Tag Archives: Fanon

To Science or Not To Science, That is the Question

22 Feb

Aimee Cesaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is written as a poem, although its unusual amalgamation of shorter lines and solid blocks of text and its rambling style might make some skeptical of that label.  Similarly, in his introduction, Fanon, who was trained as a psychologist, calls his White Skins, White Masks a “clinical study,” although he refuses to explain his methods, saying “I leave methods to the botanists and the mathematicians.” (12).  In fact, throughout the book, Fanon’s style seems to echo Cesaire’s, albeit in a less “surreal” way–it rambles, it incorporates personal anecdotes and dialogue (using free indirect discourse), and it contains very little actual clinical language.  In fact, the majority of Chapter Three is an analysis of a literary character, Jean Veneuse.  While literary scholars are if course aware of the strong ties between early psychoanalysis and literature (that Freud sure does love his Oedipus and his Hamlet!), we are also painfully aware of the ways in which the study of literature is denigrated for not being “scientific” (an accusation that led Frye and others in the 1950s to attempt to systematize the study of literature through identifying an essential “thesis” prevalent in all literature).  Might, therefore, this incorporation of personal and fictional stories hurt, rather than aid, Fanon’s argument?  If he is trained in scientific research and language, why would he resort to this unscientific style?  

The text does contain clues as to why Fanon might decide not to stick to a clinical analysis when writing about race. In Chapter Four, page 111, Fanon says,

For several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for  “denegrification”; with all the earnestness in the world, laboratories have sterilized their test tubes, checked their scales, and embarked on researches that might make it possible for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off the burden of that corporal malediction.

Fanon appears to have invented the idea of this “serum,” which stands therefore as a metaphor for a process of “attempting to turn black people white” that he sees both black and white people promoting (making the particular universal, rather than allowing all particulars to be part of a larger universal).  But his bitter language about science and “progress” here reminds us that science is a human invention and has been used throughout history to subjugate those deemed “Other” (in modern history, eugenics, phrenology, social darwinism).  Fanon’s use of narratives, of stories, of dialogue, therefore, can be seen as a way for him to highlight his humanity–his membership in a universal human community.  Instead of making the discussion of race clinical, scientific, and therefore removed, supposedly unbiased and objective (again, see above for how that sometimes works out), he insists on speaking to us human-to-human, making his personal situation and stake in the discussion clear, and asking us to look him in the eyes and recognize his humanity.  As such, perhaps his style is more effective than a clinical study might be, after all.  

Triple Existence and Language

22 Feb

“However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Fanon 10).

In Black Skin, White Masks,Fanon’s main point is stated in the introduction; the identity crisis of a black man is his inability to be anything other than that which is seen by a white man. He states several times the incapacity to uncover an authentic identity. Fanon writes, “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (110). As long as there is white, you are defined through those differences. An authentic identity is unachievable because of the simplification others denigrate. Although he attempts to lift himself up to some more complicated form of identity, he is unable to succeed. Throughout this reading, I couldn’t help making connections with Eugenides’ Middlesex. The main character, Calliope, struggles with identity- not only ethnic and cultural identity, but gender identity as well (she/he is a hermaphrodite). In a similar way, Fanon is trying to show the complexity of his identity crisis when it keeps being reduced to an issue of black and white. While Calliope has several elements to identity, Fanon explains “a triple person,” as “I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space” (112). The three places include: body, race, and ancestors. I read this as having three elements of identity that he can’t mend together like Eugenides’ character. There is the self that is the interior, the race which is the exterior, and the ancestors which is his bond to others. Yet he is only seen in one simplified light- that of race.

In the last paragraph he writes, “I refuse to accept that amputation … I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple” (140). The language he uses throughout the chapters, and especially the ending provided more of an image to what is lost in identity. The image of amputation gives the feeling that a limb is taken from you through the simplification of identity; that a big piece of you is gone. Then to be a ‘master’ of one’s identity plays with the slave-master dichotomy. Even as a master, someone else is a master over you. He ends stating, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140). He is in the middle of two extremes, capitalizing both to emphasize the ideas they represent. It is a nothingness that leaves you internally empty, and an infinity that makes you completely in power of the self.

Cesaire, Fanon, and the Irreducible Identity

22 Feb

In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman comments, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Franz Fanon evokes a similar concept of identity in Black Skin, White Masks, but while Whitman exults in his utter complexities of being, Fanon seems to become completely mired in them. Fanon seems to be concerned about irreducibility – he writes on page 13, “I belong irreducibly to my time,” and throughout the essay he struggles to categorize himself or anyone else as anything but utterly complex. And yet, at the same time, his description of the world’s vision of him is entirely reducible- he is called almost exclusively “nigger” or “negro” in the dialogue portions, and the people he discusses seem preoccupied with defining people by their skin color before anything else. While Fanon seems desperately to wish to break out of this categorical process of identifying, we find that ultimately he feels he has failed. He concludes chapter 5 with the thought, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140).

            In contrast, Cesaire struggles with some similar identity issues in his poem. His conclusion also falls to a reducibility of sorts, but he reduces his own identity past categories into “the essence of things.” The racial term that he uses to define himself, “negritude,” breaks itself down into something that is essentially nothing (the repetition of “it is not,” “it is not,” on page 35) except for the root of everything (“it takes root in the red flesh of the soil / it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky”). In this way, Cesaire solves the problem by universalizing a “canvas” for identity – the canvas being “the essence of things” – and allowing people to build their pride in themselves upon that rather than basing it purely in something visual, cultural, or historical. Ostensibly, Fanon is against this type of universal identity, as he writes on page 135 “I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal.” And yet, he declares himself “the poet of the world,” only a few pages earlier, showing that even as he makes bold statements, he cannot quite hold them together. It seems to me that he wants what Cesaire finds, and yet still cannot be satisfied by it.

            Thus, these vastly differing concepts of what it means to be black – arising from similar problems, and yet diverging in their ultimate conclusions – reveal the concept of identity to be both utterly essential and yet fundamentally broken in the aftermath of colonialism. 

Physical vs. Mental Aspects of Race

22 Feb


Fanon’s White Skin Black Mask draws some interesting connections between self-identification and race. I was especially intrigued by Fanon’s delineation of race as this sort of physical burden that one cannot get away from when it is so stigmatized. Fanon writes, “I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance.” Here, Fanon separates the mental from the physical; he claims that he is a “slave” because of the physical appearance he cannot change. The idea of him as a living, breathing individual is not so easy for others to oppress because there is nothing so different about him from them. Because of the color of his skin, the ideas of others can enslave him. I found this dichotomy fascinating because of how Fanon proves that certain “ideas” are respected because of the physical representation they come from.

Another passage I highlighted is, “Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness.” I’m not entirely sure I grasp the full meaning of Fanon’s words, but because of their complexity and the unusual idea they are getting at, I keep going back and re-reading them. What I think Fanon is trying to say is that our perception of our physical body negates the idea of thinking about our physical body in the first place. He says it is a “third-person consciousness,” which I take to mean as some sort of outer-body thinking that is not the same as consciously recognizing one’s own soul. These are deep ideas to get at, especially concerning what we’ve been discussing in class this week. I found it interesting to compare Fanon’s ideas with these lines from Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”:

My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against

the clamor of the day

my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s

dead eye

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

it takes root in the red flesh of the soil

it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky

it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.

Here, Cesaire defines his pride in his race not as a physical object in nature, but as an idea that takes root in nature and persists “with its upright patience.” Both Cesaire and Fanon see the mental image of race as persisting over the physicality of race. The physicality is what everyone sees, when what everyone needs to see is the way that people think.