The 2024 Holberg Lecture, by Achille Mbembe


On 5 June, Achille Mbembe delivered the 2024 Holberg Lecture at the University Aula in Bergen. The lecture is published here in full.

The Earthly Community

By Achille Mbembe

For David Theo Goldberg

I thought I should share with you some of the questions which have been at the core of whatever I have written over the last three and a half decades. I am not going to provide you with a summary of the work I have done. Rather, I will offer a set of footnotes and rejoinders as I look back to an itinerary whose shape and contours I could not have predicted. Must I add that the little I have achieved, I owe to an innumerable list of friends turned teachers and teachers turned friends, as well as to the love and dedication of my family?

The concerns I have wrestled with are now well documented. They have appeared at various moments under various notions in my writings – On the Postcolony, Out of the Dark Night, Critique of Black Reason, Necropolitics, Brutalism or, more recently, The Earthly community. They can also be found in the voluminous body of public interventions in newspaper articles, TV and radio interviews, contributions to magazines or exhibition catalogues. Looking back at the total sum of this work, I now realise the extent to which, even when the past and the present were the direct object of my gaze, the future is all I truly ever cared about – the futures of life, the futures of reason/techne, and the futures of the Earth.


As many of you may know, I was born in Cameroon. I left and went to study in Paris in my early twenties. Growing up as a young person in Cameroon, I was exposed to various aspects of local cultural traditions and conventions. I also witnessed, in situ, the many ways in which precolonial beliefs and symbolic systems had survived the colonial encroachment, or been transformed by it.

For instance, in local systems of meaning, the theme of “human uniqueness and exceptionalism” (the cornerstone of Western philosophical thought) was a matter neither of theoretical debate, nor of practical concern. Indeed here as well as in numerous African cosmogonies, it was simply taken for granted that each living being came into being through its relations with its environment and the creatures with whom it shared that environment.

To put it succinctly, being-with-others preceded being-in-and-of-itself (ontology).

In contrast to the disinterest in the uniqueness of the human, an extraordinary emphasis was placed on the diverse ways of becoming a human person and on the infrastructures, or sources of empowerment, required to sustain full personhood in the course of one’s life. In any case, humans as persons among other persons/other beings or as persons of a distinctive kind represented a paradox in the sense that individual identity was always more than and less than it appeared to be. As argued by late anthropologist Jane Guyer in a study on wealth in people and wealth in things in Equatorial Africa, personal abilities existed first. Then they could be “augmented, conserved and actualised within the person”, making that person a “real person”, “singular to themselves” and recognised as such by the community. The social process, she adds, was “about putting these singularities together”.

A direct consequence of the primacy of mutuality over ontology, of singularity over identity, of becoming over being, the constitutive entanglement between human persons, animal persons, plants and forests, material and technical artefacts and other entities was never in doubt. In fact (and not only for purposes of efficacy), a full person endowed with power was one who knew how to assemble and to activate diverse materials and their properties. He or she could draw on in-depth knowledge (knowledge of the forest, knowledge of the night world and the domains of the occult, knowledge of various earths, soils, plants, animals etc…) to unite natural or vital forces which were at first sight opposed.

Through this process of activation by assemblage (by knotting, twisting and binding), through this proficiency in communicating with the non-human persons’ worlds, he or she could defend himself or herself against the ever present threat of enemy attack. He or she could influence other persons and things and make them act. He or she could exchange death with life while fulfilling all along protective, restorative and therapeutic functions. This is perhaps the reason why, so it was believed, human persons could escape the limits of their biological bodies or augment it, or even trick death into leaving them alone and rather taking another person in one’s place.

As a young person, I occasionally attended traditional ceremonies, listening to elders, being told about the healers and the diviners or being introduced to ancestral myths. In the process, I early on learnt about the existence of malevolent forces as well as divinatory insight and other forms of specialized knowledges whose aim was to promote the health and welfare of individuals and communities. I also learnt about the world of objects, especially those objects which were, or could be turned into, sources and instruments of various forms of empowerment. Through such objects, power and body, body and psyche, psyche and the imagination could find expression. I saw the extent to which such objects could be constructed out of a wide range of organic materials and substances. This is probably how, gradually, I started paying attention to the mysterious forces and powers that govern the world and human lives, but more generally to all things that, in one way or another, come from the earth.

