'études politiques in the same city. He has held appointments at Columbia University in New York, Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Duke University and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal.[2]

Mbembe was assistant professor of history at Columbia University, New York, from 1988 to 1991, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., from 1991 to 1992, associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996, executive director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) in Dakar, Senegal, from 1996 to 2000. Achille was also a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001, and a visiting professor at Yale University in 2003.[3] He was a research professor in history and politics at Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute.[4] In 2020 Mbembe delivered the presidential lecture in the Humanities at Stanford University.[5]

Mbembe has written extensively on African history and politics, including La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (Paris: Karthala, 1996).[6] On the Postcolony was published in Paris in 2000 in French and the English translation was published by the University of California Press, Berkeley, in 2001. In 2015, Wits University Press published a new, African edition. He has an A1 rating from the National Research Foundation.[3]

Current appointments[edit]

Achille Mbembe about Les Atelier de la pensée, 2017

Mbembe is currently a member of the staff at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa,[1] and has an annual visiting appointment at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University.[7]

He is a contributing editor to the scholarly journal Public Culture.[8][9]


Mbembe's main research topics are African history, postcolonial studies and politics and social science. Although he is called a postcolonial theorist, namely due to the title of his first English book, he has thoroughly rejected this label more recently,[10] because he sees his project as one of both acceptance and transcendence of difference, rather than of return to an original, marginal, non-metropolitan homeland.

Mbembe's most important works are: Les jeunes et l'ordre politique en Afrique noire (1985);[11] La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1920–1960);[12] Histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (1996);[13] De la postcolonie. Essai sur l'imagination politique dans l'Afrique contemporaine (On the Postcolony) (2000);[14] Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l'Afrique décolonisée (2003);[15] Critique de la raison nègre (2013).[16]

His central work On the Postcolony was translated into English and released by University of California Press in 2001.[14] This influential work has also been republished in an African edition by Wits University Press and contains a new preface by Achille Mbembe. In this text, Mbembe argues that academic and popular discourse on Africa gets caught within various cliches tied to Western fantasies and fears.[17] Following Frantz Fanon and Sigmund Freud, Mbembe holds that this depiction is not a reflection of an authentic Africa but an unconscious projection tied to guilt, disavowal, and the compulsion to repeat. Like James Ferguson, V.Y. Mudimbe, and others, Mbembe interprets Africa not as a defined, isolated place but as a fraught relationship between itself and the rest of the world which plays out simultaneously on political, psychic, semiotic, and sexual levels.

Mbembe claims that Michel Foucault's concept of biopower – as an assemblage of disciplinary power and biopolitics – is no longer sufficient to explain these contemporary forms of subjugation. To the insights of Foucault regarding the notions of sovereign power and biopower, Mbembe adds the concept of necropolitics, which goes beyond merely "inscribing bodies within disciplinary apparatuses".[18] Discussing the examples of Palestine, Africa, and Kosovo, Mbembe shows how the power of sovereignty now becomes enacted through the creation of zones of death where death becomes the ultimate exercise of domination and the primary form of resistance.[19]

He has also examined Johannesburg as a metropolitan city and the work of Frantz Fanon.[1]

Mbembe, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and David Theo-Goldberg in 2016

Cancellation of Ruhrtriennale address[edit]

In May 2019 the German Parliament passed a resolution branding the BDS movement antisemitic. In addition all German states were advised to deny public funding for events or people supportive of that movement.[20] In early 2020, the Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the fight against antisemitism, Felix Klein, called for the cancellation of a keynote address by Mbembe scheduled to be delivered on 14 August that summer at the Ruhrtriennale. He claimed Mbembe had "relativised the Holocaust and denied Israel's right to exist". The invitation was withdrawn, and the festival itself was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[21][20]

The evidence for this charge was based on comments Mbembe made in two books where he drew parallels between the separatist policies deployed in the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and South Africa under Apartheid.[22][a][23] Mbembe was supported by groups of Israeli and Jewish academics, including some prominent German Holocaust scholars. Concerns were raised over what some argued was a "weaponization of antisemitism",[22] and, later that year, in December, representatives of 32 prominent cultural institutions issued a declaration both rejecting the BDS movement and, at the same time, warning that, rather than reining in antisemitism, the resolution posed dangers to freedom of speech.[b][21] In response, Monika Grütters, Germany's minister for culture, stated that cultural institutions walk a tightrope between artistic freedoms and socially acceptable ideas, and that anti-Semitism was a redline issue.[20]


Private life[edit]

Mbembe is married to Sarah Nuttall, who is Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies and Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. They have written several texts together and have two children.[26]


Books (English)[edit]

  • On the Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001.
  • Critique of Black Reason, Translated by Laurent Dubois, Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Necropolitics, Duke University Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-4780-0722-7, doi:10.1215/9781478007227
  • Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization, Columbia University Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0-231-16028-5
  • The Earthly Community: Reflections on the Last Utopia, V2_Publishing, Rotterdam, 2022. ISBN 9789082893533

Books (French)[edit]

  • 1985 Les Jeunes et l'ordre politique en Afrique noire, Éditions L'Harmattan, Paris 1985 ISBN 2-85802-542-8
  • 1996 La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun, 1920–1960: histoire des usages de la raison en colonie.
  • 2000 De La Postcolonie, essai sur l'imagination politique dans l'Afrique contemporaine. (English edition On the Postcolony, 2001. Second revised French edition, 2005.)
  • 2000 Du Gouvernement prive indirect. (English edition On Private Indirect Government (State of the Literature), 2002.)
  • 2010 Sortir de la grande nuit – Essai sur l'Afrique décolonisée[27]
  • 2013 Critique de la raison nègre.
  • 2016 Politiques de l'inimitié
  • 2020 Brutalisme Editions de la Découverte.


