Reviewed by Chris James Newlove
Subterranean Fanon is a concise, yet broad overview of Frantz Fanon’s work including an analysis of the relatively recently published writings contained in the collection Alienation and Freedom. Subterranean Fanon is one of the most extensive overviews of commentaries on Fanon’s work to date, critically engaging with arguments from Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson, Ato Sekyi-Out, Nigel Gibson to Achille Mbembe and Lewis Gordon. Subterranean Fanon proceeds in the chronological order of Fanon’s work starting with an analysis of his two youthful play scripts The Drowning Eye and Parallel Hands and his psychiatric writings (published in Alienation and Freedom), before moving onto the more familiar works of Black Skin, White Masks, Studies in a Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth.
Gavin Arnall’s central argument is that there are two Fanons, meaning two ways Fanon sees social change taking place. Subterranean Fanon carefully and convincingly details the first of Fanon’s approach to social change as taking place through dialectical progression; the structures and arguments of Black Skin, White Masks, Studies in a Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth all provide examples of this. The second, ‘subterranean Fanon’, is one that is inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti dialectical conception of social change; the Nietzschean perspective contradicts, compliments or works in parallel to a dialectical approach.
Arnall argues Fanon’s Nietzschean perspective is one in which social change happens through an annihilation of all that currently exists, literally from the abyss a completely different society emerges splitting history in two. This affirmative approach can be seen in the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, ‘Concerning Violence’. In this chapter Fanon outlines the absolute separation between coloniser and colonised, in fact that they live in separate worlds. The situation will only be rectified by a violent event (the armed struggle and civil war) that will wipe the slate clean, annihilating the colonial society and with it the enforced inferiority complexes of the colonised. This is not a dialectical approach that relies on a conception of the ‘negation of the negation’, that is, a situation in which elements of the old are carried over, changed and incorporated into the new. Arnall argues that Fanon sees social change in an Nietzschean manner, the subterranean argument running through his works. However, the strength of the book’s central thesis is undermined by various conceptual issues.
In Subterranean Fanon, the Nietzschean approach is contrasted to the dialectical approach primarily defined through the concept of ‘the negation of the negation’. Arnall plausibly makes the case that ‘the negation of the negation’ is central to Marx’s employment of the dialectical method of Hegel, for example pointing to the famous line of Capital, Volume 1 in which Marx calls for the expropriation of the expropriators. Engels in Dialectics of Nature famously describes the ‘negation of the negation’ as one of the three laws of the dialectic. Fanon directly engaged with Marx’s work (specifically The Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), but his conception of the dialectic is derived from Alexandre Kojève lectures on the ‘master-slave dialectic’. This is acknowledged in Subterranean Fanon and Kojève’s dialectic is described as a process in which something ‘new develops out of the old in such a way that some given thing persists in a qualitatively different, sublimated form’ (9). The ‘negation of the negation’ is used as barometer of what is dialectical in Fanon’s work rather than his critical reworking of the totality of Kojève’s interpretation of the ‘master-slave dialectic’. This causes difficulties with the overall thesis of the book, for example Fanon’s discussions of destruction are seen as examples of the Nietzschean approach when a ‘bloody fight’ (Kojève 1980: 56) and destruction is a part of Kojève’s interpretation of the dialectic; negating action ‘will destroy the World that does not correspond to the idea and will create by this very destruction the World in conformity with the ideal’ (Ibid: 98).
Subterranean Fanon can give off the impression that the central aspect of the operation of the dialectic for Fanon is preservation of the old, meaning that Fanon’s discussions of the radically new can be absorbed into the Nietzschean perspective. As Peter Hudis points out (Hudis 2015: 53), drawing on the work of Ato Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s interpretation of the dialectic places great emphasis on movement and new beginnings, rejecting the vulgar notion of a closed method of a thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad. Similarly, Subterranean Fanon can create the impression that for Fanon the dialectical process operates on the entire colonial terrain, however the dialectic throughout Fanon’s work operates on the oppressed side only throughout the struggle against colonialism. Black Skin, White Masks, Studies in a Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth are all based on an analysis of the shifts of consciousness that are taking place (or need to take place) to achieve national liberation and ultimately a completely different social and economic society.
Subterranean Fanon’s version of Nietzsche’s theory of social change is one of absolute rupture with existing society, an affirmative event that creates entirely from a clean slate, having some similarities to Alain Badiou’s conception of the ‘Event’ as redefining the possible. However what Nietzsche is affirming is life as it is; as he sees it the ‘will to power’ means individuals are rightly defined by a quest for domination, wars, evil, trials of strength, artistic creation. Nietzsche’s theory of change is a celebration of what already is and the unleashing of the latent potential within society, or as Henri Lefebvre puts it, the ‘will to power’ is an ontology ‘only little removed from a rationalization or theorisation accepting the “given”, the “reality”, that are envisaged’ (Lefebvre 2020: 165). Liberals, socialists, feminists (and bourgeois democrats) all deny the ‘will to power’, relying on the Christian idea of the equality of humanity, driving civilisation into an abyss, rather than a radical break from the void Nietzsche demands of this society, a ‘cultivation’ or ‘breeding’ of a pan-European ruling class that would maintain ‘aristocratic values’. Nietzsche’s conception of social change is based on the promotion of elements within existing society that are being held back.
