Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Response to Ato Sekyi-Otu’s 'Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience'

A Response to Ato Sekyi-Otu’s Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience:
Jonis Ghedi Alasow

Ato Sekyi-Otu’s 1996 book, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, offers and interesting recovery of Frantz Fanon’s work in the contemporary postcolonial situation. In this book, Sekyi-Otu deals with the general failure of the post-colonies. According to Sekyi-Otu they have quite clearly failed and as a result of this it is important to comprehend the reasons for this failure as well as the possible remedies for the unsatisfactory status quo. This rethinking of the post-colony and its future is, according to Sekyi-Otu, possible by recalling and rethinking the work of Frantz Fanon. In Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience the author provides a clear and nuanced reading of Fanon’s work. Sekyi-Otu clears up some of the confusions and misreadings of Fanon’s work in order to allow the reader to rethink the content and implications of Frantz Fanon’s work. In this response I will be discussing some of Sekyi-Otu’s ideas in an attempt to illustrate the continued relevance of Frantz Fanon. I do not claim to offer a comprehensive engagement with either Fanon or Sekyi-Otu, but rather wish to mention some interesting and relevant aspects of both of their work.

The first thing that I deem important to note is the fact that Sekyi-Otu is approaching the work of Fanon from an African perspective. He in fact points out that too much engagement with Fanon has been from within the framework of the African diaspora (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 3). Though he does not explicitly deny the value to this approach he does point out that there has been a tremendous lack in terms of engagement with Fanon’s literary canon from the perspective of post-independence Africa. He furthermore points out the fact that previous readings of Fanon’s work have assumed that he was providing a “doctrinal prescription” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 4). Thus Fanon’s work has been read as a manual for decolonisation which gives both his detractors and his defenders a step-by-step guide to colonialism, decolonisation and the post-colony. Sekyi-Otu accredits much of the confusion and misinterpretations of Fanon’s work to this assumption of Fanon as a doctrinal author. He suggests that Fanon should rather be read as a “dramatic dialectical narrative” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 5).

This means that Fanon’s texts do not provide a clear chronology which sets out a hypothesis at the beginning and then explicitly goes about proving or disproving this hypothesis. Fanon’s work must be considered as a piece of theatre. Fanon therefore provides the reader with “utterances of compelling force making claims on our allegiance” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 35). Fanon convincingly articulates views that are often controversial and sometimes even contradictory. These serve the purpose of challenging the reader/audience to give these issues some thought before the views of the author are made clear. Thus it is dangerous to assume that any statement made by Fanon is automatically his authorial voice. It is in light of this fact that Sekyi-Otu discards much work that has previously been done on the work of Fanon. Many previous scholars and critics of Fanon have narrowed in on particular statements or sections in Fanon’s work and used those in isolation from the rest of his work. For Sekyi-Otu it is important that Fanon’s work is studied in its entirety. One will most certainly misinterpret Fanon if one does not recognise the dramatic nature of his texts. One must therefore recognise the fact that Fanon writes dialectically.

Not only are Fanon’s texts to be read as dialectic texts, but his philosophical perspective also takes on a dialectic nature. Sekyi-Otu points out how Fanon’s dialectic of the colonial experience is rooted in the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic famously argued that the conflicting thesis and antithesis would with time and through the conflict result in an antithesis. Fanon in a way adopts this view. Observed superficially Fanon’s dealing with the conflict between colonial forces and anticolonial forces can be read as a version of the Hegelian dialectic. When observed more carefully though, Fanon differs from Hegel on two points. Firstly, the Hegelian synthesis implies a form of compromise. The opposition between the colonial and anticolonial forces will result in a synthesis which supposedly ‘incorporates the best of both worlds’. For Fanon this is out of the question. The post-colony cannot be a synthesis in the Hegelian sense. The post-colony needs to root out the colonial system completely if it seeks to be truly emancipated. In fact, Fanon would argue that much of the hardships that the post-colony still faces is rooted in a form of compromise where the post-independence state still contains elements of colonialism. South Africa for example did not truly root out apartheid, but rather it entered into a negotiated settlement, or negotiated settlement in the Hegelian sense. As a result the socioeconomic disparities that were the order of the day during the apartheid era have reproduced themselves in the post-apartheid period. Hence, Fanon’s synthesis cannot adopt a compromise, but needs to see a complete eradication of colonialism.

The second way in which Fanon’s work diverts from that of Hegel is with respect to the idea of truth. Implicit in the Hegelian dialectic is an assumption that there exists a universal and objective truth somewhere towards which all the thesis-antithesis-synthesis relations are aspiring. Thus Hegel does not recognise the role played by power and politics in determining the truth (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 29). Hegel therefore assumes that truth is outside of politics. Fanon on the other hand recognises the role of politics in shaping what is in fact the truth. Sekyi-Otu in fact makes it clear that Fanon would agree with Antonio Gramsci’s claim that “everything is political” (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 31). Fanon in fact makes it clear that different Histories exist for different people. Power shapes history and truth, history and truth shape experiences and the narration of these experiences. As a result people do not have inherently different ontologies, but rather different experiences and narrations of these experiences (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 39). Truth is therefore by no means apolitical. It is in fact that primary product of power relations. Fanon’s ideas on truth are therefore a break from the work of Hegel and in fact are far easier to consolidate with the ideas of Michel Foucault who also sees knowledge, power and truth as part of the same mechanism (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 29).

The fact that Fanon does not believe in an objective and universal truth tends to problematize his own text. If truth is the product of power, rather than an objective universal notion, then does this make Fanon’s own work mere propaganda rather than truth? Not at all. Fanon is not strictly Foucaultian either and does believe that a universal humanism is the truth and that it is also possible to achieve. Furthermore he challenges the reader to “work out new concepts” (Fanon, 1961: 255) and thus the onus is in fact on us to navigate towards this humanist truth.

It is for this reason that Fanon remains truly relevant today. Throughout Fanon’s work, the reader is witness to a nuanced and accurate understanding of the nuances of colonialism, decolonisation and the post-colony. These insights are not offered by Fanon as part of an argument that claims to eventually make a claim that is ‘the truth’. Rather his dramatic text illustrates the complexities of the status quo as well as the nuances of the history that brought this status quo about. Fanon then leaves the work to us. We are the ones who are ultimately tasked with “set[ting] afoot a new man [sic]” (Fanon, 1961: 255).

Works cited:

·        Sekyi-Otu, A. 1996, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, Harvard University Press: Massachusetts.
·        Fanon, F. 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books: London.