Thursday, 19 June 2014

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

Ntombizikhona Valela

Ato Sekyi-Otu's Fanon's Dialectic of Experience is an attempt by the author to reread Frantz Fanon in a post-colonial/post-apartheid context. Sekyi-Otu invites us to piece together the puzzle of Fanon's thoughts in order to work out concepts for the kind of society Fanon envisioned. I think one of the most striking things about Fanon's work from Black Skin, White Masks to The Wretched of the Earth is the sense that he is writing the history of post-colonial Africa before it happens, especially in The Wretched of the Earth.

My first encounter of Fanon tempted me to render him a 20th Century prophet because of what I observe as a South African citizen. This idea was reinforced in my mind while reading the first chapter of Sekyi-Otu's book because of the word "hermeneutic" which kept popping up in this section. "Hermeneutic" is defined as the work concerning the interpretation of texts such legal or biblical texts. This word which I think we can consider being one of the motifs of the first chapter allowed me to enter the conversation of Fanon's Dialectic of Experience from a "classical" music perspective with my focus being on the musical composition of the Baroque era: the oratorio.

An oratorio is a composition for an orchestra, choir or soloist which is based on an interpretation of sacred or semi sacred texts. It is similar to an opera except there is no acting nor are there props. The drama is contained in the arrangement of the music within the various movements or sections of the composition. I am using the oratorio as a tool for understanding Sekyi-Otu's reasoning because of his reading of The Wretched of the Earth and parts of Black Skin, White Masks which he has read from a dramaturgical perspective. This took me straight to one of the most well-known oratorios, G.F. Handel's Messiah which is the interpretation of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For an oratorio to be successful the composer needed to have a thorough understanding of the text "before creating a parallel musical structure that enhanced the affection expressed in the text" (Neufeld, 2014: 20) what Joachim Burmeister calls musica poetica. This structure is inspired by orators like Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. The Messiah is an attractive example because of Handel's experience as a dramatists and composer for opera, therefore a dramatic element of the composition is undeniable in this work. It is from this point of departure that I felt comfortable to engage with Sekyi-Otu’s reading of Fanon. Since Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth are books he dictated to his typists there is in this case, and moving from the example I have made of the oratorio, the understanding of the context he is speaking about and this is married with a gift of being an orator. Reading Fanon was similar to me as sitting back and listening to an aria or a chorus of the Messiah: every word in The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks created a picture of the setting he was describing (which could well be in Grahamstown, even though he is speaking of his experiences in Martinique, France and Algeria) which invoked a response which, like the type of music I am describing is aimed at engendering a passionate listener, awakened in me a passionate reader.

As I continued to engage with Sekyi-Otu’s reading of Fanon, I looked at this idea of dialectic of experience. Dialectic pertains to the nature of logical disputation. In reading Fanon, Sekyi-Otu brings in (among others) Hegel and Marx’s theories around domination and slavery. At this point one can almost imagine these philosophers sitting at a table and discussing their views and critically examining the “truth” of these- which is the essence of dialectic. Sekyi-Otu points out that Fanon’s predecessors discuss ideas of domination from a perspective of having observed the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Fanon enters the conversation from the point of view of experience on top of observation. As a black man he knows intimately what it is like to be reduced to nothing more than a body without any capacity for reason. Unlike Marx, Hegel and Sartre who never have to fear being “othered”, Fanon argues from the view point of having suffered discrimination first-hand. This reading of Fanon against Hegel and Marx reminded me of a discussion on the state of development in the Eastern Cape. A one person who happened to be white confidently argued that the Transkei has improved and he sees this while driving past town in his way home from a vacation at the beach. This statement was extremely problematic to me because he is observing from a distance the towns that one drives past on the N2 from Coffee Bay or Port St Johns. As a person who has lived in the former Transkei and who has relatives in villages in this area where there is still no access to electricity or running water, where villagers make fire with cow dung because firewood is inaccessible, my experience counters his passing of a town once or twice a year. So when we read Fanon, Sekyi-Otu is encouraging us to read his work from beyond just a man theorizing, but a person who has “bought the t-shirt”, so to speak.

In bridging gap between dominating and dominated groups, time is an important factor for Marx. Eventually, the proletariat because of the fluidity of time will be able to destroy the oppressive capitalist system. Time allows an opportunity for the master’s heart concerning the slave to change, according to Hegel. But from Fanon’s viewpoint the colonial city does not allow for any form of interaction to exist between the colonizer and the colonized because of the way that it is designed. In the case of apartheid, pass laws also serve as a way of ensuring that the colonized are kept at arm’s length since there was no way for white people to completely avoiding black people because of a need for cheap labour. Space implies a sense of permanence because when we place people in various compartments with the aim of keeping them contained in these, the opportunity for a change of view is limited. The description of the colonial city is like moving from between distinct timbres and tone colours within a composition. At some points while reading Concerning Violence, I can almost hear the tone go from gentle to harsh just as he describes the settings of the compartmentalised colonial city. Fanon’s musical-dramaturgical style helps strengthen his line of argument. I think it’s what makes him all the more effective convincing in my reading of him at this point in history where we are reading him in his particular context of a colonised Africa while also reading him having inherited an unchanged post-independence society.

Fanon died in 1961 and The Wretched of the Earth was his last work, which to some of us can be viewed as a last will and testament for those who were to inherit the post-colonial Promised Land. While reading this book I have been thinking about what this means for us 53 years later as we remember and re-member the work of Fanon in a virtually unchanged Africa. I think as a result of this lack of change where whomever holds the power depends on patronage and kleptocracy, there have emerged opportunists who exploit genuine grievances of the poor and marginalised because of a lust to take the place of whoever happens to be in power at that particular time. The maintenance of power relies on scapegoat tactics in order to maintain divisions among people particularly along ethnic lines. I’m reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which is based on the Biafran War which was started when an ethnic group, the Igbo, wanted to create their own country because of these ethnic tensions leading to discrimination against this group of people. The Gukurahundi disturbances between 1982 and 1987 in Zimbabwe can also be viewed as a project by elites in maintaining their grip of power. What we see in South Africa is a distorted reading of Fanon used to incite and in some cases maintain division and I think Andile Mngxitama is a chief culprit of editing Fanon to fit an agenda of inverting power from those who are “elite” to those who happen to be “marginalised” which goes against the humanism that Fanon believed in. Sekyi-Otu dwelling on “The Concerning Violence” chapter is significant because this probably the most incorrectly read part of The Wretched of the Earth and has made Fanon out to be some trigger-happy maniac. He is not read as a psychiatrist-philosopher who is warning those in power to beware of being comfortable in the settler’s town resulting in them being out of touch with the needs of the masses. I think a contemporary example would be that of Mali who in late 2012 went from being ranked second as a stable democracy to being a failed state virtually overnight because of the violence that broke out in that town. This was because of elites that were out of touch with the grassroots and the state institutions being used for the benefit of those at the seat of power. Another flaw of the “mis-readers” of Fanon is to limit his thought where the inevitable happens rather than meet him at the point of his optimism.

In a world of colonialism and gross inequality, violence is inevitable. But Fanon does not end here. Borrowing the literary term, buldingsroman, He believes in the evolution of people toward a world where the humanism he envisioned can be achieved. Now that we are here at this point in history where we are yet to achieve this, our challenge is to meet Fanon where those before failed to meet him and from this point take his vision forward.


Neufeld, G., 2014, “The Preacher and the Actor: Bach, Handel and the Passionate Listener”, Athens Journal of Humanities and Art, vol.1( 2) pp 19-30
Sekyi-Otu, A., 1996, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, Harvard University Press: Cambridge