Fanon’s fugitive archive

'Alienation and Freedom,' a massive collection of Frantz Fanon's works, reveals his intellectual and political motivations, but also proves him enigmatic and inscrutable as ever.

Image credit Désinteret via Flickr.

Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He died from cancer in 1961 at the age of 36 in a hospital outside of Washington, DC. In between, he lived in France, where he received a medical degree from the University of Lyon; in Algeria, where he worked at a psychiatric hospital in Blida, near Algiers; and Tunisia, where he continued his clinical research and wrote for Algeria’s anti-colonial Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), a cause he joined while in Blida. He spent shorter periods of time in Accra, Bamako, Conakry, Moscow, Paris and Rome. All told, from a biographical standpoint, Fanon’s frequent movements remain a source of fascination. From a research standpoint, however, these movements are something of a disaster.

Alienation and Freedom, a new collection of Fanon’s writings edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young and translated by Steven Corcoran, is an attempt to alleviate this problem of documentation—in essence, to create a posthumous archive of his work which thus far has been scattered across the aforementioned places in state repositories, medical libraries, university collections and private hands. This book is therefore indisputably a gift, a cause for celebration. First published in French by La Découverte in 2015, Alienation and Freedom is the first major collection of new writing by Fanon to be published in more than 50 years, since the 1964 release of Pour la révolution africaine (Toward the African Revolution), translated into English in 1967.

As such, this volume uncovers a wealth of detail and a revised biographical outline of Fanon. Though it naturally conforms to the life of activism that is well known, this book provides firsthand information about his medical interests, confirms past rumor about his decision-making with evidence, and offers a few surprises, especially with regards to his early writing and personal correspondence. Most significantly, Alienation and Freedom shows us the rough edges of Fanon’s thinking, much of which has been worn smooth through decades of scholarship. A fine-grained sense of his views across the fields of psychiatry, philosophy, and politics over a brief, but intense, period of a dozen years is at hand. Indeed, the uneven quality of the collection—a mix of published and unpublished material by Fanon, plus supplementary material by others—imparts an unusual effect that both further explains Fanon’s intellectual and political motivations while also generating new questions that leave Fanon as inscrutable as ever. Fanon is that rare figure who manages to become more enigmatic through further revelation. The wellspring of this elusiveness is undoubtedly due to his personal geography and the contrasting dimensions produced from his unsettled life. This book’s title captures these contrasts. Alienation and Freedom in content and form reflects the peregrinations of a restless man whose experience of racism led to personal self-determination, who chose intellectual commitment over social status, who embraced the risks of political involvement rather than accept a secure middle-class livelihood.

Divided into five sections with 55 chapters in total, the vast majority consisting of pieces either authored or co-authored by Fanon, Alienation and Freedom undertakes a chronological approach that ranges from his early, unpublished work during his student days at Lyon to a posthumous cataloguing of his personal library. In between, the bulk of the book is committed to his psychiatric research, with 27 chapters, nearly half of the volume, spent on this dimension of his writing. In addition to the main introduction, a shorter introduction is provided for each part, along with annotations, photographs, illustrations and a chronology of Fanon’s life. In short, Khalfa and Young leave few stones unturned.

It is perhaps entirely appropriate that, given Fanon’s dramatic life, Alienation and Freedom should begin with his attempts at writing drama during his time at university. Part I regards this brief corpus of two plays, The Drowning Eye and Parallel Hands, which both date from 1949. The existence of these plays has been known and written about; their inclusion here exemplifies the public archival nature of this book. Despite their brevity, these plays present a distinctly literary side of Fanon—a rare angle in his library of work. As Young discusses in his thorough and insightful analysis that introduces this section, this work not only bears the imprint of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, as often understood, but also Aimé Césaire, Fanon’s former teacher and intellectual predecessor, whom he would later grapple with in the pages of Black Skin, White Masks (1952). These two plays are experimental, philosophical dramas that concern issues of language, recognition, identity and politics. They possess qualities of surrealism and abstraction that foreshadow his later essays.

