Monday, 3 October 2011

Comments at the Caribbean Philosophy Association plenary “Remembering Fanon and Glissant”

September 30, 2011

Comments at the Caribbean Philosophy Association plenary “Remembering Fanon and Glissant” 

Nigel C. Gibson

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. It is a great honor.

A question that hounds the 2004 foreword to the English translation of Fanon’s book is: 'is he relevant?'. Certainly Fanon said he did not come with timeless truths and that each generation has to find its own mission, so why consult him now?

The question is not new, it emerged immediately with the publication of the book in France. But then, a few years later, Fanon became alive again in Black America of the 1960s and the famous Constance Farrington translation was subtitled the “handbook for the Black revolution.” So perhaps a better question to ask is, 'is there a living Fanon?'. In South Africa of the 1970s Steve Biko brought Fanon alive with the development of Black Consciousness as philosophy and as a movement. Yet shortly after Biko was murdered, postcolonial studies emerged within the elite Anglophone universities of the North and a new shift occurred. Fanon was taken as a “father figure”, a reviled symbol of another age, the age of decolonization--a period that had become post—so now Fanon was being remembered or in reality dismembered.

Three things could be said in response to this remembering. First, Fanon was not simply a product of the anticolonial struggle but its greatest internal critic (history from below, critical from inside, so to speak). Second that the neocolonial and postcolonial world that he describes—with its attendant pauperization and exploitation and dehumanization is a continuing present. Third, that the revolts of the damned and wretched of the earth are as continuous as they are rational.

But how to talk of a living Fanon, as he concludes The Wretched of the Earth, with the challenge to put invention into existence—for humanity, for ourselves? How to be human in the face of the antihuman?

In the context of the subject of this conference, public education and the transformation of society, let me make a couple of comments that relate to the keynote presentations yesterday and the idea of the responsibility and praxis of shifting the geography of reason. First, a practical example.

At a recent conference at Rhodes University in South Africa on Fanon, S’bu Zikode, the elected president of the grassroots shack dweller organization, Abahlali baseMjondolo began his remarks with the comment that “The idea that shack dwellers can think and that Abahlali can sustain its autonomy has created a crisis.” The crisis is akin to the metaphysical crisis that Fanon says Cesaire created in the Antilles. It is a crisis of knowledge production and self-recognition that has created a reaction (often violent) not only from the post-apartheid state but liberal-left civil society as well.

In the transmission belts of the global university hierarchy—described in Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ keynote address yesterday, the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban sees itself as a world class African university. Excluded from such “public” places—other than as cleaners and janitors—the shack dwellers call themselves graduates of the University of Abahlali. In contrast to the elite and hierarchical University of KwaZulu Natal, theirs is an inclusive and horizontal university of the shacks. An articulation between the two institutions, the hierarchical world-class institution and the horizontal “institution” of the University of the Abahlali is very difficult, indeed it seems impossible. They are methodological opposed.

At the Rhodes conference, Zikode went on to describe the difficult work involved in attending a conference like this one. It describes an essential difference with the Global U. For him it involves the constant activity of shifting the geography of reason, it resonates with Fanon’s insistence that liberation involve everyone in a language all can understand and participate including all those excluded and humiliated, made wretched in a constant process of dehumanization. He asked, “how do I report back and make this conference meaningful to ordinary men and women, especially in the shacks and rural communities?” “It is a tough task,” he added. And it is one that we all here should all take time to ponder.

Zikode’s question relates directly I think to Boa’s examples of the university of the social movements and also to Fanon’s insistence in the Wretched of the Earth about an unequivocal intellectual commitment to social transformation from below.

Let me give you a final example. When xenophobic violence spread across South Africa’s shack settlements and townships in 2008, liberal/left academia and civil society considered it a terrible thing. The cause, the poor were ignorant and needed education. University researchers went out to gather data about their attitudes about immigration and foreigners and so on. One should note how the hierarchical World Bank design research model is internalized in the global south; here data is the poor with the a priori assumption that the shack dwellers can be researched and talked about but that they do not create research questions because they cannot think their own thoughts. It is the colonial model. The poor need education. To think differently is simply to be a romantic.

Yet thinking was exactly what Abhalali is doing in meetings in the settlements. At the university of Abhalali there is a constant discussion. Here are the stories and experiences of people who had experienced detention, forced removal, and transit camps; here was an “everyday cosmopolitanism” in contrast to the Northern focused cosmopolitanism of the elites. Since Abahlali baseMjondolo translated from the Zulu means people from the shacks, everyone is equal without reference to where you are from, lineage or identity or background or age or gender. Here, in contrast to state’s response, as the round-up and detention of those who did not appear indigenous and its increasing ethnic party politics, Abahlali helped to protect and provide safety. Here was a glimpse of a living politics from below.

In the “misadventures of national consciousness” in The Wretched Fanon describes the meeting—the local and fully democratic and inclusive discussions that are essential to the liberation of the nation and the liberation of the individual (as a social individual)—as a “liturgical act.” He mentions that in these spaces with dignity and reciprocity at its base, a new politics can come into being - always under threat, always fragile, always beginning. “Thinking takes place in the meetings,” says Zikode and out of that, Fanon, the activist/intellectual, is living in the shack dwellers movement, thinking with the people.