Fanon, Nationalism and Humanism: The Paradoxes - IngentaConnect

Fanon, Nationalism and Humanism: The Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Intellectual Jane Hiddleston In his famous essay on the role of the intellectual, ‘Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels’, Sartre describes the inevitable alienation of the intellectual in relation to the society he analyses and addresses. Sartre notes that at the time of writing (the mid 1960s), the public has accused intellectuals of failing to understand the politics of the Cold War, and that the intellectual is conceived precisely as ‘quelqu’un qui se mêle de ce qui ne le regarde pas’.1 More specifically, Sartre defines what he calls the contemporary ‘technicien du savoir’ as caught up in a set of contradictions: he is a universal humanist, but has learned his humanist principles by means of a privileged education that conflicts with his professed egalitarian beliefs; he searches for universal values, but retains at the same time a particularizing focus on bourgeois ideology; he seeks universal knowledge but his social and economic position (his salary and employment conditions) are politically determined. Moreover, the ‘technicien du savoir’ can be conceived as an intellectual when he becomes conscious of these contradictions, as Sartre affirms: ‘l’intellectuel est donc l’homme qui prend conscience de l’opposition, en lui et dans la société, entre la recherche de la vérité pratique (avec toutes les normes qu’elle implique) et l’idéologie dominante (avec son système de valeurs traditionnelles)’.2 From this point of view, then, the intellectual is necessarily at war with himself, and his attempts to speak up politically in the name of the masses are foiled by his bourgeois background. In this article, I shall use the example of Frantz Fanon to explore how, in the case of the francophone anti-colonial intellec1. Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels’, in Situations VIII (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), pp. 375–455 (p. 377). Sartre’s italics. This paper was first delivered as a lecture in Japan in the mid 1960s. 2. Sartre, ‘Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels’, p. 399. IJFrS 10 (2010)



tual, this experience of dissociation and alienation from the public he addresses is intensified. Sartre was an impassioned supporter of Fanon’s work, having laid out the significance of his call to arms in the preface to Les Damnés de la terre (originally published in 1961), and Fanon, too, drew on Sartre’s conceptions of consciousness and freedom. It is not surprising, then, given their intellectual proximity and the political force of Fanon’s writing, that Fanon shares or even radicalizes Sartre’s ambivalence towards the very status of the intellectual. Educated in a French system and yet striving to speak in the name of the colonized masses, francophone intellectuals such as Fanon adopt a paradoxical role which their work struggles to overcome or work through. The French colonial policy of assimilation meant that the natives were supposed to become French, to adopt the French language and cultural values in order to enter ‘civilization’. But while the policy of assimilation was conceived to create an integrated community of French citizens, in reality it set up a division between a small minority of ‘évolués’ and the rest of the indigenous population, who were effectively disenfranchized and excluded from the management of their own land. Struggling to belong either in their native communities or in that of the French, this tiny minority clearly benefited from their colonial education but were as a result permanently exiled. In drawing on French cultural values in their writing, and in writing in French, many francophone intellectuals writing in the lead-up to decolonization failed to relate to the very people they set out to liberate. Decolonization in Africa, and the questioning, if not the end, of empire in the Antilles, turns out to be a moment where the intellectual at once became a major spokesman and harbinger of change, and, paradoxically, one where intellectual work seemed potentially somewhat out of touch with the concerns of the people that it sought to address. Fanon’s example is, in turn, a particularly problematic one, in that his most militant and vehement call for the people’s emancipation, Les Damnés de la terre, is aimed at Algerians while his own Martinican background is barely mentioned. Fanon calls for the liberation of the Algerian people, championing solidarity


