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The Highway of DespairCritical Theory After Hegel$

Robyn Marasco

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231168663

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231168663.001.0001

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Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

Critique, with Knives

(p.140) 5 Frantz Fanon
The Highway of Despair

Robyn Marasco

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter compares Hegel's notion of modern warfare with that of Frantz Fanon. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel considered how modern warfare differs from ancient forms and how the modern weapon of choice—the gun—both reflects and reinforces these differences. Warfare for the moderns, he writes, means the depersonalization of conflict and the mechanization of killing, and the gun marks the shift from personal expression of bravery to a universal expression of courage. In contrast, Fanon likened the modern weapon to a knife, pointing to the immediate brutality and bloodletting of the colonial system, as well as something reflecting and reinforcing the specific order of violence viewed elemental to colonial power. The knife also suggests the forms of critique—or, for the Greeks, the art of cutting—that scratch away at a system where violence is at once direct and atmospheric.

Keywords:   Frantz Fanon, Philosophy of Right, modern warfare, colonial system, violence, knife


When the colonized hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife—or at least he makes sure it is within reach.

Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel considers how modern warfare differs from ancient forms and how the modern weapon of choice—the gun—both reflects and reinforces these differences. Warfare for the moderns means the depersonalization of conflict and the mechanization of killing. The gun marks this shift from a personal expression of bravery to a universal expression of courage. Hegel is certain that its invention can be “no accident.”1 Frantz Fanon is more interested in knives—the knife held to the throat of the silent Arab prisoner, the knife used by two boys to kill one of their European classmates, the knife used by a member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) to murder his wife, the belief held by colonial magistrates that the knife is the Algerian’s favorite weapon. There is nothing accidental about this, either: “Any colony tends to become one vast farmyard, one vast concentration camp where the only law is that of the knife.”2 If the gun for Hegel is mechanical and abstract, the knife is physical and concrete. It points to the immediate brutality and bloodletting (p.141) of the colonial system. It reflects and reinforces the specific order of violence that Fanon sees as elemental to colonial power. And it also suggests the forms of critique—or, for the Greeks, the art of cutting—that scratch away at a system where violence is at once direct and atmospheric. For Nietzsche’s philosophy with a hammer, there is Fanon’s alliance with an Algerian reaching for his knife.

This alliance is complex, raising all of the most difficult questions in Fanon’s work, on violence, identity, and the demands of critique. On the question of violence, Fanon has been judged too harshly and read too carelessly.3 The Wretched of the Earth proffers a powerful and notorious argument for the role of violence in transforming the colonial subject and destroying the colonial system. But Fanon’s approach to the question of violence cannot be considered in abstraction from the colonial system that lives on it—and this includes the practice of colonial medicine, in which he played a part. Fanon also treats violence as colonial symptom. What Wretched offers is neither a defense of violence (as if violence ceases once we cease in defending it) nor a denunciation (as if denouncing violence will not ensure that some remain its permanent victims), but an analytic of violence. Fanon’s analytic of violence does not oppose as much as it includes the doctrine of nonviolence—or, better, it explains the strategic emergence in political time of a class-specific call to nonviolence. It is also a critique of the world produced by colonialism, a “Manichean” world, a world cut in two and divided by domination. Violence in this world becomes critical.

On the question of identity, Fanon has also been judged too harshly, even when read much more carefully. What some scholars describe as Fanon’s disavowal of Creole Martinique and divestment from home and identity, I see as experimentation with political subjectivity rooted in the places and people that we see everyday. This investment in everyday life is also how I interpret Fanon’s attachment to revolutionary Algeria, an attachment forged in ambiguity and difference, maintained through affinity and experience. Françoise Vergès reads it differently. For Vergès, the identification with Algeria is primarily a disavowal of Creole identity, of identity forged in ambiguity and difference. Here is Vergès: “The Creole filiation, a site of anxiety and ambivalence, was displaced and a revolutionary filiation (p.142) took its place: the heroic fighters of the national struggle become his fathers and brothers. But upon his disavowal he created a theory of masculinity and of a black-white relation suffused with attraction, repulsion, denial, and anxiety.”4 This is a powerful claim, though matters are complicated by Fanon’s attention to the active role of Algerian women in advancing the revolution. As Vergès presents it, the Fanonian drama is one that transpires between men, with women’s bodies as “hostages” to the conflicts that unfold between men.5 If Black Skin, White Masks turns on the disavowal of a Creole descent and the wounds of an emasculated masculinity, then Vergès suggests a reading of Wretched in terms of a fantasy filiation: “Algeria gave Fanon his dreamed filiation. It embodied the future of emancipated mankind and could claim, Fanon imagined, a precolonial past untainted by the whites. Algeria was the authentic scene of recovered virility.”6 I don’t think Fanon is ever much interested in recovering an authentic and uncorrupted past, and several passages from both of his major works demonstrate how these recovery missions sap energy from the more pressing political demands of the present. And this scene of authentic virility gets far more interesting once it is admitted that Fanon saw women there too. I will consider Fanon’s portrait of Algeria’s revolutionary female in the final section of this chapter, but for now suffice it to say that Vergès underestimates the “muscularity” of Algerian women in her critique of Fanon’s phallogocentrism. Where Vergès sees disavowal in Fanon’s departure from Martinique, I see avowal of the forms of life opened up in exile—and, in this, he shares more with Adorno than with any of the French thinkers with whom he is often identified.7

Though her perspective is feminist and psychoanalytic, Vergès follows in the spirit of Albert Memmi’s critical account of what he describes as the “impossible life” of Fanon. Memmi glosses this impossibility as follows: “Fanon’s life has been accepted as a matter of course. Yet it is scarcely believable. A man who has never set foot in a country decides within a rather brief span of time that this people will be his people, this country his country until death, even though he knows neither its language nor its civilization and has no particular ties to it. He eventually dies for this cause and is buried in Algerian soil.”8 Memmi also casts this life as one of denial and (p.143) failure, fueled by an admixture of revolutionary romanticism and apocalyptic fantasy. For Memmi, the impulse to identify so completely with an Algeria that is not his own is a symptom of Fanon’s “total despair”—which is also indicated by the passionate and lyrical quality of his rhetoric.9 In the pages that follow, I aim at a revaluation of what Memmi sees as “the extraordinary passion and the latent despair that permeate Fanon’s work”—but which I see as precisely the qualities that make this work so compelling still.10 Passion is the most basic element of Fanonian critique, and what draws him to various traditions, schools of thought, lyrical forms, and political projects. Phenomenology, psychiatry, Négritude poetry, and revolutionary politics, as well as Fanon’s experiments in writing, indicate his persistent efforts to give form to the passions. Consider, for example, how the formal features of Black Skin, White Masks—a text Fanon describes as a “prayer” though its author is “wary of being zealous”—are linked to its content. The quick shifts from poetic and highly stylized prose to dry and more detailed engagement in specialists’ debates, from personal anecdotes and case studies to literary and philosophical sources, the proliferation of archetypes and examples, and the fragmented and unfinished quality of the analysis are distinctive to this early text. These features of the book tell us something about the problem it addresses, about the diremption and disrepair that result from racial domination, about the difficulties of finding a consistent way of speaking to effects of race on psyche and society. Wretched represents yet another form of critique, more analytical and systematic, but also more profoundly partisan. Fanon’s diverse rhetorical strategies revolve around a different set of objects—the process of decolonization, the fate of the nation, the distinctive set of challenges faced by peoples determined to chart their own futures. I am also interested in Fanon’s use of the epistolary form: his letter of resignation as medical director of Blida-Joinville Hospital, the largest mental institution in colonial Algeria; the “Letter to a Frenchman,” concerning his occupation in—and departure from—Algeria; the “Letter to the Youth of Africa,” on their responsibilities in the anticolonial struggle; and the epistolary techniques that Fanon employs throughout his texts. The forms of Fanonian critique are part of its substance.

