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Fanon and the question of ‘white theory’

It is undeniable that Frantz Fanon identifies European, or “white” culture as racist to the core. It is equally undeniable that he affirmed the likelihood of the discourses of knowledge emanating from this culture being equally racist. It stands to reason that a culture, which regards itself as being superior to all others, given its supposedly “glorious” history of conquest of other nations and races through war, colonisation, science and technology, would have left a repository of its racist beliefs and attitudes in the very sciences (particularly human and social) that are its putative instruments of conquest and of the achievement of superiority.

This is not difficult to understand if one considers the provenance of one’s beliefs in the cultural situation where one (anyone) grows up. And if one happens to be from a different culture, but finds oneself in a western cultural situation, your view of your own culture is bound to be fundamentally affected by its standing in the value-judgments of your host culture (in this case western or “white”). As Fanon puts it, alluding to the kind of cultural osmosis that takes place in a predominantly western context, from which a black person, initially from an African cultural setting, is not exempt (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 118):

“In other words, there is a constellation of postulates, a series of propositions that slowly and subtly — with the help of books, newspapers, schools and their texts, advertisements, films, radio — work their way into one’s mind and shape one’s view of the world of the group to which one belongs.”

Summing up Fanon’s insights in the Foreword to the 2008 Pluto Press edition of Black Skin, White Masks, Ziauddin Sardar says (p. XV-XVI): “If western civilization and culture are responsible for colonial racism, and Europe itself has a racist structure, then we should not be too surprised to find this racism reflected in the discourses of knowledge that emanate from this civilization and that they work to ensure that structural dominance is maintained … All these disciplines and discourses are the products of a culture which sees itself hierarchically at the top of the ladder of civilization; they postulate all that the world contains and all that the world has produced and produces, is by and for the white man. This is why it is taken as an a priori given that the white man is the predestined master of this world”. [The italicised parts are quotations from Fanon’s text; B.O.]

And yet, the very same Fanon who indicts western discourses as being racist, singles out some of these discourses for facilitating the task of the imminent revolution, which is aimed at restoring the dignity of all human beings, especially those downtrodden in the course of the history of colonisation by the West. These discourses include the iconoclast thinking of Marx, Freud, Sartre and Nietzsche – he was a trained psychiatrist and knew Freudian psychoanalysis, after all, and although he died young, of leukaemia, he had absorbed a great deal of the philosophical and social science tradition of the West, albeit critically. The most important thing he learned from Marx is that it is not sufficient merely to think critically about the world; it is imperative to change it.

He could appropriate these theories – philosophical and psychoanalytical – because not all theories or philosophies that have been produced by the West are cut of the same cloth. Some “renegade western” thinkers are so critical of the “master discourses” deriving from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Hegel (to mention only some salient figures from the western canon) that they reject large parts of the epistemic heritage of the West, if not the whole thing. In his early work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche, for instance, identifies western culture with the lamentable hypertrophy of reason, or what he dubs “Socratism” (which I would prefer to call “Platonism”, given Socrates’s philosophically salutary insistence on the docta ignorantia, that the only thing humans can know with certainty is how little they know).

Similarly Freud rejects the rationalist bias in western culture and insists on the unrecognised, but crucial role of the irrational in human subjectivity – a psychoanalytical approach that Fanon himself employed to come to grips with the effects of colonisation on the subjectivity of colonised people, and to understand the significant differences between the colonised and the coloniser in psychoanalytic terms (see for instance Chapter 6 of Black Skin, White Masks). Add to this that many contemporary black thinkers employ western philosophy and theory against the imperial excesses of the West, among them the black American thinker and unflinching social activist, Cornell West, under whose guidance (among others) I was privileged to study at Yale University in the 1980s (see his books, Race Matters and Restoring Hope – Conversations on the Future of Black America, for example).

In light of the above it is therefore patently absurd to regard ALL theory and/or philosophy that is of “white” or “western” origin – that is, was formulated by individuals who were born and/or educated in western societies – as being “racist” in the sense that Fanon gave to the concept in relation to what one might call “mainstream” theory. And yet, some people persist in doing so, including people in academia who should know better. Without making the important distinction that Fanon evidently made, some go as far as labelling anyone who teaches western philosophy and/or theory as “racist” because they putatively teach irredeemable “white theory” (the theories of the erstwhile “colonial masters”).

Here I have not even touched upon the most radical of the theories which, although of “western” origin, have introduced a new “logic”, as it were, to challenge mainstream ways of thinking in western culture. These are the range of poststructuralist theories that count Nietzsche and Freud among their progenitors, and which have been variously formulated by thinkers such as Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jean-Luc Nancy, Kaja Silverman, John Caputo, Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciére, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Ian Parker, Claire Colebrook, Luce Irigaray, Kaja Silverman, Cornell West, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Slavoj Zizek, Susan Faludi, Leonard Shlain, Naomi Klein, David Pavon Cuellar, Ian Buchanan, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and others. I have often referred to some of them in these posts.

Ranciére’s political thought mercilessly exposes the so-called (mainly western) “democracies” as being hollow and hypocritical, more deserving of the epithet “oligarchies”, for example, while Silverman has mercilessly uncovered the patriarchal texture of western cultural artefacts such as film in her works, including The Acoustic Mirror. Palestinian-born, but western-educated Edward Said has equally relentlessly exposed the racist, “orientalist” bias of western culture in (among others) his book, Orientalism. I could elaborate on the critical work of other figures as well, but there is no space here for that. The point is that there exists a wide range of theoretical appropriations of western or “white” theories/theory that are themselves of broadly, but critically, western origin. To pretend otherwise would be to acknowledge one’s own, limited, vision.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.