Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Through the Hellish Zone of Nonbeing: Thinking through Fanon, Disaster, and the Damned of the Earth

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Through the Hellish Zone of Nonbeing: Thinking through Fanon, Disaster, and the Damned of the Earth

Article excerpt

Fanon Studies has gone through a considerable set of changes since the days of prescient scholarship by Renate Zahar and critics such as Hannah Arendt and Jack Woddis in the wake of his death and the set of 1960s and 1970s radicals who looked to him as a prophet of "the revolution."

In those days, where the thought of a black intellectual who did not stand as an apostle of nonviolence was enough to inaugurate the firing of professors who wrote on him and the expansion of secret service files on those who cited him, one could never imagine a future conference on university campuses as those held at Purdue University in 1995 and New York University in 1996, and the ones in 2007 at Lewis University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, in addition to a meeting on his work in the fall of 2007 organized in Paris by UNESCO. Particularly striking at the University of Massachusetts meeting is that Winston Langley, the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at that university, presented a talk on "Fanon: Violence and the Search of Human Dignity."

Fanon's thought has gone through several stages from that of ideological critique to postcolonial anxiety to engagement with his thought. In my work, I have argued that a great black thinker should be engaged as one would any other great thinker. (1) One could not imagine, for instance, writing a book on Kant, Hegel, Marx, or Sartre that was concerned solely with the biography of those thinkers without addressing their thought. If the intellectual is worthy, his or her ideas should offer much fruit for the development of our own intellectual work. Fanon's being also a black thinker unfortunately stimulated the usual antipathies to what he had to say.

The problem is that critics of black thinkers often place them under the yoke of experiential phenomena. This was at first done for noble reasons of combating the modern notion of black people as beings without an inner life, without an "inside," without consciousness. The focus on experience afforded the assertion of an inner being, of an agent, with a point of view. But this at first important admission was eventually subverted into a dialectical reassertion of subordination. "Black" became so heavily associated with "experience" that the two fell into a symbiosis. In the academic realm, the study of black folk is often followed, after ellipsis, of their experience: "... the black experience." The danger, however, is the subjectivism of experience itself. Much of the critical force of black plight loses its impact when entrapped in the language of experience that slides into affect and eventually oversensitivity. How often are patterns of antiblack racism characterized as "feelings" of discrimination? What happens to the legitimacy of protest when injustice is presented as "perceived," "believed," or "felt"?

An insidious dimension of experience-reductionism is the structural posing of thought as an inauthentic imposition on experiential beings. Experience by itself is insufficient for the understanding of reality. Think of the experience of trying to figure out our experiences. The meaning of experience requires theoretical and interpretive resources. The collapse of color into experience entails a reliance on other theoretically informed narratives to bring meaning to that experience. The result is a form of epistemological dependency. At a structural level in the academy, this took the form of the black world of experience, and the nonblack, often white world of theory and reason brought to that experience. The connection between that way of thinking and the tendency to treat a black intellectual such as Fanon solely in terms of his biography comes to the fore.

Fanon's writings have affected the lives of so many people. He argued in Black Skin, White Masks that he was trying to make people actional. (22) I have interpreted this as a call to transform people from self-implosion, of being without impact on the social world to the point of expressing their humanity solely through self-inscription, through adverbially acting upon themselves to the point of becoming, as Foucault would put it, bodies imprisoned by their soul. …

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