Monday, 15 October 2012

A response to Lewis Gordon's 'Fanon & the Crisis of European Man'

by Mbali Baduza, 2012


In reading Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, I found myself asking why Gordon felt that he had to write this book. What was he trying to do? The answer can be found quite early on in the book when he says, and I quote at length, that:

“This is not a study on Fanon so much as it is an opportunity for an engagement with Fanon... I here regard Fanon as a locus of many pressing questions in contemporary philosophy –particularly in philosophy of human science. Regarding Fanon as an opportunity, I regard myself as working within the spirit of his way of seeing the world... since Fanon respected most of those who have the courage to state what they believe. I believe Fanon was a great philosopher and that his ideas continue to be of great value to other philosophers, cultural critics, human scientists, and laypeople alike”. 
(1995: 2, my emphasis)

One could make the argument that Gordon wrote this book as a demonstration of his fidelity to Frantz Fanon, but also as a means to bring together and make visible a philosophical anthropology, or rather parts of it, that he (Fanon) and Jean-Paul Sartre share. It is important to note that this is by no means, as Gordon says himself, a continuation of the “long tradition of treating the thoughts of black philosophers as derivatives of white ones” (Gordon, 1995: 14). Instead what we see so delicately done in the book is an illustration of a common point of departure in Fanon’s and Sartre’s thought: the belief that it is through action that we become. What is meant by this becomes clearer as we go long. The book is made up of five chapters, or rather mini-essays, which problematise misanthropic philosophy on people of colour, in particular, and the ways in which human sciences study human reality. Rather than summarising each essay, a few concepts will be drawn out from the book so as to critically engage with Gordon’s portrayal of Fanonian thought and find ways in which we, too, can show fidelity to Fanon and how he saw the world and our role in it.

“I am overdetermined from without”[1]

In Black Skin White Masks, Fanon writes (1952: 116) "I am overdetermined from without".  What Fanon is referring to here is the ‘condition’ of being black in a world that is anti-black. There is an ambiguity, a paradox and a tragedy at play when black people only exist in the form of negation. Fanon would say we exist so as not to exist by being too much and simultaneously being not enough (Gordon, 1995: 6). The problem with human sciences, origins of which are found in Europe, is that they departed, and in many ways still do, with a presupposition or an a priori knowledge of being human.  Put differently, there is an invasive normative standard that has been universalised on how to be-in-the-world. People of colour tick the relevant criteria on what on it means to be human, except for the one that counts: being white. And what it means to be white is to be the judge, preacher, peace-maker, martyr, authority of moral goodness, rationality and ultimately, being human (Frye, 1992). This is why Gordon (1995: 6) says that Fanon was “not white enough, which means he is not human enough”. Does this not pose a crisis in Europe, in reason and in our humanity? What happens when the philosophy of human science finds its legitimacy in racial misanthropy? Humanistic disciplines, ironically, pride themselves as being an adversary of natural sciences, which failed to take into account human agency and the varying ways in which knowledge is produced, when they themselves (practitioners of human sciences) perpetuate the disease of exclusion; of being critical of other sciences but not of themselves; and of “identifying the symptoms, but shrink cowardly from the task involved in indentifying the disease” (Gordon, 1995: 7).

With such a legacy, is it no wonder that the reality of ‘Black Tax’ exists with us even to this very day? ‘Black Tax’ refers to the idea that people of colour have to work twice as hard as white people so as to be taken seriously and the need to perform tasks just as well as white people, if not better (Duane, 2007).  ‘Black Tax’ is everywhere- in the workplace, schools, in conversation, etc. White people have the privilege of being assumed to be competent candidates for whatever they choose to do, be it a teacher, a manager or waitress, until proven otherwise (MaKaiser, 2011:  454). It is the inverse for black people in a white supremacist society, which says: ‘s/he must not have a heavy accent; is eloquent; must not, God forbid have a politics, let alone one rooted in activism (we cannot have strikes!); and whose qualifications must be tenfold. We cannot assume, you see, that they are like this, they have to prove it to us.’ This, Fanon says, is the “the fact of blackness”, where racist reasoning not only denies me a place to belong, a place to be happy, but denies me being, full stop. As he puts it, “reason... [has] made a fool of me. As the other put it, when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer. [We] played cat and mouse” (1952: 118-120). It is no wonder that in light of this reality, this degradation of humanity and the indignity in how we see and treat each other, that Fanon rejects ontology- it is fundamentally racist in its misunderstanding of what makes us human and therefore, it is anti-Human (Gordon, 1995: 10-12). To those who argue that Fanon’s embodied critique of Euro-reason and philosophy is where the conversation ends, he or she would be in error. Let us turn to Fanon’s existential phenomenology to see why.

