Forgetting Fanon, Remembering Fanon

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Forgetting Fanon, Remembering Fanon

In 1990–1, a French sociologist was involved in a study of a deeply unpleasant but frighteningly articulate group of skinheads in Paris. Their racism was predictable, as was their apologia for violence. They were convinced that violence was the motor of history, and that ‘it is because we live in a degenerate society that people reject violence’. Their violence was, they claimed, a creative force, and it would help to create or recreate a nation. On hearing this, the sociologist was reminded of Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, and then of Fanon.

In Algeria, Fanon’s fate has been still stranger. His writings on revolutionary violence could be invoked by the fundamentalist Front Islamique de Salut (FIS) (Islamic Salvation Front) in its journal El-Mounquid to justify the wave of appalling violence that was visited on that country when the elections of 1992 were annulled after it won a majority in the first round. The FIS’s war was, it was argued, a continuation of the war against France, and the same redeeming violence had to be used to win it.

One of the striking features of many of the tributes to Fanon that were published immediately after his death is the stress placed on his fundamental humanism. The negative emphasis on the theme of violence is probably a reflection of the American reception and of the way in which Fanon is read by Hannah Arendt in her book On Violence. She looks at Fanon’s influence on the violence that afflicted American university campuses in the 1960s, but fails to make any mention of Algeria. The small group that worked on Partisans, the classic Third Worldist journal published by Maspero, read him in a different way: ‘On reading his work, it was clearly obvious to those who help to edit Partisans that Frantz Fanon has given a new meaning to their thinking, their political actions and even their lives. For us, it is very simple: anyone who has in recent years read those pages that blaze with lucidity, inevitably finds born in them a new vision of men and a burning desire to take the dimensions of this vision into the future.’

Outside France, the most familiar image of Fanon was for a long time that created in the United States, where Grove Press advertised Constance Farrington’s flawed translation of Les Damnés de la terre as ‘The hand- book for a Negro Revolution that is changing the shape of the white world’:

Here, at last, is Frantz Fanon’s fiery manifesto – which in its original French edition served as a revolutionary bible for dozens of emerging African and Asian nations. Its startling advocacy of violence as an instrument for historical change has influenced events everywhere from Angola to Algeria, from the Congo to Vietnam – and is finding a growing audience among America’s civil rights workers.

The book was reviewed very widely in the American press, usually in terms of warnings about James Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’ syndrome. A reviewer writing for the Durham Morning Herald, and identified only as ‘C.B.’, compared Fanon’s book to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood on the grounds that both described the same hatred and despair, and turned them loose amongst the population at large. He or she went on to state that the wretched of the earth ‘are not communists. They are quite simply at the extremity of deprivation and despair, but surrounded by affluence. And there is a moral. If you have what it takes to be interested in the Feature Section of the Durham Morning Herald, chances are you’ve got what they want. If not a pile of milo, then a pile of something. Don’t knock the poverty programme; the life it saves may be your own.’ Nat Hentoff put forward a similar argument in the New Yorker:

His arguments for violence are the most acute in current revolutionary theory . . . they are spreading amongst the young Negroes in American slums and on American lecture platforms. Those who are engaged in rebutting these precepts of violence (which includes arming for self-defence) ought to find his book a fundamental challenge, and for this reason, if for no other, Fanon should be read by the non-violent activists, and by people who are simply opposed to violence.

William V. Shannon for the New York Times wrote, ‘The statements of H. Rapp Brown and other young radical Negro leaders are in accord with Fanon’s exalting of violence for therapeutic reasons.’ At the opposite extreme of the political spectrum, a spokesman for the ‘counterculture’ could claim that: ‘The important literature now is the underground press, the speeches of Malcolm [i.e. Malcolm X], the works of Fanon, the songs of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin.’ Fanon was one of Stokely Carmichael’s ‘patron saints’, and Eldridge Cleaver could claim that ‘every brother on a roof top’ could quote Fanon. Unlike the French Third Worldists, most of Fanon’s American readers appeared not to have noticed that Les Damnés de la terre is, at least in part, a book about Algeria and not America. Carmichael seems not to have realized that his patron saint was simply not a black nationalist.

