by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Dept of English & Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines
My final prayer:
O my body, make of me always a man who questions!
–Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Despite his intricately nuanced anatomy of “race” in Black Skin, White Masks and other works, Fanon has been somehow stereotyped as an apostle of the cult of violence. This passage from The Wretched of the Earth seems to have become the touchstone of classical Fanonism: “Violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them. It frees the native from his inferiority complex, and from his despair and inaction” (94). This free-floating quote, unmoored from its determinant context, exerts a reductive and disabling force. Severed from its body, Fanon’s thought can signify everything and nothing at the same time.
Claiming to rescue Fanon from this tendentious fixation as well as from the pluralism of eclectic interpretations, Henry Louis Gates offers an assessment that at first glance promises to ground Fanon in the context of the “third world.” The Tunisian intellectual Albert Memmi seems to provide Gates a pretext for the revisionary intent: Memmi conjures the figure of a black Martinican torn by warring forces who, though hating France and the French, “will never return to Negritude and to the West Indies” (Gates 140). Unwittingly Gates recuperates the canon by ferreting out clues of self-division in Fanon, “an agon between psychology and a politics, between ontogeny and sociogeny, between…Marx and Freud” (141). This postmortem diagnosis pronounces the demise of the author and his authority. By inscribing Fanon more steadfastly in the colonial paradigm, the “disciplinary enclave” of anti-imperialist discourse, Gates hopes to demolish the Fanon mystique. His deconstructive move may strike some as iconoclastic and others as reactionary; Lewis K. Gordon, for example, speculates that Gates may be a surrogate for the European man in crisis. In effect, Gates disables Fanon by arguing that Fanon himself warned us of the limits of the struggle, thus presaging the virtual collapse of “the dream of decolonization.”
Postmodern Cultural Studies (inspired by the poststructuralist gurus Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard) may have taken off from Gates’s premise of skeptical individualism and neoliberal triumphalism. It has so far pursued a nihilistic agenda in rejecting “totality” (such as capitalism, nationalism, etc.), the codeword for theoretical generalizations about social relations of production and historical movements. Contemporary Cultural Studies celebrates heterogeneity, flux, ambiguous hybrids, indeterminacies, accidents, and lacunae inhabiting bifurcated psyches and texts. Suspicious of metanarratives (Hegel, Marx, Sartre), it repudiates utopian thought, including an alleged teleology of anticolonialism informing Fanon’s texts. From this perspective, Fanon is cannibalized for academic apologetics. The version of Fanon who takes off from Hegel and Marx is rejected in favor of the Freudian disciple, thus resolving the dichotomized subject/object which postmodernist critics privileged as their point of departure.
My argument here concerns the relevance of Fanon’s materialist hermeneutics as an antidote to the conservative formalism of the hegemonic discipline exemplified by Gates. I hold that Fanon’s central insights into sociohistorical change is pedagogically transformative and enabling in a way that locates the deconstructionist impasse in the refusal of historical determinations. David Caute perceives Fanon’s serviceable legacy as inherent in his political realism, his prophetic drive to forge “new concepts” from the clash between traditional ways of thinking and novel circumstances. In one of the most astute evaluation of Fanon’s discourse, Stephan Feuchtwang points out that Fanon succeeded in rendering “as history the material of cultural organizations without assuming an original self for recognition,” showing how contingency “is culturally organized and made” and distinguishing cultural process from its multiple determinations in economic forces, political institutions, and ideological relations. By bracketing self-consciousness as totalizing viewpoint, Feuchtwang then suggests that the fundamental questions in cultural studies raised by Fanon are, among others: What people or culture is being constructed? What “social organization of cultural difference, conceived as psycho-affective organization, enhances recognition rather than denial” and “what are the economic and political conditions in which such an organization can exist?” (473).
We need to remind ourselves that Fanon never entertained any illusion that the revolutionary struggle against colonialism will automatically realize a utopia free from the delayed effects and legacies of hundreds of years of dehumanized social relations. I contend that he was not of two minds regarding the duplicity of Negritude, for example, or the perils of populist and demagogic chauvinism that swept Africa in the aftermath of formal independence (see Fogel; Gordon, Sharpley-Whiting and White). The chapters on “Spontaneity: Its Strengths and Weaknesses” and “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in The Wretched of the Earth are lucid proofs of Fanon’s circumspect and principled realism. The cogent diagnosis of deeply rooted reflexes of character and the habitus of groups displays his acute knowledge of historical contradictions and the variable modalities of finitude in a world of pure immanence. It is certainly an ideological move to transpose the Manichean fixation of colonialism into Fanon’s psyche and infer therefrom that we cannot derive any testable methodology or working hypothesis from Fanon’s oeuvre. That dogmatic attitude forecloses any dialogue with Fanon as alternative or oppositional to the fashionable “incredulity” at metanarratives and the ontological constitution of reality.
