A New Kind of Human: Reading Achille Mbembe

In response to Mbembe’s piece, ‘The age of humanism is ending,’ a conversation on how there may not be a novelty about this dystopic era that he has named as “first”.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),' a painting by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí, who created this piece to represent the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Achille Mbembe (left), Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War),’ a painting by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí, who created this piece to represent the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In his piece, ‘The age of humanism is ending,’ Achille Mbembe draws upon the emerging trends in world politics and economy to draw a dystopic idea of a post-human world where older forms of political systems and the idea of the human subject are going to be taken over by xenophobic war and the rationally hollow consumerist being of “deadly passions”. Two scholars, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee and Anil Persaud, critically discuss and evaluate this view, introducing their own concerns.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee: So what do you think of Achille Mbembe’s piece, ‘The age of humanism is ending’?

Anil Persaud: He often gets it right.

MFB: Isn’t it an audacious summing up of the near future?

AP: This summing. How long can we go on summing? The question is, ‘What happens next?’, ‘So what?’

MFB: Mbembe is speaking from the quite visible indications and trends that are occurring currently in history. There is, of course, no summation as it happens in algebra.

AP: Yes. But how to deal with the ‘so what?’ question is the big stickler, don’t you think? The ‘So what?’ question depresses me again, after reading Mbembe. Not because humanism is ending as he claims, but because aesthetic politics makes us cry as we read about humanism’s obituary.

MFB: Your agony with aesthetic politics, which [Frank] Ankersmit detects in the politics of representation in liberal democracy, is understandable. I think Mbembe does leave uncertainties to themselves, despite laying down certainties. He is telling us the various political and socio-cultural symptoms being unleashed by neoliberalism fostering a neo-Darwinian age. It gives us a field of issues to think over. We don’t need to think with or against Mbembe’s framework of thought, necessarily. There is always this specific problem with sweeping generalisations, even though the broad view may appear convincing. But the way Mbembe’s perception seizes all the links and offers it to us is surely provocative enough for thought. We can all feel things going a bit too terribly wrong all over the world, don’t we?


Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee

AP: Leave Mbembe aside. While you pointed out that he seizes all the relevant links, but no one will ultimately accept what he offers. He too quickly leaves behind “the weak”, who he thinks “do not want to become”. The question ‘So what?’ remains; it always survives. How do we think and act on that question?

MFB: In relation to what occupies you these days, if you ask me, ‘So what?’ I would say, ‘So, nothing!’ (It is in reference to Persaud’s latest preoccupation with histories of ‘nothing’ where he goes into systems of thought, from Buddhism, to psychology, to chemistry, to certain schools of lived politics.)

AP: I get really hassled at this ‘So what?’ moment that confronts us here again in Mbembe. It is the question within all the questions we may ask of this moment.

MFB: I am thinking three things in relation to ‘So what?’ One, there is a danger of reductionism behind the question if we simply ask it rhetorically against those who are charting out thoughtful possibilities that confront us today. Say, for example, Mbembe’s idea of the “new kind of human” belonging to a world of “digital technologies and computational media” replacing the liberal individual.

That may define the co-opted individual but it doesn’t mean a world of resistance against it will disappear. It is perhaps safer to claim that the “new kind of human” will coexist with the liberal individual while their interface will create new problems in the socio-political sphere.

Two, ethicists will call the ‘So what?’ question amoral, as it tends to dissolve the question of ‘ought’ into a contingent one. Three, despite the above issues, the ‘So what’ question does manage to free us from the constraints of thinking on the moment by asking about the moment. The question aims at a pure confrontation between time and subject. By posing the question, the subject affirms his undeterred attitude towards time.

AP: I am thinking about your three points. They point to a tension that is lived (but must it be lived with?). Is there, can there be political action without closure? Hence, ‘So what’ is really the question regarding political action. That question grinds against a brutal history. When it comes to political action, words like contingency, which has a ring of indeterminacy to it, is a word that is enough to level forests and dry up oceans.

MFB: Yes, political action must go on irrespective of the ‘what’, against the coercions of the ‘what’. But that also means modern political action is trapped in pure contingency, in the way it responds to history and politics. Response is a key idea to the question of both politics and ethics. We respond to time, to what [Jean-Paul] Sartre called our “situation”. In more concrete ways, we respond to our interlocutor, to Ambedkar, to Rohith Vemula. We also respond to power, to the current, right-wing political regimes and their ideological battalions, to people committing violence in the streets. But all this also makes me think of another question – What is at stake?

AP: I would say, again, “nothing”. I mean that in all seriousness. It has always been; the claim to nothing is what is at stake. It is as far as I get. Apologies.


Anil Persaud

MFB: To apologise for nothing would be no apology. We can only apologise for something. But you also raised the question of indeterminacy. Are you suggesting – by giving us a broad picture of what is to come and of how events – their potential violence and the various symptoms on the socio-political field are going to play out, Mbembe’s thoughts may induce political passivity by merely introducing us to a world that offers us our limits? Is he overlooking the question of response or [does] he finds it less impactful in relation to the larger force of neoliberal capital and anti-humanism? Can’t we say, by laying out the challenges presciently, Mbembe is helping us formulate our actions, our responses?

AP: I would not say that Mbembe is overlooking that aspect. His links you point out earlier are on point. Rather, the way you’ve articulated Mbembe gives me a chance to understand the ‘So what?’ question as a ‘So what for what?’ question. ‘So what’ for political action? ‘So what’ for global warming? So the concern, therefore, arises with the ‘So what for what?’ in Mbembe. Since he brought up Stuart Hall, we should also recall that Hall worked, lived and theorised based on an understanding of culture and politics as practices “without guarantees… We have to acknowledge the real indeterminacy of the political.”

