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New Texts Out Now: Anthony Alessandrini, Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics

[Cover of Anthony C. Alessandrini, [Cover of Anthony C. Alessandrini, "Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different"]

Anthony C. Alessandrini, Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Anthony Alessandrini (AA): This book started as a way to bring together and expand on a lot of pre-existing work I had been doing on the life and work of Frantz Fanon. As I worked on the book, though, I came to realize that the larger topic I was dealing with was the question of how to address the work of a political thinker like Fanon, who was so intricately involved in the struggles of his time, within the context of our own, different struggles. The fact that Fanon died so young and lived so intensely has made him a figure ripe for hagiography. So one danger is that he will be referred to (or gestured toward) rather than read carefully. On the other hand, he has sometimes been dismissed as a figure “of his time” through the same gesture, with a simplified version of his ideas—for example, his complex and agonized writings about violence in the colonial context—ventriloquized and then easily dismissed. For years, I have found Fanon’s work good to think with, in terms of our contemporary political and intellectual moment, in part because he was so unsparing in his approach. So I wanted to write a book that worked closely with Fanon’s texts in order to bring them into dialogue with our own context, without assuming that Fanon’s work would necessarily provide all the answers to the important questions that he raised—questions that we continue to address today. This necessitates an active, unsparing, and sensitive engagement with his work.

Two key words that emerged as I worked on the book were “singularity” and “solidarity.” The first term became a way to mark the difference between the context and struggles from which Fanon’s work emerged and those of our own time. Sympathetic readers today often treat Fanon as a contemporary, but in the most literal sense, he is not. I argue that making his work relevant to our contemporary moment requires an effort on our part, in order to bridge the very real differences that separate us.

This, in turn, led me to think about the relationship between a rereading of Fanon’s work and a rethinking of what we mean by “solidarity” today. It is a term that is more often invoked than thought through, in a way not dissimilar to the way that Fanon is sometimes invoked as a generic “third-world revolutionary.” But attention to the specificity of Fanon’s life and work leads us to a very particular narrative: a Martinican who comes to France (after fighting in a French uniform in World War II), trains as a doctor, and takes up a government post in Algeria. Fanon did not go to Algeria to join a revolution, but when the Algerian Revolution broke out in earnest, he came, over time, to put himself completely at its service, to the extent that by the end of his life, he would be writing about the struggle of “we Algerians.” There are important lessons here about the nature of solidarity that speak very directly to our moment, but paradoxically, one can only get at the contemporary relevance of these examples by attending to the singularity of Fanon’s life and work.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AA: Most of the book is set up as a series of dialogues, in order to bring Fanon’s work into conversation with a number of contemporary writers, texts, and contexts. One strand that runs through all of these chapters involves the question of humanism. Fanon’s own engagement with humanism was a vexed one: while he is among those figures most responsible for the necessary and radical questioning of the Eurocentric and colonial nature of traditional humanism, he has also been seen (rightly, in my view) as the initiator of a potentially new form of postcolonial humanism. Much of this book involves unpacking the work Fanon and others have done to create new forms of struggle under the name of humanism, without falling back into a simple nostalgia for the degraded forms that have gone before.

After an introduction to Fanon’s life and work, the book begins by looking at some of the important work in the field of “Fanon Studies,” especially over the past two decades. Chapter two brings together Fanon and Edward Said; I argue that while both Fanon and Said are eloquent in their critiques of the Eurocentric nature of traditional humanism, they are also interested in carrying on a struggle with humanism from within, and that this struggle is largely determined by their own involvement in the Algerian and Palestinian liberation struggles, respectively. The third chapter continues the argument about emergent humanism from the previous chapter, bringing together Fanon and Michel Foucault. Connecting these two figures reveals surprising similarities, including a shared critique of the sovereign subject of humanism in the interest of imagining new forms of political thought and action.

