Conference Report “Colonial Violence, Manichaean World”: Frantz Fanon, Hugo G. Olsson and the Postcolonial History of Contemporary Violence
“In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives”1. This is how French philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon captures the relation between decolonization and violence in his 1961 manifesto „The Wretched of the Earth“. Inspired by this, Swedish filmmaker Hugo G. Olsson decided to use Fanon’s work as a means of interpretation for archival TV footage of 1960s and 1970s African liberation movements. In 2014, Olsson released “Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense” – named after the first chapter from “The Wretched of the Earth” (“Concerning Violence”). As part of this year’s Historians’ Convention, Barbara Lüthi (University of Cologne) and Jürgen Martschukat (Erfurt University) organized a section to screen and discuss the critically acclaimed documentary together with Andreas Eckert (Humboldt University Berlin/Forum Transregionale Studien). The panel used the documentary as a starting point for asking whether re-reading Fanon could provide historians with a useful tool for the analysis of (post)colonial power structures.
“Concerning Violence” and “The Wretched of the Earth”
In his introductory remarks, Jürgen Martschukat briefly summarized the reception of Fanon: In the 1960s with their revolutionary rhetoric Fanon became popular among western left activists, a trend that was reversed in the 1970s due to the rise of left terror. Only when postcolonialism emerged was Fanon rediscovered. Following the screening the panel wanted to apply Fanon’s observations to three different, contemporary contexts of postcolonial violence, inspired by Olsson’s documentary: “Postcolonial Africa” (Eckert), “Global Migration” (Lüthi) and “African American Experiences of Violence” (Martschukat).
In “Concerning Violence” US Hip Hop artist Lauryn Hill reads excerpts from Fanons book while Olsson shows footage that emphasizes the spoken words. By illustrating every one of Fanon’s statements with seemingly adequate moving images, Olsson evokes the impression that “The Wretched of the Earth” is a universally valid analysis of (de)colonization processes that can be applied to a variety of historical and spatial contexts: Whatever Fanon has to say on colonial power structures, violence and liberation movements, Olsson finds the fitting images, thus making Fanons observations appear ahistorical. When the latter writes that “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations […]”2, we see images of police controls. And when Fanon comes to the conclusion that violence – forced upon the colonized by the colonizers– provided the only means of self-empowerment for the marginalized, we see footage of FRELIMO fighters engaging colonial Portuguese soldiers in Mozambique, as well as dead bloody bodies of colonial soldiers, anti-imperial combatants and civilians. It is precisely this claim of Fanon (and thus Olssons documentary) that is highly controversial: Is violence the only driving force of decolonization? Can Fanon’s observations be applied to all processes of (de)colonization as well as in postcolonial contexts as Olsson wants to have us believe?
Andreas Eckert answered these questions in his talk: According to him, Fanon is in no way suitable as a historian’s tool to scrutinize postcolonial constellations in Africa. Eckert regarded Fanon’s depiction of colonial societies as too simplistic: The colonized were described as a homogenous group that was opposed dichotomically to another monolithic group – the colonizers. Thus, Eckert criticized that “The Wretched of the Earth” did not ponder the differences within colonized populations. Especially the role indigenous elites played in decolonization processes had been left out. Due to these oversimplifications and omissions Eckert saw no analytical potential in Fanon. However, he pointed out that Fanon could be used as a source, as an object of historical research. But, and this was Eckert’s second important point, for this purpose Fanons texts had to be put into historical context and read as historical material: Especially Fanons involvement in the Algerian War of Independence needed to be highlighted by historians to avoid rendering his work ahistorical – as Hugo Olsson did in his documentary.
Barbara Lüthi agreed in her presentation: Like Eckert, she saw a lack of ambivalence in Fanon’s writings. And while this made it difficult to use Fanon as a theoretical framework, there was a way in which historians could benefit from re-reading “The Wretched of the Earth”, said Lüthi: It could be helpful to describe “epistemic dimensions of colonial and postcolonial violence” and to trace how patterns of racist thinking and submission had continued to exist (but changed) after the demise of colonialism. Lüthi saw proof for this in current debates on global migration. Earlier biologistic forms of racism that had played an important role in colonial contexts had been transformed into a “modern” racism that primarily claimed cultural differences instead of biological ones. These racist notions were often closely tied to concepts of “citizenship“: The (cultural) “other” was construed as incompatible with the “own” and accordingly migrants often were denied participation as citizens.
