PRINT December 2020


Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics

Photo: Brian Green

At the outset of lockdown, some friends and I revived an old reading group we once had when we all lived in Los Angeles, holding weekly meetings over Zoom. Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics (Duke) was our anchor text. The book further defines and mobilizes the neologism of its title, the Cameroonian philosopher’s signature term from his famous 2003 essay of the same name. Mbembe writes that “becoming a subject . . . supposes upholding the work of death,” that politics and sovereignty are linked more to a “right to kill” than to the preservation of life. The language of freedom, democracy, and society are mere specters that mask this reality, the only truth of the subject.

The book is far-reaching in scope: There are long analyses of Frantz Fanon, digressions on the threat of technological singularity, and riffs on the position of the Black amid the various terrors humans bring upon one another. It’s all pretty depressing, and at one point, some reading group members became frustrated with Mbembe: “What does he want?” It’s true he spends a lot of time precisely cataloguing all the forms of doom and gloom that define our era. However, his poetic conclusion, “Ethics of the Passerby”—which, uncharacteristically, made me cry—articulates that Mbembe’s project may simply be to ask the questions that lead us to another way of being here together in the time we still have: to embrace the “fugitive character of life.”

As we read and as more and more shit hit the fan with each passing day, the events of the spring consistently tracked with Mbembe’s account. At first, keeping oneself and one’s people alive was the main objective, followed closely by staving off mental suffering. Everywhere, borders were shutting down. Social bonds were severed. And a sizable portion of the population (the working poor, the unhoused, the incarcerated, the detained) was left to die. Necropolitics was a reminder to us that these stories were developments of a system and an ideology long in place, not aberrations from any previously livable norm. Nature, at least the nature of democratic society, was healing and thus baring its rotten core. Before Covid-19, Mbembe’s picture of a world enchanted by its own practice of mass murder-suicide in the name of democracy and liberal values seemed accurate enough. After, or during, or whenever we are, Mbembe’s prescience is horrifying, comforting, and absolutely necessary.

Aria Dean is an artist and writer based in New York and Los Angeles.