Monday, 23 June 2014

Response to 'Fanon's Dialectics of Experience' by Ato Sekyi-Otu

Mikaela Erskog

In what seems to be the most extensive academic examination, interpretation and advocation of Fanon's oeuvre, Fanon's Dialectics of Experience by Ato Sekyi-Otu really works out how very original Fanon's work was in his time and is today. Sekyi-Otu encounters Fanon within and beyond Fanon's work. He negotiates how Fanon has been one of the most complex interlocutors of the colonial context. He not only by presents a nuanced reading of Fanon's texts but also outlines the relationships between Fanon and the academic subjectivities that precede and succeed Fanon and how these all came to relate to and conceive of the colonial context.

Sekyi-Otu (1996) argued that Fanon found that the likes of Hegel and successive narratives had been unable to capture the “originality of the colonial context." On this understanding, Sekyi-Otu argued that Fanon was able to really comprehend the originality of the colonial context through his humanist critiques of past and (then) present thinkers; Sekyi-Otu explaining how Fanon points to the limitations of applying thinking such as Marxist analyses (having to “stretch” working class struggle), Hegel’s master/slave (as inadequate conceptions of the colonizer/colonized dynamic) and Sartre’s critique of Negritude (as undermining the fact of blackness in and beyond the colonial context). In light of Sekyi-Otu’s academic labor, one is made aware of how Fanon really performs the political work of the anti-colonial, humanist struggle by ‘keeping the enemy closer’, by really examining colonial life (or the lack thereof) towards finding a life worth living.


To me, politics is about performance, performance in its immediate sense being the quality of execution of an action, operation, or process (Emphasis added; OED, 2014). What is political is not merely the action (lets say violent insurgency) but the quality of said action in, what Sekyi-Otu might refer to as, its immediacy (the where, why and how that then articulates as violence). Now, it is not my concern to get into how politics is performance (which I hope to do at a later stage), but rather what performance implies: of experiencing within and of particular and/or general circumstances.

I take as given that foundational to a politics of emancipation is Fanon’s pronouncement that “a consciousness [must be] pledged to experience”  (PN, 128; BS, 134 - Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 54). However, Sekyi-Otu points out that what Fanon does (with seemingly unparalleled sophistication) is to examine the performance of said politics, looking at the quality of the execution of an actional emancipatory mode of being (i.e. living politics). So, if a consciousness pledged to experience enables one to pursue an authentic or self-styled or living political praxis, Fanon looks further at the conditions in which consciousness is able to really and meaningfully be pledged to experience. As mentioned above, part of achieving a politics of emancipation is understanding what influences the quality of execution of an action. Simply, in order to operate for one’s self, of oneself, the quality of the operating needs to be examined according to that which constitutes performance. In this case, I will look at how Fanon (according to Sekyi-Otu) sees space as part and parcel of one’s performance (which I take to be one’s living politics).

Politics of space

One of the ways in which Sekyi-Otu accounts for the sophistication of Fanon's understanding of the colonial context (and therefore the potential for a politics of emancipation) is the way in which he observes the colonized embodiment. Fanon is observes that for the colonized, at the heart of inhabiting space (in fact the lack of really inhabiting space) is the embodiment of "quintessential evil" within the colonial context.
Fanon sees that the colonized embodiment is not only being prescribed to perform within what becomes to be a particularised situation (of colonized Other) but also being Other as the situation of being simultaneously conceived of as experiencing a multiplicity of spaces (body, race and ancestry) (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 83). For:

"The multiplicity of the spaces assigned to the black body is at once belied by, and yet is a function of, the "totalitarian character" of colonial coercion and racial segregation. The peculiarity of the colonial condition of being-in-space is that whatever the relative material size of the space assigned to the subjugated, the colonized must remain absolutely fixed in this space, separated by an unbridgeable chasm from the "others," compelled to renounce the "self," the individuality which is normally validated in the body's spatial strategies. The colonized subject, Fanon writes elsewhere, is "besieged from within by the colonizer" (SR, 78; DC, 92 )." (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 83)

