‘Like knowledge, ignorance is a form of power’—Read an excerpt from Achille Mbembe’s award-winning book Brutalism

The JRB presents an excerpt from Achille Mbembe’s new book Brutalism, which was recently awarded the prestigious Holberg Prize.

Achille Mbembe (translated by Steven Corcoran)
Wits University Press

Animism and Viscerality

The world has never produced as many kinds of knowledge as it has today. Most of them are about life processes and mechanical and physicochemical procedures. Others are in themselves unique acts of creation and imagination. Many have as their function the invention of mobile forces, situated at the interface between bodies and machines. Such forces are expected to be able to kill as quickly, as efficiently, and as ‘cleanly’ as possible, all in the name of security.1 Yet at issue is also the transformation of the entire real into a technical product, and of the human being, in particular, into a synthetic being, if necessary, by new methods of fertilizing, manuring, and animation.2

Humanity has never had so much information and data on hand about almost everything, indeed about all that which lives (le vivant). Never has that which exists been so accessible, even if, in the main, the most decisive discoveries and innovations in the military-technical, scientific, and commercial fields remain secret and patent-protected. All this is true. And yet, ignorance and indifference, induced or cultivated, have never been so widespread. This is because, like knowledge, ignorance is a form of power.3 Knowing does not automatically lead to freedom, while not knowing frees one from almost any responsibility while allowing, where necessary, an increase in control and in power.4

On Demonic Life

The idea of progress has long been subject to criticism, so much so that there is almost nothing to add. As a concept, progress was based on the belief in a continuous movement not susceptible to being interrupted. Movement itself was justified solely through its utilitarian and functionalist goals. According to the paradigm of progress, continuous movement and functionalism were confounded with vitalism. Progress stood fundamentally opposed to everything that presented the appearance of something dead. It could not tolerate ruin, decay, old age, or inanition. Every dead zone, every dead part, and every dead point contradicted its principle.

Despite criticism of the idea of progress, the desire to perpetually transform the human subject and the world has not let up, nor has the will to integrally master nature and life. This desire and this will to power basically remain the horizon to which humanity has never stopped aspiring. Today, this aspiration has been reduced to a simple matter of quantifying and draining the world. The world has, so to speak, become a curve, a circle, a diagram, an algorithm.5 As numbers take precedence over words, numbers become the ultimate guarantor rather than simple indicators of reality.6

In fact, what the modern period called the project of rationalization became possible only thanks to a multiplicity of material, technological, and practical innovations. From then on, deciphering the universe, notably thanks to the sciences and mathematics, has presumed an integral and infinitely expansive knowledge of the universe and the phenomena that disrupt it.7 We have become bound to this trajectory more than ever before, borne along by all sorts of mega-and nanostructures and, above all, by a new type of intelligibility or faculty that, for want of a better word, must surely be called digital.8

The advent of digital reason has given an old fantasy, the fantasy of integral knowledge, a new lease on life. Digital reason views the world as an immense reservoir from which to draw. It is mercilessly subject to man’s desire for power, and its elementary forces are arrested in the mechanics of a regime of knowledge from which nothing should escape. Once again, to know, in these conditions, has meaning only insofar as it permits draining, drilling, and extracting.9 Points of extraction alone count. And they count only because, at the end of the line, what has been extracted can be transformed into something else before being made available for consumption. In this process of extortion, machines play an invaluable role.

Similar to the way that, in our times, the world appears transformed into the image of an immense forge—given the increasingly intimate connection of the economy and neurological phenomena, or of technology and biology—so, too, did it strike the imagination of the first critics of the machine age. Movements of monstrous elemental forces, whirling speeds, vibrations and quiverings, explosive power, all this evoked the furnace at the very beginning of the combustion of the world. ‘This,’ Friedrich Georg Junger recalls, ‘is the workshop of the Cyclops.’ Junger specifies that the industrial landscape ‘has something of the volcanic about it, and we find in it all those phenomena visible during and after volcanic eruptions: lava, ash, fumaroles, smoke, gases, fire-lit night clouds, and devastation on a grand scale.’ And, turning to the ‘powerful elemental forces invading to the breaking point the ingeniously conceived machines,’ which automatically perform their uniform working operation, he adds:

They spread in the pipes, the tanks, the gears, the conduits, the blast furnaces, they surge in the dungeon of the apparatus which, like all prisons, is full of iron and grids supposed to prevent the prisoners from escaping. But who does not hear these prisoners moaning and complaining, shaking the bars and vociferating in a senseless rage, when he lends his ear to this profusion of new and strange noises generated by technology?

