Part I: Fanon and Foucault on Humanism and Rejecting the “Blackmail” of the Enlightenment

HumanismFanon’s affirmation of a common nature uniting all humans motivates (in part) his desire to articulate a new, more inclusive, “race”-conscious humanism, something much different than the Eurocentric humanism(s) promoted by the Enlightenment yet not completely severed from the latter either. Fanon’s experiences as a black other in white, colonial, “Manichean” world, as Ahluwalia points out, “created the conditions that necessitated the new humanism,” which “was not a radical break with Enlightenment humanism, because of the way in which he drew on Marxism and existentialism”; even so, Fanon became increasingly aware of the need to expand, deconstruct, and revise the previous categories “because the issue of race problematized Marxist universalism.”[1] As many scholars have noted, the term “humanism” has many meanings and variants; yet, a common thread in most descriptions of humanism, including those preceding the Enlightenment, is an appeal to some universal, shared human nature, structure, or set of capacities distinguishing humans from other animals and thus granting them a unique dignity and worth. Disagreements ensue, as one can imagine, over which capacities to include, how to define those capacities, and how to define and specify “human nature.” In addition, historically speaking, various humanisms or humanistic strains have been taken up by religious and socio-political movements—from American Christianity in the Antebellum period to the European colonizing project to Stalinism—touting equality and liberty for all while simultaneously exploiting and even exterminating those scripted as inferior, subhuman, or a threat to “progress.”  Given its unsavory historical track record, one can understand the postmodern suspicion of humanistic grand narratives.

Nonetheless, might it be possible and worthwhile to recover certain humanistic themes both ancient and modern, improvising and reharmonizing them in a more historically-attuned multi-key composition whose final movement continues to be written? Once again, it is helpful to bring Fanon and Foucault into conversation. In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon underscores the need for the colonized subject to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white mythos while creatively carving out a new present. For Fanon, given his Algerian context, this included promoting physical violence and outright war if need be in order to pave the way for a new humanism in which no man or woman would be subjected to an enslaved or colonized existence.[2] Yet, his advocacy for violence was never glorification of violence;[3] rather, it was understood as analogous to the violence that must be performed in surgery in order to remove or at least halt the spreading of disease so that healing may begin.[4] In other words, because of the entrenched, systemic, oppressive character of colonialism in which the world of the colonized is transformed into a normalized lawless space, Fanon believed the decolonization phase could only be accomplished through violence, that is, through an armed struggle for liberation.[5] Commenting on the instrumental role of violence in Fanon’s thought, Ahluwalia writes, “[c]olonialism forces violence to become a cleansing agent which has the cathartic effect of creating a new identity both at the individual and collective levels.”[6] Even if one ultimately remains committed to non-violent forms of revolution, one must at least make every effort to grasp, or better, to feel in some way the bloody history of Algeria where men, women, and children were massacred en masse repeatedly for the sake of Europe’s “mission.”[7] Fanon, no doubt, felt that the burden of that history, and its carnage convinced him that violence—at least with respect to Algeria’s part in the unfolding drama—was the required passageway through which the colonized must travel in order “[f]or Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, [… to] make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.”[8]


[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 62.

[2] As Fanon puts it, “I was committed to myself and my fellow man, to fight with all my life and all my strength so that never again would people be enslaved on this earth” (Black Skin, White Masks, 202).

[3] Contra claims by critics such as the notable Hannah Arendt that Fanon makes violence an end in itself, David Macey contends that “[t]he violence Fanon evokes is instrumental and he never dwells or gloats on its effects. […] The ALN was fighting a war and armies are not normally called upon to justify their violence” (Frantz Fanon: A Biography, 475). For a similar argument against Arendt’s conclusion, see also, Young, Postcolonialism, 281.

[4] Ahluwalia develops this analogy between colonialism and disease, relating it to Fanon’s medical training and his strategy for decolonization.  See, for example, Out of Africa, 63–6.

[5] As Fanon’s writings attest, the Algerian struggle for liberation was no doubt his concrete working paradigm. See also, Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography, esp. the chapter entitled, “The Wretched of the Earth.” Given the atrocities committed against the Algerian people, Macey draws attention to the appropriateness of Francis Jeason’s book title, L’Algérie hors la loi (ibid., 476).

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Macey catalogues several vivid examples of the long history of violence carried out by the French on the Algerian people. In 1845, for instance, there were three occasions in which civilians (including children) and freedom fighters were driven into caves. The French troops then lit large fires in the entranceways, causing the people inside to die from “asphyxiation and smoke inhalation” (Frantz Fanon: A Biography, 476).

[8] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 239.

5 thoughts on “Part I: Fanon and Foucault on Humanism and Rejecting the “Blackmail” of the Enlightenment”

  1. Good stuff, Cynthia! In the first chapter of my dissertation on the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of Black Internationalism, I read the Revolution through the lens of the Fanonian logic of carthatic violence, toward the culmination of the Haitian indepedence and the decolonisation of the island’s colonial history. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Lou! I’d love for you to do a guest post on some aspect of your dissertation. Let me know if you are interested. As to Gordon, I’ve read a few of his essays and I have a book on Fanon that he edited. (I should have included more of his work in my dissertation, as I think highly of it).

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