Feeling Wretched

Reading Fanon for tomorrow’s class, and finding it all a bit alarmingly familiar, this year:

The settler makes his history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning: “This land was created by us”; he is the unceasing cause: “If we leave, all is lost, and the country will go back to the Middle Ages.” Over against him torpid creatures, wasted by fevers, obsessed by ancestral customs, form an almost inorganic background for the innovating dynamism of colonial mercantilism.

The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.

Not to mention, of course, Sartre’s preface:

With us, to be a man is to be an accomplice of colonialism, since all of us without exception have profited by colonial exploitation. This fat, pale continent ends by falling into what Fanon rightly calls narcissism. Cocteau became irritated with Paris — “that city which talks about itself the whole time.” Is Europe any different? And that super-European monstrosity, North America? Chatter, chatter: liberty, equality, fraternity, love, honor, patriotism, and what have you. All this did not prevent us from making anti-racial speeches about dirty niggers, dirty Jews, and dirty Arabs. High-minded people, liberal or just softhearted, protest that they were shocked by such inconsistency; but they were either mistaken or dishonest, for with us there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.

All of which is leading me to suspect that W.’s weirdly correct when he rattles on about how “they hate us for our freedom”; that freedom has always been created on the backs of those we enslave. Why wouldn’t they hate us for it? The problem is W.’s solution: dragging them kicking and screaming into the light of democracy, writing our history on their backs one more time.

5 thoughts on “Feeling Wretched

  1. How positively syncrocitous of you to use the phrase “writing history on their backs”… I just finished reading Frederick Douglass in preparation for tomorrow’s class, and I’m particularly interested in the way he glides from women getting whipped to men (at least himself) starving half to death while writing. (I could go on, but I won’t.) It’s syncronicity, I tell you.

    Bad scholar that I am (or good medievalist, one or the other), I’m always getting Fanon mixed up with le Fanu.

  2. all of us without exception have profited by colonial


    Stress on the “all of us” — it is not y/our freedom that is envied. Anyway envy is not hatred.

    All of us without exception are prepared to deconstruct the demonizing “they” or the oft enforced solidarity of a too easy and untested “us”. Some of them and some of us, did. And do.

    There are ways of profitting that do not partake of the economies of exchange. If I learn, I profit. If I profit, I make myself ready to seize the occasion. Or in this case to be seized by the occasion.

  3. Stress on the “all of us” –it is not y/our freedom that is envied.

    Well, except that Fanon says explicitly, and Sartre echoes, that the colonial act functions to dehumanize the “native,” and that the European becomes a man through that act of dehumanization. So the “us” that is “all of us” is all of us men, all of us Europeans.

    So sure, many of “us” find ways to turn profit into subversion, but I think Sartre’s point is that we still don’t get to opt out of the “us,” or to disingenuously claim that we haven’t profited. We only get the agency whereby we can perform the subversion, even if utterly unintentionally, at someone else’s expense.

  4. Kathleen, your restating the point reminds me that Sartre plays with the notion of “native” as what was and is no longer except in some internalized pairing with the notion of “elite”. As well the adjective survives in a plural rendering to describe a locus of resistence. Sartre writes in the preface just after he passage containing the “all of us” phrase: “While there was a native population somewhere this imposture was not shown up; in the notion of the human race we found an abstract assumption of universality which served as cover for the most realistic practices. On the other side of the ocean there was a race of less-than-humans who, thanks to us, might reach our status a thousand years hence, perhaps; in short, we mistook the elite for the genus. Today, the native populations reveal their true nature, and at the same time our exclusive ‚Äòclub’ reveals its weakness — that it’s neither more nor less than a minority.”

    Such thinking, when applied to the analysis of the phrase “they hate us” leads to two options: stressing the minority aspect of “us” or addressing the constructedness of “they”. Either approach attempts to demystify a projection.

    Fanon’s work, like Sartre’s, plays with and works the line between what is imagined and the actual, a line that is crucial for agency which operates between a perception of what is and what might be.

    The zone of reading as a native may be inaccessible yet reading as a colonized people depends upon the inaccessibility of the zone of the native. The inaccessibility of the zone of the native depends all too much on the ubiquitous discourses of the colonizers.

    If there is no going back, can there be a moving forward? Perhaps. Lately the term “indigineous” is occupying some of the place once occupied by “native”. See for example Candice Hopkins _Making Things Our Own: The Indigenous Aesthetic in Digital Storytelling_ [Horizon Issue 17 http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/tell.php?is=17&file=4&tlang=0 ] I would venture to state that in the 21st century in emerging contexts “indigenous” is present-minded and action-focused and “native” partakes of a grand narrative of the fall. “Indigenous” seems to occupy a place that is interstitial between “native” and “colonized” in Fanon’s discourse — it’s on the other side of the native-colonizer-colonized triangle — not as a term in some ongoing dialectic but as one of the corners of a semiotic square that enable alter-native stories and hence practices.

    To borrow from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s title [Native, Woman, Other], there is in reading Fanon the ghost of the other everywhere: Native-Colonizer-Colonized-Other.


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