“Let me say from the outset that it would be a mistake to make Fanon into a clay model for revolution,” says Gayatri Spivak. I’ve asked her about Göran Olson’s 2014 celebrated documentary Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, which she prefaced. Herself the author of an influential body work that includes A Critique of Postcolonial Reason and more recently a translation of Aimé Césaire’s play A Season in the Congo, she engaged Olson’s film in signature critical mode. As a counterpoint to the documentary, her preface avoids the often repeated story of Fanon as a champion of counter-violence. “Instead,” she says, “one must understand that in the initial chapters of The Wretched of the Earth, which a lot of people read as an apology of violence, Fanon is actually claiming complicity with what was surrounding him. That is, the violence of colonization.” “I will be as violent as they are, when they hold my life as worth less than theirs,” says Frantz Fanon, the healer. I enquire about her views on Fanon, in particular, and of decolonization in general. “[Fanon] reflects philosophically on his complicity as ‘a gentleman’ of the French empire,” she replies, before engaging in a concise masterful reading of Fanon’s most controversial work. “The middle chapter has more to do, along the lines of [WEB] Du Bois, whose work I’ve also engaged, with how not to construct him as just ablack man and a problem. By the end of the book, Fanon is reading Hegel. As I said, he was not incapable of understanding philosophy. He’s an intellectual who deliberately reads the Phenomenology [of Spirit] as a historical narrative, consciously disobeying Hegel’s simple enough injunction that if you read it that way you would stall the philosophical project of phenomenology. He doesn’t care. This is extremely important, and here I want him to mark an affinity with him. This entire idea, of the sort of ‘intended mistake’ Fanon engages in by literalizing philosophy, has been my formula for the reading of Kant, Hegel and other western philosophers. Fanon decides to read Hegel in just such a way, placing himself in the position of the Hegelian subject. This is not finger-pointing. Rather, he’s doing what I would call ‘affirmative sabotage’. Recognizing that what he is doing is (affirmatively) sabotaging Hegel, by occupying the place of the normative subject, results in a very different Fanon.”
Spivak credits her friend, the novelist Assia Djebar, for much of her renewed perspective on Fanon and decolonization. Assia Djebar is the pen name of Algerian author, translator and filmmaker Fatima Zohra-Imalayen. From her 1962 Les enfants du noveau monde (Children of the New World) through the 1985 L’Amour, la fantasia (published in English as Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade) to Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartement and Nulle part dans la maison du mon pére (2008) Djebar reflected on her ambivalence about language, writing in French – denied entry into written Arabic in her time and place, as reflected in Nulle part dans la maison de mon père, dedicated to Spivak -- as well as identifying herself as a Western-educated scholar, being at the same time an Algerian and a feminist Muslim intellectual, a spokesperson for North-African women but also for women in general and, finally, for oppressed men and women. Her intellectual and political stance is well known. Fiercely critical of male-dominated society, and radically anti-colonial. Djebar was elected to the Académie Française in June 2006, the first writer from the Maghreb to become a member of the metropolitan learned society. By then she had won the coveted Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1996, the Yourcenar Prize in 1997, and the 2000 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and was named frequently as a contender for the Nobel Prize on the strength of her entire body of work before her death in February this year.
“Assia called me her twin sister,” Spivak recalls. “I did not ask for it. It is an honour which I have the responsibility to live up to.” Djebar’s own reading of Fanon may be an instance of what Spivak calls ‘affirmative sabotage’. Throughout her literary and filmic work, she twists and turns Fanon’s central image of the unveiling of Algeria. In his A Dying Colonialism, Fanon outlined the resistance by the men and women of the country to a colonial project aimed at defeating the Algerian nation by unveiling its women. The motif proved influential, appearing also in the contribution made by Iranian thinker Ali Shariati, himself a translator of Fanon, to the debates concerning western monoculturalism in the context of the Iranian Revolution. Fanon had depicted Algeria as a veiled woman threatened to be unveiled, a metaphor for rape, as Rita Faulkner has observed. Thus for Fanon the unveiling of Algeria is a sign, a key to unlock the psychological effects violence had on colonized North-Africans. But it is also a sign of hope. The new power that Algerian women found through their participation in the Algerian struggle for liberation, can also be seen as a cypher of a future in which the persistence of women’s equality would herald the historical realization of a modern, socialist, and revolutionary Algeria.
