Future Knowledges and Their Implication for the Decolonisation Project

Achille Mbembe

The experience of student protests in South Africa has generated difficult but necessary debates about whiteness and the damage resulting from institutionalised racial hierarchies and violence. It has forced upon us new questions about what counts as knowledge and why. It has also obliged society at large to reflect on whether academic institutions can be turned into spaces of radical hospitality and if so, how, for whom and under what conditions; or whether they are simply sites that replay power relations already existing within society. Moreover, it has brought back to the centre perennial “postcolonial dilemmas” such as: what should we do with institutions inherited from a cruel past? Are such institutions “reformable” or should they simply be “decommissioned” or, for that matter, literally burnt down in the hope that from the ashes, something new will eventually emerge?1

At the core of these events is the hope, especially among the youth, for something new, which would not simply be a repetition of what we thought we had got rid of.2 It is this hope that explains the renewed injunction to decolonise institutions, or for that matter, knowledge itself.

Calls to “decolonise” are not new. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s they were issued under different names, the most recognisable of which were “Africanisation”, “indigenisation”, “endogenisation” and so on. So far – and as far as Africa is concerned – the decolonising injunction has mostly consisted of a critique of the colonial knowledge chain (what is taught, produced and disseminated) and a denunciation of its deleterious effects on the African society, culture and psyche. To be sure, a lot of resources have been invested in the study of “indigenous knowledge” or “technological systems”.3 Most of these studies could in fact be assembled under the rubric of ethno-knowledges, so tight are their connections with the politics of identity and ethnicity (for a critique, see John and Jean Comaroff’s Ethnicity Inc.4).

But we still do not have a precise idea of what a “truly decolonised knowledge” might look like. Nor do we have a theory of knowledge as such that might compellingly underpin the African injunction to decolonise. Because of the absence of both a theory of knowledge and a theory of institutions, the injunction to decolonise may be, at least for the time being, better understood as a compensatory act whose function is to heal what amounts to racial shame.5

THE INJUNCTION TO DECOLONISE

Take for instance Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and his now canonical Decolonising the Mind.6 Of all the practical implications Ngũgĩ draws from his programmatic statements, the most important is arguably the necessity for curriculum reform. Crucial in this regard is, for him, the need to teach African languages. A decolonised university in Africa, he believes, should put African languages at the centre of its teaching and learning project. Ngũgĩ probably assumes that language inevitably shapes knowledge or what it is possible to know; he probably believes that language inevitably grounds knowledge in a particular culture and influences what we know and how we know it. But language alone cannot stand or compensate for the lack of a theory of knowledge as such.

Another example is Paulin Hountondji, for whom decolonising knowledge amounts to making sure that our scientific activity is not externally oriented; is “not intended to meet the theoretical needs of our Western counterparts and answer the questions they pose.”7

For him, to decolonise knowledge is to replace such vertical relations with what he calls “horizontalism” – which he understands as “an autonomous, self-reliant process of knowledge production and capitalisation that enables us to answer our own questions and meet both the intellectual and the material needs of African societies.”

Hountondji makes a distinction between discourses on, or about Africa, which are coming from, or are produced or developed by Africans within Africa – the study of Africa by Africans in Africa (I do not know where this leaves the diasporas) – and any other discourse on the same subject, but which might originate from somewhere else.

The willingness to debunk whiteness, the over-reliance on US-made theories (Black feminism, queer theory, Afropessimism, theories of intersectionality) and the idea of the university as a public good notwithstanding, the lack of a theory of knowledge – a potentially fatal weakness of the decolonising project – is also at the heart of South African late injunctions to decolonise.

To put it succinctly, “decolonisation” in the African context has meant, pell-mell: (1) changing the curriculum or syllabus or content (this mostly applies to the humanities); (2) changing the criteria for defining what texts are included in, or excluded from the canon; (3) changing student demographics while recruiting more Black staff and transforming the academic and administrative bodies; and (4) recalibrating the activities of teaching and learning in such a way as to institute a different teacher–learner power relation.

“In this sense, the ‘decolonial’ ‘decolonisation’ project is an epistemological project premised on the idea that social worlds are multiple, fractured and contested.”

