Abstract

Fanon considered that colonial alienation produced multiple forms of relational pathologies, many of which expressed themselves in and through blockages in communication rather than through explicit conflict. Exposing the role of language as a vector of racial violence and colonial oppression, Fanon also presented it as a potentially revolutionary medium of decolonization. The article has two aims: firstly, to give an account of Fanon's ongoing concern with language, in part by underscoring three very different influences in Fanon's expansive conception of its role—those of Aimé Césaire, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and François Tosquelles. Secondly, the article aims to rearticulate the function of language in Fanon's theory of colonial disalienation by drawing on a specific trajectory in his clinico-political thought: from diagnoses of untranslatability or incommunicability to analyses of decolonization as the radical transformation of the subject's experience of language.

Sometimes, he would stand up and express himself. He wouldn't speak, he would express.

—Frantz Fanon

The “subject” who becomes the center of interest of all the tasks of psychotherapy is only glimpsed at in the nest that language makes for it.

—François Tosquelles

“Translatability” may strike us as a surprising point of departure for an investigation of Fanon's philosophy. Fanon only ever wrote in French and has been criticized for his condescending attitude toward Creoles and “patois,” which he deemed incapable of poetic expression; his relationship to “minor” languages to some suggests particularly clearly that Fanon was the victim of the prejudices he himself denounced.1 It has also been noted that, in spite of his lengthy residence in Arabic-speaking countries (first Algeria, then Tunisia), he did not devote much time to learning Arabic, remaining dependent on interpreters for his consultations or his militant work.2 But while Fanon showed little interest in the definition or limits of natural (or national) languages and cultures per se, he spent much time reflecting on other limits imposed by colonialism and race on language. Wary of any “fixation” of “culture” in the death mask of ethnology or ontology, Fanon articulated a phenomenal and phenomenological, existential, ultimately political conception of language, without which his conception of subjectivity remains unintelligible. The “linguistic” register at issue in his work was much wider than that of natural languages: encompassing speech, expression, gesture, but also mediation in the broadest sense. Drawing from an irreducible variety of sources, this expansive problematization of language proves central to the exchanges and substitutions between the clinical and the political and, thereby, to the production of Fanon's singular thought.

Reflecting on the combined influences of three authors whose teachings had a crucial importance for Fanon (Aimé Césaire, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and François Tosquelles), this article offers an outline of this enlarged linguistic register, presenting a transdisciplinary meditation on the theme of language rather than a linear argument. To do so, I associate approaches to language that are typically independent from one another for disciplinary or thematic reasons: poetic and performative language, the phenomenology of bodily expression, as well as the language of therapy, particularly as it plays out within a mental hospital. What brings them together in Fanon's philosophical thought, I suggest, is his attempt to consider the role of language as the primary condition of social experience. As the final section of the article will show, this reflection culminated in Fanon's problematization of decolonization as an experience of general transmutation, or translation, of meaning.

Central to my argument is the observation that Fanon's diagnosis of incommunicability or untranslatability in the colonial situation,3 which is another way of naming the general lack “of any relation”4 in such context, is not resolved by the symmetrization of the communicational relationship, by the possibility of direct “translation” between “cultures,” or by the radical separation of cultural worlds from hegemonic interference. Instead, this diagnosis propels Fanon to explore ways of decolonizing the subjects' relationship to language. The expression translatability of experience here gestures to the particular dynamic of Fanon's critique of alienation: that which leads from diagnoses of general untranslatability under colonialism to the articulation of decolonization as the radical transformation of the subject's experience of language. Reflecting on translatability in the broadest sense enabled Fanon to refigure the colonial relation as an impossible encounter and to expand this analysis of “coloniality” to previously uncharted strata of subjective, intersubjective, and collective experience.

Speech and Act

The problematic of language plays a ubiquitous role in Fanon's philosophy. In a discreet way, Fanon inscribed himself in the theoretical circuits leading to the structuralist turn of the 1960s, anticipating the importance of Lacan's theories and antedating some of Althusser's and Foucault's propositions on the subjective effect of ideology and discourse. But Fanon's original take on language would remain unintelligible without reference to a reflection that, predating his arrival in France, emerged through poetry and theater, his formative intellectual interests. For the young Fanon, language is a certain power and potential (puissance); it confers powers on the speaker and in itself carries powers in the world: language is a form of action. As Fanon declares at the outset of Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. What we are getting at becomes plain: There is an extraordinary power [puissance] in the possession of a language.”5 To speak of “puissance” is suggestive, resonating with Nietzsche's Will to Power (volonté de puissance) as well as with the idea of poetic prophecy (puissance du verbe). For his mesmerized student, it was Césaire's voice which best epitomized such puissance. An anecdote from Black Skin, White Masks fleshes out Fanon's intuition: Fanon recounts that during one of Césaire's electoral speeches in Fort-de-France a woman fainted in the middle of the conference. “The next day, a friend describing the event commented: Français a té tellement chaud que la femme là tombé malcadi. The power of language!’ [Puissance du language!]”6 It is the friend's exclamation, in Creole, that underscores the puissance of Césaire's expressivity in French. The irony of Fanon's anecdote is that the intensity of such power is captured through Creole, although its magic originally operates through French language. Fanon proved surprisingly consistent in developing this markedly modernist stance, which valorized the distinctiveness of a Black Antillean act of speech and its incomparable poetic flow while dismissing its “localism.” The Antilles, deprived of a “voice” inasmuch as they were devoid of real conflict and struggle, were bestowed a prophetic voice through the figure of Aimé Césaire.7

This indebtedness to his former teacher, whose name symbolized a language that takes and overtakes power, accompanied all of Fanon's writings. Fanon, too, located his own language in a performative and affective register. Francis Jeanson, who wrote the first preface to Black Skin, White Masks, perceived the importance of this style, describing it as “improper, unfitting, almost unspeakable, not objectifiable.”8 Like Césaire, Fanon wished “to sink if need be under the red-hot lava of words—the color of pulsating flesh.”9 Fanon also offered a rare remark about his own writing to his editor: “Words have a charge for me. I feel myself incapable of escaping the bite of a word, the vertigo of a question mark.”10 That Fanon began his intellectual journey writing plays can be read as an indication of the centrality for him not only of theater and Greek tragedy but also of the performativity of speech on and beyond the stage.11

