Mbembe’s Troubled Archive

Hopefully it’s okay to write a response to the optional Mbembe article “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” I’m drawn to this essay in particular because it resonates with some of the ideas and concerns I address in my own prospective syllabus. Just as texts and archives insinuate the hegemony of the social forces that construct them, so too do universities act as arbiters for the politics of knowledge production. I think Mbembe’s article is really important in part because it acknowledges some of the concerns that have plagued any sort of scholarship that wrestles with the circulation of power, and though his article never deploys the term ‘”reterritorialization,” part of his preoccupation with decolonizing knowledge or the university seeks to move away from reterritorialization as a possibility. Mbembe suggests as much:

“The harder I tried to make sense of the idea of “decolonization” that has become the rallying cry for those trying to undo the racist legacies of the past, the more I kept asking myself to what extent we might be fighting a complexly mutating entity with concepts inherited from an entirely different age and epoch. Is today’s university the same as yesterday’s or are we confronting an entirely different apparatus, an entirely different rationality – both of which require us to produce radically new concepts?”

Mbembe understands that modern knowledge production is more than just the vestiges of a colonial or imperialistic discursive legacy—he paints this entity as a moving target, one which shifts its focus and adapts an intangible slipperiness because it melds contemporary liberatory ideals with discourse and schema “inherited from an entirely different age and epoch.” It seems to me that he’s describing the process of reterritorialization, where any movement away from hegemony inevitably shifts back, in this example because our very concepts of knowledge and knowledge production are shot through with colonial impulse. Even the phrase “reterritorialization” is prey to this; the concept comes from Gilles Deleuze, a thinker within a very established ideological lineage (white, male, Western), and one could make the argument that even employing his terminology becomes a self-defeating practice.

Mbembe uses Thiong’o to postulate how we might begin to see ourselves relationally with other forces and individuals, and it’s this approach that allows us to modify and/or repudiate the Western ideal of the Subject, which serves as both the starter’s pistol and the checkered flag of myriad discourses that populate our academies. Mbembe elaborates on how this relational thinking is useful because it challenges not only the context of the postcolony, but an even broader scope of anthropocentrism of the past two centuries. Therein, he suggests, lies the pathway out of discursive stagnation and toward a broader, more flexible and welcoming archive. It seems he would suggest that the university, as circulator of these (sometimes un)intentionally hegemonic disourses, is the best place to begin such a revolution.

All in all, I found Mbembe fantastically persuasive, but the question I’m left with is this: how can we contribute meaningfully to such a project? To what extent do we need to modify or repudiate wholesale our own discursive practices in order to speak to the relationality Mbembe champions? If the answer is to completely overhaul our own forms of knowledge production and circulation, is that even practical, or are we too entrenched in where we are? I’m not convinced that Mbembe gives us an answer, or if it’s even the type of question that can be answered satisfactorily.

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