In the process, an instrumentalist view of knowledge has generally been privileged, which reduces knowledge to a matter of power (which by the way it is – the famous Foucauldian knowledge/power nexus – but only partly). Curriculum reform is spoken about in terms of the rehabilitation of marginalised or defeated narratives but hardly in response to current shifts in knowledge landscapes (of which more later). There is hardly any critique of so-called indigenous epistemologies and in more than one instance, the latter is simply conflated with traditional cosmogonies, vernacular arts de faire, including crafts, narratives and proverbs.

In some instances, decolonisation is easily reduced to a matter of origins and identity, race and location. What confers authority is where one comes from, the putative community one belongs to, not the truth validity of the claims being made.

Furthermore, the concept of Africa invoked in most discourses on “decolonisation” is deployed as if there was unanimity within Africa itself about what is “African” and what is not. Most of the time, the “African” is equated with the “indigenous”/”ethnic”/”native”, as if there were no other grounds for an African identity than the “indigenous” and the “ethnic”.8

These observations do not constitute sufficient ground for an outright repudiation of the decolonising project. After all, an uncompromising critique of the dominant Eurocentric academic model – the fight against what Latin Americans in particular call “epistemic coloniality” – that is, the endless production of theories that are based on European traditions, is still necessary. So is the critique of particular anthropological knowledges (knowing about Others) that never fully acknowledge these Others as thinking and knowledge-producing subjects in their own terms.9

Indeed, there is a recognition of the exhaustion of the present academic model with its origins in the universalism of the Enlightenment. Boaventura de Sousa Santos or Enrique Dussel, for instance, make it clear that knowledge can only be thought of as universal if it is by definition pluriversal.10 They have made it clear, too, that at the end of the decolonising process, we will no longer have a university. We will only have what they call a “pluriversity”.11 For them, a pluriversity is not merely “the extension throughout the world of a Eurocentric model presumed to be universal and now being reproduced almost everywhere thanks to commercial internationalism.” By pluriversity, they understand a process of knowledge production that is open to “epistemic diversity”.

The end goal is not to abandon the notion of universal knowledge for humanity, but to embrace such a notion via a “horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions.” Within such a perspective, to decolonise the university is therefore to reform it with the aim of “creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism” – a task that involves the radical re-founding of our ways of thinking and a “transcendence of our disciplinary divisions.”

Properly understood (and in spite of its obvious limitations), the “decolonial” “decolonisation” project (just like postcolonial theory and feminist theory) has aimed at expanding our conceptual, methodological and theoretical imaginary. In most instances, it has resisted unified accounts of the human. Downplaying regimes of knowledge that have constituted the human or even the world as one, or have framed humanity as an undifferentiated whole, it has instead sought to map and interrogate the social, cultural and historical differences and uneven power relations that divide the Anthropos.

In this sense, the “decolonial” “decolonisation” project is an epistemological project premised on the idea that social worlds are multiple, fractured and contested. Thus the necessity to embrace multivocality and translation as a way not to perpetuate the knowledge/power asymmetries that currently fracture global humanity. In this model, knowledge of the empirical world is thought to be gained through the embrace of multiplicity, of a plurality of narratives from many voices and places.

Unfortunately, in the “decolonial” “decolonisation” project (just as in some strands of feminist and postcolonial theories), multiplicity has been theorised as “difference”. Difference itself has been understood as that which separates and cuts off one cultural or historical entity from another. A decolonial act, in this perspective, is taken to be an act of disconnection and separation (a gesture by which one is cut, or one cuts oneself from the rest). The challenge has therefore been to understand difference as a particular fold or twist in the undulating fabric of the universe – or in a set of continuous, entangled folds of the whole.

BIFURCATIONS

Whatever the case, attempts at “transcending our disciplinary divisions” have in fact been happening partly in response to a set of challenges universities worldwide have been facing, and ongoing contestations affecting the disciplines that constitute the foundations of modern knowledge.

