Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Response to Alice Cherki's 'Frantz Fanon: A Portrait'

by Mbali Baduza

Alice Cherki’s biography of Frantz Fanon is anything but a monotonous read. From the descriptions of Fanon’s childhood to his death, Cherki helps us conceptualise Fanon the personality, Fanon the human.

Other than Cherki’s defence of Fanon in the question of violence which has been widely used to prosecute him, I was struck by a theme that carries the book: Fanon’s belief in the potential of the human. Fanon’s faith in the potential of the human, reminds me of a book I have recently read, Antonio Negri and Cesare Casarino’s In Praise of the Common. In the preface, Casarino says that “[t]he common is legion”, meaning that the common refers to a number of people. Put differently, the common refers to ‘The People’ i.e. all human beings.

Now the reason why they use the word ‘common’ is because they argue that amongst all our differences, humankind has something in common, or rather have somethings in common, namely: (1) the potential of thought, (2) which is practised through language and (3) the ability to communicate with others- the actualisation of thought in linguistic practice. Following Dante’s philosophical anthropology, the authors argue that “the common is defined according to two fundamental Aristotelian categories, namely, potentiality and actuality”, what Fanon would understand as the potential of the open-door consciousness that is inherent to all human beings and like the concept of the common,  has universal application (2008: 13).

And it is with this insight that Fanon treated his patients at the psychiatric hospital in Blida (HPB). In understanding that mentally ill people are human nonetheless and as social beings, they had the potential to think, learn and heal. Fanon introduced a form of therapy called socio-therapy which not only sought to humanise the institution but also create an environment whereby patients and staff were in conversation and thus “the broken thread of personal suffering can be salvaged and expressed” (Cherki, 2006: 65). Through language and negotiation patients in HPB were started to be seen as human, but only by the staff, but by the patients themselves (Cherki, 2006: 68). This form of therapy through conversation (as well as activity), again reminds me of Negri and Casarino’s In Praise of the Common.  They further argue that the language of the common is conversation. Conversation, as the language of the common, “brings us together as different from rather than identical to one another” (2008: 2). In other words, conversation creates a platform for different parties to hear, understand and respond to each other and this process never ends. Unlike in a monologue, or even a dialogue, there is a tendency to assimilate or reconcile differences according to a certain party who sets a standard of what the common should be, rather than what the common really is. Western philosophy and its ideas of ontology, epistemology and of what is ethical, has set itself as the standard of the common, a standard in which people of colour, throughout history, have had to reconcile themselves to. And when certain individuals of the common could not, such as Fanon’s patients in HPB, they are cast aside, excluded and treated as less than human. It is this very understanding, that the exploitation of difference, be it through physical or psychological violence, is endemic throughout society and if we have any chance of re-capturing or humanity, our common, we must, through action and political commitment, heal our society.  

Reference List:

Cherki, A. (2006). Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. Translated by N. Benabid, Cornell: Cornell University Press.
Negri, A and Casarino, C. (2008) In the Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics, University of Minnesota Press: London.