Thursday, 14 April 2016

A Response to: 'A Dying Colonialism'

Wairimu Muriithi

First published in French in 1959, Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism is an account of the changes made within Algerian society, by both colonialists and colonised people, as a result of the struggle for the liberation (or the continued subjugation) of the Algerian people. Each chapter draws a vague temporal division between pre-Revolution Algeria (pre-1954) and the first four years of the revolution, and then between these first years and 1959, which marked several significant turning points in the larger narrative of the Revolution. These changes occur over a wide range of issues, from changing gender roles to communication to public health, and even to the developments and fractures within the Algerian European communities.

            Of these radical changes that took place especially in the 1950s, I am most interested in the radio. In the dominant position held by the Holocaust narrative in the long, long history of atrocious and horrifying acts of violence committed against a people, the important and changing role of the media, the radio seemingly (but unsurprisingly) remains inside the story of the Jews in Nazi Germany according to many educational spaces. The fascinating trajectory of the radio — largely rejected and then overwhelmingly demanded over the course of a few years – is especially important for the psychopathological impact it had on the Algerian and European imagination.

            In the colony, Fanon posits, “all the news is good” (1965: 80). In the time of the ‘Arab telephone’, the absence of consistent communication from the frontlines of the Revolution combined with “a kind of amplified self-assurance” (1965: 78) led to fits of hysteria and aberration making false claims to a complete victory. Already, this added to the coloniser’s anxiety regarding the end of his tyrannical era, and “always translated his subjective states into acts, real and multiple murders” (1965: 79), especially in the rural centres of colonisation. With the radio, and specific radio stations, came knowledge and a belonging to the Revolution in a new way.

            The Voice of Fighting Algeria was especially important in the psychopathology of those suffering from hallucinations, after years of Radio Algier made the radio an “evil object, axiogenic and accursed” (1965: 89), especially because its broadcasts in French, as in any other French conversation directed at or about the Algerian were full of or associated with contempt and hatred. After 1956, however, the new radio station provided an alternate truth that resonated in the minds of all Algerians, revolutionising even the language of the coloniser in such a way that it was not always necessarily conflated with disgust and violence towards the Algerian body and psyche. In hallucinatory psychosis, especially, “sentences in French [lost] their automatic character of insult and malediction” (1965: 90). The radio in the Revolution was a site of aggressive language re-appropriation that contributed to the Algerian struggle.
   Equally interestingly was the phenomenon that occurred after the French discovered this new enemy and laboured to put up a barrier between the new stations and their listeners. There were gaps in the narrative every night due to jammed wave lengths, and it became the job of a single operator/interpreter per radio to convey the snippets that he caught to a waiting crowd. Where he could not answer pressing questions about the broadcasts, “a real task of reconstruction would then begin” (1965: 86). Against a background of mostly static, in this ‘new’ language, the people would reconstruct the war for themselves based on earlier truths and reconstructions. “As a general rule, it is the Voice of Algeria that wins out” (1956: 88); as such, the revolutionary militants were always on the winning side.

            Considering that listening to the Voice of Algeria fulfilled, at least partially, “an inner need to be one with the nation in its struggle” (1965: 86), and that there were huge chunks of news missing, it is important to think about how these daily rituals of speculative fiction-work kept the Algerian civilian alive. For the brutality and cruelty of colonialism are widely known, and frequently mentioned in this text, but for all the recognition of ‘unlivable conditions’, there is considerably less attention (and homage) paid to methods of survival in these spaces. To imagine a victory, regardless of its degree of accuracy, stimulates hope, “the spirit of resistance to the oppressor” (1965: 93). Indeed, Fanon recognises that the world-building that was made possible by a few hours of bad radio reception “played a fundamental role in the training and strengthening of the Algerian national consciousness” (1956: 88).

            There cannot be a space in which the imagination is so important as in a Revolution, or in the years that create it. Without claiming that this imagination did not have ample fodder through the Arab telephone and other media sources, the disembodied voices of the combatants from a mechanical box fed that imagination with a concrete and consistent truth — which should be differentiated from fact — and kept the people going through what was a really terrible time, liberating as it was. For the ‘truth’ of the oppressor, almost always factually incorrect but vital to the colonial project, “was now countered by another, an acted truth” (1965: 76). Just as importantly, thinking back to Toussaint L’ouverture’s unwillingness to communicate critical decisions with even his own troops (granted, he had no radios), we see how alienation of the masses (and perhaps, subsequently, the militants) would have brought the revolution to its knees. The radio made this an impossibility; it made it possible to “get as close as possible to the Revolution , to get ahead of the Revolution if possible, in short to be in on it” (1965: 80).

Works cited:

Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press, 1965.