Impossible Divisions: Fanon, Hegel and Psychoanalysis
Impossible Divisions: Fanon, Hegel and Psychoanalysis
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter concentrates on Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, where the Hegelian theme of mutual recognition as the origin of man’s self-consciousness and potential freedom is tested against the complex circumstances of colonialism. Fanon’s idea that the ‘Negro slave’ is recognized by the ‘White Master’ in a situation that is ‘without conflict’ suggests a possibly double, or self-resistant, meaning: the colonial situation after slavery ushers in something like a phony war; but also colonialism’s historical interpretation is not exhausted by the Hegelian master-slave logic. Through this double possibility of the colonial, one wonders whether after Hegel it is historical interpretation or the historical process itself that has gone awry. Such dynamic tensions suggest an impossibly divided dialectics at work throughout Fanon’s corpus. The section of Fanon’s ‘The Negro and Recognition’ devoted to a critique of Adler points to an earlier footnote in Black Skin, White Masks which offers a lengthy engagement with Lacan, allowing us to reread the politics of racial difference into the scene of the Lacanian mirror-stage. Here, the resistant ‘other’ of psychoanalysis unlocks the possibility of another ‘politics’ capable of addressing, by better recognising, some of its most significant impasses.
In Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Negro and Recognition’,1 the penultimate chapter of Black Skins, White Masks, the Hegelian theme of mutual recognition as the origin of man’s self-consciousness and potential freedom is tested against the complex circumstances to which colonialism leads, and, tellingly, Fanon’s engagement with psychological thought and his clinical work constitute an important arena for this testing of the Hegelian inheritance. In this particular essay, as we will see, Fanon’s idea that the ‘Negro slave’ is recognised by the ‘White Master’ in a situation that is ‘without conflict’ suggests the possibility of a dual meaning, connoting not just a protracted phoney war in the aftermath of colonialism, but hinting also that colonialism’s historical interpretation may not itself be exhausted by the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, or that its complications may not easily be reducible to the logic this implies. On the basis of such a dual reading of the colonial as it arises from Fanon’s text, after Hegel we might well ask whether it is historical interpretation or the historical process itself that has somehow faltered. Unless resolved, the hesitation between these two possibilities would of course present considerable difficulties for any form of political thought remaining indebted to Hegel. Such dynamic tensions (p.24) exposed by Fanon’s writing may suggest, then, something like an imperfect or impossibly divided dialectics at work throughout his corpus. Indeed, the non-self-identical doubleness of colonial displacement and divided critique is, perhaps, precisely what gives force and expression to Fanon’s interventions in the world, not merely as a historical inspiration but as a multiply charged remainder, something still in the making or yet to come. What we have termed the resistant ‘other’ of psychoanalysis has its part to play here, one not simply confined within the limits of psychoanalytic discourse alone.
‘The Negro and Hegel’
Preceded by a chapter on ‘The Negro and Psychopathology’ in which Fanon cites and develops but also disputes Lacan, and engages with but also contests psychoanalysis, ‘The Negro and Recognition’ begins with a discussion of Adlerian psychology, but then finds its central point of reference in Hegelian discourse. For Hegel, the possibility of self-knowledge originates in the process of identifying an object of desire, in terms of which one can distinguish and thus experience oneself as such. But to ensure that the knowledge of the ‘self’ thereby attained is not merely transitory or superficial (as the fulfilment of desire can frequently be), I need to recognise myself by way of an ‘other’ that is independent and enduring rather than simply immediate or fleeting. This other must therefore be like me: another self-consciousness in which I recognise myself. This recognition founds the possibility of a community based on mutual self-recognition. However, since one’s recognition as an independent self-consciousness relies upon a display of (p.25) detachment or freedom which in turn ultimately entails staking one’s very life, the possibility of community or mutuality comes at the price of an encounter with the other which is nothing less than a matter of life-and-death. During such a struggle, in which the possibility of recognition leads the protagonists to put their lives in fundamental danger, the risk is that both winner and loser lose: the latter, because failure means death; the former, because victory destroys the other who in fact establishes the very conditions of possibility for one’s own