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Introduction: Fanons The

Wretched of the Earth

50 Years On
Vikki Bell

All the Mediterranean values ^ the triumph of the human individual, of

clarity and of beauty ^ become lifeless, colourless knick-knacks. All those
speeches seem like collections of dead words; those values which seemed to
uplift the soul are revealed as worthless, simply because they have nothing
to do with the concrete conict in which the people is engaged. (Fanon, The
Wretched of the Earth [1967(1961): 36])

HIS SPECIAL section is prompted by the fact that 2011 will see the
50th anniversary of Frantz Fanons death and of the posthumous
publication of his The Wretched of the Earth with its manifestly
unbridled voluntarism in the rhetoric of revolutionary agency (Sekyi-Out,
1996: 48). For although Fanons insistence that the subjective realm could
be both a measure of colonial encounters and a site for the demolition of
colonialist structures and eects has appealed to those who would read
Black Skins, White Masks as a study of postcolonial phenomenology and as
Fanons key text, here instead the challenge is to place the arguments and
the spirit of The Wretched centre-stage, to ask contributors to take up this
book, with its more overtly accusatory style and stance, and to assess how
this study reads 50 years on. That said, Fanons concern with how settlercolonialism feels for the colonized certainly still infuses this work insofar
as Fanon stands in a tradition with du Bois, exploring the double consciousness of racialized oppression. This mode of analysis remains not least
because his training as a psychiatrist and his encounters with his patients
indicated to him the profound sense in which colonialism forces the people
it dominates to ask themselves repeatedly In reality, who am I?, thereby
creating many sometimes ineaceable wounds and making the cure of the
native problematic, if that means to make him passive and settle him

Theory, Culture & Society 2010 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore),
Vol. 27(7- 8): 7^15
DOI: 10.1177/0263276410383721

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Theory, Culture & Society 27(7-8)

within a colonized society (1967[1961]: 200). But this focus on psychology is

not to be set in simplistic opposition to political action, since attention to
collective subjectivities and their potential for empowering militant anticolonial activism has characterized many movements from negritude to
Garveyism in their dierent ways (Young, 2001: 275). As Sartres Preface
understood, The Wretched is a study of the modes of dehumanization
inicted by violence in the colonies, a sustained critique of the hypocrisy of
the liberal humanism that, once pressed, reveals the caesuras upon which
it operates, and a warning that that violence which is cast as the resurrection
of savage instincts is in fact man re-creating himself (1967[1961]: 18). For
this reason too Fanon quotes his teacher Aime Cesaires Les Armes miraculeuses (et les chiens se taisaient) in which the Rebel explains to the
Mother how he had killed his master ^ his very good master who had had
honeyed words and to whom he had been a faithful slave, the slave of
slaves ^ likening the spurt of his masters blood to a form of baptism
(1967[1961]: 68^9). Cesaires poetry was prophetic, Fanon wrote, since the
colonised man nds his freedom in and through violence (1967[1961]: 68),
turning back the violence of colonialism, the violence which overpowers the
native but which keeps him tensed, ready. He is treated as inferior but he
is not convinced of his inferiority (1967[1961]: 41); if the settlers work is
to make even dreams of liberty impossible for the native, the natives
work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler
(1967[1961]: 73).
The Algerian war of independence was a horrifyingly violent episode;
the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), with whom Fanon became
involved, based their struggle on anti-colonial violence to which the French
responded ercely. Even the disputed ocial numbers of Algerians killed
puts the gure at 141,000 and the numbers of French troops at 27,000
(Macey, 2002). The gures dont provide the complete picture, of course, or
give enough of the sense of the spiralling violence which took all along
with it. In fact, as Young has argued, the term violence is too clean and
cerebral a word, too surrounded with the dignity of philosophical conceptualisation, to describe the raging, sadistic and sickening butchery of what
went on in Algeria (2001: 277). Fanon had taken a job at the hospital in
Tunis, where at rst he oered shelter to members of FLN, before becoming
gradually involved in the cause as the level of torture and violence against
the people became clear. Although he didnt partake in the military campaigns, Fanon became a spokesperson for the movement and was in
due course expelled from Algeria for his involvement; he moved to Tunis
where he continued his support, in particular through editing the
FLN newspaper El Moudjahid, employing his gift of writing and aliating
himself with their Marxist non-conciliatory secular wing (Macey, 2002;
Young, 2001: 275^7).
Fanon is a gure who exemplies Paul Gilroys (1993) thesis of the
Black Atlantic, as Ive argued before (Bell, 2002). Born in 1925, he grew
up in a Martinique where French ideals infused his education, studying in
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Bell ^ Introduction: Fanons The Wretched of the Earth 50 Years On

