Between Naipaul and Fanon

My essay for the Caribbean Philosophical Association meeting in San Juan makes what I hope will be a provocative claim: on the question of the meaning of the Caribbean, Naipaul and Fanon are essentially saying the same thing. In terms of the iconography of the Caribbean intellectual tradition, there could not be a sharper contrast. Naipaul is melancholic, wandering, and generally as pessimistic about the meaning of the Caribbean as you’ll find in the tradition. Fanon’s affect is really the opposite, with a dreamy optimism about the future, and (at least at the level of rhetoric) militant politics. But of course affect and rhetoric isn’t thinking. So what’s going on with the thinking?

Part of my motivation for this essay, along with my “Fanon’s Two Memories” article, is an ongoing exploration of the meaning of Glissant’s claim in Caribbean Discourse that Fanon “acted on his words.” A number of scholars have taken that comment by Glissant to be a compliment, praise for Fanon’s seriousness as a thinker and actor. I think Glissant means something different: Fanon gave up on the Caribbean and, unable to see the cultural forms at work in the history of Martinique and the West Indies more broadly, became a global revolutionary. Post-Caribbean, perhaps.

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In that “post-,” Fanon is not all that different than Naipaul and the affective or rhetorical differences seem just so merely aesthetic. Consider this from Naipaul’s The Middle Passage, a remark that is well-enough known in Caribbean studies circles:

How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historical adopt? … The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.

This sort of remark is not atypical, and one can find it in writers from Césaire to Lamming, especially when, in the Anglophone tradition, writers from the 1950s raise the question “who and what is a readership?” The meaning is clear: the archipelago is a map of abject fragments. What was “created” in the West Indies was the impossibility of creation. This insight sets Naipaul adrift, at home neither in England nor in India, but unable to see in the Caribbean landscape the sorts of resources one needs as a fully rooted writer; there is no sense of tradition.

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Just a handful of years earlier, at the 1956 Paris Congress, Fanon makes a remark that leads to similar conclusions about culture, history, and the Caribbean. It’s also one of the few places in which Fanon remarks on slavery (something I think is a real problem for his work).

The commercial undertaking of enslavement, of cultural destruction, progressively gave way to verbal mystification.

The interesting think about this evolution is that racism was taken as a topic of meditation, sometimes even as a publicity technique.

Thus the blues – “the black slave lament” – was offered up for the admiration of the oppressors. This modicum of stylized oppression is the exploiter’s and the racist’s rightful due. Without oppression and without racism you have no blues. The end of racism would sound the knell of great Negro music…

Racism bloats and disfigures the face of the culture that practices it.

This is a remarkable passage, and both troubling and revealing at the same time. What is troubling, for me, is straightforward: Fanon is unable to think seriously about vernacular cultural forms without folding them back into the white gaze. This is the part of his thought that still struggles with colonialism’s deep effects and affects. Blues, on Fanon’s account, is important because it is a certain performance for white people; “Armstrong’s music has real meaning only in this perspective,” he writes in that same essay. What Fanon does not see is how these cultural forms are both part of strategies of resistance and survival and  directed by black people for other black people – in other words, the first work in the formation of tradition. In this case, tradition as both the African-American intellectual tradition and American culture as such (the complexity of that is a whole other story and essay).

What is revealing is how this remark (and many others like it) rejoins Fanon’s thinking to that of Naipaul. For both, Caribbean history (and more generally the history of black people in the Americas) is always only abject. So, the key question for theorizing after colonialism is how to begin with nothing or less than nothing. Naipaul is set adrift and his fiction and non-fiction is plenty testimony to the melancholy and ambivalence that flows from that adriftedness, that homelessness. How different is Fanon, really? Fanon’s funky optimism, about which I’m never entirely sure how to think, turns on a complete disavowal of history – I’m not a slave to history, a pure future, the new humanism to come…it is always the same thing from Fanon, and never draws upon history. That optimism intervenes, along with a political identity of the global South as “the colonized” or “the wretched/damned,” to chart a path that avoids melancholy and ambivalence in the name of militant precision and decisiveness (The Wretched of the Earth is nothing if not decisive).

But what really is the difference between melancholy and optimism? They seem to me to be open to one and the same interpretation, given the shared abjection of Caribbean space: symptoms of an inability to retrieve a history of resistance and expression even under slavery and colonialism. This retrieval is central to the thought of Du Bois, Locke, and others in the African-American tradition, with the emphasis on the spirituals as the foundation of tradition, but we don’t see it in Naipaul or Fanon. Instead, that moment has to wait until later, when that  generation of thinkers like Walcott, Brathwaite, Glissant, and others – born around the same time, yet initiators of a very different orientation of thought – explores and explodes vernacular, pidgin, and creole cultural forms in the name of another future, one that does not eschew history, but instead makes that history as big as the whole world. Because it always contained a whole world in it.