“My dear friend Djebar wrote in Tunis for the Moujahid,” says Spivak, “and worked with Fanon. So, she knew him very well.” Djebar, eleven years Fanon’s junior was twenty-three in 1959, when Fanon wrote A Dying Colonialism. It is likely she influenced him while working together as writer and editor for the revolutionary newspaper El-Moujahid. No doubt she was as familiar with Fanon’s ideas as with the fact that he was drawing upon a connection between land, the nation, and women’s bodies that can be said to be as old as literature and philosophy themselves. For it can be found in the Christian Book of Genesis as well as in the verse 223 of the Second Sura of the Quran, in traditional Western as well as modern Arabic literature.
In line with that tradition, Algeria was represented as a woman who stubbornly refused the ‘emancipatory seed’ of French Western enlightenment as modernization, who resisted colonialism and globalization, but also as a body to be possessed. So that possessing, conquering, penetrating a North-African woman is in this scheme a step towards conquering North Africa. The same can be said about America, the Amerindian continent thus named by Europeans following the Renaissance Latin tradition before that name was Anglicized and confused solely with its English-speaking part. In the original iconography, cartography and literature of the Americas, from the fifteen century onwards the continent was often represented as an Amazon, a warrior and a she-cannibal, while at the same time an object of sexual desire. That representation is very much at stake in the kind of expressive violence taking place nowadays in the Mexican-American border, in Central America, and in Colombia, which another friend of Gayatri Spivak, the literary critic Jean Franco, dealt with in her Cruel Modernity. Such violence – feminicidio or feminicide - focuses specifically, as Fanon put it, on the nameless, faceless women whose bodies become the very site of the various wars affecting the continent (insurgency, counter-insurgency, drugs) and whose existence is reduced to zero.
“It is through Assia Djebar that I get a sense of Fanon as a healer,” says Spivak. “The point that Fanon makes, which nobody bothers to read carefully, is that when you weigh lives so that one Israeli life, for instance, becomes equal to a hundred and fifty Palestinian lives, then violence emerges as the response.”
It isn’t just Africa or the Americas, Israel or Palestine, neither the colonial past nor a remnant of it in the post-colonial present. What is at stake here, as Spivak explains invoking Fanon and Djebar, is the colonial fantasy. It persists, “whether the imagined contact between races or peoples involves a perilous siege or easy pleasure”, as Woodhull says concurring with Spivak and Djebar’s analysis. And persist it does. Consider 6 October, 2015. During the Conservative Conference in Manchester, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, informed her audience that “too much or too fast immigration made a cohesive society impossible,” a statement confirmed on the same day by Prime Minister David Cameron. Next day, during his speech, Cameron condemned racial discrimination in the name of a commendable, British, multi-cultural society as “the best in the world.” One day, imagined contact between peoples is deemed perilous. Next day, as easy pleasure. The bodies and souls of feminized others, once the site of colonial warfare, have now become the “hearts and minds” to be weighed and won over, conquered, penetrated, in the war against terror, for security and the compromise between classes of the post-colonial Twenty-first century.
Djebar takes stock of this fact in her writings, and of the place occupied by women in our supposedly decolonized societies more than twenty years after her collaboration with Fanon. Spivak invokes her to highlight the limits of women’s place and role today vis-à-vis the (Hegelian) historical, phenomenological and speculative narrative undertaken by Fanon.
“His [Fanon’s] reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology must be understood as an intended mistake, or as I prefer, as affirmative sabotage,” she reiterates during our conversation. Similarly, Spivak observes, “we must not make Fanon into some clay figure,” or a model for all revolutions past and still to come. Instead, she says, “we must take Fanon forward.” Read him and take him forward into newer conjunctures.
Through Djebar, Spivak takes Fanon forward, affirmatively. If, as Lewis R. Gordon recognizes, “although he acknowledges the psychoanalytical contributions of Anna Freud, [for Fanon] the existential philosophical domains appear squarely in the hands of men,”i through Djebar, Gayatri Spivak turns Fanon’s failure to articulate his indebtedness to Beauvoir and other women on its head. For in Djebar’s writing the image of ‘unveiling Algeria’ is uncoupled from its patriarchal origins in religious and secular literature, thereby turning Fanon’s limit into an affirmation as well as a celebration of the richness of the women’s oral, critical and enacting tradition, as presented in her Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartement, cutting across boundaries of tradition and modernity. I believe it was the influence and criticism of women like Djebar that made Fanon into a healer, a trans-Gender witch and a shaman rather than a witch-hunter, allowing us to read him as such. I believe Spivak would agree.