(p.144) I speak of the elements of Fanonian critique rather than what Henry Louis Gates has described as “Critical Fanonism”—though I am in full agreement with Gates’s insistence that “we no longer allow Fanon to remain a kind of icon or ‘screen memory,’ rehearsing dimly remembered dreams of postcolonial emancipation,” that understanding Fanon means actually reading him.11 To read him is to take seriously that writing is his most meaningful work, that which joins the work in the clinic to the work in the FLN. Writing is his “absolute praxis.”12 Reading Fanon is also to discover the forms that critical theory takes when moved by despair. Unlike Memmi, I do not believe that despair renders Fanon’s thinking delusional or deranged. (Memmi himself can’t decide whether to portray Fanon as the opportunistic colonial elite or the willfully repressed revolutionary romantic.) I believe that tonalities of despair in Fanon issue from a residue in his thought left by Hegel. Reconstructing the elements of Fanonian critique involves tending to what he accepts and what he rejects in Hegel’s dialectic and the radical philosophical projects that Hegel inspired. It also requires following Fanon into the clinic, where the sickness of the colonial system is concentrated and where critique finds its diagnostic voice.

Seeming to contradict Memmi’s account, Neil Lazarus has described Fanon’s political ethic as “revolutionary optimism” and has challenged this optimism in light of the subsequent “setbacks and defeats” of the postcolonial period.13 But Lazarus shares with Memmi, and with so many readers of Fanon, a representation of his thinking as politically and philosophically naïve. Fanon appears so singularly driven by a revolutionary doctrine that he is blind to contradictory cultural formations and to the pathos in his commitment. His authorship is treated as if it is a primitive cry for revolution, transparent, and without a need to be interpreted or deciphered. Lazarus, like Memmi, represents Fanon as exemplary of the pitfalls of messianic consciousness:

Fanon speaks adamantly of the “awakening” of “the people,” of their “intelligence and the onward progress of their consciousness.” One is led increasingly to the conclusion that what is at issue here is either an intellectualistic romanticization of “the people” as spontaneously revolutionary or, more likely, a messianic misreading of their political (p.145) bearing during the anticolonial struggle. … In spite of the proselytizing work of the revolutionaries like Fanon, the peasants were not aiming their actions at the “Algeria of tomorrow,” but seeking, rather, to restore that of yesterday.14

It would be absurd to contradict Lazarus’s point that anticolonial conflict did not herald a postcolonial period of freedom and equality. Fanon would not be the first to overestimate the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, or even overstate its revolutionary aspirations. If Fanon believed the people to be spontaneously revolutionary, surely he would not have devoted so many pages of Wretched to the meaning of popular political education—a pedagogy of the oppressed, to invoke Paulo Freire. The impulse that holds Fanon responsible for the violence and corruption of authoritarian regimes in postcolonial Africa, which Lazarus sometimes seems to do, is both mysterious and highly questionable.15 And the very idea of “setback” reinforces an imaginary telos that postcoloniality has thrown into disrepair. More importantly, though, the pages that follow advance the position that Fanon’s political thinking proves more sophisticated than what is suggested by the idea of optimism. Fanon is far more mindful of political strategy than any messianism would suggest. And reading Fanon requires remaining sensitive to his rhetoric—and the diversity of voices in his authorship, of which the “proselytizing” voice is just one among several, hardly the loudest.16 Besides, Fanon “had long given up shouting” by the time he left Martinique.17

“Despair” is a good term to use in connection with Fanon, but Memmi uses it disparagingly and not in a dialectical sense. Ato Sekyi-Otu refers to Fanon’s “anguished eloquence”—of which I aim to give a theoretical and political interpretation.18 What is extraordinary about Fanon is not his revolutionary optimism or his impossible attachment to an imaginary Algeria, but how he permits ruthless critique to finally abandon its attachment to hope and find its dynamism elsewhere. Fanon’s dialectic is not “hope without hope” or a last affirmation, but steady and spontaneous receptivity to experience. A world consumed with sickness and loathing is also one that furnishes refracted images of freedom, justice, and democracy. The following pages take up Drucilla Cornell’s recent challenge to decolonize (p.146) critical theory, to expand the aims of thinking and sharpen critical vision, providing the context for a truly transformative politics.19 It may well appear that I recolonize critical theory when I purport to do otherwise, that I recenter dead Europeans—Hegel, especially—in a story about Fanon. I am alert to this problem. But my intention is to show how Fanonian critique can enrich contemporary political thinking. What we learn from Fanon is that critique gathers its real political force from the passions, that critical theory today demands a militant politics, and that militancy draws its strength from despair.


As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions.

Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Fanon’s explicit engagement with Hegel comes in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. In it, Fanon challenges Hegel’s master-slave dialectic from the perspective of the real hell of the Middle Passage and the racial order born of it. On Fanon’s retelling, Hegel’s parable obscures more than it reveals about bondage. It does not account for the epidermalization of inferiority, the process by which racial hierarchy is scratched into the surface of the skin. Hegel cannot comprehend the actual effects of subjection on the body and spirit of the enslaved. For Fanon, racial formation in this context is no simple failure of recognition. It involves a more fundamental assault on subjectivity. Fanon is interested, too, in “the form[s] of recognition that Hegel never described”—the desire not to be seen, the desire to be seen as other than what you are, the desire to be the other, the desire to be everything. But even as Fanon takes aim at Hegel, the pages of Black Skin turn on Hegelian themes: desire, consciousness, work, slavery, freedom. Curiously, there is no mention of Hegel in Wretched, neither the Phenomenology nor the mature philosophy of history and the state. Sekyi-Otu has suggested that the unnamed dialectician is everywhere in Wretched, that the first chapter on violence “paraphrases Hegel’s Phenomenology and parodies his Logic,” and that the whole of the book advances a “dialectic of experience.”20 Nigel Gibson has also (p.147) emphasized the importance of Hegel for Fanonian critique.21 If Sekyi-Otu’s Fanon vacillates between Hegel and Aristotle, tethered to the dialectic but suspicious of mediation, Gibson’s Fanon is the supreme dialectician. He depicts Fanon’s break with Négritude as a refusal of unhappy consciousness. And he glosses Fanon’s critique of Sartre as schooled in a true Hegelianism. Black consciousness, for Gibson, is the work of determinate negation.

I, too, read Fanon as a “deviant Hegelian” for whom the experience of freedom is bound to the fate of the dialectic.22 Fanon is part of a venerable tradition in twentieth-century critical theory that recasts this dialectic as negative—broken, fractured, damaged, or in some way thrown into irreconciliation. But this, in itself, does not set Fanon apart from so many thinkers of his age and milieu. Fanon is also in the distinguished company of Black theorists drawing from Hegel to map the antinomies of consciousness and the task of liberation.23 What is unique to Fanon, I would argue, is his joining of the work of liberation to a negative dialectic. Freedom is fastened to a rupture, to things coming undone and breaking apart.

What I find in Fanon is something radically different from what Homi Bhabha discards as his lingering debt to Hegel: a “desperate, doomed search for a dialectic of deliverance.”24 Wherever Bhabha detects the remains of Hegel, he sees this dialectic of deliverance and Fanon’s longing to escape indeterminacy, contingency, and the ambiguities of identity. For Bhabha, it is Fanon’s Hegelianism that gives “hope to history” as the march of freedom, a humanist conceit that also blinds him to the “distinctive force of his vision.”25 Bhabha recommends that contemporary cultural criticism find its resources from a different side of Fanon, where the “Hegelian dream for a human reality in-itself-for-itself is ironized, even mocked, by his view of the Manichean structure of colonial consciousness and its non-dialectical division.”26 I admire Bhabha’s interpretive feat: Hegelianism appears as the reverse image of Manicheanism and postcolonial irony discards both in the same gesture. In the passage from Wretched that Bhabha reads as a mockery of the dialectic, Fanon claims: “The ‘native’ sector is not complementary to the European sector. The two confront each other, but not in the service of a higher unity. Governed by a purely Aristotlean logic, they follow the dictates of mutual (p.148) exclusion: There is no conciliation possible, one of them is superfluous.”27 Undeniably there is a critique of (Hegelian) conciliation in this passage, and the operations of “mutual exclusion” replace those of reciprocal recognition. Fanon demonstrates how a Hegelian logic applied to “this compartmentalized world, this world divided in two,” becomes Aristotelian: this world becomes “inhabited by different species.”28 Only one of these species can survive a life-and-death struggle. But much of Hegel’s basic architecture remains in tact. Fanon only refuses the idea that a higher unity might be born out of this divided world, that there is something about these compartments that complement or complete each other, that there is something that makes sense about colonialism. The colonial relationship serves no higher unity: it is a military occupation to serve the economic and political interests of the occupying force. And Fanon will resist all forms of rationalization for colonial oppression.

