In Relative Opacity
The title of today’s presentation is In Relative Opacity: A critical review of the humanist philosophy of Frantz Fanon.
I should like to open by way of an epigraph.
“… the person concerned does not merely forget, but also remembers incorrectly. As he tries to remember the names that elude him other names – substitute names – come into his mind, and although they are immediately recognized as incorrect, they persist in forcing themselves upon him.” Freud writes this in the first chapter of the 1921 Psychopathology of Everyday Life.
Martinican psychologist and postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon introduces his seminal 1952 work Black Skin, White Masks with a statement of purpose. He makes plain: “I believe in you, [capital M] Man.” Fanon presents his project as ideally dialectical, idealist dialectics here defined (though deficiently) as the reflexive alignment of concepts to their essences or objective reality: an alignment of what is to what ought to be. He thus intends first a negation the European, colonial concept of the human – consisting in the philosophy of humanism – by which the category of “human” precludes the colonized person. He intends a negation of the humanism by which, by his estimation, the white European aspires to the position of human; and by which, in turn, the Black native aspires to the position of white. The affirmation which follows is a system he names New Humanism.
Delineating the beginning of a philosophy wagers extricating its premises from their logic, and their logic from its conclusions. Fanon is uncharitable in noting a beginning to his project, as such; he begins posthaste instead with the particulars, situated in a system to be illustrated from them. He is concerned with a universalizing dialectics about humanity but seats his 1961 The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks first in the reified colonial moment, between individuals: the colonized subject and the colonist.
First then, Fanon details the dialectics of recognition through the situation of the colonial context – the Black human in the first instance is Black because the subject, the white human has represented them as such from a position of ascendancy; the white human is named as the subject because they are, by dint of their ascendant position, represented as such to the other, the Black human who validates their name. The principal attribute of the relation here is intersubjectivity. Fanon from here then illustrates an orthogonal relation: the intra-subjective recognition which belies this schematic, whereby the Black human thus recognizes themselves as Black in a motion which presents a vertical circuit of intersubjective representation, and intra-subjective recognition, where from the first instance of intersubjectivity these two instances thereafter render each other affective in a reciprocal motion. The Black human could not be known as such without the white human, but this knowing requires activation through the Black human knowing themselves as such, representing themselves to themselves as Black.
The circuit here might be considered, continuing our spatial imagery, the superstructure of Fanon’s formulation of the humanist dialectic; Fanon in this capacity reads the dialectics of German idealist Hegel as an early Marx did, denoting a dimension of the empty or indeterminate ideal, or superstructure and a dimension of the affective material, a predicate which dispenses concrete historical determinations – he is here reconfiguring the Hegelian interaction of Right (or the nebula of civic being) and Geist (Mind, Spirit) – reconfiguring the interaction of the social-political and its historical motor. Fanon thus descends to the dimension of concrete determinations first in the preface of Black Skin, White Masks by appending a mystifying affectivity to the seemingly self-contained motions of the superstructure’s circuit; he notes that humanity, of the ideal dimension, “… will have been achieved only when things, in the most materialist sense, have resumed their rightful place.”
The resumption of a rightful place implies dislocation, a dislocation of things how they are from how they ought to be. Fanon is gesturing to a seemingly inverse materialism from inside the bounds of Hegel’s system here, though the system remains continuingly unnamed. Towards the conclusion of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon engages this unnamed system directly, though – quoting at length from The Phenomenology of Spirit, making his formulation intelligible as such. He writes: “… each consciousness is seeking absoluteness. It wants to be recognized as an essential value of life, transformation of subjective certainty [what is] into objective truth [what ought to be.]”
The appended “materialism” to the transformation Fanon formulates might be easily posited as him moving from Hegel’s system to the early Marx’s problematic. He could here be situated as rehashing the dualism of a base of economic activity which constitutes history’s essence, and a superstructure determined by this base which constitutes history’s occulted appearance, the mediation of the “real.” The relation whereby, as an early Marx posits, the essence of the person is in the first instance dislocated in the concrete sale of their labor for wages – an economic, or basic activity – is then occulted or confounded in the superstructure, where it is represented in an indeterminate appearance, where the worker acquires the name and category of worker and as part of these is ascribed the constituent attributes of them, where their relation to the world is refracted through the imaginary prism of work. There is a linear determination here – the economic activity constitutes the first concrete instance of historical motion, which then mirrors itself in the ostensibly “false,” or imaginary appearances of the superstructure.
Subjective certainty then presents itself in the wavering, vacuous representation of the person as worker, and the person as Black, which constitutes an ideal dislocation following the concrete economic act which precedes and determines it. The transformation into objective truth consists in a relocation, an alignment, which annihilates these representations: whereby the dislocating motions of the economic, of capital, of the colonial moment are done away with in the same motion that the superstructure is dissipated – and the unmediated individual then presents itself transparently.
The note of material and correspondingly ideal dislocation, and the seeming vacuity or indetermination of Fanon’s preliminary superstructure would validate this assumption of a primitive continuation of this dualism – a situation where Fanon fails to surpass Marx’s earliest formulae. The easy situation of Fanon as a plain socialist humanist is then complicated by a note in his chapter On Violence in The Wretched of the Earth: “In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”
The note of an intertwined, reciprocally active base and superstructure then defies a clean reduction to dualism; though it is a defiance which Fanon lacks the chance to elucidate further, and which is contradicted by his continuing formulation of resumption of rightful places. Let us return to Marx’s problematic as support; in the first volume of Capital, Marx establishes: “… the social relations between [the] private labors [of producers] appear as what they are (…) Later on, men try to decipher the [social] hieroglyphic [of value], to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language.” There is no essential behind which annihilates the objectivity of appearances, Marx concludes; our anatomy of the represented things is just as valid, he writes, “… as the fact that the scientific dissection of the air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration.”
The appearance of the worker is their reality. The names of Black and white are real names, their affectivity bound up in themselves. Fanon’s humanism looks behind these appearances towards some human essence which might rewrite the hieroglyphics, dispel the occulting; he really discovers emptiness. The inventory of appearances here are essences; the superstructure proves shallow and self-active, entangled and knotted with the supposedly neat, mechanical motions of the economic base. Fanon’s humanism gestures to the broad vacuity of the philosophy – the unrealized concept of Humanity, unmediated.
Fanon does not then just forget the vacuousness of the concept of Humanity – he operates from the bounds of incorrect memories, the conceptual residue of a colonial ideology incorrect but persistent. It is a misremembering of a concept where there is none. The appearances of a behind are as much a social product as they are his language – to surpass the European logic he must then remember the concept of Humanity in its falsely populated emptiness in the same way he ought to forget it.
I should stray from my theoretical bounds to posit – it is the very way we ought to forget. The postcolonial moment has failed. The world’s periphery is marked still by a dehumanization as we misremember towards something behind the essential appearances of the ascendant Europe, the ascendant United States, and the expropriated Africa, the expropriated Asia, the expropriated Latin America – we unearth the same emptiness as Fanon every time. The substitute concepts with which our predecessors populate the vacuum must be remembered only such that we might forget.
The European humanism Fanon intends to negate is constituted in appearances – appearances as white, as instantiated in political institutions as a human, and appearances as Black as instantiated in an inverse non-humanity among these institutions – but these are not inert appearances; they denote a real relation to the world, where the categories do not correspond to a determination outside of themselves but are themselves functional determinations. Motioning towards the predicate as it is and ought to be suggests that an ultimate clarity of it might arise; that this basic determination might present itself in full transparency. But this transparency never comes; even from the bright summit of the future, the condition is constant: “Each generation,” begins Fanon “… must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity.”