Holberg Laureate Achille Mbembe's Acceptance Speech


Holberg Laureate Achille Mbembe's Acceptance Speech is published here in full.

Dear Minister Oddmund Hoel, 
Your Excellencies, 
Madam Rector Margareth Hagen, 
Nils Klim Prize Laureate Siddharth Sareen, 
The Holberg Prize Committee, 
The Nils Klim Committee, 
Family, friends and colleagues.

In preparation for this afternoon’s event, I have had the pleasure of reading a great number of the lectures delivered here by various Holberg Laureates over the past decade. Each of these lectures has been an attempt at interrogating our present, at working through its contradictions, its fissured textures and more importantly, its possibilities. 

The Holberg Laureates who spoke before me often did so with prescience. They were speaking to a late 20th and early 21-st century world struggling, like today, with issues of cohabitation, of the technological mediations of our relation to the Earth, of global governance and international law, of war and enmity, of democracy and hospitality, of environmental and racial justice. Some of their lectures were powerful meditations on ethics and finitude, death and loneliness, the enormous empty night which threatens our worldly existence. 

Taken together, these lectures can be described as statements of faith - faith in the power (albeit not unlimited) of reason, faith in human potentialities and faith in the adventure of thought itself and its intrinsic mobilising and generative value. 


As it happens, Africa - figuratively the stone which, for so long, was rejected by the builders (Psalm 118:22) - has hardly featured in this decades-long conversation. 

As we gather again here today in Holberg’s name, allow me to express my deepest gratitude to the Holberg Committee. I am utterly delighted to accept the 2024 Holberg Prize. 

In so doing, I would like to paraphrase the late Bruno Latour who, in June 2013, said the following: “If I have to thank you for having granted me such an award, it is not because I believe myself worthy of such an honour, but because the problems that have come to me over the years might have relevance to you as well”. 

In my case, most of the “problems that have come to me over the years” had “Africa” as their name and their face. 
It may well be that “Africa” became their name and their face partly because, for reasons too long to expose here but which were incisively examined by V.Y. Mudimbe in his Invention of Africa and Fabien Eboussi Boulaga in his La crise du Muntu, this region of the world has often been treated as the stone evoked in the Psalm - the stone that was discarded by the builders. 

It may well be that in turning this rejected stone into one of the cornerstones of the common home we strive to build, things in their infinite probabilities might suddenly look different. 

Were they to truly look different, Africa would be restored to what it has always been and to what it was truly meant to mean - a reserve of life and life in reserve, a sign of the singularity of each living being, of the multiplicity of worlds formed through human interaction and relationships on this limited surface of the Earth we all share. And maybe for the first time in the history of the human race, thinking our relations to each other through our relation to Africa might finally pave the way to the new ethics of sharing and repairing the Earth we are striving for. 


But for this to happen, we must decolonize, by which I mean we must come to terms with what it actually means to cohabit the Earth. Furthermore, we must come to terms with the unchosen nature of such a cohabitation and decide whether the unchosenness of such a cohabitation frees us altogether from any debt, or is by contrast the originary starting point of any notion of ethics in our times. 

In fact, as inhabitants of the Earth, we are not just the result of the earthly ecosystems that sustain our lives. We are also constituted through our capacity to survive the death trap violent relations have been in modern history. 

I belong to a generation of Africans who grew up in the shadow not of colonialism, but of independence — those who witnessed firsthand the first decades of African decolonisation. This was sixty years or so ago. 

I profoundly believe that Africa’s history cannot be reduced to the history of colonialism or contained within any given theory of decolonisation. 
This is the reason why my own effort has, all along, centred around what makes of living in Africa one way among many of inhabiting the world, of cohabiting the Earth. 

Yet, it is true that a little more than half a century ago, most of humanity was living under the yoke of colonialism. As we now know, colonialism was neither a destiny nor a necessity. To many, it was a death trap, an inhospitable and unsustainable place for those who aspired to give meaning to their existence. 

Indeed, colonialism was based on a dubious claim, the Western claim to epitomise the language and forms in which any human event could arise and acquire meaning. Colonialism was based on the dubious claim that the West had  a monopoly of the very idea of the human and of the future. Such fictions, unfortunately, still abound and the task of refuting them remains unfinished. 

The liberation of part of humanity from the yoke of colonialism constitutes a key moment in the history of the modern world. That this event left almost no mark on the philosophical spirit of our time is in itself hardly an enigma. Not all crimes and not all sacrificial acts necessarily engender sacred things. Certain crimes in history have resulted in nothing but stains and profanity, the splendid sterility of an atrophied existence. 


The struggle for self-determination was animated by the quest for a future that would not be written in advance, one that would mix together received or inherited traditions with interpretation, experimentation, and new creation. It was hoped that with decolonisation, the lost name would be restored, the discarded stone would be turned into a cornerstone, making possible the manifestation of one’s power of genesis.

