Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology
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Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology

Leswin Laubscher, Derek Hook, Miraj U. Desai, Leswin Laubscher, Derek Hook, Miraj U. Desai

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Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology

Leswin Laubscher, Derek Hook, Miraj U. Desai, Leswin Laubscher, Derek Hook, Miraj U. Desai

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About This Book

Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology is the first edited collection dedicated to exploring the explicitly phenomenological foundations underlying Frantz Fanon's most important insights.

Featuring contributions from many of the world's leading scholars on Fanon, this volume foregrounds a series of crucial phenomenological topics – inclusive of the domains of experience, structure, embodiment, and temporality – pertaining to the analysis and interrogation of racism and anti-Blackness. Chapters highlight and expand Fanon's ongoing importance to the discipline of psychology while opening compelling new perspectives on psychopathology, decolonial praxis, racialized time, whiteness, Black subjectivity, the "racial ontologizing of the body, " systematic structures of racism and resulting forms of trauma, Black Consciousness, and Africana phenomenology.

In an era characterized by resurgent forms of anti-Blackness and racism, this book is essential reading for students, scholars, and activists who remain inspired by Fanon's legacy.

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Part I

Situating Fanon’s Phenomenology

Chapter 1 Decolonizing Madness

The Psychiatric Writings of Frantz Fanon1

Nigel C. Gibson
This chapter centers on the clinical and psychiatric essays that consumed much of Frantz Fanon’s intellectual and professional life during the decade of the 1950s. Doing so proves a challenging task on more than one account. Firstly, these texts are mainly viewed as peripheral to the three books and the collection of political writings that have been available to English readers for nearly fifty years.2 It is, however, not only a question of perception, but also of access: As François Maspero put it, Fanon carried on a remarkably medical activity in his role as a psychiatrist in Algeria, “innovating at many levels” but “this material remains untouched … [and] too scattered” (2007, p. viii). Indeed, more than fifty years after Maspero’s editorial comment, that material still remained to be assembled in France and translated into English.
A second challenge issues precisely from the attempt to translate these works, which is to say open up a space between two languages and cultures through which a unique voice can be ushered more or less successfully from one to the other. This is of course a difficult undertaking on the best of days, but complicated all the more so here by shared authorship, particularities of context, and the sometimes messiness of composition. Several of these texts are either unfinished articles, drafts for conference papers, or notes taken by a third person of a lecture given by Fanon – meaning that there are mistakes, typos, and incomplete sentences to contend with. Further, of the papers that were published, most of them were co-authored collaborations; we don’t actually know who wrote them up. It is probably safe to assume from what we do know of Fanon’s hectic schedule and predilection for dictation, though, that his interns or colleagues did some of the writing. Alice Cherki, who worked with Fanon in both Blida and Tunis, reminded me that the political writing of the time was done in great haste and with the specific task of fast and wide dissemination in mind, while the scientific writing was done in a similar vein, in preparation for a conference or publication deadline. Someone held the pen and the others spoke, or notes were collected to feed the article being written, but Fanon was almost always the instigator of the ideas being explored. He was, according to Cherki, involved in everything that went on and certainly the most formidable and exacting presence in the room.
Finally, attention to these writings involves plunging into the world of European and French psychiatry of the 1950s, almost three-quarters of a century ago, and particularly into the question of the relationship between neurology and psychiatry, which has developed considerably since. As such, some of these writings may appear at first quite dated. I maintain, however, that these psychiatric writings not only represent milestones and radical methodological innovation for its time, but importantly also concede the beginnings of Fanon’s affirmation of the imbrication of social reality with the organization of mental disorders as he argues in his reading of Lacan’s thesis in 1951 (Fanon, 2018, pp. 262–269). They already bear witness to Fanon’s particular interest in thinking the alienated as whole persons in their own right, and, while not directly political as are Fanon’s major works, nevertheless what is found in his psychiatric writings are many of the important issues and challenges that we associate with Fanon, as well as critical and self-critical studies that serve to underline and illuminate the relationship between Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist and his major works. Indeed, each one of these texts insists upon the apprehension and comprehension of alienation and the alienated through the entire social, cultural, and familial registers from which subjects of language and history are born and constructed.
It is worth remembering that Fanon did not arrive in Algeria in 1953 staunchly committed to a violent revolution against French colonialism. However critical he was of French society, Fanon at that time remained committed to what he called the French drama (2008, p. 179). It was the violent and oppressive reality of colonial Algeria and the issue of psychiatric healing in a colonial war that led him to embrace the liberation struggle that began on November 1, 1954. After he met with leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale (the National Liberation Front, or FLN), he continued to work at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital until his resignation in December 1956. And even after he started to work full-time for the FLN in Tunis, Fanon remained dedicated to psychiatry, insisting, as he put it while he was at Blida-Joinville Hospital, that psychiatry “has to be political” (Cherki, 2006, p. 72) and as he put it to his colleague Maurice Despinoy, “colonial psychiatry as a whole has to be disalienated” (see 2018, p. 417). In Tunis he continued to work in psychiatric hospitals and to publish in psychiatric journals, seeking to “clarify the relationship between psychiatric theory and colonial domination” (Keller, 2007a, p. 181). After all, while Fanon believed that organized political action was absolutely essential to individual and national liberation, he was under no illusion that it exhausted the problem of mental illness. In Fanon’s view, there would continue to be a dialectical relationship between mental health and social change, which meant that a critical grounded psychiatry would continue to have a practical place after the conditions creating colonial alienation were ended. If the end of colonialism was necessary for mental health, and even if “only violence could remediate the psychical damage done by colonialism” (Zaretsky, 2005, p. 3), at the same time, the real psychiatric work of addressing trauma can truly begin with the end of colonial violence and on the basis of genuine self-determination. Hence, I take Fanon’s work as a totality, and consider his psychiatric writings to be very much a part of his oeuvre. Moreover, whereas the specificity of Fanon’s psychiatric essays frame a particular historic context and situation, a worthy motivation for scholarly examination in its own right, they also open up new avenues to reevaluate Fanon’s thought in its totality, and in its relation to issues of the present.

