Monday, 31 March 2014

Frantz Fanon: A Portrait

reviewed by Fezokuhle Mthonti 

Alice Cherki’s Frantz Fanon: A Portrait is a rich biographical account of the events that shaped Fanon’s trajectory as a key psychological and political thinker in Post-Colonial and Critical Humanist thought.  The book is a  nuanced account of how Fanon himself was a “yes that vibrated to cosmic harmonies. Uprooted, pursued, baffled, doomed to watch the dissolution of truths that he had worked out for himself.” (1986:2) It is an attempt to humanise the thinker that we have come to know as Fanon through a truly Fanonian praxis of recognition, a kind of strategic historicism, and an attempt to reconcile a particular subjectivity with the universal.

That being said however, it is quite difficult to condense Cherki’s work without being reductive because the text oscillates between detailed historical and factual accounts to broader and overarching themes of alienation, negation and finally an attempt to resolve an emancipatory praxis that does not conceive of itself as being teleologically constituted.  I have therefore chosen the notion of empire and language as an entry point into this biography. While this covers only a fraction of Cherki’s analysis, it is my hope that these ideas will still try to give the reader a comprehensive sense of the book.

In reading Cherki’s biography I was particularly struck by the nature of the French Empire and how Fanon’s experiences in both France and Algeria served as a kind of spatial encounter with the nature of the empire within the colonising city as well as the colonised city. In trying to make sense of some of the occurrences in Cherki’s biography I will be referring to Robert Aldrich paper entitled The French Empire: Colonialism and its Aftermath where I will be analysing some of the specificities of French Colonialism and in so doing relate them to Fanon’s experiences as narrated by Cherki. I would argue that all theory emanates from a particular political and sociological context, so in revealing some of the specificities that might have coloured Fanon’s experiences with colonialism, I hope to seriously consider how he might have come to the political and psychoanalytical motivations that he theorised about in his work.

Aldrich argues that “France, like Britain, but unlike other colonial powers, conquered a truly global empire – from North Africa through western and equatorial Africa to Madagascar and Indochina, as well as the vieilles colonies and new ones in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.”(2008:3) He continue to argue that “if the Raj was, as the cliché has it, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British, Algeria was the single most important French possession.”(2008:3) This may account for why France was reticent to grant the Algerian Colony their independence until 1964. Although Fanon is said to have written prophetically about the nature of revolution and  subsequent independence, he himself did not live to see an independent Algeria.

What is of specific interest to me in the nature of French colonialism is the policies and the value systems which informed a kind of ‘assimilation of colonies.’ (2008:4) Cherki writes that “when Fanon arrived in Algeria in 1953, he set foot in territory considered French since 1830; a corner of France, as the popular claim went, older than Savoy or Nice.” (2000:38) Which is to say that the  way in which the French colony perceived of ‘civilising its colonies’ was through imposing its cultural and architectural norms on their colonies. This kind of one sided integration was symptomatic of the French imperial structure. Aldrich argues that “these political structures reflected, too,  the important issue of citizenship in the French empire. In principle, anyone could become a citizen, and this was touted as both a goal and an honour in the meritocratic, republican France.” (2008:6)

That being said however, Cherki alerts the reader to the fact that “the three departments of France that constituted Algeria at the time were a pure fiction that never succeeded in masking that this was a colonized territory.”(2000:38) In fact she says that “it took the recently arrived Fanon very little time to understand  that Algeria had in fact  never been French.” (2008:38)

In trying to create another version of French motherland, the Algerian community was deeply racially stratified and no one except the actual European administrators had a legitimate claim to citizenship. This cultural subjugation was thin a veneer for hierarchical exclusion because it did not speak to a system of coexistence between the coloniser and the colonised.  The quest for ‘model citizenship’ which the colonized society was meant to aspire to, resulted in high levels of discrimination amongst differing cultural groups and that in turn transpired into a pervasive culture of racist intolerance in Algeria. Cherki in fact notes that “racism was habitual; it was unperturbed , understood, and viewed as entirely natural” within that society. (2000:44)

Fanon was undoubtedly averse to this kind of cultural subjugation and theorised about these exclusionary forms of power in France with his publication of Black Skin White Mask as well as his subsequent paper in Algeria entitled Racism et culture.

