Fanon and the Post-Colonial Future

Review by

Anthony C. Alessandrini

Rutgers University

Copyright (c) 1997 by Anthony C. Allessandrini, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
Review of:

"Finding Fanon: Critical Genealogies," conference held at New York University, October 11-12, 1996.

Lewis R. Gordon, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essav on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York: Routledge, 1995. Softcover $17.95 / Hardcover 62.95.

Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White, eds., Fanon: A Critical Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996. 350 pgs. Softcover $23.95.

Alan Read, ed., The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Eanon and Visual Representation. Seattle: Bay Press, 1996. 212pgs. Softcover $18.95.

Ato Sekyi-Otu, Fanon's Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Softcover $19.95 / Hardcover $39.95.

    What is the prognosis? . . . The prognosis is in the hands of those who are willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure. (Black Skin, White Masks 11)[1]

  1. It has been thirty-six years since Frantz Fanon died, at the age of thirty-six. One does not have to be a believer in the power of numerology to suggest that this presents an auspicious occasion for a reconsideration of his work. As the number and diversity of the works under consideration in this review suggests, however, the case for the continuing relevance of Fanon's work is already being made. [2] This was also the point of "Finding Fanon," a conference whose stellar cast--including Maryse Condé, Teresa de Lauretis, Manthia Diawara, Stuart Hall, Isaac Julien, Robin D. G. Kelley, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ato Sekyi-Otu, Ella Habiba Shohat, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak--came together around the notion that it is worth doing a "critical genealogy" of Fanon's work today. This review essay can be considered an attempt to catalogue some of the major insights provided by these recent readings of Fanon as a way to move towards the sort of work Fanon might inspire in the future.

  2. The first, and one of the most influential, of the recent studies of Fanon's work is provided by Lewis R. Gordon in Fanon and the Crisis of European Man. Gordon's book--subtitled "An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences"--manages, in slightly more than a hundred pages, to revive the importance of Fanon's existential phenomenology, which many critics of both Marxist and post-structuralist persuasion had come to see as an embarrassment. In part, the book represents an extension of Gordon's earlier work, which revived the Sartrean concept of "bad faith" as a way to talk about anti-black racism. But it also goes further: placing Fanon alongside Husserl's description of the crisis of the human sciences in Europe, Gordon teases out Fanon's diagnosis of this crisis.

  3. By the time he reaches the final chapter, "Fanon's Continued Relevance," Gordon has advanced a convincing argument that Fanon's relentless attack on the murderous nature of European humanism should be read as an attempt, not to dispose of humanism per se, but rather to bring into existence a new humanism. "Man needs to emerge out of the ashes of the fact of his dessication," Gordon writes early in the book; but, as he concludes, "this does not mean that the project of constructing or engaging in human science must also be abandoned. Instead, in the spirit of Fanon's call for radicality and originality, the challenge becomes one of radical engagement and attuned relevance" (12, 103).

  4. Ato Sekyi-Otu's longer and more detailed study, Fanon's Dialectic of Experience, also breaks new ground by reading Fanon's texts "as though they formed one dramatic dialectical narrative" whose principal subject is "political experience" (4-5). His deployment of this dialectical analysis leads to readings which must strike even those familiar with Fanon's work as remarkably fresh and exciting. As Sekyi-Otu suggests in his conclusion, a careful reading of Fanon's "dramatic personae" brings us the realization that his texts
    reveal themselves to us not as faithful reports of facts or existing states of affairs, still less as self-enclosed propositions stamped on each and every occasion with the author's discrete assent and unmistakable imprimatur. Rather, they are grasped now as enactments of positions assumed, stances staged, claims advanced by typical characters in a story of experience . . . always as products of that dialectical movement by which the enacted event or figure is compelled to disclose its incompleteness, that fatal shortcoming of its moral consequences, and thereby made to yield to a vision of suppressed or transgressive possibilities. (236)

  5. It is worth noting a few of Sekyi-Otu's most significant re-readings of Fanon, motivated by his explicitly Gramscian approach (at one point, he declares that he is "tempted to call Gramsci a precocious Fanonian" [118]). His brilliant re-consideration of "Concerning Violence"--which, as Gordon has pointed out, is often cited as a way to reduce Fanon from a complex thinker to a simplistic prophet of violence (68)--reveals the part this chapter plays in Fanon's larger argument that the Manicheanism of the colonial situation leaves the colonized in a state where there is no public political sphere, and no mediation possible between the rulers and the ruled--in Gramscian terms, a state of pure violence rather than of hegemony. Fanon is thus suggesting "with the most classical of political philosophers [Sekyi-Otu cites Aristotle as well as Arendt] that where there is no public space, there is no political relationship, only violence, 'violence in a state of nature"' (86-87).

