Revolutinary Theory #3 Franz Fanon
Franz Fanon (1925-61) was born in Martinique in the French Antilles in 1925. He was educated in Martinique and in France and in 1943 he joined the Free French Forces in Dominica before being posted to Morocco. His anti racist sensibilities were sharpened by his wartime experiences as black Free French soldiers were treated as subordinate to their white counterparts and experienced racism on a daily basis.
After the war, Fanon continued his studies at Lyons Medical School where he took a course in psychiatric medicine as well as studying philosophy and editing a number of political magazines. After furthering his studies in psychiatry, he was appointed head of the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria in 1953. In 1954 he resigned to join the Algerian rebels, the FLN, fighting an armed struggle for independence from French colonial rule. This led to his expulsion from Algeria and a lifetime of critical, theoretical and practical work fighting against colonialism and racism.
As Deborah Wyrick usefully points out in her excellent introductory study, Fanon for Beginners, his work can be divided into three sections. These being; the search for black identity, the struggle against colonialism, and the process of decolonisation.2 Fanon’s work on black identity was formed through his experiences in psychiatry and is deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This stage of Fanon’s work is best illustrated by his
powerful book Black Skin, White Masks. This work can be seen as a pioneering example of psychoanalytical theory being used as a critical tool in political theoretical writing.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon suggests that colonialism, with its explicit conceptual under-pinnings of white racial superiority over non-white peoples, has created a sense of division and alienation in the self-identity of the non-white colonised peoples. The history, culture, language, customs and beliefs of the white colonisers are, under colonialism, to be considered as universal, normative and superior to the local indigenous culture of the colonised. This creates a strong sense of inferiority in the colonised subject and leads to an adoption of the language, culture and customs of the colonisers by the colonised as a way of compensating for these feelings of inferiority in their self-identity. This creates a divided sense of self in the subject formation of the colonised.
This adoption of the culture and beliefs of the colonisers leads to a sense of alienation from their own culture by the colonised. Fanon also suggests that the adoption of the language and forms of representation of the colonisers has further negative effects on the indigenous subject in that representational stereotypes are constructed which tend to infantilize, primitivise, decivilize, and essentialise them.3 Fanon’s work on the role of representation in the construction of self-identity clearly shows the influence of the theories of Lacan, in particular his concept of the mirror-stage of identity formation. Here Lacan outlines a theory of identity formation in reference to the image of completeness in the body of another person outside of the self. This occurs in early childhood and begins a process of identification with images in the construction of the self which continues throughout adult life.4
‘As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognise that I am a Negro. There are two ways out of this conflict. Either I ask others to pay no attention to my skin, or else I want them to be aware of it. I try, then to find value for what is bad - since I have unthinkingly conceded that the black man is the colour of evil. In order to terminate this neurotic situation, in which I am compelled to choose an unhealthy, conflictual solution, fed on fantasies, hostile, inhuman in short, I have only one solution, to rise above this absurd drama that others have staged around me, to reject the two terms that are equally unacceptable, and, through one human being, to reach out for the universal.’5
The second stage of Fanon’s critical activity is the struggle against colonialism, which grew out of his active involvement in the Algerian war of independence and his membership of the FLN. This can be found in his works Dying Colonialism and Toward the African Revolution. Given the revolutionary nature of these writings and the context in which they were written it will be unsurprising to find that they are deeply influenced by Marx and the discourses of Western
Marxism6 including the work of the Marxist structuralist Louis Althusser. The complex discussion in regard to importance of Marxist thinking to the project of post-colonial theory would entail a large digression and unfortunately will not be manifested here.7
Fanon’s important contribution to the struggle against colonialism is his concern with history. For Fanon, the work of the struggle against colonialism involves the ‘claiming back’ of their own history by the colonised from the negative or nonexistent versions of it produced by the colonisers. He stresses the vital importance of the culture and representations of their past being central to the creation of both new positive forms of subject formation and new forms of social organisation which are necessary in the newly independent post-colonial era. This emphasis on the creation or rediscovery of new forms of history or the understanding of history in the plural shows some affinity with the work of Michel Foucault, albeit from a position inspired by a Marxist concept of the dialectic rather than Foucault’s non-dialectical post-structuralist analysis.
