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Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine




Ato Sekyi-Otu on Fanon’s Antidialectial Moments or Speaking from the Lived Experienced of the Colonized

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

September 3, 2012

As Sekyi-Otu explains, Fanon begins his monumental work, The Wretched of the Earth, by challenging Marx’s and Engels’s dismissal of a conquest theory of social transformation in favor of their now famous dialectical materialist interpretation of history.[1]  As he narrates the tragic drama not of human history in the abstract, but of the colonized world, Fanon takes up this “discarded object of historical knowledge” and thus places conquest at the center of his account. “Fanon’s text dramatically assigns causal primacy to the political event, in the shape of violent conquest, in the constitution of social reality.”[2] Fanon zeros in on the colonized world, the world as experienced by the colonized; the world “raped into existence” by the colons (colonizers), whose identity becomes co-constitutive with that of the colonzied.  “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.  The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.”[3] As experienced or lived, the creation of one’s world does not occur via a predictable developmental process; rather, “the kind of temporality that defines historical change in this universe will be more like the abruptness that, as Foucault would have it, characterizes certain transformations in regimes of discourse and forms of knowledge.”[4] One day you live among your people in relative peace, practicing your cherished customs and speaking to one another in your native tongue. Then the next day your peace turns to war, your customs are condemned, and your language is banned.  You must now embrace the script of your captors. Every aspect of this strange, suffocating world—from the spatial restrictions and confinements to the unjust legal codes and governmentally sanctioned brutality—reinforces this script and serves as a daily reminder of your alleged inferior identity. Given the physical and psychological violence required to create and maintain this colonized world and to produce fully formed colonized subjects (that is, those who have internalized the colonizers’ narrative of the natives’ intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority), is it all that surprising that Fanon would underscores the violence and pain required to topple this world and to decolonize its subjects?  Following Sekyi-Otu, who offers a sophisticated dramatological interpretation of Fanon’s work, I see no reason to conclude that Fanon is promoting a mere glorification of violence. Rather, Fanon likened the violence required for the survival, healing, and restoration of the colonized to the violence of surgery forced upon an individual when disease has taken over his body and threatens his very existence.  In other words, given the systematic, entrenched injustice upon which the colonial world is founded and maintained, decolonization will require violence in some form or fashion. However, one should not interpret Fanon in a woodenly literal manner, as he regularly employs irony, parody, and metaphor for rhetorical and dramatic purposes.[5]

When decolonization dismantles “worlds,” it calls for a re-scripting of subjectivities. Previous social identities and imposed roles are undone. What was stipulated as natural and necessary is shown to be unnatural and contingent. Decolonization reconfigures social reality, or to use Fanon’s words, it “fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a non-essential state into a privileged actor.”[6] Decolonization must erase the imposed whitewashed script so that a new human subject may emerge. Thus, Fanon states that at the outset of any decolonization process, we must begin with a “kind of tabula rasa.” This tabula rasa stands for the colonized themselves, who must re-narrate and thus reconstitute their subjectivities and collective history. Of course, given the co-constitutive relation between colonized and colonizer, the latter as well as the former undergo identity re-formations. That such a reordering and refashioning of social identities and of the colonial world itself is possible highlights the historical and contingent nature of both. Stated otherwise, decolonization unmasks the unnatural and non-necessary character of the colonial ordering of the world as well as the colonizer’s illegitimate claims of intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority. The white narrative is revealed as false narrative, and the revelation of this truth brings about an identity crisis for the colonizer. Here we have a second erasure, but this time the newly found blank slate status has not been intentionally willed; rather, it has been, as it were, violently imposed via the decolonization process. Improvising on Fanon’s earlier claim, we might say that the colonist’s “wealth”—that is, wealth broadly construed to include social identity and social capital—has been invalidated.[7]

As Seyki-Otu observes, the race-based colonized world as experienced by the colonized does not conform strictly speaking to a Hegelian dialectic; rather, as lived it is experienced as a compartmentalized Manichean world of unharmonizable absolutes.  There is the black world and the white world. A synthesis for the purpose of a higher unity does not exist, nor is it possible. Fanon was acutely aware of the “absolute differences” confronting the black subject daily when forced to live in the white man’s world. In light of this, we should read the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, not as a reactionary response birthed in the ressentiment of a Nietzschean slave and unable to break free from the master’s conceptual framework, but as Fanon’s re-presentation of the lived experience of the colonized. In other words, Fanon’s text is polyphonic and employs multiple voices, perspectives, and rhetorical strategies. Consequently, we must listen carefully to its various inflections, modalities, and key changes. In particular, our ears must be tuned to Fanon’s strategic use of a dramatico-narrative antidialectual key—a key which allows the dissonance of the lived experience of the black person to sound forth in its fullness. For those who have ears to hear, Fanon is simply presenting the obvious. How else would the colonized experience the racialized world of colonial domination but as a confining, “compartmentalized world,” a “world divided in two”?[8]


[1] Regarding Marx’s and Engels’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a conquest theory as a possible candidate for their theory of history, see, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 82–85.

[2] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 2.

[4] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[5] Several scholars have contested interpretations of Fanon as an apostle of violence. See, for example, David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography (New York: Picador, 2002), 475; see also, Nigel Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003), esp. 103–26.

[6] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3.

One Response so far

Interesting analysis but perhaps Sekyi-Otu is not the best starting point for an assessment of Fanon’s thought. Fanon went beyond eurocentric parameters and envisaged in a radical conceptual manner the latest neo-colonial turbulence we are living through. He positioned himself as the speaker of a narrative fed by colonialist imposition yet able to speak a truth of an ongoing historical period.

I think the starting point has to be Martinique and Algeria and any which way you choose to connect them. The intellectuals of these Fanonian places are an eye-opener and deserve study. After all thoughts do grow and Fanon materialises a world of magic, of pathologies and as he said, “the seeds of decomposition”, a world we still live in. Perhaps place harbours a distinctive space?

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