Black Skin White Masks -- Orality as a Function of Both Domination and Resistance

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Itself an assemblage of angry polemic and experiental, mytho-poetic personal vignettes, Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks situates language and the body at the center of the black predicament of marginalization, pathologization, and servitude. "A man who has a language," Fanon suggests, "consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language." Foreshadowing somewhat Michel Foucault's coupling of knowledge and power, Fanon argues that language becomes an index of both cultural difference and power imbalance. "What we are getting at becomes plain: Mastery of language affords remarkable power" (18) In the context of the French-Algierian war, Fanon laments the fact that the French language assumed a certain privilege over the "jabber" of native dialects. The native bourgeoisie, as Fanon argues, undermines the workings of revolution by covetting the agency or subjectivity ensured by the ability to speak the language of the colonial bourgeoisie. "We are trying to understand," Fanon asks, "why the Antilles Negro is so fond of speaking French" (27). To Fanon the assimilation and valorization of the french language underscores the native intellectual's complicity with the "mother" country that uses language as a discursive instrument to subordinate colonized subjects and legitimate its comparative privilege.

And yet, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest the possibility that "orality" empowers the colonial subject with a mode of resistance. As they argue in the passage below, despite the subordination of "oral traditions" in Western modernity, spoken performances often reject the discursive subordination as a result not only of colonization but academic conceptualizations of colonization:

In 'modern' societies the oral and the performative continues to exist alongside the written but is largely ignored or relegated to the condition of pretext in many accounts, represented as only the beginning or origin of the written. Yet in many postcolonial societies oral, performative events may be the principle present and modern means of continuity for the pre-colonial culture and may also be the tools by which the dominant social institutions and discourses can be subverted or repositioned, shown that is to be constructions naturalised within a hierarchised politics of difference. (322)

How, as Randall Bass asks in terms of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, might these competing notions of "orality" bear upon the function of language and utterance in liturature? With regards to Fanon's investment in the Algiers-France conflict, how might depictions of language articulate themselves in relation to each other along the lines of race and gender? Consider Camus, for instance, not forgetting Gide or Genet -- all of whom might be considered to challenge, in different ways, the status quo that shapes colonial dominance and coercion in Algierian literature.

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