self-recognition. Such mortal combat – as itself a spectacular dead-end – is thus recast by Hegel in terms of the living relations of master and slave. Here, so one might think, the conflict between the two is partly redeemed or resolved, in that it grants the master superiority, freedom and independence, while providing the slave with a reason or position by which to live, namely dependency upon or service of another. However, the recognition that the slave affords the master – in so far as it does not stem from another self-consciousness like me, but instead from one who has pulled back from staking his life – proves as unsatisfactory as that of a fatally vanquished opponent. Meanwhile, the pursuit of desires – which grants the possibility of knowledge or consciousness of ‘self’ in the first place – is dimmed by the presence of the slave, whose work on the master’s behalf both interrupts the relation to the objective world that furnishes the possibility of desire’s satisfaction, and places the master in a paradoxical situation of dependency. Ultimately, therefore, the slave affords the master neither true self-consciousness nor independence (in fact, it is the slave rather than the master who has experienced more directly the fearful prospect of death, and whose slavery entails a sort of detachment from nature in which the possibility of freedom would seem to arise). True recognition, then, must (p.26) be fully mutual rather than one-sided and unequal. Achieving such ‘recognition’, or moving beyond its complex problematics, is however a far from uncomplicated matter (in any case, its understanding depends in no small part on the pathway taken through the various receptions and developments of Hegel’s thought, not least in the twentieth century).
In ‘The Negro and Recognition’, the Hegelian theme of mutual recognition as the origin of man’s self-consciousness and possible freedom is tested against the complex circumstances to which colonialism has led us. In the second subsection, entitled ‘The Negro and Hegel’, Fanon begins by stating that there is no ‘open conflict between white and black’. Instead, the ‘Negro slave’ is ‘recognized’ by the ‘White Master’ in a situation that is ‘without conflict’ (217). A few sentences later, returning to the theme of the master’s recognition of the slave which he once more states occurs without ‘struggle’, Fanon suggests that, to the extent that the ‘Negro’ has been liberated from slavery without having to engage in mortal combat for his freedom, the grounds of the relationship between the two have not fulfilled their Hegelian destiny. The ‘Negro’ has neither properly cast off the shackles of slavery nor acquired anything more than a paltry semblance of mastery. In the process, the ‘White Master’ attains a certain personhood by recognising the other without entering into full conflict, but lacks genuine consciousness of the ‘self’ he truly is (219). Given these subsidiary comments, one may surmise that the lack of ‘open conflict between white and black’ to which Fanon refers is due principally to the historic evasion he attributes to slavery’s ending.2 Yet elsewhere in his writing Fanon also implies that the relations between ‘black’ and ‘white’ are not reducible to the master-slave dialectic; indeed, that the state of affairs we call colonialism arises in circumstances that are, (p.27) in essence, not defined by original combat of the internecine kind that founds the possibility of the master-slave relation. Of course, for Hegel, such combat is never simply a ‘natural’ occurrence (depending as it does on a specific detachment of the ‘self’ from ‘nature’), and thus it always acquires a historicality beyond some intrinsic necessity. Nonetheless, it is far from clear that Fanon uniformly or uncritically accepts its extension in the interests of a wholesale explanation of colonial history. From this perspective, the idea that the ‘Negro slave’ is ‘recognized’ by the ‘White Master’ in a situation that is ‘without conflict’ may acquire a double meaning: more overtly, that the colonial situation ‘post-slavery’ ushers in something like a phoney war; but perhaps more suggestively, that colonialism’s historical interpretation is in fact not drained dry by the Hegelian logic of master-slave. And, on the basis of this double reading or double possibility, one is left asking whether, in Hegel’s aftermath, it is historical interpretation or the historical process itself that is broken or has gone awry, notably in terms of what we understand by the ‘colonial’.3
