poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death


A bare outline of The Wretched of the Earth might go something like this: colonisation is the negation of humanity at every level of organisation, from the collective life of the nation to the deepest recesses of the individual psyche. The colonised person, the “native”, is a monster whose identity has been systematically disrupted, whose existential self-assertion contorts itself under the yoke of occupation. The colonising “settler” is another sort of monster, a professor of high-minded ideals who finds himself in the troubling situation of having to resort continually to the most brutal violence, and whose consciousness must then invent justifications for that violence. The coloniser cannot escape the circuit of violence and self-justification, and cannot be persuaded rationally to abandon it: colonialism “is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasonable faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence”. The colonised must assert themselves, and since all such self-assertion is suppressed by the colonisers with direct and overwhelming brutality, this can only be accomplished through force of arms. Furthermore, it is through taking up arms that the colonised recover the integrity necessary for action: violently confronting the settler is the primary act of existential self-assertion, through which the “native” declares to himself that he exists.

So much for the outline. Fanon’s text echoes with the screams of the tortured, and one of its guiding metaphors is that of recovering a violated bodily integrity. Violence is the means through which the violated seek restitution for a corporeal dishonour. (We might recall that Andrea Dworkin came to the conclusion that the victims of rape had the right to kill their rapists, and should be legally pardoned when they did so). In the psychiatric case studies quoted in the book, one attitude noted in the Algerian victims of French torture is that of “indifference to all moral arguments. For these patients there is no just cause…Force is the only thing that counts”. The Wretched of the Earth is a grand teratology, a penetrating survey of the disorders of colonialism. We must ask however whether Fanon’s enthusiasm for violent rebellion is not also a manifestation of some disorder.

In this, it is important to separate two questions. The first is the immediate legitimacy and tactical usefulness of violent resistance to occupation. This we will not consider here. The second is the “existentialist” or even Nietzschean accent Fanon gives to that violence. Aimed at the creation of a “new man” out of the nullity imposed on the “native” by the “settler”, the violence of decolonisation is beyond good and evil: no term in the moral vocabulary of the colonial society can adequately justify or condemn it. It must find its justification retroactively in the epic of the new society it creates, which must also assume the burden of responsibility for whatever atrocities were committed in its name. Only the new man will be in a position to judge the actions of the old. Insurrectionary violence is thus linked to the creation of value, an originating “force” which generates the possibility of a future in which its self-assertion may be recognised as entrained in a “just cause” (with all the moral hazards that entails).

Whatever else this schema may be, “non-European” it is not. Nothing could be more European, more entirely in accord with the philosophical modernity of Europe (as represented, at the time, by Sartre), than Fanon’s diagnosis of the nihilism of European culture (seen in extremis, from the perspective of the brutality meted out to its colonies), and his evocation of the Third World insurrectionary as the bringer of new, universal cultural values. In Fanon two “cases” are combined, or brought into communication with each other. The first is the psychiatric patient morally obliterated by torture, for whom “justice” as a figure of social right has no meaning because he has been subjected to an anguish that has separated him from the social bond. The second is the armed militant, harbinger of a new society, whose separation from the colonial order is the outcome of a decision that creates him. But is it not the weakness and terror afflicting the first person, who can no longer trust in anything other than force, that conditions the decision of the second?

To take up arms, to ally oneself with “the gun” (to use the language of the Black Panthers), is to amplify the capacity for violence contained within one’s person. An unarmed person is defenceless against armed persons, who will inevitably prevail by force majeure. An organised, clandestine body of militants is more effective than the disorganised rabble that the settler machine-guns in the streets. The logic of militarisation is compelling, if the struggle at hand is against a military force. In this situation, the question of whether or not to take up arms, to organise, is simply a question of whether or not one intends to survive. In a civil struggle the forces involved are different (it was not superior military force that broke the Panthers) and “non-violent” strategies have a chance of success, although these too depend on disciplined organisation. But no-one can seriously urge “non-violence” on a Spartacus.