  6. Equally suggestive is Sekyi-Otu's interpretation of Fanon's withering attack upon the postcolonial national bourgeoisie. He recognizes Fanon's position that this bourgeoisie condemns itself to become "a figure of baleful inconsequence" in the post-independence era. But reading dialectically, he goes on to argue that the very fact that Fanon fails to provide any other candidates for the critical leadership roles in post-colonial society--stopping to make a persuasive case that Fanon is not in fact ready to claim that the peasantry are the most promising revolutionary agents, as most readings of The Wretched of the Earth (including my own--see Alessandrini 62-64) have suggested--actually reveals Fanon to be "a 'retrievalist,' open to the possibility of a redeeming role for members of the national bourgeoisie" (157).

  7. Sekyi-Otu's mission--not only to re-read Fanon but, as he declared at the "Finding Fanon" conference, to "re-re-read" him--has also been taken up in two edited collection dealing with Fanon's work from rather different approaches. The Fact of Blackness--a collection of papers, panels, and visual art work which was presented at an earlier conference, "Working with Fanon," held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1995--engages with his work from within the field of visual representation, while Fanon: A Critical Reader--consisting of essays presented at still another conference on Fanon, this one held at Purdue in 1995--according to its editors, "consists of engagements with the thought of Fanon for the development of original work across the entire sphere of human studies" (7-8).

  8. Read's collection contains a number of noteworthy additions to Fanon studies, particularly Stuart Hall's essay, "The After-life of Frantz Fanon: Why Fanon? Why Now? Why Black Skin, White Masks?" which, among other things, attempts to put to rest what Hall referred to at the "Finding Fanon" conference as the easy and unproductive "early/late, young/old, bourgeois/revolutionary binary" found in so much Fanon scholarship, insisting that an honest appraisal of his work presents us with "a radically incomplete Fanon . . . who is bound to unsettle us from which ever direction we read him" (35). Equally significant is bell hooks's contribution, "Feminism as a Persistent Critique of History: What's Love Got to Do with It?" which takes seriously Fanon's declaration in Black Skin, White Masks--"Today, I believe in the possibility of love, that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections"--by offering a searing, but ultimately loving, critique of Fanon for his homophilia and for the "symbolic matricide" he commits in The Wretched of the Earth. And Kobena Mercer's contribution, which engages in a "re-reading of Fanon in relation to sexual politics as the Achilles heel of black liberation" (116), is, together with Ella Habiba Shohat's paper at "Finding Fanon," part of a broad effort to try to read Fanon from within a post-Third Worldist framework. [3]

  9. On the whole, The Fact of Blackness takes seriously the suggestion that Fanon's legacy is up for grabs. The work of the collection involves, as one of the contributors puts it, not just working with Fanon but occasionally "working Fanon over" (78-79). It is this last move, one they see as all too typical of the treatment of Fanon's work by cultural studies, to which the editors of Fanon: A Critical Reader object. In their introduction to the volume, Gordon, Sharpley-Whiting and White trace what they see as "The Five Stages of Fanon Studies," reserving most of their vitriol for the fourth stage, "linked to the ascent of postmodern cultural and postcolonial studies in the academy" (6). This stage is marked by what the editors see as attacks on Fanon "under a number of fashionable political designations such as misogynous, homophobic, anti-black, anti-Caribbean, anti-Arab, and petit bourgeois." Against this stage, they champion work whose purpose is "neither to glorify nor denigrate Fanon but instead to explore ways in which he is a useful thinker," work which avoids the perceived "theoretical decadence" of cultural studies work (7-8).

  10. I don't want to discount the editors' critique of such readings of Fanon, though I might pause to ask whether "anti-Caribbean" and "anti-Arab" really constitute "fashionable political designations" anywhere in the existing academy. Indeed, must of the best work in this critical reader shows, by re-reading Fanon carefully, what too-hasty criticisms of his work---and here I would have to include some of the essays included in The Fact of Blackness--often miss. But what is worth noting--and what is symptomatic of many such sweeping dismissals of "postmodern" or "postcolonial" cultural studies work--is the suppression of internal tensions within such a category. Bringing together critics such as Henry Louis Gates and Cedric Robinson, who disagree so obviously about the value of a text like Black Skin, White Masks, or Benita Parry and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose respectful disagreements about issues of subalternity and nationalism have been central to post-colonial theory, as part of a single "stage" ignores the significant debates going on within cultural studies.

