BAR Book Forum: David Marriott’s “Whither Fanon?”
The following is excerpted from Whither Fanon?: Studies in the Blackness of Being by David Marriott. It is published by Stanford University Press, ©2018 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.
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, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Markmann, 10
I resolved to write this book so as to provide a fresh examination of what this destiny might be, but not to affirm it, nor to refuse any of the suffering that comes in its wake, nor to pass off as disavowed an acceptance that Frantz Fanon clearly found so hard to acknowledge. If I were to be asked what this destiny signifies for me here now, writing this sentence, I would have to say at the outset that I do not know; and to that extent it could be said that this destiny is not really readable at all, insofar as the event of its meaning has yet to occur. My aim in this book, far from offering yet another interpretation of what this destiny might be, is to subvert both the ease with which this destiny could be dismissed or affirmed, and the imposition of a prescient point of view from which this destiny could be read or known. By presenting the concepts through which Fanon remains faithful to the difficulty of thinking blackness as a future tense, I have become more and more convinced that to have no certainty of judgment is the only certitude that Fanon’s conclusion demands.
On the other hand, to see whiteness as the destiny of blackness is to question everything. To see the future of blackness in its absolute disappearance is also to imagine it as a thing obliterated. But what happens to this future whiteness when, blackened, it too learns of its origin? Indeed, for my purposes, Fanon’s sentence communicates an extreme irony: if the only appearance of whiteness in the world comes from blackness, that raises the question of what it means to desire to see oneself as white or black and to recognize race as a destiny that allows one to grasp one’s essence and existence. However painful the discovery, to receive race as a destiny is to forget that race confers no certitude in this world and that the only proof of its meaning is illusion and suffering; to affirm race as a destiny is to deny that it reveals a void and that it is nothing but an ellipsis, or caesura, through which being defends itself against the anguish and ecstasy through which its existence takes shape. The conclusion that race has no immediate knowledge, and can only be approached as the experience of its infinite deferment, is the object of this book. In what follows I am concerned not with a history of that deferment but with the relation between reading Fanon and what I take to be the pessimistic revelation of his thought.
This is not to say simply that race has no significance, but that what it accomplishes as a revelation at each and every moment is repeatable only as its difference from itself. In the same way, if blackness has a destiny, that destiny depends on the discomfort of knowing that its appearance always coincides with self-oblivion, and to that extent its existence is conditional on what remains heterogeneous to it. The plea for race to be a destiny (whether in the idiom of assent or that of obligation) intrinsically has to do with the wretchedness in which blackness came into being in the world and that continues to define the anti-blackness of the world. In saying this, I am not judging the world, nor the dogma by which the world worlds itself as world. I am not questioning the validity of anti-blackness as the content of the world, as if the world could be judged solely according to its hatred of black people. Nor am I asking that blacks be taken as the exception that proves the rule of what it means to be in the world.
But what I am saying is that anti-blackness is the discourse through which a singular experience of the world is constituted. Such experience is not ineffable: anti-blackness is the thing against which the universal, the human, the ideal, etc., is enunciated and created; it is the means through which the racial discourse of being is articulated as spirit. I say being because the essence of anti-blackness is not representation, but the structure by which racial ontology is literally inscribed on each act of enslaved, non-sovereign being. Anti-blackness is thus not the image of that which is excluded from being—even if that exclusion is always experienced as anguish—it is the body, the corpus, the mortis, that has to be cast off for the racial truth of spirit to reveal itself. In this sense, anti-blackness is the bearer of an immanent fault, defect, lapsus at the level of its very being, as Fanon teaches us. This defect is real; it is not imagined, projected, fantasized, etc. What characterizes this flaw, which does not proceed from any actual racist encounter, is that there is no resistance to this outcome by which blackness is suddenly relegated to a debased, decreated form. Why do I say this? For Fanon, blackness can only find its ontological fulfillment by no longer being black—or by entering its own abyssal significance. Now that this book is finished, I see signs of this everywhere, including in myself, and I detest its effects at the same time as I am fascinated by this desire not to be black. But what does it mean for me to say that I am compelled by a desire that forces me to choose between adherence and rejection but that leaves me unable to positively do so, a desire that forces me to suspend decision, without for all that abolishing it?
