Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fanon and "Minor" Differences

[This is a response I wrote to Frantz Fanon's essay "The Fact of Blackness," a text assigned in the online course my friend Alexis Gumbs is teaching: "To Be a Problem: Outcast Subjectivity and Black Literary Production." In conjunction with this post, please read Alexis's very helpful introduction to Fanon, "To Be Open."]

I reread Chapter Five, “The Fact of Blackness,” in my tattered copy of Black Skin, White Masks with your words and questions in mind. One item that struck me was the variance in Fanon’s use of the term “minor.”

At first Fanon uses the word to describe the ontological security of intraracial fraternity: “As long as the black man is among his own, he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others” (109). Here Fanon sets up his profound analysis of interracial angst (the black man’s being as defined through the white other) by suggesting that intraracial fraternity doesn’t produce the visual torsion or traction that’s required of the “racial epidermal schema,” a kind of degree-zero Difference in social relations.

A little later Fanon will extend the logic of this insight by making the somewhat remarkable claim that the Nazi extermination of millions of European Jews was but an instance of “little family quarrels” (115). Again, intraracial relations — even an event as disastrous as the Holocaust — doesn’t quite get at the Difference Fanon is illustrating here.

Toward the end of the essay, when Fanon launches a brilliant critique of Sartre’s prefatory remarks to Black Orpheus, the term “minor” is brought up once more. But its usage here is distinct from its previous usage: “[I]n the paroxysm of my being and my fury, [Sartre] was reminding me that my blackness was only a minor term… Without a Negro past, without a Negro future, it was impossible for me to live my Negrohood. Not yet white, no longer wholly black, I was damned” (138).

Fanon is of course objecting to Sartre’s subordination of lived, embodied blackness, or negritude, to the abstract idea(l) of the proletariat (132-33); he rejects Sartre’s dialectic of White and Black (anti)theses resolving themselves “in the night of the absolute,” or the Marxian notion of class struggle (133). White and Black are NOT coeval theses, Fanon suggests, and racial-epidermal Difference is irreducible to Hegelian-Marxian dialectics. He notes acidly, “Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (138).

Fanon’s critique of Sartre is astute, I think; indeed his tormented, autobiographical essay might be read as an example of precisely how embodied blackness anxiously exists (vis-a-vis the gaze of the other) in a conflictual state of self-objectification. “Consciousness of the [black] body,” Fanon writes, “is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness” (110). Whites don't suffer from such extreme psychic abjection because they needn't recognize their subjectivities through the eyes of others. Under colonial regimes of domination, whites are always already afforded a first-person ("I") consciousness.

And yet, to return to Fanon’s first usage of the term “minor,” I wonder if the concept of intraracial fraternity might not be productively critiqued. What’s obscured by referring to intraracial conflict as “little family quarrels”? Is it possible to theorize Difference intraracially?

Fanon himself would provide one answer to these questions in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. There he devotes many pages deconstructing the social position of those “natives”-turned-state administrators in postcolonial African countries. This professional class of Africans — the national(ist) bourgeoisie — effectively prolongs colonial domination by securing wealth for their caste and exploiting the labor of the black masses. Reading “The Fact of Blackness” in light of this later, more explicitly “revolutionary” work, one wonders whether intraracial difference might not produce a “racial epidermal schema” of its own based on postcolonial variations in caste, color, literacy, and education.

Black feminist literary and cultural critic Hortense Spillers provides another answer to these questions with her idea of the “intramural” in black diasporic cultures. In any number of her essays, especially “Black, White, and in Color, or Learning How to Paint: Toward an Intramural Protocol of Reading,” Spillers shows how sexual difference interjects an irruptive “cut” in the black cultural imaginary. Indeed Spillers’s analytic allows us to see how race itself is differentially embodied across genders. Intraracial fraternity is thus a social fiction that papers over the very real ways in which Woman is relegated to a “minor” position within that discourse.


Thank you, Alexis, for giving us the tools with which to engage critically with Fanon. My rereading of “The Fact of Blackness” is inspired by the animating spirit you display in responding to our posts.

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