A Common World? On Critique of Black Reason

Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason leaves larger questions unanswered, but points 978-1-77614-050-3-critique_1200the way. It examines the changing use of ‘blackness’ as a category in an increasingly post-Western world order, and it raises the concept of ‘black reason’ as the thinking around the category that shapes its use. The book provides a history of the category in practice, its origins in the needs of capital, Atlantic then global diffusion, and moments of its change in practice: abolition, decolonization, and Apartheid. This drives the analysis to the crux of today, where the relation of West and the world is being reworked, enabling both new racism and a search for a ‘common world’ beyond black reason. Mbembe suggests ‘Europe’s twilight has arrived, and the Euro-American world has not yet figured out what it wants to know about, or to do with, the Black Man’ (p.7).

Working in the French tradition of Fanon, the text is awash in insight into intimately noticed public forms and moods. The book also contributes new concepts, like ‘black reason’, ‘Western consciousness of blackness’, ‘black consciousness of blackness’, and the ‘becoming black of the world’ with the aim of building towards the universalist cosmopolitan themes and questions of ‘Afropolitanism’ and a ‘common world’.

Critique of Black Reason makes its most distinctive and I think most important mark on the question of a ‘common world’, working towards the ‘project of a world in common founded on the principle of “equal shares” and on the principle of the fundamental unity of human beings’, that Mbembe stakes out as ‘a universal project’ (p. 176-177). Mbembe offers a distinct mode of responding to this question, a distinct kind of answer, with a number of gestures towards one, if not an answer in itself. He argues there is ‘only one world’, Tout-Monde, All-World, that all are a part of, not apart from. Yet, what to make of the world, this worldcosm, world of worlds, is less clear. For instance, Mbembe makes a quasi-Heideggerian suggestion that a common world is an ‘Open’ world, rather than a new enclosure of the world. But, being open is not entirely the same thing as being for something. I mean, being-together-in-the-world is not the same as being-in-it-together. What is or can all humankind be-in-it-together-for, whilst being-together is not clear. It is worth asking in a world where practices, ideals and values conflict and collide. Above all, for this reader, the most important way pointing of Critique of Black Reason is the gesture towards universal belonging, rather than universal axioms and universal moral algorithms. Even though belonging together connects to being for something together, my sense is that where belonging exists, where being together exists as belonging together, conflicts of ideals, practices, and values are not as necessarily all important or implacable. Even if not all the questions are worked out, this gesture towards belonging points the way.

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