Remembering Fanon: Setting afoot a new humanity
2011-12-05, Issue 561
Suffering from leukemia and pneumonia, Frantz Omar Fanon lived his last day in what he called ‘a nation of lynchers.’ Bethesda, Maryland, USA, was hardly the place he expected to take his last breath. But such was the course of history. Although a dying man of only 36 years of age, he lived a life of at least 100.
Some subsequent critics wished to take him literally at his word for being a man of his times. This was a wish of his that was a paradoxical function of his unusual character. Often a messenger of bad news, this revolutionary humanist wished he was more wrong than right. We read him today because he transcended his time, but this is only so because our epoch is also his. He saw ahead of the Age of Revolution that Counter-Revolution was its evil twin. So, we witness a world in which the conditions of enslavement are valorised, where privatisation rules under the pretence of its not holding the shackles of more rigorous subjugation of humankind. Many of us forget that slavery is consistent with capitalism, and that the only impediment to this thesis is, in the end, human beings who resist the profits to be gained from their subjugation.
Across the globe, the response of many people to radicalised exploitation has been an assertion of democratic values under the rubric of ‘occupation.’ The term is appropriately Fanonian in the sense that it's a logical consequence of privatisation gobbling up public spaces by which political life could be made manifest. If the streets, the squares, the parks, the countryside, the land, the air, the water, and so forth do not belong to the people, where, then, could there be public spaces through which to articulate political points of view? Would not, under such circumstances, politics itself become an illicit affair?
Fanon warned of this consequence of colonialism, where the human being, as a relation of each to another, is degraded into a dual system in which for one set of people there are selves and others, and for another set there is the nether-realm of non-selves and non-others. Where ethical relationships are granted to the former, it is outlawed for the others by virtue of them being reduced to beings without rights of appearance. For them, to appear is to violate the field of legitimate appearance. They become, in other words, violence.
Fanon, as his former student Alice Cherki reminds us in her recent portrait of his life and thought, detested violence. This is because he knew it intimately, what it meant to appear in the world as such. He understood, for instance, that despite the many dark bodies bloodied under the weight of colonialism and slavery, the many tortured and those who died fighting for their right to exist with dignity, no enunciation of violence would be recognised save for assaults on whites. It is what enabled many to write the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa as ‘nonviolent.’ Violence only existed where whites were harmed or where blacks demanded to cross borders toward the construction of an equal society. The attack dogs, the batons, the fire hoses, the cocked rifles, the lynchings, all of these things unleashed against black protestors did not register as ‘violence.’
What could blacks do when fighting back counted as violence but being attacked by whites did not? What can one do when one’s appearance is illicit? To show that one is not violent is futile. In effect, one faces the subordination of ethics to the demands of social transformation. To be ethical demands no less than changing the world, which, paradoxically, is treated under the status quo as an unethical act. This is because, in the end, those who are advantaged by the current condition consider themselves justly so.
Fanon, then, like Malcolm X, who, too, was born in 1925, continues to be a challenge to our times. Those who wish him to be passé betray a wish, also, to hide from themselves: His continued relevance is a reflection of their, and our, continued failure.
Fanon, however, was not cynical of failure. It was, for him, instructive; the message of failure is, in other words, to fail at failure, to make it that from which one not only learns but also thrives. Understanding our failure offers hope, for it would mean, in the end, that we are not crushed.
So, as this year marks two anniversaries – one of Fanon’s death, the other of the birth of his encomium to the damned of the earth – we should meditate on his ending his last work with a call for us to build new concepts and set afoot a new humanity. He did not tell us what that humanity was or ought to be. That was because he respected us enough to understand that, as with his observation about every generation having to find its mission, to fulfill it or betray it, the responsibility for that future is no other than ours.
Remembering Fanon and honouring him, then, requires going beyond him through ushering forth the best in ourselves, which for many is too much to ask, and for others, too little, but for us all it is indeed fortunate that, while so many negative forces converge in this stage of history, we may still have time to do what proverbially needs to be done.
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* Lewis R. Gordon is the Laura H. Carnell professor of philosophy and Jewish studies and director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was formerly professor of Africana studies, modern culture and media and contemporary religious thought at Brown University, where he was also the founding chairperson of Africana studies.
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