One lesson we can extract from the corpus of texts is precisely the avoidance of the “schism in the soul,” what Spinoza calls “sadness” (188). This involves a passage from a diminished to a more heightened or enhanced capacity for action based on ideas adequately subsuming the causes and motivations of what we do. This involves all the social, economic, and political determinants that constitute the mode of cultural revolution in Algeria. To elucidate this mode, Fanon reformulates the archetypal Hegelian drama of sublation (Aufhebung) as “the only means of breaking this vicious circle,” the battlefield within, but this drama is not a solipsistic or monadic affair. Desire involves the mutual recognition of two or more agents juxtaposed in a common enterprise: “I demand that notice be taken of my negating activity insofar as I pursue something other than life; insofar as I do battle for the creation of a human world–that is, of a world of reciprocal recognitions” (Black Skin 218). Indeed, Fanon’s project goes beyond the formulaic pragmatism of psychoanalysis: “To educate man to be actional…is the prime task of him who, having taken thought, prepares to act” (222). And this action, by risking life, enables the exercise of freedom which mediates the contingency of the present and the schematism of the future: “The Vietnamese who die before the firing squads are not hoping that their sacrifice will bring about the reappearance of a past. It is for the sake of the present and of the future that they are willing to die” (227). This project of secular redemption reminds me of Spinoza’s axiom of humanity’s finite mode as distinguished by conatus, perseverance in striving to increase one’s power through affiliation and collaboration with others (Lloyd; De Dijn; Parkinson; Yovel, Spinoza: Adventures).
Fanon’s idea of praxis is geared toward realizing the freedom of multitudes via programs of action. His practice-oriented sensibility registers the movement of groups and collectives of bodies interacting in solidarity. What Marx once valorized as philosophy becoming incarnate in the world, that is, the unity of theory and practice, is accomplished by Fanon in envisioning the field of discourse or signification as a range of opportunities for action. In this field, collective power and the rights of individuals associated together coalesce. We move through and beyond the textuality of representation, the iconicity of signs, to its articulation with radical transformative practice. In inventorying the achievement of Cultural Studies thus far, Stuart Hall remarked how the discipline has often succumbed to “ways of constituting power as an easy floating signifier which just leaves the crude exercise and connections of power and culture altogether emptied of any signification” (286). Presciently Fanon anticipated this fetishism of textuality in his conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth: “A permanent dialogue with oneself and an increasingly obscene narcissism never ceased to prepare the way for a half delirious state, where intellectual work became suffering and the reality was not at all that of a living man, working and creating himself, but rather words, different combinations of words, and the tensions springing from the meanings contained in words” (313). A new beginning has to be made, with a new subjectivity predicated on the bankruptcy of Eurocentric humanism and the prospect of creating a “new human being” at the conjuncture where core and periphery, center and margin, collide.
Aside from the malaise of systemic alienation fragmenting sensibilities and psyches, the reason why the discipline of Cultural Studies has consistently failed to confront the problem of reification is its evasion of one of the most intractable but persistent symptoms of late capitalism, racism and its articulation with sexism. It is through confronting this nexus of racism, male supremacy, and commodity-fetishism in the Manichean arena of battle that Fanon was able to grasp the subtle, compromising liaisons between culture and power, between language and value. Like Spinoza, who applied a constructive-hermeneutical method in interpreting religious texts (Yovel, Spinoza: Marrano), Fanon used rhetorical analysis to educate the subaltern imagination and provoke a more rational stance toward everyday happenings. However, there is no unanimous agreement on Fanon’s accentuation of certain aspects of “third world” reality. Renate Zahar has reservations regarding Fanon’s one-sided emphasis on a psychologized notion of violence as a category of mediation, thus ignoring “violence conceived as revolutionary social work” (96). But even a trenchant critic like Jack Woddis had to admit that Fanon “yearned for an end to the wold world of capitalism” (175). The question of social determination and the directionality of change around which orthodox Marxists and the varieties of poststructuralisms have clashed hinges really on the modalities in which capital and the manifestations of its power have continued to renegotiate its recurrent crises and sustain its precarious but resilient hegemony.