This book is the narrative of that fascination, the danger it signifies, and its contradictory inner meaning, which I have yet to overcome and whose parody and hypocrisy I continue to perform as if they were a destiny. This is, in a sense, why I believe that Fanon’s conclusion above is still to be read. This is the whither on which this book is based. In the current discourses of fear and terror, in which the slightest suspicion of a black presence can be steered into mass hysteria and hatred, and all the more readily when the object of distrust hovers uncertainly between the known and the unknown (though we pretend to know who the real enemy is), paranoia and destruction soon teach us that the future will always return in the form of negrophobic malice, in whose aggression black identity is attacked and scorned.
I think that everyone is aware of this, even though I also believe that most people are anti-black not because they are avowedly racist but because such is the insecure being of their world. For no one can have lived long among whites without noticing that when things are not going well, most white people, however liberal they may be, are full of wisdom concerning “the minority problem” and do not hesitate to offer advice. No suggestion they hear is too extreme, ridiculous, or absurd to follow. For when they see a black person they are afraid, and anything they see that reminds them of a black presence seems to provoke or remind them of an unhappy outcome, thus they call blackness a bad omen, even though they have been disappointed a thousand times in their non-black lives. The moral contagion associated with blackness exists in a kind of cultural hysteria and was studied by Fanon with reference to stereotypical codes and signs and the obsessional hatreds of power. Negrophobia occurs when the cultural signs (of blackness) and phobic beliefs are no longer simply juxtaposed but aligned, when the rational and affective borders of the subject are no longer segregated from other stereotypical signs but are concentrated in a regressive insecurity: “methods of thinking and feeling that go back to the age at which he [the negrophobe] experienced the event that impaired his security.” Fanon’s analysis of negrophobia under the rubric of a “regression” (in relation to an imaginary encounter or crisis) explores the ways in which fantasy exposes the fragility of racial identity independently of any actual act or behavior. In the same way, one can say that every racist encounter is dependent on phobia, the set of responses according to which the subject is overwhelmed by its own projections and fears. Again, if the negrophobe sees blackness present in their ordinary intimacies, it causes great consternation or astonishment; they believe it to augur a potential invasion that a UPS driver or mailman is black, and they think it not untoward to report this fact on their neighborhood watch bulletins, advising their neighbors to be attentive and mind their property. It is as if they were addicted to the idea that all that blacks want to do is invade them and all the spaces they occupy, repeatedly. They develop an infinite number of stratagems to make this superstition true, inventing extraordinary interpretations of black behavior as the keenest, most blatant example of an anti-white obsession.
This being the case, we see at once that it is especially those who see blackness in the world as an unsolvable enigma who are most prone to this anti-black superstition, especially when they find themselves exposed to a black person, are strangely disordered by that, cannot emotionally resolve the experience, and so trot out the most implausible excuses that they were only acting in self-defense when they reviled, attacked, or killed the young, the unarmed, and the innocent. They swear that their violence is justified, while any black response to their violence is not, and that their fear is racially blind because anyone in danger of their lives would have acted the same way to save themselves from a being that appears to them inhuman. Entering into these unexpected regions, it is not clear to me whether these delirious beliefs are merely the phantoms of a diseased imagination, or white pleas of self-defense are merely the childish projections of an insecurity in which wishful thoughts rediscover themselves as murderous acts, or anti-blackness is the expression of a psychic prematurity that is allowed to achieve its task at the expense of others. Or are these just several means of expressing the same symptom? There is nothing here that I did not already recognize as the consequence of an anti-black hysteria: when all is said and done, anti-blackness not only subjects the whole world, it also gives itself over to a murderous ravishment, one that discerns good government in the refusal of the racially undeserving; this is the oldest law of white superiority, and that one can find this law to be the essence of the West, its history, and its traditions, and only a fool, madman, or rebel would seek to go against the laws of nature (which always support the avarice of the racially strong and their merciless treatment of the racially weak). Like a destiny, in other words, anti-blackness opens a coincidence between black social death and the play and performance of whiteness as spiritual power—the surcease of the one becomes natural when its expenditure organizes the ontology of the other: it is sufficient merely for the idea of blackness to be obliterated for whiteness to establish itself as Being, at the point where its essence can be defined by a feeling of triumph. It is blackness that makes men irrational, and whiteness that preserves the good that enhances the polity.
