Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself (Fanon 1963: 36-37).
Frantz Fanon’s approach to violence and its effects on the individual is uniquely guided by his lived experience. Fanon was born and raised as a colonial subject in the Antilles. He then undertook medical school and psychiatric training in France. Fanon was later an employed psychiatrist in Algeria, where he later eventually joined the revolution against the French. Fanon’s outlines both the potentialities and negative aspects of violence. His most famous and controversial remarks are those around the cathartic and self-actualising affect that violence can have on a colonial subject. However, these are often taken out of context, because Fanon is certainly not an advocate of gratuitous violence. In this brief paper, I will outline the Fanonian approach to the effects of violence on an individual, both negative and positive.
The potentiality of violence derives from the colonial context which the violent act is seeking to uproot. Fanon, using Algeria as his example, notes that:
[d]ecolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature…[t]heir first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together – that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler – was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons (1963: 36).
In other words, colonial rule is maintained through violence and repression. Fanon strongly emphasises that colonial rule ‘is the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native’ (1963: 38). Fanon even asserts that violence is the ‘natural state’ of colonial rule (1963: 61). This violence derives from the racialised views that the coloniser has about the colonised subjects. The coloniser often inscribes the colonised subject with ideas of backwardness and a lack of empathy and rationality. The colonial subject is therefore ‘dehumanized’ by colonialism to such an extent that ‘it turns him into an animal’ (Fanon, 1963: 42). It then becomes natural for the coloniser to deploy violence in the colonial context, because the dehumanised colonial subject will not respond to anything else.
For the colonial subject, freeing themselves of colonialism thorugh violence can be a cathartic experience. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon introduces the idea of ‘collective catharsis’. Collective catharsis is describes as ‘[i]n every society, in every collectivity, exists – must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the forms of aggression can be released’ (1952: 145). Catharsis is translatable from Ancient Greek as, ‘to purify, cleanse or purge’ (Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2010: 78-79). Aristotle used this term to describe a situation where there are feelings of pity and fear which are then relieved by an intervening event (Aristotle, 1996: Ch 6). For Fanon, this term is inextricable from the colonised subject’s experience of violently ridding themselves of colonial rule (1963: 42). The violence is the intervening event which is able to remove their feelings of self-loathing which have been internalised after constant repetition from the colonial power. The colonial subject is also able to restore their self-esteem and control over their political life. Accordingly for the Algerians, violence is cathartic insofar as it allows them the restore the sense of self which was destroyed by colonialism.
This cathartic violence, also allows an individual to reclaim their humanity. Fanon eloquently describes the effect that this has:
Thus the native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler. He finds out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner…for if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler’s, his glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer turns me into stone (1963: 45).
The physical act of violence perpetrated by the revolutionary reminds them of the humanity that they share with their colonisers. Sartre’s introduction to Wretched of the Earth he usefully described the process of colonial revolution as ‘man recreating himself’ (1963: 19). It also provides a sense of physical, mental and metaphysical ‘freedom’ (Fanon, 1963: 86). Fanon suggests that ‘violence … frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect’ (1963: 94). So revolutionary violence is not just cathartic, but it also allows the colonial subjects to recreate themselves or restore the way that they were prior to colonialism. It allows the colonised person to resume a free and self-determining existence.
Violence also has the ability rectify mental health problems. In the preface to Wretched of the Earth, Sartre usefully summarises Fanon’s analysis of violence and situates it within medicalised discourse by stating that ‘The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms’ (1963: 21). To explain this, Fanon draws upon examples from his psychiatric practice. Fanon notes that the colonial context and the ‘systemic negation’ of the colonised subject over a sustained period of time forces them to question their identity by asking themselves ‘[i]n reality, who am I?’ (1963: 252). Fanon later suggests that Algeria is a ‘favourable breeding ground for mental disorder’ as a consequence of colonial rule and ideology (1963: 251). Fanon suggests a category of psychiatric illnesses called ‘psychosomatic disorders’, which stem from the colonial context (1963: 289). The symptoms of these disorders include ulcers, menstrual pain, hair whitening and others (Fanon, 1963: 291-292). These disorders demonstrate the way that ‘it is not necessary to be wounded by a bullet in order to suffer from the fact of war in body as well as in mind’ (Fanon, 1963: 290). For Fanon, revolutionary violence has a therapeutic effect as he sees patients freed from some of these symptoms following revolutionary violence. In this way, Fanon views violence as a ‘cleansing force’ (1963: 94). Accordingly Fanon suggests that violence is able to provide a cure to some of the mental illness of the colonial subjects.
Despite seeing potentiality in violence, Fanon does not think that violence should be used lightly or as an end unto itself. Fanon also documents the dangerous and negative effects of violence. The initial and most obviously negative aspect of violence is the physical harm that it inflicts upon people. In all of Fanon’s works, the physical and human cost of violence is made present. Expressing frustration he notes that ‘[w]hen the native is tortured, when his wife is killed or raped, he complains to no one’ (Fanon, 1963: 92). As Fanon views violence as the currency of colonialism, it becomes an omnipresent feature of daily life for the colonial subject (Fanon, 1963: 61). The true horror of daily violence was ever present to Fanon as a psychiatrist in the largest psychiatric hospital in Algeria. The physical violence which pervades colonialism is exacerbated by the structural violence of the colonial system which sees the ‘systematic negation’ of the colonial subject’s humanity (Fanon, 1963: 250). Fanon recalls numerous examples from his practice of physical and mental trauma which was caused by the colonial context.