These noises result from the connection of the mechanical and the elemental. They are, moreover, noxious, strident, piercing, tearing, howling. They are what manage to grant to technique the face and features of a ‘demon endowed with an independent will.’10

All these features make up the subsoil of the project for integral knowledge in the algorithmic era.11 Like the technical ratio, the digital and algorithmic ratio can truly be considered as the conjunction of causal thinking and teleological thinking, and necessarily also of predictive thinking.

In both cases, knowledge gets reduced to an apparatus. It consists in a form of constraining organization.12 In the case of the digital and algorithmic ratio, we are dealing with knowledge for which the object is the totality of current and imaginable phenomena. Its field is unlimited insofar as, were it to exist, such a regime would cover not only phenomena in their abstraction, but also human intentions and behaviors, habits, desires, needs, and even people’s most hidden aspirations.13

This new type of integral knowledge is the product of extraction procedures that work from the raw material of data and information, which are massively collected and analyzed in real or delayed time, and from which significant correlations are extracted and given automated interpretations. Automated machines increasingly carry out these procedures of extraction, analysis, and arrangement of relations with the ultimate ambition to displace sites of sovereignty and, ultimately, to strip the real forever of its fundamental shadow.14 All mystery would thus be abolished. Nothing would be inconceivable anymore. The human subject, in the full clarity of itself, would finally face itself upright, in the full transparency of things and the brightness of its destiny. But is this even actually possible?

Moreover, in contemporary conditions, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, gratuitous knowledge, is considered valueless. Knowledge is valid only insofar as it may have industrial application and thus be monetizable.15 A priori, monetizable value is the only criterion of the truth of knowledge. Accordingly, it entertains no direct relationship either with morality or with wisdom.

If knowledge and truth alone rendered one truly free, humanity would have already found the key to happiness and peace—to an era of universal understanding—long ago having emancipated itself from ignorance and prejudice, fear, and superstition. And yet, despite today’s unprecedented accumulation of knowledge, ideas that are simplistic, limited, and just very poor have never been so popular. For ours is a time of fragmentation, of small stories, of identity’s spells, and its corollary, the desire for incest. We want to remain among ourselves, to tell ourselves stories that very few still believe—but little matter.

A key demand of our time is that of optimal performance and efficiency. Optimal performance and efficiency can allegedly be achieved only through an expansion of technology. And yet, the more that reason, science, and technology dominate our lives, the more the formative force of these seems to decline in the public mind. Indeed, contrary to the myth of Enlightenment, reason is very possibly not humankind’s driving force. Life’s technicization does not mechanically make us more rational, let alone reasonable, beings. In fact, the more that scientific and technological progress pushes back the frontiers of ignorance, the more the empire of prejudice, credulity, and silliness expands, as though humanity requires a dark and obscure background—the immense reserve of night with which psychoanalysis has tried to reconcile us. This phenomenon is similar to the consumption of signs of whose origins we have no idea. Technophilia and hatred of reason, we must fully understand, can happily cohabitate. And each time that this threshold of collusion has been reached, the resulting violence has been explosive and visceral.

Ideas may not be dead. But the trend is decidedly toward small stories, on the one hand, and technolatry, on the other. As Pierre Levy puts it, ‘The proponents of Big Data maintain the epistemological illusion that they could do without theory and that it is possible for them to generate knowledge from a ‘simple’ statistical data analysis.’16 A false trial, perhaps. For behind each statistic, each piece of data, and each algorithm lies a hypothesis, implicitly or explicitly, a theory that does not say its name.