  11. This disagreement aside, the best pieces in Fanon: A Critical Reader make important contributions to the task of re-reading and re-deploying Fanon. Gordon's two articles expand on his earlier work, especially around the theme of "tragic revolutionary violence" in Fanon. Sharpley-Whiting's re-examination of Fanon's blistering attack on Mayotte Capecia's work in Black Skin, White Masks is a valuable rejoinder to certain feminist critiques of Fanon which have attempted to valorize Capecia as a third-world feminist voice--an attempt which, as Sharpley-Whiting convincingly argues, makes for "a dangerous feminist politics," given Capecia's regressive racial and class politics (161). Paget Henry does a wonderful job of placing Fanon's work in the context of an Afro-Caribbean philosophical tradition. Several other essays, including Nigel Gibson's reading of the dialectics of the radio in L'An V de la Revolution Algerienne and Nada Elia's attempt "to claim Fanon's discourse of liberation as a framework for women's emancipation" (163), are too short to develop their interesting arguments in detail but introduce us to important new voices in Fanon scholarship.

  12. If these works provide us with rich and complex re-readings of Fanon's texts, they also point us towards the next step: moving beyond such re-readings (and even beyond Sekyi-Otu's re-re-readings). This is not to suggest that we need to move fully beyond Fanon himself into a post-Fanonist era of post-colonial studies, but rather that Fanon's vision must continue to inform work which does more than simply invoke his name as a way of avoiding further analysis. Spivak suggested as much at "Finding Fanon," warning against the temptation to address current political problems--urban racism in the U.S., for example, or the continuing underdevelopment of the Third World by the First--with the formula, "Well, as Fanon said . . ." This notion was also central to Stuart Hall's talk, which concluded by suggesting that while Fanon has proved to be incredibly prescient in laying out the questions that continue to haunt us in the post-colonial era, we must not be content with the answers he was able to provide in his all-too-short life. The work now is to come up with answers of our own, and not to "put our resolutions into Fanon's mouth."

  13. Part of this work involves acknowledging those places in Fanon that cannot be salvaged for a post-colonial cultural politics. I am thinking in particular of issues of gender and sexuality. If there is a potential danger inherent in the dialectical-dramatic reading provided by Sekyi-Otu, it lies in the potential to use it to get Fanon out of almost every predicament. This is most notable in his extended attempt to prove Fanon's commitment to the considerations of gendered oppression in colonial and post-colonial societies. Strangely, given his approach throughout the rest of the book, he makes this argument by moving back from The Wretched ofthe Earth to A Dying Colonialism, finding in this earlier text the suggestion that "the essence of authentic decolonization consists in its manifestations in transformed social relationships, such as those of gender" (225).

  14. There is a great deal to be said about the relative neglect of A Dying Colonialism (not to mention the essays collected in Towards the African Revolution ) in contemporary Fanon studies, more than I can begin to say here. What I can say (and what some critics, such as John Mowitt, have already suggested) is that A Dying Colonialism came, even more than The Wretched of the Earth, from within the thick of the Algerian Revolution--as its French title, L'An V de la Revolution Algerienne, suggests. It is thus a text whose occasional utopian declarations about the transformations going on in Algerian society need to be recognized as part of a larger revolutionary rallying cry. I'm not sure that Sekyi-Otu's reading takes this context sufficiently into account. Furthermore, I'm not sure that I see how the suggestion that Fanon proposes woman as "the measure of decolonization" in A Dying Colonialism necessarily excuses the relentlessly masculinist rhetoric of The Wretched of the Earth, such as that found in his famous declaration that it is the wish of the colonized "to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if possible" (WE 39).

  15. There is a growing body of feminist work that engages with Fanon (see, for example, Bergner; Chow; Fuss; Moi; Sharpley-Whiting). I would hate for such work to be considered as separate from, or opposed to, the work I'm considering here. I agree with Sekyi-Otu that critics have had a tendency to use quotations from Fanon's work to criticize his limitations without realizing the irony that may reside in these quotes (I would suggest that the infamous quote regarding "the woman of color"--"I know nothing about her" (BSWM 179-80)--provides an example of such irony), or without acknowledging that Fanon may in fact move away from a particular argument later in the same text. I also agree, as Gordon has argued more recently in his review of Isaac Julien's film Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, that Fanon's considerations of gender and sexuality must be addressed in all their complexity (Gordon, "Black Skin" 148-60). What I am suggesting is that there will undoubtedly be times when Fanon's lesson to us has as much to do with his failings as with his successes.

