Fanon’s book “The Wretched of the Earth” and Agamben’s concept of “bare life”

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.

Bibliography

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.

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Questioning Unruly Politics as a “language of understanding”

Engaging and grappling with Foucault, Badiou, Latour, Rancière and others is a struggle. At least for me. Language, background, interest or just capacity to understand, the fact is that it takes me a lot of time and energy to understand and use their ideas. So when last class I had difficulties to understand our recorded lecture about aesthetics, my mind got lost, and I started to think. It is during this moment of floating consciousness that I wondered why I was doing that to myself. But more seriously, I asked myself why we were thinking of aesthetics? Or more generally, why are we thinking about Unruly Politics? I mean I understand that we want to better understand everything, but is it worth it? I ask this question because as you will see below, I believe that this thinking creates two problems: (1) it increases a gap of communication between the thinkers and the people we want to understand, (2) it provides tools for the powerful to apprehend Unruly modes of action.

Let me first introduce “my” concept of “language of understanding” (I love the idea of developing a concept, feels like being an academic). Basically it means “levels of understanding”, but by using language instead of level I intend to stress the importance of the interaction between different levels of understanding. Levels of understanding are how people understand and see the / their world, things, life in general. We can say that they depend of our education, context, origins and many other factors. When two persons speak a different language, there is a problem of communication. I argue that similarly, when two people speak at a different level, or as we will call it from now on language of understanding, it can create difficulties in communication. Let me give you some examples that I draw from my own experience in order to better support my first argument.

If I look back, I can think about four languages of understanding. The first one is related to where I come from, rural / working class background. It is the language that everyone talks, the one that we use in our everyday life to communicate, to say hi or thank you, to talk about the weather and the neighbours. Pretty basic. The second one comes from my previous work with humanitarian INGOs. It is a language of action, of development, it is about geopolitics and security, about needs and programmes, about our impact on the planet, it is also about wars and suffering. The third one is the one I am presently acquiring while doing my Master at IDS. It is the “academic” language of understanding. It is about deconstructing, un-packing, criticizing, it is about theories, it is about understanding the origin, the departure, the past to make sense of the present, it is about asking questions, why, why, why and sometimes even, why not.

As I said before, when two persons don’t use the same language, they cannot understand each other (we can always use signs, but…you know what I’m talking about). If I speak to my previous colleagues doing humanitarian work about either (1) the historical causes of international development, or (2) expatriates’ collective identity, or even (3) how a rebel group can be interpreted as a political society in Chatterjee’s definition, which is the academic language, they won’t understand me. Indeed, we don’t speak the same language of understanding. And knowing them, they may look at me with big eyes thinking “what the hell are you talking about!”. And imagine (you can’t but try at least) if I use this language at home, their eyes would be even bigger. Indeed, what if I talk to my aunt about how I have used Bourdieu and his concept of Habitus to understand “continuation” of expatriate’s identities. I remember when back home I would try to explain issues I encountered in the humanitarian field. It was difficult to be understood.

With the risk of losing you, and before briefly introducing a fourth language, I want to draw an analogy if it can help to understand what I mean. Racism is high where I come from. Lots of people around me back home are racists in some ways. If I want to talk to them about their racism, I should talk to them about the need to celebrate differences, of culture, origins or traditions, etc. This is the discourse I should have with my peers. But instead, I tell them that we are all humans, all the same. Why do I do that? Because in their language of understanding, which broadly comes from TV, differences are sources of fear. Indeed, black people or Muslims will always be depicted as dangerous, terrorists, and rioters through TV. I then cannot use differences as a way to bring my peers to a more rational position, because they would use it to justify their racism. I then need to use another language of understanding. And I am not being patronizing, it is only about education, context, etc. as I was mentioning earlier.

And here comes a fourth language: Unruly Politics. I can’t really say I’m talking this language, but I’m kind of learning it, bit by bit. It is another level, it is more philosophical, it is about theorizing and deconstructing theories, it is about seeing the invisible and making sense of things that at first sight don’t make any (and even though I share the same mother tongue as the four authors I have listed above, it doesn’t make it easier).

It is with this language of understanding that I argue that we are creating a gap between thinkers and actors. I have just described how it is difficult to talk to each other when you have different languages of understanding. With Unruly Politics, we are adding one more level of difference. A bigger gap between who thinks and the people we are thinking about. In trying to understand Unruly Politics, we explore the concept of Liminality and empowerment gained from these experiences, we make sense of the interplay between hidden and public transcripts, we talk about the aesthetic of spaces, etc. What does this mean for the marginalized, for the one putting their life in danger to fight for their causes? Will these people appreciate this language of understanding? Will they think that experiencing Liminality will empower them when they are going on the streets? Do they occupy spaces because of aesthetic considerations? I’m not sure. This is the sense we are making of it, and it makes sense for us only. In the case of Unruly Politics, when we talk about activism, about changing the world, about revolution, the gap it creates between us and them, even though them can be us, is even more critical.

And I’m coming now to my second argument, which also questions the need, and the risk, of asking these questions. Indeed, in trying to make sense of these events, we run side by side with the powerful against the marginalized that we want to understand. Indeed, by unpacking these “unruly” events and linking them with theories, we are providing keys of understanding to policy makers, politicians, rulers and other powerful. Once provided with the key, they will understand how it works and what it means, they will find solutions, they will not be surprised anymore, they will react, and they will be able to understand the messages behind the events, hence address the impact or even anticipate. They will unveil the hidden transcript of Scott. And we are helping them to do that.

So yes, I’m going back to my first question. Why are we thinking that much, when we know that we are creating gaps between us and them and providing rulers with tools to understand Unruly actions?

PS: If you want to know more about some of my frustrations that could explain the rationale behinds this post, I wrote something about it in my own blog a few weeks ago: https://arnaudpont.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/learning-what-cannot-be-done-in-development/