Be that as it may, for Fanon the ‘former slave’ nevertheless seeks recognition of the Hegelian kind. Such recognition, he goes on to suggest, can only occur through a mutuality which must be humanly constructed since it relies on a certain disconnection of self-consciousness from ‘nature’, but one which at the same time has to transcend given human distinctions since it implies ‘the universal consciousness of self’. Fanon writes: ‘Each consciousness of self is in quest of absoluteness. It wants to be recognized as a primal value without reference to life, as a transformation of subjective certainty (Gewissheit) into objective truth (Wahrheit)’ (217–18). Nonetheless, as desire meets resistance from the other (such resistance providing the essential ground for true self-consciousness to emerge), the pathway (p.28) ‘toward a supreme good that is the transformation of subjective certainty of my own worth into a universally valid objective truth’ (218) seems bound to lead to conflict and violence. In order to achieve recognition (that is, to ‘do battle’ for a newly created ‘human world’ of ‘reciprocal recognitions’), the black ‘former slave’ must, it seems, venture his life in a ‘savage struggle’ against the one who is reluctant to recognise him fully (218). And yet surely the Hegelian ‘truth’ of this situation – the radical possibility of overcoming the historic evasion Fanon associates with the end of slavery – is at the same time countermanded by the possibly extrinsic relation of the master-slave dialectic to the historical interplay between ‘white’ and ‘black’? This ironic possibility affects not only the question of the status – both conceptual and strategic – of violence in Fanon’s discourse, but once more raises the problem of what exactly obstructs decolonisation; whether the fault lies in the interpretative shortcomings of ‘theoretical’ forms and arguments that largely belong to a European tradition, or in contingent facts and constraints that might test their conceptual boundaries as much as call for their ‘regulatory’ operationalisation on the ground.
Such problems undoubtedly exist as the counterparts to Fanon’s thought, or better still open up its frontiers rather than define its limits. They resonate with rather than negate the profound courage and still-disarming honesty of a text such as Black Skin, White Masks, the strength of which derives no doubt from its radical affirmation of a seemingly impossible task: namely, to imagine the chance of a decisive break from the conditions of guilt, self-loathing and psychological violence that Fanon – like every ‘man of color’ – perhaps inevitably inherits, when those very same conditions seem inescapably to embody and define the possibility of being in the world4 – not merely (p.29) the circumstances Fanon wants to analyse and transform, but also his capacity to think about them and respond to them. What remains striking to this day are the complex ways in which Black Skin, White Masks resists and subverts the anthropological genres with which it also plays, as time and again Fanon ventures, risks – or better, exposes, ex-poses – his own intricately inscribed participation in the condition he diagnoses. (What sort of combat does this constitute?) When set against the backdrop of a Judeo-Christian tradition to which he both does and does not belong, the idea of Fanon as a prophet of impossible invention, seeking to dismantle and overcome a vast legacy of guilt, self-reproach and tortured self-image (one which, in another sense, seems utterly intractable) no doubt helps to explain the discipleship and hagiography his work has attracted.5 In similar vein, The Wretched of the Earth asks of us the near-impossible. How are we to reconcile, on the one hand, a call to arms in which colonial adversaries are imagined to be locked in Manichean relations of binary opposition at the structural level, and, on the other, a set of psychiatric studies and observations that not only put in doubt presumptions about the possibility of such clear-cut distinctions in the embodied experience of colonial subjects, but which leave largely unresolved the question of how one gets from the deeply ambivalent conditions exemplified by the pathological behaviour of Fanon’s patients – all of whom endure the complex legacy of psychic violence that connects as much as separates ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ – to the pure and absolute confrontation willed at the level of the revolutionary acts of decolonisation, or, for that matter, to the single form of universal ‘man’ that he depicts as constitutive as much as ideal (in the sense that any post-colonial or post-Western, post-humanistic ‘consciousness’ would depend, in the terms outlined above, (p.30) upon ‘human’ construction).6 The problem of the relationship between ‘theoretical’ or conceptual analysis and contingent forms of interpretation, expression and understanding perhaps defines the complexity of Fanon’s corpus. Something like a constitutive hesitation between the acknowledgement of flawed historical process and flawed historical interpretation might help to explain the distinctive differences between the near-confessional performance and performativity of Black Skin, White Masks, in which Fanon is figured much more as the participant in the discourse he produces,7 and the cooler, methodical examination to be found in The Wretched of the Earth, where undimmed anger is perhaps matched by a certain ruthless detachment (although of course the final section of the latter, returning us to the world of mental disorders caused by colonial ‘war’, reproduces the potential schism it perhaps seeks to overcome).