Fanon the Psychiatrist

It is no small stretch to assert a common assumption, in the Anglophone world especially, that Fanon was an “incidental psychiatrist” (Keller, 2007b, p. 825), at best. Detailed biographies of Fanon by David Macey (2000) and Alice Cherki (2006), alongside scholarly works such as those of Bird-Pollan (2014), Bulhan (1986), Hook (2011), Keller (2007a), Renault (2011), and Vergès (1991), have helped to re-establish a more even-handed approach to Fanon’s psychiatric works as part of his oeuvre. In the 1980s, Homi Bhabha, perhaps more than anyone in the English-speaking world, helped reinsert the psychoanalytic into our understanding of Fanon by emphasizing his debt to Lacan. Readers could no longer ignore the significance of Fanon’s engagement with psychoanalytic practice and psychoanalytic theory, even if Fanon was not a professionally trained psychoanalyst and never underwent analysis.3 Additionally, Hussein Bulhan’s Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression (1986) remains one of the most important engagements with Fanon’s psychiatric work. Even so, Fanon’s own writings on psychiatry have been up until now barely discussed. In the sections that follow, I address several of these neglected psychiatric writings through a mostly chronological and biographical scaffold.

Training at Lyon

Frantz Fanon left Martinique in 1944, at the age of 18, to join the Free French Army. By the time he had been deployed in North Africa and France, and after taking part in the Battle of Alsace in 1945, his initial enthusiasm for French civilization had turned bitter, and in a letter to his mother he wrote that he doubted “everything, even myself” and the decision “to fight for an obsolete ideal” (Joby Fanon, 2014, p. 34). After the war, he returned briefly to the Martinican capital of Fort de France to work on Aimé Césaire’s election bid for mayor under the Communist ticket, and in 1946, he returned to France to pursue a medical degree at the University of Lyon.4
While at Lyon he continued studies in philosophy (especially phenomenology and existentialism), politics, and psychoanalysis, reading Marx, Sartre, Freud, and Lacan, and alongside his degree courses, he also enrolled in classes with Merleau-Ponty. Before completing his medical training, he switched to psychiatry and joined Lyon’s psychiatry department, then headed by Professor Dechaume, a specialist in neurology who was fascinated by psychosurgery. The whole psychiatry department was “based on a very organicist approach to neuro-psychiatry” (Razanajao, Postel, and Allen, 1996, p. 500), with absolutely no interest in psychoanalytical inquiry or methods. The professional training of psychiatrists could simply be summed up as consisting of the conviction that under any circumstance the patient should be committed to the psychiatric institution. While under Dechaume’s supervision, Fanon submitted a draft (in late 1950) of what would become parts of Black Skin, White Masks titled “Contribution to the study of Psychological Mechanisms likely to generate a healthy understanding between the different members of the French Community” as his doctoral thesis. It was rejected for political reasons. In response, he quickly wrote up a study on Friedreich’s ataxia (a neurophysiological disorder) and delusions of possession that met Dechaume’s approval: “Troubles mentaux et syndromes psychiatrique dans l’Hérédo-Dégéneration-Spino Cérébelleuse” (Mental Disorders and Psychiatric Syndromes in Hereditary Spinocerebellar Degeneration) (1951).
A section of Fanon’s dissertation discusses the “limits of neurology and psychiatry” through three representatives, Kurt Goldstein (whose theory of neuropsychology was based on Gestalt theory), Henry Ey, and Jacques Lacan.5 “Few men are as contentious as Lacan,” Fanon writes in the dissertation, summing up Lacan’s position, perhaps mistakenly, as “a defense of the rights of madness to exist in man” (see Fanon, 2018, p. 263). Asserting that “misrecognition is at the foundation of Lacan’s thought,” he argues, “Lacan goes beyond the concept of the image, making the projectional phenomena described by Levy-Bruhl as a corollary of primitive thought, the cornerstone of his system. He links the unhappy consciousness to a conception of magic” (see 2018, p. 269). Whereas Fanon does not develop this argument further, he does suggest that “[i]nternally Lacan seems to inhabit the meeting place of Hegel and Levy-Bruhl” (see 2018, p. 269). Lacan’s discussion, in Fanon’s view, “centers on the very limits of freedom, in other words, humanity’s responsibility” (2018, p. 270).
