Pathogenic Subjectivity

Commentary on Frantz Fanon’s oeuvre tends to consider The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, as the work that breaks with the Martinican thinker’s post-slavery analysis, which was developed nine years earlier in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks. Some say that Fanon’s point of view radicalized during this period: with an imminently independent Algeria, Fanon abandoned the socio-psycho­analytic point of view which he had elaborated in order to theorize post-slavery French society. If The Wretched of the Earth privileges a political style, the work’s entirety is dedicated to constituting a combative collective conscience in sync with the Algerian insurrection. On the other hand, Black Skin, White Masks elaborates an epistemology of grief-stricken subjectivity, “straddling Nothingness and Infinity”2 and charged with violence. Is it pertinent to think that, between the two works, Fanon passed from an analysis of violence tolerated and undergone to an analysis of violence “acted” and undertaken? And to what degree is it possible to interpret this path as a transfiguration of the subject in and by violence, ready to make of violence a means of subjectification modality?

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon’s 1952 study on the effects of colonialism and racism on black identity, the masks in question represent lived experiences of violence—a violence that seems constantly turned back against itself. The first mask makes reference to the dialectic of recognition; the second to the affirmation of the self. Evading the pitfalls of Hegelian recognition, Fanon ironically interrogates himself about the very instances of recognition (Recognized? But by who?) against the fatal call of “negritude” that Fanon keeps at a distance. He prefers to raise a challenge: that of the subject reinstated, in a state to act, and moreover, in a state to act and to do harm. It is at this point that the second mask intervenes: no more to “play” at being white, but to “be” a “dirty negro” (“sale nègre”). Performing the white man constitutes an unhappy experience that invalidates all dialectical overcomings of my condition. If all recognition is in vain, one must then impose ­oneself, must “gain recognition” (“se faire connaître”).3 Fanon uses the same framework with the turns and detours which impose a self-­consciousness and immediate irruption of “I am” (“Je suis”):

The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position. Still in terms of consciousness, black consciousness is immanent in its own eyes. I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is. It is its own follower.4

Nine years later, in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon named this necessary anti-dialectic process: violence. The violated subject has no recourse, but in and through violence. To stop “being acted upon,” to become active, he must tear himself from his being, get out of this tragic state. In The Wretched of the Earth, violence is not, strictly speaking, a means to this end. Fanon defined violence more as “absolute praxis.” As he notes: “Violence can thus be understood to be the perfect mediation. The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence. This praxis enlightens the militant because it shows him the means and the end.”5 This definition of violence has accents of Jean-Paul Sartre,6 and, indeed, it is not insignificant that Fanon takes up this term as his own. As “praxis,” violence is a “doing,” or better yet, an “acting”—an acting that materializes in its own effects. Although Sartre defines Man as praxis, and maintains him in this field of practice, Fanon substitutes violence for the Sartrean Man. For Fanon, it is not violence but “the man” who is in play: in the colonial world, violence is ubiquitous, but the man, he stands upright only in the graceful European neighborhoods of the colonial city. From the position he holds, the Fanonian man, the colonized, is entirely acted upon by colonial violence. Fanon leaves the effective field of praxis as imposed by colonialism, which is to say, the violence itself, insofar as it is an all-­invasive practice. And in consequence, only violence—as praxis—may become that by which I act. In other words, the violence that the indigenous body undergoes day after day (that of a post-slavery metropolitan society, that of colonial Algerian society) is by definition internalized, and simultaneously thought by Fanon to be the only means by which it is possible to self-exteriorize and to act—even if the self doesn’t preexist to this projection. It is therefore this violence that Fanon will seek in the depths of men to get them out of “themselves.”7 Disdaining concern for the danger of this instrument, of this means, of this tool, Fanon theorizes violence as a condition of the possibility of action—and therefore as a condition of the very question of a rapport between means and ends. To paraphrase Sartre, one might say that violence is always an interior­ization of exteriority and an exteriorization of interiority. Nevertheless, this understanding does not presume the resolution of violence’s moral and political questions.

Violence for Fanon is an acting that we may qualify as irruptive, inventive, and fundamentally sensual. In my reading, violence is not only reactive, it is constitutive of a self-invention, a self-practice, which reaches away from the colonial regime in which the modern subject “putrefies.” Fanon thus tests that which resembles a projection of the self outside of a foul temporality, and it is in this movement of projecting that the subject invents itself. This projection is only possible through and in violence, because, as Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “at the individual level, violence is a cleansing force.”8 This is not to say that the subject preexists violence and that the latter arrives to reinstall the subject in his rights; the subject that Fanon wishes into being never existed. Fanon is interested in destroying the pathogenic subjectivity that maintains men and women in an abject selfhood. In this sense, colonial abjection is psychically toxic and violence is what creates subjectification. If the subject doesn’t preexist before violence, it is through violence that the subject becomes.