Confronting the Racial Imaginary
Fanon’s little known essay, “Racism and Culture,” provides clues as to how Fanon will confront the impasse brought about by the institutionalization, more precisely, the “Americanization” of Cultural Studies. For Fanon, the fact of racism cannot be divorced from the methodology and aims of any cultural inquiry: “If culture is the combination of motor and mental behavior patterns arising from the encounter of man with nature and with his fellow-man, it can be said that racism is indeed a cultural element” (African Revolution 32). With the emergence of industrial and cosmopolitan societies, racism metamorphosed; its object is no longer the individual judged on the basis of genotypical or phenotypical features but “a certain form of existing” (32). Fanon mentions the antithesis between Christianity and Islam as life-forms locked in ideological combat. But what sharply influenced the change in the nature of racism as ideological/political practice, Fanon points out, is the “institution of a colonial system in the very heart of Europe” (33). Racism is part of “the systematized oppression of a people” at the heart of which is the destruction of a people’s cultural values:
For this its systems of reference have to be broken. Expropriation, spoliation, raids, objective murder, are matched by the sacking of cultural patterns, or at least condition such sacking. The social panorama is destructured; values are flaunted, crushed, emptied.
The lines of force, having crumbled, no longer give direction… [The native culture] becomes closed, fixed in the colonial status, caught in the yoke of oppression. …The characteristic of a culture is to be open, permeated by spontaneous, generous, fertile lines of force (33-34).
This mummification of practices and the hardening of institutions once alive and changing attend the loss of the native’s independence and initiative. Culture dies when it is not lived, “dynamized from within.” Exoticism and other modes of objectification (for example, the varieties of Orientalism catalogued by Edward Said) accompany the colonizers’ coercive program of exploitation and subjugation.
What complicates the ever-present visage of racism for Fanon is historical metamorphosis, the shifts of adaptation to evolving social relations. With the development in the techniques and means of production and its elaboration, together with “the increasingly necessary existence of collaborators,” racism loses its overt virulence and camouflages itself in more subtler and stylized appearances, in seductive guises, despite the fact that “the social constellation, the cultural whole, are deeply modified by the existence of racism” (36). But appearances are deceptive, and verbal mystification characterizes the introduction of a “democratic and humane ideology.” Fanon insists that “The truth is that the rigor of the system made the daily affirmation of a superiority superfluous” (37). Alienation worsens. In contrast to the apologists of the neoliberal “free market” system who reduce racism to a case of individual mental illness or syndrome, Fanon asserts the sociohistorical specificity of racism as institutional practice:
Racism stares one in the face for it so happens that it belongs in a characteristic whole: that of the shameless exploitation of one group of men by another which has reached a higher stage of technical development. This is why military and economic oppression generally precedes, makes possible, and legitimizes racism….
It is not possible to enslave men without logically making them inferior through and through. And racism is only the emotional, affective, sometimes intellectual explanation of this inferiorization (37-38, 40).
In the process of demystifying the racial imaginary that subtends Eurocentric Cultural Studies, Fanon traces the dialectic of alienation and assimilation binding colonial master and colonized subaltern. He recapitulates the phases of guilt and inferiority experienced by the colonized. Racism becomes normalized when it becomes a matter of personal prejudice, dissimulating the subjugation and oppression of peoples and nationalities. Subsequently, the colonized victims react to racism by revalorizing tradition. Archaic practices and their constellation of values are revived and affirmed. The goal of reconquering the geopolitical space mapped by revolutionary war orients the project of national liberation: “the plunge into the chasm of the past is the condition and the source of freedom” (43). But this “return to the source” (to use Amilcar Cabral’s metaphor) is not nativism but a passage of catharsis. What it purges is the obsession with purity, a symptom of the fetishizing drive. What Fanon emphasizes is the mixed repertoire of weapons or resources that the colonized masses bring into play–“the old and the new, his own and those of the occupant,” resuscitating the “spasmed and rigid culture” so as to conduct a mutually enriching dialogue with other cultures. Here, the Manichean dilemma described in “On Violence” is resolved by the agon of the historical process itself. That is to say, the “universality” achieved with the recognition and acceptance of the “reciprocal relativism of different cultures” on the demise of colonialism necessarily traverses “the experienced realities of the mode of production.” Fanon takes into account the improvement of technical knowledge, perfecting of machines within “the dynamic circuit of industrial production,” the frequent contacts of people “in the framework of the concentration of capital, that is to say, on the job, discovering the assembly line, the team, production ‘time’ ” (39). This historical materialist framework of comprehending the social formation grounds Fanon’s critique of cultural racism in the complex interaction of affects, passions, and appetites that control assemblages of bodies and govern the conduct of the whole body politic.
