Monday, 16 April 2012

Metamorphic Thought: The Works of Frantz Fanon

by Achille Mbembe, African Studies, Vol. 71, No. 1, 22 March 2012

Fifty years ago, the Paris-based Maspero published Frantz Fanon’s last work, Les damnes de la terre, a book that achieved an almost biblical status and became a cornerstone of postcolonial thought. Last year saw the publication of Fanon’s Oeuvres by La De´couverte. This article explores the meanings of Fanon and the metamorphic nature of his thought.

We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind.
(Fanon 1961:251)

It is 50 years since Frantz Fanon died leaving us with his last testimony, The Wretched of the Earth. Written in the crucible of the Algerian war of independence and the early years of Third World decolonisation, this book achieved an almost biblical status. It became a living source of inspiration for those who opposed the Vietnam War, marched with the civil rights movement, supported revolutionary black struggles in America, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and countless insurgent movements around the world. Fanon’s life had led him far away from the island of Martinique in the Caribbean where he was born a French citizen. He took part at the age of 19 in the war against Nazism only to discover that in the eyes of France he was nothing but a ‘Negro’, that is, anything but a man like any other man. He would end up feeling a deep sense of betrayal. Black Skin, White Mask – his first book – in part relates the story of this and many other fraught encounters with colonial forms of dehumanisation (Macey 2011).

By Any Means Necessary

But it was in Algeria where he worked as a psychiatrist that Fanon finally cut the cord that bound him to France. The country for which he had almost lost his life in the struggle against Hitler had started to replicate Nazi methods during a savage and nameless war against a people which it denied the right to self-determination. The dehumanising violence of colonialism, to which he was exposed daily and which he attempted to heal, took the form of relentless racism and, more especially, the torture of Algerian resistance fighters by French troops. About this war Fanon often said it had taken on ‘the look of an authentic genocide’, ‘an exercise in extermination’. It was the ‘most horrifying’, ‘the most hallucinatory [war] that a people has conducted in order to destroy colonial oppression’, a war that was responsible for the imposition, in Algeria, of a ‘bloody’ and ‘ruthless’ regime of violence. The war was characterised by the large-scale ‘generalisation of inhumane practices’, which led many of the colonised to believe that they were ‘witnessing a veritable apocalypse’. During this fight to the death, Fanon sided with the Algerian people and France disowned him. He had ‘betrayed’ the nation. He became an enemy and, long after his death, France still treated him as such.

Following its defeat in Algeria and the loss of its colonial empire, France plunged into a post-imperial winter (Stoler 2010). Suffering from aphasia, it turned its back on its colonial past and forgot Fanon, thus largely missing out on the new voyages of thought which characterised the last quarter of the 20th century – most notably postcolonial theory and critical race studies (Mbembe 2010a). But in the rest of the world many of the movements fighting for the emancipation of people continued to invoke this heretic name. For those committed to the cause of oppressed people struggling for racial justice or for new psychiatric practices, Fanon’s name remained not only a sign of hope, but also served as an injunction to rise up (Mellino 2011). Today there are thousands of works and scholarly articles on Fanon and there exists a growing ‘Fanon library’, a vibrant, global critique inspired by his writing and which strives to develop his thought.

Even if France is yet fully to experience the Fanon phenomenon, everything would seem to indicate that Fanon has finally emerged from the obscurity to which he had been relegated. His complete Works have recently been published. For almost half a century, the goal had been to prevent his name from being lost and forgotten (see Cherki 2000). The veil has been lifted on his work and we are finally in a position, at the start of the 21st century, to read, in relative serenity but nonetheless with sense of some urgency in regard to the brutal reality which confronts the new wretched of the earth.

But reading Fanon today, we have to take the exact measure of his project in order to develop it further. If Fanon’s thought is like the ringing of the angelus, filling those times with the pealing of bells, it is because it was responding to the bugle call of colonialism, to the need for implacable and forceful opposition to the latter. Fanon’s thinking was born of real, lived, unstable and changing experience.