  16. I want to conclude with three points about Fanon and the future of cultural politics, which is where my current interest lies. The first two might be considered suggestions about possible directions in which work inspired by Fanon will hopefully not go. The third tries to map out what I hope might be a more productive direction.

  17. My first concern is that future work not get caught up in the question of whether Fanon's texts are being given sufficient "respect" in the academy today. For one thing, this begs the question of the vexed distinction between academic attention and attention from non-academic readers and activists. Similarly, it does not address the geographical specificity of the attention being given to Fanon. For example, two colleagues from South Africa with whom I have been in electronic contact--one situated in an academic setting, the other in an activist milieu (although this distinction is an admittedly unfair one)--have both informed me that contrary to the Fanon renaissance in the American academy, his work remains relatively neglected in South Africa. This, we all agreed, despite the fact that Fanon's voice might well prove useful at this particular conjuncture of South African history.

  18. But I am also concerned about the way some liberal critics have found it all too easy to reduce Fanon's legacy to the question of "recognition." This is apparent in Charles Taylor's influential article "The Politics of Recognition," which tries to make a case for Fanon as a prophet of the sort of multiculturalism which maintains that "recognition forges identity," and thus that the ultimate solution lies in reform of curricula, allowing for the inclusion of women, minorities, etc. (Taylor 97). [4] But to reduce Fanon's work to a mere request for recognition is to ignore the fact that when Fanon writes about the life-and-death struggle of master and slave, it is real life and real death that are at stake; when he protests against the social construction of blackness, against racism's "epidermal schema" (BSWM 112), it is with the understanding that such constructions have the power to kill, or at least to sentence certain members of society to death. The emphasis on the violent struggle for freedom, the recognition, as Gordon puts it, that "one cannot give an Other his freedom, only his liberty" (69), is central to Fanon's legacy. The kind of cultural and political work that will continue to be inspired by him needs to maintain this sense of urgency.

  19. But this brings me to another concern, one which is the flip side ofthe first: that Fanon's legacy will be reduced to an incitement to violence under all circumstances. In a recent review of The Fact of Blackness (which occasioned an extended discussion on a postcolonial electronic listserv), Julian J. Samuel suggests that the text has nothing to offer those who wish for a new interpretation of Fanon's work because it ignores the question of violence. While I agree with Samuel's point that "it is impossible to discuss Fanon without discussing the many violence-laden Algerias today," I am not at all certain that Fanon's central message is: "Violence is the only thing the masters listen to. Nothing else." This is one place where Sekyi-Otu's Gramscian reading is particularly useful: if Fanon's "Concerning Violence" addresses a situation where no civil or political sphere exists, where no "war of positions" is possible, then indeed violence is the only response. But such a model is hardly transferable to every political situation. For one thing, to use Samuel's terms, "the masters" are not always the same sets of people. If the reality of too many post-colonial nations has been a state of neo-colonialism, it has not been the case that postcolonialism has been exactly the same as colonialism. It is worth noting that the remainder of The Wretched of the Earth is as concerned with the battle that needs to be fought against the emergent national bourgeoisie as it is with the anti-colonial struggle per se. "Concerning Violence," in other words, is meaningless except when read together with "Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness" and "The Misadventures of National Consciousness."

  20. The question of producing a dialectical reading of Fanon brings me to my final point, which has to do with the persistent division between Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth--a division that continues to proliferate in Fanon studies. Samuel's review provides a good example of this, in its complaint that The Fact of Blackness emphasizes "Fanon's thrilling and naive Black Skin White Masks." In readings that valorize Fanon's later work this earlier text is often characterized as one which, in Cedric Robinson's words, never quite manages to "slough off its petit-bourgeois stink" (82). Even in Sekyi-Otu's dialectical reading, there is the sense that The Wretched of the Earth, insofar as it provides the final synthesis of Fanon's work ultimately takes precedence over Black Skin, White Masks, instead of being the occasion for its preservation and elevation as well as its destruction. On the other hand, work on Fanon undertaken from a more psychoanalytic and/or post-structuralist vein, such as Homi Bhabha's influential readings or Rey Chow's recent feminist critique, have displayed the opposite problem: a tendency to read backwards from The Wretched of the Earth to Black Skin, White Masks, and a consequent tendency to privilege the latter over the former (taking the form, at least as far as Bhabha's work is concerned, of occasionally being embarrassed by or annoyed at the "residuals" of revolutionary humanism in Fanon's later work). [5]