The theme of cultural metamorphosis broached in “Racism and Culture” is further refined and illustrated in the later essay, “On National Culture” (included in The Wretched of the Earth). What is new here is the inscription of culture in the problematique of the nation and national identity. Fanon shifts gears and plots the genesis of agency from the episodes of victimization and resistance. Fanon underlines the process of change in the cultural responses of indigenous peoples to the violence of the European colonizer, from the poetics of Negritude and the revitalization of Islam to diverse manifestations of nativism. He charts the trajectory of the organic intellectual–organic to the national-popular movement of decolonization–from the initial stage of assimilation to the reactive nativism characterized by humor and allegory to the subsequent third stage, the “fighting phase,” where the artist tries to represent the advent of a new reality and a “new man.” Fanon underscores how tradition changes with the unpredictable mutations of conflict, ushering in a “zone of occult instability” where “our souls are crystallized” with the people. What I would focus on here is not the ambivalence, indeterminacy, or the aura of the apocalyptic sublime, which one can extrapolate between the lines, but the conatus or actualization of potential inscribed in certain moments of the national liberation struggle.
Originating from the Hegelian matrix of the dialectic of master and slave, the routine approach to Fanon’s thought replicates the West’s “civilizing mission.” In this psychodrama, the native develops and matures by undergoing the trials of self-alienation, doubt, and self-recovery; the three stages outlined in “On National Culture” reconfigure the value and function of tradition and all the properties of the indigenous life-forms in a Manichean environment. What Fanon apprehends in these life-forms is their capacity for change and infinite adaptability: “the forms of thought and what it feeds on, together with modern techniques of information, language, and dress have dialectically reorganized the people’s intelligences and …. the constant principles which acted as safeguards during the colonial period are now undergoing extremely radical changes” (225). The affective dynamism of anticolonial struggle explodes the mystifying influence of customs, folklore, and abstract populism associated with “gratuitous actions,” culminating at the stage in which time, agency, and the habitus of creative strategies of intervention coalesce:
The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope. But to ensure that hope and give it form, he must take part in action and throw himself body and soul into the national struggle…. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence (232-33).
Culture cannot be divorced from the the organized forces of national liberation that “create” peoplehood and sustain its life. For this project of fashioning a life-form, the national territory serves as the concretely determinate framework for shaping that national consciousness (which for Fanon is not equivalent to European-style nationalism) that allows “the discovery and encouragement of universal values.” Far from keeping aloof from other nations, therefore, it is national liberation that “leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history” (247). Fanon concludes this speech with the image of a paradoxical exfoliation of opposites: “It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately only the source of all culture” (247-48).
The Artifice of National Liberation
My contention is that Fanon’s idea of national liberation provides the logic of social constitution and assemblage needed for grasping the dynamics of cultural change in any geopolitical formation. By dissolving the boundaries of self and other, of nation and global ecumene, this new mode of theorizing history undercuts the fashionable postmodernist representation of the body as sheer polymorphous matter charged with desire and presumably a site of resistance against hegemonic capital. In the first place, ensembles of corporeal energies occupy a category different from the isolated, monadic physical body that postmodernists privilege. Moreover, one can argue that bodies are not simply vessels of desire but “a plane of immanence” (to use Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion) where power and freedom born of necessity coincide. Fanon’s theory of the praxis of multitudes not only challenges the binary opposition of bourgeois elite aesthetics and an idealized massified culture of everyday life which motivates a trendy version of Cultural Studies (see, for example, Fiske); it also exposes its paralyzing effect on the critical sensorium of ordinary people. Without a collective conatus catalyzed in the ethics of decolonization, the dogma of methodological individualism will continue to vitiate the attempts of Cultural Studies practitioners to move beyond the limitations of Enlightenment thought (racism, patriarchy, class exploitation) and affirm identities in the interstices of difference.
One way of illustrating Fanon’s singular mode of interrogating cultural practice may be sketched here in a brief commentary on his essay, “Algeria Unveiled” (in A Dying Colonialism). A recent appraisal of Fanon by Ato Sekyi-Otu regards this text as Fanon’s finest exposition of the “possibility of expressive freedom” discovered through the instrumentalization of the veil. A phenomenology of existential choice reinterprets Fanon’s discourse as an allegory of Hegelian dialectics: “The measure of freedom is the degree to which space and symbol, area of action and device of self-disclosure, are multiply configurable, open to the agent’s choice of ends and means, and are thus no longer signifiers of a radically compulsory and constricted identity” (226). This flexible disposition of the veil profiles, for Fanon, the eventual “transformation of the Algerian woman.” It is this dialectic of experience occurring in the “public theater of revolutionary action” that, for Sekyi-Otu, embodies the resonance and efficacy of Fanon’s prefigurative hermeneutics.