“Existentialism Is a Humanism”[2]

Perhaps a way of explaining Fanon’s existential phenomenology[3] is through Sartre’s conception of existentialism. Sartre explains that existentialism, at the very least, can be defined as a doctrine that believes that existence precedes essence. In other words, we exist first, before we have any idea of who we are or who we ought to be. It is through our experiences and actions that we are able to define ourselves. Prior that projection, or the act of creating and becoming, we do not exist. Put simply, we are what we make ourselves. Sartre therefore agrees with Husserlian phenomenology in so far as the starting point in investigating human reality should depart from our subjectivity. Gordon (1995: 16 [sic]) argues that for Sartre “all investigating involves a form of self-reflection”. I have the urge to agree. Is it not so that human beings need to personalise issues, first, before we can find ways to address those issues? This might be a grand generalisation, but I believe it still has merit. For example, when we see someone suffering, be it a street kid who is hungry, or someone rumbling through your trash for food, we tend to think: ‘wow, that is really horrible, I can’t imagine how that person does that, I don’t think I could survive living that way’. We tend to reflect on the suffering of others with regards to what we would do and how we would feel. John Holloway (2012) shares a similar sentiment in his idea of ‘the scream’, presumably inspired by a painting titled ‘The Scream’ by Norwegian artists Edvard Munch. He says that ‘the scream’, the condition of its possibility being the agony and despair we see in the world and eventually embody, is and must be the starting point of scientific and theoretical thinking. If we do not personalise an issue, to some level, it is easy to become desensitised to it, but we will return to this point further below.
Sartre, however, is critical of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology in studying consciousness or the appearance of ‘things’ in isolation and in our case which would translate to the bracketing of individual subjectivity from the presence of others. In other words, the subjectivity of the individual is constituted by the subjectivities of others. Sartre says and I quote at length (1945: 45):
“I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensible to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity”. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are”.
Fanonian thought undoubtedly faces a peculiar problem, when it is quite clear that there is a need to suspend the ontology that grounds human sciences and its normative conception of the human condition, but the same time recognises that human existence is contingent on human relationality (Gordon, 1995: 34).  Contingency becomes a problem when what makes part of my subjectivity is the denial of my existence, “[f]or not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (Fanon, 1952: 109-110). As a way out of this peculiarity, Fanon calls for a radical phenomenology that is critical, self-reflective, a meta-stable methodology, if you like, in the study of human being. To put is simply, what Fanon is proposing is for the philosophy of human science to take seriously “the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon. 1952: 181). Fanon’s existential phenomenology is a Humanism, a critical Humanism that recognises that with the study of humans, there is always an ‘incompleteness’ and the  possibility of human subjectivity, of becoming truly human lies in having taken thought and being actional (Gordon, 1995: 12; 69-70). It is important to note, however, that Fanon critical philosophy is not without an element of realism, he is acutely aware of the ever-present threat to our humanity.

“The Recognition of the Constant Threat of Bad Faith”[4]

To better understand the concept of ‘bad faith’, we need to engage with the Sartrean understanding of freedom and responsibility. Sartre explains that freedom lies in the escape of pre-determinism, external standards and normative criteria of the human condition. How can we be free, when “each one of us chooses certain things [that] determine specific finalities with the scope of given possibilities and parameters”? (Negri and Casarino, 2008: 85). Put differently, there is no freedom when human beings are a function of a telos, when we are driven by a specific purpose based on the conditions of the time (2008: 84). Each individual or each society has to pursue a given end. For example, scientific socialists believe that socialism is something that comes after capitalism; that there has to be phases of socio-economic development. Assumptions around ‘progress’ silence the reality that different societies evolve differently; some evolve in non-teleological ways. Would having a non-teleological telos not create the condition for the possibility for freedom? Negri and Casarino argue and Sartre would agree that “if we conceived of the world from the standpoint of such a telos, there is nothing for us to pursue in it aside from freedom” (2008: 84).  Freedom does not mean having the option to choose between A or B. With an open consciousness, every human being has potential of thought, creativity and imagination that breeds pro-activity to create options c, d, e, f, etc. Fanon’s critical humanism, however reminds us, that in the creation of these options, we must constantly think and re-think, be meta-reflective about the possibilities of change in what constitutes these options. There is freedom in this non-teleological telos, because it constantly re-evaluates itself to be faithful to what it means to be human.
What this means is that in no longer being constrained by knowledge and reasoning that is based on external conceptions of being, we are responsible for choosing our self-determination. Keeping true to his existential humanism, Sartre say and I quote (1945, sic):

