Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and The Difference of Phenomenology

In his article, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” Jeremy Weate employs Frantz Fanon’s insights and critique of Merleau-Ponty to argue for a phenomenology that saves difference.  As Weate states,

“[i]n order to challenge a universalist approach to phenomenology and open up a philosophy of race, I shall display one of the profoundest critiques of phenomenology offered this century, that of Frantz Fanon in his paper The Lived Experience of the Black. […] As I shall show, in fact Fanon’s critique of phenomenology quickly exposes the core of its problematic relation to difference.  Fanon’s text therefore in my view provides a corrective to phenomenology, at the same time as showing how the theorization of lived experience that is its source can reveal the key issues at work between agency, history and the world, and perhaps most fundamentally, the possibilities for justice” (170).

Weate points to Merleau-Ponty’s “inclusive notion of ‘world'” as the locus of Fanon’s criticism, which in turn serves as a source for Fanon’s own radical phenomenology of difference.  Weate begins by drawing our attention to the first few pages of Fanon’s text, in which Fanon immediately brings us into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty by substituting the latter’s “notion of ‘corporeal schema’ (schéma corporel),” first with his own “‘schéma historico-racial'” and second with his “‘schéma épidermique racial'” (170).  Briefly stated, Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema describes the way in which the body’s agency makes manifest the historical world.  For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are not objects in space, rather they inhabit space and through them we experience the world and the other.  The relationship between body and world is one of mutual transformation, of “reciprocal transfer” (171).  While one can certainly engage in theoretical reflection on the interplay between body and world (as I am right now), Weate directs our attention to the pre-theoretical interplay between the two that occurs in our everyday engagements in the world and which “engenders a coporealized conception of freedom” (171).  In so far as the body is able to participate in and transform its historico-cultural horizon, it is free; in so far as its capacity for expression and its ability to alter its own history and given context are denied, it is not free.[1] As Weate explains,

“Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the corporeal schema leads implicitly to a conception of history as characterized essentially by difference.  Each moment of a culture’s transfer across time through the agency of bodies is at the same time the site of its own differentiation.  Moreover, there is therefore no ‘originary’ moment to any culture:  every culture that attempts to assert its sameness across time has to repress the difference at work in its origin in very present” (171).

According to Weate, Merleau-Ponty’s general point seems to be that “the relation between agency and historical freedom” is intimately related to our habituation.  That is, “it is a matter of habit and habituation that we perpetually contribute to the differentiation of our historical world (our “habitus”), from one moment’s action to the next” (171).

With this background in mind, we turn to Fanon’s text in order to explain why he substitutes schéma historico-racial and schéma épidermique racial for Merleau-Ponty’s notion of schéma corporel.  Fanon argues that a phenomenology of blackness-the experience of skin difference and of being the black other-can only be understood in the encounter with whiteness or more precisely, the white imagination (171).[2] That is, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, Fanon was “content to intellectualize these differences”; however, once he entered the white world and felt the weight of the “white gaze,” he experienced his otherness and became aware of pre-theoretical racial attitudes that up to that point had not existed for him (Fanon, 90).  Fanon continues, making his first explicit references to Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema:

“In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema.  The image of one’s body is solely negating.  It’s an image in the third person.  All around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty. […]  A slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world-such seems to be the schema.  It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world-definitive because it creates a genuine dialectic between my body and the world” (Fanon, 90-91).

As Weate explains, Fanon initially agrees with Merleau-Ponty’s claim that both the self and the world are constructed through the corporeal schema.  However, it becomes evident that when applied to the “interracial encounter of black bodies in the west,” the corporeal schema fails.

“Beneath the body schema I had created a historical-racial schema.  The data I used were provided not by ‘remnants of feelings and notions of the tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, or visual nature’ [Jean Lhermitte, L’image de notre corps, Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Critique, p. 17] but by the Other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” (Fanon, 91).

Here Fanon claims that Merleau-Ponty’s inclusive, unified notion of the corporeal schema through which the self and world emerge in fact exhibits an asymmetry and disunity with regard to whites and blacks in their experience of and active participation the world.  As Weate explains,

“In the interracial encounter, the White is able to participate in the schematization of the world, whilst the Black may not, for his skin difference closes down the possibility of free agency.  A with mythos inserts itself between the black body and its self-image, becoming the ‘elements used’ in a reflexive understanding of black subjectivity.  In contesting the terms of Merleau-Ponty’s account of bodily freedom, Fanon provides a genealogy of the existential unfreedom of the black body in the racialized encounter” (172).