With the problematique of Cultural Studies as the context of exchange, my reading of Fanon’s mobilization of a cultural motif is somewhat different. I consider Fanon’s programmatic text as a critique of postmodernist ethnography that privileges subjective fantasies, aleatory gestures, cyborg speech, and “travelling” localizations. Fanon in fact subjects psychoanalytic speculations to the actual historic disposition of forces, using the assemblage of “composable” relationships (Hardt 28) on an immanent field of forces as a means of eliminating the need for transcendence implicit in a posited “unconscious” which perverse “Desire” supposedly inhabits. In extrapolating Fanon’s unique critical stance, I deploy some concepts taken from the philosopher Benedict Spinoza in order to illuminate how the “common notion” of national liberation takes shape in the course of an uncompromisingly materialist and anti-empiricist account of the Algerian woman’s role, both spontaneous and constrained, in the productive rationality of the revolution.
Fanon begins with the customary association of the veil as the synecdochic mark of Arab culture and society for the Western gaze. While the masculine garb allows a “modicum of heterogeneity,” the white veil that defines Algerian female society permits no alteration or modification. In the early thirties, French colonialism seized the initiative to abolish “forms of existence likely to evoke a national reality.” Based on the premise that behind the overt patrilineal armature of Algerian society lies a “matrilineal” essence, Fanon seizes on the patriarchal animus of colonial metaphysics. He rehearses the France’s fabled mission civilizatrice: “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight” (38). Algerian society thus stands condemned as “sadistic and vampirish,” its internal mechanics in need of revamping and overhauling.
This bureaucratic consensus to forcibly emancipate the cloistered Algerian woman became a major policy of the French colonial administration. The rationale is strategic: to overcome the Algerian male resistance to assimilation via the control of women. But up to 1959, Fanon observes, “the dream of a total domestication of Algerian society by means of “unveiled women aiding and sheltering the occupier” continued to haunt the colonial authorities. All schemes to persuade the Algerian intellectual (not just the fellah or peasant) failed. Fanon sums up this attitude to the veil as symptomatic of “the simplified and pejorative way” the French regarded the “system of values” used by the colonized to resist the erasure of their “distinct identity.” Identity here equals culture, and culture as shared history or cohabitation distinguishes the nation. What follows is Fanon’s attempt to describe the sociopsychological causality gravitating around the penetration of indigenous society by the assimilating power. The tropes of aggressive sexuality deployed here mark the scope and latitude of the disciplinary regime France tried to impose, with the weapon of sexual seduction unfolding instead the impotence of the colonizer:
Every rejected veil disclosed to the eyes of the colonialists horizons until then forbidden, and revealed to them, piece by piece, the flesh of Algeria laid bare…. Every new Algerian woman unveiled announced to the occupier an Algerian society whose systems of defence were in the process of dislocation, open and breached. Every veil that fell, every body that became liberated from the traditional embrace of the haik, every face that offered itself to the bold and impatient glance of the occupier, was a negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny herself and was accepting the rape of the colonizer (42).
But the impression of conquest blurs as soon as Fanon inquires into the West’s cultural imaginary, with its fatal conflation of appearance and essence, phenomenon and reality, generating the Other as guarantee of the Self’s mastery.
Fanon understands that for the colonizer in control of the machinery of representation, every mask or disguise assumes that a truth lurks behind it. This translates hermeneutics into technocratic subterfuge. The search for the hidden face is invested with “romantic exoticism,” sexuality, and the will to possess that belies any claim to appreciate the physical beauty of Algerian women so as to share it with others. Fanon argues that the violence of revealing the Algerian woman’s beauty is really directed at something else under the skin, so to speak; the quest is to bare the secret or mystery in order to break her opaque alterity, “making her available for adventure.” What frustrates the European’s desire to possess the Other and fulfill his dream is the habitus attached to the veil: “This women who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity…. She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself” (44). The “secret” is then immediately reduced to ugliness and deformation through a rape that evokes a deceptive sense of freedom for the conqueror, a passivity whose real cause escapes his comprehension—hence, the “sad” passions (e.g., humility, pity) shrouding the Manichean metropolis.
What is striking here in Fanon’s commentary is the way the erotic affect produces a disintegration of the Western psyche. This constellation of symptoms, mapped here as “faults” and “ fertile gaps,” appears in dreams and criminal behavior. The rending of the veil then leads to an act of violent appropriation charged with a “para-neurotic brutality” projected onto the victimized: the “timid” woman hovering in the fantasy becomes transformed into an insatiable nymphomaniac. Fanon describes the dream narrative of the colonizer circumscribing a “field of women” (gynaeceum, harem). In the dream, the woman-victim “screams, struggles like a doe, and as she weakens and faints, is penetrated, martyrized, ripped apart” (46).