the Bibliothe'que Schoelcher, the magnicent library named after Victor

Schoelcher (1904^93), the parliamentary architect of the abolition of slavery,
and which once stood in the Tuileries gardens in Paris before it was dismantled and reconstructed in Fort de France in 1893. Here Fanon would have
passed under the words of Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers
adorning the entrance (Macey, 2002: 60). But life experiences came to shatter his admiration ^ indeed love ^ for France and the rhetorics of freedom
that had once lifted his spirit and led him to take up arms in response to
de Gaulles plea to the colonies for their aid in her defence. The man who
wrote The Wretched of the Earth had reached a dierent stage in that relationship, one that saw him employ a far more radical revolutionary discourse to think about the settler society in which he found himself
employing his French education. The chapter Concerning Violence was
rst delivered as a speech at Nkrumahs famous All African Peoples
Congress in Accra in December 1958, convened to bring freedom ghters
across Africa together for the rst time on that continent. In it, Fanon
described the rage over basic equalities denied that was erupting into
the native discovers that the settlers skin is not of any more value than a
natives skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a
very necessary manner. All the new, revolutionary assurance of the native
stems from it. For if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settlers, his
glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer
turns me to stone . . . in fact, I dont give a damn for him. . . . I am already
preparing such ecient ambushes for him that soon there will be no way
out but that of ight. (1967[1961]: 35)

Through his eective combination of experience of colonialism and his

awareness of both historical and more recent events, the speech was a performative event that changed the tone of the conference, contrasting strongly
with Nkrumahs public Gandhi-inspired rhetoric of peaceful change and
foreshadowing the turn to violence on the continent (Young, 2005).
The Wretched as a whole sees Fanon employ what some have regarded
as a racialized Marxism, in which he considered himself, at least in parts,
to be stretching Marxism to t the colonial context in which racial division
rather than class structures all, so that it is the sustained experience of
racism that will explode in violent revolution. His explicit treatment of
Marxism is limited, however, and it is Sartre ^ the French philosopher
with whom Fanon was most closely in dialogue ^ who insists in his Preface
that the revolution will inaugurate a socialist future. For his part, Fanon
argued that the government to come should be one that is the direct expression of the masses (1967[1961]: 151) and that no leader, however valuable
he may be, can substitute himself for the popular will (1967[1961]: 165).
That said, the context of socialist revolutions and the Cold War fear of
Communism infuses Fanons stance as well as the contexts into which he
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Theory, Culture & Society 27(7-8)

