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Frantz Fanon

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Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)


In a strict sense, the name of FranTz Fanon might seem odd alongside those of other critical theorists of the 20th century. Yet he is perhaps one of the most influential theorists and writers on issues of culture, consciousness and colonisation of all time. He was born to (relatively) well off parents in Martinique - a French Caribean colony, and as a child experienced the brutality of French colonial rule. After the fall of france in the Second World War, the French Vichy navy was blockaded in Martinique and the brutal excesses  of the French to the black islanders was graphic and educational - revealing to him the evils of racism when combined with colonial power. At the age of 18 he fled the island to join the free French forces under Charles de Gaulle. He fought in Europe and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, but (along with other black soldiers) was excluded from the triumphant and publicise crossing of the Rhine because of his colour. He returned briefly to Martinique after the war and then moved to France to study medicine and psychiatry in Lyon. While therehe also studied existential pghilosophy and litereature.



After qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1951, Fanon did a residency in psychiatry under the radical Catalan psychiatrist Francois Tosquelles, who invigorated Fanon's thinking by emphasizing the important yet often overlooked role of culture in psychopathology. (Wikipedia) In this he paralleled the work of Erich Fromm, as well as the existential psychiatrist R. D. Laing. Yet it was his theorising of the intersection of the issues of class, race, colour and culture with psychopathology that made him such an important theorist and critical thinker. He practiced pasychiatry in France for a year. During this time he published his first book, Black Skin White Masks - an analysis of the effect of colonial subjugation on the human psyche. There, Fanon used psychoanalytical theory to explain the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that Black people experience in a White world. He speaks of the divided self-perception of the Black Subject who has lost his native cultural originality and embraced the culture of the coloniser. The behaviour, Fanon argues, is even more evident in upwardly mobile and educated Black people who can afford to acquire the trappings of White culture.  Black Skin White Masks has had a profound impact upon our understanding of colonisation and the process whereby the colonised come to act against their own self-interest and to participate in their own oppression. When it was published in 1952 it caused a sensation and it still, today, resonates with the experiences of colonised cultures.

Following the publication of his book, Fanon moved to Algeria in 1953. There, he worked as chef de service at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, where he stayed until his resignation in 1956. As the Wikipedia article on Fanon perceptively notes:

" might wonder why Fanon spent over 10 years in the service of France, but his servitude to France's army... For Fanon, being colonized by a language had larger implications for one's political consciousness: "To speak . . . means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization". Speaking French means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the French."

Fanon's experiences in Algeria were to coalesce into a clarity of thouight about the intersection of colonisation, race and class that found its expression in his psychiatric practice. he began to introduce cultural and social issues into his disgnosticv models of psychosis - relating (like Reich, Laing and Fromm) the condition of his patients to their social and political circumstances rather than to decontextualised notions of libido. Whenm the Algerian Revolution against French colonialism began in 1954, Fanon joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) - the Algerian nationalist movement dedicated to the overthrow of French ruie. He supplied equipment to the FLN, safe havens for militants on the run, as well as psychiatric treatment for the tortured and the torturers alike. He quickly came to be seen as a foreign representative for the FLN at conferences abroad.

By 1957 Fanon was receiving regular death threats, making his work in Algeria unsafe. He resigned and was expelled from Algeria, leaving for France before travelling secretly to Tunisia. In his resignation letter, he described his experiences of colonial Algeria:

“If psychiatry is a medical technique which aspires to allow man to cease being alienated from his environment, I owe it to myself to assert that the Arab, who is permanently alienated in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation. The status of Algeria? Systematic dehumanisation.”

His next book, A Dying Colonialism, (originally published as Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution) was a portrait of the impact the liberation movement had on all those involved in it. There, he described how Algerian women fighters would put the veil on or take it off according to the needs of the liberation movement – if it was easier to pass the checkpoints dressed as a European then the veil would disappear. He also records out how the determination of colonial authorities to “liberate” Muslim women from the veil directly inspired more women to wear it.(See: Socialist Worker)

Fanon's last book was also his most profound and influential. In The Wretched Of The Earth (1961) Fanon analyzes the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for national liberation. Both books established Fanon in the eyes of much of the Third World as the leading anti-colonial thinker of the 20th century. This was his final book, published after his death from leukaemia in December 1961, only months before Algerian independence was declared. Dictated rather than written, this volume contains Fanon’s views on violence, the role of the peasantry in the liberation struggle, and his fears for what might happen after independence.

Fanon rightly understood that the French and British empires had taken land and resources by military conquest, and would only give these up when forced to do so. Algeria’s bitter independence struggle was proof of that analysis. His theories have had a profound impact upon the anti-colonialism movement and ongoing struggles of the colonised for more than fifty years. His range of influence has extensded to jean paul Satrte (who wrote the Introduction to Wretched of the Earth), Steve Biko in South Africa, Malcolm X in America, and Che Guevara. His writings continue to influence a broad range of contemporary scholars, indigenous peoples and marxist revolutionaries around the world.

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More in this category: « Michel Foucault Jacques Derrida »

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