Some of these challenges are of a political nature. In the South African case, they have to do with profound and still unresolved questions of racial justice. They have to do with the conditions under which the university can be recognised as a truly common, public good, and as such a microcosm of a society in which each voice counts, which is built on the idea of radical hospitality, co-belonging and openness as opposed to separation and closure. Of late, such disputes have dramatically crystalised around, amongst others, the problem of student debt and the decommodification of higher education.

Other such contestations are of a generational nature. Indeed massive cultural shifts are underway as we increasingly live our lives in reconfigured environments of informational stimuli and as digital technologies become tightly woven into the fabric of our everyday life. As suggested by N. Katherine Hayles and others, we can suspect that a “technologically enhanced rewiring of the brain” is underway especially among the younger generations.12 If indeed, as we are led to believe, dealing with digital and computational media on an everyday basis entails significant neurological changes, then the assumptions we used to entertain about humans and their relations to the world may no longer be entirely valid in relation to the kind of self that is emerging among the younger generations.

Other challenges are of an institutional nature. Not so long ago, institutionalised knowledge was all that counted. It was an object to be taught in clearly circumscribed institutions and disciplines. Knowledge produced by the university was bounded and restricted by organisational apparatuses. As a matter of fact, there is no boundary for any knowledge today. Extra-institutional knowledge is unbounded, uncontainable and easily searchable. It is no longer so easily restricted by organisational apparatuses. To know nowadays requires the development of a range of new literacies required, for instance, by changes in writing, in reading, in forms of public presentation, in the capacity to interpret images, or to work on a screen. Old knowledge platforms now appear dated or in any case, are falling into obsolescence at a higher rate and pace.13

“With the advent of algorithmic thinking and various forms of automated reasoning, new debates are unfolding concerning the faculties of knowing, desiring and judging as well as the meaning of truth.”

Other contestations are of a pedagogical nature, triggered as they are by new learning methods, devices and publics. Traditional ways of teaching have been changing thanks to a range of new practices and methods enabled by digital environments. The sense, nowadays, is that everything can be searched and found. This is what Google is for – an efficient way to deliver knowledge to the public. Meanwhile, various open learning platforms are increasingly created by the learners themselves. Such platforms do challenge the very notion of disciplinarity – how to think properly, the questions that are the right ones to ask, the right method to deploy in addressing those questions.

Techno-facilitation of knowledge, with flipped classrooms, innovative project works and collaborative writing is increasingly becoming the norm. The epoch is characterised by a massive acceleration, which contrasts with the humanistic predisposition to slow down. The role of the teacher in its old form might not exist for much longer. Massive open online courses are no longer a rarity. The old vertical teacher–student relationship is increasingly replaced by the idea of a learning community, one in which the teacher gives away control and learning encompasses the total social experience of the students. Furthermore, it happens inside and outside the classroom, and it takes seriously the knowledge the students already have.

Yet other challenges are of an epistemological nature. It remains to be seen whether the perennial question of what we can know and how we came to know things will ever be resolved. If anything, old disputes are far from having been settled as standard realist, rationalist and objectivist understandings of truth and knowledge are undercut by the proliferation of new, hybrid thought styles and new thought collectives.

NEW COGNITIVE ASSEMBLAGES

As a result of technological innovations and the pressures evoked above, epistemic reconfigurations, or shifts, are under way in various disciplines and subdisciplines. They are harnessing new kinds of data and reshaping what constitutes units of analysis. New bodies of thought are involved in rethinking the nature of knowledge itself, the nature of being, of matter, how degrees of agency are distributed across human and non-human agents. Contrary to various discourses on the crisis of the humanities, the age is characterised by heightened curiosity and accompanying experimentation.

Some of these shifts are paving the way for the emergence of entirely new cognitive assemblages, if not new knowledge formations. I would now like to briefly comment on those transformations that have to do with the changing epistemological landscape.