For Fanon, however, violence is not only a tool of survival but an inextricable aspect of the ordeal of becoming: armed struggle not only improves the insurgency’s chances of not being wiped out, but also grants it an increased intensity of appearance. Violence, in other words, is not only a means of defending the rebellion, but becomes the principal means through which it makes its mark on the world. To kill is not only to terminate the offensive capacity of an enemy who threatens me, but to really make something of myself: to declare that “I exist!” in the form of a deadly and implacable menace. Demonstrations of “strike capacity”, of exceptional daring and ruthlessness, are undoubtedly part of the currency of warfare; but military heroism is a narrow mould for the “new man” to harden in.

The problem, in essence, is that the desired world of post-colonial society is a greater world than that of the anti-colonial conflict itself: the acts and attitudes that illuminate the theatre of war are such that they must also darken and stain the civil society that is to follow. The “decision to be” undertaken by the insurgent is a decision to be something more than a scarred and traumatised veteran, entirely used up in the struggle that called him into being. Let us end by considering two facets of this “something more”, both certainly recognised by Fanon. The first is manifested in the pathological remorse of a militant, “a patriot who had been in the resistance”:

This man in this thirties came to ask us for advice and help, for around a certain date each year he suffered from prolongued insomnia, accompanied by anxiety and suicidal obsessions. The critical date was that when on instructions from his organisation he had placed a bomb somewhere. Ten people were killed as a result.

This militant, who never for a single moment thought of repudiating his past activities, realized very clearly the manner in which he himself had to pay the price of national independence. It is border-line cases such as his which raise the question of responsibility within the revolutionary framework.

Fanon adds in a footnote that the man’s condition might be considered an “attack of vertigo”, caused by a subsequent (post-war) encounter with “certain nationals of the former colonial power” whom he had found “very likeable”. This gives rise to a further reflection, which we might term “philosophical”:

In other words, we are for ever pursued by out actions. Their ordering, their circumstances and their motivation may perfectly well come to be profoundly modified a posteriori. This is merely one of the snares that history and its various influences sets for us. But can we escape becoming dizzy? And who can affirm that vertigo does not haunt the whole of existence?

The risk, here, is that the re-establishment of the social bond, the recovery of a world of “good” and “evil” in which one’s former enemies also participate as moral agents, enables past actions to be judged in retrospect: the “just cause” acquires a moral weight. But this is the risk of responsible action in general, where it is aimed at establishing a situation in which moral terms might once again bear meaning. Only a servile, amoral existence is not haunted by this vertigo.

The second facet of “existential” resistance that is irreducible to militarised “hardness” and lethal capability is demonstrated by the case of the man whose wife had been raped whilst in the custody of the French. All that we have here is the husband’s testimony, but we are less interested in his eventual decision to “take her back” than in what he is drawn to recognise about her role in the struggle, her obduracy and firmness in the truth.

In the Maquis, when I heard that she’d been raped by the French, I first of all felt angry with the swine. Then I said, “Oh, well, there’s not much harm done; she wasn’t killed. She can start her life over again”. And then a few weeks later I came to realize that they’d raped her because they were looking for me. In fact it was to punish her for keeping silence that she’d been violated. She could have very well told them at least the name of one of the chaps in the movement, and from that they could have searched out the whole network, destroyed it, and maybe even arrested me. That wasn’t a simple rape, for want of something better to do, or for sadistic reasons like those I’ve had occasion to see in the villages; it was the rape of an obstinate woman, who was ready to put up with everything rather than sell her husband. And the husband in question, it was me. This woman had saved my life and had protected the organisation. It was because of me that she had been dishonoured. And yet she didn’t say to me: “Look at all I’ve had to bear for you”. On the contrary, she said: “Forget about me; begin your life over again, for I have been dishonoured”.

Certainly it is for the husband to exorcise his wife’s shame, to praise her “obstinacy” and admit that he owes her his life. But at the same time, as he well recognises, it is her “forget about me”, her indifference to her own survival, that both aligns her with the figure of the self-sacrificing soldier as existential hero and places her infinitely beyond it.