More I read about Fanon’s book “The wretched of the Earth” (1961) (In French: Les Damnés de la Terre), more I make connections with some Unruly Politics theories. I have for example recently used in one of my essay James Scott (1990) and his notion of hidden transcript- which he uses to unpack relationship between the powerful and the powerless- to understand Fanon’s description of the colonizer / colonized relationship. This specific relationship, and the concept of violence in the process of decolonization, is indeed at the heart of Fanon’s last book. His definition of the irruption of violence that precede decolonization, could be understood, I argue in my essay, as what Scott conceptualizes as the explosion that are created by the constant pressure of the wearing of a mask. Indeed, the powerless wears a mask when he is in the presence of the powerful in order to please the powerful. But such behaviors are not real, they are an act, because behind the mask, or in the backstage, which Scott defines as the hidden transcript, there is another reality where the powerless talk, critic and resist.
But Scott is not the subject of this post and I am planning to publish this essay here for the ones interested. Here I want to talk about Agamben (1998) and his concept of “bare life”, derived from the “Homo Sacer”. The concept of bare life will allow us to better understand Fanon, but Fanon will also provides a different approach in which bare life can be used as tool for Unruly Politics action.
The Homo Sacer is a condition that can be comprehended by understanding the two following concepts: (1) Bios, or political life which is life defined by its existence in society, (2) Zoé, or natural life, given by god, therefore sacred. Homo Sacer is someone that has lost his political life and has been reduced to its natural life. In other words it is someone that has been forced to bare life. The holocaust is the most striking example of the bare life in which prisoners were reduced to. They have been deprived of political life, thus couldn’t benefit from the rights entitled to any citizens; they were reduced to an animal condition. Agamben also argues that “sovereignty” is the power to define the boundaries of the area where an individual will be reduced to bare life, such as the concentration camps.
Fanon description of the colonized is in my opinion a good illustration of what Agamben characterized as bare life. But first I want to discuss the sovereign and his creation of boundaries to produce the area where bare life would be enforced. Fanon described the colonized world as separated into two towns. The “colonizer town” is made of concrete, of wealth and luxury, it is a place inhabited by white people. The “colonized town” is the complete opposite, it is a place where people are all pilled up together, it is an infamous area, where there is nothing except envy and jealousy to be in the colonizer town. The boundaries between those two towns are made of barracks, armed guards and other exemplification of violence and power. The sovereign from Agamben’s definition is in Fanon the colonizer because he is the one who has drawn the boundaries and created this area of exclusion. It is indeed in this area that the colonized have been reduced to bare life by the colonizer, through the use of violence, violence that is also used to maintain the colonized in this condition and area. Reduced to bare life, the colonized have been denied their political life, their Bios has been take away from them.
Even though the concept of bare life has a negative connotation, as it relates to reduction, deprivation, etc, it can also be used in a more positive way as a tool to re-enter the political life, or to challenge the sovereign who is restricting political life from people. It is this idea of bare life that makes sense as an Unruly Politics Action. “Human rights” movement came for example after the holocaust, where the bare life was exposed to the world. Bare life allowed for the creation of human rights. There is a ‘return from the realm of bare life to the political life’ (Khanna 2015). Other Unruly Politics actions such as self-immolation, hunger strike, naked demonstration, etc. are all using the bare life to which they have been reduced, to re-enter the political life, or to re-negotiate its access.
This is where it becomes interesting. Where Unruly Politics action uses the “condition” or the situation in which one is, bare life, as a tool to claim political life, I argue that the use of the process by which one has been reduced to bare life, and not the final condition, could be the tool for re-claiming political life. Fanon provides a good illustration of this idea, as his main argument is that the only way decolonization can be achieved, is through the use of violence. He argues that the only language of the colonizer is violence, and that because colonization and the reduction to bare life has been achieved and imposed through violence, the only response to this language is the use of violence. There are no negotiation or cohabitation possible and the colonizer must be destroyed and entirely replaced by the colonized. In other words, what Fanon says is that the process by which the colonized have been reduced to bare life, violence, should be used as the tool to re-claim political life.
Not only Fanon is best understood through Agamben’s concept of bare life, which is conceptualized by the colonized town, but he also provides an illustration of how the process by which one has been reduced to bare life could be used as a tool to re-enter political life. In Fanon’s book the process is violence, a rather extreme Unruly Politics mode of action, but it would be interesting to see in other examples how the process of being reduced to bare life could be used for Unruly Politics actions.
Agamben, G. (1998) ‘Part two: homo sacer’, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 71-115.
Fanon, F. (1961) Les damnés de la terre. Paris: Françcois Maspero éditeur SARL.
Khanna, A. (2015) SOUR 5 Session 3 The Body in Unruly Politics – death, life and everything in between (online video). Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyL9BfHCqX4 (Accessed: 11/05/2015).
Scott, J. (1990) ‘Behind the official story’ in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 1-16.