Fanon: Race and Alienation

2014 November 8
by roots

fanon white maskOne of the important ideas in Fanon’s thinking is that race is a form of alienation. This idea is at the center of Black Skin, White Masks, and one of its most important chapters, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” The chapter uses a pastiche-like narrative of black experience, where the problem of racial alienation drives the story forward. The narrator, which we can consider not only Fanon, but every ‘black man,’ is confronted by a typical racist act of everyday life. The confrontation throws him off balance and disrupts his assumptions about himself and the way the world works. As the chapter continues, racist situations and voices periodically intervene, increasing the tension and delirious-like atmosphere. The narrative, then, is the story of how the narrator struggles to understand his situation in the white supremacist society in which he lives. By the end of the chapter, the narrator has reached a new self-consciousness of his racialized, alienated existence, if not a way out.

The central focus on racial alienation is announced in the opening passage of the chapter. Fanon starts the narrative with a jolt of recognition that begins the struggle of self-realization:

I came into the world anxious to uncover meaning in things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world, and here I am an object among other objects. Locked in this suffocating reification, I appealed to the Other so that his liberating gaze, gliding over my body suddenly smoothed of rough edges, would give me back the lightness of being I thought I had lost, and taking me out the world put me back in the world. But just as I get to the other slope I stumble, and the Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye. I lose my temper, demand an explanation….Nothing doing. I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me. (89)

The narrator experiences an assault – captured in the racial epithet and racial categorization that leads the chapter – which reveals a conflict that was previously hidden by everyday life. Apparently, the narrator assumed he had a freedom to determine his existence he does not. He becomes a prisoner of a racial situation in which he is objectified. However, at the same time, the incident has shook the narrator out of himself. This kind of situation or conflict becomes the foundation for a self-awareness of his true condition or existence.
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Fanon and Hegel

2014 October 3
by roots

Haitian_RevolutionIn Hegel’s theory of inter-subjectivity, Fanon found a methodology for thinking about race and anti-black racism. Just as Marx appropriated Hegel’s theory as a foundation for his concept of social labor and class conflict, so Fanon established an approach to racial formation, alienation and struggle. However, as he states in the pivotal chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” the premise of Hegel’s theory had to be altered to address the contemporary reality of racism. For Hegel the problem of inter-subjectivity rested on the assumption that both parties struggled for recognition. Yet, Fanon argues that black people cannot be recognized because they lacked, in general, resistance to white supremacy. However, Fanon’s argument here can be misleading.

For the incompatibility of Hegel and black experience and social position, Fanon has in mind a specific kind of “black man.” In “The Black Man and Hegel,” Fanon writes that since there is ”no open conflict between White and Black,” the process of struggle and recognition posited by Hegel is blocked. Reflecting on the end of slavery in the Americas – the formative historical experience of the African Diaspora – Fanon argues that “the white master recognized without a struggle the black slave. But the former slave wants to have himself recognized. There is at the basis of Hegelian dialectic an absolute reciprocity that must be highlighted.” Setting aside the historical inaccuracy of this statement, Fanon argues that, since there was no authentic struggle on the part of freed slaves, there can be no genuine recognition on the part of the white man. As a result, black people are denied the chance to achieve self-awareness since the process of recognition through struggle fails to take shape. Fanon makes a similar claim in “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” again qualifying Hegel’s dialectical theory of recognition. “Ontology,” he writes, “does not allow us to understand the being of the black man,” concluding that “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.” Fanon suggests that black social being has been emptied of content and its agency immobilized, preventing the process of self-becoming from getting under way.

However, Fanon’s initial foray into a dialectical approach to race and white supremacy must be qualified. In Black Skin, White Masks he identifies this static condition only within segments of the African Diaspora, in particular those from the Caribbean, an idea reflecting a preoccupation of many thinkers from the region during the 1950s. In short, the ‘condition’ Fanon identifies is not a universal one, and he contrasts it with the African American: “We say the black Frenchman because the black Americans are living a different drama. In the United States the black man fights and is fought against. There are laws that gradually disappear from the constitution. There are other laws that prohibit certain forms of discrimination. And we are told that none of this is given free” (196). Once this history of ontological and material resistance is established, Hegel’s dialectic of self-realization becomes a useful tool that Fanon adapts to grasp the actual movement of racial struggle against white supremacy.

