On Fanon’s sixtieth death anniversary, a look at his work on colonialism and how it applies to our context
Colonialism is not only pathological but pathogenic as well. It is not only an outcome of a form of psychopathology but also induces psychopathology in the colonised societies. One can easily infer this conclusion after reading Dr Frantz Omar Fanon’s (1925-1961) work, published in his lifetime and posthumously. Born in a French colony, Martinique, qualified as a psychiatrist, worked as a mental health professional in another French colony, Algeria, and witnessed the impacts of colonial rule on the mental health of the colonised in his professional capacity, wrote about it, resigned from the job, joined the National Liberation Front of Algerian freedom fighters as their spokesperson and an ideologue, died at the age of only 36 and left an everlasting legacy for psychological analyses of socio-political conditions. He is undoubtedly among theorisers who revolutionised their domains of expertise. The psychological analyses of not only colonial conditions but the socio-political situations of any region, for that matter, are different after the publication of Fanon’s first book Black Skin, White Mask. This book was published when he was only 27.
On Fanon’s sixtieth death anniversary, his admirers would be discussing the relevance of his observations and the way he theorised the colonised-coloniser relationship in various regions of the world. On this occasion, we in Pakistan may have to review his theories from our socio-political perspective. After reading him today, it is easy to conclude that colonialism is not a story of the past, rather it is an ever-evolving construct. Recently coined terms like hyper-colonialism and digital-colonialism are testaments that colonialism still exists.
The most salient feature of Fanonian theory is that it does not analyse the coloniser. It explicates the colonised for themselves. Fanon reproaches the coloniser only for colonisation and its sways and sequels. How colonisation is incorporated into the psychology of the colonised is mainly his subject matter. Black skin, white mask was published after Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: Psychology of colonization, which held the inferiority complex of the colonised for their colonisation. An Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi has also introduced his etiology of colonisation. According to him, the prior moral and intellectual decay of the colonised exposed them to colonialism. He termed it as colonisibilty. Fanon rejected Mannoni very bluntly and accused him of not being able to understand the problem of black people, as he was not one of them. He employed a term from existentialism and introduced its modified version; phenomenology of racism. On the other hand, he did not bother even commenting on Bennabi’s theory of colonisibilty. He refused to accept any responsibility for Algerians, rather he blamed the coloniser for inducing all the ills in them. He strongly rejected the ideas of attributing the anger, aggression, and inferiority complex of the colonised to their genetic makeup. He made a pile of evidence to trace these pathological traits of the colonised in a colonised-coloniser relationship.
One does not need to be a Fanonian scholar, even a student can infer that the major contribution of Fanon was a separate delineation of colonised-coloniser identities. In his theory, none of them can be identified outside of the enmeshed colonised-coloniser relationship. Colonisers create two worlds; one for themselves and the other for the colonised. The distance and difference between the two worlds is equal to the distance between good and evil, barbarism and civilisation, and knowledge and ignorance. The world of the coloniser is the centre and source of all the good, while all the evil originates from the colonised world. This nature of the colonised-coloniser relationship was neither theorised with such clarity and concreteness before nor after Fanon.
In his last and most important book The Wretched of the Earth, he described the mindset of the colonised. “The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession... The colonized man is an envious man. The colonist is aware of this as he catches the furtive glance, and constantly on his guard, realizes bitterly that: “They want to take our place.” And it’s true there is not one colonized subject who at least once a day does not dream of taking the place of the colonist.” What courage, expertise and strength, and audacity would have been required for a colonised to analyse himself in this way? The battles of ideas in Pakistan today does not afford such impertinence.
The most important question for a Fanonian study is his relevance today. Should we study Fanon after our decolonisation in 1947? The million-dollar question prior to this is, has a decolonisation really taken place? Was that real or an illusion? If decolonisation was a reality, terms like neo-colonialism, hyper-colonialism and digital-colonialism should never have been coined. The current colonialism is definitely different, more subtle and harder to identify. The coloniser now does not need the presence of its soldiers’ feet to occupy a region, does not need to be physically there to loot the resources of the colonised regions and does not need to be seen creating rifts and defragmentation in a society. Such colonialism was not there in Fanon’s lifetime. However, the indiscernibility of the coloniser has not altered its functioning. It still functions the same way and executes the same designs. The perpetuating colonial design no longer need the backing of a state apparatus. Financial, military and business institutions along with non-state militias can operate like a coloniser on their own. There is no need to say that colonised-coloniser and coloniser-coloniser, and colonised-colonised conflicts have taken so many intricate, ruinous and enigmatic shapes, which were never been there. The presence of so many, unidentifiable and all-size colonisers but carrying out the similar deadly deeds, which Fanon highlighted have made him even more relevant today than he was in his times.
Fanon’s popularity and relevance today has not escaped controversy, though. In his last book he has described the significance of violence for decolonisation. For this he has been criticised extensively. He has suggested that violence takes the colonised out of their helplessness. Secondly, colonialism is established on none other than sheer violence and the coloniser speaks and understands only one language that is the language of violence. That is why it is imperative for the colonised to master this language. Reading and reviewing his theory of violence two conclusions are not difficult to draw. One, he is suggesting a psychological strategy for the colonised to break the shackles of powerlessness, which colonial rule puts upon them. Two, his ideas should be looked at in the Algerian context. He wrote this book at the dawn of Algerian freedom as a result of a century-old armed struggle. At that time he had every justification to celebrate the success of Algerian strategy. However, the success did not survive long. The violence against the coloniser infiltrated into the psyche and caused an Algerian civil war. Had Fanon been alive today, he would have reformulated if not retracted his theory of violence.
On May 25, 2020, an African American George Floyd was killed by a police officer. Floyd had begged the officer to remove his knees off his neck. His last words were “I can’t breathe.” That was the start of the current wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. Floyd was saying exactly what Fanon had written in his book, “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”. His relevance requires no other testimony than that his words are reverberating in the ongoing struggles of our times.
Dr. Akhtar Ali Syed is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. He can be contacted at email@example.com