Reading Frantz Fanon

The glut of books on Fanon serve as a guide for reading him through the challenges of our present. But they also reveal the extent to which reading Fanon today is not such a straightforward operation.

A still from 'Battle Algiers,' a film about the Algerian revolution that appears as it was scripted by Frantz Fanon.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born, African nationalist and champion for the liberation of Algeria, died on 6 December 1961 in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland in the USA. Recently Fanon’s life work has received quite some attention from the academic world. After earlier biographies, such as David Macey’s Frantz Fanon and edited volumes like the one put together by Nigel Gibson’s Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Legacy, one might think that everything on the subject has been said. However, this is not the case as recent writing on the subject demonstrates, namely Leo Zeilig’s Militant Philosopher of the Third World Revolution, Christopher Lee’s Frantz Fanon Toward a Revolutionary Humanism, and the monumental Jean Khalfa and Robert Young’s collection of writings by Fanon Écrits sur l’Aliénation e la Liberté.

In different ways, and departing from engagements with the available materials, these books offer new understandings on Fanon. They achieve it either by interpreting Fanon’s insights under new theoretical lenses, by enlarging the contextual framework to explain Fanon’s intellectual maturation, or, simply, by proposing fresh readings of Fanon that take into account recently found writings by him.

Zeilig’s starting point is a critique of the scholarship on Fanon. He contends that in academia, the adoption of “radical thinkers is always a sanitising process, turning revolutionary action into passive reflection, analysis into academic pontification.” After discussing the major trends on the scholarship on Fanon, Zeilig explains that his book “does not fall neatly into any of these categories; it is a biography that seeks to provide a total picture of Fanon’s life and work, while not pretending to be definite or final.” In doing so, he is only slightly interested in the historical context. His main preoccupation is to provide a fair description of the political-philosophical milieu Fanon was part of. Part of his effort, then, is to extricate Fanon from a European Marxist tradition, even if he recognizes that Fanon came to terms with his approach to Marxism in such an environment. Put differently, Zeilig is interested in tackling Fanon’s non-eurocentric Marxism. In the end, though, one is left to wonder what the problem with scholarship on Fanon is. Or if the problem with the sanitization of Fanon he alludes to lies precisely in the decanting of Marxism from his writing. Finally, Zeilig also says that his book is not a hagiography of Fanon. But the more negative side of Fanon is rarely discussed. Although this book is absolutely worth reading, the author dedicates a considerable amount of his attention either to defend Fanon or to castigate those who have criticized him.

Lee’s book, Toward a Revolutionary Humanism is an attempt to “humanize” Fanon, by engaging with a historical formation and an epistemological imperative, namely, the “rise of the third world” and the need to “deconstruct colonial legacies that still impact the present” (ideas also discussed in two other book projects of the author). Lee is not interested in writing a biography, on the contrary, he explains that biographies tend to start with the subject and then proceed to give the necessary background in order to situate the subject in the context. So he takes the other way around, providing the context and then situating the subject, in this case Fanon, therein.

As a cultural historian, Lee has been able to unearth contextual facts crucial to understand who Fanon was and how he came to embrace certain ways of thinking. However, this option produces two problems. The first one is that sometimes Fanon is subsumed in the profusion of historical events. Second, there is a suggestion that these historical events were instrumental to Fanon’s trajectory. In the last section, the author discusses the need to engage with Fanon today, with what he describes as “radical empathy.” Or, “politics of recognition and solidarity with communities beyond one’s own immediate experience.” What looms large in such a discussion is the question of violence. Lee seems to suggest that an understanding of Fanon’s context may help dilute his appeal to violence. I wonder if our concern with Fanon’s advocacy of violence is not an indication of the temporal rift that separates him from us. David Scott (in Conscripts of Modernity) has written about this epistemological problem, by arguing that part of this difficulty lies in having to write on questions outside our problem-space. Justifying Fanon’s call for violence does not help understanding the challenges he went through in theorizing his own time.

Khalfa and Young’ Écrits sur l’Aliénation e la Liberté is part of a larger project whose goal is to publish Fanon’s complete works. Previous books pay scant attention to what has been written on Fanon in French. This problem is at the core of postcolonial studies, particularly when it comes to the Francophone side of this debate. Fanon has written in French, but he is for the most part marginalized in French postcolonial studies. He is a major figure in the Anglophone academic world, particularly in the United States, where postcolonial critics have been able to read and discuss his work without paying too much attention to the context he was writing from.

Khalfa and Young’s book provides the possibility of reading Fanon outside the academic interpretations his work has been submitted to. The first section is about theatre, with two plays written by Fanon at an early age. Engaging with these early writings is important not only to make one aware of Fanon’s intellectual trajectory, but also because they are infused with major Fanonian themes, such as alienation and freedom, which he would later in his life address in different genres and forms. Secondly, one also sees that the influence of Sartre on Fanon goes beyond their camaraderie that led the former to sign the preface to the Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s plays are deeply influenced by Sartre’s existentialism. By this logic, his later work too.

In the second section, the book introduces Fanon’s psychiatric work. The paramount aspect here is not just how one understands the ways in which Fanon dealt with his own practice. It goes beyond scholarly fixation on Fanon’s linking of mental alienation and colonial oppression. Fanon was charting and operating on new epistemological territories. His point of departure was  that mental pathologies cannot be separated from the social environment, to the extent that research done on mental diseases in western societies was not useful to explain the Arab or the African mentality. The psychiatric work of Fanon is fundamentally epistemological, since it forced him to deal with the articulation of questions in the context in which there was no literature or research.

However, this section also touches on questions of authorship. For the most part, Fanon co-signs these pieces, which shows the collaborative nature of his intellectual work. More interestingly, the methodology for his revolutionary writing, particularly the pieces for the El Moujahid, followed similarly. Most of the articles for this Algerian journal were not published under his name, because his revolutionary thinking was part of a larger project, the national liberation movement.

Together these writings are major contributions for understanding Fanon, particularly for reading Fanon through the challenges of our present. But they also reveal the extent to which reading Fanon today is not such a straightforward operation.

Further Reading