November 16, 2013 John Drabinski

Fanon and audience

One of my general aims in critically re-reading Fanon is to historicize – in the sense of periodization – his thought. For me, this means in part critically evaluating how he understands the Caribbean in terms of memory, history, and culture, framed by developments after Fanon. Too much work in philosophy and theory begins and ends with Fanon, or reads him as a sort of timeless thinker. But periodizing also means asking how we might frame Fanon’s work with the questions of his moment.

In this case, I am thinking about the question of audience. It is one of Naipaul’s and Lamming’s signature questions, one that operates both at the level of explicit thematization (they write about it) and in terms of what I’d call a “structuring anxiety.” By structuring anxiety, I mean an affect and cultural concern of the moment that puts the writer out of place with him or herself. That is, the anxiety of audience arises when the writer writes to a cultural place that has not yet come into being. An interesting temporality, for sure, but altogether disconcerting. For Naipaul, this is expressed concisely and richly in his claim that “nothing was created here,” which underpins his larger characterization of the Caribbean as without history. Without a history, the Caribbean, for Naipaul, is without tradition. Without tradition, there is no audience – audience is an abstraction as much as anything, which is revealed when we think about the writer’s relation to the question of tradition. Lamming’s “The Negro Writer and His World” elaborates the phases of the writer, beginning with introspection and ending (in the sense of final purpose) with a peculiar sense of the universal, but he is also well-aware of how complicated this question is for the West Indian author. How can he write as a black writer, working through the particularities of Caribbean alienation at home and abroad, without a tradition and audience to which it is all addressed? Part of writing, then, might be the creation of audience. For Lamming. For Naipaul, it is a theme and end unto itself. For both, exile becomes a theme that accounts for the writer’s alienation as the search for audience.

Fanon’s work does not quite raise the question of audience. So, this is a speculative remark, but I wonder if maybe we should periodize Fanon’s work with just this question. The question of audience is not a market question, nor is it simply a development of literacy question. It is, rather, a question of how colonialism’s colonization of thinking constricts the space of thinkable possibilities, and the writer, when structurally anxious, exceeds that space and writes into a place that does not yet have historical location. The novel or poem of that excessive new space – and I presume as well the theory – has, in some sense, no time at all.

So when Fanon writes about a break with the past, a break that is clean and absolute, he is in some ways typical of the moment precisely because it is a moment saturated with the question of writing into a non-space or a space-to-come. This puts Fanon back into his moment, and in it we can ask the sorts of questions of Fanon that we have long grown accustomed to asking Naipaul: why are all localities reduced to unredeemable alienation? Perhaps part of the problem is that the writer fantasizes too much of the new, rather than seeing the demands on the writer from a hidden, though utterly familiar, sense of the present and how that sense connects communities to place and memory without exile. In that sense, I wonder if Walcott’s question to Naipaul in the former’s Nobel lecture – where Walcott witnesses the Ramleela festival in Felicity and wonders why anyone (Naipaul) would feel compelled to see it as a copy, rather than an event referring only to itself and its place – could not be re-formed and asked back to Fanon regarding his treatment of cultural practices like pidgin, creole, blues, jazz, and so on.

Rethinking Fanon with that question in mind is one thing. But understanding why Fanon would be framed in that way in the first place might be helped by an understanding of Fanon in the moment of a structural anxiety about audience. And perhaps that also helps us understand the deeper compulsion to write away from the Caribbean, into North Africa, as not just an identification of a shared experience by the colonized (though that is certainly an important element), but also as a kind of resolution of a deep anxiety typical of that moment in Caribbean intellectual history.

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