Likewise, when seeking to relate Fanon’s philosophical and professional training and practice to the grounds of his political thought, it would seem that it is no more helpful simply to assert than to downplay an underlying continuity or identity between the two. (Indeed, it is important to remember that while Fanon’s political arguments derive from systematic theoretical analysis, they also seek to resist universalising theoreticism of the kind that, as he himself suggests, risks overly privileging a leftist-Marxist tradition of European origins and orientation.) If, as Richard Pithouse has put it, Fanon was – complexly enough – ‘committed to some transcendent ethical axioms … which were in turn founded on a universal ontology’, nonetheless to ‘assume that his engagement with the dynamic particularities’ of a specific political situation gives rise to ‘a set of transcendent propositions for political praxis’ may be to profoundly misconstrue ‘the nature of Fanon’s engagement’.8 For it is not only (p.31) that lived political struggle embodies a political theory that is prior to it, but also that political theory itself comes to embody and enact the struggle to which it addresses and commits itself. (Thus, if nothing else, the distribution of the ‘particular’ and the ‘general’ across the space of theoretical political discourse may be regulated to an important extent by the contingency of politics as a form of experience or engagement.) Nonetheless, it is probably over-hasty to describe the dynamic tensions in Fanon’s writing – between flawed historical interpretation and flawed historical process, between philosophy, ‘theory’ and political thought, between participation, detachment and change, between the sense of arrested struggle and the sense of fabricated combat9 implied by the double possibility of ‘without conflict’ – in terms of dialectics, dialectics ‘proper’, dialectics as such. One might instead approach Fanon’s corpus in terms of a possibly more productive notion of an ‘imperfect’ or impossibly divided dialectics at work throughout.
A re-reading of Fanon today may be occasioned by far-reaching concerns about contemporary international problems and crises, but its timeliness may also consist in the need – not always sufficiently acknowledged – to keep open the question of which critical resources might contribute to the potentially transformative analysis of such ‘politics’ on a general or worldwide scale. In this sense, it is worth observing that Homi Bhabha’s description, over a quarter of a century ago, of Fanon’s work as profoundly split ‘between a Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, a phenomenological affirmation of Self and Other and the psychoanalytic ambivalence of the Unconscious’ (x) continues to place him at the very crossroads of current theoretical debates. In particular, over the past decade, the return to various types of Marxist and communist thought, when set against the legacy (p.32) of another theoretical corpus more closely associated with deconstruction and poststructuralism more generally (one that is often considered to be in decline), risks a situation in which proponents of ostensibly different theoretical traditions lapse into mutually dismissive hostility and ultimately sterile opposition. Of course, psychoanalysis occupies a complex and contested place in this theoretical landscape (the claims upon it are at once multiple and somewhat ornately entangled), and therefore to some extent psychoanalysis provides access to the possibility of re-energising the debate outside of such dead-end conflicts. Fanon’s work, meanwhile, suggests not only that such divergent positions may in fact be funded by intellectual or critical histories that remain far from mutually exclusive, but also that the complex interactions to which these histories give rise produce dynamic tensions which – for all their ‘philosophical’ inconsistencies – may nevertheless be extraordinarily instructive, highly significant, and, in the end, powerfully constitutive. Here, psychological thought is not merely a bridgehead, however precarious, between distinct forms of thinking; it is once more the resistant ‘other’ that supplements in order to mutate and re-orient them, or at any rate to change the question they may be capable of asking.
Despite longstanding arguments about Bhabha’s ‘theoreticism’ (which I do not assume should simply be dismissed), let us therefore recall that his account of Fanon’s ‘jagged testimony of colonial dislocation’ understands the latter as funded by formidably competing intellectual resources which its proponent at once powerfully embraces and deeply suspects. Bhabha thereby insists on the value of Fanonian discourse as precisely a refusal of ‘total’ theory. As Bhabha himself puts it, if ‘Fanon opens up a margin of interrogation that causes a subversive slippage of identity (p.33) and authority’, ‘nowhere is this slippage more visible than in his work itself where a range of texts and traditions … vie to utter that last word which remains unspoken’ (xxiv). Perhaps more than anything, it is this absolutely constitutive ‘refusal’ of total theory that Fanon’s text bequeaths to critical thought and practice today – a refusal not just of ‘theoreticism’ per se, but of the reductively ‘theoreticist’ type of stance that it would risk making possible (albeit as either an impossible pretence or a distracting straw man). The non-self-identical ‘doubleness’ of colonial displacement and divided critique is, perhaps, precisely what gives force and expression to Fanon’s interventions in the world, not merely as an historical inspiration but more importantly as a multiply-charged and far from indivisible remainder, something still in the making or yet to come.
