Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” (notes)

Achille Mbembe (1957 – ), a prominent postcolonial theorist, was born in Cameroon and studied history and political science in Paris, France.  He is currently a senior researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa, serves as contributing editor of Public Culture (in which he published “Necropolitics”), and is an annual visiting faculty member of Duke University’s English department.  What follows are my notes on “Necropolitics” [with my questions/comments in brackets].

Mbembe begins “Necropolitics” with a couple definitions: ultimate expression of Sovereignty – power and capacity to dictate who may live and who may die; Biopower – domain of life over which power has taken control.  Mbembe’s “essay draws on the concept of biopower and explores its relation to notions of sovereignty (imperium) and the state of exception” (12) in order to answer many questions about the politics of death.  Mbembe is concerned with figures of sovereignty whose central project is “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.” (14)  

Politics, the Work of Death, and the “Becoming Subject” – In this section, Mbembe “present[s] a reading of politics as the work of death.” (16)  Starting from Hegel’s account of death, “the human being truly becomes a subject – that is, separated from the animal – in the struggle and the work through which he or she confronts death,” (14) Mbembe concludes, “Politics is therefore death that lives a human life.” (15)  [Does Mbembe’s progression make sense in this paragraph?]  Mbembe also draws heavily on Bataille to complete his rereading of politics.  [Since I haven’t read Bataille before, does anyone else want to discuss the accuracy of Mbembe’s interpretation?]

Biopower and the Relation of Enmity – In this section Mbembe draws on Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty as the power to decide on the state of exception and identifies the plantation and colonial worlds as “manifestation[s] of the state of exception.” (22)  He argues that slave plantations and “the colonies are the location par excellence where the controls and guarantees of judicial order can be suspended” (24) because just war theory only applies to “civilized” states.  The sovereignty wields its right to kill in order to rule these worlds through terror formation or necropower.  Since slaves and “savage” colonial natives are viewed as more animal than human, “Colonial wars are conceived of as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against an absolute enemy.” (25)

Necropower and Late Modern Colonial Occupation – In this section Mbembe discusses two examples of late modern colonial occupation: apartheid in South Africa, and the current occupation of Palestine, which he identifies as “the most accomplished form of necropower.” (27)  When describing South Africa, Mbembe offers another useful interpretation of sovereignty: “In this case, sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” (27)  Mbembe then offers a spatial reading of the colonial occupation of Palestine according to three major characteristics: territorial fragmentation, vertical sovereignty, and splintering occupation, which are evidence of a state of siege where “entire populations are the target of the sovereign.” (30)

War Machines and Heteronomy – In this section Mbembe describes how current warfare has changed away from the simple annexing of territories by civilized states as dictated by just war theory.  Using the Gulf War and the campaign in Kosovo as examples, he argues, “Wars of the globalization era therefore aim to force the enemy into submission regardless of the immediate consequences, side effects, and ‘collateral damage’ of the military actions.” (31)  Mbembe then discusses the situation in Africa during the last quarter of the 20th century.   Due to the widespread postcolonial monetary/economic collapses, Africa is now overrun with war machines, which “are made up of segments of armed men that split up or merge with one another depending on the tasks to be carried out and the circumstances.” (32)  The war machines are funded by the extraction of natural resources (enclave economics), which has turned “the enclaves into privileged spaces of war and death.” (33)  Mbembe argues that Africa has also experienced “the emergence of an unprecedented form of governmentality that consists in the management of the multitudes.” (34)  Those in power use today’s brutal technologies of destruction to control whole categories of people, and civilian massacres have become common.  [Would Mbembe refer to independent war machines as sovereign?]

Of Motion and Metal – In this section Mbembe uses the example of the suicide bomber to discuss the logics of martyrdom and survival.  While the logic of survival dictates that you win when you outlive your enemies, the logic of martyrdom requires your death as a means of winning (killing your enemies).  Mbembe explains that these apparently paradoxical logics aren’t really contradictory since, while you lose your freedom if someone kills you, you may actually gain freedom if you choose to sacrifice your life.  Since “death is precisely that from ad over which I have power,” for those who are oppressed, death is “experienced as ‘a release from terror and bondage.’” (39)

Conclusion – Mbembe lists everything he believes he accomplished in his essay.  [A good discussion would be going through this paragraph line by line and debating whether he succeeded on each count.]


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