Book Plug: Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics by Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill’s recent book, Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics, was written over the course of nearly a decade and consists of three major divisions—History, Politics, and Aesthetics—each of which contain three chapters addressing particular concerns and written in specific contexts. (Click here to view the table of contents.) As a result, the chapters, which discuss figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Castoriadis and topics such as aesthetic revolution and modern democracy, the tradition of radical critique, architecture as the forgotten political art, and whether difference is a value in itself, can be read independently with great benefit.

Central to the book is what Rockhill describes as a “heuristic distinction between two types of theoretical practice” (1). On the one hand, we have interpretation, which adheres to the norms of an established discourse and operates within “the praxeological and epistemological framework of an institutionalized set of activities” (1). On the other, we have the activity of intervention, which is agonistic and “seeks to contest these operative norms and guiding parameters in order to introduce alternative forms of intellectual practice” (1). Although there are varying degrees of interpretation and intervention, what distinguishes the two is that the former stays within the boundaries of particular theoretical practices and related socialized norms, whereas the later challenges such boundaries and seeks to reconfigure the present strictures of intellectual activity (2). In short, an intervention is not simply a more radical or highly innovative way of engaging a text, performing or interpreting an artwork, or revamping political practices. Intervention operates, so to speak, at a deeper level: it seeks to change the historical conditions of possibility and in doing so to change the activity of thought itself and, presumably, what can show up as a viable option or way of acting and being in a particular context. “In other words, interventions are never purely intellectual endeavors or thought experiments. They are practical incursions into the social rites and rituals of theoretical work” (3).

Although one might at first get the impression that Rockhill views interpretation as passé and something to move beyond, he himself counters such a conclusion. For example, he says that interpretation is “an important practice for developing theoretical possibilities within particular parameters” (3). Yet it is clear that Rockhill wants to foreground and draw our attention to the need for alternative engagements, or as he puts it “anchored struggles” that might reconfigure current norms of intellectual, social, and political practices (3). In addition, Rockhill issues a timely critique of continental philosophy. Although the continental tradition is typically considered historically minded or attuned, nevertheless it often employs “impoverished models of historical analysis and explanation, which is at times directly linked to a haughty refusal to engage with the human and social sciences” (11). As a result, what we frequently get are overly simplistic narratives, disembodied models or ideals of doing “true” philosophy, and Eurocentric accounts that privilege the works of great males of a certain socio-economic class, which is set over against the unthinking, lowly masses—all of which is often supported by a rigidly fixed canon interpreted in a way that further entrenches the established discourses and practices of particular institutions. Exegetical reason, the main focus of Rockhill’s critique, it seems, incarnates itself in the commentary tradition and thus functions as the life-giving soul of established canonical traditions, whose practices end up reducing philosophical activity to the production of secondary literature analyzing and commenting upon the canonical texts.

Rockhill’s critique of Eurocentrism is refreshingly nuanced and resists falling into an overly facile binary of oppositions—geographic or otherwise—which then demonizes Europe and seems to assume that “Europe” has a stable, unchanging center. Rather, as he explains in an important footnote (n. 45): “The decolonization of theoretical practice requires the development of a complex cultural topography based on a multidimensional conceptualization of space” (31). The radical geography that Rockhill proposes seeks to “denaturalize space and to chart a multiplicity of different and overlapping spaces while being attentive to the stratification and distributions operating within each of these heuristically delimited fields” (31). While such radical geography continues within the domain of critique discourses of Eurocentrism, it is attuned to the unfixed, center-less character of “Europe,” which it unearths as the “site of striated, overlapping and contested spaces” (31).

Given that most of Rockhill’s chapters are by and large devoted to well known male philosophers in the European intellectual tradition, one might tempted to turn aspects of Rockhill’s critique against him. However, this would miss the point of his thematization and advocacy for intervention. In other words, while foregrounding female or non-European figures would have been beneficial on multiple counts, what is important from the standpoint of intervention is what is done with, to, through, and beyond the particular figures engaged. Stated otherwise, an interventionist approach seeks neither to glorify prominent thinkers via hagiography nor damn them through a form of intellectual parricide; rather, as Rockhill explains (and here it’s worth quoting him at length):

this book proposes a critique of exegetical reason by rigorously engaging with prominent philosophic positions precisely in order to develop a deep methodological intervention into contemporary theoretical practice, as well as propose an expansive and potentially innovative thematic analysis. The metaphilosophical critique of continental scholasticism needs to mine this tradition and cull from it its major strengths, one of which is historico-hermeneutic rigour and precision. We need to move, however, from imprisonment to empowerment, from incarceration within the interstices of a socially constituted canon to an empowering historical elevation of thought that carefully works through—in order to think with and potentially beyond—some of the most prominent intellectual projects of a certain philosophic tradition (15–16).

Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

CFP: Solidarity, Striving, and Struggle: The Moral, Political, and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass

Cambridge Scholars Publishing has issued an advance contract for an edited volume that offers scholarly insight into the moral, political, and religious thought of Frederick Douglass. The co-editors, Dr. Timothy Golden and Dr. Cynthia R. Nielsen, seek essays serving as book chapters that address Douglass as a moral philosopher, political philosopher, theologian, and a philosopher of religion. Essays are also welcome that engage Douglass’s thought vis-à-vis moral philosophy, theology, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy.Frederick Douglass Studying

The co-editors recognize that such critical reflection on Douglass may assume several forms. For example, an essay may examine Douglass’s moral, political, theological and religious thought from within his own work, either by emphasizing the evolution of Douglass as a philosopher throughout his works, or by indicating tensions internal to Douglass’s texts; an essay may also present a study of Douglass alongside other 19th century African-American, abolitionist, or political thought (i.e., Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Martin Delany, David Walker, Maria Stewart or Ida B. Wells); or an essay may discuss Douglass and U.S. Constitutional hermeneutics, emphasizing the complex relationship between a textualist interpretation of the Constitution on the issue of whether the Constitution is a slave document, and contemporary, un-enumerated rights interpretations that are non-textualist that Douglass may sanction. Finally, an essay may also examine the moral, political, religious and theological problems that Douglass raises in his work in relationship to canonical philosophical figures that range from Ancient Greek Philosophy (i.e., Douglass and Plato (perhaps either justice in the Republic or political obligation in the Crito), or Douglass and Aristotle (slavery and the will), through modern philosophy (i.e., Douglass and modernity in general, or Douglass and Kant), and into the 20th Century (i.e., Douglass and his relationship to Analytic and Continental Philosophy generally or to any of their major figures such as Quine, Wittgenstien, or Nietzsche, Fanon, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, de Beavoir, Irigaray, or Derrida). These examples are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather they point to what the editors of this volume believe are the many ways to expand scholarly discussions of Douglass.

Please submit a 500–750 word abstract to [email protected] no later than August 15, 2014. Also submit a contributor’s biography of no more than 200 words, detailing your qualifications for a contribution to this volume. Authors will be notified of acceptance by October 15, 2014. If accepted, contributors will be contacted with a due date for their completed chapters.

Douglass’s Political Philosophy of Mutual Responsibility or “Each for All and All for Each”

Frederick Doulgass Statue (1)As scholars such as Bill Lawson and Nicholas Buccola have observed, Frederick Douglass embraced and advocated for many of the central tenets of “classical liberalism” (e.g. individual rights, freedom, equality, and so forth). However, his liminal experience as a slave compelled him to articulate and develop a more consistent, inclusive, and robust liberalism. As Buccola explains, “In order to close the gap between the promises of liberalism and the realities of American life, Douglass infused his political philosophy with an egalitarian ethos of inclusion and a robust conception of mutual responsibility” (The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, p. 12). For Douglass, freedom is not understood merely negatively as the ability to act without constraint; true freedom must be construed positively as the freedom to flourish and to develop one’s potential in community with others. Thus, human freedom entails a social dimension; it is expressed and lived concretely in relation with others and requires citizens, legislators, and all who participate in our communal life to live an “I am my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper” ethos.  In short, Douglass argued that as members of a common human family we must embrace our obligation to stand for those suffering injustice and to stand against institutions and practices that promote and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.

Although Douglass had been scripted as subhuman property, he refused from a very early age to accept white society’s discourses and engaged in creative and strategic acts of resistance. Such acts included transforming mundane (and extremely harsh) workspaces into educational sites for hisown betterment. Well before Foucault foregrounds the knowledge/power complex, Douglass emphasizes the intimate relation between knowledge and power, knowing firsthand how masters maintained their dominating role by denying slaves formal educational opportunities. In other words, Douglass is acutely aware of the fact that the dominating master/slave relation requires knowledge to flow unidirectionally—from master to slave. The slave must be rendered mute and docile; the master must maintain continually the delicate and unsteady balance between creating a completely passive slave subjectivity and a slave with just enough agency to remain useful to the master. Douglass likewise grasped the co-constitutive character of the master/slave relation. That is, he saw that the master’s authority and socially constructed superiority depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant. Such an arrangement, of course, allows the master’s dominance in the relationship to rigidify on the personal and societal level. For example, since the master has denied the slave educational opportunities, he will de facto possess more knowledge than the slave. This is in no way to affirm any inherent intellectual inferiority on the part of the slave; it is rather to highlight the concrete, “on the ground” situation, given the fact that slaves were denied access to formal education. Likewise, in light of the structural racism prevalent in nineteenth-century America, the master was able to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave choose to rebel.