Marx, Werner Herzog and Time (Again)

2013 February 25
by roots

W MorrisRecently a comrade made a more explicit connection between my post on Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Marx’s concept of time. I wanted to post a few notes about it here as a follow up.

He pointed to an important essay by Loren Goldner on the concept of social reproduction where he talks about Marx’s concept of time, drawing the threads together from the Grundrisse, Capital Vol 3, the “Theses on Feuerbach”, among others.

Goldner writes:

“In the Theses, as indicated above, Marx refers (Thesis 1) to the “active side developed by idealism,” over and against all previous materialisms “which do not understand activity as objective.” What connects Descartes to Hegel, via Spinoza and Leibniz, is the idea of “actual infinity.” (I retain this term not in any mathematical sense but as it comes down to us from philosophy, above all in Hegel.) Bourgeois ideology conceives of infinity as endless repetition toward a goal which is never reached, as presented in Zeno’s paradoxes. Bourgeois ideology could not free itself from this “asymptotic” ever-closer approximation of a “bad infinity” (the term is also from Hegel), which expressed in a different way an atomistic reductionist vision of the universe as consisting of ever-smaller points and instants….”

“…Actual infinity, by contrast, sees infinity not as an ever-receding “goal” at the end of a process of infinitely small steps, but as EXISTING IMMANENTLY IN THE PRESENT. What connected Descartes to Hegel and Marx was the idea that the banal recognition of any specific “fact” presupposed immanently and simultaneously a self-consciousness RE-cognizing of that “fact.” Just as there is in Marx no commodity in itself but ultimately the whole circuit of M-C-M’ valorization presupposed in the existence of any specific commodity, there is in the development from Descartes to Hegel the growing recognition that the “actual infinite” present in cognition is the presupposition of any sense-certainty perception whatsoever. Hegel culminated this process in philosophy (that is in ideology) by immanently unfolding the activity of “world spirit” from banal sense-certainty data; Marx relocated it in the concept of “sensuous transformative praxis,” the “germ of a new world outlook” best presented in the (incomplete) 4 volumes of Capital, wherein he immanently unfolds the world history of capitalism, and demonstrates capitalism’s transitory nature, from the banal individual commodity. Creativity IS the “actual infinite” in man”
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Music Break: The Stooges, Loose; Northern Portrait, Crazy

2013 January 27
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by roots

Surplus and Profit

2012 December 31
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by roots

In Chapter 9 of Capital Vol. 1, “The Rate of Surplus Value,” Marx says that the rate of surplus value should not be confused with the rate of profit.

The rate of surplus value is s/v. The greater the ratio between the two the larger the surplus value. The increase in surplus value and the lesser the variable capital, the greater the exploitation. Because value is the form of labor in capitalist society, the relationship between necessary labor and surplus labor takes the form of s/v. And this s/v is the value form of the living labor, which is surplus labor/necessary labor.

Some relation of necessary to surplus labor has characterized all societies. However, in capitalist society labor takes the form of s/v. V is living labor existing as “labor-time”. The relation s/v is the necessary time to reproduce labor power and surplus time that accrues to the capitalist because he controls the means of production.

The relation s/v is therefore not simply an “expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the worker by the capitalist” (326). The relation s/v expresses the separation of labor from the means of labor. Therefore this relation expresses “the same thing in different ways; in the one case in the form of objectified labour, in the other in the form of living, fluid labour” (326). What s/v indicates is living labor existing as objectified labor.

Marx says that the rate of surplus value is not the rate of profit. Profit is s/C; that is, the surplus in relation to the capital advanced, or s/(c+v). In comparison, the rate of surplus value is the relation of the surplus created by labor to the value that returns to it in the form of wages, or s/v.

