Transcending the absurd drama

Transcending the absurd drama

Frantz Fanon died at the age of just 36 on 6 December 1961 in Bethesda, Maryland, just a couple of months surpassing the Algerian struggle for independence – a struggle to which he devoted so much of his life – culminated in the nation’s declaration of independence on 5 July 1962. Fanon’s impact on postcolonial theory and practice has been huge and his writings have moreover been important in the wider context of anti-racism. In this interview with Glänta editor Göran Dahlberg, the Swedish historian of ideas, Michael Azar, who has been reading Frantz Fanon for the past 25 years, explores the legacy of his work by focusing on a few personnel concepts.

Portrait of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) Photo uploaded by Pacha J Wilka, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Göran Dahlberg: So, why Fanon? Michael Azar: I was a teenager when I first discovered Frantz Fanon. Owing to my Lebanese background, I had unchangingly been eager to know increasingly well-nigh the history of French colonialism, and Fanon helped me to largest understand what was really at stake in the anticolonial struggles of Lebanon, Algeria, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Fanon moreover aided me in comprehending the postcolonial condition and the growing racial tensions in Europe, including Sweden, where I grew up. Later on, during my studies at the department of History of Ideas in Gothenburg, Sweden, I decided to read Fanon increasingly carefully, focusing primarily on his wringer of the anomalies and double binds inherent to the struggle versus racism. In his commentaries on thinkers such as Hegel, Sartre, Césaire and Lacan, Fanon is utterly ruminative to the spiritual self-estrangement involved in many kinds of anticolonial critiques. When you critique something, Fanon says, you unchangingly run the risk of rhadamanthine the mirror image of the very thing you are critiquing. Göran Dahlberg: Does this dialectic moreover wield to Fanon’s understanding of Anti-colonial and revolutionary violence? And is the violence of ”the wretched” (The wretched of the Earth stuff the title of his last typesetting from 1961) always justifiable? Michael Azar: Fanon’s soul of work can be read as an struggle to understand the physical, structural and psychological dimensions of colonial violence. He describes colonialism as a system that brings violence into the homes and the minds of the colonized subjects, dehumanizing them at the personnel of their being. It is a Manichean order that splits the world in two opposing parts – colonizer and colonized, master and slave, settler and native, good and evil, civilized and barbarian. The dividing line between the two is guarded not only by police stations and machine guns. It is moreover upheld by ideological assumptions, perpetuated in the colonial subject by ways of ideological state apparatuses. For colonialism to perpetuate itself, the colonizer must not just preserve his own image of the colonized as an junior race, he must moreover succeed in internalizing the same denigrating image in the mind of the colonized. This insight is at the part-way of Fanon’s writings on violence, and it stems from his own wits as a colonized subject, first in his native Martinique and then, later, in French Algeria where he began working as a psychiatrist in the early 1950s. In Algeria, particularly without the 1954 outbreak of the revolution, he witnessed how the brute violence of the settlers permeated every nook and cranny of Algerian society, turning the unshortened country into a ‘breeding ground for mental disorder’. The French colonial machine was ruthless in its crackdown on the uprising, responding with torture, rape, napalm bombs, summary executions, etc. The daily horrors of the Algerian war provide the firsthand setting for Fanon’s interjection in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that colonialism is a system that will only yield when confronted with plane greater violence. This does not necessarily make him into “an upholder of revolutionary violence”, as some commentators have put it. Fanon simply notes that the colonizer himself has shown the colonized which way to go if he wants to get rid of the colonial system. Deeply immersed in the revolutionary tradition of 1789, Fanon is fully enlightened of the vendible in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which states that resistance versus oppression is an inalienable human right. And we must never forget that Fanon himself took up stovepipe during the Second World War, with the explicit aim of liberating France and Europe from the yoke of Nazism. In his view, the Algerian revolution was nothing less than a continuation of both the French revolutionary tradition and the French resistance movement. Still, Fanon’s wringer of revolutionary violence extends vastitude the mere physical removal of the Manichean order. There is, he notes, flipside crucial element to the counterviolence of the colonized subject: true decolonization requires a cleansing of the mind. Much like Steve Biko – who was a diligent reader of his Martinican predecessor – Fanon argued that one of the most powerful weapons misogynist to the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Profoundly inspired by Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Fanon stresses the importance of overcoming fear of death in the struggle for self-rule and recognition. Violence is ‘cathartic’ in so far as it liberates the slave from his self-inflicted passivity and woefulness surpassing the master. In a decisive passage, Fanon affirms that the well-known principle that ‘all men are equal’ comes to a throne in the colonies from the moment the native proclaims that the settler’s life is of no greater value than his own. Fearlessly reclaiming his place among self-ruling men, the gaze and voice of the colonizer can no longer turn the colonized into stone. On the other hand, Fanon cautions that revolutionary movements must be shielding not to replace one unsuitability with another. You have to know exactly when, where and how to make use of violence – and for what specific reason. Toward the end of his life, Fanon served as a roving Algerian producer in the wayfarers for national liberation wideness Africa. In doing so, he highlighted many of the shortcomings and dangers of the anticolonial struggle and firmly criticized unrepealable nationalists for reproducing the very Manicheism they personal to be fighting. For a ‘new humanism’ to come about, ethnically and religiously inspired nationalism must be transformed into a consciousness of social and political needs.

