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.
Anthony C. Alessandrini, “New Texts Out Now: Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics,” Jadaliyya (20 August 2014).
B.R. Ambedkar, The Annihilation of Caste
Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Violence” in New York Review of Books (27 February 1969).
Judith Butler, “Violence, Non-Violence: Sartre on Fanon,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 27:1 (2006).
Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
—. “Algeria Unveiled” and “Algeria’s European Minority” in A Dying Colonialism
—. “The ‘North African Syndrome,’” “Letter to a Resident Minister,” and “French Intellectuals and Democrats and the Algerian Revolution,” in Towards the African Revolution
Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings, “” Contemporary Political Theory 7.1 (2008).
Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital
David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized
—.“The Impossible Life of Frantz Fanon,” trans. Thomas Cassirer and G. Michael Twomey, The Massachusetts Review 14.1 (Winter, 1973).
Edward Said: “Reflections on Exile” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays
Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
Ato Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience
Sepoy Mutiny (or Sepoy Rebellion or Indian Rebellion of 1857)
Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” in The Vocation Lectures
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.
Dear Brooklyn Institute Supporters,
If you live in or around New York, Jersey City, or Philadelphia, sign-up for the the Brooklyn Institute mailing list by August 19 and you will be entered in our Summer Reads raffle. The winner will receive a Brooklyn Institute tote-bag with our selected BISR beach reads: Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 and Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother. Enter today!
Tuesday July 19, at the Brooklyn Commons, 7pm
This event is free and open to the public.
America is still reeling from last month’s Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. The largest single-perpetrator mass shooting in the nation’s history has left politicians, pundits, and everyday people reaching for answers. Our struggle to understand Orlando has often relied on tired frames and rhetoric – simplistic narratives about religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and terror. But the event itself resists these frames and demands we rethink our assumptions and understanding of the different kinds of violence existing in contemporary America. “Framing Terror” will tackle these questions by bringing together scholars working on gun violence, religious violence, and gender and sexuality. Sponsored by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, this event will bring together scholarly and journalistic perspectives to reflect on the Pulse shooting itself, public responses to it, and the landscape going forward.
MEHAMMED MACK is an Assistant Professor of French Studies at Smith College. He works on issues related to immigration, gender and sexuality in France, and his first book, Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture will be released by Fordham this fall.
PATRICK BLANCHFIELD is a freelance journalist and academic. His work on guns and American culture has appeared in The New York Times, n + 1, The Trace, The New York Daily News, The Daily Beast, and elsewhere. This fall, he will be Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media.
SUZANNE SCHNEIDER is the Director of Operations of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. A social and cultural historian, Suzanne’s research interests relate to Jewish and Islamic modernism, religious politics in the Middle East, the history of modern Palestine/Israel, secularism, and political identity in post-colonial contexts. She is the author of Politics of Denial: Religious Education and Colonial Rule in Palestine (forthcoming) and a regular contributor to The Revealer. Suzanne is currently working on a new book about religious violence and the social contract in the modern Middle East.
AJAY SINGH CHAUDHARY is the Executive & Founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Ajay is a comparative philosopher whose research focuses on comparative philosophy, political theory, Iranian and Islamic intellectual history, the Frankfurt School, modern Jewish thought, religion, social and critical theory, visual/media studies, and post-colonial studies.
The thirteenth episode of the Podcast for Social Research considers a recent work of poetry by Robin Coste Lewis (Voyage of the Sable Venus) and a recent work of poetic, theoretical memoir by Maggie Nelson (The Argonauts)—both of which deploy the metaphor of travel by ship. Rebecca and Yanyi converse about narrative and fragmentation in contemporary poetry, Coste Lewis’s subversive genealogy of representations of the black female body, theories of voice and self, conceptual writing, and Nelson’s meditations on queer family-making and love.
Emily Dickinson—“After great pain, a formal feeling comes (372)”
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
John Locke on infinity Rebecca’s note: I describe Locke as an eighteenth-century philosopher. To to be strictly accurate, I should have called him a philosopher of the long eighteenth century since he produced his major philosophical works in the seventeenth century and the last years of his life coincide with just the first four years of the 1700s. But it’s fair to call him an eighteenth-century philosopher in spirit, given that the spirit in question is the spirit of the Enlightenment (and especially the spectral reach of classical liberalism). We’re still grappling with that vexatious ghost, which spills over the casing of the century marker in both directions. Call it a vicious case of Enlightenment hangover with no regard for the arrow of time.
Technical Details: Recorded on April 23rd, 2016 with a Studio Projects B1, a Shure SM-58, a SONY-PCM-M10, a Behringer mixer, and several pots of hojicha. This episode of the Podcast for Social Research was edited by Susan Lee.
Brooklyn Institute for Social Research Awarded Humanities Council Grant to Launch New Community Initiative
The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR) is pleased to announce that it has received a $5,000 Action Grant from the New York Council for the Humanities to support the BISR Community Initiative, a new program that offers educational opportunities to some of New York’s most underserved citizens. BISR will work in conjunction with Breaking Ground, a non-profit organization that provides supportive housing to the formerly homeless and those facing housing insecurity, to offer a series of courses to residents free of charge beginning in the summer of 2016. These courses, beginning with a seminar on James Baldwin, will offer students an opportunity to engage in rigorous discussions about issues ranging from identity to human agency and the nature of artistic production. Each course will also feature a writing workshop component that encourages students to reflect on class themes and connect them to their own life experiences. Interest in and access to a humanistic education are not always aligned. BISR is committed to countering the notion that the humanities do not provide “useful” knowledge or that the deepest forms of intellectual engagement are the sole right of a privileged few. In the words of BISR’s Executive Director, Ajay Chaudhary, “our Community Initiative is a natural extension of our core mission to lower the barriers of access to high quality education, and we are thrilled to be able to partner with Breaking Ground on this project.”