Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: The Wretched of the Earth

[Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Originally published in French in 1961. Translated by Richard Philcox. Includes commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha.]

One of the crucial distinctions in how we orient ourselves towards any big oppressive nasty is whether or not it is something that we have no choice but to feel deep in our body every day.

Feeling it doesn't necessarily mean being able to name it, and being able to avoid feeling it most definitely does not mean we're not shaped by it, but that question of perpetual visceral awareness has everything to do with how we can and should relate to the phenomenon in question politically.

As a temporarily-abled, middle-class, white male citizen of a rich country, I obviously fall into the "not" category in most respects. The impacts of sexism do not cause me to ache each day in my bones. Psychic injury from racism does not lodge everyday in my gut. I don't have to always taste the anticipatory tang of future rage that yet another community event might be scheduled where my wheelchair can't get in. Not that I am not affected -- socialization into masculinity, say, or whiteness, tend to be connected to the damaging of certain capacities that make us fully human. But we don't tend to feel such awareness day in and day out.

We can never feel what we don't experience, of course. But human beings are creatures that have imagination and empathy, when privilege and bad tv haven't burned them out of us. Part of the struggle of people with privilege for our own liberation is the struggle to continually move forward in the transition from having some sense of oppressive social relations and our role in them in intellectual ways, to having some sense of that in genuinely internalized, visceral ways. (That ever-imperfect visceral sense is not the same as those on the receiving end of said social relations, but of necessity can only come from where we are at.) Sometimes this embodiment process happens gradually and we don't notice it as it occurs. But sometimes there are sudden, unexpected flashes of awareness of how absolutely monstruous the current state of things is, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

Wretched of the Earth, if read by white citizens of European and EuroAmerican states in a way that is open to what it has to say, is very capable of giving such a flash. The "Preface" by Jean-Paul Sartre is quite clear that this book is by a colonized man written for other colonized subjects, not for the white citizens of the metropole. At the same time, he demands that we read: "You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name... Today whenever two Frenchmen [or other Europeans or EuroAmericans] meet, there is a dead body between them." Though formal decolonization has taken place over much of the globe (albet with some important pieces of land recolonized, like Iraq), it has not taken place in Canada or the United States. And even despite formal decolonization, the relations constructed by colonialism between Europe/EuroAmerica and the rest of the world have not transcended their bloody origins, even if their mechanisms are obscure trade deals more often than bayonets these days. And they are the modern equivalent of bayonets often enough, whether employed directly by our armies or by proxies.

A phenomenon connected to the visceral flash of horror that the truth of this book can and should give Western readers is the fact of distance. The physical distance involved in being part of anti-war, anti-imperialist, or anti-colonial struggles (other than solidarity with indigenous peoples) adds a layer of complication not present with struggles that are physically close even if socially distant. This means, I think, that I found the realities it portrays to be more revelatory and more alien to my experience and understanding than when I encounter equally powerful material focused on oppressions here in North America.

The distance is not just a physical one, however, but also a temporal one. I have the impression that this book has often been read in an abstracted way, a philosophically idealistic way, an ahistorical way. Indeed, given the bits and pieces I had absorbed about it from the political culture that surrounds me, I was expecting a book that was primarily an exercise in giving directions, a series of impassioned pleas that "We must do this and this and this that we might be free!" There certainly is effort to share insight into potential political choices, but by and large this book is really a very historically grounded description of the decolonization processes that Fanon had participated in or was aware of, mostly in Africa. He talks about the ways in which the colonized society has been changed by colonization. He talks about the ways the struggle has generally progressed, its dynamics, its risks. He talks about the ways in which anti-colonial organizations have come together and functioned. He talks about how struggle has shaped national consciousness and culture. He -- a trained psychiatrist who practiced in Algeria during the independence struggle there -- talks about how the war of national liberation, as necessary as it was, was profoundly damaging to those who had to go through it.

Homi Bhabha's "Foreword" also seems to recommend a historicized reading of the text, but emphasizes that this does not make it at all irrelevant to other and later struggles. In fact, he suggests that Fanon was writing of one stage of struggle while the current realities faced by Third World countries, though not identical, are a later phase of struggle against later versions of global relations of power that have evolved and regrouped, and that Fanon's prophetic anger and analysis might be a source of insight. Certainly the approach that Fanon takes, of doing his best to describe what actually happens from the standpoint of those resisting and in a way that might be useful to others resisting, is important to apply to wherever we are active. As both a revolutionary and a psychiatrist, he is constantly connecting different scales of experience -- the social to the "psycho-affective realm" -- which I think is very important and too easily neglected by those of us whose privilege allow us/push us to live mostly in our heads.

Historically, perhaps the most contentious issue about Fanon's classic text when read in the West has been his embrace of violence. I have to confess that I am not untroubled by it -- it is not for me to judge out of context how others have chosen to resist, but I think it is a question we should find difficult if we are not to lose sight of the liberatory human ends for which we struggle. I think, rather than dismiss his profound insights because of this stance as many white North American progressives have done, it is important to read it carefully and to confront that which may cause discomfort that we might learn from it. For one thing, outright romanticization of violence is actually more a feature of Sartre's "Preface" than Fanon's text itself. Be that as it may, Fanon was strongly convinced that revolutionary violence by the colonized was the only possible mechanism of both social and psycho-affective transformation. I'm not sure whether a more complete history of the era of classic decolonization vindicates this confidence or not; I don't know the history nearly well enough to even bother guessing. Certainly the success of that transformation, however achieved, has not been as complete and enduring as he hoped. However, even if later analysis of the decolonization struggles of his era might provide a somewhat different answer, his analysis is both grounded and nuanced. He does not downplay the difficulties to be faced after independence has been won. He does not deny for a second the horrible after-affects of violence, not only on those who suffer it but on those who engage in it. In fact, Bhabha cites someone or other as asserting that, deep down and on a personal level, Fanon loathed violence, but he saw it as unavoidable in a situation as deeply steeped in the violence of the oppressor as colonized Africa already was.

Certainly his own statements about violence and non-violence were not meant in the abstract, but as observations of the social organization of struggles that were actually happening or had recently occurred. At least some of the times that his works have been used to justify tactical choices by radical but privileged youth in North America, the arguments end up being more aesthetic than material, and much less attuned to the different ways in which the material course of social struggle and the impact on the pscyho-affective realm can be related in different historical circumstances. At least at times, it feels like such sloppy reasoning -- so unlike Fanon's own careful and honest material assessment -- does a disservice to the horrible sacrifices made in the struggle to throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There is a great deal to be learned from this book. It is not perfect. Some of its aspirations and predictions have turned out to be wrong. It is quite inattentive to the very gendered ways in which national liberation struggles are (from what I've read) experienced. But it brings to life the absolute barbarousness of the overt colonial processes that were for centuries integral to the material, intellectual, political, and spiritual development of the West, and if it can give you even a single visceral surge of empathy and revulsion at the ways in which those relationships persist, then reading it will have been well worth it.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


cain_devera said...

I highly suggest reading Aimé Cesaire's book "Discourse on Colonialism" which is historically contemporaneous with Fanon's work, although Cesaire is much more concerned with theoreticals and pointing out the banalities of European civilisation rather then the independence struggles in the colonies. By the way, great blog, as a fellow Canadian I am grateful for the information you provide.

Scott said...

Hi cain. Glad you like the blog and thanks so much for the book suggestion.