As I see things, though, it is also Fanon’s Hegelianism that rules out hope in history. Or, more precisely, his negative dialectic is what keeps things moving, without regard for our hopes. It leads him to favor work and passion over hollow hopes, permanent risk and unending struggle over the satisfactions of salvation: “During the colonial period the people were called upon to fight against oppression. Following national liberation they are urged to fight against poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment. The struggle, they say, goes on. The people realize that life is an unending struggle.”29 Fanon’s negative dialectic restores the fullness and complexity of passion to human history. Love, rage, envy, pride, grief, shame, and hatred are all at play in this messy dialectic. His controversial call for a “new humanism” might be considered in this context as a political and philosophical alternative to a conciliatory Hegelianism. This humanism is not “philosophy as the wisdom of love” but critical theory as the force of our many passions.30 There is a tragic dimension to Fanon’s reading of Hegel that also rules out the ironic ambivalence of postcolonial discourse, as if the wounds of hybridity do not leave scars. But there is no dialectic of deliverance in Fanon. Indeed, the primacy of politics is demonstration that his dreams remain resolutely of this world.

Hegel is all over Black Skin, but direct commentary comes in the context of Fanon’s reflections on sexual desire and lived experience, (p.149) in the critique of Sartre, and in a brief section of the book just before its conclusion titled “The Black Man and Hegel.” At a critical point, Fanon explains why Hegel matters for his analysis: “Since the black man is a former slave,” there is good reason to consult the master-slave dialectic and Europe’s premier philosopher of freedom.31 Fanon turns to Hegel to test the limits of a dialectic of freedom and demonstrate how European philosophy remains oblivious to the abjection that European power produces. He also wants to show how a structure of white supremacy becomes impervious to challenges and resistances that inevitably form in reaction to it. On this point, note my minor disagreement with those who criticize Fanon for “a wilfull misreading of the history of resistance and insurrection under plantain slavery.”32 I agree that Fanon underestimates the force and intensity of opposition to the slave system. But this is, in part, because he is interested to show how Black resistance gets neutralized and erased by a system that “grudgingly decided to raise the animal-machine man to the supreme rank of man.”33 Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, from the perspective of the Black man who is always seen to be acted upon, is the parable of what was never permitted to be. Sartre’s dialectic does worse: he condemns Black experience to a “weak stage of a dialogical progression,” passed over and left for dead as swiftly as it came to life. “For once this friend, this born Hegelian,” Fanon remarks, “had forgotten that consciousness needs to get lost in the night of the absolute, the only condition for attaining self-consciousness.”34 The point is that the Sartrean subject never gives itself over to the object or the other; it never gets “lost” in the negative. Sartrean consciousness, pace Hegel, remains in full possession of itself. And therefore, it can have no knowledge of itself—or the other. As Adorno says of Kierkegaard, Fanon will say of Sartre: history, society, and corporeality recede from view and what remains is a timeless and abstract ontology. This “born Hegelian” neglected the concrete wisdom in Hegel’s Phenomenology: consciousness “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”35

Fanon’s analytic of violence is unthinkable absent this patently Hegelian formula. But before turning to the question of violence, I want to pause on two ideas that emerge out of Fanon’s direct encounter with Hegel: aporia and work. “There is at the basis of the Hegelian (p.150) dialectic an absolute reciprocity that must be highlighted”—this, for Fanon, is what will separate Hegel from the lived experience of the Black Man.36 The postulate of “absolute reciprocity” means that Hegel avoids all the real challenges introduced by a master-slave relationship. Recall that Hegel launches the master-slave dialectic with an initial encounter between two: “Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same.”37 Recognition is reciprocity: the other is the same as me; the other is my equal and my rival. Absolute reciprocity means no actual aporia; a “way out” of impasse or conflict is built into the system. The Hegelian dialectic might be said, in this way, to rig its results. This dialectic cannot account for the forms of subjection that do not find their beginnings in the solace of sameness. It says nothing about failed recognition or misrecognition, or those relationships of exploitation and bondage that are not principally about recognition in the first place. It is silent on the distortions and deformations that interrupt the development of independence and self-certainty. This silence is deadly, for slavery is reproduced through these very distortions and deformations. Slavery is only possible under conditions of nonreciprocity; every other narrative is a fairy tale. As Fanon represents it, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic has no slaves; everyone acts as a master, believes himself to be master, and regards the other as having a proper claim on mastery. Hegel’s sanguine picture of bondage means that its pathos falls out of view. If Hegel’s dialectic has no slaves, the greater absurdity is that a centuries-old system of racial domination built and maintained on the backs of slaves would “one day” decree that there would be no more masters. “It is not the sort of announcement you hear twice in a lifetime”—here Fanon’s mockery, not of Black passivity but of White cynicism, is critical.38 Once again, German Idealism works in tandem with European ideology. From both sides, the real effects of a slave system, maintained by the epidermalization of inferiority and the spiritualization of material violence, become imaginary figments: “You can imagine the temperature in such a jungle. No way out.”39

Fanon proposes that this aporia is both enervating and energizing, in the way we tend to feel both fatigued and fired up in the heat. “For the black Frenchman,” on the one hand, “the situation is unbearable. (p.151) Unsure whether the white man considers him as consciousness-in-itself-for-itself, he is constantly preoccupied with detecting resistance, opposition, and contestation.”40 Of course, he detects resistance, opposition, and contestation everywhere, but accompanied by the peculiar feeling that the fight has been postponed or called off, that he is “too late” or has arrived in the wrong place.41 “As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other,” Fanon notes, “it is this other who remains the focus of his actions.”42 The tragedy is not that man was once a child, but that one man should be in the position of having to prove himself to another, while still being denied the dignity of a fight. But on the other hand, in its constant preoccupations, Black consciousness also experiences the “alterity of rupture, of struggle and combat.”43 An aporetic and unbearable situation, a jungle from which there is no way out, becomes the cracked and uneven terrain of struggle. Against Sartre’s exit options, Fanon makes a plea for aporia: “I needed to lose myself totally in négritude. Perhaps one day, deep in this wretched romanticism. … In any case I needed not to know. This struggle, this descent once more, should be seen as a completed aspect.”44 Of course, the primacy of struggle—risk and conflict, staking one’s life, the tremble unto death—confirms Fanon’s deepest Hegelianism. Work is the other key ingredient. But Fanon’s dialectic of rupture resists deliverance at every turn. We live and struggle in this broken world we have made for ourselves: “And the war goes on.”45

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is propelled forward by the desire for recognition: “Self-Consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.”46 Work is derivative of this more fundamental need for recognition. For Fanon, what masters want from slaves is “not recognition but work”—and what may look with Hegelian specs like a two-way street is exploitation in one direction.47 “Likewise, the slave here can in no way be equated with the slave who loses himself in the object and finds the source of his liberation in his work,” and this is for two reasons.48 The first, as Fanon will clarify in Wretched, is “that slavery is the opposite of work, and that work presupposes freedom, responsibility, and consciousness.”49 In short, work presupposes everything that slavery negates. No liberation can be found in slave labor. Second, a master-slave relationship means (p.152) a diminishing world of objects and others. All focus tends toward the figure of force. “For Hegel, the slave turns away from the master and toward the object,” Fanon notes. “Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object.”50 Donna Jones puts matters this way: “The Hegelian Dialectic simply does not seem to fit the experience of African slaves in the New World: it is nonsensical that chained and whipped slaves could see in work a vehicle for self-realization, much less in their whips and chains the necessary conditions for the compulsion of the labor by which their humanity is to be achieved.”51 Nonsensical, indeed, but this does not mean that Fanon will dispense altogether with the concept of work. If bondage means the abandonment of the object, among the most important rhetorical aims in Wretched is the recovery of a world of objects and others—and, with it, the reappraisal of work. The concept of work becomes crucial in defining political militancy, distinguishing between the colonizer and the colonized, and destroying the colonial apparatus. Though I am sympathetic to his treatment of Fanonian ambiguity, I think Ross Posnock misinterprets this aspect of Fanon’s thinking. Posnock claims that “Fanon’s commitment to a dialectic of the universal and the particular is in tension with what would short-circuit it—his Nietzschean leap of invention.”52 But Fanon’s declaration—“the militant therefore is one who works”—resonates with a restless negativity as much as any joyful science.53 What will separate a Nietzschean leap of invention from the Hegelian work of negation? In the case of Fanon, the idea of freedom seems not to depend on a leap that short-circuits the dialectic (this is his critique of Sartre) but on steady and patient labor: “The questions which the organization asks the militant bear the mark of this vision of things: ‘Where have you worked? With whom? What have you accomplished?’”54 The real concern when reading Fanon is not with a spontaneous leap into creation, but with the routine expectations of work and commitment. For Fanon, we are defined by our work, not as discrete individuals called to a particular vocation, but as classes and social groups. The colonizer is defined by his work—“to make even dreams of liberty impossible for the colonized”—just as it is the job of the colonized “to imagine every possible method for annihilating the colonist.”55 This also explains why “violence is (p.153) invested with positive, formative features” for oppressed, enslaved, and occupied peoples: “it constitutes their only work.”56