FRAGMENTATION OF THE DISCIPLINES

Not so long ago, the sciences – theoretical and applied – could still be systematically ordered and classified. For instance, life sciences, physics, the organic and the inorganic “could be demarcated and located along methodological axes, along a set of pedagogical practices.” Now, within every discipline and every field, the ramifications are so manifold that “they subvert any consistent totality.” Each specialisation ends up turning into further segmentations, which in turn branch out from their classical roots, in a process of incessant production of sub-specialisations within sub-specialisations.14

Against this argument, it can be observed that fragmentation has always been part of the life of the disciplines. In fact, disciplines and fields of study have never been entirely fixed, either in form or in organisation. They have always been continuously forming and transforming, sometimes merging but never really progressing toward any general unity or truth.

But we are clearly witnessing an acceleration of this process today. It has reached a level where many are now wondering whether disciplines as such have become obsolete. Indeed, established disciplines do no longer correspond to, or encompass the variety of “fields of inquiry”. There is a profound disjuncture between the disciplinary taxonomies and classifications inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries and the proliferation of thematic imagination, the rhythm of the constitution of diverse sub-fields.

THE VELOCITY OF SO-CALLED TURNS

A corollary of fragmentation is the velocity of so-called turns. The 1980s were marked by the linguistic turn. Nowadays, many “turns” are happening simultaneously – the affect turn, the new materialism turn, the ontological turn, the neuro-turn, the Anthropocene turn.

To be sure, some of the turns do not last. Others are not “real” turns since they do not affect deeper questions of epistemology or of method. They are part of a vast recycling and rebranding of disciplines that goes hand in hand with the creeping commodification of education. Yet, all these “turns” must be taken as “alerts”, a search for different images of thought.15

A crucial factor behind the proliferation of fields and subfields of inquiry, our sense of who is the subject of cognition and what should count as an object of knowledge is fast changing. Of particular significance, too, is the fact that entrenched and historic antagonisms between the sciences and humanities disciplines are breaking down. They are breaking down as a result of a number of developments I would like to briefly single out.

First is the gradual recognition that we humans are not as special as we once thought. Nor are we as disentangled from other species as we once thought. Actually, the terrestrial sphere is not only mostly populated by beetles and bacteria in terms of biomass16 but the future of our species will thoroughly depend on what we do to other species (principle of entanglement and mutuality).

Second is the fact that the humanities have traditionally relied on a distinction between society and nature, or culture and nature. This is reflected in the division of labour between social sciences and natural sciences. The social, in this instance, usually referred to those aspects of human life, human activity and human understanding that required some form or another of symbolisation. If nature was understood to encompass both subjects and objects, society and nature nevertheless denoted two realms that could be kept analytically distinct – the distinction between the symbolic and the pre-symbolic.

There are those who still argue for the uniqueness of human nature, or for the idea “that humans occupy a unique position in the scheme of things.”17 They still believe that humans alone are capable of rational thought; they alone have a capacity to feel emotions such as empathy.

The ontological turn (which has given rise to new subfields such as post-humanist ethnography, environmental philosophy and history, Earth System science and other strands of social science research) has put such beliefs under severe stress. Common to these subfields is the idea of distributed agency and, to some extent, the rejection of the Cartesian dichotomies between subject and object, society and nature, human and nonhuman, living and non-living entities. The drive nowadays is to perceive the various non-human entities with which we interact as sources of agency.

Third, a renewed dialogue is in the making between the social sciences, studies of science and technology, life and biological sciences and philosophy. It is not without tensions and contradictions. Issues that have primarily been the subject and object of the biological sciences are, in different ways, increasingly becoming the subject of theories and methods within the humanities and vice versa. Emergent fields or sub-fields across the life and biological sciences and the humanities are engaged in the search for new terminologies and theoretical apparatuses at points of contact and interface, across disciplinary boundaries and traditions.18 Humanities-inflected inquiries are being reshaped in ways that make them more open to biological sciences, just at the time when biological sciences are becoming more receptive to the social sciences.19

Of late, this incipient convergence has triggered the development of new research agendas. Such agendas overtly privilege ideas of co-constitution, co-evolution and co-implication. They “emphasize the complex, processual, indeterminate, contingent, non-linear and relational nature of phenomena constantly open to effects from contiguous processes.”20 In other words, they start from the assumption that there are no biological or vital processes that are not “simultaneously technical, cultural, symbolic, material, economic and immaterial.”21 As for the human, not only is its emergence processual: the human is fundamentally an indeterminate entity. At the heart of this incipient convergence is therefore a deliberate attempt not only at breaking down all kinds of distinctions “between human and other life forms, between binary genders, between the social and the natural, the human and the technical, biology and identity, the mind and the body, self and other, material and immaterial, and many other dichotomous forms of thought and practice,”22 but also at relocating the apparent newness of the present conjuncture to longer, deeper histories. Thus, the return of deep history as the best way to elucidate the conditions under which the new emerges.

