Histories, Impure Foundational Histories

Alejandro De Oto, El Colegio De México, CEAA

Part 3 of the author's "'Escapes' and Displacements: Notes on Frantz Fanon's Oppositional Discourse"

From my point of view, Fanon's texts establish an agreement with two major dimensions of the criticism of colonialism. The first is linked to a type of historicity that debates itself between the reiterative nature of the colonial discourse and the need to construct an emancipatory account. The second has to do with the emancipation of a global subject.

In The Wretched..., for example, evidence of the colonial order confronts the colonized with the dilemma of constructing opposition discourses that, in the first place, seem to respond to the logic of dualism, of the manichean representation of culture. In an effort to make substitutions, the colonized must imagine the world beyond that representation. But the problem lies in the fact that the dualism of the colonial discourse could only be abolished with an effort in the same direction; that is, with a representation of culture that would reproduce the logic of repetition. The overcoming of the colonial context does not imply its fragmentation , but rather its displacement. As Fanon’s texts show such a movement implies certain homogenization. Let us examine the following passages of The Wretched...:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for one of the two terms, one is superfluos. (39)

To break up the colonial world does not mean that after the frontiers have been abolished lines of communication will be set up between the two zones. The destruction of the colonial world is no more and no less that the abolition of one zone, its burial in the depths of the earth or its expulsion from the country. (41)

In this case, abolishing one of the sides represents a project of decolonization equivalent to the foundation of a New World; that is, a representation whose referent remains momentarily unchanged, because abolishing one of the sides implies that thereafter there would be no more sides. The "side" of the colonized disappears during the creation of the New World. The space of the opposition, clear and delineated in the colonial discourse, becomes uncertain. It can be said that the oppositional character of discourses assumes a new shape when the schematization of colonial representations disappears. Historical time is subtly reintroduced as an implicit enunciation. In the colonial dualism historicity was reframed by the time of repetition. The abolition of that dualism clears the way for an historical time that includes different paces and is out of tune and heterogeneous since it cannot prevent the appearance of the difference contained in the stereotypes of the colonial discourse.

At that point Fanon privileges two strategies. The first one that imagines a postcolonial society that shares with classic humanism the notion of a global "man," but which opposes it in considering that the new "man" cannot be built from clippings of the European historical tradition. The second one that imagines the possibility of building a policy of identities that stems from the subject's decisions, both from the enunciate's subject and from that of the enunciation, thus enacting a history of decisions.

The negro [...] is a slave of his past. However, I am a man, and in that sense the Peloponnesian war belongs to me just as much as the discovery of the compass [...] Somehow I must obtain from the past of colored peoples my original vocation. Somehow I must not try to revitalize an unfairly ill-known negro civilization. I do not become the man of a certain past. I do not want to acclaim the past at the expense of my present and my future. (Black Skin... 202-3)

Sartre has shown that the past, following the line of an illegitimate attitude, has "taken" individuals massively and [...] shapes them. Such is the past when transformed into a value. But I too can recover my past, and give it a value or blame it for my subsequent choices. I am not obliged to be this or that [...] If a white man disputes my human nature, I will show him, by making his life bear all my manly weight, that I am not the Y a bon banania that he still imagines. One day I discover myself in the world recognizing one sole right: demanding a human behavior from others. One sole duty: not denying my freedom through my choices. [...] I am not History's prisoner. I must not search there for the sense of my destiny. [...] History's density does not determine any of my acts. I am my own foundation. It is by overcoming what has been historically given, the instrumental, that I start the cycle of my freedom. (Black Skin... 204-5-6)

Fanon's twofold strategy in these remarkable passages tends to recover a notion of history that restores the decision-making capacity; it also tries to place decisions within a present condition upon which to establish the construction of an unfragmented awareness. History's determinations forcibly lead to an action that turns subjects into agents. This implies a historization of the past or, in different terms, a way to stop repetition. For that reason, the appeal to a precolonial past is not included in Fanon's project of emancipation; however, it does delineate a humanism that has moved away from the center of any conception of cultural and historical superiority.

It is not possible to stop the repetition and fragmentation of the colonial world claiming roots that grow deep into "before the Fall." If the cycle of freedom is to be reintroduced, the consolidation of a postcolonial culture must be a process with multiple positions.