‘The Negro and Adler’
But what of the opening section of ‘The Negro and Recognition’ devoted to the topic of ‘The Negro and Adler’? Fanon begins with a quotation from The Neurotic Constitution which suggests that psychogenic conditions, despite their seemingly complex and chaotic features, should be understood in terms of simple causal finality, whereby once the ultimate goal of the condition is revealed, the patient may be read like a book. Fanon wastes no time in declaring this conclusion totally wrong-headed, arguing that such theoretical positions form the basis for ‘the most stupendous frauds of our period’ (211). Applying Adler’s individual psychology to the Antilleans, Fanon argues that since their identity is entirely ‘contingent’, saturated by continual exposure to ‘The Other’ that defines them, their case marks the limit of (p.34) possibility of the Adlerian approach. Nevertheless, the Antillean ‘is characterized by his desire to dominate the other’ (211–12), to instrumentalise, brutalise or otherwise objectify only in order to securitise the ‘self’, not least to emerge as unrivalled centre of attention, a model of superiority. Such absolute narcissism amounts to ‘Me, nothing but me’, and yet because it is ‘The Other who corroborates him in his search for self-validation’, for Fanon the always insecure Antillean is locked into a dynamic set of relations that for him remain inconsistent with an Adlerian idea of human communication and action (212–13). Adler’s psychology of the individual doesn’t square with the collective neurosis of Antilleans in general. They are caught in a struggle between inferiority and superiority, one that can only be ‘individualised’ at the cost of an enormous misrecognition of what is at stake in this situation. While the ‘Adlerian comparison’ is binary – ego and other – the Antillean comparison is ‘surmounted by a third term’ in that the relation to the other is always mediated by the ‘social fiction’, as Fanon puts it, of racial difference (215). Moreover, Fanon suggests that Adlerian psychology would be utterly incapable of mobilising change, instead endorsing the project of aping the ‘superiority’ of the white man only to then diagnose ‘an indisputable complex of dependence’ (216), thus effectively advocating resignation about one’s place in the world as a more viable psychological option.
It is easy to see how this introductory section of ‘The Negro and Recognition’ establishes the trajectory of the ensuing commentary on Hegel in all of its difficulty. But these pages also point backwards, perhaps, to a lengthy footnote on Lacan in the preceding chapter, concerning in particular the Lacanian idea of the mirror-stage. Here, Fanon wonders what would transpire if the black man were introduced into the mirror-stage of the (p.35) white European, insisting in fact that this would actually constitute the mechanism by which white identity is acquired (161). If this is a critique as much as a development of Lacan, perhaps here Fanon downplays the element of splitting, heterogeneity and difference that enters into the formation of the ‘I’ during the mirror-stage. Be that as it may, Fanon also implies that there is no straightforward mirror-stage for the black man, or at any rate that it somewhat mutates the paradoxical conditions of the mirror-stage itself: namely, those of deriving a sense of self by repressing difference in relation to the ‘other’ from whom identity is in fact derived. ‘I contend that for the Antillean the mirror hallucination is always neutral’, he writes. ‘When Antilleans tell me that they have experienced it, I always ask the same question: “What color were you?” Invariably they reply: “I had no color”’ (162). Here, the repression of difference inherent in the mirror-stage results in the neutralisation of colour which presumably, for Fanon, profoundly controls and constrains as much as it enhances or liberates the Antillean ‘self’. This phenomenon he links to the fantasies of Antillean children to run rosy-cheeked, like little Parisians, through open fields. Colour neutrality turns out to license fantasies of whiteness: what is repressed in the mirror-stage of the Antillean, in other words, is not the otherness of the white Other but blackness itself. Just as it does in Fanon’s commentary on individual psychology, rereading the politics of racial difference into the scene of the Lacanian mirror-stage once more introduces a critical ‘third term’ into the field of psychological discourse, in the process producing an analysis that might have been explicitly directed towards the Hegelian problematic and its limits for which the second half of ‘The Negro and Recognition’ is a kind of pretext. What is crucial, here, though, is that it is the resistant ‘other’ of (p.36) psychoanalysis – specifically, the ‘other’ mirror-stage that Fanon is able to derive from his reading of Lacan in tandem with his psychiatric studies in Antilles – which may unlock another ‘politics’ capable of addressing, by better recognising, some of its impasses.
