Achille Mbembe

Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand

Of the two, Jean Comaroff was the first I met. It was in the early 1990s in New York City. Trained in France, I was among the second cohort of Francophone African scholars at the forefront of the trek which, by the early 2000, had driven countless talented intellectuals to the United States shores. Edouard Glissant, Mary se Conde,
V.Y. Mudimbe had opened the gate a few years early.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Ford Foundation and encouraged by Richard Joseph, I spent a year at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1987-1988. A young Assistant Professor at Columbia University (New York) from 1988 onwards, I read Body of Power in the midst of the intellectual effervescence which prevailed in the social sciences and the humanities during the late 1980s. By the time Revelation and Revolution had been published, I had quickly realized that between Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, there was no hyphen. Both have been a gift in our midst. It is in recognition of their contribution to the intellectual life of our times and the inseparability of their life and oeuvre that I write this brief testimonial.

Both grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid years. Although they left after 1967, they both retained their roots in this country and region I, for my part, settled in in 2000. After Apartheid was abolished, they spent much of their lives moving between the United States, Africa and Europe. Throughout those years, they sharpened a mode of reading each of these places and locations through the eyes of the others. As a result of this endless process of reciprocal estrangement, a productive angle of vision as well as a strikingly original optic of the world was harnessed. This is arguably part of what allowed them to be at the forefront of one of the most theoretically inspiring and methodologically sensitive anthropological traditions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

There is no need to describe in detail Jean and John Comaroff’s seminal contribution to their discipline and to the humanities and social sciences. Their record speaks for itself. Their intellectual influence has been immense. It is to be found in various areas of academic enquiry, from law, cultural studies, political economy to sociology, social studies of health and religion, arts and design. It is no surprise that their work should be translated in so many languages, from French to Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Mandarin, Italian etc…

In the course of more than five decades, they have taught and mentored thousands of students in numerous institutions in the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Norway, Africa and elsewhere. Not only have they opened their homes to them, they have also shown patience, kindness and generosity, resourcefulness and open-mindedness to each of them. They allocated an extraordinary amount of time for each of their students, wrote numerous letters of recommendation, assisted them as they often struggled to prepare for fieldwork, to refine their research questions, to win research grants, to improve or reinforce their conceptual frameworks, to interpret their data so that valid conclusions could be drawn from their findings. They have fully supported them and consistently encouraged them to explore and achieve their true potential.

The very significant intellectual influence and moral authority they yielded was put to the service of high quality research and teaching. At the various institutions they found themselves (University of Chicago, Harvard University) or with the various others they were affiliated with throughout the world, they strenuously dedicated their energy to nurturing high quality scholarly communities. They brought together many of us through consistent ethical behavior, always respectful and responsible conduct, and a huge and extraordinary generosity and sense of humor.

In the current context in which “big data” and “information” is mistaken for “knowledge as such” while the social sciences tend to turn their back on theory in favor of neo-empiricism, I would like to highlight the way in which, throughout their long intellectual journey, they have combined and explored the interplay between detailed description and the macro-historical context in which culture and practices are situated.

Almost since its inception, anthropology has been an interpretive science in search of the symbolic meanings that human actors ascribe to their practices within a defined political, economic, and cultural context. Jean and John Comaroff’s work has consistently brought together finely detailed ethnography, a broad hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of cultural practices, and a striking literary – and almost cinematic – sensibility. They have not only paid strenuous attention to the actor’s own frames of reference, their embodied and intersubjective engagements with their worlds. They have also made sure the organized stocks of taken-for-granted knowledge in which their everyday practices draw were accurately identified and accounted for.

This is what has allowed them to write captivating and theoretically sophisticated books. Such, for instance, are the two volumes of Revelation and Revolution, which place the reader within unfamiliar social worlds rendered with extraordinary historical and phenomenological fluency through subtle narration and writing. Attentive to social antagonisms, cultural contestation and historical contingency, the two volumes, like numerous other works, point to ungrasped utopian possibilities not only within the past itself, but also within the reader’s present.

The same impetus is evident in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony and in The Truth About Crime. The first volume makes sense of the ways in which citizens give meaning to and understand their social realities, particularly the making, unmaking and remaking of the thin lines between legal/illegal, formal/informal, order/disorder that define many facets of contemporary societies. The second shows how crime and policing serve as the medium through which reconfigured notions of sovereignty, authority, law and citizenship are nowadays molded. All, including Millennial Capitalism, pay considerable attention to life at the peripheries of the world and to forces often unseen or disregarded. In Jean and John Comaroff’s anthropology, these peripheries and the forces that move them become critical vantage points for theory-work in the social sciences and the humanities.

As a scholar working from those reaches of the planet that were formerly colonized, I cannot insist enough on the priceless work Jean and John Comaroff have done in firmly placing the African continent on the international research agenda and contemporary intellectual debates. Indeed, the same goes for what nowadays goes by the name “the Global South.” Through their own research, they have shown that there is no better vantage point than these “ex-centric” locations to look at the contemporary planetary order in its totality. North and South, they argue, are caught up in the same
meta-process of contemporary world-making.

They have also been instrumental in infusing much needed energy into continental African debates, showing, for instance, that far from derivative, African modernity has always been plural. It has deep roots in the past and has long been the object of endogenous contention and contestation.

I close this testimonial at a moment when, drifting away from academia, I genuinely wonder whether a place remains in the late global university for the kind of pedagogical project and intellectual endeavor pursued over so many years by Jean and John Comaroff. It is my hope that as it keeps transforming for the better, the university will remain a place where hospitality, freedom and creativity will always be the cornerstones for an intellectually satisfying and imaginative life.