delivered his thoughts (Young, 2001: 278^9, 2005). After the Accra conference, the success of the Cuban revolution of 1959 made violent revolution
seem more overtly credible, encouraging the USSR and China to lend support to it, and providing a strong point of contrast to those West African
countries such as Co te dIvoire and Senegal that had negotiated their way
from beneath colonialism but were still under French control in ways that
Fanon regarded as divisive, evidenced not least by their failure to support
the Algerians in the liberation struggle (see Fanon on Cuba, 1967[1961]:
76^7; Young, 2005: 37). As Robert Young points out, it is evident in
The Wretched that Fanon understood that the Cold War was bound up
with, and was even being played out in, the hot wars of anti-colonial struggle. The book was widely banned; in South Africa, where it was considered
a threat to national security (Young, 2005: 40), to Latin America, where
children are only now digging up their copies from the gardens where their
parents buried them decades ago.
Fanon took stances that were often against the grain, and was not
easily brought to causes into which others may have wished to enrol him.
It is his work as a psychiatrist that provides Maceys starting point here, as
he explores the sense in which Fanon exposed forms of racism on which psychiatric practice was based, that understood the Arab natives through a
lens of primitivism and as instinctively dishonest. Thus Fanon is embarrassing for that profession, argues Macey, because of the attention he drew to
psychiatrys racism, just as he was embarrassing for Martinique, even for
the Left there, since he was so dismissive of its potential for independence
and, without regret, portrayed its mostly Creole-based folklore as likely to
fade away. A residual Schoelcherism in Fanon sees him harshly criticize
the attitude that has the freed embrace their former oppressors in gratitude.
But what should be embarrassing, Macey suggests, is the continued relevance of his analyses of racism ^ the echoes that his work continues to nd
around the world, including in France.
Mohammed Bamyeh draws our attention to, among other things, the
cases that Fanon presents in the nal chapter of The Wretched, Colonial
War and Mental Disorders. Fanon, whose discourse was one of violence
against the colonizer, was professionally engaged in healing and in providing
aid even to those who were torturers. Thus does Fanon tell us about the
police ocer-torturer who was haunted by screams, especially the screams
of the ones who died at the police headquarters (1967[1961]: 214), and who
came face to face with one he had so tortured in Fanons hospital; Fanon
took him to his house and helped him as he recovered from an anxiety
attack. But it is not the contradiction in Fanon that is at stake for Bamyeh,
but rather the forms of abstraction that are articulated by some of Fanons
patients and that can be used to justify, even incite, violence. This is evidenced in Fanons case of the two teenagers who killed a European classmate
whom they knew; he was a good friend of ours, one says, moving swiftly
to one day we decided to kill him, because the Europeans want to kill all
the Arabs (1967[1961]: 217). At another level, technologies of war and their
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Bell ^ Introduction: Fanons The Wretched of the Earth 50 Years On 11

accompanying vocabularies often disguise killing in their abstractions, as if

the deployment of violence in this technological manner can be controlled;
but, Bamyeh suggests, the idea that one can control violence is suspect,
whether it be highly technological or not. Moreover, when violence is associated with a process of limitless abstraction, he argues, the resolution is
total annihilation of the adversary. In place of articulations that rest upon
the idea of knowing a people and knowing the source of injustice, Bamyeh
explores the possibility that a shared and negotiable level of indebtedness
might give rise to a language by which interdependencies might be articulated and joined productively without these assumptions. Some hope exists
in the present, he suggests, in a longing for concreteness that arrests the
propensity for abstraction.
Azzedine Haddour considers how Fanons perspective in Algeria
Unveiled was informed not only by the Battle of Algiers ^ the context in
which it is most often read ^ but also in the coerced ceremonial unveilings
that were orchestrated by the French in a dramatic attempt to demonstrate
the commitment of Muslim women to France. The photographs from those
days in May 1958 show banners declaring Vive La France and Vive De
Gaulle, and young Algerian women addressing the crowd to speak of their
liberation, including the charade that saw women such as Monique
Ameziane, who never wore the veil, don one simply in order to unveil for a
gathered crowd. The Battle of Algiers was fought by General Massu while
his wife, with her Mouvement de la Solidarite Feminine, fought this battle
against the veil in cities across Algeria. This show, Haddour argues, was part
of a wider context of violence and torture, not a simple misunderstanding
nor an expression of French secularism; one has to see how this unveiling
relates to the use of torture, rape and sexual violence by the French military.
Torture also forms a focus for Paul Gilroys contribution here, as he
notes Amerys admiration and sense of connection with Fanons arguments.
Reading Fanon, Amery heard the concentration camp reected in Fanons
descriptions of living as the colonized. Furthermore, argues Gilroy, Fanons
humanism, too quickly dismissed, should be understood as emanating not
from an innocent intersubjective encounter but from the profound understanding expressed in Amerys argument that his own torture taught him
how torture transforms the man into mere esh. Any humanism after torture would be as Amery described life after torture: in order to avoid the
disgrace of withdrawal from the world, one had only the choice of physical
revolt, a rebellion that had little to do with abstract humanity.
Gilroy reads Fanon against contemporary diagrams of military violence, to see how the history of knowledges about ethnic and racialized
types continue to be deployed, as well as the way that notions and technologies of security rely upon forms of military operation deployed within and
without, continuing a long history which Fanon understood. These have
their counterpart in the modes by which violence in the metropolis is rendered with dierential ontologies, reiterating a popular racialized comprehension of problems that concern wider populations only when crimes
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12 Theory, Culture & Society 27(7-8)