Yet the rate of surplus appears to the capitalist as the rate of profit. As Marx says, s/v takes the form of s/C. From the standpoint of s/C labor, in the form of (v), is just another object in the production process. The capitalist makes no conceptual distinction between (c) and (v), and both simply exist as (C), his commodity or capital that must be advanced.
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Masters and Slaves

2012 November 26
by roots

I’ve continued to slowly work on Fanon when I have time.

It is difficult to understand Fanon’s concept of race without grasping his methodology. The terms through which he thinks about race are drawn from a number of sources. Fundamental to Fanon’s approach, and most important for the purposes of this essay, is his engagement with Hegel. While a student in post-war France, Fanon encountered the Hegelian inflected existential phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was during this time that France experienced a Hegelian revival while Fanon was a young man recently discharged from the military and pursuing a degree in psychiatry. Influential in the return to Hegel was Alexandre Kojève’s lectures, later published in English as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947). These lectures interpreted Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit through a Heideggerian and Marxist lens. Kojève lectures had an important impact on Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s development of existentialism in post-war France. It was from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that Fanon gathered and adapted many of the basic phenomenological concepts with which he theorized race.

A critical component of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the section called “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” which appears in the second chapter on the origin and developing “movement of self-consciousness” [1]. There are number of considerations here. First, for Hegel self-consciousness arises as a result of the coexistence of human beings and the world around them. The relation between the two is defined by the appropriation of the object of nature and the creation of new objects by human beings.

The concept of self-consciousness as a developing process that emerges from the relation between human beings and the world is an important one. As Herbert Marcuse writes, for Hegel “the subject of thinking is not the ‘abstract ego’ but the consciousness that knows that it is the ‘substance’ of the world.” When true self-consciousness is achieved, Marcuse continues, “thinking consists in knowing that the objective world is in reality a subjective world, that it is the objectification of the subject. The subject that really thinks comprehends the world as ‘his’ world” [2]. For Hegel, Marcuse concludes, this state of freedom is achieved when humanity “abandons the abstract freedom of thought and enters into the world in full consciousness that it is ‘his own’ world” [3]. Self-consciousness is no longer a negation of something that lies outside of oneself and, instead, becomes a positive actualization of the world as an extension of the self. Only then is there is a complete correspondence between the self and world. For Hegel the development of self-consciousness towards the unity of the world and self is the process of history itself.
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The commodity, wage and surplus value

2012 November 3
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by roots

I’ve been absent for awhile due to work and organizing, but I continue to put together notes on Fanon when I can. Meanwhile, going over Capital Vol. 1 again, I’m still dwelling on the relationship between the wage and surplus value.

After establishing the concept of Capital as value valorizing itself in chapter 4 (the “general formula”), he goes on in chapter five, the “contradictions in the general formula,” to show the contradiction of capital.

What is the contradiction? In chapter 4 he describes valorization as limitless, endless. The standpoint of capital is M-M’ and the C is incidental to its self-expansion. In chapter 5, Marx returns the dialectic by saying that the production of C is the basis upon which not simply M exists (the money expression of value/capital), but capital itself. And where does the C come from but living labor. The valorization of value IS living labor expanding itself in alienated, abstract form, though it appears to capital and the capitalist (and to everyone else) that it is not.

I thought the following was a key quote from Chapter 5 (online version, but with Penguin page number):

“The commodity owner can, by his labour, create value, but not self-expanding value. He can increase the value of his commodity, by adding fresh labour, and therefore more value to the value in hand, by making, for instance, leather into boots. The same material has now more value, because it contains a greater quantity of labour. The boots have therefore more value than the leather, but the value of the leather remains what it was; it has not expanded itself, has not, during the making of the boots, annexed surplus-value. It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, expand value, and consequently convert money or commodities into capital.

