Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue, edited by Nigel Gibson

French West Indian psychoanalyst & social philosopher Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) rejected his French citizenship & became a strong advocate of the Algerian liberation movement in the 1950s. A brilliant scholar who developed the theory that some neuroses are socially generated, Fanon's revolutionary works The Wretched of the Earth, Toward the African Revolution, & Black Skin White Masks founded an African intellectual awakening. The rebirth of Fanonism today in universities & the English speaking world is a testament to his relevance.

Edited by political theorist and African studies professor Nigel C. Gibson, Rethinking Fanon opens with an authoritative biography correcting fallacious assertions about Fanon's life, situating him in Marxism, negritude, Pan-Africanism, and the historical context of postwar decolonization, specifically the Algerian revolution. Section one is highlighted by extended discussions of Marx, Fanon's theories on sophisticated forms of cultural racism, and "true liberation, " as well as his influence on radical movements in the United States and Africa.

Homi Bhabha's "Remembering Fanon" opens section 2, which also contains discussions of the importance of the cultural and literary debates on Fanon by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edward Said, and Benita Parry. Then Hussein Bulhan's investigation of Fanon's revolutionary psychiatric approaches provides another focal point, as do Bhabha's and Diana Fuss's psychoanalytical discussions of Fanon.

The third section dramatically highlights debates concerning gender and status of women in movements of national liberation and their aftermath. These range from Helie-Lucas's notion of Fanon as one of those who contributed to the "myth of the Algerian woman liberated along with her country" to Sharpley-Whiting's vindication of Fanon as "pro-feminist, " as well as articles by Fuss and Anne McClintock.

The book concludes with essays by Nigel Gibson and Lou Turner that examine new aspects of Fanon's politics and philosophy.

Nigel Gibson is assistant director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University.


* Frantz Fanon: Portrait of a Revolutionary Intellectual Emmanuel Hansen 
* Rescuing Fanon from the Critics Tony Martin 
* Frantz Fanon, World Revolutionary Lou Turner & John Alan 
* Fanon as a Democratic Theorist Hussein M. Adam 
* Revolutionary Psychiatry of Fanon Hussein A. Bulhan 
* Remembering Fanon Homi Bhabha 
* Travelling Theory Reconsidered Edward W. Said 
* Resistance Theory Benita Parry 
* Critical Fanonism Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 
* Women, Nationalism & Religion in the Algerian Liberation Struggle Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas 
* Fanon & Gender Agency Anne McClintock 
* Interior Colonies Diana Fuss 
* Fanon's Feminist Consciousness & Algerian Women's Liberation T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting 
* Fanon & the FLN Lou Turner 
* Inside the Structure of the People Nigel C. Gibson

Battle of ideas over Fanon legacy

by Lou Turner, News & Letters

Forged in the colonialism of Martinique, confirmed by the racism of Paris and vividly enlivened by the Algerian revolution, Frantz Fanon's all too brief life (1925-1961) and thought were inextricably linked to the transformation of reality. Fanon's historical importance as a Black theorist with a total critique of imperialism has made him a crucial figure in the Black struggles in the U.S., the fight against apartheid in South Africa and postcolonial theory.

RETHINKING FANON: THE CONTINUING DIALOGUE is a new collection of essays, edited by Nigel Gibson, which highlights Fanon's significance by airing controversies over his legacy. The issues which generate the most controversy concern the meaning of Fanon's humanism and his assessment of the role of women in the Algerian revolution. The two issues are intimately linked.

Fanon's famous critique of "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness" outlines the ways in which a revolution can stop short or turn into its opposite if a narrow vision of the past is imposed as a substitute for the ongoing development of a new culture. In one of the most moving pieces in the collection, Algerian feminist Marie-Aimée Helie-Lucas relates the hideous damage done by delaying women's liberation until after the revolution. The building of a "national culture" falls disproportionately on women, who become symbolic carriers of traditions which are "seen as ahistorical and immutable" (275). "Defending women's rights 'now'-this now being any historical moment-is always a betrayal of the people, the nation, the revolution, religion, national identity, cultural roots" (280).

Helie-Lucas holds Fanon partly responsible for this bind in which women were placed after the revolution, claiming that he created a myth of Algerian women's "revolutionary virtue of the veil" (275). T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting considers this argument, but rejects it, saying that Fanon was not trying to make a stagnant principle out of the veil. Instead, he was dialectically recording a fluid revolutionary situation, relating "Algerian women's resistance in a way that can be remembered, recalled, and corrected by women in their present quests for self-actualization" (350).

The debate on women's liberation is the most exciting section of the book, framed as it is by the voices of Algerian women liberationists. Zouligha, described as an activist, writes movingly of the silences that pervade an Algeria terrorized by armed Islamist groups, but she warns that it is not enough to simply oppose religious fundamentalism. Those "women's associations who limited themselves to the struggle against the Islamists ended up allying themselves with the state power" (366).


The issues Zouligha raises are key to understanding the dialectic of revolution for which Fanon was reaching. As Nigel Gibson writes, "in contrast to an 'Islamic' nation, Fanon posited not simply secularism but a 'new humanism'" (29). This concept is taken up by Lou Turner and John Alan in an excerpt from the News and Letters pamphlet, FRANTZ FANON, SOWETO AND AMERICAN BLACK THOUGHT. They stress that the culture that mattered to Fanon was not an invented Black past or idyllic utopia, but the new ideas and new human relations forged in revolution: "To Fanon, culture without revolution lacks substance" (117).

Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha takes a dimmer view of Fanon's humanism, which he dismisses as being "as banal as it is beatific," reductively equating this humanism to psychological categories like "overcompensation" (191). Edward Said traces the logic in Fanon's humanism, though he fears it has been "too strenuous for the new postcolonial states to actualize" (213).

Nigel Gibson understands Fanon's humanism as the dialectic pulse of "the social and democratic processes of becoming historical protagonists" (435). He contends that Fanon saw decolonization as the process of how a "culture becomes reinvigorated as a FIGHTING culture...(which) rather than valorize 'tradition' seeks to forge totally new relations between people" (420).

Such an engaged battle of ideas marks the entire book and Fanon's legacy. For instance, the relationship of violence and revolution that Fanon developed theoretically is often taken as a blanket justification for violence. But Fanon was a dialectician and a revolutionary: all actions take place in the context of concrete historic particularities. Thus, he writes that the uprisings against colonialism are "not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute" (quoted 209). As Tony Martin writes, "the most eloquent testimony to the depravity of French colonialism is provided by the fact that it could have driven a man as desirous of justice and a true humanism as Fanon was to the inescapable conclusion that violence was the only answer" (85).

This untidy affirmation of struggle evidences itself in the social organization of movements for freedom. Lou Turner brings all the issues together in his article on "Dialectics of Organization and the Algerian Revolution," tracing the organizational struggles of the FLN, showing how the focus shifted from "the new Algerian society to come" to "diplomatic and military concerns" (373).

Turner shows Fanon's revolutionary practice: how he fought this betrayal by going directly to those fighting in the countryside and how THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH was written to warn of the dangers ahead. Turner concludes that the "crisis in FLN-governed Algeria today is haunted by the specter of this retreat from defining the ideological ground of the revolution," which left an "ideological void...filled by Arab nationalism and Islamicist tendencies" (379).

It was Fanon who warned that "the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of ideology" (379). The voices of the women's liberationists in this book make clear the cost of settling for anything other than totally new human relations and a new society. The battle of ideas matters; lives are at stake.