Ethics of the World: Fanon, hooks & Said
For this lecture, read Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, pg 35-53.
Colonialism & Postcolonialism
Before Europe rose and dominated the world by the mid-1700s, China and Islam were vast empires that developed technology, science, law and culture. Islam was in fact the last great contiguous land empire, stretching from Spain to China. Ironically, Chinese achievements such as ships, gunpowder and magnetic compasses, developed further by Muslims with algebra employed in such fields as cartography (mapping the world), enabled Europe to sail to Africa and the Americas, and to set up colonial empires that could be controlled in spite of separation by great distances. America became the largest slave colony in all of history, and just as Britain ruled the sea less than a century ago America now rules the skies as well as corporate economics. We can now dominate independent others. Chomsky and Zinn are two critics of American empire and its brutality, as well as the fact that “the West” is still hailed as the authoritative voice, the voice of authority and objectivity above and beyond all other cultures.
Islamic civilization was the world’s largest civilization before European civilization rose, so it is the natural place to look for the progression and development of philosophy, technology, and culture before Europe, and it gave Europe an astonishing amount of culture, technology and science. In spite of this, most scholars remain entirely ignorant of Islamic achievements as we rarely look outside of ancient Greek or Roman history to find influences on modern society. There is a greater appreciation of India and China in American scholarship, one that does not acknowledge equality with Europe but which acknowledges some depth. Here are some awesome Ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammad, the second source of Islam after the Koran:
Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.
It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it.
A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion.
The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.
Law and protections for a diverse population were developed the most in Islam before Europe rose and took over. A woman had the right to sue her husband for divorce, and use algebra to get a percentage of his income. Nestorians and Jews fled to Islamic lands from European persecutions. Islam thus thrived as a multicultural and ‘cosmopolitan’ society. It would be centuries before Europe passed them.
1492 is a good example: it is the year that the Christian Kings of Spain and Portugal retook those lands from Muslims, and the start of the Spanish Inquisition that brutally attacked Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians. Thus there is no reason to celebrate the rationality or freedom of the West over and above the rest of human history. Postcolonialism is a movement in scholarship that argues the effects of colonialism persist in spite of decolonization. As Fanon and Said argue, the West and the white is privileged and pronounced the true humanity which knows itself while all others are marginalized and denounced as savage and ignorant.
Fanon & Dual Consciousness
Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961) was a philosopher, existentialist, Freudian and Marxist who began his career in psychiatry and became a revolutionary whose writings are one of the central sources of the Postcolonial school of thought along with Edward Said. Fanon’s two most famous works are the Wretched of the Earth (or Damned of the Earth, as an alternative translation of the French title) and Black Skin, White Masks. His writings have been an inspiration to many anti-racist and anti-establishment groups including the Black Panthers and Black Consciousness movements. Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony as it remains today similar to US control of Puerto Rico. Though middle class, he witnessed the racist brutality of the French military toward the African population who were descended from slaves brought by the French to Martinique to work on plantations, as Africans had been brought to Haiti by the French and to Jamaica by the British. Nevertheless, Fanon joined the French military fighting Germany and Italy in Algeria. When Germany was defeated, the white soldiers were featured in parades while the black soldiers were removed from sight.
Because Fanon was a Marxist, Freudian, Lacanian psychiatrist, it is useful to mention a few thinkers from Marx and Nietzsche onward that Fanon developed into his anti-racist and anti-colonialist philosophy. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) the founders of Marxism and Psychoanalysis, both still huge influences in French thought, argue that individual life is largely determined by underlying forces and systems. Marx argued that history is the process of class conflict, of the dialectic between the rich owners and the poor laborers. Society is largely concerned with protecting the property of the owners and maintaining it through control of the laborers by the middle class. Freud argued that behavior is the process of subconscious conflict, of the dialectic between satisfaction and repression. The ego, or self, is the result of the conflict between the id, which seeks gratification, and the superego, which seeks to put the id in check and delay gratification.
Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) studied Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger while studying medicine to be a Freudian psychiatrist in the 1920s. His thesis, Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality, was an influence on many Surrealists, such as Dali and Breton, both personal friends of Lacan. He was also a contributor to Surrealist journals and Picasso’s personal physician. Lacan is most famous for his theory of the mirror stage, when as toddlers we form a stable image and conception of ourselves by looking at others and our own reflection, then cling to it in the attempt to resolve the flux and contradictions of our thoughts and feelings, and then repress or redirect whatever does not conform to this image.