Apprehending the decomposition that afflicts the colonizer, sign of an ironic pathos in which one’s capacity for grasping causality or the chain of necessity is diminished, Fanon examines next the reaction of the colonized. Initially the conduct of the occupier “determines the centers of resistance around which a people’s will to survive becomes organized” (47). And so the veil, formerly an inert and undifferentiated element in quotidian existence, acquires a new significance: it becomes a taboo or cult object. Contraposed to the Western focus of pedagogical energies to destroy the veil, the Algerians weave a whole universe of affective passions (obscured causalities) around the veil to thwart the colonizer’s attacks, or at least to bring about an “armed truce.” The principle Fanon applies here guides his entire cognitive and didactic mapping of the alignment of political forces, a principle encapsulated in the maxim: “problems are resolved in the very movement that raises them” (48). In other words, the modes and occasions of struggle entail a whole repertoire of ethical choices and tactics. In response to the ferocity of the French settler and “his delirious attachment to the national territory” (48), the Algerian revolutionary leadership decided to mobilize women to the fullest, urging them to summon a “spirit of sacrifice”as they became part of an extended and highly differentiated revolutionary machine. This decision represents the identity of will and intellect posited by Spinoza in his Ethics (II, 49), precipitating joy-passion born from the common notion, the composition of bodies in mutually useful relationships (Deleuze, Spinoza 54-55).
Women were then incorporated into the guerilla combat units mindful of the differential rhythm of their participation. In the process of constituting this new assemblage, the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) realized how the taboo or cult of the veil undermined the strategy of inventing commonalities across gender and class. Reinforcing tradition as a means of resistance led to women’s loss of ease and assurance, negative affects that attenuated their cooperation with the military forces: “Having been accustomed to confinement, her body did not have the normal mobility before a limitless horizon of avenues, of unfolded sidewalks, of houses, of people dodged or bumped into. This relatively cloistered life, with its known, categorized, regulated comings and goings, made any immediate revolution seem a dubious proposition” (49). Determined by the horizon of war and death by torture, the organization of women partisans (efficient collective agency) accumulates knowledge of the microphysics of bodily motion that eventually precipitates the emergence of a new character “without the aid of the imagination,” the coefficient of play and imitation in art. Before Fanon offers examples of women’s creative actuality, he recapitulates the theme of culture change by acknowledging the advent of a new protagonist who will soon dismantle the Manichean theater of regimented subjects deployed in demarcated zones:
It is an authentic birth in a pure state, without preliminary instruction. There is no character to imitate, on the contrary, there is an intense dramatization, a continuity between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman rises directly to the level of tragedy (50).
Bodies Bearing Stigmata
A hiatus intervenes at this juncture of the essay. Fanon evokes a scenario of passages and shifts of position, maneuvers leading to the urgent decision to involve all women gradually in the daily tasks of the revolution. Attention to the complex architectonics of space, a heuristic cartography of place and environment, where state power and the subject’s right (the conatus of persevering) confront each other, preoccupies Fanon. This allows him to trace the genealogy of freedom and grasp the coextensiveness of natural right (enjoyed by all humans) and power, in a manner close to the spirit of Spinoza’s politics (Spinoza 219-20; Gildin). Ideas of the play of forces replaces passive affects at the mercy of illusion, notions of contingency, and irrationalities that pervade social existence. Freedom inhabits the space of necessity, Fanon suggests, when the mind of the revolutionary organization acquires an idea of the nature of the body politic corresponding to its essence and objective: its affirmation of life, the collective joy of shared agency. This idea becomes manifest in the Algerian masses becoming the subject of revolution in the actuality of combat, in taking political decisions and implementing them.
A geopolitical surveyor, Fanon sketches for us the stage in which the tragic mask or persona assumed by women partisans will demonstrate its irrepressible hubris. It is the revolutionary process that destroys “the protective mantle of the Kasbah,” its “almost organic curtain of safety.” With the fragility of Manichean barriers exposed by decolonizing reason, the Algerian woman sallies forth out of the immobilized quarters into the bare streets of the settlers’ city; in doing so, she destroys the boundaries separating tradition and modernity, the self-reproducing organs of alienation and anomie, established by the colonial state. But even while new linkages are made and new channels of communication and logistics are set up by her own skills and intelligence, a recomposition of internal relations proceeds from within. We witness the shifting velocities of women’s striving to increase her power/right of transforming her place in society. This is the locus where the consensus of national liberation, the power of the multitude expressed to the fullest, transpires:
Each time [she] ventures into the European city, the Algerian woman must achieve victory over herself, over her childish fears. She must consider the image of the occupier lodged somewhere in her mind and in her body, remodel it, initiate the essential work of eroding it, make it inessential, remove something of the shame that is attached to it, devalidate it…. Initially subjective, the breaches made in colonialism are the result of a victory of the colonized over their old fear and over the atmosphere of despair distilled day after day by a colonialism that has incrusted itself with the prospect of enduring forever (52-53).
