Mbembe at the Lekgotla of Foucault’s Self-Styling and African Identity

Josias Tembo


Achille Mbembe’s article “African Modes of Self-Writing” (2001), which is a precursor to his book On the Postcolony (2001), challenges essentialist conceptions of African identity and their theoretical and political poverty, and in turn offers a fluid conception of African subjectivities. Reviewing anti-colonial and postcolonial theories of African identity, Mbembe contends that dominant notions of African identity are tropes of Nativism and Afro-radicalism premised on historicist thinking, which lead to a dead-end. He utilises Michel Foucault’s notion of self-styling and argues that, contrary to Nativist and Afro-radicalist notions of African identity—which deny African subjects spaces or sites of autonomous actions that constantly constitute their identities—African subjects in Mbembe’s view are existential works of art forged through the practices of the self. Critique on Mbembe’s “African Modes of Self-Writing” and On the Postcolony has been dominated by the polarities of essentialist and anti-essentialist views of African identity and their socio-political and material consequence. Except for Jewsiewicki (2002), none has interrogated Mbembe’s appropriation of Foucault’s notion of the practice of liberty or self-styling and its theoretical and political consequence on Mbembe’s conception of the socio-political and cultural freedom of the African subjects. It is the aim of this essay to interrogate Mbembe’s narrow appropriation of Foucault’s conception of self-styling and its consequent problematic theorisation of African identity as enacted by practices of the self. By way of introduction, I will contextualise Mbembe’s critique of African modes of imagining African identity, before I analyse his bounded appropriation of Foucault’s notion of self-styling, and conclude by exposing his consequent problematic conception of African practices of freedom.


Mbembe; self-styling; practice of liberty; African identity; socio-political freedom

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