In the fourteenth episode of the Podcast for Social Research, Anjuli, Tony, and Ajay talk through the life, work, and legacy of Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquean psychiatrist and philosopher of decolonization who was also a veteran of World War II and an adherent of the Algerian revolution. This conversation takes up major texts in Fanon’s oeuvre (Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth) as well as profound theoretical controversies that radiate from them—idiocy, the literary dimensions of Fanon’s work, his strangeness of form and methodology, the psychological inflections of his writing, the political structure of states and colonies, the best footnote in all of twentieth-century philosophy, and particularly the nature and meaning of violence as praxis, “perfect mediation,” symbol, and atmosphere—violence as reason to despair—and as reason not to.
Tony’s note: Having mentioned the tragic strand that runs through The Wretched of the Earth—which comes out strongly, as we said, in the case studies at the end—it’s also important not to miss the utopian moment that begins and helps to frame the book. It comes through one of Fanon’s most cryptic sentences, on the second page of the book, where he is in the process of defining decolonization:
“Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: ‘The last shall be first.’ Decolonization is verification of this. At a descriptive level, therefore, any decolonization is a success.”
“At a descriptive level…any decolonization is a success.” I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with this sentence. To some extent, I think, it simply sets out the distinction between true decolonization and, say, a struggle that merely sets out to achieve nominal political independence for the colony. To name the struggle as “decolonization” is to set a course for a much more transformative horizon, and to set out on a struggle that will have to continue into the “postcolonial,” post-independence moment: as he puts it in these opening pages, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.”
But I think Fanon is also declaring the power of the descriptive level itself. There is a parallel here, I think, to the power of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “Black lives matter” is a simple statement that contains the most transformative of effects. It functions, in Fanon’s terms, at the descriptive level, although what it describes is not the actual state of things—in a society where black people can be killed by the state with complete impunity, black lives are revealed not to “matter,” in the most literal sense, on a daily basis—but rather the reality that we need to create through anti-racist struggle.
Of course, #BlackLivesMatter is not merely about that one declarative statement; it names a movement that has, among other things, recently issued a powerful and practical platform for racial and economic justice. But thinking about the racist hysteria that has been provoked by the simple, descriptive statement “black lives matter,” the defensive (racist) insistence that “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter” and on and on, we get a sense of what Fanon means by the power of the descriptive level. The work of bringing to pass a world in which black lives truly matter remains to be done. But the statement “black lives matter” has already in and of itself created the “agenda for total disorder” that Fanon set out. It’s more important than ever not to lose this utopian frame that is always there in Fanon, even when he’s giving us the bad news about what lies in store during the next phase of the struggle.
Note on French: Anjuli uses the word “lutte,” which means “struggle” or “battle,” at the beginning, and the phrase “couteaux sanglants,” which means “bloody knives,” at the end.
Note on sound (Rebecca’s note): The punctum of this podcast occurs about thirty-six minutes in when a minor blip in the audio marks the passage of a dog drifting mournfully in and out of the room. Caveat audiens, cave canem.
Technical Details: Recorded in a Brooklyn apartment on August 3rd, 2016 with a Studio Projects B1, a Shure SM-58, a Shure VP64A, a SONY-PCM-M10, a Behringer mixer, several bottles of beer, and a depressive Shiba Inu. This episode of the Podcast for Social Research was edited by Susan Lee