Following Robert J.C. Young’s introduction to Alienation and Freedom (Fanon 2018), Arnall argues that Fanon’s conception of ‘annihilation’ has roots in the his psychological practice and writings, particularly Fanon’s advocation of electroshock therapy (or annihilation therapy), a process in which a patient’s personality was seen to be reset and reconstructed through therapy after a period of electric shocks (and/or insulin induced comas). Arnall links this to his interpretation of Nietzsche as a thinker of annihilation and the clean slate conception of social change. The technique itself is described as nonsense (Ibid: 295) outside of the dialectical (Ibid: 297) process of the therapeutic environment Fanon helped create. Fanon’s views moved beyond his psychiatric mentor Francois Tosquelles’ advocation of the therapeutic environment as a Neo-society, arguing in his later psychiatric writings for the importance of day centres in which the patient can return home at night and engage in wider society. With this shift Fanon discusses the central importance of ‘the reinforcement of the personality’ (Ibid: 497) and argues against ‘the curative value of the dissolutions of consciousness’ (Ibid: 493), thus calling into question, across his entire work, the link between annihilation therapy as the basis for the subterranean.
Subterranean Fanon moves on to discuss Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks as a work that highlights various misfires (Freudian ‘failings’ in Lewis Gordon’s work, or ‘Strategic impasses’ in my own) in any attempt to eradicate colonialism and racism. These misfires include cultural and romantic assimilation, rationalism and irrationalism. Arnall argues both psychoanalysis and Negritude are shown to provide the basis for reciprocal recognition with the Other (white people in a racist society). Rather, Fanon sees psychoanalysis as a strategic impasse, describing how in the ‘French Antilles 97% of families are incapable of producing a single oedipal neurosis’ (Fanon 2008: 130). Negritude is a productive impasse, one that should not be skipped over lightly. Jean-Paul Sartre, the ‘born Hegelian’ (Fanon 2018: 112), is reprimanded by Fanon for not being Hegelian enough to see Negritude as a stage that needs to be lived absolutely for self-consciousness to develop. Nonetheless, Sartre shatters Fanon’s last illusion, namely, Negritude’s ability to overcome colonialism and racism. Both theorists’ approach to Negritude can be misunderstood by a sole reference to this exchange. Sartre’s introduction (Black Orpheus) to Leopold Sedar-Senghor’s collection, Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language, is a largely sympathetic portrayal of the movement, whereas Fanon’s speech to the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers (‘On National Culture’ in The Wretched of the Earth) takes on much more critical tone.
Ultimately Fanon rejects Negritude, looking instead to the example of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s (Vietminh) recent victories against France, seeing collective armed struggle as the way to overcome colonialism and ultimately providing a situation in which capitalism and racism can also be destroyed. Black Skin, White Masks highlights the strategic impasse of trying to use individual solutions to the structural and therefore collective problem of colonialism and racism. We can contrast this collective solution to social change with Nietzsche’s approach. Nietzsche’s theory of change relies on the concept of hierarchy: the noble does not lead the herd (the masses) but this is a task of those who are disparagingly referred to as shepherds. The noble must be able to develop separately from the herd to fulfil their potential. Hierarchy is the concept that sits in between individualism and collectivism; even the noble must differentiate amongst themselves, as Zarathustra followers are urged to do. Fanon’s solution of collective armed struggle which appears at the end of Black Skin, White Masks is central to the arguments he later develops in The Wretched of the Earth; the Manichaeism of the spontaneous violence of the oppressed against settlers gives way to a strategic approach to civil war centred on armed struggle. Nietzsche’s theory of social change is based on hierarchy and Fanon’s on collectivism. Can Nietzsche’s concept of affirmation be separated off from his wider project of social change and still be described as Nietzschean? If so, it must be carefully argued as to what is being abandoned and what is being maintained.
There are two main reasons Fanon’s work provokes such varied interpretations. As a popular revolutionary figure, Fanon reoccurs in differing conjunctures; readers demand different explanations from him. The difference between the 1960’s reading of Fanon by members of the Black Panther Party and the critical Fanonism of the 1990’s Anglophone academy could not be starker. The Fanon in the time of the Black Lives Matter movement will be different again. The other reason there are such dramatically differing interpretations is related to Fanon’s method. Fanon has some affinities to Antonio Gramsci. An obsessive reader, Fanon takes concepts and phrases from others and critically re-works them. It would be difficult to understand Black Skin, White Masks, for example, without reading Sartre’s Anti-Semite and the Jew. Discussing Fanon’s influences is not an academic exercise but is of central importance to following his arguments. The questions raised by Subterranean Fanon are important and should be engaged with by all those who are seeking to understand Fanon today. Fanon read Nietzsche, he also read Lenin and Lacan. The relative weight we give to Fanon’s influences will continue to be debated, as will the affinities between his approach and others. To conclude, there will always be many competing interpretations, but there is only one Fanon.
22 August 2021
- 2008 Black Skin, White Masks New York: Grove Press.
- 2018 Alienation and Freedom London: Bloomsbury Academic.
- 2015 Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades London: Pluto Press.
- 1980 Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit London: Cornell University Press.
- 2020 Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or the Realm of Shadows London: Verso.