Lest the empire of toil and drudgery fall over the resistance too, Wretched offers an astute defense of strategic slack. It wreaks havoc on a system that demands work. It prepares the people for a General Strike. Even when unmotivated and unthinking, there is an active principle in colonial apathy. We might speak, under certain conditions, not just of a right but also of a duty to be lazy. On the legendary “laziness” of the native, Fanon remarks:

The colonized’s indolence is the conscious sabotage of the colonial machine; on the biological plane it is a remarkable system of auto-protection; and in any case it is a sure brake upon the seizure of the whole country by the occupying power. … The duty of the colonized subject, who has not yet arrived at a political consciousness or a decision to reject the oppressor, is to have the slightest effort literally dragged out of him.57

This image of the idler, unwilling to hand over even minimal energy, is the perfect complement to the muscular exertion of the militant. What masters want from slaves, what the colonizer wants from the colonized, is not recognition but labor. There is an immense power in work, immanent to a structure in which some work on behalf of others, which can be harnessed to reproduce or destroy that structure. The refusal of work can be a physical defense against a definite harm. It can also bring an entire social structure to a standstill.58 The refusal of work may be the sign of a revolt that has not yet come to pass. Or, like Fanon’s resignation from his post at Bilda, it may be to join an insurrection already underway.


It is necessary to analyze, patiently and lucidly, each one of the reactions of the colonized, and every time we do not understand, we must tell ourselves that we are at the heart of the drama—that of the impossibility of finding a meeting ground in any colonial situation.

—Fanon, “Medicine and Colonialism”

(p.154) How we read Fanon’s work depends on what we are reading for. “Few historians of colonial medicine have engaged deeply with Fanon,” the historian of colonial medicine Richard Keller laments, “leaving him to the clutches of postcolonial literary critics.”59 But critics would be well served to accompany historians into the clinic, for here the diagnostic ambitions in Fanonian critique have full command. Keller is interested in how “a colonial politics of race and exploitation constantly crept into the clinic,” and Fanon’s work gives him “at least partially an insider’s perspective.”60 I am interested in how the clinic constantly creeps into Fanonian critique. By this, I mean how sickness and health circulate across Fanon’s clinical practice and his critical theory, how systematic oppression erases the boundary between reason and madness, and how the politics of freedom promises moments of temporary sanity.

His best biographer, David Macey, tells a rich and complex story of Fanon’s clinical experience, which draws from extensive archival material. Placing Fanon’s psychiatry in a scholarly and professional context, Macey arrives at two surprising conclusions. First, psychoanalysis is not central to Fanon’s work in the clinic and probably not so important for his critical theory.61 The diagnostic strand in his thought hangs on a different set of referents, this notwithstanding some studied reflections on Lacan’s “mirror stage” and the announcement in the introduction of Black Skin that he would advance a “psychoanalytic interpretation the black problem.”62 Second, Macey argues that Fanon’s clinical practice is consistent with an established history of conventional medicine in the colonies. Fanon is implicated in this thorny history. Though compassionate in his treatment of patients, he is conservative in his techniques and treatments. According to Macey’s more restrained portrait:

Fanon was not a Laing-style anti-psychiatrist avant la lettre but a pragmatic psychiatrist working within the mainstream paradigms of his day and in the difficult environment of psychiatric hospitals. The revolutionary was not a psychoanalyst but an ambitious young doctor who wrote up his clinical experiences for the medical press and presented scientific papers to conferences on neuropsychiatry. Had he lived, it is not difficult to imagine him prescribing Ritalin and Prozac.63

(p.155) This Fanon bears little resemblance to the incendiary subversive passed down in the hagiographic records. Fanon, the consummate professional, is a disturbing image even without the myth of the revolutionary Saint Frantz.64 But had he lived, it is also not difficult to imagine Fanon detailing how attention disorders, hyperactivity, and clinical depression reflect the maladies of our social relations. It is not difficult to hear him reflect on the “affective disorders” that come with systematic abjection and ask after the objective origins of subjective illness. It is easy to see him in occupied territories, combat zones, or prison hospitals.

Fanon’s basic disagreement with psychoanalysis—and, though basic, it’s decisive—concerns the unconscious. This most elemental premise of psychoanalysis, that which gives content to the theory and purpose to the practice, also gives Fanon pause. He proposes that the conflicts psychoanalysis buries in the depths of the unconscious are not so deep after all. Much of the “psychic life of power” unfolds on the surface of social relations and behavior:65

Since the racial drama is played out in the open, the black man has no time to “unconsciousnessize” it. The white man manages it to a certain degree because a new factor emerges: i.e., guilt. The black man’s superiority or inferiority complex and his feeling of equality are conscious. He is constantly making them interact. He lives his drama. There is in him none of the affective amnesia characteristic of the typical neurotic.66

This passage is remarkable on a number of levels. Fanon stretches out the stage on which the racial drama transpires and condenses the time. Race is played out in the open but pressed for time, constantly on the move. Guilt, itself a racial mechanism, is the “new factor” that stops the clock. If there is an unconscious, there is a subject with the time, repose, forgetfulness, and guilt that this edifice requires. Such a subject cannot be a black man. With his fantasy of a virile and rugged black masculinity, Fanon insists that the black man “lives” his drama and doesn’t bury it. He remains conscious of his conditions. “Ask any Antillean and he will tell you”—the refrain repeated in Black Skin might also read as a sideswipe at the idea of the unconscious.

(p.156) Though he challenges the founding narratives and concepts of psychoanalysis, Fanon ventures toward this tradition with the aim of throwing light on the madness of a racist culture: “Racism is not the whole but the most visible, the most day-to-day and, not to mince matters, the crudest element of a given structure.”67 One of the real and most visible effects of racism is mental illness, both individual and collective. Another effect is that racial difference itself gets pathologized, as seen in the so-called North African Syndrome.68 Fanon does not dispense with the basic distinction between health and sickness, but operates in world in which these are highly unstable and unreliable terms: “Psychoanalysis is a pessimistic view of man. The care of the person must be thought as a deliberately optimistic choice against human reality.”69 The critique of human reality dwells in the day-today, what Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau call everyday life and Thomas Dumm describes in connection with the politics of the ordinary.70 Here the critic ineluctably finds despair.