In the society where I grew up, the genuine interest in earthly matters was not only justified by the strongly held belief in the omnipresence of danger and the ever-ending need for material and psychological security. It proceeded too from the deep conviction expressed in myths, rituals and legends, that human beings were part of a very deep history that was older than the existence of the human race.

This history of entanglement with multiple other species required that the reality of objects be rethought beyond human meanings and uses, in their thingness and in their animate materiality. Matter, on the other hand, was not an inert receptacle of forms that came from outside. To be a full human person was not necessarily to act autonomously, but to know how to share agency with every non-human entity, with the goal of creating and sustaining a milieu for life.

My apprenticeship of these ways of becoming human and of these ways of inhabiting the world did not last long. Nor was it ever completed. But when I left Cameroon in 1982, I took shades of these conceptual schemas, of these images of thought, of these poetic or even oneiric structures with me. One can see them in my writing and they have reemerged with force in my latest book, La communaute terrestre [The Earthly Community, 2023].


I arrived in South Africa in 2001, at a time of relative political and intellectual ferment. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, major debates in critical theory were concerned, amongst others, with the old concept of the human and many were wondering whether this concept could still be reanimated in view of new discoveries in domains such as neuroscience and genetic research. This debate was taking on a paradoxical resonance in South Africa. With the end of Apartheid, South Africa was searching for the kind of affirmative politics which entailed the production of social horizons of hope, in lieu of the politics of cruelty and destruction of the years of racial segregation. To reconstruct what centuries of racial brutality and disjunctive inclusion had destroyed required the mobilisation of new creative resources and a new imaginary.

Critical humanism in this context would have meant a persistent commitment to the possibilities and powers of life – a precondition for the reconstitution of the human in politics and culture. During the first decade of democracy, South Africa undertook to dismantle a racial mode of rule inherited from the Apartheid-era. This required to strike down white supremacist-based frameworks of citizenship and to abolish inhumane laws while striving to create equality through positive state action.

The post-apartheid state aimed to achieve justice through reconciliation (as opposed to vengeance and retribution), equality through economic redress (as opposed to expropriation and nationalisation), democracy through the transformation of the law and the restoration of a variety of rights, including the right to dignity. This normative project was enshrined in a utopian constitution which was underlined by the principle of ubuntu, or human mutuality. It was understood that freedom was indivisible. For freedom to be absolute, it had to be shared as equally as possible among the different constituents of the new nation. Today, this seems so long ago.

My book Critique of Black Reason is wrestling with some of these issues. It is not a book about South Africa as such. It is preoccupied with the place of race in capitalism as well as capitalism’s intrinsic capacity to convert certain forms of the human not only into commodities as during the Atlantic slavery period, but into waste. To some extent, capitalism is the only religion without taboos humans have ever invented. One such taboo would be the idea that, endowed with an innate capacity for self-recognition, a human person is not a thing. Indeed, the idea that personhood is the antithesis of thinghood is central to the modern project of human emancipation and to our understanding of what alienation is all about. Countless historical struggles have indeed taken place whose aim was to make sure that human persons were not turned into mere objects and that they be counted as human persons.

Invoking waste in the book, I was trying to draw attention to what has historically happened at the intersection of race and market mechanisms, especially when the latter have not only been used to sort between productive and unproductive lives, but also to target such presumably unproductive lives as objects of abjection. In relation to black persons, this logic of disposability has been typical of the rule of capital and a key feature of the brutality of the market order. This explains the manufacturing at a mass scale of surplus populations that have often been separated partially or fully from domains of capitalist exchange and civic life. As a commodity, black life was needed and valued for its utility on the market. But if the value of black life was recognised in the market sphere, the same life was subjected to constant depreciation by the forces of depredation and dehumanisation. In this sense, black life was both indispensable and expendable. Critique of Black Reason tries to capture this dialectics of indispensability and expendability.