Much of this work can be found in Fanon’s most famous and widely read work, The Wretched of the Earth. Published in 1961, with a preface by one of his intellectual influences, Jean-Paul Sartre, Wretched of the Earth is a passionate and revolutionary work of political critique and is a cornerstone of post-colonial theory. ‘colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures and destroys it… . … .To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible.’8
The process of decolonisation relates to the third stage of Fanon’s critical activity. Along with the reclamation and reconstruction of their own history and culture as the basis for the new post-colonial forms of nation and national identity, Fanon also discusses two further ideas which are of vital interest to later post-colonial work. These are concepts of ‘colonial space’ and ideas
surrounding the role of the middle-class intelligentsia in these new nations. Both of these ideas stem from Fanon’s understanding that it is important for postcolonial nations to develop new forms of social democracy rather then utilise existing colonial institutions and simply fill existing administrative positions with indigenous people. Using the example of city planning and urbanism, Fanon suggests that these colonial institutions are inherently racist, as they reproduce and construct the concepts and ideas of the colonisers. For example, most colonial cities contain areas where the colonial administrators and business people live and work. These are zones of privilege which largely exclude indigenous people and as such, they construct and reproduce the ideologies of the colonisers. Fanon argues for the radical rebuilding of these urban areas and all other forms of colonial administration and government in ways which will
construct more democratic, post-colonial forms of social organisation, to thoroughly reject the ideologies which underpin colonial rule.
He also argues that the education sections of the colonised population must be aware that their education is based on the ideologies and beliefs of the colonisers and although they are indigenous people, they must take care not to reproduce the concepts and beliefs of the colonisers in the period of postcolonial rebuilding.
Many of Fanon’s insights have been developed by a new generation of critics and theorists who have taken his ideas as inspiration but moreover have extended their scope through the application of further contemporary forms of post-structuralist analysis, whilst retaining Fanon’s radical spirit.
1. For more details on these ideas see McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism
Manchester University Press, Manchester 2000 pp. 6 - 34.
2. Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon For Beginners
Writers and Readers Publishing. London 1998 p. 3.
3. Ibid p. 34.
4. For more details on Lacon’s theories see Bowie, Malcolm. Lacon
Fontana, London. 1991 pp. 17 - 43.
5. Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks in Ashcroft, Bill. Griffiths, Gareth.
The Post-Colonial Studies Reader
Routledge, London. 1995 p. 325.
6. For more details on Marxist theory see McLellan, David. Marxism:
Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1989.
7. See Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon For Beginners op. cit. pp. 122 - 132.
8. Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth in Ashcroft, B. Griffiths, G.
The Post-Colonial Studies Reader op. cit. p. 154.
READING LIST 2
Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon For Beginners
Writers and Readers Publishing. London. 1998.
Gordon, Lewis, R. T. Deneon Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White
(Eds). Fanon: A Critical Reader
Blackwell, Oxford. 1996.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks
Trans. Markmann, Charles. Grove Press. 1967.
Fanon, Franz. A Dying Colonialsim
Grove Press, NY. 1970.
Fanon, Franz. Toward The African Revolution
Trans. Chevalier, Haakon, Grove Press. NY. 1970.
Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth
Trans. Farrington, Constance. Grove Press NY. 1963.
Barry, John. Beginning Theory
Manchester University Press. Manchester. 1999.
Sturrock, John. The World From Paris: Essays on Modern French
Thinkers and Writers.
Verso, London. 1999.
Sturrock, John. Structuralism
Fontana, London. 1993.
Hawks, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics
Routledge, London. 1992.
Sarup, Madon. An Introductory Guide to Post-structuralism and Postmodernism
Harvester Wheatsheaf. London. 1993.
Matthews, Eric. Twentieth Century French Philosophy
Opus. Oxford. 1996.
Behey, Catherine. Critical Practice
Methuen, London. 1980.
http://landow.stg.brown.edu/post/poldiscourse/fanon/fanon1.html, an introduction to Fanon.
http://carmen.artsci.washington.edu/panop/home.htm, k.i.s.s. (Keep It Simple Stupid) of the
panopticon is a cultural theory and new media literacy
http://ernie.bgsu.edu/~ckile/cultstudslinks.html, A site for Cultural Theory links