and national unity, but he has little knowledge of the culture, history and experience of the Algerian people whose cause he so commends. These observations on Fanon’s alienation, however, are intended less as a facile criticism of his work than as a starting point for an analysis of the provocative tensions that his writing reveals. I would like to start by drawing attention, then, to some of the paradoxes and difficulties in Fanon’s evocation of colonized Algeria, and in his vilification of Algerian bourgeois intellectuals. Fanon criticizes the Algerian élite and endeavours to speak in the name of the broader Algerian public, but his position in relation to the people is nevertheless an uneasy one. The rest of the article will take the twin concepts of nationalism and humanism, and analyse how Fanon’s attempts both to draw on his knowledge of these concepts in European culture and to reinvent them afresh serve, in the end, to lend his thinking a compelling and invigorating dynamism. First, it is striking that the opening pages of Les Damnés de la terre paint a stark binary opposition between French and Algerian, between colonizer and colonized. This dichotomy is nevertheless one into which Fanon himself cannot neatly be fitted. Fanon’s argument here is that colonialism institutes a divided world, in which the colonizer is separate from, and superior to, the colonized. Colonial thinking is inherently binary, and this binary thinking is concretized by rigid frontiers between zones in the colonial city: ‘le monde colonisé est un monde coupé en deux. La ligne de partage, la frontière en est indiquée par les casernes et les postes de police’.3 Colonizer and colonized are different species, and this Manichean vision dehumanizes the native. Economic and social inequalities are hardened by the sense that there are two distinct essences in the colonized universe. Fanon vilifies the stasis and atrophy of this compartmentalized world, and demands its absolute termination by means of violent force. If he rails against this inhuman division, however, Fanon’s description of the colonial universe leaves no space for his own position. If Fanon himself is a colonized Martinican in origin, he is nevertheless European in education, and came to Algeria 3. Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), p. 68, hereafter DT in the text.



via France. He recommends the use of French as a unifying force in Algerian radio, and knows little of Algerian traditions; in particular, he is strikingly silent on the role of Islam. This is not to imply that he was in any way not correct to vilify the divisiveness of the French regime in Algiers, but it is significant that as a Martinican intellectual Fanon retains an indeterminate position within his own Manichean vision of the division between colonizer and colonized. Fanon goes on to recommend the use of violence in the overthrow of the colonial regime, and attacks the response of native intellectuals to the call for independence for its lack of force. Violence, according to Fanon, would not only serve as a political instrument but could provide psychological catharsis through its complete evacuation of the colonial presence. First, Fanon argues that the problem with native intellectuals is that they focus on detail, rather than conceiving a set of tools for the complete defeat of the colonial system. For Fanon, the difficulty is that, ‘engagé[s] sur des points précis du front, il [leur] arrive de perdre de vue l’unité du mouvement et, en cas d’échec local, de se laisser aller au doute, voire au désespoir’ (DT 80). Intellectuals are caught up in the process of organization rather than conceiving the struggle as absolute. Secondly, Fanon asserts that the problem with the native intellectual is that he is inevitably partly assimilated into the system he wants to overturn. Having inherited the way of thinking of the colonizer, the intellectual can only imagine a society structured according to the same divisive lines, and his revolt envisions a new set of inequalities between the élite and the Algerian masses: ‘ce que l’intellectuel réclame, c’est la possibilité de multiplier les affranchis, la possibilité d’organiser une authentique classe d’affranchis’ (DT 91). Unlike the intellectuals, moreover, the masses do not aspire to achieve the status of the colonizer, but seek to take his place. Intellectual thinking is for Fanon ruptured from the mechanics of the masses’ revolution, and again, despite the immediacy of Fanon’s writing with its urgent call to arms, it could be argued that his own intellectual writing in its very form and address becomes, in spite of itself, detached from the revolutionary practice of the people. What Fanon ostensibly argues, however, is that the


