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

HumanismBy connecting what I have written in my two previous posts [part I, part II] regarding Foucault’s critique of humanism with his promotion of local rather than global projects for socio-political change, we can highlight additional consonant as well as dissonant places with respect to Foucault’s complex response to humanism vis-à-vis Fanon’s view. As Foucault himself states, he is for local transformations “which concern our ways of being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between the sexes, the way we perceive insanity or illness” and so forth.[1] Given Foucault’s predilection in his writings to side with the marginalized, we want, as I suggested earlier, to add to his general statements about local transformations examples such prisoners’ or workers’ rights. However, is this a legitimate Foucauldian move, or does it require Foucault to make certain metaphysical commitments that he finds unsavory?

Clearly, Foucault believes in and prefers “these partial transformations” noted in the previous paragraph; however, he is suspicious of global “programs for a new man,” which have been used by various groups to exploit, manipulate, and even attempt to eradicate those portrayed as foreign, other, or enemy. In light of these statements, we may conclude that it is humanism as an ideology, as a grand over-arching metanarrative that Foucault disavows passionately. His comments do not suggest a complete rejection of the concerns for the marginalized and oppressed with which humanism is commonly associated. Nor does his critical philosophical attitude downplay the importance of freedom. His project, in fact, requires free beings with rational capacities. “I shall characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.”[2] Yet, Foucault, in contrast to Fanon, is reticent to accept the idea of human rights as necessarily linked to some kind of universal, transcultural  human nature.  For Fanon, who presupposes a shared nature common to all humans irrespective of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and so forth, it follows that all humans possess certain rights which should never be violated. For example, because human begins are free agents in a way different from all other animals, they ought not be treated as things. To do so is to violate one of their fundamental rights qua human beings.  Foucault, as I have argued, assumes a minimalist metaphysical position in that his account takes for granted that humans possess rational and volitional capacities. However, as I read Foucault, even if he were to make explicit his minimal metaphysical commitments, he would not want to claim that certain fundamental rights follow naturally or necessarily from these rational and volitional structures. Rather, I imagine that he would claim that whatever rights appear in our archaeological and genealogical analyses of an historical episteme are specific to the particular socio-political institutions and cultural practices of that episteme. If this is correct, then it sounds a significant philosophical dissonance between these two thinkers; interestingly, this dissonance. Rather than ending on a dissonant note (as the two thinkers do have a great deal in common), one might point out that both Foucault and Fanon are critical of “Man,” that is, “Man” as sovereign subject and originator of all meaning.  Given this critical stance, a harmonization of the two thinkers’ position might translate as follows: the particular socio-historical “Man” in needed of de-throning just may turn out to be equivalent to the white, male, European imperialist imposed qua norm.  If so, then that particular subject construction is indeed worth putting to rest.

Returning to Fanon, his vision throughout his works was underwritten by a call to human solidarity, a challenge to both blacks and whites and to all human beings to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born.”[3] Uninterested in debates as to which “race” was superior and which inferior, Fanon asks, “[w]hy not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other? Was my freedom not given me to build the world of you, man?”[4] Like Foucault, Fanon refused to accept contingent, historically-formed narratives as universal and necessary truths.  Nor was Fanon content to succumb to the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment. Note, for example, the ambivalence in his largely negative description of Europe’s mixed contributions to human history:

The Third World must start over a new history of man which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man, the pathological dismembering of his functions and the erosion of his unity, and in the context of community, the fracture, the stratification and the bloody tensions fed by class, and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, the racial hatred, slavery, exploitation and, above all, the bloodless genocide whereby one and a half billion men have been written off.[5]

Rather, Fanon sought to transform and re-form a truly universal humanism appreciative of all cultures, embracing the “reciprocal relativism” of each for the purpose of mutual enrichment and genuine fraternité[6]—humanism as a symphony composed of many cultural voices, each of which has a distinctive part contributing to the beauty of the whole (ongoing) composition. Fanon’s historically-sensitive humanism neither turns a deaf ear to the cries of lives lost to the colonial project, nor chases frantically after “European achievements,” “increased productivity,” or a nostalgic return to nature.[7] Fanon’s quest began and concluded with a call to “reexamine the question of man,” “to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.”[8]


[1] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, 316.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 206.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 238.  Another passage highlighting this same begrudging acknowledgment of positive aspects of Europe is the following:  “[a]ll the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated them” (ibid., 237). Fanon, of course, continued to draw upon (not uncritically) the insights of Sartre, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, and numerous other European thinkers.  See also, Robert Young, Postcolonialism, 274–83, esp. 276.  Differentiating Fanon from other Anglophone and Francophone Marxists, Young writes: “He [Fanon] always remained intellectually centered in Paris, and never resisted European thought as such, as much as he resisted European domination of the colonial world. A product of the western-educated elite, Fanon used the resources of western thought against itself” (276).

[6] Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, 44.  In the final chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon expresses similar sentiments: “we do not want to catch up with anyone. But what we want is to walk in the company of man, every man, night and day, for all times. It is not a question of stringing the caravan out where groups are spaced so far apart they cannot see the one in front, and men who no longer recognize each other, meet less and less and talk to each other less and less. […] if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers” (238, 239).

[7] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 237, 238.

[8] Ibid., 237, 236. As Young emphasizes, we must avoid flattening Fanon’s complex, multilayered view of Europe, in particular the European intellectual tradition. Referencing Fanon’s closing remarks in The Wretched of the Earth issuing a call to leave Europe behind, Young reminds us that “Fanon’s own theoretical formulations remain European in orientation, above all towards Sartre,” who “was one of the very few European philosophers and intellectuals who made the issue of colonialism central to his work” (Postcolonialism, 281).

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