The fourth chapter takes this discussion of humanism in a slightly different direction, by bringing Fanon into conversation with the Antiguan novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid. In part, this means reclaiming Fanon as, among the many other things he was and is, a Caribbean writer who engaged, as does Kincaid, with the work of imagining a new human subjectivity after the traumatic histories of slavery and racism. Chapter five reads Paul Gilroy’s work through the framework provided by Fanon. When we re-read Gilroy through Fanon, we find ourselves in a better position to appreciate the strategic humanism of Gilroy and Fanon, a strategy, like that found in the work of Said, Foucault, and Kincaid, oriented towards a future that has not yet come.

Chapter six, “‘Any Decolonization Is a Success’: Fanon and the African Spring,” brings Fanon’s work to bear on our present political and cultural moment, specifically the popular revolutions and uprisings ongoing throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Against the tendency to describe the popular uprisings beginning in late 2010 as the “Arab Spring,” I wonder whether Fanon, had he lived to see them, might not also want to describe them as a version of what he called the African Revolution. Using his work as a lens for thinking through these ongoing struggles might allow us to begin to challenge, in our own intellectual and political work, the split between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa that Fanon saw as one of the most painful and dangerous legacies of colonialism. Fanon’s work also allows us to re-think our notions of solidarity as they present themselves to us in the current context, especially in terms of re-imagining forms of solidarity that work along other than national lines.

The book’s conclusion argues that focusing upon the singularity of Fanon’s life and work, far from locking him into the historical past, can in fact provide us with important lessons about solidarity that are crucial for political thought and action today. It can also help us to bring together some of the emphases from his “early” work in Black Skin, White Masks and his “late” work in The Wretched of the Earth. Seeing aspects of Fanon’s Martinican context at work in his commitment to the Algerian Revolution, for example, allows us to refuse the too-simple division between “early” and “late” Fanon. It also allows for an important re-casting of our idea of solidarity as it can be read out of Fanon’s life and work, which can in turn inspire new kinds of solidarity in the present and future.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AA: As I mentioned above, I have been working with Fanon for many years now; in fact, this book is a culmination of approximately twenty years of reading, teaching, and writing about Fanon’s work. In a more general sense, this book also fits with my larger interest in bringing together postcolonial studies and Middle East studies. I was trained originally in an English department, studying postcolonial literature and theory, and then I subsequently studied in a Middle East studies program. It struck me as strange that there seemed to be a space between the two fields; in particular, it was striking that scholars in postcolonial studies were not as focused on the Middle East and North Africa as they were on other regions. This seemed especially odd because two of the foundational figures in the field—Fanon and Edward Said—were so closely tied to liberation struggles in Algeria and Palestine, respectively. My sense is that over the past decade or so, there has been much more work that bridges postcolonial studies and Middle East studies. I hope that my book can be part of this larger movement.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AA: Needless to say, I would like scholars working in the field of Fanon Studies to read and engage with this book. More generally, I would like to think that it would be of interest to scholars across a fairly wide range of disciplines. I am particularly interested to see if it will be of interest to those working in literary and cultural studies—which is, at the end of the day, still my home field—since one argument that runs throughout the book is about the important role of imaginative writing in the struggle for social justice. This is a strand that also runs throughout Fanon’s work, and it speaks, among other things, to the style of his writing, especially in a book like Black Skin, White Masks.

However, from the time I conceived this book, I wanted it to be something that would appeal to non-specialist readers. I would be particularly grateful to have this book read by students who are approaching Fanon’s work for the first time. The book includes a brief biographical introduction to Fanon and his work, and in many ways, I would love it if the book could serve as an introduction or companion volume that could be read alongside Fanon’s great works.

Most of all, I think, this book has been envisioned as a pedagogical work. Much of it came directly out of my classroom experiences. When I taught at Kent State University, I had the chance to offer a graduate course that focused on Fanon and Foucault; similarly, I first brought the work of Fanon and Kincaid together in my freshman English classes at Kingsborough Community College, where I now teach. My conversations with students made me think that it would be valuable to put all these writers into conversation with each other. Over the years, my students have taught me a great deal about how to read Fanon, and I hope that this book, in return, might speak to a new generation of students who are just beginning to read (and wrestle with) his work.

