On violence, liberation, and the collective: a new biography of
Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz.
The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, by Adam Shatz, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 451 pages, $32
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“The colonial world is a world cut in two,” Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961’s Les damnés de la terre, published in English as The Wretched of the Earth (this quote is from Constance Farrington’s 1963 translation). “The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town . . . is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute.” Fanon says these divisive habits of mind became the colonial order because “the foreigner coming from another country imposed his rule by means of guns and machines.” But for an alarming number of journalists and historians, those guns and machines become visible only when taken up by the colonized, who are curiously obliged to practice “non-violence” in the face of unprompted brutality. In his sober and thorough new biography of Fanon, The Rebel’s Clinic, Adam Shatz quotes Malcolm X on this arrangement: “The only people who are asked to be non-violent in this country are Black people.” Though they were not collaborators, Malcolm X and Fanon together redefined how violence can be discussed in the colonial context, though institutions like the New York Times cling to a nineteenth-century lens when reporting on the colonial project.
The passages from The Wretched of the Earth are from a section called “Concerning Violence,” which Shatz deems Fanon’s “best-known” chapter. Fanon concludes this section with the quote most often associated with him (Farrington’s translation here differs from Shatz’s own): “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force.” (Emphasis mine.) “It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect. Even if the armed struggle has been symbolic and the nation is demobilized through a rapid movement of decolonization, the people have the time to see that the liberation has been the business of each and all and that the leader has no special merit.”
The text after the “cleansing” bit is less-often quoted but just as important. Fanon has become a metonym for the idea of violence as necessary, or even desirable, in resistance struggles. Shatz seems to be invoking that view when he describes Tobi Haslett’s brilliant 2021 essay on the Floyd uprising, “Magic Actions,” as one of several “Fanonian celebrations of violence.” Shatz writes that “Fanon’s attraction to violence reflected his background as a former soldier”—a reference to his stint in de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, paradoxically—“and as a West Indian who had long believed that Martinique had failed to achieve genuine freedom because abolition had been granted by the French, rather than wrested from them as it had been in Haiti.”
Wretched includes another line that deserves a look: “shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment.” Shame is also a psychological state, and Shatz is careful to lay out Fanon’s foundation as a clinician. His training in psychiatry took him through Paris and Lyon, then in 1953 he took an appointment in Blida, Algeria, where he famously treated FLN fighters. Though he was raised in a comfortable bourgeois home in Martinique, he became so closely identified with the Algerian struggle that he is sometimes misidentified as Algerian. It might be more accurate to say that Fanon was in permanent exile, shifting national attachments as the spirit guided him. Sympathetic to Sartre’s work and locked in something of a dialectic with Césaire’s writings on Negritude, Fanon did not declare allegiance to any movement beyond liberation itself.
One gift of The Rebel’s Clinic is that it amplifies the radical nature of Fanon’s work within the hospital setting, including his time at the Saint-Alban psychiatric facility in southern France with Francesc Tosquelles, a doctor who wanted to “bring Marx to the asylum.” The two clashed but collaborated, and agreed on Tosquelles’s theory of “disalienation,” which they used to flatten the hierarchy between patients and staff and doctors in the institution. Fanon’s care as a medical professional is often blotted out by his mentions of violence. As director of the psychiatric wing of the Blida-Joinville Hospital just outside Algiers, he introduced a culture where “debate was permanent,” according to an intern. Fanon wrote to his staff that “eating is not inferior to thinking” and that patients who complained about the food were developing “a taste for nuance.” When his record-collecting society and film club failed to entice the Muslim patients, Fanon instituted a café for the men and a salon for the women, eventually inviting the mufti of Blida to visit. Shatz writes that after “a few months, it was as if the hospital’s Muslim patients had awakened from a long slumber.” Fanon said this situation was something “you can only understand with your guts,” adding that he wanted to show “Algerian culture had values other than colonial culture,” which is more explicit than a gut feeling.
This was Fanon—bleeding past methodology (to the chagrin of his bosses) and moving between the spiritual call and the analytic framework. It is logical that Shatz wants to reconstitute Fanon and review key passages in “Concerning Violence,” as it has become something of an open-source Constitution for resistance fighters. In the original French, the sentence about a “cleansing force” is “Au niveau des individus, la violence désintoxique.” Shatz states in a footnote that this “English translation . . . is somewhat misleading, suggesting an almost redemptive elimination of impurities, whereas Fanon’s more clinical word choice indicates the overcoming of a state of drunkenness, the stupor induced by colonial subjugation.” Farrington’s preference for “cleansing” suggests the feeling of a religious ritual, whereas “disintoxicate” is a politer process, like shaking off a hard night on the town. Though Shatz insists on using the archaic “disintoxication” several times, it bears mentioning that both Google and some colleagues fluent in French prefer “detoxify,” which gives us colonialization as a poison to be flushed.
Shatz goes on to say that Fanon’s case studies leave the impression “that the disintoxicating effects of violence are ephemeral at best,” which brings to mind a Fanon quote from his first book, Black Skin, White Masks: “Analyzing the real is always a delicate task.” While it is true that Fanon “recounts the story of a patient whose revolutionary gesture culminated in prolonged anxiety,” this particular does not contradict the general sense of “self-respect” that Fanon speculates as the outcome of violent resistance.
Fanon lived in the prophetic mode, as much creating a future for the colonized as he was engaging in Marxist analysis. Whether he truly “celebrated” violence is a debate with no real productive horizon—it seems closer to the truth that he saw its necessity in an environment that had been made violent at its foundation without the consent of the colonized. There is no clinical trial that could determine whether or not the colonized do generally lose their despair through violence. Most relevant, perhaps, is that the passage eliminates the idea of the individual when Fanon writes “liberation” is “the business of each and all and that the leader has no special merit.” (The leader here could be thought of as any single case study Fanon carried out.) Shatz spends enough time complicating the language around violence that we lose sight of the fact that Fanon saw the undivided collective—rather than any particular means to bring it about, violent or otherwise—as the key to resistance, that which he celebrated, codified, and offered back to the world.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).