In the end, humanity has not given up on the production and manipulation of symbols. The desire for mythology remains intact. There is no—and there will never be any—real without a symbol. What is new, perhaps, is the accelerated production of symbols without any real, which are sufficient in themselves and now tend to occupy the entire surface of the real. Assisted by the digital age, humanity has thus entered new regimes of symbolic production and manipulation. Behind each statistic, each code, and each algorithm lies hidden a division of the world and the real, an idea and a theory, that is, an idiom capable of generating the reality that it claims to describe or encapsulate.

There is no human activity that is not exclusively conditioned by tools, techniques, and technologies. This is true for practical activities as well as for institutions and the spaces we inhabit. Technology is one of the mediations par excellence of the living. The same is true for humanity’s mental creations, and even for democracy itself. Today, the essentials of human activities have moved into digital worlds. The public sphere itself has mostly become a digital sphere. It now has a name—the World Wide Web.

And as for the public itself, it is largely embodied in the digital, but in a novel manner and without either body or flesh. The relationship not only to the world but also to others, things, and ideas is henceforth conditioned by silicon technologies. This is the condition of the new century. One property of digital technologies is, if not to eliminate any idea of substance, then at least to desubstantivize substance all the better to return it to the only thing that really counts—speed.17 The substance of things is no longer separated from their surface. Everything plays out in interfaces, as places of privileged imbrication between the real and the virtual.

The era is thus characterized by the uninterrupted generation of all kinds of flows. Each individual, taken separately, has become both a transmitter and a potential consumer of flows. These flows now constitute us and give substance and form to social life.18 In a sense, then, the public sphere is now confounded with an economy of uninterrupted flows, which arise, swell, and fall in the manner of waves. Within the contemporary technological condition, this is a significant feature. The electronics industries have, in fact, made possible not only the expansive generation of data of all kinds on just about everything; they have also extracted unprecedented capacities to store such data. Material things are not the only target of digitization. Digitization also affects images, and indeed all human faculties, including those of calculation, understanding, perception, and representation and especially affects, feelings, and emotions.19  


1 Lucy Suchman, ‘Situational Awareness: Deadly Bioconvergence at the Boundaries of Bodies and Machines,’ MediaTropes 5, no. 1 (2015): 1–24; and Lauren Wilcox, ‘Embodying Algorithmic War: Gender, Race, and the Posthuman in Drone Warfare,’ Security Dialogue 48, no. 1 (2017): 11–28.

2 Thomas Lamarra, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

3 See, for example, Stephan Scheel and Funda Ustek-Spilda, ‘The Politics of Expertise and Ignorance in the Field of Migration Management,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37, no. 4 (2019): 663–81, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775819843677; or also Jutta Bakonyi, ‘Seeing Like Bureaucracies: Rearranging Knowledge and Ignorance in Somalia,’ International Political Sociology 12, no. 3 (2018): 256–73; and, more generally, Linsey McGoey, ‘Strategic Unknowns: Towards a Sociology of Ignorance,’ Economy and Society 41, no. 1 (2012): 1–16.

4 See Seb Franklin, Control: Digitality as a Cultural Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

5 Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘Three Thousand Years of Algorithmic Rituals: the Emergence of Ai from the Computation of Space,’ e-flux Journal, no. 101 (2019): 1–14. Also from Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘The Eye of the Algorithm: Cognitive Anthropocene and the Making of the World Brain,’ Academia, 2014, https://www.academia.edu/8751480/The_Eye_of_the_Algorithm_Anthropocene_and_the_Making_of_the_World_Brain; and ‘Machines That Morph Logic: Neural Networks and the Distorted Automation of Intelligence as Statistical Inference,’ Glass Bead, 2017, https://www.glass-bead.org/article/machines-that-morph-logic/?lang=enview.

6 Concerning this long history, see Olivier Rey, Quand le monde s’est fait nombre (Paris: Stock, 2016).

7 The exploration of the last continents is far from over, and that of the extraterrestrial universe and its limits has barely started. See Daniela Liggett, Bryan Storey, Yvonne Cook, and Veronika Meduna, Exploring the Last Continent: An Introduction to Antartica (New York: Springer, 2015); Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). And Steven J. Dick, ed., The Impact of Discovering Life beyond Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

8 Francis Lee and Lotta Bjorklund Larsen, ‘How Should We Theorize Algorithms? Five Ideal Types in Analyzing Algorithmic Normativities,’ Big Data and Society 6, no. 2 (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951719867349; Suzanne L. Thomas, Dawn Nafus, and Jamie Sherman, ‘Algorithms as Fetish: Faith and Possibility in Algorithmic Work,’ Big Data and Society 5, no. 1(2018), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717751552.

