50 years later: Fanon’s legacy

Published on Pambazuka News, by Nigel C. Gibson, December 21, 2011.

The damnation of the world’s majority that Frantz Fanon spoke about did not end with the withdrawal of formal colonial rule. It continues in the razor wire transit camps, detention zones, rural pauperisation and in shanty towns, writes Nigel C Gibson … // 


  • The mandate for the College of the Bahamas is to ‘foster the intellectual development of students and the wider community by encouraging critical analysis and independent thought’ and the meeting today is considered part of the project to attain university through contributing to that discussion. Yet critical and independent thought can never be guaranteed and certainly can’t be assured by a university. In this final section of my presentation I want to consider the problematic of a university in the post-colony as it articulates with movements and thinking outside of it.
  • Real grassroots social movements open up new spaces for thinking. Yet on the other hand the global university of the 21st century not only often looks elsewhere but actively seeks to suppress these spaces. The quest to be ‘world class,’ such as that which the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal announces, is couched by the term excellence seen through a neo-colonial prism of donors and global elites. At best the new movements become researched — the paradigms often developed by the World Bank or other funding agencies — they are never allowed to ask theoretical questions. It is a neo-colonial arrangement.
  • Recognising that the colonised intellectual committed to social change is fundamentally alienated from the people, Fanon suggests a methodology that fundamentally challenges the elitism, internalised values and ways of thinking they have imbibed. Perhaps the same, often depending on context, can be said of the postcolonial intellectual. In ‘Black Skin White Masks’, for example, Fanon argues that this alienation and neurosis is quite normal; that is to say a product of books, newspapers, schools, and their texts, advertisements, films, radio — what we might call hegemonic culture. How then do we go about creating space for a critical humanities as a consciously decolonizing project (by decolonizing I do not simply mean the formal end of colonialism but, following Fanon, the form and content of pedagogies and practices devoted to the decolonization of the mind)? Since such a conception runs counter to the university in the global market place that judges itself in those terms, what is to be done within the situation and places we find ourselves? Also on what philosophic ground and from what principle do we ask the question? Certainly, we cannot take the existence of a public sphere, of public intellectuals, and any claim of intellectual autonomy as either guaranteed or unproblematic.
  • For Fanon education is always political education. In practice all education is political and education is political in all its forms of socialization and in its disciplines. In other words education helps us organize our lives, helps us think and act, help us think and create images of justice. Fanon means something different by political education. Just as for Fanon culture has to become a fighting culture, education has to become about total liberation. De-colonial education has to be a total critique and a transformative experiential process. Indeed this notion of education as transformative is often recognized on the private level in the rhetoric of individual entrepreneurship that often powers the discourse of the university’s value, but the issue for a de-colonial national education is an education that helps create a social consciousness and a social individual. Fanon is not concerned with educating the power elites to lead but to promote self-confidence among the mass of people, to teach the masses, as he puts it, that everything depends on them. This is not simply a version of community or adult education and certainly not of a hyperdermic notion of conscientization. Let me give an example that focuses less on content than form. In ‘Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution’ (‘A Dying Colonialism’) Fanon has an essay on the radio, ‘the voice of Algeria.’ What becomes clear is the importance of the form of the meeting. He describes a room of people listening to the radio, and the militant — namely the teacher — is among them, but (jammed by the French) there is only white noise on the radio. After a long discussion the participants agree about what has taken place; the teacher becomes an informed discussant, not a director. The form of the classroom is a democratic space, and the result is in a sense the point that political education is about self-empowerment as social individuals. It is a new collectivity, a new solidarity. The reference to the voice of Algeria is simply an example that helps to emphasize the processes at stake. The wider issue of the politics of pedagogy and curriculum must include the geography of the postcolonial university, its buildings, its gates, its barriers, its classrooms and all its spatial set ups. Colonialism, Fanon argues, is totalitarian. It inhabits every relationship and every space. The university produces and reproduces reification and thus has to be thoroughly reconsidered. But that reconsideration doesn’t come in one fell swoop; it is a process and a praxis, but one that also must include its philosophy and its raison d’être.