“It is through her [Djebar] that I get a sense of Fanon as a healer,” she repeats. “Again, the point that Fanon makes, which nobody bothers to consider carefully, is that it’s no use accusing anybody of violence when there is this kind of weighing of human life.” “Not even accusing the perpetrator of such violence and weighing?” I ask. “Yes, of course,” says Spivak, “but Fanon is not talking about the colonizer. He is talking about the colonized. He is saying that from the perspective of the one whose life has been so [weighed and] devalued, this is how violence comes.”
Thus understood, there is nothing relativistic in Fanon’s perspectivism. Rather, what follows is a questioning of the grounds for judgment, the weighing judgment of the former colonizer. Also a questioning of his assumed discursive mastery over the normative domain, that of law and order, which threatens to absorb the ethical entirely. Such a conflation of domains in the name of law’s autonomy - this is what western jurists and politician claim when they speak of ‘the rule of law’, also their imitators elsewhere - is the mark of our rights-based, so-called post-colonial, post-class, and post-racial societies. It leaves no room for proper distinctionsbetween justice and what a certain society considers as just at some point in time. This, by the way, is not only the best description of today’s historicist relativism but also the best prescription for totalitarianism and decisionism.ii “Fanon is saying that the violence which comes in response to the judgment of one [way of] life, that of the colonized, as weighing less than another, the colonizer’s, is not to be judged on the same grounds,” Spivak says. “He does not say one must condone violence. What he is really saying is that one must know there is no absolutist standard unless one has been even to [in trying to] bring about a situation where human lives are equal.”
I put the question to Spivak whether such may be the reason why Fanon is making a comeback. He is being re-read nowadays against a situation totally dominated by an abstract normative injunction on violence that leaves no room for proper ethical distinctions. Or as Hegel and The Cure would put it, a night of the world in which all cats are grey. “Every single violence is supposed to be outlawed, but specifically, revolutionary violence …” I say, “... in an absolutist way. So, we do not know anymore what is revolutionary violence,” Spivak continues. “To an extent the funniest thing is that the act of revolution is not by necessity a violent act,” she observes. “That is, if one is being close to Marx, and that is where I am, or to Luxembourg who was a fine reader of Marx and did things accordingly, and I am a Rosa Luxembourg-style social democrat, or to Gramsci, and I am also close to Gramsci as a reader of Marx and a practitioner of subalternity. These are my models although it is not up to me to stereotype myself in that way, others will see. In any case, in accordance to these exemplars, and this is also how it seems to me, the idea is not to see revolution as necessarily a site of violence except reactive violence. And how to understand the nucleus of it, that is a much more complicated agenda and I do not think we can apply Fanonian discourse to it,” she explains.
“I have a feeling that if Fanon is going to be useful for us we have to see this, first,” Spivak points out. “Second, we must not make him into some sort of clay figure. After all, this was a young man who died at thirty-six. So, all the time for developing politically still lay ahead of him. One has this unfortunate feeling also with Gramsci. On the other hand, [WEB] Du Bois died at ninety-five. One can see in this contrast that figures who are political evolve in time. This is the sense in which Assia Djebar writes in Le blanc de l’Algérie, Algerian White (1996) addressing Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth of France, again. Yes. But now Algerian killing Algerian.” Therefore, Spivak says, “Fanon’s project is something that we should take forward in newer conjunctures. He already knew that decolonization was not the kind of unquestioned good that a film like Concerning Violence, which I introduced, makes it out to be. Thirdly, we must know too that Fanon not only went off from the experience vécu or the real-life experience of blackness into something broader, looking into colonialism rather than just racialism. He also, when Senghor did not respond to his request to go to Senegal, went to Algeria, which is not sub-Saharan Africa. Algerians are in general Mediterranean, Berber, and so on, rather than sub-Saharan, and in that sense the Algerian are not black. When Fanon begins to declare that he is Algerian, people do not understand that he is making a very careful statement the substance of which is to identify with the abstraction of colonialism rather than with the misplaced concreteness of skin colour. This is an extremely important thing to remember: Fanon is not a chromatist.”