One patient presented to Fanon suffering from sexual impotence (Fanon, 1963: 254). The patient, a taxi-driver, told Fanon how his wife had been beaten for two days and raped after French troops found his abandoned taxi with FLN material inside (Fanon, 1963: 254-256). On hearing this, the patient, who was fighting away from his family, suffered from persistent headaches and insomnia which Fanon attributed to the acts committed by the French against the patient’s wife (Fanon, 1963: 258). Another patient, ‘Dj’ presented to Fanon with hallucinations and insomnia (1963: 261). Dj was the only male in his household (Fanon, 1963: 263). After he joined the ALN (a liberation organisation affiliated with the FLN), word was sent to him that his mother and sisters had been killed by French soldiers (Fanon, 1963: 263). Fanon notes that whilst in a state of being ‘temporarily insane’, Dj then went to the house of an ‘agent’ for the French and murdered the agent’s wife (1963: 263). Shortly following this he presented to Fanon, who could not suggest a cure. Fanon suggests that ‘time alone’ can cure such psychiatric disruption (1962: 264). Accordingly, the physical harm of violence is an undoubtedly negative effect, as well as the ensuing mental health issues that arise.
The physical and mental effects of violence also affected the French and their families. Fanon retells the story of one patient, a French police inspector, R, who presented himself after tying up and beating his wife and young children in their home (Fanon, 1963: 267-268). In their consultation, it became apparent that R was heavily involved in the questioning and torture of Algerian revolutionaries (Fanon, 1963: 268). R was a heavy smoker and was unable to deal with large amounts of noise (Fanon, 1963: 267). Fanon wanted to write a medical certificate for R exempting him from work (Fanon, 1963: 268-269). However the police inspector refused to accept this, as he did not want to be seen as weak by his colleagues (Fanon, 1963: 268-269). Fanon also wrote extensively about torture which was a ‘fundamental necessity of the colonial world’ (1964: 68). As a consequence of the brutality that the police are required to inflict upon the Algerians, Fanon noted that from the beginning of 1956, ‘cases of insanity among police agents became frequent’ (1964: 68). He extensively lists the symptoms and effects of this insanity, which included ‘threatening to kill their wives, inflicting severe injury on their children…suicide…[and] coming to blows with colleagues’ (Fanon, 1964: 68). Thus the physical effects of violence are common to both the Algerians and the French colonisers. Violence does not discriminate in the mental and physical torment that it inflicts upon both parties.
Noting the great physical and mental consequences of violence, it becomes evident that violence cannot simply be an end unto itself. Violence for Fanon must have a clearly prescribed purpose. He cautions:
The militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realizes that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up yet another system of exploitation. This discovery is unpleasant, bitter, and sickening: and yet everything seemed so simple before (Fanon 1963: 145)
Without a clear vision and plan in place for when decolonisation occurs, the Algerians would be doomed to reproduce the power relations of oppression and violence, with the only difference being, the parties to this power relation. Fanon stresses the cruciality of ensuring that all revolutionaries are involved in the political process of formulating a new reality – and not just the political elite – this will prevent segregation and alienation within the group (1963: 81). Fanon further warns that the revolutionaries should not ‘place their future’ in ‘the hands of a living god’ (1963: 94). Thus Fanon urges that mere violence is not enough to construct a positive new reality. The inclusion of all of the people into the creation of the new political reality is of the utmost importance to ensure that strong foundations are set for a coherent and sustainable state. In this way, Fanon places conditions on the use of violence to ensure that it is properly able to meet its aims and does not become gratuitous.
Creating a new cultural identity after usurping a colonial power is also incredibly difficult. Fanon notes that after a prolonged period of colonisation ‘there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture’ (1963: 238). After years of living under a colonial rule which seeks to negate the identity of the colonial subject it also becomes difficult for the newly liberated subject to reclaim their own identity. A colonised person must alter their behaviour under colonial rule to ensure that they can live in peace without excessive repression from the colonisers. For the colonial subject, it is difficult to give up these particular ways which became crucial to their survival. Fanon succinctly summarises the consequence of a failure to construct a positive new identity by saying that ‘there will be serious psycho-affective injuries and the result will be individuals without an anchor, without a horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless’ (1963: 218). Therefore after any widespread revolutionary violence there will be psychological trauma as the colonial subjects attempt to reforge a positive identity for themselves. Having lived in a state of fear for so long, forming a positive new identity can be a difficult process.
Frantz Fanon provides a useful account of both the positive and negative effects of colonial violence on individuals. Violence has the potential to be liberatory and cathartic, in the sense that it allows a colonial subject to free themselves and recreate a positive new identity after a long time of enduring colonialism. Conversely, violence also has negative effects. Most obviously, is the physical and mental damage that violence does to individuals and their families. The violence also becomes problematic when it becomes an end unto itself which does not have a political goal. Finally, violence will lead to confusion for people who have the freedom to reclaim an identity that they have longed for, but have been unable to ascertain for a long period of time. Therefore Fanonian violence has varied effects on the colonial subject.
Josh Pallas is a Research Assistant in Politics and International Studies at the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong NSW 2522 Australia.
This article was originally published at Critical Legal Thinking.
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