intellectual’s vision of revolt does not involve the tabula rasa that he believes is necessary for the definitive defeat of the colonial system. In subsequent chapters, ‘Grandeur et faiblesses de la spontanéité’ and ‘Mésaventures de la conscience nationale’, Fanon develops his argument against native intellectuals by exploring the fraught relationship between the élite and the masses. Once again, Fanon complains that the methods and doctrines of bourgeois intellectuals are copied from European models, and that the élite also have little knowledge of the lives of the rural population. The bourgeoisie and the rural masses are mutually suspicious of one another. In addition, Fanon goes on to argue that it is the lumpenproletariat, city-dwellers who make a living by illegitimate means, who are truly the leaders of the revolution. Fanon departs from Marx here, who suggests that the lumpenproletariat could, in their lethargy, become a ‘bribed tool for reactionary intrigue’.4 For Fanon, conversely, existing as a sort of underclass, the lumpenproletariat are outside the laws of the colonial regime, so that, ‘le lumpen-prolétariat, cette cohorte d’affamés détribalisés, déclanisés constitue l’une des forces le plus spontanément et le plus radicalement révolutionnaires d’un peuple colonisé’ (DT 167). Both the rural masses and the lumpenproletariat have a power and force that the bourgeoisie lacks, as Fanon stresses the ways in which the local élite have become stagnant, already outmoded. Furthermore, the revolution cannot take place under the direction of an élite class of leaders but must remain in the hands of the people: ‘nous ne devons pas cultiver l’exceptionnel, chercher le héros, autre forme du leader. Nous devons soulever le peuple, agrandir le cerveau du peuple, le meubler, le différencier, le rendre humain’ (DT 239). It is the masses who are capable of overturning the colonial regime absolutely, and it is the masses who must control the movement of the revolution. Fanon may vilify native intellectuals for failing to understand the urgency and the absolute character of the people’s revolution, but 4. Tony Martin quotes this passage from Marx’s Communist Manifesto, in ‘Rescuing Fanon from the Critics’, in Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue, ed. by Nigel Gibson (New York: Humanity Books, 1999), pp. 83–102 (p. 92).



he speaks in the name of a class whose experiences are at the same time necessarily remote from his own. He positions himself at a distance from the community of which he is most obviously a part, and yet he lacks knowledge of the experiences of the people whose power he most lauds. Fanon joined the FLN and wrote regularly for the Algerian nationalist newspaper El Moudjahid, working to spread news of the conflict, and to address, as well as to speak on behalf of, the anti-colonial Algerian public. Nevertheless, he struggles to identify with that public, with its history, heritage and cultural practices. Fanon deliberately uses the pronoun ‘nous’ to address the Algerian public, and the inclusive implications of this ‘nous’ stress the importance of community and solidarity between natives who might initially have felt alienated and dispersed. Yet by the time of the text’s conclusion, the ‘nous’ has lost its specificity, and the work becomes a paean to change rather than a precise study of the Algerian conflict. And although he seems to be calling the colonized to take up arms, most of his readers will be Europeans whom the text is also trying to shake into changing their ways. This observation is intended not as an indication that Fanon’s call backfires, but as a sign of the slippery nature of the collective ethos his text recommends. Equally, Les Damnés de la terre is on one level set up as a call for regime change, and indeed was later conceived as a ‘handbook’ for revolutionary action. This success, however, was largely in the United States, where the work has been seen to be informative for black rights movements as well as for postcolonial studies departments, but, as Neil Lazarus points out, it is perhaps ironically not much read in Algeria or in Africa.5 If the work has been celebrated in postcolonial studies departments as a highly provocative and incendiary critique of colonial racism, its force has been felt above all outside the country that its author so ardently wanted to liberate. And even more, one might add that in analysing the revolution from a philosophical perspective, Fanon is necessarily using a language and set of analytical tools that will be alien to those whose liberation he wants to promote. His readers 5. Neil Lazarus, ‘Mythemes of Fanon and the Burden of the Present’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 47 (2002), Special Issue After Fanon, 11–16.


