Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Gabriel Quigley reviews Brutalisme

Achille Mbembe. Brutalisme. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2020. 246 pp.

Review by Gabriel Quigley

26 January 2022

Achille Mbembe’s newest book, Brutalisme, analyzes how ecological disaster, the migrant crisis, technological innovation, and the persistence of colonialist thought in the West symptomatize the increased reduction of life to brute matter. The book takes its title from the architectural style of the 1950s, which is characterized by its rigid, monolithic appearance and its large-scale use of poured concrete. As Mbembe states in an interview with Paul Gilroy, “I was very interested in the ways in which in this movement ‘matter’ was central; not whatever matter, but the term in French is ‘le béton’ (concrete); this matter we use to build houses, strong structures, in the hope that they will last forever, or in any case that they will last for a very very long time.”[1] Brutalisme discerns what Mbembe describes as a metaphysico-political regime, operating in diverse domains of contemporary life, that facilitates the reduction of the environment, people, and even information to brute matter—the mere stuff that, in its proper arrangement, makes up the Anthropocene. By referring to this regime as brutalism, Mbembe shows how its operations can be traced in such varied but structurally related domains as the harvesting of natural resources, data, and African cultural artifacts. But Mbembe also demonstrates how Brutalism operates through a procedure that he calls “frontiérisation” (borderization), a tactic of power that involves the mobile relegation of borders on land, water, and even bodies. Mbembe draws attention to how, by giving rise to “le corps-frontière” (the border-body)—which dually marks political distinctions while being excepted from political legibility—borderization has enacted an unprecedented growth in carceral landscapes, where people are transformed into brute matter to be mined.

Brutalisme thus delineates the specific phenomena that fall under the heading of what Mbembe refers to as "le devenir-nègre du monde" or "le devenir africain de la planète" (the becoming Black or the becoming Africa of the world), by which he means the extension of racial prejudice and neocolonial pillaging on a planetary scale. For Mbembe, Africa is no longer the exceptional signifier of colonial predation, racial conflict, and the plundering of natural resources. In virtue of its unique history of struggle, exploitation, and excision from the Enlightenment, Africa has become the exemplary signifier for an increasingly planetary condition of dehumanization and extraction. And yet, Mbembe emphasizes that every repressive use of power signals the world’s increasing resistance to governmentality. For example, he claims that the spread of sedentarizing institutions like camps and prisons testify to what he calls the progressively reticular aspect of the world emerging from the connections and transmissions enabled by recent technological innovations. It is in virtue of this reticularity, Mbembe claims, that ancient African philosophy has become more current than Western philosophy, given how ancient African metaphysics and practices of animism were attuned to ontologies of becoming and the tenuousness of the boundary between the human and the object. African animistic objects also serve as the point of departure for the conclusion to Mbembe’s book, in which he emphasizes that the West has an ethical duty to restitute African art, and that this restitution must be paired with an honest acknowledgment of colonialism’s barbaric history.

The idea of the becoming black of the world that underpins Brutalisme is guided by Mbembe’s notion of le Nègre (the Black), which he theorizes as a triply ontological, metaphysical, and racial category of exception. This notion of the Black invites comparisons to recent work in Black studies, notably that of Afro-pessimist thinkers who propose that Blackness is a structural resistance to ontologies founded upon Eurocentrism and white supremacism. For example, Sylvia Wynter and Fred Moten identify the dually colonial and racial elements of ontology, and David Marriott has recently drawn attention to the racial-ontological significance of Frantz Fanon’s “'n’est pas.’”[2] This direction is most developed in Calvin Warren’s Ontological Terror (2018), which draws on Martin Heidegger to distinguish between the being of whiteness and the nothing of Blackness. Mbembe’s project departs from these interventions by refusing to identify being or ontology with Eurocentrism and white supremacism. Instead, he claims that while the Black is unknown within Western metaphysics, it is paradigmatic within ancient African metaphysics that identifies being with becoming. According to the logic that Mbembe develops in Brutalisme, the Black is therefore less the refusal of ontology than it is the herald of a new ontology, a new understanding of being in the wake of borderlessness.

Nevertheless, despite its novel insights into race, ontology, and contemporary crises, Brutalisme tends to rehearse several posthumanist shibboleths. For example, the claim that the world is experiencing an increased reduction to bare materiality recapitulates aspects of the new materialist work of Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad. Mbembe’s discussions of technology, the digital, and cyberspace offer few insights that go beyond the pioneering work of such theorists as N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. Indeed, Mbembe’s treatment of the plantation in the chapter “Virilisme” echoes Haraway and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s notion of the Plantationocene, which they propose as an alternative to the Anthropocene that places greater emphasis on the planet as a site of extraction. But the posthumanist reflections of Brutalisme are set apart by the deeply political project of the book, which draws attention to both the urgency of envisioning a radically inclusive community and the auspiciousness of the current moment for bringing this community into being.


[1] Achille Mbembe, “Transcript: In Conversation with Achille Mbembe,” interview by Paul Gilroy, Sarah Parker Remond Centre of UCL, 17 June 2020,

[2] See David Marriott, Whither Fanon? Studies in the Blackness of Being (Stanford, Calif., 2018).