(1) Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1993). Page references will be given in the body of the chapter.
(2) For Homi Bhabha, writing of Black Skin, White Masks in his ‘Foreword’ to the English edition, ‘recognition’ in its Hegelian sense ‘fails to ignite in the colonial relation where there is only narcissistic indifference’ (xxi); in other words, where the desire of the colonised for recognition-through-struggle is met with an historic evasion of this very desire.
(3) This recognition (along with my broader suggestion concerning an ‘imperfect dialectics’ at work in Fanon’s writings) may resonate productively with Bhabha’s assertion that Fanon ‘may yearn for the total transformation of Man and Society, but he speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change … To read Fanon is to experience the sense of division that prefigures – and fissures – the emergence of a truly radical thought that never dawns without casting an uncertain dark’ (ix).
(4) As is well known, Fanon supplements Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of embodiment in the world by developing an epidermal historicoracial analysis as a critical rejoinder to what may be seen as Merleau-Ponty’s overly inclusive corporeal schema.
(5) One wonders about the possibility of reading Fanon’s psychiatry in terms of – indeed, against – Foucault’s notion of a ‘discourse of the exercise’ which, for the latter, defines Descartes’ ‘rational’ approach to madness in the Meditations (in fact Foucault’s rejoinder to Derrida’s critique of his work on madness turns on this point: see Michel Foucault, ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’, in Essential Works Volume 2, 1954–1984: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion (London: Penguin Books, 1998)). For Foucault, contra Derrida, such a ‘discourse of the exercise’ intervenes at a highly specific, highly determined moment in Descartes’ (p.37) text, such that the ‘test of madness’ and the ‘test of dreaming’ (412), far from functioning as near-identical operations, remain quite distinct in their purpose. Foucault insists that the Meditations ‘require this double reading’ whereby we are confronted with ‘a set of propositions forming a system, which each reader must follow through if he wishes to feel their truth, and a set of modifications forming an exercise, which each reader must effect, by which each reader must be affected, if he in turn wants to be the subject enunciating this truth on his own behalf’ (406). The reference to madness in the first Meditation is, Foucault argues, part of a distinct process linked to the ‘discourse of the exercise’ which therefore relates more to the second than the first aspect of this ‘reading’: ‘the meditating subject had to exclude madness by qualifying himself as not mad’ (412). ‘Once this qualification of the subject has finally been achieved’, says Foucault, ‘systematic discursivity’ is once more allowed to ‘take the upper hand’ (410) – a process which, indeed, also allows a certain exclusion of madness from philosophical discourse. One wonders if, in the colonial setting described and indeed inhabited by Fanon, this process isn’t just as much impeded as that of Hegelian ‘recognition’.
(6) Time and space permitting, I would have liked to develop this point as a response to Bhabha’s pejorative claim that Fanon experiences an overcompensatory hunger for ‘humanism’ (xx).
(7) A performative discourse which, as Bhabha observes, stakes itself precisely upon a refusal to objectify and thereby narrate the colonial experience according to the classical forms of sociology, anthropology, historicism or empiricism which are funded by the ‘text’ of the West (xiii).
(8) Richard Pithouse, ‘The Open Door of Every Consciousness’, South Atlantic Quarterly 112:1 (2013), 91–8.
(9) Of course, the fabricated or humanly constructed nature of combat is inherent to the Hegelian account of the master-slave dialectic, although its possibility is not exhausted by Hegelianism, as Fanon’s own writing on colonialism perhaps demonstrates.