are resultantly on some level more likely to be European intellectuals, despite his desire to stand alongside the Algerian people, and indeed, the conclusion to Les Damnés de la terre is conceived to reveal the faults of the colonizer to himself. The proximity between Fanon’s thought and that of Sartre also indicates that Fanon’s call to the Algerian masses veils a rather more focused engagement with, and address to, Sartrean philosophy. Fanon’s writing about the bourgeoisie and the masses also reveals his ambivalent relationship with Marxism. In many ways a vehement Marxist, Fanon draws extensively on the work of Marx in his analysis of the Algerian revolution, and one of his achievements was to indicate the uses of Marxism in anti-colonial struggles. Fanon’s analysis exposes colonialism as a form of racialized capitalism based on the exploitation specifically of other ethnic groups. Yet Fanon’s thinking retains an uncertain relationship with the heritage upon which it nevertheless draws. In ‘De la violence’, for example, Fanon notes that the ruling class in the colony is not purely defined by economic wealth, but by its status as foreign: ‘ce ne sont ni les usines, ni les propriétés, ni le compte en banque qui caractérisent d’abord la “classe dirigeante”. L’espèce dirigeante est d’abord celle qui vient d’ailleurs, celle qui ne ressemble pas aux autochtones, “les autres”’ (DT 71). Economic inequalities are associated, then, with cultural and ethnic differences. Colonial power is pernicious because it is other, it is imposed from the outside and its managers are therefore even more divorced from the people over whom they wield their influence. If Fanon both draws on and develops Marxist theory, moreover, critic Tony Martin notes that Fanon is also unresolved on the question of the relation between the metropolitan working class and the Algerian proletariat. According to Martin, ‘on the one hand he is struggling to be true to the orthodox Marxist position of a community of interest between the metropolitan workers and the whole populations of the proletarianized Third World. On the other hand, he is faced with the clear evidence of French chauvinism which has transcended class lines.’6 Fanon does later conceive a form of class solidarity between 6. Martin, ‘Rescuing Fanon from the Critics’, p. 88.



French and Algerian workers, but it is revealing that he wavers on the question of how far to identify any aspect of the revolt with French experience. And even more, in using Marxism he wants both to draw on a European philosophy and to stress the radical difference of colonized revolutionary experience. If Fanon stresses the necessary specificity of Algerian colonized experience, however, he also, in his estrangement from it, produces a provocative understanding of the open-ended nature of Algerian national culture. Having explored the pitfalls of the bourgeois dominance of any new national consciousness, he champions the creation of a national culture that would overthrow the last vestiges of the colonial influence. If the colonized intellectual does have a role in the independence movement, then, this is in promoting this national culture to the detriment of the colonial system. Fanon argues that one of the evils of colonial thinking is that it deprives the colonized of a culture. French colonial ideology maintains that Africans are savages, and need to be civilized according to the ideals of the French Republic. Anti-colonial movements have tended, according to Fanon, to focus on broader cultural groupings, upholding a black African or Arabo-Muslim identity, but these are excessively generalized and cut off from the day-to-day reality of distinct colonized communities. Furthermore, rather than specifying the content of the culture, Fanon’s concept of national culture gives it a dynamic and liberating new form. Fanon identifies three phases in the colonized intellectual’s resistance to the colonizer’s destruction of his culture, and highlights the necessity of moving beyond the first two stages to embrace what he conceives as the revolutionary power of the third stage. The first stage is characterized by the intellectual’s embrace of the colonial culture, the desire for assimilation. The second stage expresses the intellectual’s tense, nervous desire for liberation, a sort of muscular contraction, and often involves a return to folklore, to tradition, though this too is, for Fanon, regressive and does not help to serve the intellectual’s cause: ‘il privilégie les coutumes, les traditions, les modes d’apparaître et sa quête forcée, douloureuse ne fait qu’évoquer une banale recherche d’exotisme’ (DT 267). Finally,