I would argue that it was here where Fanon started to really grapple with the nature of the French Imperial power and their occupation of Algeria. It is at this point that he revisits his ideas on racism in Black Skin, White Mask and really starts to unpack how the colonial occupation, and the inherent racism and alienation therein, were repackaged into ideas of elite French culture. I would argue that France’s colonial occupation of Algeria reflects a kind of modernity which starts to inscribe a set of value systems that inform a ‘kind/ way of being’. It is a protracted kind of racism, which  is inherently more damaging because it starts to prescribe ‘a kind  of normative standard’ which is at its core exclusionary to most of the inhabitants of the colony.  Cherki reflects, what I have referred to as a protracted and insidious kind of racism, by saying that “biological racism, with its scientific aspirations, gives way to cultural racism, which, has been quietly bolstered by a modernity that places account not on skull formation, or skin colour, or the shape of a nose, but on ways of existing.”(2000:87)

Further to this, I would contend that in pursuing a career in psychiatry , Fanon was trying to establish a serious conversation between those who were markedly absent from the societal space, like his patients in Blida who had occupied a site of negated subjectivity by virtue of their institutionalised geography ,  and those that were rendered visible by the colony. Cherki points to this in saying that “the patients suffering follows from his exiled condition as ‘a man (sic) who dies anew every day, living in a feeling of total insecurity, threatened emotionally and isolated socially’, excluded from the agora, deprived of the right to a real existence.”(2000:17) 

This level of consciousness that he was able to tap into in his psychiatric  work, was a consciousness that he himself shared by virtue of his ‘othered identity and personhood ’ in the colony. I imagine that Fanon really came to this consciousness through his own painful experiences after his involvement in World War Two where “he had fought in a war of racial equality and human brotherhood (sic) only to find himself isolate, ignored [and] the subject of contempt.”(2000:13)

In trying to further understand the psychological, philosophical and political predispositions that lodged themselves into Fanon’s consciousness, I think that it is important to interrogate both the physical and the metaphysical world that a black subject might encounter from the moment of birth. Cherki gives the reader a sense of this world in arguing that “this white world rules and exists as the sole referent, not only in political and economic terms but in all other registers as well; linguistic, cultural, mythical, while supplying the values that constitute the subject from the moment he(sic) enters the world.” (2000:26)

For the purposes of this discussion, I will be focusing  specifically on the nature  of language and the linguistic dimension of ‘the world’ that was theorised by Fanon and subsequently described by Cherki. In  Black Skin, White Mask  Fanon opens with a chapter on The Negro and Language. Fanon understands the phenomenon of language to be of basic importance and in so doing accounts for this presupposition by telling the reader that “it is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other.”(1952:8)

The linguistic practices of a culture can effectively work to affirm your presence as a subject ,or, to deny it. For Fanon and his contemporaries the French linguistic paradigm acted as an incessant denial of their personhood.  Cherki argues that “the experience of finding oneself trapped in the Master’s dominant and exclusive language was one that was deeply shared by Algerians of Fanon’s generation.” (2000:26)

I would argue that the means with which language could work as a form of alienation were and continue to be fundamentally profound because of the inherent  nature of  language: which is inextricably tied to knowledge making,  meaning and the cultural and  conceptual ideas adopted by a society. If one is outside of that linguistic domain, they effectively are outside of the ideas, value systems and principles that underpin that societal framework.