The Drowning Eye is a one-act play with five scenes (one is missing) with the main character named François—a variation on his own name, Frantz—who struggles with his identity. Young observes that like Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, François is caught “in an irresolvable dialectical bind between black and white, past and future, body and world, desire and insentience, consciousness and transcendent immanence.” However, despite Césaire’s influence, The Drowning Eye is not a Négritude work per se, with race residing in the background. Parallel Hands is similarly allegorical, a four-act tragedy set on a fictional Greek island that presumably serves as a stand-in for Martinique. Written in a formal, faux classical style, Parallel Hands concerns a situation of regicide that upends the social order leading to chaos and violence. This work is arguably less successful, retaining a sense of overwrought melodrama through its elevated archaic pitch. (“Low down, very low down, I looked for the causes of Worlds! Tenaciously I interrogated crystallized beliefs!”) But like The Drowning Eye, this play also establishes questions, if in rough form, that Fanon would continue to address in his later work, in this instance the antinomies of revolution.

Part II turns to Fanon’s psychiatric writings from 1951 to 1959, including the thesis he submitted to Lyon to graduate—the latter a surprise inclusion. As Jean Khalfa writes in his equally thorough introduction to this section, this body of work has long been ignored due to the availability and stress on Fanon’s political writing, the technical nature of his scientific articles, and the dated nature of his research, with its concern for such treatments as electroshock therapy, as it was then used. Nonetheless, Khalfa insists on the significance of this scholarship due to its fundamental importance to Fanon’s professional life. It also underscores Fanon’s constant attempts to synthesize the social and the scientific, subjective experience with the congenital mechanisms of human psychology. This sociogenic approach, already present in his student thesis, promised a comprehensive understanding of alienation and therefore freedom—not solely in a psychological sense, but in a social and political sense as well.

His research articles, dating from 1953 and his residency at the Saint-Alban Psychiatric Hospital where he worked with François Tosquelles, the famed Catalan psychotherapist, are undoubtedly academic and can make for hard, esoteric reading, depending on one’s level of commitment to descriptions of how patients responded to certain treatments. Of greater interest are the broader ideas at play. What is “treatment”? Should “therapy” focus on the individual, or can it be scaled to the group or the institution? What kind of relationship should there be between medical approaches, such as electroconvulsive therapy, and social approaches, like group therapy? Put differently, how is psychological “health” to be defined in relation to the medical and the social? Fanon’s sociogenic approach to psychiatry was enhanced through his work under Tosquelles, who served as the lead author on their jointly produced work and himself sought to synthesize Freud and Marx. Fanon’s later research papers, both published and unpublished, from his time at the Blida-Joinville Hospital with titles such as “Social Therapy in a Ward of Muslim Men: Methodological Difficulties” and “Daily Life in the Douars” point to the transfer of these methods to the colonial context. These chapters hark back to his classic, first academic article “The ‘North African Syndrome’” (1952), republished in Toward the African Revolution, as well as prefigure the sociological pieces in A Dying Colonialism (L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959).  Part II also includes editorials by Fanon from newsletters at Saint-Alban and Blida—casual pieces that nonetheless cast light on Fanon’s day-to-day thinking and routine. Another surprise in this section is the inclusion of a set of lecture notes by Lilia Ben Salem, a former student of Fanon’s, entitled “The Meeting Between Society and Psychiatry” based on a course he gave in 1959 and 1960 at the Institut des Hautes Études in Tunis. These notes provide a tantalizing, if fragmentary, glimpse of Fanon as a teacher on such topics as ego formation, racism in the United States, and colonial labor.