Further afield, similar images of Fanon as global theorist of revolution proliferated. It was argued that the war of liberation waged by FRELIMO in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique ‘verified’ Fanon’s theses about the cleansing and unifying function of violence. Visiting the office of a Palestinian organization in Amman in 1968, a journalist noticed a pile of books in the corner: Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Régis Debray’s Guevarist handbook on guerrilla warfare. In Cuba, a ‘Movimento Black Power’ flourished briefly at the end of the 1960s, and its members, who adopted ‘Afro’ hairstyles, met to discuss Fanon and other black writers. Most were arrested in 1971. In the Canadian province of Quebec, militants of the separatist Front de Libération Québecoise (FLQ) defined themselves as the ‘white niggers of North America’. One of the FLQ’s spokesmen wrote of himself that he was a ‘Québecois proletarian, one of America’s white niggers, one of the “wretched of the earth” ’. Interestingly, he, like Maschino, invokes the composite Fanon–Nizan. Another spokesman for the FLQ argued that the Québecois’s use of the French language was the mark of his blackness, and that to speak French in front of an ‘Anglo coloniser’ was an act of self-decolonization to be described in Fanonian terms. It was, that is, assumed that an analysis made of the Algeria of 1959 could be transposed directly to the Québec of 1968: ‘Prior to 1954, speaking Arabic and rejecting French as both a language and a modality of cultural oppression was a privileged and day to day form of singularization, of national existence.’

Two related processes are at work here. On the one hand, Fanon is being given an abstractly heroic status worthy of Maschino’s anonymous revolutionary. It is being forgotten that he was also ‘a particular case’. After all, Fanon was a psychiatrist and he was born in Martinique. On the other hand, the self-identification of civil rights workers, black power activists and Québecois separatists with Fanon’s wretched of the earth necessarily involves the misrecognition of exaggeration. In the United States, civil rights workers did encounter terrible violence and the protests of the Black Panthers did meet with armed repression. But they were not faced with General Jacques Massu’s Tenth Parachute Division and the mercenaries of the Foreign Legion. When Fanon speaks of ‘violence’, he is speaking of the French army’s destruction of whole villages and of the FLN’s bombing of cafés, or in other words of total war and not of limited low-level conflict. The extreme violence of the Algerian war was, fortunately, not reproduced in the United States or Canada. In some cases, the desire to be the wretched of the earth borders on the ludicrous, as members of the Parti National Occitan and Basque separatists claim Fanon as their patron saint,109 or when Breton Nationalists equate the black’s creation of negritude with the Breton’s construction of a ‘Breton personality’ and conveniently overlook Fanon’s comment that, whilst it is true that the Breton language was suppressed by a centralizing French state, its suppression was not the result of a black/white divide or of a white civilizing mission in a non-white country.

For a short period after his death, Fanon was viewed as ‘the most original and articulate spokesman for a theoretical tendency which represents an important strand in the thinking of the Third World’. Some twenty years later, Les Damnés de la terre could be dismissed in France as ‘A dated work, a book of witness . . . Mao Tse-tung, Guevara, Fanon: three voices for a Tricontinental, fostering the illusions of a western youth that had been won over by a new Third-Worldist myth.’ With the decline of Third Worldism, attention has shifted away from Les Damnés de la terre and back to Peau noire, masques blancs, which is more widely read now (at least in Britain and the United States) than at any time since its publication in 1952. The paradox is that, whilst Peau noire, masques blancs is read more and more intensely, fewer and fewer of Fanon’s other works are read at all.

The new interest in Fanon’s first book is a product of the emergence of post-colonial studies as a distinct, if at times alarmingly ill-defined, discipline. A canonical text defines the post-colonial field as comprising ‘all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’. Despite the inclusive ‘all’, ‘culture’ effectively means ‘literature’ and the focus is inevitably on the English- speaking (or, more accurately, English-writing) world. Post-colonial theory developed in and around university departments of English and it is difficult not to see it as a continuation of English literature by other means. A ‘cultural studies’ approach to literature and an attempt to expand and challenge the canon reinforces, that is, the academic hegemony of ‘Eng. Lit’. Fanon is one of the very few non-Anglophones to be admitted to the post-colonial canon, and alarmingly few of the theorists involved realize – or admit – that they read him in very poor translations.

