How does Fanon understand Martinique, and therefore the Caribbean as such? This question concerns both how Fanon’s work works as a theory of the colonized and what it means that Fanon left the Caribbean for Algeria. I do not mean to speculate about motives or mindset, but instead just describe how Fanon’s account of the Caribbean sets out an impossible situation, an unredeemable place, which is, in the end, incompatible with the possibilities described in his radical optimism (a future without a past, a new humanism).
Fanon describes the Caribbean as a prison and without prospect. The alienated Caribbean see Europe as liberation, which is of course, on Fanon’s analysis, fated to failure in the racial schema of race, nation, and identity. In this description, Fanon turns to Césaire’s Notebook as the ur-text of theorizing the meaning of Caribbean landscape and place. He writes:
The black Antillean, prisoner on his island, lost in an atmosphere without the slightest prospect, feels the call of Europe like a breath of fresh air. For we must admit that Césaire was overly generous in his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. The city of Fort-de-France is truly lackluster and shipwrecked. Over there on the slopes of the sun is
then Fanon quotes Notebook
“the city – flat, sprawled, tripped up by its common sense, inert, winded under the geometric weight of its eternally renewed cross, at odds with its fate, mute, baffled, unable to circulate the pith of this ground, embarrassed, lopped, reduced, cut off from fauna and flora.”
This particular engagement with Césaire, brief as it is, turns Fanon’s attention to the senses and landscape, and so how colonialism infects, damages, and even destroys the colonized subject all the way to the senses. Place is uninhabitable except as alienation. Martiniquans are an “ironic” people. Words and values aren’t grounded, but, at best, set at play. When that play of word and value is run through the epidermal schema of racism, the particular form of alienation described in Black Skin, White Masks takes root not only in the black body, but also in the landscape and place called the Caribbean.
The ideological appropriation of the skin by racism – what Fanon simply calls epidermalization – is pushed deeper into the psyche and its possibilities by language and diction. Fanon writes:
All colonized people – in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave – position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture. The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush. The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become. (BSWM, 2-3)
This passage touches on familiar themes from the early Fanon, namely, the relationship between inferiority complex and the metropole, and the racialization of both. But he also sketches geography of this dynamic, writing space and landscape through the deep intellectual, psychological, and cultural work of language. I think Fanon scholarship has for the most part understood the work of language on psyche and culture (Fanon’s theory is not especially complicated), but I wonder if the link between language and place has been fully appreciated. History makes Martinique a prison. Language seals that prison in the psyche.
Language is everything in Black Skin, White Masks. Two short passages make this clear.
To speak means being able to use a certain syntax and possessing the morphology of such and such a language, but it means above all assuming a culture and bearing the weight of a civilization. (BSWM, 1-2)
To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture. The Antillean who wants to be white will succeed, since he will have adopted the cultural tool of language. (BSWM, 21)
Language, like the intersubjective construction of the body’s meaning, carries a racial schema. Language is ideological in Althusser’s sense, in that language, for Fanon, both produces and reproduces the racialized and racist society in which it is rooted. The racialization of language, the claim of Négritude upon which Fanon draws so strongly, threads together the alienation “from fauna and flora,” the abstraction of language, imagination, intellect, and tradition with the body. We see this in Fanon’s short remark on moral consciousness, where he writes:
Moral consciousness implies a kind of split, a fracture of consciousness between a dark and a light side. Moral standards require the black, the dark, and the black man to be eliminated from this consciousness. A black man, therefore, is constantly struggling against his own image. (BSWM, 170)
The affective life Fanon’s subject is therefore not just a description, but a systematically elaborated structure in which affective life is a symptom that draws out these deeper, broader structures that mark Martinique as a landscape of abjection. And so, with this accumulation of elements of anti-black colonial racism, Fanon has completed his argument for the provocative claim that “[t]here is nothing comparable when it comes to the black man. He has no culture, no civilization, and no ‘long historical past.'” (BSWM, 17)