When the book was published, new ways of converting entire racial classes into waste were in full swing as a result of important shifts in the way neoliberalism operates. Indeed, in many places in the African continent, we were witnessing the proliferation of extractive enclaves and the generalisation of predatory modes of wealth capture and accumulation. Where access to wage labor was still a remote possibility, accumulation was more and more embedded in a logic of disposability. This trend has only intensified since the book was published in 2013. Crucially, we are starting to witness a relocation of value extraction to digital platforms.

As algorithmic forms of intelligence develop in parallel (and often in alliance) with genetic research, the integration of algorithms and big data analysis in the biological sphere brings with it greater belief in techno-positivism. Statistical thinking, regimes for assessing the natural world, the corresponding modes of prediction and analysis – all now tend to treat matter, the Earth and life itself, as computable objects. The idea that life might be an open, non-linear and exponentially chaotic force is increasingly dismissed. We seem to have reached the point where the market is envisaged as the only mechanism for the production and validation of truth.


Of all the texts I have authored, none has equalled the global resonance achieved by the concept of necropolitics. This concept was born out of the attempt to reframe debates on sovereignty which were raging in the field of political philosophy and international relations in the aftermath of 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror”. This was also a moment when some of the first sustained critiques of neoliberalism were being mounted. It was then claimed, for instance, that one of the lasting effects of neoliberalism was the hollowing out of liberal democracy. Striking to me was the way in which the political, including within liberal democracies, was being recast as nothing but another figure of war-making – a war without laws and without end, a war opposing visceral enemies one could not reason with, negotiate with, but should eviscerate.

Such ways of envisioning the political as nothing but an endless and lawless struggle to death against visceral enemies stripped off their human essence had antecedents both in the Atlantic slavery paradigm and in late modern colonialism. They had been at work, for instance, during colonial wars of conquest and dispossession in South Africa in the 19th century and during counter-insurrectional wars in Algeria, Vietnam and other parts of the world. In the Atlantic slavery paradigm, death is an ever nearer possibility and is potentially incorporated within a debased existence. On the other hand, the proper truth of colonial wars of conquest and occupation, just as counter-insurrectional wars is that they are always undergirded by a genocidal extermination impulse. Historically, such wars have always been justified by the supposed absence of a common bond of humanity between the colonisers and the colonised. This is the reason why their aim has usually been the erasure of indigenous people’s past, the annihilation of their collective memory and the destruction of the basic infrastructures thanks to which they sought to maintain a semblance of personhood.

Where this exterminatory logic has not been pushed to its final consequences, various killing projects have taken shape and complex strangulation tactics have been put in place with the view of intensifying the suffocating conditions enslaved, colonised or racialised classes have been subjected to. One of their key effects has often been to literally make their lives unliveable and to take away their capacity to breathe. Historically, these strangulation tactics have mostly been experimented against black people. This was the case in the New World and, to a large extent, in former settler colonies such as South Africa where the killing of black people was akin to the slaughter of animals. A molecular process both spatially and temporally, these tactics have included the use of law enforcement-judicial-penal apparatuses to confine racialised classes in carceral spaces. In the context of the trade in blacks typical of the Atlantic era, human bodies could be bought and sold. Slave bodies were put to work as privileged sources of energy and labor. The plantation system extracted this energy and labor, exploited it and eventually depleted it.

The manufacturing of social formations mixing the racial and the carceral has become a trademark of late colonial occupation. Indeed, racist violence initially encapsulated in the figure of the black has been extended to people of colour in general. As a form, the “camp” itself has been “universalised”. The criminal and thuggish kernel constitutive of state power and state sovereignty has been periodically unleashed against them. In disputed or occupied territories, it has often espoused the contours of a war on life itself. Contemporary forms of fracturing and fissuring, draining and depletion obey the same master code. As I suggested in my book Critique of Black Reason, they are paving the way for the universalisation of the black condition, or the becoming-black of very large swathes of humanity.

