Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Thoughts on Franz Fanon...

“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” The Wretched of the Earth, 102

Jean-Paul Sartre understood the sense of urgency in Fanon’s work when he famously claimed at the end of his preface to The Wretched of the Earth that ‘the time is drawing near’ for an unimaginable backlash of colonized peoples against European opulence. Indeed, in his masterfully truculent criticism of Europe, Fanon patiently articulates a call for war against the ‘shadow of [European] palaces’: ‘Europe has laid her hands on our continents, and we must slash at her fingers till she lets go… Let us start fighting; and if we’ve no other arms, the waiting knife’s enough (1963: 311, 13; quoted by Sartre).’ If The Wretched of the Earth is an act of war, then Black Skin White Masks is the ‘untimely meditation’ leading up to that act.

Black Skin White Masks is an emotional topography of the object black male (‘I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects’). According to Fanon, the black subject can only be understood as a colonial/white construction that works within language (38); as an ‘obsessive neurotic type’ subjected in agony because ‘he [will not] be taken at his true worth’ by the gazing white (60); as a patient ‘suffering from an inferiority complex’ (100); as a ‘biological danger’ (165); and finally as an ontological exteriority – ‘for not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the (ontological) white man (110).’ The black subject is a pre-determined Hegelian negation, an antithesis.

"And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history… The dialectic brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself... I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am… My negro consciousness does not hold itself out as lack. It is. (135)"

In his critique of reason (118-135), Fanon addresses a phenomenon strikingly similar to Michel Foucault’s articulation of ‘power as war’ (‘politics as war by another means’) outlined in his lectures in Society Must Be Defended. In his discussion of discourses which establish a ‘basic link between relations of force and relations of truth,’ Foucault argues that ‘being on one side [of force] and not the other means that you are in a better position to speak the truth (2003: 53)’—a side Foucault would place Fanon. ‘Reason (the totalizing, neutral discourse that appeals to a juridical universality and ‘rights’) is on the side of wild dreams, cunning, and the wicked (the enemy; the colonizing white man),’ asserts Foucault. ‘At the opposite end of the axis, you have an elementary brutality: a collection of deeds, acts, and passions, and cynical rage in all its nudity. Truth is therefore on the side of unreason and brutality (2003: 55).’ Within relations of power and force, ‘truth,’ argues Foucault, ‘functions exclusively as a weapon (2003: 57).’

Fanon begins his discussion of reason by, in fact, appealing to reason: ‘It was hate; I was hated, despised, detested, not by the neighbor across the street or my cousin on my mother’s side, but by an entire race. I was up against something unreasoned… I would say that for a man whose weapon is reason, there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason (118).’ But after the reason of the world became ‘confident of victory on every level (the Negro was found to be human), I had to change my tune (119).’ This game of cat and mouse ‘made a fool’ of Fanon. Reason turned into scientific inquiry into the biological drives in black men, and the genetic foundation of cannibalism. Reason represented the black subject as a ‘stage of development,’ a circular invocation of sui generis… History was not ‘real history’; ‘my unreason was countered with reason, my reason with “real reason.” Every hand was a losing hand for me.’

"I analyzed my heredity. I made a complete audit of my ailment. I wanted to be typically Negro—it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white—that was a joke. And, when I tried, on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me. (132)"

The relations of force/rationality are inimical to the relations of truth. In Sartre’s attempt to absolve the race problem through the dialectic (‘negritude is a transition’), Fanon complains that the dialectic negates him, ‘drives me out of myself.’ The dialectic, Foucault argues, turns struggles into a twofold process of ‘totalization and revelation of a rationality that is at once final but also basic, and in any case universal… [it] ensures the historical constitution of a universal subject, a reconciled truth, and a right in which all particularities have their ordained place (2003: 58).’ In other words, to echo Fanon, the dialectic can only understand being black in relation to white; Fanon is trapped in truth, and struggling against the forces of (dialectical) rationality.

The similarities between Foucault and Fanon in describing a world of struggle and domination leads to serious questions about the ways in which they both conceptualize power. Without getting into the particulars of Foucault’s shortcomings of articulating a conception of ‘power as war’ in Society Must Be Defended, Fanon’s reliance on a socio-psychoanalytic framework only allows for picture of power that is understood as repressive. In his discussions of language, for example, Fanon can only conceive of language as a white mechanism: ‘to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’ (38) – a world and culture that are invariably white. The plight of the mulatto can only be understood as an affective erethism; i.e., as a stimulating false consciousness that solely ‘aspires to win admittance into the white world (60).’ In other words, power, to Fanon, acts on people, not through people; or in psychoanalytic terms, it is an ‘exterior inhibitor’ on the black mind. Black subjects are thus ‘obsessive neurotics’ that suffer from anxiety (inferiority complex) and potentially ‘compulsive acts’ (partially his justification of anti-colonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth).

The obvious problem with this conceptualization of power by Fanon has been discussed ad nauseum in other places: power is not understood as capillary; it fails to address not only how subjects are immersed in multiple porous power discourses that require circulation through articulation (power as ‘frequency of repetition’); it fails to capture how subjects (black or white) are not organic wholes bouncing off one another, but overdetermined (cf. Said, Laclau and Mouffe); how power works through freedom; etc. etc.

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