“Let us then speak of such new junctures”, I propose to Spivak. “Also, in line with what you describe as a sort of Hegelian progression, from the false concreteness of blackness as skin colour to the abstraction of colonialism. What comes to my mind as part of such an historical-phenomenological narrative is that peculiar sub-section in the chapter On Violence of The Wretched of the Earth titled ‘Violence at the International Violence’, which most readers tend to gloss over. Continuing with your idea of Fanon as affirmative reader of Hegel, one could say that there is this further movement here from the abstract and yet more encompassing materiality of the colonial world to the even more encompassing and some might say more abstract but also speculative world of finance. A world that must have been much more difficult to contemplate in the nineteen fifties or sixties, but which for us has become quite quotidian and crucial even if we do not understand it, much in the same way medieval Europeans related to religion before the Reformation. Do you think Fanon was considering the process that had begun already in the second half of the twentieth century but would be complete only in our time, that is, the process by means of which the former colonial world would remake itself into a one-world of global finance?” I ask her.
“Yes,” Spivak replies. “After all, Fanon lived through a time when the rules of the old colonial world were being re-written. Bretton-Woods had already taken place. Therefore, it is not so much that Fanon is prescient. Rather, he knows it is no longer about the mere reality of experience. This is a man who, after all, was finishing a dissertation on psychiatry. This is not a person committed to some linear, narrative view of subjectivity. Therefore, one has to look at Fanon in this way, as someone trying to understand how these big abstract commitments, colonialism, finance and so on – which are not the same everywhere – affect subjects in specific and changing ways. This process of subjective change, which was also his, for whatever reason, this coming clear out of sub-Saharan black Africa and into Mediterranean North Africa, is what he looks into and declares in a language, not Arabic, which by the way he did not know so well. So, when he declares he’s Algerian he is saying a very different thing [about the psychological consequences and implications of colonialism and its avatars] which we do not know how to hear. Then, what you are talking about is the much more leftist idea of the economic implications of the future of colonialism. You can’t have a naïve view of decolonization when at least you can think it. You don´t know it [what these implications might be] but you can think it.”
Listening to Spivak speak of what we do not know how to hear, I wonder whether this is also a case of what we do not want to hear. There is a connection between the two. And it is important. In Aimé Césaire’s play about the tragic assassination of the leader of Congolese independence, A Season in the Congo, which Spivak recently translated, Patrice Lumumba, the protagonist, is the one who pursues the question that no one else wants to hear. It’s the same as in the case of Assia Djebar’s women, who “are always haunted by desire,” as she says. While taking to Spivak, I can’t stop thinking about how haunted she is. By friends – some alive, most of them dead. But also, and this amounts to the same thing, by desire. Which, in turn, is the same thing as saying the she is haunted by the question we, no one, wants to hear. While discussing Fanon, she produces out of some testimonial evidence given to her by a ghost-friend, a connection between Frantz Fanon and Patrice Lumumba. When everything seems to be harmonious, in history as in our conversation, under control, the two of them enter the stage in the role of the discomforter (as Lumumba calls himself in Césaire’s play). That is, the one who interrupts the straight story. Such is the lesson of tragedy: History does not follow a straight line.
“There is one more thing I´ll say here,” Spivak observes. “It would be good to look at [the fate of] Pan-Africanism in this context. We hardly talk about these things in the context of Fanon. Yet, both Fanon and Patrice Lumumba attended the 1958-9 All-African People’s Conference in Accra. As I was told by my friend, the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor who died recently, he was shot at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya - he’s smiling, we´re sitting drinking a fruit juice from his trees at the garden - ‘well, you know, both the tall one and the short one were at that one’. The tall one is Lumumba, and the short one is of course Fanon. So Fanon had dealings with people like Lumumba. Assia Djebar makes the connection when she writes about the Barbarian who has shown to the Romans that a Berber ‘can combine bravery and intelligence with … a fierce personal reticence’. Later, the female protagonist of the novel sees him, Jugurtha, that’s the Berber’s name, dying of hunger in a dungeon in Rome. Djebar says of Jugurtha that he is the first Lumumba.”