Collage description: (first row) Muslim rebels unwashed ALN; French Unwashed M8 Greyhound patrol; French settlers take up stovepipe without the August 1955 Constantinois massacres. (second row) Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech of June 4 1958 “je vous ai compris”; French settlers with banners saying “De Gaulles to power” in Algiers May 13 1958; Muslim veterans gathered in Algiers’ Government Building in 1958. (third row) Barricades week French settlers uprising in January 1960; French settler FAF rioters throw stones to French Unwashed M8 Greyhound armoured cars; French Unwashed soldier use metal detector to trammels if muslim women wearing niqab are bomb-couriers. (fourth row) FLN muslim rebels riot in Algiers’s European quarter in December 10 1960; French Unwashed national oversee Gardes Mobiles use tear gaz riot gun; FLN muslim supporters squatter to squatter with French paratroopers during the December 10 1960 protest. Photo by Madame Grinderche, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Göran Dahlberg: In Woebegone skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon identifies two diverging forms of racism within Western thought: anti-Semitism and Negrophobia. Can you spell out the difference between the two? Michael Azar: In the first case, anti-Semitism, the Jew is represented as a danger primarily on an intellectual level, and is therefore attacked considering of his historical, cultural and religious identity. In the other, the woebegone male is perceived as a threat on a corporeal level, and he is therefrom assailed by virtue of his so-called visionless and primitive instincts. Dissecting the myth of woebegone male sexuality, Fanon concludes that it is as a way for the colonizer to justify his endeavor as a civilizing mission. In consonance with this narrative, the European colonizer has been bestowed with the wearying undersong of spreading Reason, Culture and Enlightenment to wrong-side-up peoples who have no history and are whimsically unshared from Nature itself, governed solely by untamed passions and genital desires. Fanon goes on to oppose that this myth serves to rationalize the colonizer’s actions. It is, he says, a xerox specimen of scapegoating. Recognizing on some level that the colonizer’s history of slavery, exploitation, and repression puts him in a position of guilt, he fashions the colonized as the quintessence of cruelty and barbarity. In wing to this enforced “enlightenment”, the colonized peoples need to be protected from themselves. By exerting heavy-handed tenancy and guidance over this purported enemy of all good values, the colonizer averts the punishment he (unconsciously) deems himself worthy of. For all that, the fixation on the sexual potency and savagery of the woebegone man – the fantasy of the Other’s unrestrained enjoyment, to put it in Lacanian terms – is not without negative effects on the colonizer himself. It tends to stir up undecided emotions within him so that he is relentlessly torn between hatred and love, unpopularity and worshipping – not to mention repressed homosexuality. In Fanon’s view, these zipped impulses are typified in the specific kinds of violence that are meted out versus the woebegone body. No anti-Semite, writes Fanon, would come up with the idea of castrating the Jew. He is either killed or sterilized. “The Negro, however, is castrated. The penis, the symbol of manhood, is annihilated, which is to say that it is denied.” Göran Dahlberg: Fanon’s analyses of the colonial situation are informed by variegated schools of thought, notably Existential Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis and Marxism. When he focuses on ‘the lived experience’ of woebegone people, he puts these tools to work to discern the ways in which woebegone people are pressured to conform to the colonial imperative ‘turn white or disappear’. How are we to understand this conceptual icon in Fanon’s work? Michael Azar: Let us turn when to the Manichean dividing line that splits colonized society into two estranged parts. As I once mentioned, this semester is not upheld by touchable violence alone. It is moreover bolstered by an ensemble of institutions designed to create docile subjects, whence with the educational system that teaches native schoolchildren that they will one day proceeds wangle to the other side of the dividing line: the prosperous, favored, and purportedly superior side. All this naturally depends on the condition that they prefer French culture and language, including the idea of France as the very noon of civilization – that is to say, on the condition that they turn themselves into teachers of the civilizing mission, embarking upon an unabated struggle versus the horrid vulgarian within themselves. The colonized, writes Fanon, is ‘elevated whilom his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the French way of life‘. Constantly subjected to this incentive structure – ‘turn white or disappear’ – the native populations of the Antilles are at risk of internalizing it and turning it into an inferiority complex. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon examines how the native’s endorsement of the colonial mindset is played out on a daily understructure between teachers and pupils, parents and children, men and women.

