​The digital age erases the divide between humans and objects

Although some of Africa’s natural assets are in danger of being depleted, it remains the last territory on Earth that has not yet been entirely subjected to the rule of capital.

This single, gargantuan land mass is the last repository of a vast body of untapped resources — minerals underground, plants and animals, all the forms of energy latent in the Earth’s crust and, by 2035, the region of the globe with the youngest and hopefully the most dynamic population in an ageing world.

Furthermore, the continent is perhaps one of the few places on the planet that could arguably absorb substantial new waves of immigration and where life potential for the species is still high.

Its biosphere is still relatively intact. So is its hydrographic, solar and wind potential. Because of the paucity of heavy infrastructures such as highways and railways, as well as the persistence of colonial boundaries, it is the last major chunk of the globe that has not yet been entirely connected to its many different ­internal parts.

And yet physical, mental and spatial enclaving is being superseded by electronic and digital convergence. The last frontier of capitalism, Africa is going through a silent revolution in digital technologies and computational media. In a world that is more than ever driven by numbers, data, codes and high-speed trading algorithms, the economic consequences of this revolution are hard to predict. But its cultural, political and aesthetic effects are already manifest.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, life behind screens has become a fact of daily existence, including for many urban poor. People are exposed to, and are absorbing, more images than they ever have. They are increasingly surrounded by all kinds of dream machines — cellphones, the web, videos and films. Hundreds of thousands use Twitter and Instagram and millions are on Facebook, exchanging hundreds of thousands of selfies and other messages every day.

The advent of computational media in the continent has not only been a technological event of considerable significance. It has also ushered in a new aesthetic and cultural sensibility many have called Afropolitanism.

In its simplest instantiation, Afropolitanism represents a new form of worldliness. It can be recognised by the extent to which the local is shaped by, and transacted through, global symbolic resources and imaginaries of circulation.

The computer and the cellphone are the key technological vectors of Afropolitanism. They have become portable stores of knowledges and crucial devices that have changed the way the new African speaks, writes, communicates, imagines who he or she is, or even relates to others and to the world at large.

The interaction between humans and screens having intensified, the boundaries of perception have been stretched as people are projected from one temporal regime to another. Today, it is possible to move almost without transition from the Stone Age to the Digital Age, from magical reason to electronic reason. Time now unfolds in multiple versions while life and the world are increasingly experienced as cinema.

Of the various explanations of the sway new media forms and computational technologies nowadays hold on the contemporary African mind and the enchantment they provoke, two in particular stand out.

The first is the existence in many regions of the continent of deep histories and entrenched cultures of curiosity, invention and innovation, long underestimated, neglected or misunderstood. There is no part of the world other than Africa where, constrained by brutal circumstances, people are so constantly forced to innovate both in ways of being, ways of thinking and in ways of making things. Putting together again and repairing what has been broken up — bodies, tools, institutions and symbolic systems — have become the very condition for survival.

Today in major cities throughout this vast continent, it is common for objects of use value to be made from apparently worthless things. Various kinds of materials are disassembled and reassembled or redeployed so as to bring into being new and revised objects. Matter that already existed is folded, remixed and welded and blended in new combinations. Items that would otherwise be considered as rubbish are resurrected.

In their extraordinary liveliness and frugality, these cultures of retrieval, repair and remaking of things are the repositories of tacit knowledges and skills that have not been the object of proper documentation and even less so of archiving.

It remains to be seen whether this apparently inexhaustible capacity for creativity and resilience can be harnessed to propel Africa into a future worth its name.

On the other hand, the continent is a fertile ground for the new digital technologies because the philosophy of those technologies and the metaphysics underpinning them are more or less in tune with key cognitive reservoirs in African historical cultures — the old ways of folding reality, ancient conceptions of the relations between being and matter, the existence of a deep, almost unconscious archive of permanent transformation, mutation, conversion, metamorphosis and circulation.

Just as in today’s late capitalist age, the world of ancient Africans was one in which the future was highly volatile. Extreme or even catastrophic events were common. In such a context, premium was given to the ability to work with all kinds of knowledges and materials. Constantly repurposing physical and mental things was a highly prized cultural disposition.

Moreover, historical African cultures were obsessed with the interrogation concerning the boundaries of matter, of life, of the body and of the self.

As evidenced by their myths, oral literatures and cosmogonies, among the most important human queries were those concerning the world beyond human perceptibility, corporeality, visibility and consciousness.