If ideas of health and sickness have been thrown into confusion and disrepair, there is no refuge in the idea of reason. Just knives: “I felt the knife blades sharpening within me. I made up my mind to defend myself. Like all good tacticians I wanted to rationalize the world and show the white man he was mistaken.”71 But reason would not be the referee to this fight. Against a philosophical discourse of (European) modernity, the problem for Fanon is not that reason has taken flight or that rationality has been supplanted by barbarism. As Cedric Robinson clarifies, we are “not faced with a rational order gone awry, but the exhaustion of a rationalist adventure in the wilderness of an irrational (i.e., racial) civilization.”72 We are faced with ideas of reason that not only are products of this racial order, but are produced for the purposes of legitimating it. Reason is not merely tainted by madness; it can be seen to conspire against freedom: “I had rationalized the world, and the world had rejected me in the name of color prejudice. Since there was no way we could agree on the basis of reason, I resorted to irrationality. … I am at home; I am made of the irrational; I wade in the irrational; Irrational up to my neck.”73 Fanon’s critique of colonial reason works on this poetic front. A poetics of political thinking will resort to the irrational—and, on occasion, make a home there.74 Yet there is a clinician in Fanon who (p.157) suspects that the irrational harbors madness and knows that “madness is one of the means man has of losing his freedom.”75 Poetics is a site of anxiety and opportunity. Though Robinson heaps scorn on the “petit-bourgeois stink” of Black Skin, White Masks, it is this text that does poetic justice to the limits of reason.76

Fanon’s critique of colonial reason moves on the tightrope that joins ideology critique and critical history. As ideology critic, Fanon considers how the philosophical discourses of European modernity serve and protect European oppression. Western values—at once particular and universal, depending on what the expansion or conservation of colonial power requires—never announce their alliance with oppression. But oppressed people are not so easily misled: “every time the issue of Western values crops up, the colonized grow tense and their muscles seize up. During the period of decolonization the colonized are called upon to be reasonable. They are offered rock-solid values, they are told in great detail that decolonization should not mean regression, and that they must rely on values which have proven to be reliable and worthwhile.”77 And this is the point at which the knives come out again. Fanonian critique defers not to the unreconstructed immediacy of experience, but to the capacity of oppressed peoples to reflect critically on their lived experience and respond to the structures that condition that experience. Values, principles, and ideals become sites of contestation and struggle. This is how ideology critique becomes critical history on a Hegelian register:

Sometimes even these politicians declare: “We blacks, we Arabs” and these terms charged with ambivalence during the colonial period take on a sacred connotation. These nationalist politicians are playing with fire. As an African leader recently told a group of young intellectuals: “Think before speaking to the masses, they are easily excitable.” There is therefore a cunning of history which plays havoc with the colonies.78

So, for Fanon, there is reason in the history of decolonization, even when it seems only the mad fury of destruction.

We are now in a position, at long last, to frame the question of violence in Fanon. Violence is not the sign of the irrational, the unreasonable, or the insane, though Fanon admits that every form of (p.158) violence rebels against the boundaries of reason. Violence is, first of all, a symptom. It marks the absolute impossibility of finding consensus or conciliation in any colonial situation. It is the sign of a sickness, or dis-ease. And wherever there is violence, there is an underlying disorder. No matter how rational or instrumental, violence always contains more than a touch of madness. Colonial violence is the institutionalization of an insanity that imagines itself to be civilized. Anticolonial resistance is the rational violence that rebels against official madness. No form of violence—or nonviolence—can be considered apart from the objective conditions that produce it. At times, violence is an effort at diversion or denial: “By throwing himself muscle and soul into his blood feuds, the colonized subject endeavors to convince himself that colonialism never existed, that everything is as it used to be and history marches on.”79 Here we see a “restorative nostalgia” at work in the fury of destruction.80 On other occasions, violence finds outlet in ritual activity: ceremonies, festivals, sacrifice. “During the struggle for liberation there is a singular loss of interest in these rituals,” Fanon suggests. “With his back against the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode at his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories.”81

Some forms of violence resemble narrative, and they are ways of telling stories and communicating without words. Violence is, secondly, a symptom that is also a therapy. It is the sign of sickness that is also a treatment for sickness. Fanon describes its effects as detoxifying and cathartic: “At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.”82 This is an unsettling position. In an effort to blunt its force, Patrick Taylor says that the argument is not for “the act of violent struggle [as] the key to decolonization but, rather, the revolutionary leap, the ‘willed’ entry into history, the consciousness of the categorical imperative.”83 And Taylor regards this as Fanon’s debt to Hegel: “What moves the Hegelian dialectic from a situation of mutually exclusive protagonists to one of mutual recognition, is the recognition of the other and the recognition of oneself as an active, freely creative being.”84 This somewhat sanitized reinterpretation forgets the part of Hegel that has to do with risk, and staking one’s life, and (p.159) facing death—all so crucial for Fanon. The act of violent struggle is key because it preserves the risk and responsibility that are elemental to freedom. And just as narrative and storytelling bring people into dialogue, violence establishes the bonds of camaraderie between some as it severs the connection and subjection to others. An atmospheric violence reminds the people that they are not alone—that, and a radio.85

Violence is a form of collective therapy that is also a political strategy. It must be harnessed and channeled, but also disciplined and restrained according to the imperatives of politics. The strategic element of violence is nowhere clearer, oddly enough, than in Fanon’s interpretation of nonviolence. He sees nonviolence, too, as a product of the colonial context:

At a critical, deciding moment the colonialist bourgeoisie, which had remained silent until then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and the business elite that their interests are identical to the colonialist bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensable, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good. Nonviolence is an attempt to solve the colonial problem around the negotiating table.86

These attempts are doomed: the colonial problem is fundamentally nonnegotiable and the doctrine of nonviolence “enters the fray” too late, once the vital effects of violence have been felt by the people. Political historians and analysts often tell the story of violence a different way. They depict resistance movements that begin in nonviolence and “fall” or “lapse” into violence when initial hopes are disappointed. Fanon presents something else entirely, not only an alternative temporality of political resistance, but also a materialist critique of violence. He describes a social structure built on systematic and institutionalized violence, a resistance movement that begins in sporadic and volatile fits of violence, a political organization that emerges to give form and direction to violence that is spontaneous and unpredictable, and then the introduction of nonviolence as a reactionary and desperate appeal for compromise. The doctrine of nonviolence does not exist apart from a dialectic of decolonization that is drenched in violence. (p.160) Even “raw state” nonviolence is a reaction-formation that reflects particular class interests and alliances. A colonial bourgeois, sensing the threat of battle and the urgency of the moment, joins forces with the intellectual and economic elites of the colony. The doctrine of nonviolence appears at a critical and decisive “stage” in a process of decolonization. Like the colonized subject, the colonial bourgeois “is aware of the exceptional nature of the current situation” and “brandishing the threat of violence … intends to make the most of it.”87 Nonviolence is not a pure or timeless moral doctrine. It is a political strategy that emerges within a larger history of violence, and is itself the product of colonial violence. Nonviolence doesn’t mean keeping clean, but dirtying one’s hands differently, through the force of compromise. For Fanon, the question concerning violence is neither ontological nor moral, but historical and political. A materialist critique of violence traces the history and class character of diverse political strategies.

Fanon does worry about perpetual violence and the unending cycle of revenge encouraged by every violent action. Admittedly, he worries more about ending colonial violence, about dismantling a system that has infected every social relationship with sickness. But part of what motivates his reflections on the pleasures of violence is recognition of its pathos. This born Hegelian appreciates that the fury of destruction threatens even the most righteous of projects. Or those especially. A materialist critique of violence maps the multiple political forms that appear and disappear amid the madness: “We do not expect this colonialism to commit suicide. It is altogether logical for it to defend itself fanatically. But it is, on the other hand, its awareness that it cannot survive which will determine its liquidation as a style of contact with other peoples.”88 Fanonian critique discerns the rationalities of violence—and treats violence as a rationality that contains its suspension or temporary armistice. Fanon believed, in the 1950s, that the structure of organized violence that goes by the name of colonialism could not go on forever, or even much longer. This does not does commit him to a dialectic of deliverance as much as it frees his thinking from the prison of colonial fate. An open and indeterminate future, for Fanon, recenters the question of action: “Placed in this world, in a real life situation, ‘embarked’ as Pascal would have it, am I going to accumulate weapons?”89

(p.161) 4

Monsieur le Ministre, there comes a moment when tenacity becomes morbid perseverance. Hope is then no longer an open door to the future but the illogical maintenance of a subjective attitude in organized contradiction with reality.

Fanon, “Letter to the Resident Minister

In 1956, when he was just thirty-one, Fanon tendered his formal resignation as medical director at Blida–Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria. Some of his readers have highlighted that he signed this letter as a “French citizen” and conclude from this that Fanon had not yet established a fantasy filiation with his beloved and imaginary Algeria.90 The signature authorizes Fanon’s wounded attachment to the French nation. I tend to see Fanon’s signature as confirmation of a point also made by Thomas Dumm: “resignations are evidence of the fact that there are no clean slates in life.”91 Fanon’s resignation is the continuation and the culmination of this experience, signed with dirty hands. Five years later, he would be dead.