THE NEURO-TURN

Of late, the two most important turns have been the ontological turn and the neuro-turn. Both put into question a number of foundational categories the humanities have relied on for the last centuries – the category of the human and the category of the social; that of nature and that of culture. Some of the key categories of the humanistic inquiry – intention, agency, consciousness, mind, brain and language, autonomy, personhood, beliefs and feelings such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, suspicion, fear or love – have also been subjected to renewed inquiry, especially by the biological sciences.

In fact, “the webs of human social and cultural life that we had come to understand as our particular object of knowledge seem more and more open to being figured neuro-scientifically and experimentally.”23 According to Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, many facets of human life that were, for much of the 20th century, primarily understood through the abstraction of “culture” or “society” “are increasingly understood as functions of the cerebral architecture of individuals or of groups of individuals.”24

Neuroscientists are now seeking to establish the neural mechanisms that underpin almost every single human activity or emotion. For Nikolas Rose, although brains are constitutively embodied, saturated by and dependent upon their constant transactions with inputs from without, mental events can now be read in the tissues of the brain.25

FORMS OF KNOWING AND SUBJECTS OF COGNITION

The changes sketched above are affecting not only the nature of matter and the place of embodied humans within a material world, or how human beings are understood in the present. They are also affecting the very forms of knowing and the subject of knowledge. Not long ago, conscious thought was seen as the defining characteristic of humans. Cognition (knowing) involved an awareness of self and others and it was associated with consciousness, symbolic reasoning, abstract thought, verbal language, mathematics and so on. The act of knowing also included perception and judgement. Today, thanks to progress in disciplines such as cognitive biology, we have a better and more complex understanding of human cognitive ecology.

First of all, as Hayles suggests, cognition is no longer “limited to humans or organisms with consciousness; it extends to all life forms, including those lacking central nervous systems such as plants and microorganisms.”26 Being, as it is, the engagement of all lifeforms with their environment, cognition is a much broader capacity that “extends far beyond consciousness into other neurological brain processes.”27 In other words, there are non-conscious forms of cognition.

Second, she argues, cognition is not limited to humans and life forms. It is also pervasive in complex technical systems. In other words, humans and living organisms are not the only important or relevant cognisers on the planet. Technical systems are also endowed with cognitive capabilities.

Third, knowledge does not only reside in the brain. It is also acquired through interactions with the environment. It is partly about processing information, discerning patterns, drawing inferences. We live in an epoch when the informational streams we rely upon to produce knowledge are so massive, so multifaceted and complex that they can never be processed exclusively by human brains.

Cognitive abilities once resident only in biological organisms have therefore now been exteriorised into the world. “Biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.”28

All of this is happening amidst a return to “big questions”, the most important of which are what constitutes human life; how we are to communicate between disciplines, between cultures, between human and non-human entities; and whether there is anything we hold dear in our ways of living that we might want to preserve, nurture and foster, while overcoming the existential paradigm that has set us on a fast track to ecological collapse.29

KNOWLEDGE IN A COMPUTATIONAL AGE

It is not only the entire knowledge ecology that is fast changing. It is also what actually counts as knowledge. Computers have changed the way even basic concepts in science are understood. The conflation of the mind/brain with the computer is the biggest intellectual event of our times. It is at the basis of current reconfigurations of what counts as knowledge.

Knowledge has always been tied to the requisite of “empirical validation”. Knowledge is that which has to be validated empirically; that which has undergone a methodical, systematic process of empirical validation. No knowledge is free from these constraints. Whatever is free from it represents at best wisdom, but not knowledge as such.