Mere words, you say?
But words the color of pulsating flesh
Words the color of mountains on heat.
Of cities on fire.12

Manifest in their existential intention, Fanon's “The Drowning Eye” and “Parallel Hands” (1949) thematize the chasm between words and acts—the fact that, as Bernard Aspe puts it, “from the thought to the act, an irremediable ‘leap’ is to be accomplished.”13 But while these plays have been routinely assumed to be mere emulations of Sartre's theater, Robert Young interprets them as “philosophical dramatizations” in the spirit of a “surrealist existentialism.”14 Young's close reading underscores the formal proximity of Fanon's mode of expression to Césaire's, especially with regard to the vitalism of its metaphorics.15 In the typically Césairian metaphor, an “abstract concept [is] brought to life . . . through being deliberately articulated with an incongruous physical or material image.”16 Fanon's plays, Young continues, “come across as ‘lived things,’ intensely physical, visceral, full of affect.”17 Language is not only thematized in terms of the subject's power or impotence to act; in its poetic performativity language becomes “a moving, active agent supporting itself, functioning almost as an autonomous actor in the drama.”18 In both plays, Fanon's reflections on language also take on a metaphysical, cosmic turn. Regretting in “Parallel Hands” the “calm years in which, in primary relation, men and things gently imprinted each other,”19 Fanon evokes a silent language of nature akin to what Walter Benjamin described as a “language of things” that is not the “language of man.”20 As Ginette from “L'Œil se noie” states, “Things are speaking among themselves, love one another” (Les choses se parlent entre elles, s'aiment entre elles).21 And Lucien echoes, a few pages later, “Things are beautiful between themselves and for themselves, not for humans.”22 Although Fanon would later ask his brother Joby to destroy his plays, as they did not align with his politics anymore, the existential chasm between language and action, on the one hand, and the idea of a performative or metaphysical puissance of expression, on the other, remained two strong currents of his later philosophy, and in particular in his conception of decolonization.23

Those who encountered Fanon in the flesh often evoked his singular rapport with spoken language. In a moving portrait of Fanon, the Catalan psychiatrist François Tosquelles, who worked with Fanon at the Saint-Alban hospital between 1952 and 1953, describes Fanon as one who was well aware of both “the poetic dimension” and “the rational dimension of his discursive productions,” as one whose “speech was sustained by all his body.”24 Tosquelles suggests that Fanon's attention to the poetic and poietic dimension of language constituted a meeting ground between their visions of psychiatry, in spite of their other theoretical disagreements. In her biography, Alice Cherki, who personally worked with Fanon in Algeria, confirms Tosquelles's point about the centrality of language for Fanon. She was among the first to shed light on Fanon's practice of writing books by dictation. She describes his writing practice as follows:

Josie remembers that she took dictation while Fanon, pacing back and forth in the manner of an orator, composed the first draft of this work that is underscored by the rhythm of a body in motion and the cadences of the breathing voice. With the exception perhaps of “Racisme et culture,” all of Fanon's books were written in this way, and even if he did revise them at some later stage, they all began as spoken works, works that were communicated to an interlocutor—preferably a close and trusted one.25

Cherki makes us picture Fanon's physical presence, highlighting the rhapsodic relationship between his voice, his body, and his interlocutor. She shifts our focus to Josie Fanon, his life-companion, who, Cherki suggests, was not just a technical extension of Fanon's voice, but a close and trusted interlocutor, an addressee who would inhabit his words while pressing them onto the page. These portraits immediately bring to mind some of Merleau-Ponty's distinctive theses of “The Body as Expression of Speech,” one of the central chapters of Phenomenology of Perception, which Fanon had likely read during his studies:

I reach back for the word as my hand reaches towards the part of my body which is being pricked; the word is in a certain location of my linguistic world, and is part of my equipment. I have only one means of representing it, which is uttering it, just as the artist has only one means of representing the work on which he is engaged: by doing it.26

Against the representation of meaning as an interiority that must be externalized via language, Merleau-Ponty argues that meaning is essentially an operation of expression, the realization of a given “signifying intention” in a given situation. This “signifying intention” discovers itself in the very movement through which it comes into existence in relation to another speaking subject and their own intentionality. “What I communicate with primarily is not ‘representations’ or thought, but a speaking subject, with a certain style of being and with the ‘world’ at which he directs his aim.”27 And thus, Merleau-Ponty claims, language does not “express” thoughts; “it is the subject's taking up of a position in the world of his meanings.”28 Importantly, he locates language in the continuity of bodily gestures, discerning its origin in the simple transcendence contained in a production of meaning that is inherent to the body's most basic patterns. For him, our connection with the world of meanings is rooted in bodily behavior, which appropriates “in an indefinite series of discontinuous acts, significant cores which transcend and transfigure its natural powers.”29

Yet such a theory of language would remain incomplete without acknowledging that language is collectively shared and that at a certain level linguistic meanings remain stable. Seeking a midpoint between a natural and a conventional theory of language, Merleau-Ponty considers language as a repository of acquired and sedimented cultural meanings, made of “former acts of expression [which] establish between speaking subjects a common world, to which the words being actually uttered in their novelty refer as does the gesture to the perceptible world.”30 These sedimented meanings are not inert but must be conceived instantaneously in the act: “I seize it in an undivided act which is as brief as a cry.”31 Endorsing Merleau-Ponty's gestural and expressive approach to language in his analysis of colonial alienation, such conceptions also presented Fanon with a fundamental puzzle: how intuitive, how instantaneous is the relationship of a body to this “primary” world of meaning in a context marked by cohabitation with, and of, two unequal languages? What is the role of language in the production, reproduction, and experience of this uneven relationship? The setting up of scenes of interlocutions, or better said, of theaters of incommunicability, would provide Fanon with an especially illuminating terrain in which to disentangle these dynamics.