Lacan’s work centers on narcissism, not merely self-love, as it is often described, but self-obsession. After the young child forms an image of self and begins to cling to it, the child forms narcissistic complexes, forms of excluding self from other that attempt to establish stability in an inevitably insecure situation. The ego is an “inauthentic agency”, concealing its own unstable lack of unity. Freud had wondered why narcissism develops early in children but is not present from the beginning, and Lacan believed he had solved this problem with his mirror stage and the formation of self-image.
Narcissism fragments the world in attempting to cling to a coherent self, and anxiety becomes paranoia. Disunity and contradiction are projected onto the world and others, away from the self and social selves with which the self identifies. The self establishes its place relative to others as “the Real“, not the whole of reality, but merely a preferred image which is insecure, just like the self-image situated in the Real. To use the Nazis as an example, we could suppose that an SS officer is insecure in his ever-changing individual identity, and so he chooses to subscribe to Nazi ideology and racism in an attempt to secure his own self and its place in the world. Lacan believed that making this situation transparent to the self is therapeutic, dissolving paranoid narcissistic delusions and obsessions that entrap the static images of self, other and Real, which Heidegger said of thinking.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), pronounced, ‘Sart’, though the British pronounce it ‘Sar-truh’, who coined the term ‘Existentialism’, argued like Heidegger that the basic condition of humanity is anxiety, inauthentically interpreted as fear of particulars in the face of the indefinite unknown. In the process, we become ignorant of ourselves, of the world, and of our relationships with our fellow human beings. Sartre used the example of the Parisian cafe waiter who plays their role rigidly, over-emphasizing the seriousness of the gestures, the bows, the distribution and collecting of menus, the taking of orders, to define himself as a waiter, filling his role. We and he come to see him established as a waiter and not as a changing human being.
The waiter becomes a robot, and his individuality disappears, both for our and his comfort. We find it easier to interact with a role than with the actor as a person, and the actor finds it easier to lose themselves in the role than to try to retain individuality while serving in their position. While it would be tiresome to say, “Excuse me, authentic human individual playing the temporary role of a waiter, can I have another espresso?”, our substitution of the word ‘waiter’ for the individual affects our awareness of the situation.
Sartre then applied this thinking to his anti-racist work Antisemitism and Jew in 1944, published just as, and not before, Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Like Nietzsche, Sartre argues that racism, that which the Nazis had for Jews as well as that which the French had and have for Africans and Arabs, is a similar ignorant effort to box up the other rather than deal with the complexity of ourselves and our fellow human beings. Camus, Sartre’s former friend, was white and French but raised in Algiers, North Africa, and witnessed this racism firsthand, which is why it is central to the Stranger.
In his play No Exit, Sartre’s main character famously says, “Hell is other people”. We are constantly faced with others who do and do not know themselves as we do and do not know ourselves. Like the horizon of time for Heidegger, the ‘Other’ threatens to give us new strange meaning while taking our meaning away. To face this authentically is to have a good and positive faith in life and the creation of meaning. To have what Sartre calls “bad faith” is to trust that meanings are closed and dead, that the waiter is nothing more to oneself than a waiter, that the Jew, Arab or African is nothing more to oneself or one’s nation than simply ‘Other’ with no relation.
Sartre’s circle of fellow Existentialists included Simone De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Fanon. De Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) was a novelist and philosopher who had a central impact on the second wave of feminism that rose in the 50s and 60s. Some have argued that Sartre took many of his best ideas from discussions with her, presenting them as his own. Today, the two are buried next to each other. De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1949, arguing that women had been marginalized as the mysterious yet inferior Hegelian Other, and that, just like in marginalization of ethnic groups and the poor, women were cast as irrational and so their voices and problems went unheard and disregarded. Famously arguing that one is not born a woman but becomes one, she argued as an Existentialist that women must recreate their identity, choosing themselves as individuals.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961 CE) who recognized Fanon as his student and brought him into Sartre’s existential circle, argued that the body is the neglected site of our subjective human experience, the body-subject, rather than locate experience purely in the mind, even as all phenomena are known to us through our bodily senses, particularly vision, sound and touch. We commune with our senses, and through our senses with others. Our subjectivity is corporeal, as our world is framed by our body. Our world, and the things that inhabit it, are open ended. The world does not have definite boundaries, nor is there a closed set of things. This does not make the world or the things in it meaningless, but it does leave their meanings open-ended, as Nietzsche, Lacan and Sartre say about our social selves.