‘Even at home when I make too much noise, I am told not to play the Negro’

Fanon was himself one of these young schoolchildren who learned how to speak ‘real French’, quote Voltaire and Rousseau, and requirement superiority to the purported primitive Africans still living in the jungle. He unmistakably identified himself with French culture, seeking recognition from the representatives of the French motherland to the point that he, still a teenager, decided to put his life on the line for France by joining the Self-ruling French Forces. ‘Why all this talk well-nigh a woebegone people, of a Negro Nationality. I am a Frenchman’, Fanon supposed in the whence of the 1950s. ‘I refuse to be considered as an outsider.’ In a way, Fanon’s writings could – at least to some stratum – be understood as an expression of his own painful struggle with the inexorable racism of French colonialism, which denied him recognition considering of his origin and skin color. Fanon’s wits as an outsider in both France and Algeria is at the heart of his interjection that the colonized subject must segregate himself from within a distorted situation. Under colonialism, he is compelled to self-identify as either White or Black, French or Arab, Civilized or Primitive, instead of transcending them both through the pursuit of a new Man and a universal brotherhood.

Celebrating the first day of the independence of Algeria in the USA Photo byAbouhouche, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Göran Dahlberg: According to Fanon, then, colonialism must be analyzed as a system that operates through the linking of psychological and bodily oppression? Michael Azar: Yes, indeed. Fanon repeatedly points out that colonialism is a system that infiltrates simultaneously both the mind and the soul of the colonized. In their striving for mastery, the colonial rulers must ensure that the colonized subjects ‘keep their place’ by obeying orders and internalizing the vital assumptions of the colonial ideology. The problem is, of course, that the mind of the colonized is invisible to the colonizer, who can never know for unrepealable what goes on inside their heads. Hence the necessity of somehow rendering the invisible mind visible by turning skin colour itself into an unmistakable sign of inner identity. This, in Fanon’s view, ways that colonialism is not only a system of exploitation but moreover a set of epistemological procedures designed to determine who is who in the colony. As a practice of racial identification, colonialism is thus closely related to the kind of epistemic violence we know from the other forms of racism. As opposed to the colonial logic where the colour of the skin is used as a shibboleth to distinguish settlers from natives, the history of European antisemitism displays how the identity of the Jewish people was made discernible by external inscriptions – from the yellow badges Jews were forced to wear on their suit during the Middle Ages to the identification numbers tattooed on the prisoner’s skin in the Nazi concentration camps. Fanon examines how various forms of epistemic violence are put to work in the colonial situation. He doesn’t pay sustentation only to the mainstays of the colonial order – be it the school, the family, the church, or the unwashed – but moreover highlights the myriad instances of skewed racial identification in everyday life. ‘Look a Negro’ … ‘Mama, see the Negro!’ … ‘Dirty nigger!’ (Sale nègre). Fanon shows how words and images act in concert to pension woebegone people in their supposedly ‘proper place’. Stuff ‘overdetermined from without’ – as the object of the white colonizers’ gaze and the legends and stereotypes ascribed to his race – the person of colour is unseat to encounter difficulties in his bodily and psychic self-identification. ‘Colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: “Who am I in reality?”’ According to Fanon, the colonized thereby run the risk of stuff psychologically disjointed, plane surpassing stuff physically assaulted. The ‘muscular tension’ inhabiting the native soul stems from the ambivalence of this predicament in conjunction with his sensation of the brute gravity that sustains the dividing line, a gravity that is unchangingly ready to intervene the moment words and images are not sufficient to pension the colonized subject in their towardly place. Göran Dahlberg: Some of Fanon’s readers have tabbed sustentation to the affinities between W.E.B Du Bois’s notion of ‘Double consciousness’ and Fanon’s ideas. Are Du Bois and Fanon portraying the same predicament? Michael Azar: Yes and no. Du Bois used the term ‘double consciousness’ to describe the tormented mindset of someone who is both woebegone and American in the United States. ‘It is a peculiar sensation,’ Du Bois writes in 1897, ‘this double-consciousness, this sense of unchangingly looking at one’s self through the vision of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in tickled contempt and pity.’ In his groundbreaking The Souls of Woebegone Folk (1903), Du Bois attempts to show how the woebegone American’s double consciousness, at the turn of the century, is torn by unreconciled thoughts, duties, strivings and ideals. To be both American and woebegone is to be both an insider and an outsider, both a human stuff and someone located on the margins of humanity, both a resider and a second-class resider (or plane non-citizen). The typesetting centers on the question that white Americans (and thus the American part of the split consciousness) write to the woebegone part of the nation (and thus the woebegone part of the consciousness): ‘How does it finger to be a problem?’ Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, revolves virtually a similar predicament and some of its assertions seem to reverberate Du Bois’s concept. ‘Not only must the woebegone man be black,’ Fanon notes, ‘he must be woebegone in relation to the white man.’ Along the same vein, Fanon argues that the woebegone man has been given ‘two frames of reference’ within which he has to place himself, two estranged strivings and principles – one part stemming from the colonizing culture, the other from the traditions of the colonized people. And it is, as we have seen, through the vision of the former that the latter is unseat to measure itself. However, there seems to be a crucial divergence between Du Bois and Fanon, notably regarding the psychological and political implications of this predicament. In Du Bois’s view, the solution appears to reside in some kind of synthesis of the warring parts. A woebegone person striving for self-conscious ‘manhood’, Du Bois declares, should try to ‘merge the double self into a largest and truer self’. There is an imprint of Hegelianism in this line of reasoning in that Du Bois advocates for the preservation of both the African and the American through their sublation into a higher unity. By contrast, Fanon maintains that there are no such things as given identities – be they woebegone or white, African or American. Admittedly, there is moreover in Fanon the Hegelian idea of bringing into stuff something radically new (“the New Man”) on the understructure of once existing historical identities, but it is vital not to interpret this new stuff as a fusion of woebegone and white, European and African – and plane less, to be sure, as a synthesis between colonizer and colonized. Instead, he repeatedly states the importance of transcending ‘the wacky drama’ that compels people to either segregate between or to unify two equally imaginary identities. ‘The real leap’, he says, ‘consists of introducing invention into life.