For Fanon, to think meant travelling along the same road as others towards a world that was perpetually and irrevocably created in and through struggle. In this process, critique had to be like a bullet destroying, traversing and transforming the rocky, mineral wall and the interstices of colonialism. It is this energy that characterised Fanon’s thought as metamorphic thought. For Fanon, the irrepressible and relentless pursuit of freedom required us to mobilise all life reserves. It drew the colonised into a fight to the death – a fight that they were called upon to assume as their duty and that could not be delegated to others.

In this almost sacrificial aspect of his thought, to rise up, to revolt was an injunction. It went hand in hand with the duty of violence – a strategic term in Fanon’s lexicon which, following many hasty and superficial readings, has given rise to much misunderstanding. It is therefore useful to review briefly the historical conditions in which Fanon developed his conceptualisation of violence. In this regard, it is perhaps important to bear in mind two things. First, that in Fanon violence is both a political and a clinical concept. It is as much the clinical manifestation of a political ‘disease’ as an act of ‘re-symbolisation’, which allows for the possibility of reciprocity and hence for relative equality in the face of the supreme arbiter which is death. Thus, by choosing violence rather than being subjected to it, the colonised subject is able to restore the self. He comes to the realisation that ‘his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler’ or that ‘the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin’. In so doing, he redefines himself and learns to value his life and the shape of his presence in relation to his body, his speech, to the Other and to the world.

For Fanon, the political and the clinical share in common the fact of being eminent psychic sites (Postel and Razanajo 1975). In these a priori empty spaces animated by la parole the relation between body and language is played out. Body and language are events. They testify to the fragility of the relationship to the self and to the other as engendered by the colonial situation, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the extraordinary vulnerability of the psyche when confronted with the trauma of the real. But the relation between body and language is far from being stable. In the long run, Fanon does not confuse the healing of the colonised (la politique du patient) and the political itself as a form of healing (la clinique du politique). He oscillates continuously between the two. At times he views the political as a form of the clinical and the clinical as a form of the political; and at times he stresses the inevitability as well as the failure of the clinical or its impasse, especially where the trauma of war and destruction, the pain and suffering caused in general by the colonial nomos undermine the ability of the subject or of the patient to return to the world of human speech (Douville 2006:709). Revolutionary violence is the shock that causes this ambivalence to explode. But Fanon shows that, although it is a key phase in the becoming subject of the colonised, violence is in turn, at the very moment of its occurrence, the cause of deep psychic damage. If truly subjective violence at the time of a liberation struggle can be articulated as speech, it is also capable of weighing on language and producing, in those who survive the war, mutism, hallucinations and trauma.

At the historical level, France attempted, in Algeria, to conduct ‘a total onslaught’ which provoked in return a response that was just as total on the part of the Algerian resistance. Following his experience of the war, Fanon was convinced that colonialism was a necropolitical force animated at its core by a genocidal drive. Since in order to reproduce and perpetuate itself colonial violence had to be transformed into an ontology and genetics, the destruction of colonialism could only be assured by means of an ‘absolute praxis’. It was on the basis of this observation that Fanon developed his thoughts on three forms of violence – colonial violence (which reached its pinnacle with the Algerian war), the emancipatory violence of the colonised (the final stage of which was the war of national liberation), and violencein international relations. In his view, colonial violence had three dimensions.It was institutional insofar as it oversaw the entrenchment of subjugation by force,the origin of which was dependent on force and the maintenance of which was dependent on force. It was, in the second instance, empirical. It enmeshed the daily life of the native in nodes, network and detail. This control was indeed physical – like the barbed wire fences surrounding the internment centres and camps during the period of insurrection – but it was also made up of a network of mesh, which, in spatial and topological terms, extended both horizontally and vertically. Moreover, searches, unlawful assassinations, expulsion and mutilation targeted the individual subject who had to be monitored down to his every breath.This violence was imposed even on language. It weighed heavily on everyday life, including speech. It was evident especially in the everyday behaviour of the settler vis-a-vis the native: aggression, racism, contempt, interminable rituals of humiliation, murders – what Fanon referred to as the ‘politics of hatred’.