The most obvious example of the problems posed by the translations is the title of the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs. Fanon’s ‘L’Expérience vécue de l’homme noir’ (‘The Lived Experience of the Black Man’) becomes ‘The Fact of Blackness’. The mistranslation obliterates Fanon’s philosophical frame of reference, which is supplied by a phenomenological theory of experience, but it also perverts his whole argument; for Fanon, there is no ‘fact of blackness’. The world is, in his view, experienced in particular ways by ‘the black man’ (sic), but that experience is defined in situational terms and not by some trans-historical ‘fact’. In 1995, London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) – obviously quite oblivious to translation problems – hosted a season of exhibitions, screenings and events inspired by Fanon’s writings; a year later, the related conference proceedings were published as The Fact of Blackness. 

The danger is that Fanon will be absorbed into accounts of ‘the colonial experience’ that are so generalized as to obscure both the specific features of his work and the trajectory of his life. Edward Said can cite Fanon and W. B. Yeats in a single paragraph. And whilst it is difficult to disagree with Homi K. Bhabha’s comment that the force of Fanon’s vision ‘comes . . . from the tradition of the oppressed, the language of a revolutionary awareness that, as Walter Benjamin suggests, “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule” ’, it is startling to find that he makes no mention of Martinique. The argument that ‘one of the original and disturbing qualities of Black Skin, White Masks [is] that it rarely historicizes the colonial experience. There is no master narrative that provides a background of social and historical facts against which emerge the problems of the individual or collective psyche’118 is no less jarring, though it is less alarming than a Fanon Critical Reader, which tells the reader that ‘In Fanon’s seventeenth year, Martinique was under occupation by the Nazis’. It was not. Growing up in Martinique was a very specific, even peculiar, ‘colonial experience’ and, whether or not one believes in the relevance of master narratives, Peau noire does provide an autobiographical background of social and historical facts. Fanon himself prefaces Peau noire, masques blancs by restricting the validity of his observations and conclusions to the French West Indies. Given that he never visited Guadeloupe, this can only mean that, whatever post-colonial theorists may say, Fanon himself thought he was writing about Martinique. There are times when it is advisable to ignore the proclamation of the ‘death of the author’ and to take authorial statements very seriously indeed.

The recent crop of books and articles – and one film – on Fanon contains very little that is of relevance to a biographer, not least because they construct a Fanon who exists outside time and space and in a purely textual dimension. Little will be said about them here. Although there are obvious exceptions – notably Françoise Vergès, whose essays on Fanon and psychiatry are very valuable – few of the authors concerned stray far away from the most familiar of his texts and appear to have consulted nothing produced by the FLN. Post-colonial theorists’ enthusiasm for Derrida and Lacan tends to blind them to Fanon’s debts to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, not to mention the similarities between his work and that of his contemporaries Albert Memmi and Jean Amrouche. In a way, the very sophistication of the post-colonial readings of Fanon is the source of their weakness. Such sophistication can co-exist with the crude empirical errors that put Martinique under ‘Nazi occupation’. Psychoanalytic readings of Fanon may or may not be valid in their own terms, but it is futile to try to turn Fanon into the psychoanalyst he was not or, like Bhabha, to read him as a black Lacan in the making. He was a psychiatrist working in a very specific and important tradition and in purely quantitative terms his papers on psychiatry greatly outweigh his scattered (and often muddled) allusions to psychoanalysis. Bhabha’s claim that there is no ‘master narrative’ in Peau noire, masques blancs has surely to be countered by the argument that there is most definitely a master narrative at work in L’An V de la révolution algérienne and Les Damnés de la terre. It is the narrative of the Algerian Revolution. It may be difficult to believe in it at the beginning of a new millennium, but Fanon did believe in it and died for it.

The ‘post-colonial Fanon’ is in many ways an inverted image of the ‘revolutionary Fanon’ of the 1960s. Third Worldist readings largely ignored the Fanon of Peau noire, masques blancs; post-colonial readings concentrate almost exclusively on that text and studiously avoid the question of violence. The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry. His anger was a response to his experience of a black man in a world defined as white, but not to the ‘fact’ of his blackness. It was a response to the condition and situation of those he called the wretched of the earth. The wretched of the earth are still there, but not in the seminar rooms where the talk is of post-colonial theory. They came out on to the streets of Algiers in 1988, and the Algerian army shot them dead. They have subsequently been killed in the thousands by authoritarian Algerian governments and so-called Islamic fundamentalists. Had he lived, Fanon would still be angry. His readers should be angry too.

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David Macey translated some twenty books from French to English. He was the author of Lacan in Context, the acclaimed The Lives of Michel FoucaultThe Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory and Frantz Fanon: A Biography. He died in October 2011.