Book Review – Critique of Black Reason – Achille Mbembe


Critique of Black Reason

By Achille Mbembe (Author), Laurent DuBois (Translator)

240 pp

Duke University Press

Reviewed by Nick Opyrchal


In this book ‘Critique of Black Reason’ Achille Mbembe embarks on a philosophical genealogy and traces the way in which thinking (reason) about race, specifically blackness, has emerged and how it has functioned within especially within the Western establishment and European society: How it has entered our psyches as ideas of natural categories of difference between peoples. He traces the way in which naturalising or reifying race as a ‘natural’ category of difference served the interest of capitalism, and was then employed to maintain the systems of power from which it emerged.

Drawing not only on Freud, but also Lacan and the postcolonial work of Fanon, Achille Mbembe often uses a psychoanalytic framework to explore how the divisions that were reified by the adoption of race as a natural category (for instance – whites being cognitive and civilized and blacks being sexually potent and embodied) are often not only adopted by the people in power, but by those subjected to it. These categories and differences are often adopted even by those who are disadvantaged by them as if they were natural fact. He looks at how many of the black thought and liberation movements remain embedded within the categories and divisions originally described by this ideology. On top of this Mbembe obviously questions validity of the idea of genetic or biological difference between races, feeling that this is perhaps an extension of the original ideological division, and that this is the latest means our society possesses of providing it with a spurious legitimacy.

Mbembe is an engaging writer, and almost uniquely for critical theory, especially that which is translated from French – he is very readable, sometimes poetic and not filled with page by page of indecipherable jargon. His historical odyssey through thought around Blackness moves through important figures such as Fanon, Mandela and the Negritude movement tracing the differences in these attempts to reconcile with the establishment and colonial view of race that they were faced with and submerged within.

Mbembe also portrays the link between the idea of race and segregation – the way in which it was a tool used to demarcate who was allowed ‘inside’ of certain areas or social spheres and who was not. Mbembe shows how naturalised racial categories of supposed difference made this segregation far more easy to enforce and to maintain amongst subjected populations, and looks at the byproducts of fear, anger and abject emotion. He does this partly by drawing on the work of transgressive philosopher Georges Bataille and his concept of the accursed share, but there is also evidently a strong link in his work to that of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari – these authors being some of the most able commentators on the link between territory and ‘Otherness’. All of this leads to a strong philosophical and psychoanalytic toolbox from which he explores the concept of race and the subject in an idiosyncratic and detailed way.

Personally as a Transpersonal psychotherapist, I felt that this was a great exposition of an important topic that can often be marginalised unconsciously in our profession. One of the issues with transpersonal psychotherapy drawing on older ‘spiritual’ forms of knowledge is that often we are presented with concrete views on the attributions given to imagery and mythology; such as (for example) the association of black with evil and white with goodness. I remember in my training even being presented with stereotypes exactly reflecting those explored in the book – of populations being more cerebral in the north and embodied in the south. Mbembe’s work shows how some of these categorical attributions are the by-products of ideology, and not (as we are sometimes told in religious traditions) the pristine reflection of natural laws. Besides this, on an emotional level I was genuinely moved by Mbembe’s work – my (very incomplete, and second hand) understanding of what the effect of this identity foisted on the individual was, was something that affected me deeply.

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