“Our responsibility... concerns (hu)mankind as a whole... When we say that [every person] chooses [him/herself], we do mean that every one of us must choose [ourselves]; but by that we also mean that in choosing for [him/herself], he/she chooses for all [hu]mankind”.   
Both Sartre and Fanon recognise, however, that freedom has a paradoxical function: it can be both productive and regressive. Similarly, Fanon says that ‘bad faith’ manifests in the hidden decision not to decide (Gordon, 1995: 12). Sartre explains that it is ‘bad faith’ when one uses their freedom to deny the existence of freedom. ‘Bad faith’ can also be understood as a form of self-deception, self-objectification when we rationalise our existence according to a belief system that not only imposes itself on human existence, but also denies the dignity of others. Put simply, it is in bad faith to choose certainty, because we avoid the discomfort, the fear, the vulnerability of knowing the ‘other’, determining ourselves and subsequently, letting others determine themselves. Fanon puts it well (1952):

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.”
Is mass self-deception not a reality in contemporary South Africa? Do we not choose to remain silent and ignore the violence that we witness everyday when looking at the outskirts of our cities? Do we not choose to be desensitised every Thursday when we walk past men, women and children digging through our garbage for food before it is collected? Do we not allow those around to speak about abject poverty as though it is only the doing of others and not of ourselves? Does the South African society question how our reality has been processed, like food, by the factories of capitalism? The truth is difficult is swallow.

Concluding remarks:

In writing my response for the book Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, I have admit I had a difficult time engaging with the concepts. This is by no means a reflection on the intellectual and important work that Gordon has produced, but rather because while reading it I was troubled by the recent events in South Africa, particularly with the Marikana Massacre. After having finished the book, I attempted to make the phenomenological move of beginning from a place of subjectivity.

 I started thinking: “what is important you?” I even put it as my Blackberry Messenger status to constantly remind myself that I cannot let this question go. But the question on its own was not enough, because I am not an island. Following questions became “why has Marikana affected me, my peers, friends, lecturers and comrades as it has? Why have we taken that Event so personally?”  For a few days, I carried these questions with me, until I found my answer when a group of us attend a debate hosted by the Rhodes Debating Society on “Why is Mandela Day a Problem?”. Camalita Naicker (a friend), in response to the debate, said something that I could not shake. She said “what people don’t understand is that politics is personal. How can it not be when it is in the everyday?” In grappling with what she said I realised that knowledge has a sociological base, it does not just come from nowhere. It is based and originates from society and we use such knowledge to perpetuate and sustain our interests. In essence knowledge comes from people and with people the element of power is involved. And politics, at least in the anthropological definition, means power over people. The political determines how society is structured; how it functions; the limits and opportunities- what we can and cannot do. Thus the political and human influence can never be escaped. With politics being personal, it is no wonder that Marikana affected us all so deeply, it was an attack on all of us; on our humanity.  What we can learn from Fanon and Sartre’s philosophical anthropology is that Marikana and the violence that we see every day is our responsibility and deny that truth would be in ‘bad faith’. The teleology of the political and the philosophy of human sciences determine us in so far as we allow them. If we are to take Fanon seriously, the way forward is through action.


Gordon, R., 1995, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, New York and London: Routledge.
Fanon, F., 1967 [1952] Black Skin White Masks, London: Grove Press Inc.
Frye, M., 1992, White Woman Feminist, Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, Berkeley: Crossing Press.
McKaiser, E., 2011, How Whites Should Live in This Strange Place, South African Journal of Philosophy, 30(4): 452-461.
Negri, A and Casarino, C. (2008) In the Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics, University of Minnesota Press: London.

[1] From Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks pp. 116.
[2] The title of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1945 essay on existentialism published in the Marxist Internet Archive.
[3] Phenomenology is the study of consciousness and how it experiences phenomena from a subjective point of view.  
[4] Gordon, “Existential Phenomenology and History”, pp. 19.