The epoch is in search of deterministic models of human behaviour and decision-making. Knowledge is reduced to an understanding of what lies behind people’s decision-making, their responses to marketing: the figures of the citizen, the consumer, publics and their behaviour.

It is a conception of knowledge that claims to possess laws that can be discovered through the use of mathematics.

Imitating natural sciences and mimicking physics has been a crucial trend/feature in the human/social sciences since the 19th century – the idea that we will gain privileged insight into humanity generally if we follow or apply the laws of physics to human phenomena.

Whether we have transcended that physics envy (hierarchies of knowledge) remains to be seen. In some instances, it is back with vengeance. Take, for instance, economic theory, where this movement mostly gained steam after the Second World War. If we are to believe historians of science, this was the moment when techniques such as linear programming, statistical optimisation, matrix methods, formal logic, information theory, game theory “and a whole raft of techniques were imported into economics.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, early developments of both electronic computers and programming were consolidated and an entirely new intellectual epoch was rendered possible by the computer, which “jumpstarted” what today is known as “econometric empiricism”, which ranges from “cybernetics as a theory of certain kinds of human/automaton metaphors, to the incorporation of stochastic models in decision theory, to econometrics and simulation.”

With the advent of algorithmic thinking and various forms of automated reasoning, new debates are unfolding concerning the faculties of knowing, desiring and judging as well as the meaning of truth. The same goes for intuition, understanding and imagination.30

THE PLANETARY

Each of the “turns” evoked above has paved the way for the rise of new objects of knowledge and new questions about the ways in which the human world could be re-imagined in terms of its relation with the Earth. With the end of the human condition as marked by agency, the times are propitious for the return to “big questions” and “deep history” – “big questions” concerning the relation of human life to planetary life, in a context of geological recasting of historical time.

The emerging paradigm is that “human societies and the Earth have now forged a tenuous unity.”31 “Planetarity” is the consciousness of that unity and of the entanglement of nature and society.

AFRO-COMPUTATION

In this last section, I will try to draw the implications of the developments I have just sketched for the study of Africa. Africa is going through a silent techno-computational revolution. Electronic and digital footprints are everywhere – ticket sales, online searches are common.

People write blog posts. Many resort to credit card transactions. The visual and auditory landscape is fast changing. In music, we are witnessing an endless recombination and remix and mash-up of sounds and rhythms, the sampling and recombining of old and new material.

Cut-up and collage practices extend well beyond music as such, as old and new creative practices keep generating innovative, useful content in almost every single domain of everyday life – in visual art, film, video, literature, culinary arts, fashion and of course Internet applications.

So, here like everywhere else in the world, life behind screens is fast becoming a fact of daily existence. People are exposed to, are producing and are absorbing more images than they ever have before.

They are increasingly surrounded by all kinds of devices, dream machines and ubiquitous technologies – cell phones, the Web, videos and films. Connection to the Internet is not simply a preoccupation for the middle class. It is increasingly in the interest of the urban poor to be connected too. Even before food, shelter and access to electricity have been secured, the first thing the African urban poor strive for is a mobile phone, then television and especially cable TV. And of course the Internet.

It follows that as the boundaries of perception are being outstretched, more and more Africans are projected from one temporal regime to another. Time now unfolds in multiple versions. Its shapes are more protean than they have ever been. The struggles to capture these protean shapes of time have hardly been documented and yet, they are paving the way for an Afropolitan aesthetic sensibility we still need to map and properly study.

“All of this is happening amidst a return to ‘big questions’, the most important of which are what constitutes human life; how we are to communicate between disciplines, between cultures, between human and non-human entities; and whether there is anything we hold dear in our ways of living that we might want to preserve, nurture and foster, while overcoming the existential paradigm that has set us on a fast track to ecological collapse.”

A prime example of the ongoing Afro-techno-revolution is the mobile phone. The introduction of the mobile phone on the continent has been a technological event of considerable singularity. Three comments in this regard are necessary.

First, the mobile phone is not simply an object of use. It has become a portable storage (grenier) of all kinds of knowledges and a crucial device that has changed the way people speak, act, write, communicate, remember and imagine who they are and how they relate to themselves, to others and to the world at large.

