Lewis R. Gordon has been a distinguished professor of philosophy at such institutions at the University of London, the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès in France, and Rhodes University in South Africa. He is also the author of several books on the life and thought of Franz Fanon. His latest, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought, seeks in part to dispel certain widespread misconceptions about Fanon's work, such as the idea that he glorified violence for its own sake. At Public Books, Gordon talks with Brooks Kirchgassner about the new book. Read an excerpt below or the full interview here.
BK: How did you settle on the title of the book, What Fanon Said? What message were you trying to convey to readers?
LG: Fanon is often accused of saying things he simply did not say or write. Some of them emerged from terrible translations of the original French. Others are from a lack of understanding of the contexts of his arguments, which raised the question of the meaning of his statements. But there is more. I wrote a book called An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, in which I explored, among many things, the problem of articulating Black intellectual history in a world that tends to de-intellectualize Black intellectual work. That book examined a vast array of writings on ideas posed by an African Diaspora. This book brings that task to the study of a specific Black intellectual with a critique of the prevailing tendencies of subordinating thought to biography. Implicit in what Fanon said is also what he thought, and I wanted to bring that dimension of his work to the fore.
BK: In your opinion, what aspect of Fanon’s thought is the most misinterpreted or misunderstood?
LG: Much of his thought is misunderstood, but two aspects that are egregiously so are his reflections on violence and what many critics perceive to be his ideas about interracial relationships. In terms of the first, many fail to see that Fanon hated violence. His point was that it was impossible to attempt to reduce or eliminate it without entanglement. The situation was tragic: Doing nothing about violence facilitates its persistence.
In terms of the second, Fanon wasn’t against interracial relationships, and his discussion wasn’t about the woman of color and the man of color. It was a critique of specific pathologies made manifest by colonialism and racism and the limitations they pose for dominating views of the human sciences, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis. These pathologies took the form of seeking legitimation and recognition from a specific source. In classical and Lacanian psychoanalysis, women became such through seeking the love, and by extension approval, of a man. The man became what he is through being able to give his love to a woman. This heteronormative model was advanced as how or what human beings are, and it made sex and gender primary or ontologically basic—that is, absolute. Fanon showed, however, examples of women of color who didn’t want love but instead a form of lie in which a white man would, in his relationship with them, facilitate something they wanted to believe: that they were not really black. This at first would appear as the old order of seeking male approval, but the problem here is that a black man cannot offer this. In fact, it works if the white man who does so also hates black people—is, in other words, a racist. His “love,” then, cannot be premised on anything other than such women supposedly not being black.
Fanon, however, turns to the case of a black man who is also seeking legitimation through receiving testimony against his being black. What many critics miss is that the heteronormative schema falls apart. Although the white woman in the example offers her love, her beloved rejects her and manipulates the reception of a letter from a white man who ultimately informs her black beloved that he is not really black but is instead—and get this—“extremely brown.” In effect, then, this pathological search for escape through recognition challenges any view that makes sex and gender the exclusive conditions for psychoanalysis: Both the black woman and black man in the examples seek recognition from the same source—the white man. This could only be accounted for through looking at the impact of social and political conditions on psychological reality. Colonialism and racism, he averred, always bring in the socio-historical factors that contradict prevailing models of patriarchy and gender-based subjectivity. Fanon’s discussion thus raises questions such as how whiteness functions in relation to gender under colonialism and racism, which means other questions could emerge—such as how these concerns would play out in same-sex relations. I elaborate other considerations in What Fanon Said and I’ve also discussed these matters and their relationship to concerns of power and politics in other articles and books.
Image: Fanon speaking in Accra, Ghana. Via Public Books.