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.

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.


[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.

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

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.

Resistance Through Re-narration Available Online at African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society

For those interested, my essay, “Resistance Through Re-narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of  Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Dec. 2011): 363-85. DOI:  10.1080/14725843.2011.61441o, is now available for online viewing


Frantz Fanon offers a lucid account of his entrance into the white world where the weightiness of the ‘white gaze’ nearly crushed him. In chapter five of Black Skins, White Masks, he develops his historico-racial and epidermal racial schemata as correctives to Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema. Experientially aware of the reality of socially constructed (racialized) subjectivities, Fanon uses his schemata to explain the creation, maintenance, and eventual rigidification of white-scripted ‘blackness’. Through a re-telling of his own experiences of racism, Fanon is able to show how a black person in a racialized context eventually internalizes the ‘white gaze’. In this essay I bring Fanon’s insights into conversation with Foucault’s discussion of panoptic surveillance. Although the internalization of the white narrative creates a situation in which external constraints are no longer needed, Fanon highlights both the historical contingency of ‘blackness’ and the ways in which the oppressed can re-narrate their subjectivities. Lastly, I discuss Fanon’s historically attuned ‘new humanism’, once again engaging Fanon and Foucault as dialogue partners.

Négritude’s Role in Reforming Marxism and the Relevance of the “Race” Question for All Human Beings

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), engaging in deconstruction before deconstruction began, calls Western Enlightenment to account for its uncivilized practices and its inability to deal with the concrete, existentio-political concerns of people “on the ground.” That is, European “Western civilization” for all its claims to Enlightenment and progress has proved “incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem.”[1] Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and other black Négritude writers could not separate the class problem from the race problem, nor did they overlook the connection between capitalism and colonialism. As Rabaka observes, “Césaire understands European civilization to rest on the colonization of non-Europeans, their lives, labor and lands. His Negritude, like Du Bois’s and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise,”[2] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery. Although appreciative of Marx, the Négritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but also to give top priority to “race”-based economic exploitation.[3] As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[4] In contrast, the colonized and enslaved, given their concrete experience of racialized existence past and present, do not have the option to overlook the race question; thus, concludes Césaire, Négritude has a crucial role to play in the ongoing reformation of Marxism. “Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx.”[5]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, one of its chief goals is the creation of a positive black social identity. However, in the context of colonialism, with their past already written and their present constantly under construction, the opportunities afforded the colonized to shape and develop their own identity are severely restricted and practically non-existent. Because the colonial system is built on the exploitation of blacks and non-European others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of humans to the subhuman realm harms both the colonized and the colonizer, and thus, leads to the degradation of society at large. Césaire refers to this phenomenon as the “boomerang effect of colonization.”[6] As he explains,

colonization […] dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and [is] justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.[7]

In his writings, Fanon also highlighted the damage inflicted upon humankind as the result of colonizing practices. Like Césaire, Fanon was convinced that when humans, through repeated acts of self-deception, eventually habituate themselves to treat other humans as animals and objects, they perform a violence on themselves that has a tendency to produce ripple effects throughout the entire social body, including the “white” part of the body politic.[8]


[1] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 31.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[3] Commenting on the capitalism of his day, Césaire writes, “capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics” (Discourse on Colonialism, 37).

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes similar comments about the social degradation that takes place in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how Mrs. Auld, his master’s wife, who at first treated Douglass humanely and with compassion, eventually becomes socially habituated to see him as a slave, that is, as nothing more than property to be used to further the goals of white society. (See, for example, Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 40).

[8] Césaire, in fact, claims that Nazism came about as a result of the “boomerang effect.” Employing his linguistic whip, Césaire unleashes a series of verbal strikes calculated to leave their marks on Europe’s back and perhaps reawaken its anesthetized conscience. “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, […] a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and ‘interrogated,’ all these patriots that have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, […] they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, […] the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimated it, because until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; […] they have cultivated Nazism, […] they are responsible for it” (Discourse on Colonialism, 35–6).

Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.