Hence, fear is the root from which anti-blackness is born, maintained, and nourished. This fear appears to be a point of defense but the nature of the phobia—that blackness is contaminating—is precisely to include the threat of eradication within the language of contagion. If anyone wants to go further into the matter and consider particular examples, let them contemplate the disparity by which the countless deaths of nonwhite peoples are collectively commemorated and reported. Although perhaps anti-black by cultural upbringing, such a reader need not confront the facts of each of these cases to learn that the vast majority of black deaths are deemed to be natural facts, or part of the nature of things, whereas the death of whites connotes a tragic loss of being. Fanon himself says: “seven Frenchman killed or wounded at the Col de Sakamody” solicits so much more “indignation of the civilized conscience” than “the sacking of the Guergour duoars, the dechra Djerah [or] the massacre of the populations who had truly provoked the ambush.” Many similar examples could be given to show with complete clarity that white people regard blackness as in essence an unsolvable, barely nameable, enigma, to which they assign malicious desires of which they are afraid (since blackness is understood to be a disorder within natural life); that all the things that they have ever worshiped under the influence of anti-black superstition are nothing but the fantasies of despondent and fearful minds; and that blacks have the most to fear from these hateful, murderous delusions, which would rather see them repeatedly sacrificed than to suffer the deaths of a few white subjects. But I think that is well enough known to everyone, and I will not go further into it here.
Since negrophobia (a word I borrow from Fanon) is the cause of anti-black fear and distrust, it follows that not everyone is prone to these feelings of insecurity (despite the widespread theory that everyone is frightened of difference). It also follows that negrophobia must be just as variable or invariable as the affective pre-logic that reproduces it, and that it can only be sustained by fear and hatred, anger and deception. This is because such affect springs not from reason but from passion alone, in fact from the most powerful of the passions. Having reflected on all these things—that any racial certitude is not only misrecognized but held onto by many as a form of defense against insecurity, and that interracial enmity is often seen as a struggle for self-preservation, the murderous destruction of black presences is deemed to be self-protection, and anti-blackness is fought out in the streets and workplaces with intense passion, generating the bitterest antipathies and struggles, which leave no one safe—I have to say that all these incidents prove to me that Fanon’s diagnosis of blackness as an experience without a destiny has yet to be grasped.
I do not claim to offer an exhaustive treatment of all the arguments Fanon uses to explain negrophobia nor give a full account of the clinical system that he devised in order to try to intervene against it. Instead, I began by inquiring: What is Fanon’s socialthérapie? In what manner does the clinic reveal to Fanon his politics and vice versa? What did he make of the cure, how did the crisis of colonial war affect his practice, and did he remain bound to this clinical method in the wake of this crisis? Having asked these questions, I was able to conclude that the political carries weight because it also appears as a clinical symptom with regard to questions of freedom, servitude, and transfiguration, and that within the Fanonian clinic the political itself comes to be seen as both the failure and possibility of black revolutionary thought that I present here. Fanon became aware that he was creating a revolution in the field of clinical thought towards which the entire tradition of sociotherapy was leading, particularly that of Fanon’s teacher Tosquelles, but the tradition had to be entirely rethought in terms of what I call “the vertiginous blackness of being,” which defined the extreme violence and perversity of colonialism. Fanon recapitulated all the clinical teachings of colonial psychiatry that had preceded him, as well as the radical experiments of the Tosquelles school, by synthesizing their schemes with the revolutionary concept of racial subjugation and resistance, which he was the first to clinically work out.
Once I had understood this, I sought to know why it was that Fanon’s clinical work was often excluded from a consideration of his politics. Was it because that clinical work entailed conceptions of revolution as itself a kind of hysteria? I realized that Fanon’s psychopolitics revealed nothing but the failures and limits of either the clinical or the political to grasp the phenomenon of colonial war. Accordingly I needed to keep in mind how the two were bound together to understand Fanon. Next, I decided to reread Fanon’s theory of violence to ask whether we should conclude from it that Fanon was, as some have claimed, a naïve apologist for terror. To that end, I began to consider whether the response to colonial violence or the violence of the colonial state was simply part of a means-ends thinking that defined the political tradition, or whether it was indeed something different. Thirdly, I also inquired into whether Fanon’s descriptions of the minds of those affected by violence and the widespread use of torture and detention were understood by critics of his theory of violence. I found nothing in Fanon’s writings that explicitly converges with, say, a Sorelian understanding of violence, nor anything that is reductively Sartrean. I also found that Fanon teaches a very simple thing, which is understood by the dispossessed everywhere (and is therefore decidedly the most difficult lesson), and that he had explained it in a style that they could recognize and supported it with the sort of reasons that might most effectively sway people’s minds towards resisting the forces that oppressed them: namely, that to exist as black is to experience the extremity of a dereliction in which the future and the past converge in an interminable war of guilt and condemnation, in which one’s part is the constant corpsing of one’s social role. In this way, I became completely convinced that Fanon wishes the colonized to be absolutely free, but that this is a freedom that has nothing to do with political sovereignty; instead, for Fanon, each citizen should stand on their own feet and be able to look the enemy in the eye without trembling. I wrote this book in order to demonstrate, conclusively, how Fanon’s clinical work should be interpreted, proving that we must derive all our knowledge of it and of its politics from what I see as Fanon’s unprecedented interpretation of desire and politics in terms of their mutual imbrication, and not from anything we might discover about them separately.