Theaters of Incommunicability

Fanon tackled colonialism through the dramas of incommunicability it produced in everyday interactions, “situations” in which the social, political, and psychic effects of colonialism and race materialized with peculiar acuity. Everyday speech interactions, or the lack thereof, had for Fanon a fundamental heuristic significance, functioning in a way that may be compared to Althusser's or Sartre's little philosophical theaters.32 In both “The North-African Syndrome” and “Medicine and Colonialism” (A Dying Colonialism), Fanon describes face-to-face meetings between Western medical staff and Algerian patients, situations in which speech forecloses any possibility of dialogue. In these accounts of everyday interactions in medical institutions, in the metropole or in the colony, he points out this secondary or metalinguistic “speech” (that of colonialism) or dramatic structure of truth, which impedes on any first-order dialogue: “Every time we do not understand, we must tell ourselves that we are at the heart of the drama, that of the impossible encounter in any colonial situation.”33 Human relationality, in its rich phenomenological and affective modalities, exists only as an absence: “Examining the relations of collaboration between the colonizer, the autochthonous colonist, and the colonized means showing that there is no relation.”34

Among these theaters, the psychotherapeutic encounter is where he consistently returned in his writing, as if it were the site in which his ethico-political stances could be most clearly articulated. There, Fanon had to reckon with the peculiar form of power and authority he himself exerted as a clinician, even though this situation was permanently reconfigured by his patients' perceptions of his blackness, a fundamentally ambiguous position he regularly remarked upon. In the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, “The Black and Language,” for instance, Fanon drew a direct analogy between the situation of a white person addressing a black person in stereotyped pidgin, and that of a doctor (in this case, himself) facing a patient:

If the person who addresses himself to a man of color or an Arab in pidgin [petit-nègre] does not recognize that there is a flaw or a defect in his behavior, then he has never paused to think. I myself am aware, in talking to certain patients, of the exact instant at which I begin to slip.

Facing this seventy-three-year-old peasant woman in the midst of a dementia crisis, I am suddenly aware of the collapse of the antennae with which I touch and through which I am touched. The very fact of adopting a language suitable for dementia and the mentally retarded, the fact of “leaning over” to address this poor seventy-three-year-old woman, the fact of my reaching down to her for a diagnosis are the stigmata of a yielding [fléchissement] in my human relations.35

In this passage, to address (s'addresser à) literally means to touch through speech; it is that which enables (or disables) a certain relation (and further, a recognition). That Fanon analyzes his “leaning over” (se pencher sur) this patient as a bending (fléchissement) of his relational aptitude is indicative of his interest in the body's gestural and nonlinguistic capacity for expression. Like Merleau-Ponty, who considered that one is “secreting a ‘sense’ that does not come from nowhere, projecting this sense upon its material surroundings, and communicating it to the other embodied subjects,” Fanon holds that intersubjective communication may only be possible through this primary gestural expression.36 Any process of disalienation or any “rise in humanity” (montée en humanité) would therefore need to start from such a repertoire of basic gestures.37

In “Le Noir et le language,” Fanon marshaled some of Merleau-Ponty's theses on language to clarify the peculiar drama of incommunicability unfolding in the Antilles. The chapter's title is evocative in itself: instead of moving within the medium of language, instead of existing in and through language, the Black Antillean's relationship to language is adjunctive—they situate themselves vis-à-vis language, in a spatial or topological sense: “The Black Antillean, whoever he is, must always situate himself with regard to language” (Le Noir antillais, quel qu'il soit, a toujours à se situer en face du langage).38 Merleau-Ponty's critique of the instrumental conception of language is here turned into its opposite: language as possession, a having instead of a being. Fanon interprets the Antilleans' desire to speak an authentic French, a “français de France,” both as a desire for status and as a desire for the world that the language encompasses. “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization [assumer une culture, supporter le poids d'une civilisation].”39Assumer, which is not entirely coterminous with the English “to assume,” underlines the complicated coexistence of participation and imposition that this cultural endowment implies. Indeed, the ability to speak, and to speak well, is always double-sided. For if language is something that one possesses or “takes hold of,” “to take also means on several levels being taken.”40 If for the Black Antillean acquiring the subtleties of the French idiom means “proving to themselves an adequacy to culture” (se prouver à eux-même une adéquation à la culture) this ability also imprisons them in its ever-expandable net.41

Fanon's equation of the “assumption” of culture with the “assumption” of a world explains why he never interprets the duality of languages and cultures as a double-consciousness or as an enabling view, but only as a limitation. As Matthieu Renault argues, the division of worlds could only entail a form of alienation for Fanon, neither peaceful coexistence nor heightened perspective.42 The connection to Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of language is again manifest, for the latter requires the full adherence of a subject who, qua speaking being, remains fundamentally monolingual. As Merleau-Ponty puts it,

The full meaning of a language is never translatable into another. We may speak several languages, but one of them always remains the one in which we live. In order to wholly assimilate a language, it would be necessary to assume [d'assumer] the world it expresses, and we never belong to two worlds at once.43

Fanon's adherence to Merleau-Ponty's stance has some crucial consequences. By assuming that we “never belong to two worlds at once,” Fanon confirms the surprisingly normative implication of Merleau-Ponty's position concerning the essential oneness of one's “own” tongue (be it the mother tongue or just the language in which one lives).44 Thus as he suggests in often-criticized passages of Black Skin, White Masks, reverting to Creoles or patois is voluntarily self-restrictive, valorizing the white world as the only one. Instead of describing an encounter between two cultural worlds, Fanon spells out the self-contradictory phenomenology of an experience from which the world has been “subtracted,” the “forced acosmism”45 of the colonized through mummification. At the same time, the indissoluble connection between body, language, and world laid out in Phenomenology of Perception acquires an entirely new direction in Fanon's own theory. By showing that, in the colonial setting, the “white world” is the only “true” world, Fanon assigns a political historicity to Merleau-Ponty's “world of meanings” and turns it into a critical tool.46