“It does not matter how happy the occasion of any resignation might be,” Dumm continues, “every resignation is connected to disappointment in that every resignation marks a rupture, a quitting, the ending of something, that places someone Nowhere in respect to where they were before.”92 Nowhere is the place Dumm goes with Stanley Cavell, not quite Utopia, but the place of disappointment, or the birthplace of philosophy.93 Here Dumm, as well as Cavell, is hoping to preserve a refuge for a specific kind of philosophical inquiry—“hoping, against hope” for a place for thinking about ruptures and ordinary disappointments.94 Fanon’s resignation breaks with hope and rejects a politics sustained by a “hope against hope” that is in “organized contradiction” with the real. Hope is narrowly subjectivist, while reality is objects and others. Hope is an attitude, illogical in the face of reality, but not a position. Hope even has a death wish, a morbid determination to take flight from what exists.

This alliance between hope and death is captured in one of the case studies Fanon presents in the final chapter of Wretched, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders.” The case involves a European police (p.162) inspector whose evenings were increasingly given over to episodes of extreme violence toward his wife and children. His everyday work activity as a police offer had been redefined since “the troubles”: his job was now the routine torture of Algerians. Fanon recounts the officer’s “golden rule” of torture: “The golden rule is never give the guy the impression he won’t get out alive. He’ll then wonder what’s the use of talking if it won’t save his life. In that case you’ll have no chance at all of getting anything out of him. He has to go on hoping. It’s hope that makes them talk.”95 This torturer’s moral code rests on the foundations of hope, on the confirmed desperation of hope, on the acquiescence of hope, on the treason of hope. He knows it to be a passion easily exploited and turned against the prisoner. After a ten-hour workday devoted to the routine business of crushing the human spirit, this officer sought overtime violence against his family. And this is the part that prompted his concerns and sent him into therapy. The goal in seeking therapy was not to stop the torture: “he asked me in plain language to help him torture Algerian patriots without having a guilty conscience, without any behavioral problems, and with a total piece of mind.” The goal, as this officer understood, was to learn how to torture more effectively and efficiently—and how to avoid bringing his work home. Under these circumstances, if Fanon were to continue in employment for a colonial state that also claims this officer as one of its own, the principle of hope would be in alliance with inhumanity.

For this reason, I am reluctant to embrace an otherwise elegant reading from Nelson Maldonado-Torres, who defends what he calls a restorative philosophy of love in Fanon.96 Hope and love are different, and Fanon is much more favorable in his handling of love. And there are passages in Black Skin that support an interpretation of New Humanism as a philosophy of love. My reluctance is based on a concern I have about reading Fanon in terms of any single passion, especially one that requires that the people set aside their hatred.97 If every resignation is connected to disappointment and despair, then these too must find place in our political thinking. Against an affirmative philosophy of love that stands in organized contradiction with reality, I am proposing a critical theory premised on a spontaneous receptivity to reality. This is the spontaneous receptivity that Adorno discusses in connection with Hegel and links to a philosophy of experience. I (p.163) see it as the comportment indicated in Fanon’s letter of resignation and suggested by his emphasis on lived experience. This receptivity is neither a leap of invention nor pure passivity. Once again, Dumm is helpful: “Almost all resignations, forced or otherwise, are inflected with a certain passivity; indeed, this sense inheres in the meaning of the word. To be resigned is to accept one’s fate. Both those who resign and those who accept a resignation can be led to feel as though events are beyond their control.”98 Fanon’s resignation, too, concedes that the situation in Algeria, a systematic dehumanization and depersonalization of the Arab, has made it impossible to perform his professional duties. Psychiatry, or “the medical technique that enables man no longer to be a stranger in his environment,” is powerless in the face of a colonial system that functions by alienating human beings from their surroundings.99 In this context, the psychiatric focus on the individual and individuated illness is complicity with alienation. “The social structure existing in Algeria,” Fanon explains, “was hostile to any attempt to put the individual back where he belonged.”100 This is a situation in which proceeding with business as usual is the real and more dangerous passivity. In resignation, Fanon accepts the inhuman reality of a French occupation in Algeria, as well as the fate of psychiatry under these conditions. In not resigning oneself to resignation, one submits to the rule of inhumanity and injustice.101 The politics of resignation rebels against abstract notions of activity and passivity.

Fanon’s resignation is dictated by reason and passion. Reason is critical. It furnishes the infinitely demanding imperative to speech and action: “It is the duty of the citizen to say this. No professional morality, no class solidarity, no desire to wash the family linen in private, can have a prior claim. No pseudo-national mystification can prevail against the requirement of reason.”102 Reason cuts through the fog of pseudo-familial loyalty and national attachments. It makes secondary our professional associations and other identifications. As Habermas also appreciates, the requirements of reason condition our speech acts. As Habermas could also appreciate, Fanon offers his resignation as a refusal of despair: “For many months my conscience has been the seat of unpardonable debates. And their conclusion is the determination not to despair of man, in other words, of myself.”103 The categorical requirement of reason (p.164) ends in the determination not to despair. And not to hope. So on what basis do I justify the argument that this is a resignation dictated by both reason and passion? With Fanon, reason is locked in a relationship with the passions. And this relationship gets expressed in work, in the work we do and how we give account of that work to ourselves and others.

In that resignation often comes by letter, the politics of resignation also presents an occasion to reflect upon the politics of the epistolary form. The signatory matters, but so does the addressee. Is the letter public or private? Does the author anticipate a response? What sort of response? How does the letter establish a relationship between its author and its recipient? What sort of relationship is this? Why might a particular kind of political speech come in the form of a letter? How might the open letter be like or different from other rousing genres of political writing—for instance, the manifesto or the declaration? It seems Fanon had a certain fondness for the epistolary form and a recognition of its political uses. Paying attention to Fanon’s complex rhetoric, the strategies he employs in narrating the colonial drama and the anticolonial struggle, requires consideration of the letter as form. Substance is also important. A section from “Letter to the Youth of Africa” underscores the importance of the concept of work for Fanon:

In the fine hours of French imperialism, it could be a kind of honor for a colonized person to be a part of the French government. This honor without responsibility or risk, this childish complacency about being a minister or Secretary of State, could, in an extreme case, be forgiven. In the past ten years, however, it has become truly intolerable and unacceptable for Africans to hold a post in the government that dominates them.104

Note how the “honor” bestowed upon the colonized person who works for French government is a slave’s honor, in Fanon’s sense. Freedom is responsibility and risk; work without these cannot be called work in Fanon’s more exalted (and idealized) sense. Note also how Fanon here dwells in the point of contact between work and politics, between one’s everyday activity “on the job” and a social structure that (p.165) is reproduced through ordinary life under extraordinary conditions. Fanon is also pointing to the place where theory meets practice and personal biography meets world history.


This is why we must watch the parallel progress of this man and this woman, of this couple that brings death to the enemy, life to the Revolution.

—Fanon, “Algeria Unveiled”

I do not conclude with this image from the opening essay from A Dying Colonialism to raise the vexed question of gender in Fanon at this late stage. Other have done some of this work and, while there is more to say, I have not treated the passions in connection with gender and have pushed the question of sex to the very margins of my analysis.105 For better or worse. Nonetheless this image captures some of the elements of Fanon’s work that assist us in charting new directions for critical theory. And I think it helps to recenter the question concerning the politics of critique. The essay is extraordinary in its own right, for developing the Fanonian themes of embodiment and corporeality, for its considerations on the still timely political question of how Muslim women dress, and for its focus on the Algerian woman as heroic revolutionary.106 Fanon indulges his typical tendency to idealize the anticolonial freedom fighter, but here the fighter is a woman—and this fact is not irrelevant to a critique of the misogynist sexual economy in Fanon.