While Lacan is discussed, Fanon does not engage Freud in the dissertation, and it should be noted that the only direct quote from Freud in Black Skin, White Masks (for which Fanon provides no citation) comes from the first and second lectures of Freud’s (1990) Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (originally published in 1910).6 If, for (the 1895) Freud, “there is determined Erlebnis at the origin of every neurosis” (Fanon, 2008, p. 123) – even if the “first trauma [is] … expelled from the consciousness and memory of the patient” (Freud, quoted in Fanon, 2008, p. 123) – then the event for the Black is “the traumatic contact with the white” (2008, p. 164), both as a continuing process and as the slow absorption of cultural stereotypes (alongside a “brutal awareness of social and economic realities” [2018, p. xiv]). While obviously critical of so-called scientific explanations of race based in phrenology and brain weight, Fanon was dismissive of the liberal colonial culturalist idea that neurosis and alienation were simply a result of prejudice, or the effect of European “modernization” and “civilization” on a colonized people (2008, 2007, pp. 31–44).7
“The North African Syndrome,” an essay written at the same time as Black Skin, White Masks, and published in February 1952, before being included as the first chapter in Fanon’s subsequent book Toward the African Revolution (1967), is a political-ethical critique of contemporary medical practices, which includes parodies of common attitudes about North Africans among medical professionals as lazy and criminal. Referring to a doctoral thesis from a Dr. Mugniery (who defended at Lyon in the same year as Fanon), Fanon quotes Mugniery’s concern about the North African’s considerable sexual needs, and the stereotypical conclusion that granting French citizenship to a “civilization still primitive … seems to have been precipitous” (p. 9). “The North African Syndrome” does not directly attack the then dominant ethnopsychiatric theories promoted by Professor Porot and the Algiers school of colonial psychology (about which we will say more shortly), but there is a direct connection between Fanon’s criticism of the racist and orientalist attitudes toward North Africans in France, and the theories of the Arab mind promulgated by the Algiers school, notably the idea of racial/cultural hierarchy in terms of anatomic-physiology, i.e., the absence of cortical integration.
Fanon begins the essay with a belief that the human dilemma can be reduced to this existential question: “Have I not, because of what I have done or failed to do, contributed to the impoverishment of human reality … (H)ave I, in all circumstances, called forth the human inside me” (1967, p. 3). For Fanon, it is not enough to understand that the Algerian’s “impulsivity” is a product of the colonial situation. Rather, he implores his readers to change the way they act, and take a stand against the alienated social reality that has created it. To change the world always requires openness to self-critique. Disalienation or demystification, as he puts it in The Wretched of the Earth, means “to demystify (de-alienate), and to harry the insult that exists in oneself” (1968, p. 304). “The North African Syndrome,” Fanon argues, is based on a priori diagnosis founded on an idea: “The North African [is] … a foundation built by the European. In other words, the North African enters spontaneously, by his very presence, into a pre-existing framework” (1967, p. 4). The racist and dehumanizi...

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Citation styles for Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2021). Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2021) 2021. Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2021) Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Fanon, Phenomenology, and Psychology. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.