the third phase heralds the creation of a dynamic national culture not out of the past, not out of the vestiges of pre-colonial tradition, but out of the action of the combat. This third stage constitutes a crucial part of the decolonization movement and the invention of the new nation, and Fanon’s conceptualization of it at the same time generates a provocative and innovative vision of national cultural practice. National culture for Fanon, then, should not be turned towards the past but should envision the creation of a new identity. It should not fall into reproducing stereotypes but should emerge from the creative activity of the people. And if Fanon knows little about the people whose culture he champions, this lack of knowledge actually gives his conception of culture a potentially fruitful flexibility and spontaneity. Creative activity for Fanon is intricately bound up with the struggle for independence, and is grounded in the concrete event of rebellion. Fanon takes as an example a poem by Keita Fodeba, Minister of the Interior in the Republic of Guinea, in which the poet narrates the hero Naman’s participation in the Second World War and subsequent murder when protesting against the white leaders in Dakar. He praises the poem’s clarity and frankness, ‘c’est un exposé précis, progressif’, and applauds the way in which it communicates to the people the injustice of the colonial system and the necessity of resistance. For Fanon, ‘comprendre ce poème c’est comprendre le rôle qu’on a à jouer, identifier sa démarche, fourbir ses armes’ (DT 279). Above all, Fanon argues that it is the poem’s rootedness in action, in the reality of the combat, that gives it its revolutionary force. National culture is not the preserve of the intellectual but is precisely an enterprise of ‘demystification’, it conveys the physical brutality of the French colonial project and calls the people to take up arms. The intellectual or poet does not inhabit the realm of abstract contemplation but involves both body and mind in his expression of resistance: ‘pour assurer l’espoir, pour lui donner densité, il faut participer à l’action, s’engager corps et âme dans le combat national’ (DT 280). This physicality, this immersion of intellectual and poetic work into the everyday realities of the conflict lends to Fanon’s vision of national culture a unique dynamism. National culture is



necessarily always being recreated and refuses both abstraction and stereotype. Fanon’s celebration of Algerian national culture has nevertheless been criticized, and despite his belief in the culture’s continual recreation through the evolution of the armed struggle and his commitment to lived experience, his vision is inevitably less close to that of the Algerian people than he believes. First, Fanon has been criticized for effacing the past in his desperation to affirm the dynamism of the new. For Neil Lazarus he is simply incorrect to assert that ‘scarcely anything of precolonial African culture is able to survive in the colonial era’.7 Fanon’s championing of the culture of the present, then, may have a particular revolutionary dynamism, but perhaps at the same time occludes those aspects of the African people’s cultural heritage that did survive and that were still a part of modern cultural production. If the poststructuralist thinker Homi Bhabha conceptualized the nation as caught in a ‘double time’, since the people are both ‘the historical “objects” of a nationalist pedagogy’ based in the past, and ‘the “subjects” of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the nation-people’, then it is as if Fanon, keen to denounce the potential restrictions of a nationalist ‘pedagogy’, embraces only the liberating expression of national ‘subjects’ in the present.8 The nationalist pedagogy based on past traditions has no place in the dynamic new culture of Fanon’s vision. Secondly, Fanon’s quest for national unity was both dangerous and impossible to realize. Andy Stafford reminds us that the violence in Algeria subsequent to independence suggests that ‘reliance on nation state-building, in the face of the global and international system, is a dangerous political and theoretical terrain to occupy’.9 Certainly, more 7. Neil Lazarus, Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 88. 8. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 145. 9. Andy Stafford, ‘Frantz Fanon, Atlantic Theorist; or decolonization and the nation state in postcolonial theory’, in Francophone Postcolonial Studies: A Critical Introduction, ed. by Charles Forsdick and David Murphy (London: Arnold, 2003), pp. 166–72 (p. 172).