MFB: I understand you want to break the ‘series of convergent facts’ (to use André Breton’s expression) that Mbembe is laying out into specificities confronting the question of political action. The divergences of symptoms occurring in political, social, cultural and psychological aspects need specific responses. But despite the tide of events where, as Mbembe says, technology and religion are coming together, where finance capital has managed to turn itself “into the first global secular theology” we seem to be caught in a double-problem.

On the one hand, we are facing a “global” symptom where the enlightenment subject and democracy is giving way to the “deliberating” consumer and the fascistic usurpation of democracy through “authoritarian populism”. We are seeing the demise of the old Left and the rise of a new Right.

Two, within this overwhelming symptom there exists political responses to specific cases of historical exploitation which are, don’t you think, equally significant in measuring the “signs” Mbembe wants to read? Don’t you think that these struggles (say of caste in India), even though they may not change the course of history in the larger sense (say of capital), are part of the “signs” of our times?

I am thinking here of political action, not in singular terms – of history and progress – but of histories understood in the plural. For instance, the fascinating battle of ideas between the Left and the Ambedkarite movement has forced the Left to acknowledge that history is not just a history of class but also ‘other people’, whose histories of discrimination they subsumed within a unifying discourse of history.

AP: One, I don’t know about first in “first global secular theology”. Why do we need to keep on counting, keeping count? Yes, the native can read and write and do their math. So what? Has it ever been otherwise?  Two, all history is, here as well, the history of capital, i.e., history not without but with weak – without flesh and all bones – subjects.

The history of capital is about the measurement of signs. What concerns us is, however, not merely the measurement of signs but the indifference to significance. That is where the interest of capital lies. The question is – significance of what? Of lives.

How is the significance of a life measured? What mathematics is appropriate for this measurement? Does the unity you point to lie in the one or the zero or in the order of operations applied – PEMDAS? A series of distortions produced, exchanged and consumed by and in a fundamental epistemically conceived unwillingness to grant that my life is my life. I want to guard against the violence of reading the signs of capital as the signs of life resonant in your reminder of Ambedkar – recall the murders and suicides of Dalits, farmers, living orality of ‘Black Lives Matter’, of the ‘homeless’…

MFB: Yes, the ‘first’ is a rather strange assumption. There may not be such a clear novelty about this era Mbembe wants to name as “first”. We are caught in the history, or histories, of capital, which as you say, is a history of “weak subjects”.

We are also part of the Anthropocene with its defining effects over the technology of [our] nature. Whether global warming and environmental disasters, the question of Dalit struggle and Black resistance, or the issue of migrants, we are already into a face-off. I would like to hear how you conceive the question of political action that addresses both, the specific and the general. Also, in this era of what Mbembe calls the “new kind of human”, how do we conceive of a new kind of politics that challenges the interest of capital as much as it asserts the significance of lives.

AP: The ‘new’ in the “new kind of human” and new kind of politics may also be old, may have antecedents. The only politics is always and only the politics over the new kind of human. Who is that new kind of human going to be allowed to be? That is always the question. Political action rests on the arrival at that question. The combination of the three elements of the dynamic situation you present, of political action, of a new kind of politics by a new kind of human [and] the uncertainty principle applies here as well.

You may be able to know two at a time but never all three at the same time. When the identities of the three are also interchangeable then the action becomes that much more unthinkable. What I can offer, because I sense the urgency to get concrete, is that the new kind of human, who is also the oldest kind, is a (paleo/neo) survivor in a state of (paleo/neo) dread, a survivor of a concrete kind, with a rock as her pillow, stripping herself naked in front of a bank that refuses to exchange her two old 500 rupee notes for two new 500 rupee notes because she does not have valid identification.

MFB: The old in a way is indeed at stake. Mbembe talks about the older form of “virtues” such as “care, compassion and kindness”, on the one hand, and liberal democracy with the individual limited by market and repression on the other. He does recognise possibilities within the problems of that system. He draws a more sinister picture of the human having “body, history and flesh” disappearing into data and getting thrown into “sublimated warfare”.

As you rightly say, the concrete nature of this scenario can’t be determined. Histories, bodies and flesh aren’t going to disappear even though a bizarre form of violence can change their relationship with each other. We can take the image of dread you draw at the end. The body forced to assert its vulnerability faced with an absurdity. So we are sticking to the concern of the “concrete”. Mbembe seems to be stuck on what the new will replace but not the really new that may arrive through this violent encounter and transformation. That is where the concern for political action, the concrete, seems to lie. The new will not appear first as an idea but as a “response” to the crisis. The new is real.

AP: A history of the concrete would be useful here. It takes us back thousands of years to southern Syria. The concrete takes time to harden. The West Indians have a saying that captures the nature of concrete when they say, “di pot a boil but e a neva stew”, the food is boiling but never cooks. Is the ‘real’ concrete? Is the concrete ‘real’? I’d ask the people of Aleppo.

MFB: Talking about the new, the ‘to come’, we turn back to older and current victims in history. The new will always be a place and a people, whose territories are marked by life and death, body and history.

The uncertainty of progressive “mass politics” Mbembe, mentions in the end, is a good thing. It will mark a necessary diversification and extension of the very meaning of “progressive”. The West Indian saying, echoed in the Latin creed from a poem by Antonio Machado, “quod elixum est ne asato” (don’t roast what’s already boiled), will always remain ahead of us.

Anil Persaud is Assistant Professor of History at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin, 2016). He is currently adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.