Monday, 19 May 2014

A reflection on Lewis Gordon’s 'Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences'

Deane Lindhorst

Lewis Gordon’s, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, is a well-argued and suggestive text that argues for what he deems redemptive qualities which human beings could embody in times that he has called misanthropic. In trying to articulate a “defence of a place for the human being” in these times, Lewis Gordon explores the possibilities of conceptualising an existential mode of being for humans beings; as opposed to the general trend of conceptualising human beings as having a fixed ontology. In articulating this mode of being, Gordon explores Frantz Fanon, his philosophies and life, as an individual committed to the ideal of defining oneself through action to the world. This essay, through expanding on Gordon’s argument, aims to explore the idea that Fanon’s existentialism and commitment to praxis could be said to be a form of humanism; as has been argued elsewhere.

Gordon begins his articulation of the defence of the human being through exploring Fanon’s encounters with the “European man” (Gordon, 1995: 6). The European man as noted by Gordon is note a delineation of a geographical area or population bur rather refers to “the unity of a spiritual life, activity, creation, with all its ends, interests, cares, and endeavours, with its product of purposeful activity, institutions, organizations” (Gordon, 1995: 6). It is within this conception of the European man that the capacity for reason, and to achieve reason, is seen as being human; note that human for the purposes of this essay is not gender differentiated (Gordon, 1995: 8).  This telos and pursuit of reason shaped the endeavours of European man, informed the practices, institutions and organizations of many nations (Gordon, 1995: 6). Within this understanding it would seem that all human beings are capable of achieving reason and thus being a part of humanity.

Fanon’s encounters with this European understanding of man however brought into question this very relationship with being reasonable and being human. Gordon notes how Fanon’s encounters with this idea of reason were marred through his “fact of blackness” (1995: 8). Fanon, while having achieved reason, realised that this did not grant him claim to humanity; rather his blackness positioned him outside of this system which upon further investigation differentiated along the lines of ontology (Gordon, 1995: 8). In this differentiated understanding of what it meant to be human Fanon realised that within the current objective system his humanity would not, nor could it, ever be recognised; this is shown in his famous proclamation that “victory played cat and mouse; it 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” (Fanon, 1952: 90).

In being shaped by these encounters, and through his reading of existential thought and other literature, Fanon came to the realisation that an anthropological attempt of understanding humans and their experiences would have to avoid the pitfalls of ontology; pitfalls that had become apparent through his encounters with this “European man” (Gordon, 1995: 11). In avoiding these pitfalls Fanon would have to develop an understanding of humans being in the world while bracketing ontology; his answer to this problem was to posit human beings as existing existentially; in other words humans were said to be radically free to interact and shape the world, in other words free to make their being (Gordon, 1995: 25). 

This does not however mean that Fanon did not acknowledge the influence and power of societal structures and organisations; in fact Fanon understood the pervasive and insidious effect these institutions could have on the psyche of individuals (Gordon, 1995: 25). Instead Fanon would assert that through consciousness and being actional towards the world humans could shape themselves in a meaningful way; rather than by striving towards the ossified values of the European man; values that would never allow anyone to exist meaningfully and which constituted what Gordon and others have called the crisis of European man (Gordon, 1995: 22).  Rather than allowing the European man to dictate the tenants of reality Fanon asserted that human beings should engage with their world and shape their being through action (Gordon, 1995: 103). 

A fundamental part of this action towards the world, or embodied agency, for Fanon was the dismantling of a racist system that had become inculcated and normalised as the proper world view (Gordon, 1995: 38).  Fanon believed in human beings opposing this world order in order to create a world in which “All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together” (Gordon, 1995: 42).  The words to “to help build it together” are significant as emphasise Fanons commitment to working towards building a universal understanding of man; brought about through action rather than appeals to a grand narrative or to conceptions of what it means to be human that privilege particular individuals, such as European man (Sardar, 1952: xvi).

It is at this point that links can be drawn to Fanon’s unwavering commitment to be actional and to his praxis as being a form of humanism. Not in the sense of being human as being constituted through a substance or through appeals to objective values but as being human through having the capacity, and in turn, consciously changing the world through action. These actions, informed through consciousness, were for Fanon present in the world but still needed to made apparent through the effort to deconstruct the systems of colonialism; a system based on the privileging of some peoples claim to humanity whilst denying other that same claim (Sardar, 1952: xvii). Fanon believed that this conscious and actional commitment to praxis was attainable by anybody as can be seen in his closing statement in Black Skin White Masks, where he said “I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 1952: 181).

After having briefing explored Gordon’s understanding of the Crisis of European Man and then introducing his notion of an existential way of being in the world, through using the poignant example of Frantz Fanon, a conclusion can be stated. A conclusion, that whilst needing to be investigated and teased out by myself, states that Gordon’s and Fanon’s understanding of existing in the world can be conceptualised as being a form of humanism; in so far through existential modes of being what it means to be human does not depend on a substance that constitutes being but rather being is attained through being actional towards the world. In this understanding of being, conscious and committed action towards shaping the world are necessary in order to mould one’s own being. In closing, the following quote by Emmanuel Hansen, found in Gordon (1995: 8), is a moving portrayal of Fanons commitment to this idea of existing in a meaningful way through action;

“Fanon was not exclusively a man of study: he was also a man of action. He tried to live his ideas and act in such a way as to bring the ideas in which he believed into being. In this way, his life and personality were inextricably linked with his ideas.”

Reference List

Gordon, L., Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 1995, Routledge: London and New York.

Fanon, F., Black Skin White Masks, 2006 [1952], Pluto Press: London.

Sardar, Z., Foreword, in “Black Skin White Masks”, 2006 [1952], Pluto Press: London.