Pebbles in the River–Random Thoughts on Fanon and the Secret Agenda of ArtsOne

Fanon’s book White Masks, Black Skin speaks of how the Black Subject is forced, either wittingly or unwittingly by the colonizer, into an inferiority complex who will hence strive to imitate the culture of the colonizer.

In the same way, the Black Subject’s culture and mores are like the black stones on the bottom of a white water river. Day by day they are washed over with the culture of the White Man, gradually chipping them down. Gradually shining them (i.e. making them white). Those stones who manage to chip away–those black men who break free of their native country and culture–are washed down the river, swept away in the torrent of the White Man’s culture, rejoicing in their new-found freedom. Yet it is not so easy for a pebble to reattach itself to its source-stone.

I do believe that Fanon’s book is a product of its time. For example, his proposition that “a normal Negro child, having grown up in a normal Negro family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact of the white world” (122) is I think quite irrelevant to modern society.

However, I’d like to give more credit to Fanon than I think a lot of people are giving him. In particular, his usage of the term “the Other” is quite fascinating. It’s a commonly heard phrase nowadays that in the colloquial language has become synonymous with “discriminating”–i.e. to “Other” someone means to divide or separate, to draw a line in between two perceived groups of people with pejorative connotations. Fanon seems to do a semi-reversal.

In his quote: “His [the black man’s] actions are destined for the ‘the Other’ (in the guise of the white man), since only ‘the Other’ can enhance his status and give him self-esteem at the ethical level.” (132), the Other is now seen as a telos, an end goal so to speak. He uses the term almost antithetically to the modern usage: that the Other is not perceived as something to be feared, ridiculed, hated, an anti-telos of sorts, but is rather viewed as something good, positive, meaningful.

In this view, Henri Christophe in Cesaire’s The King of King Christophe can be seen as a pebble in the white waters of European culture, striving for to be the Other. What was once the “Other” in the bad sense of the word has now reversed itself and has become the telos of his new nation, for his hubris drives him to strive for that prestige and wealth which the white culture will bring him. Freud might call this reversal of affect; some sort of desire (wealth and prestige of French culture) is pushed down into the unconscious but manifests itself in the opposite way (enmity towards French culture)–but then again Freud is Freud, and I think we will leave it at that.

At the end of the day, I can’t help feel that all this is just pointless nonsense–albeit interesting pointless nonsense. Having read all these works of literature that all have ties to structuralism, I’m getting the feeling that ArtsOne has a secret agenda of persuading its readers that there’s no free will.

Not that I have a problem with that.

2 Comments

  1. Ha! You’ve discovered our secret purpose! Just kidding of course. What we choose to put on the reading list depends on who is on the team, and it may be that we have people on our team who are interested in the ways that our history, our unconscious, our ethnicity, our gender, etc. affect our being. But I personally don’t take this to mean there’s no free will. I think of it more that we are affected by these things (though I’m less sure of the unconscious than the rest) but can also manage to get beyond them to some extent, especially once we recognize their effects on us.

    But looking at the rest of your post, let me say I think you’ve provided a really helpful way of looking at Fanon with the river image. And the view of Christophe as fitting the sort of way of looking at the other as a telos is very convincing. Sounds to me like you may have the beginning of an essay here, if you choose to write about the other…

  2. Nice metaphor with the pebbles. 🙂

    Two points, though:

    1) Fanon’s book may indeed be a product of its time (what book isn’t?), but I’m not sure that its comments about the psychological burdens of (post)colonial histories are all that outdated. Think for instance of the prevalence of both mental health issues and alcoholism among First Nations and Inuit peoples in Canada.

    2) I think that Fanon at least believes in free will. Indeed, his book is an argument in its favour. He just points out that it’s *hard*.

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