Translating Socialthérapie

Institutional psychotherapy or socialthérapie provided Fanon with another site of exploration of such an enlarged linguistic register, a place to experiment with phenomenal, tactile, and paralinguistic forms of intersubjective relation. Phenomenology and existential phenomenology more specifically had been pivotal to institutional psychotherapy from their inception. In addition to being influenced by Freud, Marx, and Lacan, founding figures of institutional psychotherapy such as François Tosquelles (1912–1994) or Jean Oury (1924–2014) had been inspired by Karl Jaspers, Ludwig Binswanger, Hans Walter Grühle, and Kurt Schneider, all of whose approaches in German psychiatry and psychopathology had been most profoundly influenced by phenomenology. For Tosquelles and Oury, as Naudin and Gozé write,

phenomenological reduction is not a doctrine or a theory among others but a discipline, an attitude by which psychiatrists can free themselves from clichés and commonly accepted theories in order to let the patient's manner of being-in-the-world [le style d’être au monde du patient] appear in the encounter, to respect its formal structure and to open it progressively to a world that can be shared while guaranteeing its autonomous power of being. What common sense takes for granted, the phenomenological method momentarily suspends.47

In institutional psychotherapy, the spirit of revolutionary resistance against the established order was made convergent with a permanent revolution in the ways in which relations between caregivers and patients were formed within the mental hospital. If, following Tosquelles's famous formula, disalienating meant destroying the walls of the institution, these “walls” were not only the exterior walls of the asylum but also the interior walls structuring the psyche of the medical personnel, through a discipline cultivated in every moment.48 Language had no small role to play in such a conception of the clinic, which, although centrally influenced by Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis, developed in directions Lacan himself would not pursue. As Camille Robcis points out, one of the original hypotheses undergirding the Saint-Alban experiment concerned transference. Unlike neurotic patients, whose transference was considered to take place on an intersubjective level, psychotic patients were deemed to experience collective forms of transference: “burst transference” (transfert éclaté) or what Guattari would later redescribe as “transversality,” which group therapy sessions, psychodramas, or simple interactions between residents had the potentiality of prompting.49 This idea had direct effects on the way in which institutional psychotherapy reflected on language. An all-pervasive vector in such an acentric and diffuse “transferential” scenario, language as such, in its diverse manifestations, crystallized the very possibility of all relation.

Indeed, another feature of the “sociotherapy” practiced in Saint-Alban was to consider alienating and disalienating relationships in their micrological forms, quotidian and sedimented in the objects of the institution (such as the white blouse, the journal, or even money). Material objects themselves became part of the institutional-therapeutic process, with the effect of enlarging the medium of therapy and its language to a widening set of semiotic elements.50 As Numa Murard eloquently puts it,

It is illusory to think that one can access madness individually and directly. Here again, mediations are needed: clay, modeled before being heated in the pottery workshop, animals (from the barnyard and the stable), drinks and sweets (from the bar), paper, letters and drawings (from the newspaper), and so on. Nothing [plays a role] in itself, especially not the work and even less the occupation, everything is mediation.51

Likewise, Fanon's therapeutic approach, as well as his philosophy, appear centrally concerned with the concept of “mediation,” not only as it pervades the philosophy of Sartre or Hegel, but also in this other, more tentative, institutional-practical sense. In one of the editorials of Notre Journal, a journal which Fanon modeled after the Saint-Alban Trait-d'Union with his interns in the Blida-Joinville Hospital, he described the task of the institution as that of “multiplying the points and occasions of encounters”52 through the “emergence of an atmosphere of perpetual movement.”53 There, Fanon distilled the sociotherapeutic principles he tried to implement:

You have to place yourself at the heart of the institution and interrogate it. If it is a generous source, it must enable multiple personalities to be manifest in it. It has to make possible interminable and fruitful encounters. It has to be multiplied constantly. It has to be at the disposal of its members, at their service.

If it does not radiate, if it fails to achieve its essential duty, which is constant dialogue between its members, if it permits “collective monologue,” and if, lastly, it does not foster its members' responsibility, then its time is up.54

The primacy given to human encounters in institutional psychotherapy dovetails with the kind of vigilance and humanistic discipline which Fanon had invoked from early on in articles such as “The North-African Syndrome.” Such radical ethical involvement in therapy was already one of the hallmarks of Saint-Alban's institutional psychotherapy, which had emerged in and from the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.55 In developing such institutional-therapeutic principles at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, Fanon brought them back to the terrain of war, terrain in which they would, eventually, dissolve.

Fanon began to implement sociotherapeutical techniques at the hospital of Blida-Joinville shortly after he arrived in Algeria in 1953, with the help of a dynamic team of interns, including Alice Cherki and Jacques Azoulay, whose doctoral thesis he was supervising. In October 1954, Azoulay and Fanon coauthored an article titled “Social Therapy in a Ward of Muslim Men: Methodological Difficulties,” which offers us one of the rare descriptions by Fanon of his clinical experiments in sociotherapy, and demonstrates the pivotal role that the problematic of language, translation, and expression played in them.56 Central to Azoulay and Fanon’s exposition is the failure of their experiments, which effectively shifts the problem from being a mainly clinical-therapeutic one to a political and linguistic-cultural problematic. While in the European female pavilion, patients responded positively to the sociotherapeutic approach, in the Muslim male ward, both patients and accompanying staff remained reluctant, at first, to participate in the various social and occupational activities that were offered. Fanon and Azoulay attribute their failure to cultural “assimilationism” and the absence of a “structural” approach—a notion they associate both with Mauss's “total social fact” and with Gestalt psychology: “It is for want of not having integrated the notion of Gestalt and the elements of contemporary anthropology into our daily practice that our failures were so harsh.”57 They flag their incapacity to speak Arabic as the fundamental problem from which all others derive. Since their patients were mostly illiterate Algerians from rural towns who spoke Berber or Arabic, the French-speaking medical staff took constant recourse to interpreters. As Fanon and Azoulay describe, the difficulty was not in translating the words of patients literally, but in grasping what they said in light of a larger context: the translation, omitting facial expressions and body language, usually came down to short, stereotyped formulas that were entirely desynchronized from other components of speech:

Going through an interpreter is perhaps valid when it comes to explaining something simple or transmitting an order, but it no longer is when it is necessary to begin a dialogue, a dialectical exchange of questions and replies, alone able to overcome reticence and bring to light abnormal, pathological behavior. But as Merleau-Ponty said, “to speak a language is to bear (supporter) the weight of a culture.” Unable to speak Arabic, we did not know the elements of affective or cultural patrimony apt to awaken interest.58

Placed in this new context, Merleau-Ponty's quotation allows them to shift the question of translatability from a word-to-word problematic to a problematization of the entire social and cultural fabric within which therapeutic instruments operate. In order to make up for their lack of a priori acquaintance with this “affective” world, Fanon and Azoulay claim the importance of creating their own theoretical instruments, conducting ethnographic research by traveling to villages, and inquiring into the social structures and the belief universe of traditional Muslim societies. In these observations, they accord special importance to the local perceptions of the mentally ill and of those standing outside of the community, seeking to decenter the very opposition between normality and pathology.59 They describe this undertaking as a “revolutionary” form of cultural relativism and a “transmutation of values,” two terms that would reappear in Fanon's writings on national culture.60 In this sense, their account of “overcoming” a “methodological failure” had a propaedeutic dimension, striving to unify the medical staff through a radical form of relativism. In all probability, this “relativistic” experiment also served to turn the motley collection of nurses and doctors with different experiences and backgrounds into a “research collective” in a sense close to what Tosquelles would describe in a later interview:

On the one hand, the team of care must converge. . . . There is no a priori professional training, but instead a propaedeutic that precedes and follows the concrete experience in realization.

On the other hand, a working group, which has constituted itself as an institutionalized site of psychotherapy, must also convert itself into a site of research with quite a precise direction; if not, these working groups are doomed to self-destruction or to being hijacked away from psychotherapy's true stakes, for the benefit of some of its members (ill or healthy).61

Those who spoke Arabic or Berber and knew these cultures (and who often occupied the more subaltern roles in the institution) were thereby in the position of teaching the others, adding support and conferring legitimacy to Fanon's risky enterprise within the larger hospital structure itself. Fanon's and Azoulay's reflections on sociotherapy are pivotal insofar as, by interrogating the universality of Tosquelles' revolutionary therapeutics, they ended up exploring the boundaries of the very category of the “social.” They would find another application in Fanon's theory of decolonization, which also drew on the poetic, phenomenological, and sociotherapeutic dimensions invoked here. Guided by his previous observations when focusing on the sociology of the Algerian revolution, Fanon would theorize decolonization as a cataclysmic event in the very structure of meaning, an event that would correspondingly de-imperialize language and reinstitute social relations.

Decolonizing the Medium

L'An V de la révolution algérienne (1959), translated in 1965 in English under the title A Dying Colonialism and republished in French in 1972 as Sociologie d'une révolution, is an account of the transformation and restructuring of Algerian society in the midst of the decolonization struggle. The five-chapter book narrates the emergence of “a new man” through new social practices and relations, a new man whose existence is placed in dialectical relation with the formation of a national culture. Although the account is presented as a “sociology,” it is important to recall that Fanon had initially planned to title it, performatively, Réalité d'une nation.62 Between a sociological study and a political manifesto, the book's aim was to show that even though the war was still ongoing, the Algerian people were already virtually independent. The people had become the “subject” of their history and a “sovereign nation.”63 In this study, Fanon follows the mutations of social and cultural meanings of a number of carefully selected sociological objects (the veil, the radio, medical knowledge). Through the prism of these objects' lives, he attends to the transformation of the entire phenomenological field of experience in revolution: the struggle brings about “new attitudes, new conducts, new modalities of appearing [apparaître].”64 Focusing on these objects as different standpoints on the revolution, he reflects on their historical dynamism, that is to say, how they become pivotal mediations of the struggle for independence at both individual and collective levels.

Dedicated to the radio, the second chapter (“This Is the Voice of Algeria”) is centrally concerned with the question of language. As Fanon states, the radio is not a “technical instrument” or cultural symbol like any other: “As a system of information, as a bearer of language, hence of message, the radio may be apprehended within the colonial situation in a special way.”65 In the colonial regime, Fanon writes, the radio was a distinctive mark of the French bourgeoisie: ninety-five percent of the radios in Algeria belonged to the Europeans.66 Emblematic of the colonizers' enduring link to the society and civilization of the metropole, the radio was rejected by Algerians as a symbol of French occupation. From 1954 onwards, however, after the creation of independent radio channels in Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon, and because the Setif tragedy had brought “Algeria abruptly onto the international scene,” numerous Algerians started to use the radio at home.67 As a way of keeping up with the events of resistance, of feeling and hearing the impact of the independence fighters' actions, more families were compelled to “enter the vast network of information.”68 This process, Fanon writes, was accelerated by the Front de Libération Nationale's (FLN) creation, at the end of 1956, of its own radio channel, “the Voice of Fighting Algeria.”69 At this point, possessing a radio no longer meant acquiring an “enemy object” but rather the possibility of entering directly “into communication with the Revolution.”70 This is especially evident from Fanon's strategic shortening of “the Voice of Fighting Algeria” to “the Voice,” a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that effectively turns the independent radio channel into a metonym for the independent nation. This voice is the medium of a new form of national epic, the dramatization of which is paradoxically enabled by the jamming of its waves by the French counterintelligence:

The listener, enrolled in the battle of the waves, had to figure out the tactics of the enemy, and in an almost physical way circumvent the strategy of the adversary. Very often only the operator, his ear glued to the receiver, had the unhoped-for opportunity of hearing the Voice. The other Algerians present in the room would receive the echo of this voice through the privileged interpreter who, at the end of the broadcast, was literally besieged.71