At the same time, Lüthi argued, women would often become objects in these racist discourses. This was the case in debates on whether or not muslim women should be allowed to wear islamic headscarves or burkas in Western societies – and if they needed to be „protected“ from being forced to do so by muslim men. Fanon criticized such discourses in Algeria in 1959 where colonialists had been acting as protectors of muslim women to legitimize colonialization. Thus, Lüthi concluded, it was possible to look at the intersectionality of race and gender in (post)colonial contexts, using Fanon to historicize racist and sexist patterns of thinking – although in a limited way, due to the different historical settings.
African American Experiences of Violence
In the section’s last talk Jürgen Martschukat highlighted both the historical differences and continuity of African American experiences of violence: While the US constitution promised to protect all people from despotism and violence, African Americans had been denied their status as human beings from the very start, excluding them from the right to the “pursuit of happiness”. For Martschukat, this was “the American version of ‘the dehumanization of the colonized’ Fanon writes about.” Slave Codes, Jim Crow laws, lynchings and the modern prison state are all symptoms of how deeply institutionalized racism was and still is in the USA, according to Martschukat. And despite the existence of an African American middle class and an African American president holding office, the police were still the most crucial element of contact between the colonized and the colonizers as Fanon had observed in “The Wretched of the Earth”.
At this point Martschukat showed the police footage of the shooting of the Afican American Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason van Dyke in 2014. We see van Dyke firing his entire clip – 16 rounds – at McDonald who clearly is not acting in a threatening way. When McDonald lies motionless on the ground, neither van Dyke nor his colleagues take care of the wounded man. Martschukat now discussed whether or not displaying (post)colonial violence as in the police video reiterated the subjection of the victim and reconstituted the “manichaean world”: On the one hand, these images of violence could indeed reinforce existing racist power structures. On the other hand, the images could open up room for critique, an example for which Martschukat saw in Olsson’s documentary. To do so, images of (post)colonial violence had to be placed within an interpretative framework that did not depict violence as natural but as historical, changeable and that “stressed the status of the victims as human beings, thus dissolving the manichaean colonial world.”
What to do with Fanon?
The following discussion centered on the question “How to read Fanon in the postcolonial studies?” and could be summarized as follows: Fanon’s writings can not, or only in a very limited way, serve as a tool for analyzing (post)colonial contexts. Given the strict oppositions not only depicted but partially reiterated in “The Wretched of the Earth” (Europe – Africa, Colonizers – Colonized, “White” – “Black” and the lack of ambivalences, working with Fanon on a theoretical level would imply painting a very simplistic picture.
Additionally, Fanon seems too limited in the description of self-empowerment and decolonization processes, since he portrays violence as the only possible practice of subjectivization. To understand this focus on violence it is necessary to contextualize and historicize Fanon’s work. That said, historians can in fact benefit from reading Fanon, but as a source. His texts provide scholars with the possibility to write history from the perspective of marginalized groups, which is, after all, one of the main concerns of postcolonialism. In the end, however, both Fanon and Olsson did succeed in starting or keeping discussions on postcolonial violence alive – precisely because of their controversial claims and simplifications. In this fashion their works are an important contribution to opening up room for critique. Because looking at current debates on migration and race, we once more realize that more than fifty-five years after Fanon wrote “The Wretched of the Earth” racism and violence have anything but vanished.
The report above by Timo Bonengel refers to a film screening with subsequent comments and discussion. The panel was called “Colonial Violence, Manichaean World”: Frantz Fanon, Hugo G. Olsson and the Postcolonial History of Contemporary Violence and took place on September 23, at the Biennial Meeting of German Historians in Hamburg, Germany (September 21 – 23, 2016). A slightly different, German version of this report can be found here.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2004, p. 3.