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Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine




Fanon on the Irreciprocity and Fixed Difference of Colonized Space

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

February 24, 2013

Both philosophers of race and sociologists have explained how the racialization of phenotypic differences and negative socio-political narratives of race such as equating blackness with criminality detrimentally affects economically disadvantaged African Americans, especially young, black males. However the stigmatization of places such as ghettos and particular urban areas also reinforces an us/them divide and negatively impacts the life chances of its residents. Along these lines, Ato Sekyi-Otu, in his work, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, analyzes how the colonized suffer violence in fixed, segregated space, or as Frantz Fanon might put it, “Manichean” regions of (non)being and mere subsistence. As Sekyi-Otu argues, spatiality takes center stage in Fanon’s descriptions of colonized existence, where separate quarters and fixed social (im)mobility constantly confront the colonized person.[1] This is not to suggest that temporality has no place in Fanon’s theorizing. Fanon, for example, speaks of the colonized existing in “dead time” and makes multiple references to the fact that the black person’s past and future, because already negatively scripted by dominant white narratives, constantly threatens his or her present.[2] It is, however, to claim that Fanon’s thematizing metaphors of spatiality and the primacy, analytically speaking, that he gives them, is part of a larger critique of classical Marxism (and certain currents in existentialism.)[3] Rather than explicate inequality in terms of  “social relations of production” and time or unfree, alienated labor, which involves a qualitative loss and distortion of our experience of time, Fanon unmasks the “logic of social hierarchy which ‘parcels out the world’ by virtue of a politics of space founded on race.”[4]  In other words, for Fanon, that spatiality, like temporality functions as a primordial or basic component of human experience is granted and uncontroversial. However, the controversy instigating Fanon’s protests arises when spatiality is transformed “into an extraordinary state of coercion.”[5] Thus, to accurately portray the character of the colonial experience, Fanon thematizes or, as Sekyi-Otu puts it, dramatizes “the ursurpation and coercive structuring of space as the defining reality of social domination, indeed of social being.”[6] With Fanon’s insights concerning the connection between race and the “politics of space” in mind, let us examine select passages from his book, The Wretched of the Earth.

Fanon’s analyses focus on the “compartmentalized world” of the colonized and the ways in which the colonized experience psychological harm and collective injury as a result of being forced to live as a dishonored group in a sequestered and “fixed” physical and social region. For example, Fanon describes the colonized world as “a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations.” [7] The divide is of course drawn along racial lines where the “white folks’ sector” (colonists) and the colonized constitute a Manichean space whose darker regions are “kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts” and other explicitly violent measures.[8]  Fanon goes on to highlight the stark differences—politically, economically, and sociologically—between the colonized and the European sectors.

The colonist’s sector is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads […] the streets are clean and smooth, without a pothole, without a stone. The colonist’s sector is sated, […] its belly is permanently full of good things.[9]

In contrast, the colonized live in dilapidated structures signaling transience, stagnation, subjugation, and dishonor. “It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other.”[10] From the architectural structures to the lack of human goods to the constant police surveillance and threat of violence, the colonized are engulfed in a geopolitically carved nether-region that constantly communicates their alleged inferiority and status as social refuse. The “native” sector signifies “a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people.”[11] Living in such confined, stigmatized, and coercively instituted spaces adversely impacts a group’s self-perception. Given the economic, political, and legal differential between the colonized and the colonists, it is unsurprising that the “colonized’s sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees, a sector that is prostrate.”[12]

            In addition to his emphasis on the politics of space to describe the structure of domination in the colonial world, Fanon also examines the colonists’ racialized discourses, highlighting their role in vilifying and dehumanizing the colonized.  Similar to the contemporary racist narratives prevalent in the U. S. that equate black males with criminals and deviants, Fanon observes that the Manichean world of the colonists backed by its “agents of law and order” is not satisfied with enacting physical, spatial constraints to restrict and keep the colonized under its surveilling gaze. To these already violent and coercive measures, its public discourses transmute “the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.”[13] According to this narrative, it is not that the colonized possess weak values or lack certain values, rather, as Fanon explains:

The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say it, the enemy of values. In other words, the absolute evil. A corrosive element, destroying everything which involves aesthetics or morals, an agent of malevolent powers, an unconscious and incurable element of blind forces.[14]

Here the “native” is judged not only a social reject but also a dangerous “corrosive element,” which thus must be coercively sequestered so as not to harm or contaminate the alleged moral, aesthetic, and intellectual superiority of the European colonizers.

Although I do not develop this connection here—but I am presently working on a chapter for a book project where I discuss this link extensively—Loic Wacquant’s work on America’s northern ghettos (1915–68), the subsequent post-1968 hyperghetto, and the hyperghetto-carceral continuum similarly serve to forcibly contain, restrain, and stigmatize dishonored populations. As time warrants, I hope to post more on these and other Wacquant-Fanon areas of overlap.


[1] Michel Foucault also thematizes spatiality in his analyses of the prison and disciplinary power. However, as Lizbet Simmons observes Foucault’s account fails to attend to the role of race (and gender) in disciplinary institutions such as the prison and the school. See, Lizbet Simmons, “The Docile Body in School Space,” in Schools Under Surveillance. Cultures of Control in Public Education, eds. Torin Monahan and Rodolfo D. Torres. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), pp. 55–70.

[2] See, for example, Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks, revised edition. Trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008).

[3] Both Fanon and key figures of the Negritude movement such as Aimé Césaire offer stringent critiques of Marxism for its failure to take the “race” issue seriously, subordinating it to and subsuming it within the class issue. See, for example, Aimé Césaire. Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

[4]  Ato Sekyi-Otu. Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 77 (italics in original). As Sekyi-Otu explains, in Marx’s depiction of “totalitarian egalitarianism, time as labor-time, as the common measure of work and objects, becomes a collusive agent in the expulsion of quality from the human world. Here labor-time and the laborer himself are commodified and thus quantifiable. In this sense, we have a fall from free-flowing heterogeneous time to fixed homogenous time; time is frozen and morphs into space (ibid., 74).

[5] Ibid., 77 (italics in original).

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 3.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. Fanon, of course, goes on to describe the anger and resentment that the colonized experience and their desire to see the colonial world dismantled and destroyed.

[13] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 6.

[14] Ibid.

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