By rendering it barely audible and trying to falsify the Voice, French counterintelligence heightens its power as conveyer of truth. “It is the power [puissance] of the enemy sabotage that emphasized the reality and the intensity of the national expression.”72 Interrupted and fragmented, the radio broadcast becomes a permanent reminder of the “atmospheric, rather than objective presence” of the revolution, of its hallucinatory component.73 Existing through scattered acts of warfare, the latter may only be unified through an act of “projective distortion,”74 the clarity and intensity of which is paradoxically augmented by its tenuousness: “The radio of the Mujahedeen speaks the Words of struggling Algeria and is the Voice of each Algerian. Its almost ghostly character confers on the combat its greatest reality.”75 Such ghostliness also implies the collective character of the act of listening: since only one operator can directly listen, others must gather around for the echo.76 Between individual hallucination and collective imagination, listening to “The Voice” is never far from hearing voices (entendre des voix); it is presented as an irrational act of faith, or a form of desire, towards the nascent “Speech” of the Nation (“Parole” de la Nation).77 As Sibertin-Blanc suggests, “this absent cause of the revolution is made intensively present through the spectral modality of a sizzling sound, which reveals the desire to hear the resistance of a collective voice opposing its own obliteration by the occupier.”78 The process of (re)incorporation of a voice implies both stripping the occupier's voice from its authority and retrieving the capacity to bestow meaning onto the world. Barely perceptible and inchoate, this enigmatic voice reinscribes the subject within the expressive powers of language, reconstructing by reinstituting the broken connection between wor(l)d and meaning. Thus, while drawing on the parallels between colonialism and psychosis, Fanon remains also guided by Merleau-Ponty's definition of language as the “assumption” of a world by the speaking subject, creating a picture of the subject's return in (or to) the world from their joint perspectives.

There is yet another side to Fanon's analysis of the radio—an especially puzzling one to commentators—pertaining to the analogy that Fanon draws throughout his essay between the radiophonic medium and language as medium of communication. In a similar way to the radio, communication is radically altered in the course of the revolution. Whereas before 1956, “communication [was] never questioned, but is simply refused, for it is precisely the opening of oneself to the other that is organically excluded from the colonial situation,” communication in wartime after 1956 liberates languages themselves from their communitarian dimensions.79 Fanon stresses the unifying dimension of the Voice of Fighting Algeria, which, by transmitting “the same message” in Arabic, French, and Berber languages, gives it a “universal dimension.”80 According to him, French language itself is thereby liberated from its colonial connotation. When Senghor militated for the spread of French language (francophonie) by calling upon the universal character of French as bearer of a “civilization of the universal,” Fanon reflects on the process of universalization that the dialectic of the struggle brings about. The Soummam Conference (1956) is a symbolic landmark for Fanon. Organized in French, it liberated the language from its colonial connotation by showing that French could be used in the full service of the revolution:

The French language lost its accursed character, revealing itself to be capable also of transmitting, for the benefit of the nation, the messages of truth that the latter awaited. Paradoxical as it may appear, it is the Algerian Revolution, it is the struggle of the Algerian people that is facilitating the spreading of the French language in the nation.81

Fanon's wager is that the peculiar quality of the message transmitted is capable of reversing the valence of the medium. Using French language means at the same time “proving oneself permeable to the signs, the symbols, thus to a certain order of the occupier” and “domesticating” it, even to the point of relativizing the way the colonizers perceive their own language.82 Fanon understands the disalienation of the colonized as a reappropriation of language as a whole, as a medium of truth and experience: decolonizing French means retrieving the totality of mediations that language encompasses, to wrest it from its status of colonial instrument and turn it into back into a medium of inhabitation of the world.83 However, as R. A. Judy has argued, Fanon's claim on French language as new “national” language is not without political implications, for it tacitly embraces the newly established dominance of the urban-based political leadership of the FLN over the rural and popular military resistance, which the Soummam Conference enacted.84

Through his account of these social, cultural, and symbolic transformations, Fanon aimed to discuss less the individual trajectories of particular objects than the general transmutation of the reference system, whereby the demystification of the hegemonic language makes possible a plurality of epistemic and technical resources. “As far as news is concerned, the word of the occupier has been demonetized [nous avons vu se préciser une démonétisation de la parole de l'occupant]. After having imposed the national voice in face of the dominator's monolog, the radio embraces signs broadcasted from all the corners of the world.”85 By enlarging the understanding of the “medium” in which the revolution takes place to the entire sociocultural fabric of Algerian society, Fanon analyzes the experience of revolution as a set of semiotic transformations engaging the immaterial as well as the material realms. As Deleuze and Guattari might have put it, “This Is the Voice of Algeria” accounts for the global transformation of “compositions of order-words” (mots d'ordre) into “compositions of passages.”86 Moving onto a semiotic plane divides the burden of domination and the weight and authority of cultural designations among localized mutations of meanings. These semiotic transformations enable the reactivation of the language and techniques of the occupier as part of the new coherence granted by the decolonizing nation.

The transformations analyzed by Fanon do not only describe the appropriation or reversal of a foreign technical instrument. As a medium (of communication and information), the radio constitutes the nation through the community it mediatizes, through a network-like, expressive—or monadological—totalization, whereby, as Arnall puts it, “every Algerian becomes an amplification device that plugs into the revolution's network of signification.”87 Fanon approaches the radio and French language as analogous mediums for the revolution and demonstrates that these mediums evolve in dialectical relationships with the emerging subjects of decolonization. He thereby shows that decolonization essentially relies on the mutation of the instrumental into the non-instrumental (and vice versa). At the same time, Fanon's conception of the birth of the nation through creative speech directly points back to a form of linguistic poiesis evoked at the outset of this article. As he enigmatically states toward the end of “This Is the Voice of Algeria,” “The nation's speech, the nation's spoken words, shape the world while at the same time renewing it.”88

