Fanon on "National Culture"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In "On National Culture," an essay collected in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon foregrounds the following paradox: "national identity," while vital to the emergence of a Third World revolution, paradoxically limits such efforts at liberation because it re-inscribes an essentialist, totalizing, fetishized, often middle-class specific understanding of "nation" rather than encouraging a nuanced articulation of an oppressed people's cultural heterogeneity across class lines. In other words, although the concept of "nation" unfairly characterizes colonized subjects as historically unified in their primitiveness or exoticness, the term's promise of solidarity and unity often proves helpful nonetheless in their attempts at political amelioration. Fanon encourages a materialist conceptualization of the nation that is based not so much on collective cultural traditions or ancestor-worship as political agency and the collective attempt to dismantle the economic foundations of colonial rule. Colonialism, as Fanon argues, not only physically disarms the colonized subject but robs her of a "pre-colonial" cultural heritage. And yet, if colonialism in this sense galvanizes the native intellectual to "renew contact once more with the oldest and most pre-colonial spring of life of their people," Fanon is careful to point out that these attempts at recovering national continuity throughout history are often contrived and ultimately self-defeating. "I am ready to concede," he admits, "that on the plane of factual being the past existence of an Aztec civilization does not change anything very much in the diet of the Mexican peasant of today." In the passage below, Fanon explains that "national identity" only carries meaning insofar as it reflects the combined revolutionary efforts of an oppressed people aiming at collective liberation:

A national culture is not a folklore, not an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people's true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people. 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. (233)