After fighting in WWII and seeing the white-washing of victory parades firsthand, Fanon went to France and studied psychology and medicine, attending lectures by Merleau-Ponty. Later, he ran a hospital in Algiers, applied experimental methods in anti-racist psychiatry, and supported the Algerian rebels against French colonialism. Eventually this was discovered, Fanon was sent back to France and the entire hospital was dismantled. In Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, which was published in 1961 just before his death, Fanon argued that colonialism taught oppressed people to interiorize racism such that they considered themselves bad and ugly and thus became self-destructive and violent against their fellow oppressed people. The black body and mind is devalued to affirm and celebrate the West, white culture and achievements including colonial control of the globe. This creates a destructive form of dual consciousness, in which the marginalized cast themselves against the dominant in their minds and social lives.
While Marx argues that class is the central struggle, the rich oppressing the poor and the poor rising up in revolution, Fanon argues that racial inequality is the key to class oppression. Rather than merely “celebrate diversity”, all the while supporting the idea that Western culture is rational and other cultures are less rational, we must accept not only the rationality of all people but our own irrationality as human beings. Thus, we accept the rationality and irrationality of white, black and all people, getting beyond the Manichean categorical dualistic thinking that separates both black from white and rational from irrational. However, going beyond the simple universal humanism of Sartre, Fanon argued that black culture asserting itself as an “other” to white culture is valuable in the struggle, so we should celebrate black culture as an independent and separate voice while celebrating human equality and unity. Rather than impose capitalism or communism, we should allow economies and nations to develop individually and see what works for each local group.
Fanon argued that in some cases, such as the American Revolution, the Algerian Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, violence can be an appropriate means for resistance to oppression and brutality. Fanon remained a revolutionary for the rest of his life, writing on tactics and support structures to aid African rebels and third world people attempting to gain independence from European colonial powers. For this, there were numerous assassination attempts made on his life. It is rumored that the CIA prevented Fanon from receiving treatment for leukemia just before his death in America. In 1965, four years after Fanon’s death, Time Magazine wrote that he was “an apostle of violence” and “a prisoner of hate” after the assassination of Malcolm X. Fanon likely would have replied, “You and I both, Time Magazine”.
bell hooks & Womanism
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks (1952 – present) (yes, spelled lower case on purpose) is a feminist and social philosopher who argues that class, gender and race are complexly connected. Critical of second wave 60s feminism focusing on sexism to the neglect of racism and the gap between the rich and the poor, she labeled herself a womanist (not in spell check, but now added to my dictionary) and argued much like Foucault did with Chomsky that power, even resistance movements, reinscribes itself and thus feminism can itself be a marginalizing force. This is also similar to Judith Butler, who views culture and feminism as a complex and not as a simple struggle between the forces of good and evil. While feminism made gains in the 60s and continues to do so today, bell hooks was critical of the movement as it was populated mostly by white college women who are upper and middle class, live in first world countries such as the US and UK, and disconnected from the lives of many women who are impoverished, are unable to attend college or a good career, and who are overwhelmingly of European descent.
One of the most frequently cited sources of the third wave of feminism, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everyone, not just middle and upper class college girls and career minded women. Growing up first in segregated schools and then in predominantly white schools, she saw firsthand that progressives and educators can support prejudice while fighting for change. She studied at UC Santa Cruz and began teaching in 1976 at USC, then later at Santa Cruz, Yale and SF State. She first wrote poetry under her grandmother’s name, Bell Hooks, later keeping the name as she wrote essays and books. One of her early and most famous books is Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981), which examines the dual marginalization of black women in a patriarchal and racist society. The title is inspired by Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and feminist living in the late 1800s whose speech Ain’t I a Woman is a celebrated work of women’s rights. She is critical of black men’s sexism towards black women, the marginalization of the poor by the powerful, and white racism and white supremacism in culture and media.