Ecstatic Subjectification

The relationship between Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth is, then, a relationship of magnitude. In 1951, Fanon traps himself voluntarily in the relationship of analysand-analyst (“dans les rets de la relation analysant-analyste”) and, in a certain way, the thinker never extracts himself from his judgment of the Antillais man—he never manages to totally liberate himself. All the same, the instruction of Black Skin, White Masks is clear: The thematization of violence in this text makes of violence itself the only route to self-conscience, even if Fanon himself was not yet able to explore and engage this route. In this first book, violence is conceptualized as one that battles hand-to-hand with the self. And The Wretched of the Earth will finally define this process of liberation in and through violence. My own hypothesis is that this violence consists first of self-­violence, of doing violence to oneself. Self-violence invokes the double movement that consists at once of getting out of oneself and simulta­neously of being bound to one’s own body, derealized by white, colonial mystification.9 And it is by this process of liberation through violence that Fanon means to reverse the logic of colonialism, which lashes one to one’s self and thus keeps one “beside,” outside one’s body (that which is, in fact, entirely the other’s). Fanon’s perspective, then, is that of self-violence, that is to say: to be outside of the Self but in your body. And the integrality of the text The Wretched of the Earth expresses and tests this reversal, this “orgasmic” conception of subjectification.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon fully considers the specificity of the Algerian situation. Indeed, the sociohistorical context differs as much from the plantation economy as from the scars it leaves. In the context of Algeria, Fanon will incarnate the militant intellectual whose prerogatives he respects. He describes quasi-­surgically the violence—that which he calls the “atmosphere of violence”10 peculiar to the colonial regime—and creates the conditions of his conversion, which is to say his turn toward the effective conditions of possibility of what he calls “violence in motion.”11 The atmosphere of colonial violence is constantly characterized by the fact that the colonial world is “a compartmentalized world”12 (a world divided in two, antagonistic, head-on) but filled with the same mystifications described in Black Skin, White Masks. And these mystifications are concretely discernable in the clinical descriptions of colonial psychological pathologies provoked by racism, those “cases” of the Martiniquais, of the Madagascan, of the Algerian that structure Fanon’s thought. These characters incarnate in situ the continuity of his thinking. In the ­colo­­nial world, colonized bodies are violated everywhere; it is impossible to defend oneself physically and psychologically against imperial violence. The colonized subject guards himself from outside of his own body, a body unknow­able and uninhabitable. And thus he fantasizes his very body: he dreams of moving, running, jumping, swimming, of using all of his muscles.13 His very existence is deformed in this relationship with a fantasized self. Over­whelmed by the “hallucinatory dreams” (“tourmente onirique”),14 put in place by the colonial system, the colonized subject remains inert, in the tension of a muscularity permanently put on hold. This hyperbolic tendency to fantasize is the crucible of a pathogenic subjectivity. To be expelled from my body—which is nothing more than an object: I am damned.

Alienated, the colonized subject is nothing more than the anguished witness of dematerialization, of the derealization of his own body. Thus emerges one of Fanon’s definitions of liberation, which will pass through a form of sensuality in revolt, or even unchained, and, by consequence, is inexorably violent. Violence intervenes first and above all as a necessary médiation. What does this signifiy? Violence institutes the necessary mediation through which I (re)deploy my body in the world and I (re)deploy myself in my body, by which I (re)insert myself bodily, carnally, in movement. The body is reanimated by violence, and, in the same manner, the subject is replaced in diurnal existence. Violence, then, is nothing other than the liberation of this muscular tension, at once painful and joyful, that recalls me to my body. For Fanon, this out-of-self projection is above all a force that perseveres contrary to that which I am, or, in other words, contrary to that which I am for the colonizer—and finally for myself. Accordingly, violence comes to substitute itself for the Hegelian dialectic; the self-conscience thus achieved is nothing other than another form of reflexivity that arises through muscular immanence, and this hand-to-hand, body-to-body combat is revolutionary. Speaking in the style of the colonized intellectual, Fanon writes:

This style, which Westerners once found jarring, is not, as some would have it, a radical feature, but above all reflects a single-handed combat and reveals how necessary it is for the intellectual to inflict injury on himself, to actually bleed red blood and free himself from that part of his being already contaminated by the germs of decay. A swift, painful combat where inevitably the muscle had to replace the concept.15

The intellectual owes it to himself, then, to experiment intimately and totally with liberation, whose principles he elaborates for a people at war. The intellectual is himself a combatant, and by surviving the battle initiated with himself, he prepares the armed struggle, the blows dealt and the tortures endured; he intones the destruction of a moribund regime. So the violence in action of which Fanon speaks is a violence that he has already tasted in the intimacy of his body, his own accession. He therefore considers it the only path to constituting a collective conscience that is open to the future.16