This is why it was important for Fanon to find new strategies of knowledge and meaning-making within the context of that language.  Cherki writes that “Fanon wished to go beyond meaning, to write inside the sensory dimension of language in order to give rise to a new way of thinking that would depend on something more than conceptual jockeying.” (2000:27)

It would be my estimation that in order to do this, Fanon felt that one had to propel  that language into motion. One can see this in the way that Fanon’s books were written. They were characterised by Fanon, dictating to his wife Josie, whilst  pacing up and down the room. Cherki points to this in saying that ‘rhythmically, Fanon’s work is “underscored by a body in motion and the cadences of the breathing voices.” (2000:27)

This in my opinion is Fanon’s attempt at disrupting the colonial language by breathing his own person into its literary form. In the unconventional writing that characterises Black Skin, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth, Fanon is able to reclaim his subjectivity in the literary form of the French language.  Cherki argues that “Fanon’s ideas teach us how to defy the defeated norms and expose the discourse and the acts that are devised to turn subjects into objects.” (2000:222)
I would argue that the declamatory proclamations that coloured Fanon’s work  have also lodged themselves into the consciousness of West African Fictional writers in the form of a literary device called Translingualism. Translingualism is a form of literary resistance  to the hegemony of  Western languages. It is an attempt to reconcile literature with a kind of cultural authenticity.  Through the insertion of African philosophy, ideas and African folklore this literary device attempts to displace the hegemony of the English language by reinscribing into standardised formal English, the linguistic rules of African language. In an article entitled The Non-Ijo Reader and the Pragmatics of Translingualism, Patrick Scott argues that device uses “the potential flexibility of English to Africanise their style by manipulating  rhythm and register and lexicon; using a kind of pidgin for colloquial speech to represent in English the multilingualism of African society.”(1990:77)

Prolific Nigerian authors like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben Okri make use of this device in their respective fictional works. It would be my assertion that this kind of linguistic resistance is an attempt to subvert the imperial language so that the ‘perceived other’ can stake their claim into the value systems that shape meaning and knowledge making within  in a society.  I would argue that it is an attempt to negotiate and reconcile with one’s own sense of freedom through a linguistic framework that has locked them into a kind of ‘othered particularity.’  To some extent I would contend that in using this literary device, the black subject  not only calls for a recognition of their difference, but calls for that difference because “it hears the mark of history , including the history of domination.”(2000:32)

I think it is an attempt to transcend from that which is particular to that which is universal by reclaiming a plethora of voices and affirming them as legitimate and tangible subjectivities. I think that this strategy serves as a challenge to the kind of modernity which Cherki contends is profiting “from the diminishing of the subject”. (2000:221)

Furthermore, I think that both Fanon’s approach to written verse and the nature of translingualism challenge how “the other is repeatedly assigned to a less than human  status, until such time as the other can be entirely excluded from humanity.” (2000:221)

The act of ‘hearing history’ in this way presents itself in Cherki’s text through Fanon’s critique of prominent psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni’s 1950 text entitled Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonisation where he accounts for the colonial relationships within the colony of Madagascar. One of the main criticisms that Fanon levelled against Mannoni is that he had negated the presence of the Malagasy into an obscure otherness by not accounting for their respective histories.
That being said, we can see that for Fanon the act of historicizing a subject was fundamentally important because it was so inextricably tied to a more philosophical conversation of belonging. This conversation was effectively tied to ones claim to humanity and the way in which one asserted their place within humanity.

 In attempting to ‘historicise Fanon’s epoch’(2000:2) in this biography, I feel that Cherki is also trying to establish a sense of placement for Fanon as a political and psychological thinker of the human race. In fact in trying to do this, I think that Cherki is emulating what she believes Fanon would have done for himself. I think that she expresses this when she says that “Fanon was a helpless believer in humankind. He believed that human beings, provided that they were in possession of language and of their own history as subjects, could progress from difference to the universal. (2000:35)

Works Cited:

Aldrich. R. 2008. The French Empire: Colonialism and Aftermath. Sydney: Comparative Imperial Transformations 

Cherki. A. 2000. Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press

Fanon. F. 1986. Black Skin, White Mask. London: Pluto Press

Scott. P. Gabriel Okara’s ‘The Voice’: The Non –Ijo Reader and the Pragmatics of Translingualism. Volume 21. No 3. Pp75 -88. Indiana University Press