Second, along with the advent of other computational media, the introduction of the mobile phone has also been a major aesthetic and affect-laden event. In Africa, this device is not only a medium of communication. It is also a medium of self-stylisation and self-singularisation. People spend a lot of time with it. It is as if they wear it. It has become an extension of one’s being, a container of the lives it in turn shapes. The way people treat their phones and the way they take care of these objects is itself an indication of how they would like to be taken care of and, eventually, of the way they would like to be treated.

Third, from a philosophical point of view, the biggest impact of the mobile phone – and of digital technologies more broadly – has been at the level of the imaginary. The interaction between humans and screens has intensified, and with it, the experience of life and the world as cinema – the cinematic nature of life.

The argument I want to make, which is slightly different from a classical Afrofuturist argument, is that the plasticity of digital forms speaks powerfully to the plasticity of African precolonial cultures and to ancient ways of working with representation and mediation, of folding reality.

African precolonial cultures were obsessed with the interrogation concerning the boundaries of life. As evidenced by their myths, oral literatures and cosmogonies, among the most important human queries were those concerning the world beyond human perceptibility, visibility and consciousness. The time of objects was not unlike the time of humans. Objects were not seen as static entities. Rather, they were like flexible living beings endowed with original and at times occult, magical and even therapeutic properties.

Things and objects, the animal and organic worlds were also repositories of energy, vitality and virtuality and, as such, they constantly invited wonder and enchantment. Tools, technical objects and artefacts facilitated the capacity for human cognition and language. They belonged to the world of interfaces and as such, served as the linchpin to transgress existing boundaries so as to access the Universe’s infinite horizons. With human beings and other living entities, they entertained a relationship of reciprocal causation. This is what early anthropologists mistook for “animism”.

Turning now to knowledge as such, it must be said that precolonial African ways of knowing have been particularly difficult to fit into Western analytical vocabularies. According to Jane Guyer and Samuel Eno Belinga, in their study of Equatorial knowledge, such ways of knowing were not “specialist, in the sense of a closed esoteric system with its classifications, propositions.”32 Nor were they “controlled and monopolised by a small cadre of experts or a secret society hierarchy.”33

Collectively, they tell us, “knowledge was conceptualised as an open repertoire and unbounded vista. Then, within collectivities the vista was divided up and quite widely distributed on the basis of personal capacity.”34 “Adepts are many and varied,” they say, “each pushing up against the outside limits of their own frontier of the known world, inventing new ways of configuring, storing and using” what must have been an ever shifting spectrum of possibility. Citing Jan Vansina and James Fernandez in particular,35 Guyer and Eno Belinga argue that these were societies that knew much more about their local habitats than they needed to know for utilitarian purposes, which means that knowledge for the sake of knowledge was a key feature of social existence.

From the picture they paint, it seems to me that these societies would hardly care about questions such as the “decolonisation” of knowledge. Whatever its origins, knowledge was something to be captured, if necessary from outside, as long as it could be mobilised for action or for performance. They showed “great receptivity to novelty,” Guyer and Eno Belinga argue.36 “Personal abilities existed first, but they could be augmented and actualised within the person, making that person a real person, singular to themselves”37 and recognised as such by others – the social process was about putting these singularities together. It is as if the Internet was speaking unmediated to this archaic unconscious or to these societies’ deepest and hidden brain.

It is nowadays common sense to argue that the technological devices that saturate our lives have become extensions of ourselves. The novelty is that in the process, they have instituted a relationship between humans and other living or vital things African traditions had long anticipated.

Indeed, in old African traditions, human beings were never satisfied with simply being human beings. They were constantly in search of a supplement to their humanhood. Often, they added to their humanhood various attributes or properties taken from the worlds of animals, plants and various objects. Modernity rejected such ways of being and their compositional logics, confining them to the childhood of Man. Clear distinctions between ourselves and the objects with which we share our existence were established. A human being was not a thing or an object. Nor was he or she an animal or a machine. This is precisely what human emancipation was supposed to mean.