In the third instance, colonial violence was phenomenal. It touched both the senses, the psychic and affective domains. It was the purveyor of mental disorders, which were difficult to treat and cure. It excluded any dialectic of recognition and was indifferent to any moral argument. Over time it attacked even the most private, innermost areas of subjectivity and ran the risk of depriving the colonised of any mnesic trace that turned such ‘loss into something more than a haemorrhagic void’ (Douville 2006:709). Its goal was not only to void the colonial subject of any substance, but also to foreclose the future. It attacked the subject physically, causing his muscles to contract and stiffen and his body to bow. His psyche was not spared since the violence was intended to do nothing less than decerebrate. It was these scars, wounds and gashes, criss-crossing the body and psyche of the colonial subject that Fanon, in practice, attempted to narrate and cure. According to Fanon, this three-fold violence (let us refer to it as sovereign violence) – made up in reality of ‘multiple, diverse, repeated and cumulative violence’ – was lived by the colonial subject at the level of blood and muscle. It forced the colonised to see his life as a ‘permanent battle against atmospheric death’. It gave the whole of his life the semblance of ‘incomplete death’. But above all, it released in him the internal anger of a ‘pursued man’ forced to contemplate the reality of a ‘truly animal existence’.

Every single word of Fanon was a deposition in favour of this damaged and ruined existence. For him, critique became a relentless search for the traces of life, which, he believed, continued to exist within this thunderous destruction. He understood the task of critique to be a first-hand combat with death at the same time as it announced the birth of new forms of life (Renault 2009). His incandescent words were both an attestation to and declaration of justice. To bear witness to the colonial situation meant ‘traveling step by step the length of the wound inflicted on the people and on Algerian soil’. It was necessary, he said, ‘to interrogate Algerian soil, inch by inch’, to measure the fragmentation and ‘dispersal’ caused by colonial occupation. It was necessary to bear witness to the ‘haggard and famished orphans’; to the ‘husband carried off by the enemy and who returns with his body covered in bruises, his life nearly extinct and his spirit extinguished’. In such a context, the task of critique was to bear witness to scenes of mourning, in those spaces of loss and destruction where the lamentations of old were replaced by new forms of behaviour. Having experienced the struggle, one does not weep, nor cry out, one does not behave as one used to, he comments. Instead, ‘one grits one’s teeth and, after one more step, the death of a moudjahid who has fallen in the field of honour will be met with cries of joy’. Eventually, this transfiguration of suffering and death would give rise to a new ‘spiritual community’.

The Emancipatory Violence of the Native

For Fanon, settler violence was different from the violence of the native. In the first instance, the violence of the colonised was not ideological. It was diametrically opposed to colonial violence. Before consciously turning against colonial repression at the time of national liberation, the violence of the colonial subject was purely responsive – ad hoc, reptilian and epileptic violence, the murderous gesture and primal affect of ‘the hunted man’, ‘with his back to the wall’, ‘knife pressed against his throat or, more accurately, electrodes pressing against his genitals’, who desperately seeks ‘to show that he is prepared to fight for his life’.

How can one convert this excess energy and this banal instinct for self preservation into a full and complete political statement? How can one turn it into a counter-affirmation in the face of death purveyed by an occupying power? How is it possible to turn it into an emancipatory gesture loaded with value, reason and truth? This is the starting point for Fanon’s reflections on the violence of the colonised – the violence which the colonised no longer suffers, which is no longer imposed on him and to which he is no longer more or less resigned. On the contrary, this is the violence that the colonised chooses to give to the colonist. This gift is described by Fanon in the language of ‘work’ –
‘violent praxis’, as a ‘response to the initial violence of the settler’. This violence is produced in the form of circulating energy, out of which ‘each one creates his own violent armour’ in ‘a large chain’, a ‘large violent organism’, in the ‘mortar built through blood and rage’. This radical rejection of imposed violence represents a significant moment in the process of re-symbolisation (Doray 2006). The objective of this labour is to produce life. However, this life can only ‘emerge from the decomposing cadaver of the settler’.