either stray beyond their expected zones or are rendered as security problems, the prism through which populations are routinely governed nowadays. The discourse of security, with its attendant media-fuelled easy
anthropological and quasi-psychology of the home grown, is eclipsing any
notion that investment is still required in projects that foster anti-racist
The contemporary fortunes of multiculturalism is a concern for
Franc oise Verge's, who in her contribution points to the particular postcoloniality of France, where the history of slavery is so muted as to constitute
denial, and where the idea of France is routinely dissociated from its violent
colonial exploits such that it can be posited as a nation engaged in an innocent pursuit of civilization in the face of those who would pull it back into
disruptive and costly discussions about dierence. A reactionary gesture
gives airtime to those who, using the rhetoric of plain-speaking, question
why Frances mission should be derailed or delayed by attending to those
who rake over the past. After all, they imply, what right do these Others,
who were liberated after all, have to shape contemporary debates? In this
desire to close down discussions of the importance of slavery and of colonial
violence, Verge's sees contemporary problems articulated without reference
to history, and those working to provide historical imaginations through cultural institutions attacked by conservative politicians who regard the promotion of multiculturalism through the restoration of historical understanding
as an attack on French values. It may be important, argues Verge's, to see
how the continual redrawing of the lines of what it means to be French
reects not only the distance between the universal ideal and the reality of
the colony, especially Algeria, but also that between the former and the
rst period of colonization and slavery. Here we can begin to see the
modes by which lives become, or do not become, recognized as subjects
included in national narratives, and are deemed to be entitled to explore
their subjectivities in relation to those narratives.
Both Gilroy and Hage explore what the third stage of Fanons intellectual might be, how its new humanism is to be understood. Ghassan Hage
agrees with Hardt and Negris (2009) recent notion that a new humanity
cannot emerge from an antimodernity, and that a positive re-imagining of
possibilities is required to avoid being stuck in the third phase. But Hage
wonders about the value accorded to universality in anti-racist discourse,
and whether there is some ambivalence towards it, since a desire for
acknowledgement of particularities is also understood as an anti-racist sentiment and stance. It is the fear of being xed that means there is perhaps a
desire, or even a need, for vacillation between universality and particularity.
The hope and the dashing of the hope for universal values is arguably at
the heart of Fanons experience of ghting for France only to experience its
racism rst hand. Hage wishes to term this process mis-interpellation and,
reading Fanons Look, a Negro! passage, he argues that Fanons writings
are in part an exploration of that pull of the universal and the fall to the particular, a traumatic experience of non-subject constitution since, unlike
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Bell ^ Introduction: Fanons The Wretched of the Earth 50 Years On 13