  • This is not a call to the barricades even if it is a call to ideological combat to have one’s ears open, to not confine new development in a priori categories. In other words, a de-colonial praxis would have to begin from the movement from practice not simply where the people dwell in those thousands of revolts taking place across the country but in their self-organization. Ideological combat, or a fighting culture, as Fanon explains in ‘The Wretched’, is quite simply engaged intellectual work. In other words, and this is obvious, it is not about intellectuals going to the rural areas to pick up a scythe and be with the people. I am not saying that that can’t be done, but that is not intellectual work, and it certainly does not challenge the division between mental and manual labour. So to conclude, what makes possible the intellectual capacity to see into the reasons for popular action, or in short, the rationality of revolt?
  • In the revolutionary moment of the anti-colonial struggle Fanon writes of the ‘honest intellectual,’ who, committed to social change, enters what he calls an ‘occult zone,’ engaging the notion of the transformation of reality with a real sense of uncertainty while also coming to understand what is humanly possible. This zone is a space that is being shaped by a movement which, he says, in ‘On National Culture,’ is beginning to call everything into question (1968, 227). ‘The zone of hidden fluctuation’ (2004, 163) or ‘occult instability’ (1968, 227) [C’est dans ce lieu de déséquilibre occulte 2002 215] ‘where the people dwell’ is not a ghostly movement but corporeally alive. If honest intellectuals feel the instability of it, it is because they cannot really take a living role, that is to say a disalienated role, in this movement unless they recognise the extent of their alienation from it (1968, 226). But the intellectual’s role need not be a mysterious one. Rather it can be quite practical, grounded in a sharing of reason where trust is implicit. This of course means that the intellectual must give up the position of privilege and begin to comprehend that the ‘workless,’ ‘less than human’ and ‘useless’ people do think concretely in terms of social transformation (see 1968 127). After all this new zone of movement and self-movement — what one might also call a radical zone of dialectical leaps in thought and activity (see James 1980) — is a space where souls ‘are crystallized and perceptions and lives transfigured’ (translation altered 227; 2004,163). Fanon’s language is almost transcendental here, and one may argue that such heavenly ‘authenticity’ born of this revolutionary moment seems as impossible as the idea of the excluded, the uncounted and unaccountable, the damned of the earth, upsetting the household arrangements of the here and now, creating a genuine moment (and zone) or community where trust and the sharing of reason is implicit. Fanon is not speaking of some heavenly space of some future afterlife; he locates the space very much in the contingent now and that is being lived, quite practically and unstably, in the present. This ramshackle movement from practice as a form of theory (see Dunayevskaya 1988), that is to say as both force and reason, is inherently uncertain and also, at the same time, unexceptional. It challenges reason as it is commonly accepted (instrumental, technical or even the professionally ‘critical’) and decenters it, moving it closer to the reason or reasoning of so many of those who have been considered unreasonable, but who in a dialectical logic are implicitly proposing a new humanism.
  • One of the challenges of Fanonian Practices in South Africa, from Biko to Abahlali is epistemological; it is to think of thinking from the underside, if you will. The struggle school is a struggle, as Richard Pithouse puts it. And let’s be clear sometimes that school comes into contradiction with the university system and can have dire costs both in terms of employment and in terms of threats of violence. Fanon talks about ‘snatching’ knowledge from the colonial universities; he is also aware of the great sacrifices that this can entail. In ‘The Wretched’ he makes a point to distinguish between the hobnobbing postcolonial intelligentsia and the honest intellectual who abhors careerism, distrusts the race for positions, and who is still committed to fundamental change even if he or she presently does not see its possibility.
  • What if the vaunted position of ‘intellectual’ does not require a degree from a ‘world class’ institution? The public intellectual without a university accreditation is becoming almost unthinkable. But to be relevant the national university has to be transformative, self-critical and also open to the experiences and minds of the common people who have been often excluded; not simply an accrediting agency for service industries, the university instead must be dedicated to the growth of every kind of genius.

(full long long text, bibliography and end notes).

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