Objects were not seen as static entities. Rather, they were flexible living beings endowed with original and, at times, occult and magical properties. They were repositories of energy, vitality and virtuality and, as such, they constantly invited transmutation or even transfiguration.

Tools, technical objects and artifacts belonged to the world of interfaces and served as the lynchpin to transgress existing boundaries to access the universe’s infinite horizons. With human beings and other living entities, they entertained a relationship of reciprocal causation. This is what early anthropologists mistook for animism.

Electronic reason and computational media speak almost unmediated to this archaic unconscious and to these societies’ deepest technical memories. If anything, these memories suggest that the African precolonial world prefigured the digital, or was digital before the digital.

Furthermore, in old African cognitive worlds, human beings were never satisfied simply being human beings. They were constantly in search of a supplement to their humanity.

Often, to their humanity they added attributes of animals, properties of plants and various animate and inanimate objects. Personhood was therefore not a matter of ontology. It was always a matter of composition and of assemblage of a multiplicity of vital beings.

To convert one specific object into something else and to capture the power inherent in every single matter and being constituted the ultimate form of power and agency. The world itself was a transactional world. One was always transacting with some other force or some other entity just as one was always trying to capture some of the power invested in those entities in an effort to add theirs to one’s own originary powers.

Modernity rejected such ways of being and confined them to the childhood of Man.

Today, the technological devices that saturate our lives have become extensions of ourselves. In the process, a new relationship between humans and other living or vital things has been instituted. This new relationship is not unlike what African traditions had long prefigured.

Not long ago, it was understood that the human person (whom the West mistook for the white man) was not a thing or an object. Nor was he or she an animal or a machine. Human emancipation was precisely premised on such a distinction.

Today many want to capture for themselves the forces, energies and vitalism of the objects that surround us, most of which we have invented. We think of ourselves as made up of various spare or animate parts. How we assemble them and for what purpose is the question late identity politics raises so unequivocally.

Under neoliberal conditions, this renewed convergence, and at times fusion, between the human being and the objects, artefacts or technologies that supplement or augment us, is at the source of forms of self-stylisation we have not seen before.

This event, which we can equate to a return to animism, is nevertheless not without danger for the idea of emancipation in this age of crypto-fascism.

In this late phase of its development, capitalism is less and less about the creation of social wealth. Partly fuelled by processes of sudden devaluation and expendability, rapid supersession, ceaseless disinvestment, obsolescence and discarding, it increasingly aspires to free itself from any social obligation and to become its own ends and its own means.

In this context, one of the many functions of computational media and digital technologies is not only to extract surplus value through the annexation and commodification of the human attention span. It is also to accelerate the disappearance of transcendence and its reinstitutionalisation in the guise of the commodity.

Formatting as many minds as possible, shaping people’s desires, recrafting their symbolic world, blurring the distinction between reality and fiction and, eventually, colonising their unconscious, have become key operations in the dissemination of micro-fascism in the interstices of the real.

Furthermore, both neoliberal capitalism and new technologies speak to some of the deepest fantasies that the modern human being entertains, beginning with the fantasy of watching oneself, which was first experienced with the invention of the mirror. Before the advent of the mirror as a technology of self-gazing, we could not fully take ourselves as eminent objects of contemplation. We could only see our shadow, or the refraction of our double through the surface of the water or as an effect of light.

Today various auxiliary technologies and platforms including all kinds of nano-cameras have taken the mirror to its ultimate stage with explosive effects.

They have brought the history of the shadow to its knees by making us believe that there can be a world without opacity, a translucent world transparent to itself, without any nocturnal attribute.

We can finally become our own spectacle, our own scene, our own theatre and audience, even our own public. In this age of endless self-curation and exhibition, we can finally draw our own portrait. Intimacy has been replaced by what Jacques Lacan called “extimacy”.

A different kind of human entangled with objects, technologies and other living or animate things is therefore being constituted through and within digital technologies and new media forms. This is not at all the liberal individual who, not so long ago, we believed could be the subject of democracy.

This new order of things has serious implications for our traditional understanding of the political, of freedom and self-government. Since modernity, every project of genuine human emancipation has aimed at preventing the human from being treated as an object and ultimately from being turned into waste.

Now, if under the empire of the digital and the Eros of consumption, the human also begins to desire to be an object, or to have some of the attributes of the object, or to see to it that objects and other animate and inanimate entities are also endowed with the same rights as the humans, what does this signal in terms of the future of the political as such?

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. His new book, Politics of Enmity, will be published by Duke University Press later this year.

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Achille Mbembe
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