recent tensions in Algeria show that Fanon’s vision of Algerian national unity was excessively optimistic, and even at the time of writing his demand for a collective ethos masked real divisions between the different parties and groups fighting for independence. James Mowitt also points out that Fanon’s understanding of the nation is unavoidably European. The nation is ‘Fanon’s fetish’, it is the sign of his adherence to the Algerian cause, but ironically, because its structure is European, it only reveals again his distance from that cause. In Mowitt’s terms, ‘in order for Fanon to be with the Algerians he must mobilize a set of categories (specifically the category of the nation) that contradicts the interests the Algerians may otherwise have formed for themselves’.10 As Partha Chatterjee has also argued in the Indian context, the nationalist endeavour is split because the very concept of the nation relies on the European heritage that the anti-colonial movement set out to reject.11 And certainly, the vision of the emergent nation offered by Kateb Yacine in 1956 in Nedjma is far more troubled than that sketched by Fanon, since for Kateb Algeria is a collection of ‘tribus décimées’, and the people’s complex origins remain elusive, but also crucial and compelling.12 Kateb aptly demonstrates the potential for literature to ‘dynamite’ the colonizer’s communicative and aesthetic norms. Fanon’s national culture at the same time overlooks the specific ethnic and cultural diversity alluded to by Kateb, and privileges a form of unity learned from the European model and inappropriate to the diverse cultural practices of multiple Algerian groups. National culture was another question upon which Fanon struggled to find a position that would unite him with the people. His call for the immediate invention of a national cultural production emerging from the brute physical reality of the independence movement was both misguided in its ignorance of precolonial tradition, and utopian in its conviction that cultural unity, modelled upon European forms of 10. James Mowitt, ‘Algerian Nation: Fanon’s Fetish’, Cultural Critique, 22 (Autumn 1992), 165–86 (p. 176). 11. Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought in the Postcolonial World: A Derivative Discourse (London: Zed Books, 1986). 12. See Kateb Yacine, Nedjma (Paris: Seuil, 1956).



nationalism, would be workable in the Algerian context. Nevertheless, there is something compelling about the immediacy of Fanon’s national culture: this is a form of production that would somehow marry literature with corporeality (‘il faut musculairement collaborer’ (DT 280)), and that would eschew both excessive abstraction and stereotypical fixing. Fanon lauds the cultural expression of the men and women engaged in combat at the moment of combat, and this entails no specific identity, no set of customs and traditions that would risk being reduced to stereotype, but a straightforward and open statement of liberation. Fanon might be wrong to imply that precolonial cultural practices are no longer present in Algeria on the eve of decolonization, but is nevertheless, perhaps, right to conceive national culture as a process, an activity whose form and content constantly evolve as its participants rework and remodel it. He may cling to a notion of Algerian cultural unity, but the emphasis on the dynamism of the forms of expression that would contribute to that unity suggests that it is a protean, multi-faceted collectivity that he envisions, a unity without uniformity. It is the plural expression of the combined lived experiences of Algerians, and that lived actuality replaces any affirmation of ‘identity’, of sameness or homogeneity. It is, above all, created and recreated through action: ‘la culture nationale est l’ensemble des efforts faits par un peuple sur le plan de la pensée pour décrire, justifier et chanter l’action à travers laquelle le peuple s’est constitué et s’est maintenu’ (DT 281). The nation may indeed be Fanon’s ‘fetish’, inspired by European models, but it can also be seen to depart from European models in its embrace not so much of a shared past as of a collaborative present. The emergence of this national culture in Algeria’s present moment may contain more of the past than Fanon understands, but his belief in immediacy and in the necessary immersion of culture in lived experience also heralds a national community founded on action, process and continual invention rather than on resemblance. The other aspect of Les Damnés de la terre relevant to the present discussion is the association he draws between the new national culture and a broader notion of postcolonial humanism. The struggle reinvents


