Fanon as “Specular Border Intellectual” Par Excellence

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_EarthFrantz Fanon, born on July 20, 1925, and a native of the French colony, Martinique, belonged to a small group of black Martinicans afforded the opportunity to study at the Lycée.[1] As Pal Ahluwalia notes, “[g]rowing up within the French system of education had a profound influence on Fanon,” one designed to impress upon his mind the idea of a natural, even necessary connection between France and liberty “that made every French colonial subject believe that they were linked inextricably to France.”[2] Seeing himself at that time as one to whom the French slogan, liberté, égalité, fraternité, applied, Fanon decided to join the Free French Army in 1944 to fight against Germany. His wartime experiences brought about a crisis in his identity. In Martinique, Fanon had always thought of himself as French. However, when he joined the French Army, he encountered his first bitter taste of racism both from fellow soldiers and from the French population—in spite of the fact that he had been awarded the “Croix de Guerre for bravery.”[3]Frantz Fanon_02

Returning to Martinique and attempting to piece together his fragmented identity, Fanon decided to utilize the scholarships available for war veterans and thus moved to Paris in order to study medicine at the University of Lyons.[4] He defended his medical thesis in 1951 and then began his residency in psychiatry at the Hôpital de Saint-Alban.[5] During this period of study, Fanon found himself in the midst of a community pierced with racial strife; yet, this was also a time when he was exposed to new political ideas. In October 1952 Fanon married Marie-Josèphe Dublé, and in the following year (November 1953), they moved to Algiers where Fanon served as medical director of Blida-Joinville Hospital, Algeria’s largest psychiatric hospital.[6] While serving at this hospital, Fanon “came into close contact with Algerians fighting for independence as well as French police officers, both victims of the colonial experience,” and eventually joined forces with “the Algerian freedom fighters in their struggle for independence from French colonization.”[7] Compelled by his conscience given the atrocities he witnessed in Algeria, in 1956 Fanon resigned from his position as medical director of Blida-Joinville Hospital.[8] That same year Fanon wrote Toward the African Revolution, in which he highlights the complex role Algeria played in the French colonizing project.

“Algeria, a settlement transformed by decree into metropolitan territory, has lived under police and military domination never equaled in a colonial country. This is explained first of all by the fact that Algeria has practically never laid down its arms since 1830. But above all, France is not unaware of Algeria’s importance in its colonial structure, and its obstinacy and its incalculable efforts can only be explained by the certainty that Algeria’s independence would very shortly bring about the crumbling of its empire. Situated at France’s gateway, Algeria reveals to the Western world in detail, as though in slow motion, the contradiction of the colonial situation.”[9]

In light of Fanon’s active involvement with radical political movements, he was expelled from Algeria in 1957. Now known as committed member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Fanon was subject of several assassination attempts.[10] In 1960, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died the following year while seeking medical treatment in the United States.

As Ahluwalia underscores, “Fanon’s Algerian locatedness is critical.”[11] Employing Abdul JanMohamed’s distinction between a “specular” and a “syncretic border intellectual,” Ahluwalia categories Fanon as a specular border intellectual par excellence. According to JanMohamed, while both types are border intellectuals in that “they find themselves located between (two or more) groups or cultures, with which they are more or less familiar, one can draw a distinction between them based on the intentionality of their intellectual orientation” with respect to a particular culture.[12] In contrast with the specular type, the “syncretic border intellectual” is more “’at home’ in both cultures,” and “is able to combine elements of the two cultures in order to articulate new syncretic forms and experiences.”[13] While equally acquainted with and knowledgeable of both cultures, “the specular border intellectual” is not able to find a “home” in either cultures and operates in a liminal existence. Straddling multiple communities, “the specular intellectual subjects the cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them; he or she utilizes his or her interstitial space as a vantage point from which to define, implicitly or explicitly, other utopian possibilities of group formation.”[14] Fanon, operating in his own “interstitial space” having experienced the contradictions of the colonial system, is compelled to challenge the Enlightenment’s proclamation of “the triumph of reason and the promises of the French empire that, at least theoretically, accorded to its colonial subjects the same rights as in the metropole.”[15] Fanon’s suspicions about the universal application of the French appropriation of Enlightenment-inspired narratives of progress and freedom for all eventually grew into discontent and disillusionment. As Fanon grappled with the “absurdity of the colonial world” and its “dehumanizing effects on the Algerian population,” he began “to consider the possibility of a new society in which both the coloniser and the colonised are transformed through a new humanism, one that is by no means the humanism of the Enlightenment.”[16]

Stay tuned for additional future posts on Fanon’s “historically attuned humanism.”


[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 56. Ahluwalia’s text, Out of Africa, stresses the significance of understanding not only Fanon, but Sartre, Camus, Derrida, Cixous, and a host of other “border intellectuals” in relation to their Algerian ties, both literal and metaphorical.

[8] Fanon published his letter of resignation in his work, Toward the African Revolution. Here are a few relevant excerpts: “Madness is one of the means man has of losing his freedom. And I can say, on the basis of what I have been able to observe from this point of vantage, that the degree of alienation of the inhabitants of this country appears to me frightening. If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization. What is the status of Algeria? A systematized de-humanization. It was an absurd gamble to undertake at whatever cost, to bring into existence a certain number of values, when the lawlessness, the inequality, the multi-daily murder of man were raised to the status of legislative principles. The social structure existing in Algeria was hostile to any attempt to put the individual back where he belonged” (ibid., 65).

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 56. As Robert Young points out, although Fanon “took no part in the FLN military campaigns, apart from organizing a new supply route through Mali in 1960,” he did “play a significant part in the international political campaigns which the FLN, more than the French themselves, realized was of almost equal significance to the physical struggle” (Postcolonialism, 277).

[11] Ibid., 57.

[12] JanMohamed, ““Worldliness-without-World,” 97.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. JanMohamed lists W.E.B. du Bois, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston as examples of specular intellectuals and playwright Wole Soyinka and novelists Salman Rushdie and Anton Shammas as examples of syncretic intellectuals (ibid.).

[15] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 41.

[16] Ibid., 54.

8 thoughts on “Fanon as “Specular Border Intellectual” Par Excellence”

  1. Cynthia,

    Thank you for beginning this series. I look forward to reading more. I am just now catching up with your blog. Keep up the good work. I am a big fan of Frantz Fanon.

  2. Cynthia,

    Thanks for creating this, I just stumbled across this while I was attempting to figure out the three intellectual classes that Fanon has defined.

    Can’t wait for the next summary.


  3. Great article. I found myself in that sort of syncretic broder intellectual. I have been living abroad and when came to my homeland, the canary islands, I become aware of its colonial structure by comparision with european western societies

Comments are closed.