  21. I want to suggest that a particularly powerful way to read these two texts together in the present conjuncture is to think about Fanon's precarious position within the Algerian Revolution. This is a point that can be lost when reading The Wretched of the Earth on its own, since Fanon's rhetoric there is that of a dying man who has earned his way into a revolutionary movement through his courageous actions, risking his life on numerous occasions. But the passage that might make us re-consider Fanon's position comes from the conclusion of Black Skin, White Masks : "It is obvious--and I will never weary of repeating this--that the quest for disalienation by a doctor of medicine born in Guadeloupe can be understood only by recognizing motivations basically different from those of a black laborer building the port facilities in Abidjan" (223).

  22. This quote is often cited to defend Fanon against the charge leveled by some Marxist critics, which is that he simply replaces the analysis of class with that of race, and thus is able to ignore his own class position (this is the burden of Robinson's attack on Fanon's early work). But I think that what also comes through is Fanon's discomfort in recognizing the different forms of alienation experienced by himself and by the black colonial proletariat, and the resulting space between them. It is this discomfort that we should keep in mind as we read Fanon's later work. The Wretched of the Earth, read in such as way, becomes an incredibly enabling example of the way an intellectual can put her/himself at the service of a political struggle which is not "organically" hers/his. It was from the position of one who has earned his way into such a struggle that Fanon challenges us, with his dying words, to "find something different." A lifetime later, the challenge remains.


  1. Some ofthe material in this essay has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The C. L. R James Review and minnesota review. I have been fortunate enough to discuss its contents (often electronically) with a number of people, including Bruce Robbins, Lewis Gordon, Amitava Kumar, Rustum Kozain, Gitanjali Maharaj, Julian Samuel, and Deborah Baker Wyrick.Back

  2. It should be noted that these books represent only a sampling of recent and forthcoming work on Fanon: see, for example, Alessandrini; Gibson; Sharpley-Whiting; Wyrick.Back

  3. See also the works by Mercer and Shohat cited below.Back

  4. Amitava Kumar has done a good job of critiquing the emphasis on developing multicultural syllabi at the expense of other political work, while still acknowledging the importance of such a task in a reactionary moment such as ours (275-76).Back

  5. I should note, however, that Bhabha's contribution to The Fact of Blackness is a sustained analysis of the politics of the "everyday" in The Wretched ofthe Earth, and thus represents a significant departure in terms of his work on Fanon. A further engagement with Bhabha's essay is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this review.Back

Works Cited

Alessandrini, Anthony C., ed. Finding Something Different: Fanon and the Future: Of Cultural Politics. Forthcoming.

---. "'We Must Find Something Different': Fanon and the Search for a 'Non-Western' Marxism." Research & Society 8 (1995): 54-69.

Bergner, Gwen. "Who Is that Masked Woman? or, The Role of Gender in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks." PLMA 110 (1995): 75-88.

Chow, Rey. "The Politics of Admittance: Female Sexual Agency, Miscegenation and the Formation of Community in Frantz Fanon." The UTS Review 1.1 (1995): 5-29.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin. White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

---. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.

Gates, Henry Louis. "Critical Fanonism." Critical Inquiry 17.3 (1991): 457-70.

Gibson, Nigel, ed. Rethinking Fanon: A Critical Anthology on Aspects of Frantz Fanon's Thought. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997.

Gordon, Lewis R. "Black Skin Masked: Finding Fanon in Isaac Julien's Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask." differences 8.3 (1996): 148-60.

Kumar, Amitava. "Postcoloniality: Field Notes." minnesota review 41/42 (1995): 271-79.

Mercer, Kobena. "Busy in the Ruins of a Wretched Phantasia." Paper presented at the conference "Working with Fanon," Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1995.

Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.

Mowitt, John. "Algerian Nation: Fanon's Fetish." Cultural Critique 22 (1992): 165-86.

Robinson, Cedric. "The Appropriation of Frantz Fanon." Race & Class 35.1 (1993): 79-91.

Samuel, Julian J. "Ignoring the Role of Violence in Fanon: Playing with the Bones of a Hero." Fuse Magazine (May 1997).

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Frantz Fanon and Feminism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Shohat, Ella Habiba. "Framing Post-Third-Worldist Culture: Gender and Nation in Middle Eastern/North African Film." Jouvert 1.1(1997).

Taylor, Charles. "The Politics of Recognition." Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994. 75-106.

Wyrick, Deborah. Fanon for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1997.

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