Fanon is aware that by choosing ‘counter-violence’, the native is opening the door to a possibly disastrous response – the ‘coming and going of terror’. He believes that in extreme circumstances, where there is no distinction between civil and military power, the only way for the native to be restored to life is for the terms that dictate how death is distributed to be radically redefined. The resulting exchange is nonetheless unequal. Surely the ‘ensuing air raids and cruise missiles’ are far in excess ‘in terms of horror and size, of the response of the native’? Moreover, recourse to violence does not automatically restore the balance of empathy between the native’s cause and the settler’s. For does not the injury or death of ‘seven Frenchmen at the Sakamody pass’ rouse greater ‘outrage among the civilised’ than ‘the sacking of Guergour douars, the Djerah dechra [or] the massacre of people who were precisely the reason for the ambush’?

Be that as it may, the ethical dimension of the violence of the native lies in the close relationship between violence and healing – treatment provided to the injured in the military hospitals of the resistance fighters, to prisoners who the resistance refuses to kill in their beds as is done by the colonial troops, to permanently mentally disordered torture victims, to Algerian women who have been driven mad after being raped, and even to torturers haunted by the twofold trauma and horror of their victims. In addition to healing the wounds of colonial atrocities, the violence of the native achieved three goals. First it served as a call to a people caught in the grip of history and placed in an untenable situation to exercise their freedom, to take charge, to name themselves, to spring to life or, if they failed to do this, to be seen to be in bad faith. They were forced to make a choice, to risk their lives, to expose themselves, to ‘draw on all their reserves and hidden resources’ – a
condition for achieving liberty.

Nonetheless Fanon’s theory of violence only makes sense within the context of a more general theory, that of the rise in humanity (monte´e en humanite´). The colonised has to propel himself, by his own force, to a level above the one to which he had been consigned as a result of racism or subjugation. The embattled human subject, brought to his knees and subjected to abuse, rallies on his own, scales the ramp and pulls himself up to his full height and to that of other human beings, if necessary through violence – what Fanon termed ‘the absolute praxis’. In this way, he restores the possibility, for him personally and for humanity as a whole, starting with his executioners, of new and open dialogue between two equal human subjects where, previously, there had been opposition between a man (the colonialist) and his object (the colonised). From then on there is no more black or white. There is only a world finally rid of the burden of race, a world to which everyone has a right.


Fanon was, at one and the same time, Martinican, Algerian, black, French and African. He was, even more, a man of the world. Life choices had taken him far from the Caribbean, where he was born, to Africa, where he experienced a ‘new birth’ in Algeria. He had nonetheless sought this re-rooting of himself in African soil as a way of bearing witness on behalf of the entire human race, and, in particular, as a sacrifice in the name of the suffering body of humanity.

This is why the figure of the patient or the subject in the face of his own agony is so fundamental to Fanon’s thought. How was one to put an end to this suffering and agony to allow another world and other figures of the human to emerge in the future? This is primarily what interested him. If he was proposing any form of knowledge, this was knowledge in context – knowledge of the dehumanising colonial context and knowledge of the means to bring this to an end. Whether it was a case of ‘touching the misery of the Black man’ in the face of the racist social order or of being aware of the transformation engendered by the war of liberation in Algeria, this knowledge was always openly partisan. It did not aim for objectivity or neutrality. ‘I did not wish to be objective. In fact that is not true: I was not allowed to be objective,’ he declared. It was in the first instance a case of  accompanying and – wherever this was still possible – of curing and healing those who had been wounded, decerebrated and sent mad as a result of colonial violence.

