On The Autocrat

Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe reinterprets the complex registers of bodily subjectivity — violence, wonder, and laughter — to profoundly contest categories of oppression and resistance, autonomy and subjection, and state and civil society in the Postcolony.


The autocrat is lying down, on his side. But not quite. Crushed up against the pillow, his right cheek is totally invisible. Of his eye on that side, practically nothing can be seen, only a hint of an eyebrow quickly lost in a wide forehead, slightly scowling, as well as one side (and half the other) of a mustache, split by a short cleft beneath a nose not snub enough. The autocrat is close-shaved. From this third of a face convoluted and variegated, just where the hair and the far cheek meet, the left ear emerges abruptly—sticking up, as if on watch, like the leaf of a kapok tree. The cheek itself droops, like a cluster of grapes—or, we might say, a bag full of wine, milk, and fat all at once. The whole lower body is wrapped in a thick blanket. This clings so closely to the form’s rough lines that it clearly hints at where the flesh sticks out, where it protrudes, and where it curves—in short, its excess.

Such is the case, for example, with the abdominal formations that can be clearly made out, with their fissures and crevices. The belly, unconcerned, like the rumen of a sated cow, collapses and sprawls all over the place, seeming to have some quite separate existence. The autocrat has his legs bent slightly double. In the area thus freed, his left thigh can stick out like some small hillock and culminate in a particularly prominent hip overhung by a buttock of the same size, which of course cannot be seen, but of a plumpness and abruptness more or less to be guessed at. Down the middle of his torso, a quarter of which is revealed, runs a line of hairs not entirely hidden by one hand, left there as if by chance and itself quite hairy.

The autocrat is sleeping. His face is puffed-up and worried. This is because, in his sleep, he is seeing two soldiers. They are moving forward. One now puts an eye to the door. And, from a respectable distance, orders him to follow them. The “sovereign people” has just summoned the autocrat before the “national conference,”12 the soldiers explain.

When the autocrat refuses to obey, the two agents grab him, overpower him, and drag him by force before an assembly made up primarily of opponents of his regime.

Acting as a tribunal, the collection of opposition parties demands that the autocrat, himself, “give the figure for the amount of money that he has misappropriated.” While until now the autocrat had cowered, suddenly he recovers, sits up straight, thrusts the worried look from his eyes, and, in an almost epileptic fit, becomes raging mad, his attitude wild and threatening, revealed by his fleshy face: “I don’t have to justify myself to you.” He points his finger in the air, seething with impatience, jumping up and down on his legs and telling anyone who cares to listen that “in this country,” he “alone decides.” In the short set-to that ensues, one of the opposition leaders calls for the coffin and the “whoosh-whoosh.”13 The autocrat is, then and there, forced onto a stretcher, then carried away by two big fellows while others prepare to burn him with “whooshwhoosh.”

The autocrat goes into a blind panic and can take no more. He thrashes about, kicking his legs faster and faster, raising his fist and screaming, “Nooo! Don’t burn me!” And then, suddenly waking, he sits up, leans against the back of the bed and raises his arms to heaven, pushing the blanket down so that an expanse of flesh is partly displayed, naked. His face, now all hot, literally glints with sweat. His legs and wrists have become thin. There are hairs under his armpit. Podgy pectorals overhang a misshapen abdomen. His guts, all the more conspicuous because so gross, suggest not only gluttony but all sorts of ordinary details (secretions, breath, excretions, odors, vapors, exhalations, wastes).

From what is shown, from what is visible, the phallus, erect or not, is omitted. But it is manifestly legible, in regarding the subtext, through the sign of the body of the woman waking up beside the autocrat, dumbfounded. We can guess at the sly touchings, the perverse strokes—in short, the “coital bonus”—suggested by her presence in this environment where, as everyone claims to know, the autocrat, pushed forward like a ball, knows how to moan with pleasure and enjoy letting it all hang out. “What’s the matter, then?” she asks. “Nothing,” he replies, his face haggard, his chin pathetic, his body exhausted, his mind struck with horror and seized with fear and dread. For the autocrat has just come through a drama that almost cost him his life. He has been a victim of terror by night, struck by a horrible feeling of choking, and by anguish; he has just had a nightmare.


Excerpted from On the Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001.

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