An ethics of national liberation materializes through the vicissitudes of political antagonisms. Internal relations (compatibilities, elective affinities, disaffiliations) are rearranged on the basis of what promotes the striving for the maximum expression of the collective body’s power. This involves the associative movements of love, desire, and solidarity that generate common notions, purposes, and projects giving direction to the popular struggle. With the overcoming of passions bred by the mystifications and falsehoods that comprise the oppressor’s ideological apparatus, a new agency is born armed for the next phase—the counterhegemonic use of terror. This signals the phase when “the Algerian woman penetrates a little further into the flesh of the Revolution” (54), her actions transvaluing the whole Manichean asymmetry of power. This unprecedented transvaluation inverts the custom-ordained proportion of motion and rest, speed and slowness, that has characterized the position of women’s bodies in urban space. The rationale of this reversal is suggested by Spinoza’s proposition: “Whatsoever increases or diminishes, helps or hinders the power of activity in our body, the idea thereof increases or diminishes, helps or hinders the power of thought in our mind” (Ethics II, P2).
The systematic adoption of political forms of terror cannot be fully understood apart from the qualitative progression of the anticolonial struggle and its corresponding tempo of change. Fanon sums up the stages of deliberation and the nuances of attitudes toward the “circuit of terrorism and counter-terrorism.” He reminds us that from this point on the Algerian woman becomes inseparable from the constitutive force of the militant and conscientized (to use Paulo Freire’s term) multitude. Her “speed” is now synchronized to the momentum of the national-democratic mobilization. This is also the point when Fanon warns against confusing revolutionary terrorism with the anarchist cult of violence, the fetishism of the deed, and the mystique of death. Fanon almost reaches the intensity of Spinoza’s intransigent affirmation of life in the course of defying tyranny, pain, fanaticism, and ignorance: “The fidai [guerilla combatant] has a rendezvous with the life of the Revolution, and with his own life…. To be sure, he does not shrink before the possibility of losing his life or the independence of his country, but at no moment does he chose death” (58). The Algerian woman’s spirit of sacrifice is in fact a commitment to joy identified with an enhanced, active life coincident with the nation’s construction of democratic power, the vehicle for human fulfillment in the decolonized community.
In the section on the reconfiguration of the woman’s body, Fanon sketches an ethics of separation and assemblage that approximates Spinoza’s concept of freedom as the transition from the natural realm (the horizon of war) to civil society where, for Fanon, the nation-people functions as transformative agency. Freedom is the recognition of necessity, of the chain of causality, sparked by intellectual reflection. This passage to freedom is symbolized by the transformation of the Algerian woman’s body as a relation of parts that can be decomposed and reconstituted, parts with proportions of motion and rest regulated by the variety of encounters in life.
In this context, the veil becomes the signifier that actualizes woman’s power/right in a corporeal logic that breaks down the Manichean duality. In the following excerpt, we can discern the motive of Fanon’s conversion of cultural-studies ethnography into an ethical-political reciprocity of body and the world marked by the varying modalities of the expression of woman’s power:
The body of the young Algerian woman, in traditional society, is revealed to her by its coming to maturity and by the veil. The veil covers the body and disciplines it, tempers it, at the very time when it experiences its phase of greatest effervescence. The veil protects, reassures, isolates…. Without the veil she has an impression of her body being cut up into bits, put adrift; the limbs seem to lengthen indefinitely. When the Algerian woman has to cross a street, for a long time she commits errors of judgment as to the exact distance to be negotiated. The unveiled body seems to escape, to dissolve. She has an impression of being improperly dressed, even of being naked. She experiences a sense of incompleteness with great intensity. She has the anxious feeling that something is unfinished, and along with this a frightful sensation of disintegrating. The absence of the veil distorts the Algerian woman’s corporeal pattern. She quickly has to invent new dimensions for her body, new means of muscular control. She has to create for herself an attitude of unveiled-woman-outside. She must overcome all timidity, all awkwardness (for she must pass for a European), and at the same time be careful not to overdo it, not to attract notice to herself. The Algerian woman who walks stark naked into the European city relearns her body, re-establishes it in a totally revolutionary fashion (59).
The organizing skill and resourcefulness recounted here exemplifies not individual ingenuity but the contrapuntal play of bodies and political milieu where what used to be merely accidental encounters of veiled women evolves into organized ethical striving for expression of their united power. This accords with the democratic mobilizing principle expressed by Spinoza: “If two come together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more right against other forces in nature, than either of them alone; and the more there be that join in alliance, the more right they will collectively possess” (Political Treatise, Chapter II, paragraph 13). The multitude as substrate of change now incorporates women, a major component of self-determination or national autonomy, amplifying the potential of the whole nation. Women thus epitomize the power and intelligence of the masses sprung from the inexhaustible matrix of the national-liberation struggle.