This then becomes a problematised embodiment in the very first and physical sense (of existing in a black body in a white supremacist system) and by way in which he articulated the extension of embodiment, of being black embodiment and simultaneously being within a space of black embodiment, delineated for black embodiment. By this I mean that Sekyi-Otu highlights the way in which the "quintessential evil" embodiment (the colonized) is not only conceptually oppressed but that the very environment in which he or she exists in denys human existence and continues to reiterate the imposed embodiment. As such, it is clear that the performing of politics is undeniably disallowed as the quality of one’s mode of being is not one that is genuinely being-within-space.

Sekyi-Otu (1996: 95) goes on to further explain the importance of issuing a spatial critique on to those attempting to announce an 'authentic' and 'original' response to the colonial context, namely the advocates of Negritude. As, for Fanon, even when the colonized asserts his/herself in the form of practicing (I say with caution) a particularly African tradition, the colonized is only able to express his/herself within that particular space. Fanon (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 95) wrote with regards to expression through dance and possession:

"The circle of the dance is a permissive circle: it protects and permits. At certain times on certain days, men and women come together at a given place, and there, under the solemn eye of the tribe... [the exhibition of] the huge effort of a community to exorcise itself, to liberate itself, to explain itself. There are no limits - inside the circle... (DT, 22; WE, 57).

Within the framework of Negritude is still a politics of exclusion that Fanon's critique of colonial space makes abundantly clear (if his theoretical critiques had not already). As such, Fanon's spatial critique of oppressive societal organisation evidences how "reactive practices of the colonized... are so many manifestations of misdirected aggressivity, so many botched acts of transcendence in the context of life lived in captive space." (Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 96).

According to Sekyi-Otu’s interpretation of Michael Weinstein idea of coercion, "At the centre of coercion is effective control of space" and coercion is "the imposition of restraint in the spatial dimension of human existence."(Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 78). Therefore, recognition of Fanon’s articulations, of the complexity of situations that proscribe and restrain behaviour by virtue of spatiality, are important to any society hoping to decolonise. As, if the very roles and relations within the making of space are not made visible and then reconfigured for the purpose of decolonising, then even if a society is conceptually liberated (societal consensus that "we are all human beings and equals"), Du Bois's Veil remains as concrete as the walls of Sandton suburbia. As aforementioned:

"... if we examine closely this system of compartments [the Manichean colonial social organisation], we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to make out the lines on which a decolonized society will be organized" (DT, 7; WE, 37-38)." (Emphasis added; Sekyi-Otu, 1996: 84)

Sekyi-Otu (1996: 88) sees in Fanon’s critiques the very centrality of recognizing the problem of the spatial in the colonial context, as he reads Fanon's conception of violence to then be directly linked to the restriction of space as he quotes Fanon: "...the impulse to take the colonizer's place implies a tonicity of muscles the whole time. In fact we know that in certain emotional conditions, the presence of an obstacle accentuates the tendency towards motion." As such, the 'mainstream' misreading of Fanon’s utterances about violence becomes more pronounced as Sekyi-Otu suggests that Fanon's 'advocations' of violence by the colonized against the colonizer are rather an articulation of the way in which the colonial spatial schema facilitate an immediate knowledge that articulates itself in violent reaction.

Sekyi-Otu's (1996: 89) exploration of Fanon's understanding of space in the colonial context provides further understanding of the nature of the work needed to be done in the decolonizing process. As "during the period of colonization, the colonized never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning. (DT, 18; WE, 52)."

Reading Black Skins, White Masks, Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism, one spots a large iceberg, identifiable and formidable above the tempestuous, dark sea’s waves. Reading Fanon's Dialectics of Experience is like being told that the iceberg is actually attached to an underwater glacier, that goes much deeper than one initial perceived.

Ato Sekyi-Otu makes visible the complex thinker that was[is?] Frantz Fanon.


Sekyi-Otu, A. Fanon's Dialectics of Experience, Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, London, Cambridge, 1996.