To read Fanon today means, on the one hand, to restore his life, his work and his language to its place in the history which he saw unfolding at the time and which he wished to change through struggle and critique. On the other hand, it means to translate into the language of our times the major questions which forced him to stand up, uproot himself and travel with others, his companions, along a new road which the colonised had to carve out on their own, through their own ingenuity and their indomitable will. In order to re-enact his project in contemporary terms, we have to think both with and against Fanon, the difference between him and some among us being that, for him, to think meant placing one’s life at risk.

Having said this, our world is no longer the same as his. His diagnosis of life after colonialism was uncompromising. For him, there was a distinct possibility that post-liberation politics and culture might take the road of retrogression if not tragedy. The project of national liberation might turn into a crude, empty shell; the nation might be passed over for the race, and the tribe might be preferred to the state. He believed that the liberation struggle had not healed the injuries and trauma that were the true legacy of colonialism. After liberation, the native elite had been ensconced in intellectual laziness and cowardice. In its will to imitation and its inability to invent anything of its own, the native bourgeoisie had assimilated the most corrupt forms of colonialist and racist thought. Afflicted with precocious senility, the educated classes were stuck in a great procession of corruption.

He warned against the descent of the urban unemployed masses into lumpen-violence. As soon as the struggle is over, he argued, they start a fight against non-national Africans. From nationalism they pass to chauvinism, negrophobia and finally to racism. They are quick to insist that foreign Africans go home to their country. They burn their shops, wreck their street stalls and spill their blood on the city’s pavements and in the dark or dusty alleys of the shantytowns.

Surveying the postcolony, Fanon could see a coming nightmare – an indigenous ruling class luxuriating in the delicious depravities of the western bourgeoisie, addicted to rest and relaxation in pleasure resorts, casinos and beaches, spending large sums on display, on cars, watches, shoes and foreign labels. In his post-liberation nightmare, he could distinctly see stupidity parading as leadership, patriarchy turning women into wives, vulgarity going hand in hand with the corruption of the mind and the flesh, all in the midst of hilarity and demobilisation. The spectacle of Africans representing themselves to the world as the archetype of stupidity, brutality and profligacy, he confided, made him angry and sick at the heart.

Globally, new forms of colonial warfare and occupation are taking shape, with their share of counterinsurgent tactics and torture, Guantanamo-style camps, secret prisons, their mixture of militarism and plundering of resources from afar. New forms of social apartheid and structural destitution have replaced the old colonial divisions. As a result of global processes of accumulation by dispossession, deep inequities are being entrenched by an ever more brutal economic system. The ability of many to remain masters of their own lives is once again tested to the limits. The question of self-determination has perhaps changed face, but it continues to be posed in terms that are as fundamental as those in Fanon’s time. Novel forms of balkanisation are being re-instituted around increasingly deadly walls and boundaries. The freedom to move is increasingly restricted for many racial categories. No wonder under such conditions, many are not only willing to invoke once again Frantz Fanon’s heretic name, his sparkling, volcanic voice and exploding face. They are willing to stand up and rise again.

If we owe Fanon a debt it is for his idea that in every human subject there is something indomitable and fundamentally intangible which no domination – no matter in what form – can erase, eliminate, contain or suppress, or at least completely. Fanon tried to grasp how this ‘something’ could be reanimated and brought back to life under conditions of subjugation. He argued that this irrepressible and relentless pursuit of freedom required the mobilisation of all life reserves. It was the way in which this ‘something’ worked that Fanon strove to understand. This is why his work represented, for all the oppressed, a kind of fibrous lignite, a weapon of steel.

I myself have been attracted to Fanon’s name and voice because both have the brightness of metal. His is a metamorphic thought, animated by an indestructible will to live. What gives this metallic thinking its force and power is the air of indestructibility and, its corollary, the injunction to stand up. It is the inexhaustible silo of humanity that it houses and which, yesterday, gave the colonised strength and which, today, allows us to look forward to the future (Mbembe 2010b).


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28 African Studies, Vol. 71, No. 1 April 2012