Finally, I am hoping that this book might speak to political activists who are carrying forward the legacy of Fanon’s struggle against racism and for decolonization. Throughout the time I was working on this book, I was incredibly inspired by the popular struggles for justice and freedom that blossomed and spread throughout the world, from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Libya and Bahrain, to Spain and Greece and Turkey, and here in New York City and throughout the United States. The image that we chose for the cover, by Christiane Gruber, is from the Gezi Protests in Istanbul in the summer of 2013; it represents some of the spirit that I felt as I was writing it. The book is now entering the world at what feels like a much less optimistic moment, but without question, these struggles continue, in many forms and many places. I hope this book might help to bring some of Fanon’s life and work into the lives of others, and to spread the spirit of resistance that runs through all that he wrote and did to those carrying on these struggles today.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AA: I have a couple of collaborative book projects that are in the process of unfolding, including one that focuses specifically on the question of solidarity today, and another on film and cinema studies in the Middle East and North Africa. In the shorter term, I have a chapter coming out in a collection dealing with the Egyptian Revolution—my chapter focuses on attempts (and failures) towards establishing solidarity between New York and Cairo—edited by my Jadaliyya colleague Reem Abou-El-Fadl, and another chapter in a forthcoming collection that is due out this fall, Retrieving the Human: Reading Paul Gilroy. There is also some thinking going on towards a new book, but this is still in the painfully preliminary stages.

Excerpts from Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different

From “Conclusion: Singularity and Solidarity: Fanonian Futures”

This returns us to Fanon’s more fundamental point, one that is inevitably missed by those who read him as an advocate of violence: colonialism, simply put, is a state of violence. As he writes, in the passage from The Wretched of the Earth referred to by Sekyi-Otu, “colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is violence in a state of nature…”[1] In other words, surveying the Manicheaism of the colonized world, Fanon simply provides a description of what he sees before him: violence is. This is crucial to note, because only by acknowledging this fact, and the subsequent situation imposed by colonialism—one which, as both Gilroy and Sekyi-Otu have noted, the sphere of anything that might resemble politics has been completely obliterated—can we understand the remainder of Fanon’s statement regarding colonialism: “…and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.” What I want to argue is that we do not have to automatically assume that Fanon’s “greater violence” is necessarily identical to the violence of colonialism.

Indeed, what Fanon presents us with is the question that continues to haunt our contemporary political context: how best to resist violence. Too often, in the realms of both political thought and political activism, this has come down to a sterile debate regarding the merits of violence versus nonviolence, whether these are thought of as tactics or as principles of struggle. I believe Fanon points us towards an understanding that resists reducing the question of how to oppose violence to a binary choice between these two possibilities. Indeed, an appropriation of his work might lead us to re-envision this supposed (Manichaean) division between these two “choices” as part of a larger continuum of resistance, rather than imagining that there is a self-evident line in the sand that can be drawn between “violence” and “nonviolence.” For Fanon presents us with a conundrum: If the fundamental description of colonialism can be summed up as “violence is,” then can “nonviolence” have any real meaning? We need to find a better way to describe the opposition to the state of pure violence that is colonialism than the negative term “nonviolence.”

Fanon himself, of course, has some withering things to say about nonviolence as a response to colonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth. But it should be noted that in Fanon’s analysis, a particular strategy of “nonviolence” enters the struggle for decolonization from a particular direction and, he suggests, for a particular set of purposes. The passage in question follows immediately upon his statement regarding colonialism as violence in its natural state, and, as Fanon specifies, it represents the “critical, deciding moment” when “the colonial bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray”:

They introduce a new notion, in fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and business elite that their interests are identical to those of the colonial bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensible, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good. Nonviolence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done, before any bloodshed or regrettable act is committed. But if the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands and start burning and killing, it is not long before we see the “elite” and the leaders of the bourgeois nationalist parties turn to the colonial authorities and tell them: “This is terribly serious! Goodness knows how it will all end. We must find an answer, we must find a compromise.”[2] 

