Cameroonian-born philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe is a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa who specializes in issues of urbanization and modern society. He spent the fall of 2013 teaching a course on African cities at Harvard, and in December he stopped by the Nieman Foundation, at the invitation of South African Nieman Greg Marinovich, to share his insights into the future of the urban environment, income inequality, and the effect of technology on our lives.
Africa’s urban population is rapidly expanding, and its cities—and all cities in the traditional global south—are now facing the same problems as cities in the north. Crime, poverty and a decline in civic engagement can be seen all over the world, Mbembe says, blurring the distinctions between places like central Johannesburg and the South Side of Chicago. “Whatever major city you look at in the north today, it has its south. The south is right in the middle of the north,” Mbembe said. “And therefore, that entanglement of the south and the north, and the east and the west, that’s probably what the global condition looks like.”
Adding immediacy to Mbembe’s point was the fact that, on the day before his visit, a judge in Detroit ruled that the city’s bankruptcy could proceed. He holds a special interest in that city, which he visited for the first time in 2013. He described his experience staying in a new hotel downtown, and walking through Detroit: “Through the built environment and the architecture, one can read the history of that city. From the early years of its being settled as a city to the years of expansion, driven to a large part by the automotive industries, and the emergence of an entrepreneurial class that thought it could worship wealth by building temples to capital. … Then you begin to see how after the automobile crisis, the city begins to be the object of a major flight—flight of its most active middle classes to the suburbs—and huge decay of infrastructure. It’s a totally surrealistic scene of monumental ruins, in midst of very small pockets of vitality.”
Cities that haven’t declared bankruptcy are still dealing with issues of joblessness and underemployment. In addition to the economic impact—people who don’t work don’t have money to spend—there is a psychological impact on a society where people don’t have jobs. Mbembe argues that we need to adjust our definition of “work” to accommodate those who may not be paid for how they spend their days.
“We need to redefine what we mean by ‘work.’ Feminist scholarship has helped a lot in opening that area. If a woman is working at home—taking care of the children, making sure the domestic unit is viable—she’s not idle. She is busy most of the time, but her being busy doesn’t translate into a monetary income at the end of the month, on a regular basis. … If we want to transform society, we have to transform the way we understand what work is all about. We have to devise new ways in which we recognize nonwage labor forms and the value attached to them, value that can be translated in monetary terms or nonmonetary terms. Because the crisis of joblessness is, at the same time, a crisis of value.”
Understanding human interaction today, however, goes beyond where we live and what we do. Phones, computers, televisions and tablets have fundamentally changed us, Mbembe says, because we now live in a world of “ubiquitous environments,” where “for the first time in modern times, the possibility of being in many places at the same time is there.” We now communicate with friends, family, coworkers and others by means of digital representations, Mbembe says, not on a person-to-person level.
“That shift,” Mbembe says, “has transformed not only the ways in which we relate to objects, but in fact, the ways in which we live in our objects. Our objects are no longer just things that are external to us. We have to inhabit them and they have to inhabit us in mutually constitutive dialectics, without which we wouldn’t be able to operate effectively, but which of course changes fundamentally the ways we think about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship to the world.”
This change in technology is accompanied by a global change in manufacturing and in the value of resources. Mbembe says that we are experiencing a “shift from the age of steel, where the basic infrastructures of modernity are premised on steel, to a new time, when minerals are the infrastructure.” He points to coltan, a rare material that is used in almost all modern computer technology and commonly mined in the Congo. Whereas steel can seen in the structures and technologies created from it, coltan is unseen and unnoticed because we focus only on the waves of light and information generated by the screens of devices that need it.
“The day has 24 hours, and at least half of it is spent behind screens—even when we go to bed,” Mbembe said. “I go to bed, and then I read the newspaper on my phone. I leave the screen only to go to sleep. If Freud were to come back today, I’m not sure what he would find. I leave the screen and I go to sleep, but I’m not sure that the screen doesn’t follow me in my sleep. Freud would probably have to reformulate what the unconscious is all about.”