the relations between men and gives rise to a new humanity, and ‘cette nouvelle humanité, pour soi et pour les autres, ne peut pas ne pas définir un nouvel humanisme’ (DT 294). Fanon’s irate conclusion also emphatically argues that this new humanism is quite distinct from the Eurocentric humanism that fuelled the mission civilisatrice, and which is stagnant, diseased and corrupt. Fanon’s humanism will not imitate European culture, and indeed he enjoins the Algerian people to imagine a universality that Europe struggled to achieve: ‘tâchons d’inventer l’homme total que l’Europe a été incapable de faire triompher’ (DT 373). The most important feature of this humanism for Fanon, then, is its novelty. He writes little of the identity of the new human, but repeats numerous times that decolonization will lead to the invention of new men. Fanon’s closing demand reinforces the novelty that the rest of the text has been seeking, and this novelty is more important than any determined content: ‘il faut faire peau neuve, développer une pensée neuve, tenter de mettre sur pied un homme neuf’ (DT 376). Although Fanon uses the term ‘homme’ here, and although critics have denounced his thinking on gender in Peau noire, masques blancs, it is crucial to recognize that ‘man’ is precisely a term for an infinitely broad notion of humanity, encompassing men and women, beyond ethnicity and culture.13 Fanon’s conception of the human is a radically open-ended one, it rests on a call for recognition of every individual’s freedom but this has no basis in identity and brings with it no specific cultural values. Fanon’s human is emptied out, it is a residual category without content, and signifies only a fundamental ethical need for recognition. It is, according to Martin Crowley, never completed, it is part of a dialectic that never reaches synthesis: ‘ainsi le nouvel humanisme que réclame souvent Fanon n’est-il que “préfiguré” dans la lutte anti-coloniale: de la nature des êtres humains qui s’inventeront dans cette lutte, de cette humanité, de cet humanisme, il n’est jamais question.’14 13. For a more developed analysis of the place of gender in Fanon’s thought, see Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, ‘I am a Master: Terrorism, Masculinity and Political Violence in Frantz Fanon’, Parallax, 8.2 (2002), 84–98. 14. Martin Crowley, L’Homme sans: politiques de la finitude (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Lignes, 2009), p. 98.



This sparsity in Fanon’s humanism is also, as in Peau noire, masques blancs, bound up with a reaffirmation of corporeal strength. In the chapter on ‘Guerre coloniale et troubles mentaux’, Fanon records a number of case studies from his psychiatric work during the war, and the notes testify to the intense physical and mental suffering experienced by both soldiers and observers. What emerges most pressingly from the descriptions is the patients’ dramatic depletion of physical self-presence and strength; their mental trauma leads in a whole variety of ways to a weakening and malfunctioning in the body. It is not surprising, then, that when Fanon calls for the liberation of the colonized he demands specifically respect for the human being’s corporeal integrity and an assertion of physical strength. If colonialism causes a tension in the colonized’s muscles, then liberation will bring the redirection and release of that muscular energy: ‘décidons de ne pas imiter l’Europe et bandons nos muscles et nos cerveaux dans une direction nouvelle’ (DT 373). This call for physical reassertion is not according to Fanon a simplistic return to Nature, but rather a reclaiming of corporeal dignity: ‘il s’agit très concrètement de ne pas tirer les hommes dans des directions qui les mutilent, de ne pas imposer au cerveau des rythmes qui rapidement l’oblitèrent et le détraquent’ (DT 375). Fanon’s vision of humanist freedom is conceived as the liberation of the human body, as freedom of movement and as a seizing of energy. Once again, this focus on the rights of the body means that Fanon’s humanism has no normative moral or cultural values attached to it, but is rooted in the bare fundaments of materiality and lived experience. It is also, perhaps, less concerned with the specifics of an imagined postcolonial future than with liberatory action in the here and now. It has been objected that if Fanon insists on definitive separation from Europe, his own humanism cannot achieve the break he demands. And certainly, Fanon seems unaware of the ways in which Islamic culture in Algeria might contribute to the colonized’s conception of a new and liberated humanity. Fanon recommends dialogue and respect between cultures, but writes nothing of how that concept of dialogue and


