December 6, 2013 John Drabinski

Mbembe, democracy, animism

Achille Mbembe’s talk at Harvard University this past Thursday (4 December) set out the terms of a new project, described in the straightforward title: “Democracy in the Age of Animism.” It was a fascinating talk and asked a lot of critical and urgent questions. A few thoughts.

Mbembe’s central claim is that late-capitalism is defined in part, if not entirely, by its reinvention of animism as the end of commodification. Some of this claim draws on Marx directly, but Mbembe was attentive to the nuances and important cultural and political shifts in the “late-” part of late-capitalism. Animism here functions in two basic senses. First, commodities, and even capital itself, take on a sense of life – a sense in which hiding life or displaying it from within the object is constitutive of the very objecthood of commodities in psychic, cultural, and economic exchange. This is partly a restatement of commodity fetish value. The effect of capitalism is to make objects come alive in the moment of exchange. The late- part of late-capitalism, however, is crucial. Objects function as virtual transformations of ourselves in relation to them. In that sense, desire in late-capitalism is largely defined by the desire of subjects to become animist objects who have life in that transformation of self in and through the relation to the animistic commodity. The cellphone, the computer, the virtual world, the personality of social media, identification with various cultural objects – all animate themselves and function as a lure of liberation from the alienation of contemporary life (in which there is no life for the human itself) through the transformative power of object-object relation. Our task is to properly become-object (consumption and participation?), which then makes us capable of animation, life, through the relation. The objectification of the human in commodity exchange therefore has its antidote or moment of salvation: becoming an object in an age of animism.

The second sense of animism is less concerned with possibilities of liberation, and instead is a site of critique: the life borne by objects in the trace of human production. Mbembe’s example was how virtuality is made possible by violence in the Congo – the component parts of the cellphone and computer are inseparable from the exploitation of people and land in central Africa. This is a particularly brutal trace of the human in certain commodities, where the object is politically animated by a prior violence, which itself stretches into a much longer history of exploitation and cruelty in central and other parts of Africa, then across the black Atlantic.

The purchase of this is that the new animism – altered by 21st century cultural and technological life, which transforms classical Marxist conceptions of commodity fetishism and the labor-commodity link – has fundamentally restructured the meaning of the human and the meaning of the social. What does this mean for how we think about democracy when our models and terms for theorizing the demos (and co-extensive notions of belonging, justice, and the like) come from other centuries. Centuries in which the struggle was to maintain a sense of subjectivity against the reduction of the human subject to an object; the early Marx’s humanism, we could say, is premised on just such a struggle. But the age of animism, thought in Mbembe’s terms here, reverses so much of this in the moment that the desire of the human subject is to become an object and, in that becoming-object, to become animated in the new proper sense. That is, in the 21st century sense, where the distinction between the virtual and the actual is utterly confusing to 18th-20th century modes of thinking the relation. Animism demands that we think virtuality and actuality differently, which, in many senses, is tantamount to saying we must figure out how to think democracy otherwise.

How do we think otherwise? That’s the task. An open question.

My own instinct in theorizing democracy (and here my deep sympathies to the later Derrida show up) is to turn to the question of friendship. And how friendship might be linked to justice. But if I step down from high theory for a moment and think about the function of the politics of friendship in the everyday, I think about how justice-talk is so much about access. Especially the digital divide. And the politics of resistance, which Derrida sees as its own kind of friendship, are themselves thought so often along the lines of a blurred virtual-actual distinction – Twitter, blogs, YouTube, DIY cinema and music, etc. Social media is inseparable from revolutionary movements – does this mean social media is inseparable from the revolutionary him or herself?

All of that is to say: Mbembe’s talk has me thinking about how ways in which we imagine liberation these days reflects the desire to – becoming political in the language of the right to – make one’s self into an object, insofar as the object promises the right kind of animation. We belong, get our just portion and due, and so on to the extent that we have access to this new kind of object-object-animation relation. What does democracy mean in this context? And what is justice?

Mostly: what, if any, resources do we have for answering these questions when so much of our vocabulary and conceptual analysis turns on the resistance of our subjectivity to being turned into an object?

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Comments (3)

  1. Jack Marsh

    Thanks again John. I’m not sure I’d completely underwrite Mbeme’s framework. But as you describe it, next to your reference of ‘the trace of the human’ and something like the early Marx’s humanism, suggests that Hegelian-Marxist struggle against alienation is still structuring the account (hence allowing us to identify Congolese labor, for instance, as that which makes animistic object-life possible). I’m no Luddite, and I wouldn’t propose nostalgic rejection of innovations outside our control. We indeed must explore questions of the significance and possibilities our animistic present opens. But your ‘trace of the human’ does empower a distinction between properly agential or transformational *use* of this technology, and, say, a purely individualist identity ‘play’ completely absorbed in object-life in a way that forgets the subjective (and abjected) life (alienated labor) at its base. We need not become Luddites in response to this, or even wholly abandon individualist identity play, but only come to recognize the exploited life that makes it possible such that we are obligated to put these new technologies to use in the socialist project. Here, subjectivity returns, though transformed and understood in terms of the animistic present. It returns nonetheless: new animism isn’t fatal! Thoughts?

  2. That’s the tension I find so interesting: humanism and post-humanism. If I understand, or even just thinking with Mbembe’s foundational insight, it’s like the human is only one form of animating the object. And in fact what was alienation in the early Marx has become the desire, not against life, but in the name of life.

    What’s perplexing (and so compelling) to me is how we are to think in the present both with and without humanism. Does it have a pull? Does it show up in another way, as in Levinas’ anti-humanism? These are really questions. Much to think about, not only because the questions are big, but also because everything probably hangs in the balance, no?

  3. Jack Marsh

    Fascinating and difficult questions indeed. My immediate instinct is to offer a quite classical answer: our animistic present is a new opium or (as Levinas might insist) new idolatry, but only insofar as it occludes, forgets, and represses the ‘properly’ human labor that grounds it. Why I suggested that we need not wholly abandon style, play, or aesthetic pursuit of object-life, only properly situate or order it within a broader account of authentic social, moral, and political life. We should reactivate the best in the humanist tradition. And the human in question must be a post- or critical- or ethical- humanism, i.e. explicitly registers the others (nature, animals, gods, etc.) that play a role in what it is.

    Anyway, sorry for thinking out-loud. I’m not sure my response is adequate. I don’t want to give up humanism in toto, but Mbembe’s analysis does give rise to questions I haven’t seriously considered as of yet. I will read his work. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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