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2024 Holberg Prize Goes to Political Theorist Achille Mbembe News
(Photo: Chanté Schatz/University of the Witwatersrand.)

2024 Holberg Prize Goes to Political Theorist Achille Mbembe

March 14, 2024 991

Political theorist and public intellectual Achille Mbembe, among the most read and cited scholars from the African continent, was awarded the 2024 Holberg Prize today. A release from the Holberg Committee explained that they selected the research professor of history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg for his pioneering research in African history, postcolonial studies, humanities, and social science over four decades.

Holdberg Prize logo with line drawing of Ludvig Holberg
Ludvig Holberg was born in Bergen in 1684, but lived most of his life in Copenhagen. He played a crucial role in bringing the Enlightenment to the Nordic countries and in modernizing several academic disciplines and teaching methods. Holberg held the Chairs of Metaphysics and Logic, Latin Rhetoric and History at the University of Copenhagen. He also laid the foundation for international law as an academic subject in Denmark-Norway. He’s perhaps best known as a playwright and an author, and is remembered for, among other works, his Introduction to Natural and International Law, the plays Jeppe on the Hill, The Fidget and Erasmus Montanus, and for the novel Nils Klim’s Subterranean Journey. (Image: The Holberg Prize/University of Bergen)

The Holberg Prize is an international prize awarded each year by the University of Bergen – through the sponsorship of the government of Norway — to an outstanding researcher in the humanities, social sciences, law or theology. It comes with a cash award of 6 million Norwegian kronor (about €530,000 or US$570,000) from the Norwegian government. The official bestowal will occur at a ceremony on June 6 at the University of Bergen. Past winners since the first Holberg was awarded in 2004 include Jürgen Habermas, Manuel Castells, Onora O’Neill, Cass Sunstein, Paul Gilroy, and Sheila Jasanoff.

“Mbembe is recognized as one of the foremost thinkers of postcolonial Africa and is a key critical theorist of the planetary,” his citation from the committee reads. “He has played a major role in advancing thinking on racism and its effects on subjectivity, particularly through the concept of the ‘racial subject.’ Mbembe´s refusal of all forms of racism also draws inspiration from the uneven impact of the climate crisis on the Global South.”

The Holberg release noted Mbembe’s “ability to bridge existing thinking on colonialism and decolonisation with pressing questions on topics such as contemporary migration regimes, global citizenship, restitution and reparation, technology, climate change and planetary futures.”

Mbembe interrogates his own contributions on subjects like decolonization, ‘necropolitics,’ ‘the universal right to breathe,’ or ‘the earthly community,’ asking: “What are the conditions for rethinking the world in a way that opens up alternative ways of inhabiting it, of being-in-common and of nurturing a planetary consciousness? How to think an open future that moves beyond the history of race, colonialism and segregation with which the present is so deeply entangled. These questions have been at the heart of my research over the span of my career. Behind them lurks an even bigger issue, that of life futures—how can life be repaired, reproduced, sustained and cared for, made durable and universally shared?”

Holberg summarizes their laureate’s answers along two fronts, one in Mbembe’s role as a historian and the other as a theorist.

“As a historian and a political philosopher, Mbembe has been most concerned about the entanglement of Europe and its former colonies. Using Africa as a point of departure for a mode of thinking that is continuous with multiple and interlocking lineages, he has revealed the extent to which the continent is a living laboratory of thought forms and ideas, a vast world of invention, imagination and creativity.

“As a critical theorist, his deliberations on the global order have left an enduring mark far beyond debates on postcolonialism. Drawing on African experiences, Mbembe has played a major role in advancing thinking beyond identity and difference, particularly through concepts such as ‘necropolitics,’ ‘the universal right to breathe,’ or ‘the earthly community,’ which speak to the ongoing struggles for recognition and repair as well as care and dignity in a racialized world.”

Achille Joseph Mbembe was born in what was then French Cameroon in 1957. He studied there and then in France, receiving a PhD at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne on the history of anti-colonial resistance in Cameroon, and then a master of advanced study, or DEA, at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris.

He taught at several U.S. universities, starting as an assistant professor of history at Columbia University from 1988 to 1991, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institute, associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996. He next served as executive director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in Dakar, Senegal until 2000. In the new millennium he was a visiting professor first at the University of California, Berkeley and then Yale University in 2003. He was a research professor in history and politics at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute before taking the position in South Africa. In South Africa, Mbembe is also the director of the Innovation Foundation for Democracy.

Widely published and translated, his most influential book is arguably 2013’s Critique of Black Reason, described as “a philosophical study of the meaning of Blackness as it historically emerged.” Other important books (all originally written in French) are 2000’s On the Postcolony, 2020’s Out of the Dark Night, 2016’s Necropolitics, and 2020’s Brutalism and The Earthly Community: Reflections on the Last Utopia from 2022.  His latest book is last year’s La communaute Terrestre.

Before winning the Holberg, Mbembe received the Ernst Bloch Award and the Gerda Henkel Prize, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the British Academy.

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