Secondary literature[edit]


Matthias Böckmann, Matthias Gockel, Reinhart Kößler, Henning Melber: Jenseits von Mbembe – Geschichte, Erinnerung, Solidarität. Metropol Verlag, Berlin 2022, ISBN 3-86331-677-0


Genealogical Misfortunes’: Achille Mbembe’s (Re-)Writing of Postcolonial Africa', Michael Syrotinski, Paragraph, 35 (3). pp. 407-420. ISSN 0264-8334.


  1. ^ "To be sure, it is not apartheid, South African style. It is far more lethal. It looks like high-tech Jim Crow-cum-apartheid."Mbembe 2015, p. vii-viii
  2. ^ 'For months, the leaders of dozens of Germany's most prominent cultural institutions met in secret, swapping stories of self-censorship, of hours spent worrying about the social media histories of artists or scholars they wanted to invite to their programs, and fears for their futures, if they slipped up. Their concern? That they or their institutions could face charges of anti-Semitism over links — real or perceived — to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, widely known as B.D.S. That's what happened earlier this year to Achille Mbembe, a prominent Cameroonian philosopher who has drawn parallels in his writing between the situation of Palestinians and apartheid in South Africa.'Eddy 2020


  1. ^ a b c Achille Mbembe to deliver a second "Thinking Africa" Public Lecture Archived November 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Rhodes University, 5 July 2012
  2. ^ a b Achille Mbembe, WISER Staff Profile
  3. ^ a b "Achille Mbembe | Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  4. ^ "Achille Mbembe". Archived from the original on 2016-10-05. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  5. ^ University, © Stanford; Stanford; Complaints, California 94305 Copyright. "Presidential Lecture in the Humanities: Achille Mbembe – Stanford Arts". Retrieved 2021-03-18.
  6. ^ "La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  7. ^ "Achille Mbembe | Forum for Scholars and Publics - Duke University". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  8. ^ "Achille Mbembe" (faculty page). Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought, European Graduate School. Retrieved 2018-07-11.
  9. ^ "Achille Mbembe" (profile). Public Culture. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved 2018-07-11.
  10. ^ Mbembe, Achille. "The Invention of Johannesburg". Slought Foundation. Retrieved 2011-03-23.
  11. ^ "LES JEUNES ET L'ORDRE POLITIQUE EN AFRIQUE NOIRE - Mbembe J. A. - livre, ebook, epub". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  12. ^ Mbembé, J.-A. (1996-01-01). La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun, 1920-1960: histoire des usages de la raison en colonie (in French). KARTHALA Editions. ISBN 9782865376001.
  13. ^ Hamos, Hongla (1998). "Mbembe (Achille): La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1920–1960): histoire des usages de la raison en colonie". Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer. 85 (321): 96–97.
  14. ^ a b On the Postcolony. Retrieved 15 December 2021.
  15. ^ Eyebiyi, Elieth P. (2010-11-29). "Achille Mbembe, Sortir de la grande nuit. Essai sur l'Afrique décolonisée". Lectures (in French). doi:10.4000/lectures.1198. ISSN 2116-5289.
  16. ^ "Critique de la raison nègre - Achille MBEMBE - Éditions La Découverte". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  17. ^ Mbembe, Achille (2001). On the Postcolony. Stanford: University of California Press. p. 3. ISBN 9780520204348.
  18. ^ " 34" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-03-21. Retrieved 15 December 2021.
  19. ^ Mbembe, Achille (January 2003). "Sign In". Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40. doi:10.1215/08992363-15-1-11. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  20. ^ a b c Eddy 2020.
  21. ^ a b Kuras 2021.
  22. ^ a b Zonszein 2020.
  23. ^ Mbembe 2019, pp. 42–65.
  24. ^ "Geschwister-Scholl-Preis". Archived from the original on 2017-10-22. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  25. ^ "2014 | Gerda Henkel Stiftung". Retrieved 2018-08-07.
  26. ^ Zvomuya, Percy (14 June 2013). "Wits all the Wiser for its vital literary couple". The M&G Online. Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  27. ^ Sandeep Bakshi. Book Review: Achille Mbembe: Sortir de la Grande Nuit: Essai sur l'Afrique Décolonisée. We Must Get Out of the Great Night: Essay on Decolonized Africa. International Feminist Journal of Politics. Special Issue: Murderous Inclusions. Vol. 15, no. 4.


Further reading[edit]

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