Accordingly, I begin with Fanon’s meditations on sociotherapy. After this, I go on to show the forms of negrophobia that have arisen out of anti-blackness and how Fanon conceives them. I discuss the fact that he considered racism not as an existential concept but from a structural reading of how language, being, economy, sexuality, and image all come together in an anti-black thematics. The first argument concerns the corporeal: that is to say, the fanatical, phantasmatic, and thereby somewhat fetishistic discourse about the black body. Roughly speaking, this corporeality has three major phases. First, there is epidermalization, the literal blackening of the skin. Then, in response to this blackening, comes the morbid rigidity that Fanon describes as petrification, as part of a more general description of how motor capacity is literally inhibited in the colony. Finally, there is the sociogenic, where the intent is no longer to know the body as affect but rather to show how culture responds to the nègre in its foreignness, or even the fundamental hostility of culture to the nonwhite subject. This concern is no longer for the body as sensorium, or imaginary prosthesis, but for the sociopolitical difference that comes to be lived as such.
This perspective, which pursues the meaning of blackness through cultural narratives and signs, is the symptomatic reading of the political emergence of negritude in Fanon’s clinical practice. The first phase is associated with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Tosquelles; the second with Hegel, Lacan, Freud and Guex. The third phase, Fanon’s own, is seen as the innovation of his work in sociogeny. These phases are then taken up in terms of their consequences for discussions of war, trauma, desire, and guilt. In Algeria, and more broadly the African world, subjects of colonial war presented symptoms that forced Fanon to reflect on the cultural language of revolution both antecedent and contemporary. The madness in which each subject was held, itself being the sign of a delirious insecurity, is not to be confused with Fanon’s early work on the psychoneuroses. The symptoms that went to make up these psychoses were distinct, traceable, and yet somehow profoundly unreadable: they were codes without a grammar or index. It suffices to recall the example of the white torturer who visits Fanon not because he is tormented by remorse or suffers from moral disquiet, but because he knows himself to be a torturer and does not fear the consequences of torturing. On the contrary, he considers torture to be not an affliction but his duty; his only complaint is that he cannot seem to stop doing it even at home! Torturing men and women whose cause he believes is unjust, whose race he detests, and of whom he understands nothing is not what moves him. It is the sheer jouissance that comes from separating the other from the unendurable limit of its being that drives him on.
It was not these men whom Fanon sought to cure but rather those whose loyalty to the anti-colonial cause, which they valued more than mere life, caused them to progressively lose their authority over themselves. Their freedom of judgment disappeared into an antithetical form of thinking, whilst their speech held a delusory paranoia, as if they were the enemy they sought—to the point where they could not judge or think where fantasy began and where reality ended. That they did so in a psychotic delirium informs some of Fanon’s major clinical insights which I attempt to study here. Against the dissociation of such desire, which brought fundamental changes to his socialthérapie, and precisely in those areas where desire punishes worse than law, Fanon also came across opposing examples, of men and women who could not entirely offer themselves to the revolutionary demands of the war and whose delirium was consequently made worse by therapy. The resistance and indifference of such patients to the usual methods of social therapy caused Fanon to revise his practices for these patients. Just as these patients could not freely enter into the war of liberation, so their therapy stopped before the liberation of their symptom—these boundaries could not shift, causing them to turn away from the codes and protocols of the clinic (in relation to performing different roles) to ways of acting and talking that were so tormented by their deliria that the usual methods of therapeutic intervention had to be revised to include the avowal of what was utterly essential to the symptoms by which these subjects articulated themselves. It was not a case of providing more specific signs of cultural integration—be they secular or religious—for these people, but of understanding what kept their dependencies intact, the fantasies that preserved their servitude, and why engaging in therapy meant risking the unbinding of the very codes that preserved their equilibrium. It was precisely to intervene against these codes and fantasies of continued subservience that Fanon sought more poetic modes of therapeutic intervention (as outlined in several clinical essays), where the rules by which these subjects could receive meaning from the world and make sense of it were rearticulated at a different level. Here the clinic becomes a kind of disarticulating space that offers, at the same time, an unprecedented rearticulation of negative hallucination and the forms of distortion issuing from it, forms that are contiguous to the symptom (and sometimes even holding it in place), which provide for and maintain those symptoms at various levels of utterance. It was to undo such impasses that Fanon sought to revise his sociotherapy.