Carnal Humanism

In her commentary on the relationship between Sartre and Fanon, Judith Butler urges a rever­sal of the order of Fanon’s works.17 Philo­so­phically, she notes, Black Skin, White Masks should be read after The Wretched of the Earth. It is as if the conclusion of Black Skin, White Masks constitutes the “aftermath,” or the only possibility of a pacified community and subjectivity, which finally surpass the devastating and redeeming violence that gave them existence through the force of carnal humanism.18

This carnal humanism is symbolized by the last sentence of Black Skin, White Masks, in which Fanon writes: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”19 Here again I follow Butler’s analysis, when she points out that this prayer by Fanon to his own body is not a simple moment of introspection but a movement of openness toward the other, to the world itself. Indeed, Butler’s analysis of the last page of Black Skin, White Masks echoes her 2004 chapter in Undoing Gender, titled “Beside Oneself” (and to which she would return in her book Precarious Life of the same year), as well as the chapter “When is Life Grievable?” in Frames of War (2009). What interests me here is the way in which Butler reconceptualizes the articulation between violence—inasmuch as it is a productive element—the body, and subjectivity. In “Beside Oneself” she develops the concept of “ecstasy,” or “my body,” as a social phenomenon, that which exposes me to the other. Our “ec-static” condition is our condition of exis­tence. In this condition, Butler defines that which may be a political phenomenology: certainly, we need apparatuses—especially legal ones—to protect the autonomy of our bodies (“a body of one’s own”)20 but this means that we are still in ourselves.21 On the contrary, to be always already “ec-static” implies a certain vulnerability that draws from carnal social existence. In Butler’s text, violence recalls the violence to which we are variously exposed. In a certain measure, Butler therefore adheres to Fanon’s redefinition of “praxis”: violence merges with the field of practice. In other words, violence is that in which and by which we are constituted as a subject and in which and because of which we have to happen as a subject. Across these social norms that act continuously on the subject, violence is everywhere: it informs and forms the very subject. And for Butler—as for Fanon—this violence, which characterizes the field of practice and social norms that bind us, that mold and inform us, is never posed once and for all. Violence is not the original crucible that determines all social relations. Violence works and, in consequence, it invokes an iterative process in and through which the subject is (despite everything) always in a position of self-­questioning: “How do I live the violence of my formation? How does it live on in me? How does it carry me, in spite of me, even as I carry it?”22

Thus do we understand Butler’s proposed reading of the last sentence of Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” This questioning is precisely the sign that is never definitively annihilated by either violence tolerated or violence exercised; rather, it is that which constantly demands proof of my power to act. By an ethical tour de force, Butler repositions the question of nonviolence at the very heart of Fanon’s prayer, for which we already know Fanon’s resolution (and it is, of course, for that same reason that Butler reverses the chronology of Fanon’s work). According to Butler, nonviolence guarantees our integrity as “ec-static” subjects invested in a chain of antagonisms with other subjects, vulnerable by definition, and, as such, worthy of not-being-violated (“ne pas être violentés”) no matter what use they may have for such violence. For Butler, this suspension of the violent act, this refusal to act (this Fuck you!) is the inaugural action of a new framework, a new schema of intelligibility of ourselves, and also of an unprecedented politic: “In this sense, non-violence is not a peaceful state but a social and political struggle to make rage articulate and effective—the carefully crafted ‘fuck you.’”23 To be beside oneself is to suspend the violence of our power to act; it is to not respond to the violent interpellation of our power to act. All the same, Butler does not consider nonviolence as an absolute ethical imperative, nor as an obvious political posture (because this imperative or this posture of nonviolence seems by far to encumber those who suffer from violence and whom we expect to resign themselves to it). By “nonviolence,” Butler signifies at once the development of other ways of doing and thus of being, other possibilities of acting and therefore of living, and, more fundamentally, the restoration of conflict in practice by making these frameworks and coordinates the very object of social combat.

Fanon and Butler propose two “ec-static” historical ontologies of the self. That which I hoped to demonstrate for Fanon is this muscular, carnal projection, in an immanent world, “to be beside of oneself” (“hors de soi”), which alone is capable of throwing me into history, of opening a future in which my practice, that is to say “I,” make history. My interpretation of Fanon aims to show that violence is first and above all an attempt to destroy that which ossifies me, that which leaves me outcast from body, and therefore outcast from my historical existence. In such conditions, violence alone is that which gives my self a body—violence is that which materializes subjectivity. For Butler, “être hors de soi” is a material condition of existence and the whole enjeu of her proposal is to show that this is an inextricably and communally shared condition. That which she then calls vulnerability draws on an incarnated, perpetual subjectification, constantly called out by violence (mine, yours, ours, theirs) because it is consistently challenged by a “we.” For Fanon, to be beside oneself is a conatus, un élan; for Butler, it is a condition, a situation. Finally, it is in these two lines of thought, each engaged with the world, that the question stands, facing us with political urgency, to be courageously confronted: How should I care for myself through violence? Or, conversely: How do I take care of my violence?