Toward Cultural Revolution
The final testimony to how the necessity of revolutionary combat functions as the condition for freedom of the colonized subaltern coincides with the motion of women’s bodies in the streets of Algiers. Fanon describes the way women concealed bombs and weapons, illustrating how the organizing of composable parts fused spontaneous and planned elements, integrating will and contingency. The veil’s combination and permutation of opposites disrupts the conventional dichotomy of tradition and modernity. It also displaces the colonial contract, the normative codes of duty and obligation, into a field of needs and exigencies defined by the overdetermined historical situation:
Removed and reassumed again and again, the veil has been manipulated, transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle. The virtually taboo character assumed by the veil in the colonial situation disappeared almost entirely in the course of the liberation struggle….
The Algerian woman’s body, which in an initial phase was pared down, now swelled. Whereas in the previous period the body had to be made slim and disciplined to make it attractive and seductive, it now had to be squashed, made shapeless and even ridiculous. This, as we have seen, is the phase during which she undertook to carry bombs, grenades, machine-gun clips.
The enemy, however, was alerted, and in the streets one witnessed what became a commonplace spectacle of Algerian women glued to the wall, on whose bodies the famous magnetic detectors, the “frying pans,” would be passed. Every veiled woman, every Algerian woman became suspect. There was no discrimination. This was the period during which men, women, children, the whole Algerian people, experienced at one and the same time their national vocation and the recasting of the new Algerian society (61-62).
We witness in this revisiting of a phase in the national-liberation struggle the making of the Algerian masses via the composition of multiple relations between women’s bodies and their circumstantial inscription. Fanon’s “genealogy” is really a recording of the passage of new subjects catalyzed by the “historic dynamism of the veil.” Determined by beliefs associated with tradition, the veil functioned at first as a mechanism of resistance, opposed to the occupier’s design to “unveil” Algeria. This reaction entrenched passive affects sprung from uncomprehended external causes. In the second phase, Fanon summarizes, the veil was instrumentalized to solve the new problems created by the struggle. The veil refunctioned thus unfolds a horizon of composable relations bringing people together, enacting in the process the constitution of social power itself and its consensual legitimacy. Now with the power of acting determined by adequate ideas (knowledge of the nexus of causality), the theology of Manichean polarity dissolves and a new political organism is created that transforms what is “natural” into social history. The ethical striving underwritten by the anticolonial revolution charts the passage from the immobilized “natural” Manichean order of segregated habitats and locations to the free organizing of capacities, exploding the fallacies of bureaucratic representation, the reified market, and the injustice of the imperial social contract.
This Spinozistic reading of Fanon’s text, arguably a hermeneutic thought-experiment never tried before, pursues the line of inquiry made by Antonio Negri in his book The Savage Anomaly. In Spinoza’s political theory, we find the primacy of collective human praxis, an expression of the constitutive modality of the multitude as a determined being.
Fanon’s vision of cultural revolution implicit in A Dying Colonialism testifies to what Irene Gendzier calls Fanon’s evolution from the psychologist to the political militant. The transmogrification of European humanism in the torture of political prisoners triggered this shift. We have seen how in “Algeria Unveiled” and other essays Fanon’s disruption of the separatist, apartheid logic of colonialism harmonizes with a radical transformative politics antithetical to the liberal pluralism of mainstream Cultural Studies practitioners. Given this brief comment on Fanon’s insight into the productive social dynamic of the national-liberation project, one which is extremely relevant to the crisis of the South in our globalized corporate milieu, I venture this hypothesis: Fanon’s value for us today inheres in this discursive practice of a cultural politics that goes beyond the populist articulation of heterogeneous forces along a “chain of equivalence” (insofar as such equivalence is already embodied or contained as a causal motivation and impetus within the semiotics of language, polemical prose, rhetoric and a wide range of speech-acts) to advance and illuminate the ethical drama of the multitude in the actual revolutionary process. For Fanon, culture, not just language or discourse, is key to the revolutionary transformation of the whole communicative situation in which power (potentia), the capacity for joyful experience, is rooted in adequate ideas. By “adequate ideas” is meant the appreciation of the body’s infinite capacities attuned to our reasoning power. The framework of intelligibility for Fanon is the national-liberation paradigm where the recognition of Others overcomes the seemingly permanent alienation of the Manichean world of colonial subjugation. In this trajectory of cultural inquiry, word and deed become one.
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