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ISSN 2041-3254

Franz Fanon – Critical Perspectives

by Ash Sharma
1 Mar 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

ISBN: 0415189764 Review of Anthony C. Alessandrini (ed) (1998) Franz Fanon – Critical Perspectives, Routledge.[1]

Since his untimely death at the age of 36 in 1961, the Martinician-born psychiatrist, writer and revolutionary Frantz Fanon has become something of a looming spectre in radical Black politics. From Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power militancy to Homi Bhaba’s postcolonial poetics, Fanon’s name has been constantly invoked in charged debates or to animate wider political and intellectual concerns. Unsurprisingly, his writings still stir antagonisms but with a recent collection of essays on Fanon, the metropolitan academia in the US and to a lesser extent, Britain, exhume a contentious legacy.

Significant but uneven, many disparate essays on Fanon are packed into one volume. In his perceptive introduction, Alessandrini highlights the importance of Fanon’s work to contemporary cultural politics but frustratingly, he focuses on the fraught relationship between Fanon’s work and the academic discipline of cultural studies instead. If the essays themselves address the ‘cultural studies’ issue, they seem to offer only crude or simplistic positions – either for or against. For example, Nigel Gibson strongly states that versions of Fanon doing the university rounds are politically problematic and his version entails the authentic radical Fanon. Yet avoiding detailed analysis, Gibson makes many isolated assertions. Alessandrini himself suggests that writers critical of cultural studies tend to ignore its disciplinary intricacies. So it might have been better for the volume to have addressed broader questions of the institutional production of knowledge and its relation to global politics, rather than exclusively focusing on the cultural studies field.

John Mowitt does raise the ‘crisis of the humanities’ of American universities, making several points about Fanon’s place in American cultural studies. Unfortunately, an informative reading of Fanon’s essay on Algerian Radio against contemporary university and media discourses lacks depth, failing to offer a sustained argument.

In contrast, F. San Juan Jr. and Neil Lazarus’ essays are substantial and authoritative. Lazarus engagingly defends Fanon’s nationalism and its continuing relevance to collective political struggles. San Juan provocatively reads Fanon’s conceptualizing of revolutionary practice through the philosophic prism of Benedict Spinoza. By working with Spinoza’s ‘dynamic materialism’, San Juan challenges language-based theories of representation and agency. Occasionally, his powerful arguments do become fragmented and difficult to follow, Fanon’s distinctive voice merging with Spinoza’s dense prose in a conceptualising of political struggle not so far removed from the Gramsci-influenced cultural studies approach of which San Juan is so critical. While productive, both essays tend to privilege the Algerian revolutionary ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ Fanon against the earlier existential ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, thereby limiting both Fanon’s own writings and potential areas of inquiry.

Kobena Mercer readjusts the Fanon focus to cultural representation and the problems of wedding nationalism to race, gender and sexuality in the West. Initially a part of the Mirage catalogue from the Fanon-inspired exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Mercer’s essay applies Fanon’s work to the diasporic visual arts. Unlike those theorists who claim Fanon solely as a revolutionary and restrict him to orthodox Marxist or ‘third world’ contexts, Mercer locates Fanon in a lineage of contemporary Black media and cultural production which resonate with Fanon’s insights into racism and ontology. Mercer’s exemplary musings on race, diaspora and subjectivity are well-represented further afield in Alan Read’s edited collection The Fact of Blackness and by Isaac Julien’s film ‘Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask. Similarly, Rey Chow and T. Deanen Sharpley-Whiting’s essays examine complexities of gender and sexuality throughout the Fanon corpus. Sharpley-Whiting offers an analysis of author Capécia from Fanon’s critique in Black Skin, White Masks, both defending Fanon against some of his critics as well as highlighting the limitations of his gender politics.

Arguably the strongest essay in the collection is Samira Kawash’s concise and inspired reading of Fanon’s articulations of violence in processes of decolonisation. Incorporating contemporary theory and the haunting figure of the vampire, Kawash relates Fanon’s thought to present media discourses of terrorism in the New World Order. Kawash argues that Fanon’s demand for absolute violence should be understood beyond the dialectical conflict of coloniser and colonised, for the total destruction of the (post) colonial world. Gwen Bergner and E. Ann Kaplan’s essays might provide some suggestive observations about race and psychoanalysis but Kawash foregrounds the spectral and rupturing nature of absolute violence with a useful critique of Slavoj Zizek’s reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis. She argues that Zizek’s theorising of the subject in symbolic reality cannot be universally applied to every social context. This relatively small point nevertheless raises the question that the collection does not address directly – the relationship of knowledge and Fanon’s writings to eurocentrism. The closest the volume gets are references in many of the essays, especially Kawash’s, to the potential difference between Fanon’s humanism and the humanism of European enlightenment.

The collection offers a stimulating, if partial, snapshot of the critical spectrum on Fanon’s writings. What we need now are more focused and in-depth studies of Fanon’s writings within a changing transnational present. Where are the African and Asian based writers? Why limit Fanon to a purely academic agenda? The final essay by Françoise Verges on the politics of reparation in the French post-slavery context exemplifies one way of developing Fanon’s thought – by locating his writings in a larger anti-colonialism narrative. Like the impressive collection edited by Lewis Gordon et al. ‘Fanon: A Critical Reader, Verges attempts to see Fanon as a significant philosopher beyond specifics of time and place. A complex thinker, writer and committed activist, Fanon’s writings demand multiple forms of address and engagement. At the end of her essay, Kawash evocatively suggests that ‘Fanon shows us that decolonisation is not an event that happens in history; it is rather the shattering of that history and the opening to an otherwise that cannot be given in advance, but that is always, like justice, to come.’ Can we do justice to the spectre of Fanon?


1. Book review originally published in Black Media Journal, 1999, No. 1, pp. 82 [↑]


Ash Sharma is the co-editor of darkmatter. He teaches at the University of East London, UK and is a member of the Black Study Group (London). He blogs at tabula rasa and co-edits the writing zine Southern Discomfort . Re-imagining (sub)urban space at twitter: @ashdisorient He is completing a book on race and visual culture.
All posts by: Ash Sharma | Email | Website

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