rejection or non-interpellation, the subject opens him or herself, baring her

desires and dropping her defences in those moments of the seduction of
Fanon had an ambivalence towards the cities of colonial-settler societies. In parts of The Wretched Fanon argued that it would be the peasantry
who would be the hope for revolution and that revolutionary leaders should
not unthinkingly allow their support to arise from town-dwellers with their
proclivity towards supporting modern ideas and their technical advantages;
they ignored the rural areas at their peril. In this volume, Abdou-Maliq
Simone reconsiders the city of contemporary Africa, of the contemporary
South, taking as a cue the notion that the native town is ignored by ruling
eyes as long as it continues to signal the debilitation that requires only minimal surveillance. The struggle to survive from one day to the next among
the fast-moving shifting relations that the city has become, in which people
rely almost solely on the on-going generosity of bodies to support and orientate them, suggests to Simone a mode of survival that relies upon the loosest
of associations put into play in games of chance, favours and blu. These
negotiations see forms of patronage and dependency among the least privileged in the city; the bodies of those who are surviving ^ or rather part of
their bodies ^ enter into forms of circulation that create the economy of
those who live in the precarious tier just above desperation. Physically and
psychically, survival is made through the temporary, oftentimes stylized pursuit of connections, the forming of networks across uncertain cityscapes as
people invent and experiment, testing probable outcomes of their actions in
a contemporary world, taking risks, swapping stories of those who have
made something for themselves, enabling them to take a piece of the material city, or those who have got lucky or unlucky somehow or other; in his
consideration of the vibrant yet mostly invisible quotidian life of these
cities, Simone does not condemn or celebrate. Rather than attempt to nd
meaning in these forms of survival and togetherness, his portrait of these
practices speaks to Fanon through a demonstration of forms of potentiality
that contemporary cities hold.
In contemporary times, the dynamics of the relationship between colonization (and its historical legacies, including the legacies of the forms and
processes that decolonization has taken) and Western capitalism, or what
Fanon calls capitalist societies, have been recongured. The key analytic
terms need to be revisioned and we will no doubt continue to debate how
to capture the contours of this new conguration for many years yet. Thus,
in one key example, the ascendancy of the idea of democracy and the
magic that is thought to emanate from its institutions has replaced talk
of resisting, granting or facilitating self-determination or nationalism.
The banner of Democracy ^ and the idea that Democracy is itself a culture
that can be taught, or implanted and tended ^ however, has not diminished
the sense in which many young independent nations, or those struggling
to return to their independence, as it were, do so in the atmosphere of the
battleeld (1967[1961]: 75) that Fanon noted; but the lines of the battleeld
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Theory, Culture & Society 27(7-8)

and the struggles taking place today seem to protect dierent loyalties and
visions, so that it is not clear that todays struggles are struggles which are
for national existence, for its culture, for its creation, in the way that Fanon
argued with Algeria in mind (1967[1961]: 197). Of course it is important to
attend to contemporary specicities, therefore, and not to read Fanon into
the contemporary world too easily. By the same token, this world is not
unconnected to that of which he wrote. It remains as necessary now as
then to argue for better, sustained reection on the entwined histories of
colonialism and the inequities that have positioned some as the teachers or
propagators of Democracy as such; there remain many elisions and many
paradoxes that would not have been lost on Fanon. Starting a new history,
for Fanon, meant having regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which
Europe has put forward, but it did not seek merely to follow for it would
also not forget Europes crimes (1967[1961]: 254). No, we do not want to
catch up with anyone, he wrote in the Conclusion to The Wretched, but:
[w]hat we want to do is to go forward all the time, night and day, in the company of Man, in the company of all men. The caravan should not be
stretched out, for in that case each line will hardly see those who precede
it; and men who no longer recognise each other meet less and less together,
and talk to each other less and less. (1967[1961]: 254)

Bell, V. (2002) The Violence and the Appeal of Raciologies: Colonialism, Camps
and Cosmopolitan Utopias (A Review Essay), Theory, Culture & Society 19:
Fanon, F. (1967 [1961]) The Wretched of the Earth, trans. C. Farrington.
Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
London: Verso.
Hardt, M. and T. Negri (2009) Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Macey, D. (2002) Frantz Fanon: A Life. New York: Picador.
Sekyi-Out, A. (1996) Fanons Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Young, R. (2001) Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Young, R. (2005) Fanon and the Turn to Armed Struggle in Africa, Wasari 44:

Vikki Bell is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

She is the author of three monographs, the most recent being Culture and
Performance (Berg, 2007). Widely published in peer-reviewed journals,
she has written extensively on the thought of Michel Foucault and
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Bell ^ Introduction: Fanons The Wretched of the Earth 50 Years On 15

Hannah Arendt, and addressed questions of ethics, subjectivity and politics

across the social sciences and theoretical humanities. Most recently her
work has explored cultural-aesthetic aspects of processes of transitional justice in Argentina, where her research has been funded by the Arts and
Humanities Research Council. Her articles have appeared in the following
journals, among others: Theory, Culture & Society, Cultural Politics,
Journal of Visual Culture, Social & Legal Studies, Economy and Society.

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