Mbembe links race and war

Renowned historian and post-colonial theorist Achille Mbembe discussed the relationship between race, mass destruction and the law of warfare in a lecture Monday at the John Hope Franklin Center.

The lecture was part of "Dissent: Past & Present"--a series that has included presentations and exhibitions on topics ranging from the centennial of the Bassett Affair to social revolt in Argentina. Monday's lecture was attended by an audience of about 60, consisting mostly of professors and graduate students.

Mbembe said race is not consistent with physical differences, but rather has to do with the act of killing. "Race is fundamentally a relationship of enmity," he said.

Quoting several scholars, Mbembe cited Rwandan and Nazi genocides to illustrate the idea that race is, politically speaking, the "end of humanity." Wars between races happen when the weakness of one race is exposed, he said.

"It's wars that turn people into nations," Mbembe said, using the example of the formation of Germany in the late 19th century. For nations to be more than an abstraction, an award system in which one blood is compared with another needs to be set up. Thus, he said, construction of states is a phenomenon that follows wars between races.

Civilization is the process of learning how not to be enemies with one another and how to treat enemies in a way that does not dehumanize either party, Mbembe said. "Every time we decide to go to war, we declare an exception to human civilization."

Mbembe continued to explain that mass destruction is a relatively new concept developed in the 19th century when industrialization combined with destruction to create "abattoirs" or slaughter houses. He said it is important to note, however, that mass destruction is not limited to technologically advanced weaponry such as nuclear warheads, but can also be executed with primitive tools, as was the case in Rwanda.

Mentally, mass destruction takes place when one group decides that another is inferior and therefore can be eliminated, Mbembe said. It is an idea that originated in colonization.

The laws of warfare, he said, are a set of rules that attempt to prevent extreme dehumanization involved in the act of war. Yet he posed the question: What kind of act is lawful and just what are the lawful objectives of war?

"Any attempt to give rational or moral justifications to any form of killing or destruction is superfluous and limited," Mbembe said.

Freshman Lian Huang, who attended the lecture, said she was troubled by the definition Mbembe used for "race."

"He tries to distance [the term "race"] from black and white, but at the same time uses connotations and examples of colonization that are [black and white]," Huang said. Still, she noted that the lecture was interesting and logical.

Caroline Yezer, a graduate student in the cultural anthropology department, said she found the lecture challenging and intriguing. "He made it very colloquial, accessible and applicable to anyone studying human rights, military events and current affairs," said Yezer, who is finishing her doctorate in post-war Peruvian struggles. "I hope we can get more speakers like [him]."

Born in Cameroon, Mbembe received his Ph.D. in history from the Sorbonne in Paris. He has taught at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Berkeley.

Currently, Mbembe is a senior researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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