Given Douglass’s context, he had to devise and “perform” improvisational resistance maneuverings in order to advance his education. For example, as a young boy of twelve, he was required to carry out various errands for his master. In order to make the most of his errand-runs, Douglass made sure to carry along two important items: a book and extra bread. Having completed his task with lightening speed, he would approach poor and often hungry white schoolboys playing along the roads and surrounding areas. He would then offer them bread in exchange for incognito “reading lessons”—unbeknownst to them, of course, as they had no clue that they were working to further his educational program. Through such intentional subversive acts, Douglass was able to transform mundane activities and otherwise socially prohibited activities—i.e. whites teaching slaves to read—into classrooms “on the fly” (see also, Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue).

Douglass engaged in similar subversive acts of resistance for his writing lessons. For instance, he was acutely aware of the fact that white schoolboys would find it particularly humiliating to be “shown up” by a black slave. Consequently, Douglass put his social astuteness to work and challenged them to write a letter of the alphabet, stating that he could “out-write” them. As he expected, the white lads took the bait, and Douglass’s ability to write improved with every duel.  From the day he overheard Mr. Auld’s commentary on keeping slaves ignorant, Douglass determined to “level the playing field.” Having created improvised classrooms wherever he went, Douglass achieved his goal of literacy over the course of his seven-years with the Auld family.

However, Douglass’s literacy becomes a double-edged sword, piercing his heart with the master’s (Mr. Auld’s) seemingly prophetic words: an educated slave is a discontented slave. On the one hand, Douglass’s ability to read allows him to devour texts such as The Columbian Orator. There he encounters powerful speeches and arguments against slavery. In particular, Douglass singles out a man named, Sheridan, whose speeches he read repeatedly. As Douglass explains, Sheridan’s writings “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for wont of utterance” (Narrative of the Life, p. 42). Continuing his commentary on Sheridan, Douglass states that his speeches articulated not only “a bold denunciation of slavery,” but also “a powerful vindication of human rights” (ibid.). On the other hand, however, Douglass’s intellectual achievements heightened his sense of lost opportunities—or more accurately, opportunities intentionally blocked, closed off, stolen from him and other slaves, just as his captors had stolen them from their homeland.

In some ways analogous to the “knowledge of good and evil” Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act of attaining “knowledge” that produced great sorrow—Douglass’s hard-earned intellectual virtues intensified his awareness of his wretched, unjust condition. His inability to return to his former state made him at times envy his uneducated counterparts (ibid.). If only his mind would cease its churning and allow him a reprieve. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it” (ibid.). Describing in eloquent prose the cruel paradox of (inner mental) freedom amidst (outer socio-political) unfreedom, Douglass writes:

Freedom now appeared, to disappear […] forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (ibid., p. 43).

In short, Douglass’s literacy, while no doubt providing him a new and invaluable mental freedom, nonetheless, was insufficient for a concrete, embodied human being to flourish in this world. As philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, Douglass’s initial effects to gain freedom through literacy fail to translate into a full-orbed freedom. These early attempts “create an epistemic rupture, but without a material/historical rupture, there is a gap that must be closed” (“Douglass as an Existentialist,” 218).1

Yet his personal experience of unjust suffering did not result in a spirit of resignation or an acceptance of the status quo; rather, just a few years after his escape from slavery and his resettlement in New Bedford, Douglass not only participated in the abolitionist movement but became one of its leading and most profound voices. His own experience of brutal suffering and the social death he and countless others endured fueled his social activism and compelled him to develop and defend a political philosophy whose central components consist in mutual responsibility and a sense of obligation for the other’s good. Stated otherwise and drawing from an instance of Douglass’s reverse discourse par excellence entitled, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July,” he writes: “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday” are today “rendered more intolerable by […] jubilant shouts”—misplaced, triumphalist shouts proclaiming America’s tainted, blood-stained history as something of the past and that true democracy had finally arrived. For Douglass, the “mournful wails of millions” never grew faint but resounded repeatedly in his soul, piercing him with an existential memory that refused to celebrate half-freedoms, partial rights, and second-class citizenship.