I read this passage as suggesting that Fanon’s real target here is not nonviolence itself as a political tactic or an ethical principle, but rather the production of an opportunistic discourse of “nonviolence” by the elite nationalist leadership as a way to bring into being the forms of “compromise” that will in turn cement their status in the resulting postcolonial (or, more accurately, neocolonial) context. The colonized intellectuals and national bourgeoisie who take up the mantle of “nonviolence,” in other words, do so not as part of a larger ethical position, or as one facet of a truly anti-colonial strategy, but rather as a tactic to separate themselves from the “violent masses.” As a result, Fanon suggests, these leaders “now find themselves catapulted to the forefront of negotiations and compromise—precisely because they have always been careful not to break ties with colonialism.”[3] If this form of compromise politics, carried out around the negotiating table, is allowed to determine the outcome of the struggle for decolonization, it will end in the sort of neocolonial situation that Fanon identifies in the Republic of Gabon, where President Léon M’ba, upon his arrival in Paris, can declare solemnly: “Gabon is an independent country, but nothing has changed between Gabon and France, the status quo continues.” “In fact,” Fanon concludes, “the only change is that Monsieur M’ba is president of the Republic of Gabon, and he is the guest of the president of the French Republic.”[4]

This outcome, needless to say, has nothing in common with the transformative energy that Fanon sees as defining true decolonization; indeed, this compromise politics appears as the colonial power’s best strategy for defeating the movement for decolonization and imposing a state of neocolonialism. But Fanon is not suggesting that this result should be blamed upon the taking up of a strategy of nonviolence per se. Indeed, as he says explicitly, this strategy of “nonviolence” as espoused by nationalist elites should be seen as “in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation.” But precisely the same can be said, as we have seen, about the spontaneous eruption of anti-colonial violence. In other words, in the initial stages of decolonization, there is no “choice” between violence and nonviolence; violence is, and the only question is how to best overthrow the state of violence that is colonialism in order to bring about another context altogether, one in which such political choices would have some meaning. What Fanon opposes, I suggest, is not nonviolence per se, but rather a discourse of “nonviolence” that is demanded only of the colonized, and which thus implicitly ignores or endorses the ongoing and all-defining violence of colonialism.

[…]

In the contemporary context, the political situation that might be most clearly illuminated through a critical appropriation of Fanon’s theory of (non)violence is that of Israel/Palestine.[5] For many years, and most insistently since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, commentators in the West, including those who declare themselves to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, have asked: “Why don’t the Palestinians choose nonviolence?” (A related rhetorical gesture is to phrase the question as: “Why is there no Palestinian Gandhi?”) In fact, there is a rich history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance that stretches back to the British Mandate period, including the General Strike of 1936, which lasted six months, making it the longest general strike in modern history.[6] Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, Palestinian resistance has taken a number of nonviolent forms, including the development of alternative institutions like women’s and youth committees, education and medical relief committees, and prisoner organizations. There have also been the many acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and resistance that marked both the first and second intifadas, including actions such as tax strikes, the setting up of ad-hoc schools for students under curfew, and the boycotting of Israeli goods. While such actions have not been as eagerly captured by television cameras as confrontations with Israeli soldiers, they have represented the greater part of the resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid policies; the coordinated hunger strikes by thousands of Palestinian prisoners are just the latest example of this legacy of nonviolent resistance.[7]

At the same time, the pattern first established by the British authorities in their response to the General Strike of 1936 prefigured the dilemma that Palestinian resistance movements have faced continuously since then: the strike was brutally suppressed by the British, and many of its leaders were ultimately killed, imprisoned, or exiled. This repression did not, however, prevent the experience and inspiration of the General Strike from providing models for future generations of Palestinian activists.[8] This has been the recurring pattern in the history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance: one generation sees its attempts to establish new forms of resistance violently suppressed, and the next generation must use the historical memory provided by these earlier struggles to begin again and to invent new strategies of resistance.

There are two important things to be noted about these forms of nonviolent Palestinian resistance in the Fanonian context. The first point is that they are all forms of resistance, and thus to be distinguished from the form of “nonviolence” as compromise on the part of the national bourgeoisie that Fanon criticizes in The Wretched of the Earth. The second point, which must also be kept in mind, is that these movements, and the violent responses they have faced, have been deeply conditioned by the colonial context of Israel/Palestine, as well as by the international context that surrounds it.