Reflecting on decolonial struggle as a form of subjectivation, Fanon inscribes the subject's parlêtre within the transindividual relations that the struggle continuously (re-)elaborates. For him, a cardinal function of the process appears to be precisely that of dissociating and freeing what had been merged together in colonial, racial interpellation.89 Evoking the silent mediation by objects in occupational-therapeutic settings, the objects of Fanon's sociology here function as many transferential or transversal elements in the formation of the culture of the decolonized collective. Something happens as objects such as the radio circulate, multiply. At the intersection of phenomenology, sociology, and sociotherapeutical praxis, Fanon thematizes a language made of collective, sedimented meanings, a language outside of itself, “in exteriority,” channeled through material and immaterial mediations, everyday objects, and social structures and institutions. At the same time, Fanon continues to understand meaning as freely bestowed by the subject.90

Decolonization is both a practice of “total disorder,”91 a quasi-psychotic experience of “the end of the world,”92 and the reconquest of objective and rational foundations for speech—the continual dissolution and recomposition of the subject. In keeping with his earliest intuitions on language and moving across the so-called humanism–anti-humanism divide, Fanon's dialectic of decolonization intertwines a reflection on the “power” of language—which rules and commands—with another meditation on the puissance of language—which subjectivizes and creates. Grasping colonial alienation from the perspective of the subject's being-in-language, he articulates revolution as the return and transformation of language: both as a return of the po(i)etic powers of speech, and as the objective transmutation of the semiotic world in which colonized subjects may, in Tosquelles's metaphor, find a way of “nesting” themselves anew.93

_________________

By way of conclusion, let me remark that in its application to forms of practical mediation on which disalienation rests, institutional psychotherapy constituted a pivotal step in Fanon's elaboration of his theory of decolonization:94 Fanon's problematization of the anticolonial nation as a disalienating “collective” radicalized some of the hypotheses that sociotherapy had elaborated. As it approached the problem of the social from the standpoint of language and dramaturgy, as well as phenomenology, sociotherapy provided Fanon with an alternative to the logics of recognition and counterviolence, a paradigm that would also turn out to differ from the dialectics of group-formation of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. Crystallizing social processes without being coterminous with them, sociotherapy encapsulated the possibility of a sociality that, grounded in its productive deviation from social norms, could exist precisely in excess of the “totalizing” function of the social.

Let me also mention that such a perspective on the Algerian “collective” stands in stark contrast with what has been discussed as the essential aridity of his conception of Antillean “social life,” which Fanon evokes, as Fred Moten has argued, through the “pathologizing” lens of its lacks:95 of “drama,” of “heroism,” “revolutionary filiation,” or “struggle.”96 In light of this contrast, a difficult but decisive question pertaining to the geopolitics of Fanon's philosophy, that is, the relationship between site-specificity and generalization across his works, reemerges. Instead of emphasizing the imbalance of Fanon's treatment between Algeria and Martinique, it may be more interesting to think of them as two exemplary sites that mark the theoretical limits of the problem of colonial (dis)alienation: as two partial elaborations within the movement of Fanon's thought.

Acknowledgments

I wish to express my gratitude here to Samera Esmeir, Jeffrey Sacks, and Hannah Proctor, as well as to the reviewers of Critical Times, for providing critical yet generous engagements with earlier versions of this article and contributing much to its improvement. I am also greatly indebted to Jessica Ling for her careful editing of this piece. This research was supported by a Postdoctoral Scholarship granted by the Swiss National Science Foundation (P400PG_183813).

Notes

3.

Though the term “communication” (communication) appears more frequently across Fanon's writings than “translation” (traduction), I chose to focus on “translatability” so as to better encompass the expanded linguistic register at play in his works. While “communicability” tends to be more often associated with articulated language or code, and bound up with the question of rationality, the concept of “translatability,” following Walter Benjamin's classical analysis, arguably moves in two simultaneous directions: horizontally, across languages and temporally, by questioning the possible or impossible “survival,” or “afterlife” (Überleben, Nachleben) of the work. (See Benjamin, “Task of the Translator.”) Though the concept of “work,” so pivotal to the German Romantic tradition, bears no pertinence in Fanon, the (later) Benjaminian themes of “communicability” and “transmissibility” of experience, that is, the question of the impartability of meaning, and the narratability of experience, seem to hold a crucial importance for Fanon, not only (horizontally) across cultural and social divides, but also (temporally) beyond the violence of the decolonial break. Additionally, the concept of “translatability” better points to the dual positioning of the therapist, or analyst, vis-à-vis the patient, at once interlocutor and interpreter—or translator—of the latter's symptoms.

5.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Philcox, 2; Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Markmann, 9; Fanon, Peau noire, 14.

6.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Philcox, 22; Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Markmann, 26; Fanon, Peau noire, 30–31. Charles Markmann offers the following translation of this sentence, orienting the reader's interpretation of it through a surprising parenthesis that says more than the original: “His French (the refinement of his style) was so exciting that the woman swooned away.”

7.

In order to remain faithful to the letter of Fanon's writing, I have in what follows translated “le Noir” as “the Black,” including its capitalization. In this spirit of literalness I have also decided not to capitalize “black” and “white” when used as adjectives, except when Fanon explicitly did so.

8.

Jeanson, “Préface,” 179; translation mine.

9.

Jeanson, “Préface,” 179; translation mine.

11.

On the importance of theater for Fanon, see Tosquelles, “Frantz Fanon à Saint-Alban,” 11.

15.

Focusing on the vitalistic currents running through the Négritude movement, Donna Jones has demonstrated the crucial importance of Bergson's and Nietzsche's life philosophies on Césaire and Senghor. To a certain degree, such analysis could be extended to Fanon's early poetic and philosophical works. See Donna Jones, Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy.

23.

On Fanon's wish for his plays to be destroyed, see Joby Fanon, Frantz Fanon, My Brother.

32.