9 For a case study, see Claire Wright, ‘Modele extractiviste et pouvoirs d’exception en Amerique latine,’ Cultures et conflits 112 (2019): 93–118.

10 Friedrich Georg Junger, The Failure of Technology: Perfection without Purpose, trans. Fred D. Wieck, intro. Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (Hinsdale, IL: H. Regnery, 1949; reprint, N.p.: Der Schattige Wald, 2021), 90.

11 See the contributions collected in ‘Algorithmic Normativities,’ ed. Lotta Bjorklund Larsen and Francis Lee, special issue, Big Data and Society 6, no. 2 (2019).

12 Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, ‘Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject,’ Television and New Media 20, no. 4 (2018): 336–49.

13 On these debates, see Rob Kitchin, ‘Big Data, New Epistemologies and Paradigm Shifts,’ Big Data and Society 1, no. 1 (2014), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951714528481; Ian Lowrie, ‘Algorithmic Rationality: Epistemology and Efficiency in the Data Sciences,’ Big Data and Society 4, no. 1 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717700925.

14 Louise Amoore, ‘Cloud Geographies: Computing, Data, Sovereignty,’ Progress in Human Geography 42, no. 1 (2019): 4–24, https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132516662147.

15 See Scott Lash and Bogdan Dragos, ‘An Interview with Philip Mirowski,’ Theory, Culture and Society 33, no. 6 (2016): 123–40, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276415623063.

16 Pierre Levy, ‘Preface,’ in L’être et l’écran: Comment le numérique change la perception, by Stephane Vial (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2013), 14.

17 Edemilson Parana, Digitalized Finance: Financial Capitalism and Informational Revolution (London: Brill, 2018).

18 This social life unfolds in a context characterized by novel devices of mass surveillance and the rise of paranoiac behaviors. On this topic, see Dirk Helbing, ed., Towards Digital Enlightenment: Essays on the Dark and Light Sides of the Digital Revolution (New York: Springer, 2018); Stephen Frosh, ‘Relationality in a Time of Surveillance: Narcissism, Melancholia, Paranoia,’ Subjectivities 9, no. 1 (2016): 1–16.

19 Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).    


  • Achille Mbembe is Research Professor in History and Politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and at the Innovation Foundation for Democracy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is author of Necropolitics and Critique of Black Reason and coeditor of Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis.


Publisher information

In an argument both elegant and urgent, Achille Mbembe focuses our attention on the African continent, which is not only where the forms of domination and deprivation that increasingly affect the entire globe are most fully deployed but also where the forms of reparation necessary for a future world can be glimpsed.—Michael Hardt, author of The Subversive Seventies

This is a fantastic translation of a vital text. The poetry, intensity, complexity, and subtlety that we have come to expect from Achille Mbembe’s work are all here in Brutalism.—Laurent Dubois, translator of Critique of Black Reason

This book explores the impact of brutalist aesthetics on contemporary capitalism, emphasising the blurring of natural and artificial realms and advocates Afro-diasporic thought as a solution for societal transformation.

Eminent social and critical theorist Achille Mbembe invokes the architectural aesthetic of brutalism in his latest book to describe society’s current moment, caught up in the pathos of demolition and production on a planetary scale. Just as brutalist architecture creates an affect of overwhelming weight and destruction, Mbembe contends that contemporary capitalism crushes and dominates all spheres of existence. In our digital, technologically focused era, capitalism has produced a becoming-artificial of humanity and the becoming-human of machines. This blurring of the natural and artificial presents a planetary existential threat in which contemporary society’s goal is to precipitate the mutation of the human species into a condition that is at once plastic and synthetic.

Mbembe argues that Afro-diasporic thought presents the only solution for breaking the totalising logic of contemporary capitalism: repairing that which is broken, developing a new planetary consciousness, and reforming a community of humans in solidarity with all living things.

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