At the heart of the decolonisation project was the idea that as long as it was “self-secluding” and did not include the infinite multitude of worlds, Western modernity would remain partial, incomplete and unfinished. The new postcolonial world was not condemned to imitate and reproduce what had been accomplished elsewhere. Because history was being produced in a unique way each time, the politics of the future world required the invention of new images of thought. This was only possible if one committed oneself to a long apprenticeship in signs and their modes of encounter with experience and with life as such. 

As the twenty-first century unfolds, many questions remain, some of which I tried to address in On the Postcolony: Was decolonisation truly the site of a renewed genesis of meaning, an encounter with oneself, the result of a fundamental desire for freedom, something the subject gives himself or herself, something that becomes the source of morality and ethics? Or is it nothing but a fantasy without substance, the overlap of successive dramas and foretold decline? Was it ultimately only a noisy accident, a crack on the surface, a little chink on the outside, the sign of a future bound to go astray? 


As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is gradually seeping into the minds of many that Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. This is a significant event of our era. And we are only just now beginning the work of measuring its implications and weighing its consequences. Whether such a revelation is an occasion for joy or cause for surprise or worry, one thing remains certain: the demotion of Europe opens up possibilities - and presents dangers - for critical thought. 

The Western ethnocentric tendency to interpret the world and all its socio-economic, political, and cultural processes from a Euro-American perspective has led to a cul-de-sac. Inspired by countless others who came before us, many of whom could hardly foresee this moment, we are now called upon to contribute to a necessary epistemic reorientation away from a linear conception of our history-in-common. This is, in any case, what “Africa”, the stone rejected by the builders, has taught me. 

As a matter of fact, our planet’s destiny might be played out in Africa. From a philosophical and cultural point of view, this planetary turn of the African predicament takes us far away from the Hegelian myths which, for too long, have colonised Africa’s imagination of the world and the world’s imagination of Africa. 

On the continent itself, older senses of time and space and linear approaches to development and progress are gradually being replaced by newer senses of futures founded on open narrative models. There are many who increasingly believe that, through self-organisation and small ruptures, we can actually create myriad tipping points that may lead to deep alterations in the direction that both the continent and the planet take. 

This is happening as the colonization of entire fields of knowledge by all kinds of determinisms is unfolding. Never in the modern history of the world have we witnessed such active confusion of knowledge and data, the reduction of knowledge to information and to calculation by computers. The idea that the world, the Earth and life itself are a matter of numbers and the task of knowledge is to handle quantities has never been so hegemonic. So is the belief that the best way to generate information is with computers - the belief that that which is not computable does not exist; the creeping sense that the computer is our new brain, the ultimate brain we have been longing for all along. 

In fact, there is a shifting distribution of powers between the human and the technological in the sense that technologies are moving towards general intelligence and self-replication. Reason is increasingly subsumed by instrumental rationality when it is not simply reduced to procedural or algorithmic processing of information. 

As we are increasingly surrounded by multiple wavefronts of calculation, it is as if all we are willing to ask from knowledge is to detect patterns, or to recover artefacts whose existence is derived from financial models built on technologies of speed, miniaturisation and automation. As a result, techne is becoming the quintessential language of reason, its only legitimate manifestation. 

In such a context, the injunction to decolonize is destined to acquire a new and urgent meaning. “To decolonize” must start from the assumption that knowledge cannot be reduced to computational information processing. We must recover the ability to think because neither calculation alone, nor computation are sufficient for explaining life, let alone for ensuring ours and the planet’s durability. 


In conclusion, let me go back to what I said earlier. Taken together, the lectures presented here by the Holberg Laureates who spoke before me can be described as statements of faith. I would now like to proceed in the same vein and, in turn, confess my own faith. 

I believe that an enormous work of assemblage and reassemblage is somehow or another underway on the African continent. Its human costs are high. It goes as deep as structures of thought. Destruction, repair and reassemblage are so tightly connected that, isolated from each other, these processes become incomprehensible. 

I do believe that the future of this Africa-in-motion will be shaped by the force of its paradoxes. 

I also do believe that something fertile and generative will spring from Africa, this immense tilled field of matter and things: something youthful and unpredictable, capable of opening onto an infinite, extensive, and heterogeneous universe, a wide-open universe of multiplicities. 

There is no need to give a name to this African-world-to-come, whose complex and mobile fabric slips constantly out of one form and into another.
This body in motion, never in its place, never attached to any language or pure sounds, whose center moves everywhere, this body moving in the enormous machine of the world, is the real subject the Holberg Committee has chosen to honour this year. 

I would like to think that in so doing, the Committee has once and for all  repudiated the myth according to which “things African” are residual entities, the study of which does not contribute anything to knowledge of the world or of the human condition in general. 

I would like to believe that in doing so, the same Committee has turned our backs to a narrow definition of what “Africa” stands for in the history of human thought and to restricted conceptions of what knowledge is all about and who it is supposed to serve. 

I would like to believe that part of our task, from now on, is to dream of a new library, a planetary library that will replace the colonial library. 

This planetary library will come into being as distinct and multiple archives of human worth and human memories, in their inseparability, are assembled to teach us new ways of co-inhabiting the Earth, that is, of sharing it, of caring for it and of repairing it as a precondition of its durability and ours.