[…]

The second point, regarding the larger international context that surrounds these forms of nonviolent resistance, is equally important in moving us away from the facile belief in a binary “choice” between violence and nonviolence. The importance of understanding this larger context can be found in the title of a 2010 article by Yousef Munayyer: “Palestinian Nonviolence Relies on Global Non-Silence.” Munayyer begins by noting that he is often faced with the question, “When will there be a Palestinian Gandhi?” His first response is a straightforward one: “Like many resisting oppression, Palestinian Gandhis are likely to be found in prisons after being repressed by Israeli soldiers or police or in the hospital after being brutally beaten or worse.”[9] But the point here is not merely that Israeli violence has consistently trumped Palestinian nonviolence—since, as Munayyer takes pains to point out, this nonviolent resistance has not ceased, even in the face of harsher and more bloody repression over the past decade. His real point has to do with the international forces that simultaneously allow this state of Israeli violence to continue while intensifying the demand for Palestinian “nonviolence,” and it is a very Fanonian point:

The international community…cannot simply call on Palestinians to abandon violence in the face of Israeli occupation and remain silent when the nonviolent activists are politically repressed. This only reinforces the idea that the use of force reigns supreme and that Palestinians have no choice but to accept hardships at the hands of their Israeli lords. Sadly, the same leaders who call on Palestinians to abandon violence have been silent in the face of Israeli repression. By condemning violent Palestinian resistance while remaining silent in the face of Israeli crackdowns and political arrests, they are simply endorsing violence against civilians by one side instead of the other.[10]

[…]

Again, we find ourselves at a distance from the conventional notion of a “choice” between violence and nonviolence. The more important question has to do, as Fanon suggests in The Wretched of the Earth, with how to best found a movement for decolonization that functions as a resistance to violence, and how to bring into existence a new context not determined by the violence of colonialism—for, as he takes pains to remind us, both spontaneous violence and compromising nonviolence, as initial responses to colonization, are equally creations of the colonial context.

NOTES

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 23. For some reason, Philcox chooses to translate Fanon’s “la violence à l’état de nature” as “naked violence”; I have altered his translation accordingly.

[2] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 23-24.

[3] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 24.

[4] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 28.

[5] For an interesting recent application of Fanon’s work to Israel/Palestine—albeit one that works along quite different lines than those I am setting out here—see Matthew Abraham, “The Fanonian Specter in Palestine: Suicide Bombing and the Last Colonial War,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (2013): 99-114.

[6] See the pamphlet that I produced on this issue for the American Friends Service Committee: Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance to Occupation Since 1967, AFSC Middle East Resource series (Fall 2005). For an important analysis of these questions of violence and nonviolence, both historically and in the present moment, see Wendy Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For the earlier history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance, see Souad R. Dajani, Eyes Without Country: Searching for a Palestinian Strategy of Liberation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995). For an overview of recent Palestinian nonviolent resistance in the West Bank, see Raja Shehadeh, “The Rise of Palestinian Non-Violent Resistance: A Conversation with Mustafa Barghouti,” The Daily Beast (7 March 2013).

[7] For more on these hunger strikes, see Richard Falk and Noura Erakat, “Palestinian Hunger Strikers: Fighting Ingrained Duplicity,” Jadaliyya (11 May 2012).

[8] For more on the General Strike, and its continuing influence on Palestinian society, see Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past (Fayettesville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003).

[9] Yousef Munayyer, “Palestinian Nonviolence Relies on Global Non-Silence,” Guardian (21 May 2010). For a more extended analysis, see Yousef Munayyer, “Palestine’s Hidden History of Nonviolence,” Foreign Policy (18 May 2011).

[10] Munayyer, “Palestinian Nonviolence.”

[Excerpted from Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different, by Anthony C. Alessandrini, p. 203-08, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 by Lexington Books. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this issue, click here.]

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