Our own relationship to ourselves and to what surrounds us has changed as a result of our increasing entanglement with objects, technologies or other animate things or beings. Today we want to capture for ourselves the forces and energies and vitalism of the objects that surround us, most of which we have invented. We think of ourselves as made up of various spare parts. This convergence, and at times fusion, between the living human being and the objects, artefacts or the technologies that supplement or augment us is at the source of the emergence of an entirely different kind of human being we have not seen before.

With the advent of algorithmic thinking and various forms of automated reasoning, machines are increasingly endowed with decision-making capacities. The concretisation of reasoning in machines – in other words the automation of reasoning – has cast a shadow on deductive reasoning and on the uniqueness of human reasoning. “Biologically bounded thought has been displaced by an abstract architecture of reasoning able to carry out tasks and make decisions by correlating data.”38

In a global culture in which the footprints of social life are increasingly digitalised, software is becoming the engine of society and algorithmic reasoning a new form of thinking. To a large extent, software is remaking the human. The production of massive amounts of data at exponential rates has pushed us to the threshold of a different ontology of number. Numbers have become the engines not only of calculation and computation, but also of invention, imagination and speculation. We can no longer rely entirely on dominant epistemological and ontological assumptions about numbers. New ways of theorising measurement and quantification are more than ever required if we are to account for the ongoing computational reconfigurations of subjectivity and of the social.39

CONCLUSION

If, as Gerard Delanty and Aurea Mota argue, the emerging paradigm is that “the human societies and the Earth have now forged a tenuous unity as well as a consciousness of that unity”; and “the presuppositions of modernity are now once again called into question with the emergence of an entangled conception of nature and society, Earth and the world,” then the question facing us is the following: what interpretive categories do we need for making sense of the world and of human societies, within a trajectory of time that encompasses planetary time?40

Africa is a planetary laboratory at a time when history itself is being recast as an integrated history of the earth system, technical systems and the human world. Here, a technological revolution is taking shape at a time when the continent is increasingly perceived as the last frontier of capitalism. Out of Africa, an incredible amount of wealth has been extracted over centuries. This wealth has flowed out to every corner of the globe. To be sure, the continent’s natural assets are in danger of being depleted. Waste and pollution have increased exponentially. But Africa remains the last territory on earth that has not yet been entirely subjected to the rule of capital.

It is the last repository of a vast body of untapped wealth – minerals underground, plants and animals, water and sun, all the forms of energy latent in the earth’s crust. Its biosphere is still more or less intact. Its hydrographic power, its solar energy, its territorial immensities are hardly touched. It is the last major chunk of our planet that has not yet been entirely connected to its many different parts. This single gargantuan landmass can still support a huge number of people. It is the only place on Earth where people can still come and begin anew and where the potential for the human species is still high. The times, therefore, are propitious for big questions concerning the relation of human life to planetary life in a context of geological recasting of historical time.

Biography

Achille Mbembe is a professor at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research and at the Innovation Foundation for Democracy. He was born in Cameroon, and obtained his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Études Politiques. He is the recipient of Honorary Doctorates from the University of Paris VIII and Université Catholique de Louvain. He has received numerous awards including the 2015 Geswischter- Scholl-Preis, the 2018 Gerda Henkel Award and the 2018 Ernst Bloch Award. A co-founder of Les Ateliers de la Pensée de Dakar and a major figure in a new wave of French critical theory, he has written extensively on contemporary politics and philosophy, including On the Postcolony (University of California Press, 2001), Critique of Black Reason (Duke University Press, 2016), Necropolitics (Duke University Press, 2019) and Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (Columbia University Press, 2020), all co-published and available from Wits University Press. Originally written in French, his books and articles have been translated into 13 languages. He has an A1 rating from the South African National Research Foundation and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This essay is adapted from Mbembe, A. (2019) “Future Knowledges and Their Implication for the Decolonisation Project”, in Jansen, J. (ed.) Decolonisation in Universities: The Politics of Knowledge. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. Republished by permission. All rights reserved.


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How to cite this article:
Achille Mbembe (2024), "Future Knowledges and Their Implication for the Decolonisation Project" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/future-knowledges-and-their-implication-for-the-decolonisation-project/. Accessed 24 April 2024.