This can be seen in contemporary ways of waging war against enemies whose living environments and conditions of survival are systematically destroyed, ruined by the use of armour-piercing uranium ammunition and banned weapons such as white phosphorus. As a matter of fact, the destruction of enemy cities in the early years of the twenty-first century has been partly made possible thanks to intensive, high altitude bombing of basic infrastructures, the cocktails of carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals that saturate the soil and fill the air, the toxic dust that rises from the rubble of razed cities and refugee camps; and by the pollution caused by hydrocarbon fires.

The violence unleashed against such racialised populations is molecular in the sense that disputed or occupied territories are gradually turned into damaged and polluted environments and lifeless wastelands. In these polluted spaces and ruined landscapes, death surrounds and envelops racialised bodies and cripples their generative capacities. It insinuates itself in the social fabric. Brutality can also take spectacular forms. Such is the case with bombings. What kinds of bombs have civilian populations, habitats and environments not had to suffer during late twentieth and early twenty-first century wars?

They have endured conventional blind bombs, cruise missiles with infrared homing heads, microwave bombs designed to paralyse the enemy’s electronic nerve centers, bombs that explode in cities, emitting lightning-like beams of energy as they pass, other microwave bombs that do not kill but burn people and increase skin temperature. They have also been subjected to thermobaric bombs that trigger walls of fire, absorbing the oxygen of more or less enclosed spaces, killing by shock waves and asphyxiating almost everything that breathes; fragmentation bombs which scatter without precision over large areas, and minimal munitions designed to explode on contact with the target. All these bombs demon-strate ad absurdum an unheard-of power of destruction.

The two books Necropolitics and Brutalism testify to this change of condition engendered by new forms of war metabolism as well as by contemporary transformations to the biosphere and technosphere. We are now, more than ever before, surrounded by a constellation of technical beings. To inhabit the world today means to engage uninterruptedly with matter and with objects. These objects are no longer a pure assemblage of matter. Some are now vested with intentions. This integral participation in the life of objects means that contemporary humans live in relative co-naturality with technology. This process, unprecedented in the shocks it is triggering, is planetary. In fact, we are transitioning not only to a new earthly dispensation (a new nomos of the Earth), but also to new figures of the human itself.

In fact, we may well be witnessing the almost definitive triumph of artefacts over what the French palaeontologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan called speech. We are about to outsource to information machines and technologies of calculation the bulk of the faculties human reason was initially supposed to embody. This is happening as all kinds of killing projects are tried out on the most vulnerable classes of the world’s population (migrants, refugees, stateless people). The accumulation of inhumane brutalities meted by state and non-state apparatuses do not fail to include all countries, in particular those that are still committed to one form or another of techno-colonial occupation. As a geomorphic force, sovereignty today tends to reproduce itself through acts of fracturing and fissuring. In turn, fracturing and fissuring targets human bodies, nerves, blood and brains, just as it does the entrails of the Earth itself. The coming together of these two forms of destruction (the destruction of the human body and the destruction of the body of the Earth) is what gives the concept of necropolitics its catastrophic weight.


Three questions will thus haunt us for most of this century. These questions concern the futures of life, the futures of reason/techne and the futures of the Earth. In my case, they have found their highest point of articulation and condensation in this particular sign called Africa. I would like to return to this sign as a way of conclusion.

As the age of Europe gradually comes to closure, many increasingly feel the need to reopen the archives of the world at large (Glissant’s le Tout Monde), mindful of the fact that only a “planetary library” might provide us with the resources we need to confront the planetary challenges we now face while enacting a new figure of the in-common. My task this afternoon was to convince you that, as we look for other forms of exercising thought, Africa in its dispersed, fractal and multifaceted faces, represents precisely one such archive.

To suggest that Africa thus defined might be one of those archives we must return to might be taken as mere provocation, especially for those who have long thought and still think that the continent represents a marginal zone of culture and human thought, bereft as it is of anything meaningful to the human adventure on Earth. This certainly explains why, for so long, most discourses on Africa, in particular in western philosophy, have relied on banalities founded upon negative definitions of the continent and its people, on reasoning that always concerns a failure or absence of what we ourselves know and know that we possess.

