November 15, 2013 John Drabinski

Fanon and historical process

One of the key claims in my writing on Fanon is that he eschews history in the name of a new beginning, which is both fantastical and forgetful of those forms of resistance and saying yes to life borne by vernacular cultural forms. For me, this is not just a comment about how Fanon has forgotten something in his analysis. Rather, it is a forgetting that makes his own work possible, and remembering these forms and their enduring force as foundations to local, national, and regional culture would chart a very different path toward thinking the Caribbean (and the plantation Americas, as Glissant puts it) as history, memory, and future.

Thanks to Patrick King at UC-Santa Cruz for directing me to a passage in The Wretched of the Earth on historical process, which raises a vocabulary and mode of analysis (or even imperative) that might run contrary to my wider claims about Fanon’s work on memory and forgetting. It’s an important challenge, so here is an initial reply.

From The Wretched of the Earth (Farrington translation)

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world is obviously a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which gave it historical form and content.

It is interesting, and actually crucial, to put this passage next to my claim that Fanon’s idea of the future turns on the total forgetting of the past. The conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks makes that argument, and I think a good case can be made that the final meditation on the new humanism that closes The Wretched of the Earth argues for the same sort of break with the past. There is no precedent in the history of humanism for a conception of humanity that includes subaltern subjects, and in fact we might go so far as to claim (I certainly would) that the history of humanism, like the history of liberty, is simultaneously the articulation of a revolutionary idea – there is nothing unimportant about the political consequences of secularizing religious meaning and authority – and the deepening of justifications of slavery and colonial domination. That is, we should not be surprised that John Locke’s account of liberty and propriety is accompanied by an account of justifiable enslavement. And so on. All of this is to say, Fanon is not without justification in coupling a sense of the future to a complete break with the past.

But this passage from the opening of The Wretched of the Earth makes history itself the site of not just analysis, but thought and action. “Historical process,” as Fanon puts it, is part of the shape and meaning of the history that dictates the terms of response. So what is history to Fanon? Is this moment in the 1961 texts a counter-story to my claim about his dependence upon forgetting? Since this evocation of historical process begins the elaboration of the necessity of violence, it is neither a small question nor an occasional passage.

Two aspects of this passage strike me as compatible with a larger claim about forgetting and the possibility of Fanon’s thought.

First, this is largely a diagnostic aspect of the project, by which I mean, Fanon is locating the symptoms of colonialism that have to be treated and, on the basis of that diagnosis, what sorts of techniques need to be deployed in order to cure the illness called colonialism and its affective life (inferiority complex, etc.). Historical process is an important moment because it concretizes, makes material, the effects of colonialism on institutions and the like. But, in the end, historical process strikes me as a kind of indispensable ante-chamber to what really matters; we break with the past when the past in the present has been broken up. But the break becomes clean when the break happens, and decolonization preps the ground, as it were. Which leads to my second point…

Second, the relation between colonialism, decolonization, and the postcolonial is complex and very important for sorting out the questions raised by the opening pages of The Wretched of the Earth. Here’s my sketch of how I understand the relation between the three moments. Colonialism is the past, which is therefore also the present; indeed, the urgency of the present as revolutionary exigency cannot be conceived without the folding of colonialism’s memory and history into the present (as institutions, psychological conditions, and so on). Decolonization is an engagement with the past; this is why The Wretched of the Earth begins with the question of historical process as both the problem of understanding colonialism as the shape and meaning of history and the process of decolonization as an act inside and directed directly at the history and memory of colonialism in the body of the state and the person. But the postcolonial is very different. The after of the postcolonial is related to the future alone, even as it is built on the work of decolonization (which itself is built on colonialism). In that sense, we could say that the postcolonial is related to, but also a wholly different question than the decolonial. Fanon’s future is the postcolonial after the decolonial. That cleave of time and intellectual work, if it makes sense, can sustain both attention to historical process and the claim that Fanon’s work depends upon a future without the past.

There is a consistency here in Fanon, one that, for all my criticisms, I respect and love. He takes his eschewing of the logic (and labor) of reactivation – Négritude, in a word – seriously and draws the most consistent and radical conclusion. But, like Césaire’s version of Négritude, one is still left with my question: is the Caribbean only a landscape of death and abjection? Or has that landscape produced important forms of life that resist, subsist, and chart a very different future that does not need breaks and radical sense of the new, but instead something more like a saying yes to having said yes?

If we start with the postcolonial in light of a more complex, less total account of colonialism – one that does not see colonialism as a total project, but instead one broken apart by resistance, survival, and the pleasures of life and expression that aren’t destroyed by even the worst of sustained, multi-century violence, then decolonization takes on a different tenor and method. Death and life might not be the antonyms Fanon thinks. If they are not, then decolonization means not just purging the alienations of colonial institutions and habits, but it also, and perhaps foremost, means the reinterpretation, revaluation, and elevation of vernacular cultural forms in order to, as Glissant puts it in the opening pages of Poetics of Relation, “remember the boats” and reckon with the beauty of the shoreline.

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Comments (2)

  1. Excellent, truly. But I’m wondering if, instead of process as driven by linear causation, and the search for viable ‘historical immunity’ against colonization, Fanon was also hinting at colonization as part of more cyclical historical process? Granted, we historians mostly consider ourselves linear thinkers now, but what if Fanon did not? Les Damnés would seem to suggest otherwise.
    But I’m really enjoying your work here…you are very sympathetic to the thinkers you historicize.

  2. Cyclical is interesting, as it might be a frame we could use for thinking about the function of the term “Manichean” in The Wretched of the Earth. The Manichean form of thinking repeats itself, for sure, in the postcolonial moment; I’m thinking particularly of his critique of African nationalism that rallies around the distinction between the Arab north and sub-Saharan black Africa.

    Thanks for that comment. Thinking it over now.

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