In particular, the hailing scene of Chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks has been fruitfully compared to Althusser's “little theoretical theater” of subjectivation. See Macherey, “Figures of Interpellation.” But a discussion of Fanon's proximity with Sartre's abundant use of everyday interactions, and of drama more generally, remains to be seen, especially since the latter seems to be commanded by a theoretical orientation of the “subject” diametrically opposed to the former. At this point, it might be important to note two facts: (1) that the word “subject” seldom appears across Fanon's writings, as if it corresponded to a level of abstraction, or synthesis, that remained irrelevant to his own theoretical purpose, and (2) that Fanon's theoretical world, as exemplified for instance by L’Évolution Psychiatrique (one of the journals he read most attentively) manifests an astonishing pluralism about psychiatry, de facto combining (what retrospectively appear as) widely differing orientations on the “subject,” from phenomenology and psychoanalysis, neurology and psychotherapy, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Sartre, to Lacan. Jean Garrabé explains that this unique psychiatry journal owed its name to Bergson's Creative Evolution, and states that the initial aim of the journal was to “give life to clinical psychology and general psychopathology with the help of phenomenology,” and to “fuse phenomenological psychopathology and psychoanalysis.” Garrabé, “Phenomenology,” 670.

33.

Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 125; Fanon, L'An 5 de la révolution algérienne, 113; emphasis added, translation amended.

34.

To be clear, Fanon does not use the term relation here, but the French word rapport, which has no equivalent in English: “Étudier les rapports de collaboration entre le colonisateur, le colon autochtone et le colonisé, c'est montrer qu'il n'y a pas de rapport” (Fanon and Ben Salem, “The Meeting between Society and Psychiatry,” 528; Fanon, Écrits sur l'aliénation et la liberté, 444).

35.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Philcox, 15–16; Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Markmann, 20; translation amended.

38.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Markmann, 9; Fanon, Peau noire, 14; translation mine.

39.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Philcox, 17; Fanon, Peau noire, 13.

41.

Fanon, Black Skin, trans. Markmann, 39; Fanon, Peau noire, 30; translation amended.

44.

This is further complicated by the fact that Merleau-Ponty's statement is supported by a long footnote in which he cites T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which relates the latter's feeling of impossible assimilation to Arabic culture during his covering of the Arab revolts: “‘Madness,’ writes Lawrence, ‘would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments’” (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 31–32; quoted in Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 218).

46.

On this topic, see Mercier, “Frantz Fanon.” 

52.

Fanon, Our Journal (June 28, 1956); Fanon, Écrits sur l'aliénation et la liberté, 285; Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 339; translation amended.

53.

Fanon, Our Journal (March 28, 1956); Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 338; Fanon, Écrits sur l'aliénation et la liberté, 284; translation amended.

54.

Fanon, Our Journal (April 14, 1955); Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 334–35; Fanon, Écrits sur l'aliénation et la liberté, 281.

55.

See Reggio, “Ethic.” On this topic, see also Robcis, Disalienation.

56.

Fanon and Azoulay, “Social Therapy,” 353–71. As Jean Khalfa and Robert Young explain, this article is based on the second section of Azoulay's dissertation “Contribution à l’étude de la socialthérapie dans un service d'aliénés musulmans,” which was defended in Algiers in December 1954. We may add that their accent on “methodological” difficulties also had the function of avoiding confronting the “material” difficulties encountered, and thus to maintain the pertinence of institutional psychotherapy in this context. In a letter (dated March 26th, 1954) to Maurice Despinoy, his ex-colleague at Saint-Alban, Fanon had indeed presented collective psychotherapy in Blida-Joinville as “nearly impossible” due to the overpopulation and the severity and chronicity of the conditions of the patients needing assistance. See Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, 349.

59.

The “Maghrebi Muslims and their attitude to madness” is the topic of another of Fanon's essays coauthored with François Sanchez; see Alienation and Freedom, 421–26.

61.

Oury, Guattari, and Tosquelles, Pratiques, 144; translation mine.

75.

Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 87; L'An V, 70; translation mine. (The Hakon Chevalier translation is here particularly misleading).

76.

I owe this insight to Critical Times editor Jessica Ling, whose comment I reproduce here.

80.

Fanon, Dying Colonialism, 89; translation amended.

83.

While Fanon's return to French may be criticized as a banal form of French linguistic universalism, it can also be interpreted more charitably. Brian T. Edwards for instance reflects on the way in which Fanon, throughout the essay of A Dying Colonialism, enacts a “destabilization” of French language by its abundant use of Algerian etymology. See Edwards, “Fanon's al-Jaza'ir, or Algeria Translated.” 

84.

Judy continues, “Admittedly, the Soummam Congress Declaration of the primacy of the political over the military established the dominance of the Françisant over the neo-Arabisant in the emerging structure of government, something that was apparent in the subsequent constitution of the Gouvernement Privosoire de la République Algérienne (GPRA) in 1958 under Abbas's presidency as well as the terms of Evian 1962, which secured French as the language of industrial modernization” (“On the Politics of Global Language,” 119–20).

87.

Arnall, Subterranean Fanon, 126. To date, one of the most influential interpretations of Leibniz's monadological theory of “expression” as a “network” of communication remains that elaborated by Michel Serres in Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques.

89.

On the parallels between Fanon's theory of subjectivation and Althusser's theory of interpellation, see Macherey, “Figures of Interpellation.” 

90.

On the issue of Sinngebung and freedom, see Merleau-Ponty's illuminating critique of Sartre in the final chapter of Phenomenology of Perception, 521–23.

92.

Both Howard Caygill in On Resistance (101) and Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc in “Décolonisation du sujet et résistance du symptôme” (55) point to the importance of François Tosquelles's own PhD dissertation, “Le vécu de la fin du monde dans la folie. Le témoignage de Gérard de Nerval” (1948), as critical to Fanon's conception of decolonization as a type of apocalyptic, psychotic experience.

93.

On Tosquelles's conception of the relationships between psychotherapy and poetry, see Tosquelles, Fonction poétique et psychothérapie.

94.

A more explicit reevaluation of the role of clinical-institutional critique in Fanon's thought on decolonization remains in order. Among other things, it would require one to examine more thoroughly whether the latter constituted, for Fanon, a viable counter-model of the social.

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