Rediscovering Frantz Fanon

Lost or forgotten works by psychiatrist and political thinker Frantz Fanon have been unearthed by Trinity Fellow Dr Jean Khalfa and Professor Robert Young of New York University and published in a new volume that has attracted significant attention.

Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté
Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté

Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté casts new light on Fanon (1925-1961), who is known for his influence on anti-colonial struggles worldwide and his research into the pathological conditions generated by colonial and neo-colonial situations.

Since his untimely death in 1961, Fanon’s work, which has been translated in many languages, has remained influential, says Dr Khalfa, resurfacing for instance recently to explain the ‘Arab Spring’ or its demise. Yet, says the Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Trinity, substantial parts of his writings have either been forgotten or were never published.

Among many interesting and often unexpected aspects of these writings, one that has attracted attention recently is the link between the political/historical part of Fanon’s thought and his psychiatric analysis of ‘agitation’ i.e. patients’ violence, as produced by the system of internment.

Fanon has often been misunderstood (and mistranslated) on this point. These newly published texts will now be crucial to the understanding of his work.

Jean sat at table with new bookÉcrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté (La Decouverte and Hibr, 2015) took ten years to publish due to the challenges of unearthing Fanon’s documents in different countries, deciphering those texts which were in a poor state, negotiating publication rights and, says Dr Khalfa, ‘writing a substantial scholarly apparatus, allowing an in-depth understanding of the time and thought of Fanon.’

Dr Khalfa was a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellow during his research into Fanon, which was published in French simultaneously in France and Algeria in autumn 2015. The 700-page English version, Writings on Alienation and Freedom, will be published by Bloomsbury in autumn 2016.

The timing is pertinent, as Dr Khalfa explains:

There has already been a renewed interest in the thought of Fanon worldwide in recent years and this volume was eagerly anticipated by specialists in the field. But following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, the book has suddenly attracted a lot of public interest, since Fanon wrote some of the most important texts of the past century on violence, identity and the psychiatry and politics of decolonisation. Journalists were particularly interested in what these newly discovered works reveal about  his views on identity and religion.

French media were particularly interested. Dr Khalfa was interviewed by LiberationJeune Afrique, France Culture and Radio France Internationale when Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté was launched in Paris. Following public events at the London School of Economics and University College London, Dr Khalfa will speak at the Institut du Tout-Monde, Paris, on 1 April, followed by an event at the Salon Africain du Livre et de La Presse in Geneva, on 29 April.

Excerpts from two remarkable plays written by Fanon around 1948, long thought lost, and now included in the new volume, will be read at some of these events.

Selection of booksAmong Dr Khalfa and Dr Young’s discoveries is a draft table of contents for Fanon’s major book, The Wretched of the Earth, in which he characterises the famous theory of ‘negritude’ – the realisation of a hitherto dormant identity – as a ‘mystification’. Instead, argues Dr Khalfa, Fanon saw identity, especially based on race or religion, as a political process that invented links to a past in order to establish power – a point clearly relevant today. Some of the most important texts in Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté concern the appropriation of power by neo-colonial elites in this way. The volume contains also a letter from Fanon to the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati casting his doubts on the revolutionary value of religion.

Fanon saw himself above all as a psychiatrist and rarely stopped practising or publishing in scientific journals, whether in France, Algeria or Tunisia.

He was trained in neuropsychiatry and then opted for a ‘social-therapeutical’ approach to the reform of mental health care. An unexpected scientific experiment at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in 1953 developed into a new theory of ethnopsychiatry. When Fanon arrived at the recently built hospital, near Algiers, which was intended to showcase the best healthcare in the colonies, he found himself in a unique experimental situation in that the wards segregated patients by ethnicity, not just gender. The positive responses of the ‘European’ patients to the new social-therapy, which, among many activities, involved them running a film club, music society and hospital journal, allowed Fanon to eliminate straightjackets and other instruments of restriction.

But the approach failed with the ‘indigenous’ patients. Dr Khalfa explains Fanon’s conclusion:

The answer was to be found not in some racial features but in the fact that social-therapy was based on the patients regaining a capacity to impart meaning to the activities they were part of, or spectators to, and these attributions could only be made within certain frames of reference which, Fanon discovered, were not universal but culturally determined.

Fanon and his colleagues set about studying how mental illnesses were conceptualized and managed in the ‘indigenous’ population, examining belief systems as well as the impact of colonization on Algerian culture. As a result, Dr Khalfa says:

According to Fanon and various participants and witnesses of these reforms, a complete reorganisation of the social-therapeutical activities followed – the opening of a ‘café maure’, the celebration of traditional festivals, regular evenings with storytellers and local music groups – all of which soon re-socialised more and more patients.

Khalfa and Young’s publication of lost texts and discovery of unknown writings show that Fanon conceived the construction of a new nation in the same way he understood social therapy, that is the recreation of a meaningful social world for its citizens. Dr Khalfa explains:

In retrospect, substantial parts of his writings were warnings that newly decolonised nations risked creating political systems as repressive as the previous ones, perhaps even more so because they were often based on identity claims rather than promoting citizens’ autonomy.

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