community might be found, as Edward Said notes, in Islamic tradition.15 Furthermore, Jean-Marie Vivaldi argues that Fanon’s new subjectivity is precisely ‘one in which the collective ethos is receptive to European humanism and which has secured its ethical and social space in this realm as well’.16 Fanon cannot but build his humanism out of the model of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, learned from the French example, and his knowledge of humanism comes exclusively from France rather than from Algeria and Islam. Nevertheless, Fanon’s new humanism does retain a self-questioning dynamism that arises out of his consciousness of the imperfections of the example he (re)deploys. In this sense, his vision of universal humanism once again allies his thought with that of Sartre in Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, in which Sartre precisely pinpoints the bourgeois intellectual’s necessarily provisional movement towards the universal from the basis of his own particularity. For Sartre, the intellectual’s search for the universal has nothing of Julien Benda’s notorious timeless spirituality, rather, ‘l’intellectuel est donc un technicien de l’universel qui s’aperçoit que, dans son domaine propre, l’universalité n’existe pas toute faite, qu’elle est perpétuellement à faire’.17 Those intellectuals that mask their own bourgeois ideology in a rhetoric of universality are precisely false intellectuals, who fail to seize the very complexity of their work. The endeavour to theorize the universal is one that can never be satisfactorily completed, the universal should never be allowed to freeze into unchanging dogma, but must remain a notion that is permanently under construction. Rather than speaking for the masses, then, the intellectual must understand that he works in their name but from outside their experience, and his work, though committed, must contain an ‘autocritique perpétuelle’.18 The 15. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism (London: Palgrave, 2004), Said notes that the interpretation of the Koran is held to be so complex that it requires ‘a community of witnesses’. Moreover, this difficulty in the process of interpretation necessitates the understanding that knowledge requires effort and open-mindedness (pp. 68–69). 16. Jean-Marie Vivaldi, Frantz Fanon: Collective Ethics and Humanism (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 88. 17. Sartre, ‘Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels’, p. 404. 18. Sartre, ‘Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels’, p. 420.



intellectual must continue to try to conceive a ‘culture universelle’, but he must work to uncouple this universality from the bourgeoisie, and to invent a dynamic and, significantly, a contestatory humanism proper to all. Finally, Fanon’s dynamic reinvention of national culture and humanism during the Algerian revolution can be seen to offer a new vision of the intellectual negotiating between the specific and the universal. Benda’s famous celebration, in his 1927 La Trahison des clercs, of the intellectual’s aspiration to timeless values will certainly be familiar to scholars working on intellectual history.19 And conversely, it is well known that, by the 1980s, Foucault announced the death of the universal intellectual and the rise of the specific intellectual: ‘no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death’.20 Fanon’s work, however, offers a subtle and dynamic vision of the intellectual’s troubled and ongoing engagement with both the specific and the universal. He attempts to speak on behalf of the Algerian public in their struggle for independence, but he at the same time throws into question his relationship with that public as a francophone (and Martinican) intellectual and, in so doing, upholds a more dynamic concept of national cultural identity. Deeply committed to the specific cause of the Algerian revolution, he nevertheless invents a concept of Algerian national culture that resists stereotypical fixing. His understanding of the particular is grounded in the contingency of the moment, and yet that grounding does not bring with it a restrictive determinism. At the same time, Fanon addresses a broader, international public by exploring universal values of freedom and human worth while seeking to prevent these from falling into a dogmatic discourse of assimilation. His concept of universal humanism is mediated through 19. For Benda, intellectuals of the twentieth century betrayed their own endeavour, since, ‘la trahison des clercs c’est le refus des valeurs universelles et l’asservissement du spiritual au temporel’. See Julien Benda, La Trahison des Clercs (Paris: Bernard et Grasset, 1975), p. 11. 20. Michel Foucault, ‘Truth and Power’, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. by Colin Gordon (Edinburgh: Pearson Education, 1980), pp. 109–33 (p. 129).


the particular and continually arises out of the specific moment. The ‘human’ of Fanon’s conclusion to Les Damnés de la terre allows for multiple singularities and has no specified nature or essence. Writing precisely at the moment when existing European conceptions of nationalism and humanism reach a point of crisis, Fanon shows how the collapse of colonialism necessitates a reinvention of these concepts. He also performs in a striking and acute form the intellectual’s problematic position in relation to the people he addresses and a form of conceptual experimentation that enables him at once to accept and expand upon that position. Exeter College, Oxford


Fanon, Nationalism and Humanism: The Paradoxes - IngentaConnect

Fanon, Nationalism and Humanism: The Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Intellectual Jane Hiddleston In his famous essay on the role of the intellectual, ‘...

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