Mbembe's Conviviality and Land Tenure


In my Master's thesis I used two concepts developed by Achille Mbembe that I think might help elucidate the narrative nature of tenure regimes; 1) The integral ties between spatiality and temporality he establishes in "At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa" and 2) the form these ties take on in quotidian life, deemed by him conviviality.

Legal regimes are vast and convoluted rhetorical tapestries draped over reality until corrosion, crisis or mere circumstance lifts them up, shakes them out and judges whether they face a good washing or wholesale replacement. I'll need to look more into this, but I don't think this is a notion unknown to the legal field. The field is indeed rife with rich language that points to this fact. Take, for example the concept of “piercing the corporate veil”. Like any good yarn, that veil comes with refurbished subjectivities; it engenders a new economy of spatial configurations; and it constitutes its own temporality.

Mbembe asserts the relative nature of the interaction between spatiality and temporality as the primary explanation for the phenomenon of territoriality in Africa. Similar to the way that Bhabha posits the “ambivalence of modern society” that results from the instaneity of two conflicting temporalities as “the site of writing the nation,” (Bhabha 209) Mbembe employs the idea of instantaneous temporalities to explore the Nation’s physical limitations. Given that boundaries on the continent are in a continual state of flux—pulsating with the ebb and flow of ethnic, economic, religious, sexual and political determinants—territoriality, he argues, must always be conceived not merely in geographical terms, but in temporal ones, as well. Thus the “inviolability of boundaries among states” (Mbembe 2000: 267) (i.e. the semblance of permanence exuded by political boundaries) paints a two-tiered picture of the continent’s territorial divisions, with the static outlines of the colonial past hovering over a dynamic system of continual, relative expansions and contractions. The frequent result of this is a severing of regional idiosyncrasies—of a traditional, economic, or political nature—under the imposition of nation-state boundaries grandfathered in, and in the service of an increasingly distant colonial age.

He later explores the social ramifications of the aforementioned multi-temporal reality in On the Postcolony. In the chapter "The Aesthetics of Vulgarity", he states that:

… the postcolonial relationship is not primarily a relationship of resistance or of collaboration but can best be characterized as convivial, a relationship fraught by the fact of the commandement [the power structure] and its ‘subjects’ having to share the same living space (Mbembe 2001: 104).

Mbembe’s look at conviviality in the postcolony of course naturally lends itself to the separation of subject and setting, at least as an analytical technique. Using modern-day Togo as his exemplar, he demonstrates how a multiplicity of temporalities gives way to a medley of “public spaces”, all of which come with their own respective logic, and that such a plurality of spaces conditions subjects in a way that requires them to simultaneously embody several corresponding identities. (ibid) The river separating the Ebony Coast from The Republic of Nikinai in Amadou Kourouma’s The Suns of Independence might serve as an example of how the same locality is subjected to the respective logics of two “public spaces”. For this dividing line, while serving as a political periphery, carves the Dumbuya nation—the blood-nation of protagonist, Fama—in two. As such, Fama undergoes a crisis of identity as he thinks of himself as the last heir of the Dumbuya dynasty, yet he must simultaneously recognize himself as a beggar and a burden within the social strata of the nation-state.  Such opposed identities converge and come to a head at the river crossing where as patriarch he should be entitled to travel where he pleases yet as citizen of a nation-state he is prohibited from crossing the border.

According to this thinking, one might conclude that subjectivity is linked to spatiality through temporality, but that it is never con/fused with spatiality. (The river, for example, does not take on identity per se, although it may form part of multiple spatial logics, say those of nationhood and the blood-nation.) That land-related legal regimes in Peru engendered new subjectivities is without doubt; the 1969 agrarian reform, with the creation of the legal subject of the campesino, is the most obvious example. But I think that the land courts, in addition to fixing legal identities that many people assumed only when engaging with the court, also inscribed the land into the variegated discourses of development and progress promoted by the Peruvian state. It was, after all, through encounters with the land court that people assimilated a vision of the land that treated it as a patchwork of isolated, commodity producing bio-configurations.