In the couple that brings “life” to the struggle, there is the trace of a revolutionary vitalism that Fanon shares with Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire.107 In Fanon, this trace is liberated from the confines of an individual will. It appears in and through our human relations and in the interaction between subjects and objects. Fanon’s negative dialectic precludes the idealism of hypostatized subjectivity. I have described this comportment, where revolutionary vitalism greets “the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative,” in terms of a spontaneous receptivity to others and objects.108 Spontaneous receptivity in Fanon turns on the primacy of politics and a (p.166) politics of lived experience. (In this way, it is rather different from Adorno’s negative dialectic, which turns on the primacy of critique and the critique of experience.) Wretched trades explicitly in the category of spontaneity, with the spontaneously revolutionary forces that become available during a process of decolonization and the political organization necessary to build these forces. Using examples from Kenya and the Congo, Fanon writes: “It is among these masses, in the people of the shanty towns and in the lumpenproletariat that the insurrection will find its urban spearhead. The lumpenproletariat, this cohort of starving men, divorced from tribe and clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneously and radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.”109 Fanon’s confidence in the lumpenproletariat registers a point of disagreement with Marx, who saw the “rabble” as unreliable and undisciplined, more often a conservative or counter-revolutionary class. In the shantytowns, among a peasantry dispossessed of land and an underclass with nothing to lose, Fanon sees the conditions for a spontaneously revolutionary force. Here he also sees the affective energies so vital to a revolutionary movement and organization. In a Gramscian vein, Fanon’s political thinking revolves around the interaction between the organization and the people—how the party mobilizes popular passions, but also how it answers and directs the people’s desires and discontents. But Fanon also avows the irreducible gap that separates theory from action. This much he shares with Adorno too: “The theoretical question … whether the bourgeois phase can be effectively skipped … must be resolved through revolutionary action and not reasoning.”110 Fanon parts company with Adorno, finally, in positing the primacy of practice and the real possibility of revolution. This move also constitutes his return to Marx, or a tradition of revolutionary Marxism.111 Perhaps Fanon, too, bears Marx’s concealed wounds—and announces the coming African Revolution so authoritatively because he knew he wasn’t entirely sure about it.

Luce Irigaray has argued that the couple constitutes the starting point for the ethical relationship required by democracy. On the principle that “democracy begins between two,” Irigaray demands substantive justice between a man and a woman as the foundation for a political definition of democracy.112 Irigaray’s ethical orientation (p.167) to democracy also finds its basis in a politics of the ordinary: “A real democracy must take as its basis today, a just relationship between man and woman. A distorted relationship between them gives rise to so many forms of antidemocratic power. Unless we can transform this, the most everyday element of our lives, we will never bring about change across the world.”113

Fanon depicts this movement in the other direction. In the parallel movements of a man and woman to change the world, the relationship between them changes as well. Irigaray follows a “private” ethical relationship into the public, into the politics of democracy. Fanon’s thought moves from the politics of revolution to the militancy of everyday life. This politics is not always named democracy and is not always linked to the work of critique, but this chapter has sought to amplify the voice in Fanon that speaks on behalf of both. A passage from Wretched points to this potentially simpatico relationship between democracy and critique:

Self-criticism has been much talked about of late, but few people realize that it is an African institution. Whether in the djemaas of North Africa or the palavers of West Africa, tradition has it that disputes which break out in a village are worked out in public. By this I mean collective self-criticism with a touch of humor, because everybody is relaxed, because in the end we all want the same thing.114

To the skeptic’s question concerning New Humanism—“Are we still in politics or a dream?”—we have most certainly departed the dreamscape.115 Dreams are fantasy, or compensatory mechanisms for what we are denied in our waking hours: “Hence the dreams of the colonized subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality.”116 By contrast, these democratic institutions offer a rare moment of relaxation in Fanon and a glimpse into the political shape of his New Humanism. Collective self-criticism, in which the people do not reach for their knives but work out their conflicts in public, is not a European tradition—or even a latent universalism preserved in the particular history of Europe. Fanon reminds us that democracy is an “African institution”—or precisely that which Europe’s history demonstrates that it has been hell-bent to destroy. (p.168) Democracy means sharing in the space that forms when disputes break out, when divisions occur, when conflicts must be worked out in public. Democratic equality lets us laugh and lighten up. Democratic freedom lets us take risks and bear responsibility. A more democratic reality might permit us hope, against hope. But the ruthless critique of everything existing means learning to live with despair.


(1.) “The principle of the modern world-thought and the universal … has given courage a higher form, because its display now seems to be more mechanical, the act not of this particular person, but of a member of a whole. Moreover, it seems to be turned not against single persons, but against a hostile group, and hence personal bravery appears impersonal. It is for this reason that thought has invented the gun, and the invention of this weapon, which has changed the purely personal form of bravery into a more abstract one, is no accident.” G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 212.

(2.) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 232.

(3.) See especially the discussion of Fanon in Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crisis of the Republic (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969). Arendt concedes that Fanon’s attitudes toward violence are more nuanced than his admirers think; still she misrepresents these attitudes in entirely subjectivist terms. Arendt treats Fanon only in terms of whether he is for or against violence. This approach entirely misses the critical point Fanon is making. Colonialism as a structure permits nothing to stand against violence. Even the doctrine of nonviolence is immanent (p.209) to the history of violence in the colony. Fanon’s first chapter from Wretched is not an ethical demand for redemptive violence as much as it is a political interpretation of how violence works—and fails to work—on behalf of colonial power.

(4.) Françoise Vergès, “Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal,” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 3 (Spring 1997): 580.

(5.) Ibid., 593.

(6.) Ibid., 594.

(7.) The best readers of Fanon and the French philosophical tradition complicate the conventional narratives of influence. George Ciccariello-Maher, for example, reads Fanon as the decisive influence on Sartre’s formulation of the concept of situation, not the other way around. See George Ciccariello-Maher, “The Internal Limits of the European Gaze: Intellectuals and the Colonial Difference,” Radical Philosophy Review 9, no. 2 (2006): 139–66.

(8.) Albert Memmi, “The Impossible Life of Frantz Fanon,” trans. Thomas Cassirer and G. Michael Twomey, Massachusetts Review 14, no. 1 (Winter 1973): 22.

(9.) Ibid., 11.

(10.) Ibid., 33.

(11.) Henry Louis Gates, “Critical Fanonism,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (Spring 1991): 470. The problem with this insistence is that Gates concedes at the start that he will not be pursuing a reading of Fanon, and is more interested in the ways more recent scholars have taken up the legacy of Fanon. With its focus on Critical Fanonisms and not Fanonian critique, the article seems to do with Fanon exactly what Gates argues we should not do.

(13.) Neil Lazarus, Resistance of Postcolonial African Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 30.

(14.) Ibid., 32.

(15.) On this point, Lazarus is at least more generous than Christopher Miller. “What matters most, what is most impressive in reading Fanon,” Miller writes, “is the sheer power of a theoretical truth to dictate who shall live and who shall be liquidated.” See Christopher Miller, Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 50–51.

(16.) Ato Sekyi-Otu’s work on Fanon remains the most accomplished in this respect (and many others). Sekyi-Otu examines Fanon’s rhetorical strategies and narrative techniques in their diversity and detail, arguing for an intersubjective and dialogical approach to Fanon. See Ato Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). For a critical review of Sekyi-Otu that underscores its unacknowledged debt to J. L. Austin, see K. Martial Frindéthié, “Tracing a Theoretical Gesture: Patrick Taylor and Ato Sekyi-Otu Reading Fanon,” Research in African Literatures 29, no. 3 (Autumn 1998): 162–70.

(17.) Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2008), xi.

(19.) Drucilla Cornell, Moral Images of Freedom: A Future for Critical Theory (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

(20.) Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 55. Still, it is striking that Hegel goes unmentioned—and that he should disappear just as Marx finally appears. Just as we can expect that Fanon’s years in France featured conversations about Marx to complement the buzz around Hegel, we can assume that his later work with militant intellectuals and revolutionary strategists involved some considerations of Hegel.

(21.) Nigel C. Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

(23.) Shamoon Zamir, for example, reads W. E. B. Du Bois in relation to Hegel, and argues that the logic of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk mirrors the dialectic of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit. See Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). Susan Buck-Morss has also argued for Hegel’s significance in the development of the idea of Black Liberation, as well as for the significance of Black Liberation, specifically, the Haitian Revolution, in the development of Hegel’s philosophy. See Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009). An Afro-Trini Marxist, C. L. R James is a crucially important figure in this genealogy, both for the Hegel-Haiti connection and for his magnum opus, Notes on the Dialectic. Fanon differs from James in many respects, the most important for my purposes being Fanon’s restlessly “negative” dialectic.