In closing, by embracing a positive, full-orbed view of freedom, Douglass was compelled to insist upon a political philosophy of social interdependence and obligation. For Douglass, genuine freedom cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering injustice; my freedom to flourish as a human being is intimately tied to your freedom for the same. Our belonging to one another and the maintenance of our individual moral character require that we act on behalf of others. Failure to do so injects a pollutant into our shared “moral ecology” (Buccola’s phrase), and this pollutant can in turn poison the social body as a whole. Douglass’s experience as an ex-chattel slave made him acutely aware of the detrimental effects of overexposure to a contaminated moral environment. We today would do well to tune our ears and our hearts to Douglass’s political philosophy of mutual responsibility and, as he so aptly and ardently urges us, to live a philosophy of “each for all and all for each.”


1. Gordon goes on to say, “Douglass recognized at a certain level his situation by learning to read and write. But what is more telling is the crucial moment when he fights for his self-respect in his encounter with the slave-breaker Edward Covey” (ibid.).

Frederick Douglass: The Paradoxes of Literacy in Liminality

Frederick Douglass StudyingThose familiar with Douglass’s Narrative of the Life will readily recall his creative, improvisatory maneuverings as he strove toward his goal of literacy. Given that the authoritative discourses did not even permit serious discussion of the possibility of a slave being formally educated, Douglass employed his creative intellectual and imaginative powers to create his own “school” by transforming his daily tasks into opportunities to improve his reading and writing skills. Whether it involved playing on white boys’ pride in not wanting to “lose” a writing game to a slave or bringing extra bread on an errand to gift impoverished white children in exchange for a “stealth” reading lesson, Douglass created educational sites out of mundane tasks—and more extraordinarily, he created these within a context of oppressive, unjust, and demeaning social relations. [1]

Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Having utilized fences, brick walls, and pavement as make-shift copy-books,[2] Douglass states that his writing lessons were at last completed when could copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory. [3].  In addition to improvising with the objects just mentioned, Douglass notes that he had also make good use of little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old and quite used copy-books. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld attended her weekly Monday afternoon meeting, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.” [4]. After seven long years with the Auld family, Douglass achieves his goal of literacy through intentional, creative acts of resistance. In other words, Douglass, well before Derrida and other deconstructionists, seeks those left over spaces, the in-between, silenced, erased and already “written” spaces in order, as Sisco puts it, “to exploit their rich potential.”[5]

However, Douglass’s attainment of literacy, just as Auld predicted, proves painful given Douglass’s status as a slave—one living yet socially dead. Having read and studied various essays and speeches arguing against slavery and promoting universal human rights, Douglass’s anger and hatred toward his oppressors intensified. As he explains, his new found ability to articulate with the utmost clarity why slavery was unjust and his increased knowledge regarding matters of justice and human rights gave rise to a deep discontentment—the “very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow”[6]. Commenting further on the double-sidedness of literacy for a slave, Douglass writes:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. […] I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. [7]

Douglass goes on to say that he at times wished himself ignorant or a beast—in short, he preferred any condition that would rid him of his incessant thinking. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.” [8] However, he could not make his mind stop. “It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.”[9] In other words, wish as he may, there was no turning back to blissful ignorance. Douglass’s literacy made him aware of his wretched condition as a slave in a way that was not possible before. Listen, as Douglass continues his eloquent description of how his deep longing for freedom was ever before him, bidding him draw near yet leaving him bound, boxed in, and unable to reciprocate.

[Freedom] was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed [10].

At this stage, Douglass came to the painful realization that for the slave, literacy, how ever good and necessary its attainment may be, is not sufficient for true freedom. True freedom requires the ability to participate as a full citizen and to have equal opportunities for education, employment, housing, and other rights granted fully functioning citizens qua social and political agents.  This realization in no way diminishes Douglass’s extraordinary achievements in the midst of a hostile and oppressive society. As we have seen, Douglass’s resistance to and reharmonizations of the authoritative (white) discourses and unjust socio-political practices highlight his creative ability to reconfigure his environment and re-narrative his subjectivity. However, Douglass’s freedom through literacy was partial, and, paradoxically, the limited nature of his freedom become painfully apparent as a result of his literacy.

Notes

[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 41.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 44–45.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201.

[6] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 42­–3.

[10] Ibid., 43.

Fanon on the Irreciprocity and Fixed Difference of Colonized Space

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.

Notes

[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.