“There are other connections,” Spivak insists. There is the one that she postulates between Jugurtha, Lumumba and Fanon, for instance, with the help of her ghost friends and theatre. There’s another, if one brings into the conversation Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s introduction to Spivak’s version of A Season. “Everything is under control and then comes a ‘discomforter’,” he observes.iii So, here it is, another point of entry into history, through philosophy and theatre, violence and the decolonial: Enter Orestes/Oedipus/Socrates/Diotima/Jugurtha/the Rebel/ Caliban/Cugoano/ Christophe/Du Bois/Lumumba/Fanon/Djebar/Césaire/Spivak. Enter the one (“the tall one and the short one”) who pursues the question no one wants to hear. Let us call this ‘An Adjusted Theatrical Account of World’s History and Philosophy”, with a nod to Paget Henry.iv Djebar writes in the novel cited by Spivak: “I see him [Jugurtha], this time ‘on the road to Rome,’ handed over in chains. ‘Rome, a city for sale!’ he used to proclaim. He is conquered and taught a lesson. He is Africa’s first Lumumba.” (So Vast the Prison, Assia Djebar, p. 344). “There are two theories of translation”, Spivak writes in the translator’s foreword to A Season in the Congo, “you add yourself to the original, or you efface yourself and let the text shine. I subscribe to the second.” (A Season in the Congo, vii). Maybe we can extrapolate here. Let us speculate that there are equally two theories and practices of history: in the first one, you add yourself to the tradition, imitating its canonical figures, whom you follow. In the second one, you let the text shine, as it is the product of an exemplary author that serves as a model, not for imitation, not as a clay figure, but for influence in the condition of freedom. I subscribe to the second. This is creative freedom, the kind which befits the man or woman “who asks for the impossible”, as per Bachir Diagne, as Spivak “who declares stubbornly that what everybody (…) is satisfied will not do for him” or her. “Thus Lumumba is convinced that Africa needs his intransigence,” and he sets another path in motion, one that in his case would end in death, like Salvador Allende, when they ruin the prevailing consensus around compromise “by proclaiming as the true goal for the people (…) the same concept of freedom but in his own tongue.”v
German philosopher Immanuel Kant had a name for this procedure. He called it succession, the subjective rediscovery of the maxims of the categorical imperative. For Kant, here following the poet John Milton, achieving a moment of rational ‘conversion’, ‘rebirth’, or ‘revolution’, is demonstrably earned “by a formalism of the mind that the formalism of poetry discloses,” as Sanford Budick puts it.vi
Perhaps Spivak’s seemingly innocuous comment during our conversation, “Fanon had dealings with people like Lumumba,” can be understood in a similar vein. For she engages the ethically productive power of the sublime poetry and tragedy of Fanon’s text, of Djebar’s and Césaire’s, affirmatively. Is this the point of her ‘sabotage’ strategy of critical reading? If so, then let us postulate that this is the affirmative mode of writing and philosophy, and of truthful (as opposed to purely eliminative) philosophers. And let us include Malcolm X in the context of Pan-Africanism, the Panthers, as well as Guevara, Salvador and Beatriz Allende, and Neruda’s poetry. Crucially, this is not at all different from what Kant found in Milton’s poetry. We may ask henceforth, what are the implications of the affirmative mode of writing philosophy in history?
"This is a very different kind of connection,” Spivak says. “Lumumba came from Belgian Congo, which is very different from French North Africa, where Fanon ended up. This is why Sartre couldn’t understand him. He was disgusted with Lumumba, dismissed him with one word. So we have to remember those connections as well, not just the story of being black, being an African revolutionary, and condoning violence.”
Listening to Spivak in conversation, there emerges an affirmative Fanon, the healer, in opposition to the purely eliminative Fanon and Lumumba, and Allende we get from Arendt, Sartre, the neoliberals and the(ir) official story that represents them solely as purveyors of destructive violence. “If you look at the issue of Présence Africaine published in 1962 after Fanon’s death,” she says, almost whispering in my ear, “the one in which Aimé Césaire wrote Fanon’s obituary, Máspero writes one also, it is a pretty sublime issue, you get a sense of how Fanon is absolutely not a clay figure of the African revolutionary condoning violence, etcetera. It’s just not on. I just want to say that to get a sense of the, excuse the word, reality of Fanon, it is worth reading what those close friends had to say about him. Before he was made into just such a clay figure.”
I listen carefully. Let us use another word. The one that Kant used. Let us say that Fanon is exemplarity as such.
iL R Gordon, What Fanon Said. A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought, New York: Fordham University Press, 2015, 32.
iiSee on this E Laclau, “Ethics, Normativity and the Heteronomy of the Law”, in The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, London and New York: Verso, 2014126-137, at 133.
iiiS Bachir Diagne, “Introduction”, in A Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, London, New York & Calcutta: Seagull, 2010, ix-xv, at xiii-xiv
ivP Henry, An Adjusted Account of American Philosophy, Masterclass, 2015 Caribbean Philosophical Association Summer Course, UConn, Storrs, 1 June 2015.
vS Bachir Diagne, “Introduction”, xiii-xiv.