(24.) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 58.

(25.) Ibid., 59.

(26.) Ibid., 88.

(28.) Ibid., 5.

(29.) Ibid., 51.

(30.) For a different reading, see Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “Frantz Fanon and C. L. R. James on Intellectualism and Enlightened Rationality,” Caribbean Studies 33, no. 2 (July–December 2005): 149–94.

(34.) Ibid., 112.

(35.) G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §32.

(36.) Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 191. Of course, the very idea of the Black Man in his unity and singularity is a fiction and ideology: “the black experience is ambiguous, for there is not one Negro—there are many black men” (115).

(39.) Ibid., 187 (italics mine).

(40.) Ibid., 196–97.

(41.) Ibid., 196.

(42.) Ibid., 191.

(43.) Ibid., 197.

(44.) Ibid., 113–114 (italics in the original).

(45.) Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 91 (italics mine). Interestingly, the same line appears in the preface to A Dying Colonialism: “Nevertheless, there is no end in sight, and we know that the French Army is preparing a series of offenses for the coming months. The war goes on.” Decolonization begins to appear as a permanently unfinished project. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove, 1965), 27.

(51.) Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 167.

(52.) Ross Posnock, “How It Feels to Be a Problem: Du Bois, Fanon, and the ‘Impossible Life’ of the Black Intellectual,” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 2 (Winter 1997): 329.

(55.) Ibid., 50.

(56.) Ibid. (italics mine).

(57.) Ibid., 220.

(58.) This is the element of force in the General Strike, what Walter Benjamin identifies as a residue of an extortionist violence preserved in the cessation of work that “takes place in the context of a conscious readiness to resume the suspended action under certain circumstances.” See Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), 239.

(59.) Richard C. Keller, “Clinician and Revolutionary: Frantz Fanon, Biography, and the History of Colonial Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 838.

(60.) Ibid., 840.

(61.) As Macey shows, the closest Fanon gets to a psychoanalytic concept is in the hotly contested third chapter, on the Black man who desires white women, where he refers to Germaine Geux’s idea of the abandonnique, or the abandonment syndrome. What attracts him to Geux is the search for a pre-Oedipal complex that may explain affective disorder, on the conviction that Black men (p.212) do not pass through the Oedipal stage. See David Macey, “The Recall of the Real: Frantz Fanon and Psychoanalysis,” Constellations 6, no. 1 (1999): 104. Fanon insists that “whether you like it or not the Oedipus complex is far from being a black complex.” Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 130. Here Fanon is also quarreling with Lacan and claiming Hegel for support. Readers ought to pay close attention to Fanon’s endlessly fascinating footnotes.

(63.) David Macey, “‘I Am My Own Foundation’: Frantz Fanon as a Source of Continued Political Embarrassment,” Theory, Culture, and Society 27, no. 7–8 (2010): 35.

(64.) Memmi places even more emphasis on Fanon’s professional ambitions, and speculates as to the disappointment he might have felt upon learning of his less lucrative Algerian assignment.

(65.) Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). Fanon goes untreated in this text, though Butler has considered Fanon elsewhere. See especially Judith Butler, “Violence, Nonviolence: Sartre on Fanon,” in Race After Sartre: Antiracism, Africana Existentialism, Post-Colonialism, ed. Jonathan Judaken (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008).

(67.) Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” in Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove, 1967), 32.

(68.) See Frantz Fanon, “The ‘North African Syndrome,’” in Toward the African Revolution, 3–16.

(70.) Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, trans. Gregory Elliott and John Moore (London: Verso, 2008); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); and Thomas L. Dumm, The Politics of the Ordinary (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

(72.) Cedric Robinson, “The Appropriation of Fanon,” Race and Class 35, no. 79 (1993): 89.

(74.) I borrow this formulation from Davide Panagia, The Poetics of Political Thinking (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

(75.) Frantz Fanon, “Letter to the Resident Minister,” in Toward the African Revolution, 53.

(78.) Ibid., 29.

(79.) Ibid., 17.

(80.) Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

(82.) Ibid., 51.

(p.213) (83.) Patrick Taylor, The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 85.

(85.) Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 30. For a superb treatment of the politics of listening, see Ian Baucom, “Frantz Fanon’s Radio: Solidarity, Diaspora, and the Tactics of Listening,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 15–49.

(87.) Ibid., 34.

(88.) Frantz Fanon, “Toward the Liberation of Africa,” in Toward the African Revolution, 105.

(91.) Thomas Dumm, “Resignation,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 1 (Autumn 1998): 71.

(92.) Ibid., 57.

(93.) As Simon Critchley puts it, “Philosophy begins … in an experience of disappointment, that is both religious and political.” Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (London: Routledge, 1997), 2.

(97.) Recall Benjamin’s twelfth thesis on the concept of history, which laments “the indoctrination [that] made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice.” At least on the surface of things (which is where Fanon will insist that our drama unfolds) this position seems closer to Fanon than a restorative philosophy of love. See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 394.

(99.) Frantz Fanon, “Letter to the Resident Ministe,r” in Toward the African Revolution, 53.

(101.) Simone de Beauvoir captures the complexity of resignation in her considerations on “women’s situation and character” in The Second Sex. Of a woman’s tendency toward passivity and the blind acceptance of her fate, Beauvoir writes: “Most often, she is not resigned to being resigned; she knows what she is going through, she goes through it in spite of herself; she is a woman without being asked, she does not dare revolt; she submits against her will; her attitude is constant recrimination.” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2010), 646. Here, not resigning oneself to resignation, though demonstrative of a certain will to power, is also capitulation and surrender. A Fanon-Beauvoir connection is (p.214) suggested in the secondary literature but still undeveloped as a site of historio-biographical or theoretical investigation. In her book on Beauvoir, Toril Moi posits a correspondence between The Second Sex and Black Skin, White Masks. “The parallels between the two texts are striking,” Moi remarks, and speculates that Fanon was aware of and influenced by Beauvoir’s account of woman’s construction as other. Vergès endorses this suggestion, noting that Fanon was a faithful reader of Les Temps Modernes, the journal that had been publishing selections from Beauvoir’s text. See Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (New York: Blackwell, 1994).

(104.) Frantz Fanon, “Letter to the Youth of Africa,” in Toward the African Revolution, 118.

(105.) In addition to Vergès, “Creole Skin, Black Mask,” see also Diana Fuss, “Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification,” Diacritics 24, no. 2–3 (Summer–Autumn 1994): 19–42; Gwen Bergner, “Who Is That Masked Woman? Or, the Role of Gender in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks,” PMLA 110, no. 1 (January 1995): 75–88; Jeffrey Louis Decker, “Terrorism (Un)veiled: Frantz Fanon and the Women of Algiers,” Cultural Critique (Winter 1990–1991): 177–95.

(106.) On themes of corporeality and embodiment, scholars have emphasized Fanon’s link to Merleau-Ponty much more than Sartre. And of course, feminist scholars have shown that Merleau-Ponty’s thinking about the body and somatic life was shaped by the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir.

(107.) Donna Jones offers a compelling interpretation of the Bergsonian vitalism in Négritude in The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy.

(110.) Ibid., 119.

(111.) Fanon’s relationship to Marx is complex and I have not done justice to it here. His disagreements with Marx and with orthodox Marxism are many. He challenges Marx’s views on the nature of precapitalist societies, the significance of the peasantry, the revolutionary potential in agrarian society, the forms of class stratification in the colonies, and the meaning of development in the postcolonial world. But Fanon agrees with the more general picture of “primitive accumulation” as described by Marx and sees colonialism—“violence in its natural state”—as a function of capitalist expansion.

(112.) Allow me to sidestep the heteronormativity in Irigaray’s portrait (and Fanon’s), as I am more interested in the idea of the couple, and of democracy beginning with two.

(113.) Luce Irigaray, Democracy Begins Between Two, trans. Kirsteen Anderson (New York: Routledge, 2000), 118 (italics mine).