In view of the above, I presume that The Wretched... describes opposition to colonial culture as a struggle in a territory free from roots. This is because no permanence is possible when a new form of nomadism is going to be inaugurated. Neither The Wretched... nor Black Skin... shows a longing for deep, negro, cultural roots from which to oppose colonialism. Nonetheless, these texts allow readings that emphasize an opposing perspective because Fanon presents colonial culture as an inscription. This inscription privileges the groundings (both physical and discoursive) of order and taxonomy in the territory and the bodies of the colonized. In a sense, it could be said that such an inscription captures Fanon's text in a logic of totalizing hierarchies and gazes. But what really occurs is a negative sanction of the value of a root coined in cultural absolutism, in the myth of the origin, and in the predestination of a group of men and women in contrast to another group of men and women. Following the same direction, these texts announce an intention: constituting a "rhizomic" culture in Deleuze and Guattari's terms. That is, a culture available to multiplicities and lines of escape. That intention of constituing a "rhizomic" society is evoked in Fanon's refusal to claim the lost identity, and it is also a form of imagining a unification process in his discourse after colonial fragmentation. Fanon can claim a humanism different from the classical Western one that constructed an homogeneous and hegemonic notion of "Man," because nowadays being human is a matter of networks and decisions. Consequently, both the discovery of the compass and the Peloponnesian War are man's own. At this point, Fanon's existentialist argument, unifying in the direction of an almost essential human experience, becomes intertwined with the claim for an extended and, in many cases, diverging historicity, investing his discourse with a postcolonial project. A space for the dialogue between identities and the social pacts or negotiations of meaning appears at this point.

Fanon shows these aspects ambiguously because in a first reading it would seem that he is precisely trying to indicate a failure of the colonial society: the lack of roots. Thus, the colonizer's society is an act of violence, a kind of externality that attempts, and to a great extent succeeds in taking over the body of the colonizer, and the "body" of the land. A particular trait of this society is its amazement before the "deeply rooted" world of the colonized. Fanon states "[t]he settlerīs feet are never visible"; "[t]he settler's town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about" (39). In the colonizer's practices and representations there is always a distance with respect to the land, which is, paradoxically, the place that the "wretched" long for but already inhabit:

For a colonized people, the most essential value, because the most concrete is first and foremost the land...; [...] All that the native has seen in his country is that they can freely arrested, beat him, starve him.... (The Wretched... 44)

But the failure shows something else. The failure shows that there is no escape from a colonial history if it is repeated. Reiteration leads to new foundations that are presented, and therefore represented, as the solution to the colonial "anomaly." Once the links with the land are restored, it is possible to talk again of a culture. In The Wretched... and Black Skin... movement pretends to proceed beyond the discovery of the root.

Fanon's criticism of colonial society has shown that it is not possible to think about emancipation if it is not permanently kept away from the center; that is, if it is not preserved from a pattern of oppositions that forces defining who are inside and who are outside. But lacking roots or avoiding a conception of the world from that point of view implies that the dramatic space of dispossession begins to turn into the unsteady ground upon which colonial identities are built, and where the construction of postcolonial identities is debated. Between the demand to beat down the injustice of colonial society, and the desire to occupy the colonizer's place, the intermediate space of an oppositional representation somehow arises. Not absolutely oppositional, as manichean categories, but oppositional insofar as it produces difference as an act that does not follow the rules of the game of the colonial discourse. Decentralization, at this point, is the same as nomadism. It is equivalent to contrasting the "History that does not determine any of my acts" against itself, thus challenging the operations of the classic humanist discourse, which in the colonial world is depicted as lacking synchronization between the colonial institution and its discoursive postulates. The "colonial" reiteration of "fruitful" discourses in the production of power and knowledge in other geographies is, in the colonized societies, a space for the dissection of cultural practices. The subject of enunciation and the subject of the enunciate are represented as two places characterized by an ontological concept of identity. The production of power and knowledge, and the establishment of a regime of truth follow the direction of irreducibly opposed categories. The third space, that is formed between the subject of the enunciation and the subject of the enunciate begins to represent a displacement in the limits of duality (See different passages of "Interrogating Identity..." in The Location of Culture.) This is a crucial moment in Fanon's criticism. When in Black Skin... he speaks of language, he imagines it precisely as a space of crisis, of crisis because it represents a colonial inscription that postcolonial society cannot disregard insofar as the process of emancipation of the colonial subject is based on a new text:

