January 2018

Achille Mbembe: Rethinking Democracy Beyond the Human


Can democracy survive the erosion of its current social and technological conditions of possibility? Can (or should) liberal democracy persist without the bounded individual endowed with reason?

Achille Mbembe touches on many of the techniques addressed throughout this series, from what he calls computational media (examined by Jodi Dean as “communicative capitalism”) to the state of exception (examined by Darius Rejali when applied to the body). For Mbembe, entire populations are held in the state of exception, deemed “in excess” or superfluous. This brings us again to questions of “the people,” to ways that some are inscribed into a state of legal limbo and how the single homogenous legal category of citizenship has given way to a system of barriers and enclosures governed by selective permeability and differential applications of power.

To these conditions Mbembe asks: What are the possible futures we imagine? As belief in democracy wanes, we are told that our systems have evolved beyond the limit of human reason, and that computational logic and economic models should supplant democratic deliberation. It is no wonder then, Mbembe suggests, that the planetary imagination has become fixated on dystopian dread, “negative messianism,” magical or miraculous thinking, and resignation. For the liberal subject, the future is indeed dark, as in “obscure.” Of the forms of futurity that Mbembe recounts, one posits that there is a future, that it opens onto nothing—not the emptiness of annihilation but the emptiness of any vision of the future. It is through this emptiness of possibility that we choose the emptiness of annihilation, that we pursue our own extinction, that we just “end it now.”

If we are to imagine a future that opens onto something, Mbembe suggests we need to rethink democracy “beyond the human”: we must be prepared both to bid farewell to a certain construction of the human subject and to think imaginatively about a new human becoming. Central to this is the practice of repair: a “compositional logic” which seeks to place things in new configurations through which they can survive. This is not a democracy beyond technics but precisely one through them. Any version of “the people” will necessarily be situational and hybrid, not only in its composition, but also in how and upon whom we attribute democratic agency.

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