We have also been told that in order to formulate and record their knowledge, African societies have depended essentially upon the use of the spoken words, as a result of which their knowledge is unstable or lacunary. No wonder a sense of a separation, of a strong difference between our experience of social life, even of history, and that which characterises their societies, has persisted.

Yet, the wealth of the material we have accumulated on Africa is phenomenal. Over the last century and a half, we have made progress in terms of the study of rituals, myths and legends, cosmologies, iconographic technologies, sculptures and oral traditions, masks, ornaments or even body painting. In contradistinction to a tradition that has long seen the archives of people without writing as relying on ephemeral records, we are now able to move beyond conventional concepts of text – a precondition to refigure the archive itself.

Furthermore, and contrary to what has been long thought, in Africa, we are faced with traditions that made a constant and articulate use of images and objects, objects as images and vice-versa. This does not mean that “orality” was not important. Words and speech, in ceremonial as in non-ceremonial contexts, constantly or simultaneously called upon or instigated sounds and images. This is the reason why in African traditions and cultures, memory was based on both images and artefacts as well as on words. Images and objects did not only orient visual inference. They entertained an extremely close relationship to thought.

As a matter of fact, humanity is objectively earthbound in the sense that our main “location” has been the Earth – or to be more specific, the surface of the Earth, by which I mean the solid structure beneath our feet, that structure on which we stand and which somewhat defines the fundamental place we all rely on, the fundamental place we all inhabit. We have organised our lives within this zone which we are not the only ones to occupy since we share it with other people, other groups of plants, of animals and a wide cast of other life forms (bacteria, fungi, viruses etc…), all creating the conditions we live in. This narrow zone, this surface which we inhabit is in fact a thin and porous layer, just a few kilometres thick, where life has modified the cycles of matter in its heterogeneity, creating a kind of skin – the Earth’s skin.

This surface is where all the forces and potentials of the universe meet and mingle. This is where, through the reciprocal action of all elements, a general horizon – the horizon of life – is generated and composed.

The ongoing climate disorder is forcing us to zoom in a bit more on this terrestrial ecology of our existence – to take more seriously than in the past this matter of common concern, the matter of our tenure on Earth. Numerous factors are forcing us to rethink the nature of our ecological relations and to look into the multiple tangles that enable the sustenance of life on Earth.

There was no way to predict that the work I undertook three decades and a half ago would lead me to this. I would like to close today’s lecture with a few final thoughts. Democracy in its most substantive form (which is yet to come and in a name yet to be found) should be considered one of the tangles that will enable the sustenance of life on Earth in our current condition. It will do so provided we take it to be more than a technology of government and, rather, a community of life. It will do so provided we disentangle its future from the long history of its compromission with necropolitics.

This requires a novel understanding of our relationship to reason and to techne. It requires a redrawing of the boundary that separates the calculable and the incalculable, that which is deemed worthy and that which is deemed worthless, and therefore dispensable. From the African and diasporic archive, we will learn again how, within the many lineages of life and survival, all living entities are composed of symbiotic relationships. Human persons and non-human persons, we will understand ourselves as a single life form among many others with which we are in existential dependence.

Building on such foundations, it will be possible to articulate the lineaments of what could be a new earth ethics. Such an ethics would, of necessity, aim at turning instruments of calculation into instruments of liberation. It would incite us to invent different modes of counting, of measuring, which might open up the possibility of a different aesthetics, a different politics of inhabiting the Earth, of repairing and sharing the planet.

Let me end. The Earth is the last and only refuge for the totality of the living. The future of humanity is not only firmly tied to the Earth. It might also be firmly tied to a substantive form of democracy yet to come. But for such a proposition to have any traction at all, we must first “decolonize”, that is, disentangle the nexus that has historically been established between democracy and necropolitics.



Suzanne Bliers, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Jane I. Guyer, Samuel M. Eno Belinga, “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge: Accumulation and Composition in Equatorial Africa”, Journal of African History, Volume 36, no 1, 1995. 2009, pp. 91-120

Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2018.

Calista McRae, “‘The Great Chain of Being Come Undone’: Linking Blackness and Animal Studies”, Environmental Humanities, 14, 1, 2022