To speak [is] [...] to bear the weight of a civilization. A man who knows the language also knows the world explained by that language. All colonized peoples (with an inferiority complex) [...] stand vis-à-vis the language of the civilizing nation; that is, of the metropolitan culture. (Black Skin...34)

Among a group of youngsters of the West Indies, the one who can explain himself adequately, who knows the language as if it were his mother-tongue [...] deserves attention, he is a quasi white. In France it is said: talking like a book; in Martinique: talking like a white. (Black Skin... 36)

And that new text cannot easily do without what could be called the construction of sense. In other words, showing Fanon's liberation effort only in terms of the substitution of a colonial account by a postcolonial one does not solve the problem of inscription and maintenance of sense beyond a brief period of time. If, in the colonial context, talking like a white is talking like a book, then the possibility of inscribing sense and direction rests in the hands of those who are closer to the most "literal" form of culture. That which is capable of making endure the mark left by writing, in spite of the fact that its words may have the sound of repetition and erosion in the colonial space. This dilemma poses certain problems for the criticism of culture that is conceived as a root. The inscription of sense, its production and durability in writing, even in the metaphorical writing of social texts, is a deep mark that Fanon's discourse cannot easily overlook. The wish of the colonized to occupy the place of the colonizer has to do with an inscription related to the culture of writing. In this framework, leaving behind the oppositional categories produced by the colonial space also implies giving up forms of inscription; that is, giving up the idea of a subject that maintains an extensive control over the production of sense. Such a subject would only be possible under the unsteady conditions and nomadism of the process of enunciation in the social text, and in a broad projection of the readers' universe. However, Fanon's project does not contemplate to leave writing aside, even though it always inscribes and makes sense enduring. Paul Ricoeur indicates that "part of the sense of a text is being open to an indefinite number of readers and, consequently, of interpretations [and that this] opportunity for multiple readings constitutes the dialectic counterpart of the text's semantic autonomy" (44). The sense of Fanon's texts can be considered in this way. These texts are "offered" to an extensive and heterogeneous universe of readers who would produce a broad range of interpretations to ensure the permanent opening of this writing. While this can be applied to almost any case, within colonial culture it acquires evident relevance: from reading The Wretched... and Black Skin... it can be seen that the sense of the colonial text and its related practices has become autonomous, and it is therefore very difficult to establish a process of interpretation of such practices aimed at displacing them. Talking like a white, which is in turn talking like a book, is the shape that sense acquires in the colonial representation. This shape acts as a kind of atemporal code that inscribes subjects in repetition. Historicity, or the capacity to remember in order to reconstruct the present, is the response in terms of displacement that Fanon inaugurates.

The possibility of historicization then depends on the subjects' capacity to perceive that representations are something constructed and that, as such, they can be replaced. Also, it is possible to imagine an associative experience: one that can be related to other texts and durations.

The second dimension mentioned earlier in this section appears at this point. The emancipation of a "global" subject enables Fanon's texts to be read and related to historical, cultural and social experiences that are beyond the narrow contextual limits. It is not only Algeria or Africa in general at stake, but the cultural criticism of any process of subordination. Here The Wretched... and Black Skin... become a new, global scale, ethical subject. The decolonized subject now becomes a model and, as such, the ethico-cultural ideal to be sustained.

After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonized man.

This new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others. It is prefigured in the objectives and methods of the conflict. (The Wretched... 246)

The evidence and criticism of the alienation of the colonized subject -- and of the colonizer -- can be transferred beyond the geographic, historical and cultural limits. Both dimensions, are certainly linked, but the importance of the difference lies in the possibility of seeing how Fanon's discourse permanently moves away from the enunciative subject, producing historico-political dimensions that will prevail longer. The assertion that Fanon generates a humanistic type of thought can be held provided that this difference is established between the reduced historical context where his works appear, and the less restrictive space of a massive criticism of colonialism where negotiated identities would be built.

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