Yesterday, 6 December 2011, marked the 50th anniversary of Frantz Fanon‘s death. This Martiniquo–Algerian psychiatrist, revolutionary, and theorist of colonial racism and the possibilities and pitfalls of decolonisation, remains in many ways the ultimate ‘Southern theorist’ — that is, theorist of the global condition of being ‘South’ or ‘Southern’; if you will permit me this clumsy and somewhat pretentious turn of phrase.
I say this because Fanon’s writings have retained their urgency, relevance and powers of illumination, of course; but also because he, perhaps more effectively than anyone before him, forced European thought to confront itself and its ‘others’ in a truly global dialectic. He relativised and demythologised (highlighting both its imperialism and its provincialism) the categories in terms of which the human had been recognised and especially misrecognised in European thought; and he did so from the particular historical perspective and practical project of decolonisation.
But relativisation and demythologisation was only one part of the story — Fanon was not primarily concerned with textual critique; he was not a proto-deconstructionist. Fanon was interested in forging new categories of thought, new subjectivities, and new modes of being and becoming. To this end, he challenged European thought (and the cultural and political category of ‘Europe’ as such) with a forceful refusal — at the same time as he portrayed the moment of decolonisation as absolute affirmation: ‘We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of everyone of their own sreets, in all the corners of the globe. […] So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe? […] Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.’ (The Wretched of the Earth, Clarence Farrington’s 1965 translation, p. 251).
Fanon’s radical dialectic is left unresolved (and has to remain unresolved, seeing as imperial and neo-colonial relations still characterise ‘globalisation’) and provides us with one of the most difficult, but also perhaps most productive spaces for considering the conditions of possibility for forms of ‘Southern theory’ to take root. It also remains unresolved, because Fanon not only rejected Europe, he also refused any easy recourse to notions of culture, tradition, or indigeneity; he refused the cosy embrace of the (imagined) past. ‘Blackness’ can also be a mask…
The Fanonian gesture is thus not to reject Euro-American psychology, for example, in favour ‘African’ or other forms of ‘indigenous’ psychology. Or ‘white’ in favour of ‘black’. Fanon takes us into a much more difficult space, theoretically, where psychology remains to be thought in relation to historically situated and mediated subjects, who find themselves in various objective conditions of freedom and unfreedom, and who are always already practically engaged with the reproduction and transformation of themselves and their world. I think it is this radical dialectic, this serious and ongoing challenge to our thinking, actions and identifications as scholars and theorists, that defines Fanon’s real and lasting significance for critical psychology — not the extent to which he can be appropriated to various forms of psychoanalysis, where he often ends up merely functioning as a portal through which psychoanalysis can extend itself to and legitimise itself once more in the South… Black mask psychology?! (Of course, I am not suggesting that there are no serious discussions to be had about Fanon and psychoanalysis; just that Fanon is too easily reduced to a theoretical ventriloquist: Lacan is made to speak through him, as if Lacanian theory has always been the true ‘destination’ of the Fanonian dialectic…)
Theodor Adorno once wrote: ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations.’ Perhaps we could say the same of Fanon also. It is a pity that ‘postmodern’ Fanonians, ‘Lacanian’ Fanonians, ‘culture studies’ Fanonians and ‘postcolonial theory’ Fanonians have, ever since Homi Bhabha’s influential publications in the 1980s and 1990s, been so hasty to dismiss what is most exaggerated in Fanon: his radical humanism, his anti-European stance in his final works, his thoughts on violence, his insistence on the forces of life and the possibility of revolutionary becomings. These were seen as embarrassing remnants of modernist rhetoric in what was increasingly portrayed as some sort of crypto-poststructuralist oeuvre. Fanon became a theorist of identity, of hybridity, of ambivalence; a cultural critic rather than a truly political thinker. Fanon’s ‘exaggerations’, however, were never mere rhetorical flourishes; they are an essential part of his dialectical thought, and perhaps remain what is most challenging and interesting about his work. Fifty years after his death, it may be time for critical psychologists to reclaim and exaggerate Frantz Fanon.