It is therefore impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation” (268).
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Music Break: Sham 69, Hey Little Rich Boy; Dead Boys, Ain’t it Fun

2012 September 7
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by roots

“Happy slaves”: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad)

2012 August 31
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by roots

For some reason I saw Elite Squad 2 awhile back when it was released in the US, but not Elite Squad. I finally watched Elite Squad last week. Elite Squad 2 holds records in Brazil for ticket sales and revenue. José Padilha, the director of the Elite Squad series, apparently will be completing a remake of RoboCop next year, a movie of familiar themes to Elite Squad: crime-ridden city, a corrupt system and good cops who must decide to go outside the law to save the city.

Elite Squad is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve seen in awhile. And its easy to see why. I looked up scenes of the movie on youtube and I came across a trailer. The trailer is so detached that the actual content of the movie is transformed into an ideological specter, disembodied from the real movie.

The trailer says that Elite Squad is about reluctant, but good cops who have no choice but to clean up their neighborhood through extra-legal means. It is likely that it is on those terms many viewers may think about the movie. However, the visceral experience of the movie will prove otherwise. Its dystopian portrait of capitalist modernization is highly concentrated in the trope of the prison, which is overtly thematized in references to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The feeling of capitalist society as a barbaric prison is reproduced at the level of character in Captain Nascimento’s spiraling addiction as he tries to escape his role as a military police commander.

Of course, Elite Squad must retain the moral impulse of its heroes, but it does so as a half-dead gesture. This is where I thought Elite Squad works and maintains authenticity. The moral impulse is meant to open the way to the restoration of the unity of the city, however, in this case, its “proper” place in the genre recedes in the distance. The kind of ideological commentary in the American trailer for the movie becomes that much more glaring – an attempt to square the circle, so to speak. It is a sign of decadence, equivalent to the chatter of the political class far removed from the actual reality of capitalist society.
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“Sealed into that crushing objecthood” and the “de-realization process of labour”: Fanon and Marx

2012 August 21
by roots

In writing about Fanon’s concept of race I have found Marx’s phenomenology of capital and labor critically important. What Marx draws out in a reading of Fanon is the centrality in the latter of a dialectical approach in thinking about the process and expression of race. For Fanon race is above all a social relation that develops dialectically.

Because Marx, like Fanon after him, conceptualized their respective subjects through a grappling with Hegel there is a methodological affinity between Fanon and Marx that is beneficial for both.

Very few marxists in a practical sense have made central the phenomenology and psychology of labor in capitalism even though it is clear that Marx was keenly attuned to these dimensions. At the same time very few interpretations of Fanon have considered sympathetically the inner connections with Marx, specifically in regards to a certain shared methodology appropriated from Hegel.

Several “Hegelian” passages in the Grundrisse have been particularly helpful as I wade back into Fanon:

“The independent, for-itself existence [Fürsichsein] of value vis-à-vis living labour capacity — hence its existence as capital — the objective, self-sufficient indifference, the alien quality [Fremdheit] of the objective conditions of labour vis-a-vis living labour capacity, which goes so far that these conditions confront the person of the worker in the person of the capitalist — as personification with its own will and interest — this absolute divorce, separation of property, i.e. of the objective conditions of labour from living labour capacity — that they confront him as alien property, as the reality of other juridical persons, as the absolute realm of their will — and that labour therefore, on the other side, appears as alien labour opposed to the value personified in the capitalist, or the conditions of labour — this absolute separation between property and labour, between living labour capacity and the conditions of its realization, between objectified and living labour, between value and value-creating activity — hence also the alien quality of the content of labour for the worker himself — this divorce now likewise appears as a product of labour itself, as objectification of its own moment. For, in the new act of production itself — which merely confirmed the exchange between capital and living labour which preceded it — surplus labour, and hence the surplus product, the total product of labour in general (of surplus labour as well as necessary labour), has now been posited as capital, as independent and indifferent towards living labour capacity, or as exchange value which confronts its mere use value. Labour capacity has appropriated for itself only the subjective conditions of necessary labour — the means of subsistence for actively producing labour capacity, i.e. for its reproduction as mere labour capacity separated from the conditions of its realization — and it has posited these conditions themselves (452) as things, values, which confront it in an alien, commanding personification.
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