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Achille Mbembe: 'the future resides in conviviality'

Gero Schliess / adMay 25, 2016

Achille Mbembe is considered to be a vanguard in postcolonial thought and political science. A staunch opponent of Eurocentric worldviews, Mbembe tells DW that each culture should constantly be examining its own values.

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe says that the world as we know is about to change on account of mass migrationsImage: U. Langkafel

DEUTSCHE WELLE: "Ordnung" is the German word for order, discipline, rule, arrangement, organization, or system. Would that also be your concept?

ACHILLE MBEMBE: That's a tough question. I think order requires all of that, all of these German attributes, but order also presupposes that people buy into it. They have to believe in it for it to exist at all. Where they don't believe in it, where there is no consent, it unravels very quickly. In that sense, it seems to me that any order has to allow in itself a space for its own contestation. So I would define order in that sense: that which is bought into by a huge number of people, and that which allows in itself a space for its being contested. For that contestation, for leading to betterment without anarchy or violence.

We discussed the concept of the new world which probably accepts different kinds of order. But you know of the discussion in Europe, especially in Germany, of the right-wing nationalist parties saying that before accepting new orders, or other or different orders, we have to be aware of our own order, our own concept of order, about our own values. So what's your view on this German discussion?

The challenge today, as well as tomorrow, is to live precisely with people who do not look like us. The world in which we lived among ourselves is finished, and it will not come back. The world that is coming is one of integration, implication and entanglement.

Achille Mbembe on stage
Mbembe spoke to DW on the sidelines of a new series of public talks in Berlin called "Berliner Korrespondenzen"Image: DW/G. Schließ

So the point is to find ways in which we can reorder our societies in such a way that we can cope with difference. Any other discourse is nostalgic.

Is your discourse on values also used just to stick to your own idea of values, just to not be receptive of new ideas?

I think that the future of our world as it is unfolding will require of all of us enormous capacities to negotiate the coexistence with those we don't agree with. There is no way in which we can establish boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world that will help us in that business.

So we Europeans probably have to give up our view, our Eurocentric look at the world.

Yes, because Europe is not alone in the world.

But what about you, your country, your cultural background. Let's talk about Africa. What would people in Africa have to give up in this discourse?

They have to give up their idea that there are values that are typically African. I think there are basic human values of decency, of fairness, of freedom, the rights to basic life. These aspirations are fundamentally human. Of course, the way they are expressed here and there varies according to local traditions. But at the basis, these are human aspirations. So we have to aim at accomplishing those human aspirations in the context in which, as we were saying, we are becoming more and more involved in each other's destiny.

Mbembe with Steinmeier
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (third from the left) met with Mbembe after the eventImage: DW/G. Schließ

What African values are among those you would propose to give up - just to learn about your discourse which is part of a global discourse?

I don't even know what the term African values means at all. I have spent my entire life moving from one place to another. And in the process, learning from others, the encounters I made, the languages I learnt, for me, the most fundamental value resides in that capacity to move, and to learn from my being exposed to what it is that I meet.

But if you want, this is a typical African value, because historically, there is a strong mobility and movement with which Africans have created their cultures. It's not through the attachment to some old traditions, as it is often said. So I would focus on that tradition of openness, of encounter, because that's where the human emerges from.

But this is nothing you have to give up. It's something you would just make more popular to other cultural circles.

Yes, because our world is becoming smaller and smaller. It's populated by more human beings, we have to share it with everybody else. We also have to share it with non-humans. And it's in that conviviality that the future resides. It doesn't reside in returning back to I don't know what kind of tradition.