Notes


[1] Admittedly, I am speaking of the body in a reified way; however, body should not be understood as a res, but rather as a crucial aspect of the psychosomatic whole, which constitutes a human being.

[2] “As long as the black man remains on his home territory, except for petty internal quarrels, he will not have to experience his being for others” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.  Rev. ed. Trans., Richard Philcox.  (New York:  Grove Press, 2008):  89.

Other-Reification and Racism

In his article, “Racist Variations of Bad Faith:  A Critical Study of Lewis Gordon’s Phenomenology of Racism,” Bart van Leeuwen argues that the racist not only reifies him/herself but also reifies the other.  The racist of course sees him/herself as belonging to the essentially “good” or positive group (the ingroup); whereas the outgroup is a member of the essentially “bad” or negative group, whose essence is inherently flawed.  As van Leewen explains, “other-reification” characterized the “antiblack racism that defined the historical context of slavery and racial segregation during the Jim Crow era in the United States” (58).  Not only was the black slave “invisible to the white person,” his or her very subjectivity was denied, refused, unacknowledged.  Sallie Bingham offers a vivid description of the way in which African Americans were treated as mere objects:   they were “invisible to most white people, except as a pair of hands offering a drink on the silver tray” (58).[1] This objectification and reduction of black individuals to mere tools in the service of whites exhibits the refusal on the part of whites to acknowledge blacks as genuine, human subjects.  To illustrate how whites endeavored to destroy black subjectivity, van Leeuwen turns to a phrase coined by bell hooks, “white control of the black gaze.”  In many if not most instances, a black person was not permitted to make eye contact with a white person while serving him or her.  In fact, “black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving.”[2] A second example, comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who reflecting on the condition of African Americans after his visit to the United States in 1945, observed:  “they serve you at the table, they shine your shoes, they operate your elevators, they carry your suitcases … they attend their tasks like machines, and you pay no more attention to them than as if they were machines.”[3] As van Leeuwen points out, this reduction and dehumanization of blacks to a mere “pair of serving hands” or functional “machines,” was intimately connected to hooks’ notion of “white control of the black gaze.” Blacks were forced to develop a habitus of avoiding direct eye contact with whites.  This other-reification by the ingroup (in this case the antiblacks) has the potential to foster a third reification wherein the victims begin to view themselves as objects.  Here van Leeuwen turns to a passage from Frantz Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks,

I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects […] The movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye.[4]

This sense of being fixed by the other was so overbearing that it produced in Fanon a desire to be invisible, to exist as the anonymous one (59).  “I slip into corners, I remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility.  Look, I will accept the lot, as long as no one notices me!”[5] All of this leads van Leeuwen to conclude that the racist does not view the other as an absence or empty place in being, but rather as a “surplus of being.  So the basic dynamic of racism must be understood as an escape from the human lack of being (le néant) to the order of things (l’être), a solidification of freedom into total ethnic security” (59-60).  If I understand van Leeuwen here (and I may not given my lack of knowledge of Lewis Gordon and Sartre, so I welcome correction), the “human lack of being” is not absence for Sartre, rather nothingness (néant) is a constitutive element of a human consciousness.  As van Leeuwen explains, “nothingness (néant) as a technical concept denotes a lack of properties, and is opposed to being (être)” (53).  Nothingness is thus closely tied to freedom or what Sartre calls “transcendence,” whereas being speaks of fixity, in Sartre’s vocabulary, “facticity.”  In our human existence and being-in-the-world, we struggle to embrace and live authentically within the constant interplay of freedom and facticity, and this freedom/facticity ambiguity is unbearable for the racist.  In viewing him/herself as well as the other as having fixed essences (where each essence possesses certain inherent capacities and limitations defined by the ingroup-e.g., the racist’s essence is perceived as good and the other’s essence bad, flawed or deficient), the racist in effect is engaged in a flight from freedom, from transcendence, from the néant that cannot be fixed, determined, and controlled.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read Gordon’s work yet (but I look forward to doing so), so I cannot evaluate van Leeuwen’s claims concerning Gordon’s use of Sartre; however, I did not sense that van Leeuwen failed to appreciate the many insights of Gordon’s work.  Rather, his focus was on Gordon’s use of Sartre’s categories in his explications of the phenomenology of racism.

Notes


[1] Cited in bell hooks, Black Looks:  Race and Representation (Boston:  South End Press, 1992), p. 168.

[2] hooks, Black Looks, p. 168.

[3] Cited in van Leeuwen, Jean-Paul Sartre, “Return from the United States,” in Gordon (ed.), Existence in Black, pp. 83-89, p. 84.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 109.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 116.