Part III returns to more familiar terrain with a collection of chapters consisting primarily of essays drawn from the FLN’s journal El Moudjahid. These writings complement those already collected in Toward the African Revolution with familiar subjects such as Patrice Lumumba, Charles de Gaulle, and what Fanon called “the Bandung-Accra axis.” The writing and editorial process at El Moudjahid was known for being collective and anonymous, and Khalfa carefully explains their selection here. Indeed, along with his co-authored psychiatric articles, more attention should be drawn to the collaborative nature of Fanon’s writing life. Also included in Part III are the speech Fanon gave at the Accra Positive Action Conference in April 1960 (“Why We Use Violence”) and a brief letter sent to the Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati, in which Fanon expresses a respectful disagreement over the use of Islam (and religion generally) as an ideological source for revolution. Parts IV and V make up the shortest sections of Alienation and Freedom, the former consisting of commentary and correspondence about publishing Fanon’s work in France and Italy and the latter presenting a catalog of Fanon’s personal library. Though cryptic and somewhat predictable—Freud, Sartre, Hegel, et cetera—the listing of books he owned is revelatory in its way. Among Marxist thinkers, Mao predominates—unsurprising given Fanon’s emphasis on the peasantry forming a revolutionary vanguard. But it is also clear that, as a reader, Fanon was firmly situated in a western philosophical tradition.

At almost 800 pages, Alienation and Freedom is a massive text that is difficult to summarize. It is not intended as an introduction to Fanon. It will not displace his classic works, Black Skin, White Masks or The Wretched of the Earth. In fact, one critique that might be leveled is its size. The heft and bagginess of this book does have a certain appeal, conveying in palpable form the sheer weight of Fanon’s writing and the multitude of interests that preoccupied him. I personally like this archival approach. But the publisher might consider breaking this book into separate smaller books—a volume of his plays, his medical writings, and so forth—that could be more focused and easier for reading and teaching. Nigel Gibson, the author and editor of several books on Fanon, has a forthcoming edited work that also collects Fanon’s psychiatric publications. Scheduled for release in early 2019, it can be presumed that there will be overlap between this book and Alienation and Freedom. Gibson has co-authored with Roberto Beneduce a preceding examination of Fanon’s medical research and his role in developing a critical ethno-psychiatry in Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics (2017). This psychiatric approach was also examined more than 30 years ago now in Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression (1985) by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan.

Yet it is unclear if this renewed emphasis on Fanon’s psychiatric research will lead to a fundamental revision as to how Fanon is treated and understood. Certainly, it is important to restore this dimension to his life as a matter of historical record and intellectual history. Furthermore, his scholarship should find a permanent place in the history of psychiatry, not just the history of decolonization. However, when read alone, much of Fanon’s psychiatric writing appears more limited in potential elaboration and application for humanists—his main audience today—than, for example, the related ideas of Michel Foucault and Georges Canguilhem. Fanon was a practicing psychiatrist who, in his research findings, wrote for other professional psychiatrists. These academic articles in Alienation and Freedom therefore frequently contrast with his radical innovations at synthesizing different fields of knowledge in Black Skin, White Masks.

Given the magnitude of Alienation and Freedom, it should also be stated that some possible avenues are neglected. Fanon’s wartime service with the Free French forces has often been overlooked, even though the experience marked his first encounter with the effects of violence, the possibility of ending political injustice through armed struggle, and Algeria itself. Documents from this period of his life have been absent.

Similarly, Josie Fanon, whom he married in 1952, remains as enigmatic as ever, despite her vital role in transcribing his work while he was alive and promoting his work after he died. She was famously private, and she is primarily known through a handful of published pieces and secondhand accounts, such as one by Assia Djebar in Algerian White (1995), in addition to indirect reports from various memoirs of Fanon. A project on her life is needed.

These limitations of Alienation and Freedom in the face of its comprehensiveness ultimately point to the ways that Fanon continues to elude scrutiny from critics and admirers alike. This continual evasion should not necessarily be read as a willful choice on his part, but instead as an enduring effect of the conditions of racism and colonialism he confronted and threw himself against. His library of work and the textual fragments of his life outside of his major books constitute a fugitive knowledge, a subterfuge against the conformities of power—state, social, academic and otherwise. These collected writings in Alienation and Freedom are therefore not materials for the reconstruction of a life. They are the life.

Further Reading

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.

Fanon at Ninety

Frantz Fanon remains vital not only for his bracing anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but equally for the less-recognized, empathetic politics of solidarity he cultivated and exemplified.