Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Wretched of the Earth

Just read Frantz Fanon's controversial book The Wretched of the Earth . More than a bit troubling, even today.
Fanon was born to a middle class family in Martinique and moved to France to fight with the Free French during WWII. There he became a psychiatrist and eventually became Head of the Psychiatry Department at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria. While listening to the stories of torturers and revolutionaries, Fanon became more radicalized than he had been previously (although his book Black Skin, White Masks had dealt with the psychological effects of racism) and eventually became a sort of spokesman for the Algerian independence movement.
The Wretched of the Earth is Manichean in its suggestions for decolonialization. Fanon literally advocates violence as a means for the colonized peoples to remake themselves outside of the former binary divisions of colonialism (colonized/ colonizer, black/ white) and to avoid the current capitalist/socialist binary that much of Europe was obsessed with.
While his sanguinary rhetoric is unnerving, even more so is his prescience. Consider:
"National consciousness in nothing but a crude, empty fragile shell. The racks in it explain how easy it is for young independent countries to switch back from nation to ethnic group and from state to tribe- a regression which is so terribly detrimental and prejudicial to the development of the nation and national unity." Written some 30 years before the Rawandian genocide.
The last chapter, which details the case studies of patients suffering from mental disorders related to the colonial war, is perhaps the strongest in the book. One case that sounds like it could be a movie plot: "A European police officer suffering from depression while at the hospital meets one of his victims, an Algerian patriot suffering from stupor." Fanon details affective disorders that are well understood now. He argues convincingly that growing up in a binary system in which you are the animalistic other forces one to ask constantly "Who am I?" Of course, this is old news now, but it is because of Fanon.
Much of the book is troubling and hard-line, but still fascinating in this time of constant talk of freedom.


W. S. Cross said...

Was it Fanon who recognized how the smaller the stakes, the more vicious the in-fighting? That's certainly the model for life in academe!

Rufus said...

Oh, I'm sure he'd sneer at academics. He did have one great line- something like "people use obscure language to mask the real sources of their dominance over others". That definitely brought academe to mind!
Actually, his point about violence is even more troubling. He argues that, of course, we believe in non-violence- we're Europeans after the Enlightenment. However, colonized people's experience with us has been nothing but violence. So, how can we expect them to adopt non-violence as a method for dealing with those who have enslaved and tortured them?
It's a hard one too, because we do believe in non-violence, but I think we all make exceptions for slave revolts, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and perhaps we should as well for the Battle for Algiers.
At any rate, it's highly recommended reading, although I do not agree with a lot of it.

W. S. Cross said...

I don't think we really believe in non-violence so much as feel we must-- it's a little like recycling or brushing your teeth three times a day: we all know we should, even if we don't want to.

Deep down inside, we LOVE violence, and believe it's the only way. Look at the out-sourcing of torture we're going through now: send terrorists to Jackoffstan where they KNOW how to make them talk.

Look at the popularity of "24" where Jack Bauer would break his girlfriend's arm if he thought it would bring the results he believes justify ANY means. And I should confess I love watching that show, love him doing bad things for good ends. It's a very visceral response.

Rufus said...

Right, I think we have a greater love for violence than we'd like to admit. But we also have a deep down discomfort when exposed to the suffering of others. One of Fanon's findings was that torturing leaves a deep psychological scar in just the same way that "one can never be un-tortured."
Also, luckily we don't just act on hind-brain instincts. There would be a lot more murders, rapes, and stealing if we did.

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Anonymous said...

I wonder just what Raymond says about this.