Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Of Being and Nothingness: Critical analysis of Lewis Gordon’s 'Fanon and the Crisis of European Man'

Mlamuli Hlatshwayo, 22nd September 2013

Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man is a text that critically engages with the thoughts of Frantz Fanon and attempts to make it relevant to contemporary issues surrounding the Human Sciences (Gordon, 1995: 2). Gordon discusses the notion of the “Euro-Man”, who possesses logic and embodies what it means to be a man, as an antithesis to Blackness - a necessary condition needed for the Manichean allegoric representation which positions Whiteness as the only mode of being in the world. This critical analysis is concerned with the notion of Being and Nothingness as being central to Gordon’s text, especially in linking it with the idea of racism as a signifier of who gets to be seen as a “Man”, and the implications of that discourse on Blackness, and its lived experiences. It will also make use of contemporary examples in engaging with W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of double consciousness, especially looking at it in context to the race conscious society in America, specifically looking at “African American” as an idea and what it actually means not only for Du Bois but also for us in the contemporary period.

Gordon critically outlines well for us, what he has referred to as the “Crisis of the European Man” (Gordon, 1995: 8). This stood out for me as it critically engaged with the manner in which “Whiteness” signified by the “White Man” came to represent an ontological foundation of knowledge, logic, and rational in the world (Gordon, 1991: 9). This understanding shows well how the narrow construction of the singular mode of being in the world came to have devastating repercussions for those who did not necessarily fit in into these parameters. Perhaps significantly, Gordon problematizes the notion of “White Man” and shows how it relied directly on Blackness and its position as an antithesis, in showing to itself, everything that it claimed to not be – that is, erratic, irrational, emotional, savage and without critical thought. Thus one could argue, Blackness is not only constructed why Whiteness, it is actually rendered to be a silent Nothingness that is without collective agency and ability to respond. Gordon ties this Nothingness as being legitimized by race, not only as an instrument of colonial oppression, but as also the use of race as an attack against the Black self and its dignity (Gordon, 1991: 11). Thus race again acts as a consolidator of the Manichean allegoric differences, and specifically deprives the African black self intelligence, critical thought or ability to be conscious of their time and space, largely because that is the monopoly of the “White Man” and is inconsistent with their narrow interpretation of the world. Furthermore, one could argue that W.E.B. du Bois’s argument of positioning, presenting and discussing black people as a problem people, is consistent with the “White Man” as a signifier of wisdom and rationality, as the “problem people” narrative deprives the black lived experiences of their collective agency and ability to be aware of their living conditions and position in society. Thus society perceives, treats and responds to them as a problem, thus depriving them of their humanity in the process.

     In The Souls of Black Folk, du Bois not only argues that the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line; he also argues about the effects of double consciousness on the post slavery society in America (du Bois, 2008: 4). One could argue that the contemporary challenges of double consciousness, revolves around the notion of “African American”, in how they have lived in America for generations and are citizens there; however they are still Africans because of their skin color. This acts as a double conscious reminder of their position in America, and how they don’t really belong there as they are “Africans” who are “Americans” – thus they are positioned not as fully Americans, but as “Africans” who live in “America”. This was especially seen when Barack Obama won the US Presidency, when notions of what it means to be an “authentic American” were raised, especially regarding his family history, and how he did not share the history of the slave trade – especially as it appeared like the slave trade deprived him of a historical legitimacy as an “authentic American”. One could argue that these debates continue to manifest themselves in the contemporary period, especially as they tend to exclude, include and shape belonging according to a certain kind of understanding of history. Furthermore, one could link Fanon’s argument in how because he was a black person, when he enters the room, reason walks out, could be said to be prevalent in the notions of what it means to be an “authentic American” discourse, especially as Obama appears to challenges a lot of stereotypes about African Americans as largely being unsuccessful, imprisoned at some point in their lives, and as a problem people who are “fleeting” the system through welfare. Obama challenges these Manichean categories and thus there is a need, at least especially in the media and in the public discourse, to challenge his authenticity as an African America because he does not fit well into the designated role of what an African American life ought to look like. Thus because he is successful, because he is not on welfare, thus he is not “properly Black”, and must therefore be referred to as something else.


Gordon, L., 1995, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man, New York: Routledge.

Du Bois, W.E.B., 2008, The Souls of Black Folk, New York: A.C. McClure & Co.