Like Foucault she is suspicious of any side that calls itself the true and the objective, including feminist and black consciousness movements. For this, many call her, as they do Foucault and Butler, a post-modernist, a skeptic of conceptions of absolute truth and a believer in perspectivism and historicism, that truth is always in a particular perspective situated in a particular time and place. A movement such as feminism must thus be continuously critical of itself and understand itself as a diverse group of various strategies and perspectives. She argues that schools can operate as mind control centers that breed conformity and complacency with injustice such as institutional racism and sexism, but they should operate as open spaces where individuals are invited to question their culture, assumptions and ideas.
Said & Orientalism
Edward Said (1935 – 2003), one of the central sources of Postcolonialism like Fanon, was a Palestinian American and professor at Columbia University who grew up Palestinian Christian during the founding of Israel and the wars that followed. Like Chomsky, he first got tenure in another subject (Comparative Literature) before he became a famous cultural critic and hip within left leaning academia like Marcuse and Foucault. He is most famous for his book Orientalism (1978), which argues that “the Occident” an old term that has been replaced since the 1950s by “the West”, views “the Orient” as other through a Manichean lens much like Fanon describes that Said labels “Orientalism”.
European people, including European scholars, identify reason and freedom with the West, as Western virtues, while marginalizing other large cultural groups such as African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic as ignorant, authoritarian, emotional, and unselfconscious. Said is particularly focused on Eurocentric prejudice against Islamic cultures and populations, criticizing the romantic portrayal of the wonders of the East by Renaissance painters as well as modern day scholarship. The East, the Orient, is presented as an alien place full of wondrous splendor but also authoritarian despots and pre-scientific irrationality.
Today, we see much of the same in pundits labeling Muslims as a violent and unreasonable people. George W. Bush saying “They hate our freedom” rather than looking to economic oppression originally structured through colonialism and still alive in spite of decolonization is a perfect example. Rather than understand September 11th as a result of colonialism, it is presented as a “clash of civilizations” between the reasonable and free West and the ignorant and authoritarian Islamic Middle East. Asia and China, as Russia was, is seen in a similar light. Russia was the East, vs. America and Britain as the West openly in the rhetoric.
My professor Ken Jowitt, a specialist in Eastern Europe during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, told a full auditorium, his political science classroom, that after the fall of the Soviet Union America needed a new enemy, and that it was either going to be Islamic terrorism or communist China. This was less than a year before September 11th. He had argued this since 1990 in a piece included in his book, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, published in Berkeley. This was 10 years before September 11th, and we are still involved in multiple wars in the Middle East 10 years after. You can watch Said speak on YouTube:
What can we do about racism? While few of us may be capable of rearranging the features of global politics, we can each take steps in our own lives to understand, identify and think beyond racist categorizations of human individuals. The interactions we have with others create categories and frames in our heads that mislead us into thinking that certain types of people are smart or unkind and mislead us into treating them as separate types of people.
Neuroscientists have shown that within milliseconds we identify others by ethnicity, gender and age, before we have a chance to think or speak. This can negatively frame our thinking, communication, and interactions. We naturally show frustration and negative emotions when we consider someone a threat, and this reinforces these reactions in ourselves and in others, including children, whether or not we’re aware of it. Psychologists have shown that we are all somewhat racist, the privileged and disadvantaged, some of us more so, and some less so. We are all imprinted with negative attitudes towards others who share our common culture, even if we actively ignore it in ourselves or live where racism is far more covert than overt, more thought to oneself than spoken out loud.
In our diverse society, it is mentally and physically healthier to talk about our problems rather than ignore them and to discourage the idea that we are on opposing teams. When we focus on not making mistakes, this has a negative impact on our thinking and the perceptions of others, but when we focus on having a positive and open interaction, this is good for thinking and communication. Positivity helps us see each other as individuals and not as categories. Understanding that our thinking and personalities are not fixed, but can be enriched and developed, helps us to identify with each other and thrive.
Confucius said that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning. This is wise advice, as we all share similar strengths and faults. Intelligence and compassion are human virtues. Ignorance and brutality are human problems. We can see these are valued and useful yet difficult to develop in all human cultures, ancient and modern. Just as genetics shows we are actually one race with a variety of interrelated ethnicities, we share one culture with many cross-pollinating branches of subculture. We can draw on excellent and terrible examples from all of humanity to become better people. While this may seem obvious, it is easily forgotten.