I also explore how Fanon turned to poetics to interpret what he calls invention and which alone is given a political authority to decide who is free and who is imprisoned, who is abject and who is sovereign. I conclude that invention is how we are entitled to think both what Fanon wished to be his future and the psychopolitical form through which the future must be thought, and then to take up this task as one of the more urgent questions we face today, given the present disenchantments of blackness.
After establishing these points, I move on to the more obvious political writings, describing them at some length to show by what means and by whose decision whiteness assumed the force of law in the colony and how blackness came to be known as a valueless, indebted form of being. The major thinkers and themes studied in Part Two have little concern for the clinical questions above, since they are persuaded, in their reading, that the existence of the wretched is self-evident, inscribed in the nature of things by cultural politics and the history of Western modernity. But I do believe that something goes missing here, something in the way Fanon’s work is being used, in itself, to keep the disquieting complexity of the psychical from the consideration of the sociopolitical. My mission here is not to interrogate this absence but to understand it, somewhat in the sense in which Fanon considered his work to be promiscuous regarding all methods.
I bring this study to a close, therefore, by returning to one of my opening terms: the fall, the catastrophe, through which blackness has unfolded from its origin in the Middle Passage until its awaited arrival in the New World, an arrival for which we are still waiting, because such a possibility has to be invented if it is not to be missed.
Having thus demonstrated the two main foci of the book (the Fanonian clinical object and its political being), I conclude, finally, that the Fanonian object of knowledge is simply what it means to be black. It is therefore entirely distinct from an historical claim, both in its object and in its principles and methods, and has nothing whatsoever in common with identity. Each of these foci (the reinvention of which we cannot yet speak and its political expression) has its own province; they do not conflict with each other; and neither should be subordinate to the other. Fanon often says of himself that he is the one who waits, the one who does not inaugurate but the one who anticipates catastrophe. This claim, uncommon amongst black philosophers, rings true for Fanon in a way that will be of much concern for us. But this awaiting also seems to me to be a suspense and an anticipation of waiting itself. Of course, during Fanon’s lifetime and after him, there were many thinkers who did not think as he did and who developed the concept of race as an end and a last redemptive word. We might think of W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, or the group of writers belonging to what has come to be known as negritude. But it is Fanon who for me completes what constitutes the ontological fulfillment of blackness; it is he who thinks it in its endangered impurity, its lack of right, and in a way that continues to determine the problems and refutations that will regularly punctuate the critical era of black political thought.
This awaiting has not yet been completed, and to say that it is over, or that Fanonism is no less a moment of conclusion, is as absurd a claim as saying that anti-blackness is no longer valid as a practice in the West. Does not the completion of the post-racial vision, for those who announce it, in fact signify racism’s full retrieval and repetition in the daily roll call of those shot, maimed, and tortured for the most trifling of reasons? The metaphysical end of race points to the task of its permanent return in the form of the real; what still needs to be thought is the blackness of the body that consumes itself as it burns, a body that is permanently set on fire. Therefore, I do not claim that Fanon forbids a new humanistic vision of the world—but this is a vision that is expressly and necessarily not a plea for a white world, nor is it a plea for a black philosophy of identity. The abyss that conceives itself as nothing, as a void, does not await the white light of reason, for it is already penetrated by dark potentialities. It is this darkness to come, what I call the Fanonian moment, a moment that is always awaited, always to come: the abyssal.
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967, 155.
 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967, 70, translation modified.
David Marriott is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.