An excerpt from the Introduction to Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics (Wits University Press) by Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce
1952 to 1961: in the space of less than ten years, Frantz Fanon defended his medical thesis in France, took up his post as a psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, wrote three books, and produced articles for Esprit, Consciences Maghribines, L’information psychiatrique, La Tunisie Médicale, Maroc Médicale, and El Moudjahid (the organ of the National Liberation Front). In this incredibly short period of time the accelerating pace of events seems to have imposed on his writing its own unique, peremptory rhythm— almost as if the author was somehow unconsciously aware of his own impending death, at only thirty-six years of age.
Fanon wrote his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks) (1952) and his last book, Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) (1961) within the same timeframe. And while there is no epistemological break between these two works, no simple correlation can be drawn between them either. We confront in Fanon’s writing, both the openness of his thought and the specificity of its contexts. Between Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched, we can situate Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist committed to a broad criticism of colonial epistemology. Like the political articles he wrote for El Moudjahid, many of his psychiatric articles are specific, situational, and concrete. In this sense, they are less developed theoretically than his major works, and many are viewed as peripheral to Fanon’s three books and the collection of his political writings that has been available to English readers since the mid-1960s.
In what sense, then, can we consider Fanon’s psychiatric writings part of his oeuvre?
Reading these often-partial studies about his ongoing research, it is possible to see how the ideas developed are consistent with Fanon’s better-known works. This allows readers to consider his work from new angles and make connections often neglected in the existing literature. On the other hand, many of the issues and challenges we associate with Fanon are also present in these psychiatric writings, and these further underline and illuminate the connections between Fanon the doctor, Fanon the antiracist social critic, and Fanon the anticolonial revolutionary. An insight into these essays and articles enables us to move beyond existing views of Fanon’s political and clinical ‘project’ – his commitment to the understanding and treatment of psychic suffering – as itself a sort of symptom. We can rebuff claims that his move to Algeria was merely an unconscious attempt to establish a new affiliation to heal or compensate for the insults to his political virility that he may have felt as a native of Martinique.
The continual shifting between politics and psychiatry, between the social and the subjective, between the unconscious and history, is one of the most original features of Fanon’s work. As we try to demonstrate, this is what justifies the claim that Fanon marks the advent of a critical ethnopsychiatry, bringing together clinical practice and theoretical reflections on the cruces of power and psychic life, on culture (a ‘culture in motion’, as Cherki remarks in her foreword), history, and treatment. As Françoise Vergès put it, Fanon insisted that “medical practitioners must know the historical and social conditions of the formation of the society in which they practice, as well as its structural practices and beliefs.” Jacques Derrida was one of the few who understood the uniqueness of Fanon’s thought. In an article on psychoanalysis and politics, he highlighted that, among the psychoanalysts then working in Africa, Fanon was “exceptional and untypical” in his ability to question his “own practice in its political, ethno-psychoanalytical and socio-institutional dimensions . . . The Fanons were few and far between, marginal or marginalized.”
Fanon took nothing for granted. He understood that each theoretical or clinical approach had to be viewed within a specific context and circumstance, forced to reveal its strengths and limitations, its prospects and its complicities. Césaire and the notion of negritude, Hegel and the dialectic of recognition, Mannoni and the colonial situation, Sartre and existentialism, Jaspers and his psychopathology, Lacan and even the “cosmic Jung,” were all exhaustively explored in an effort to understand colonial alienation, then radically criticized by Fanon once he had noted their weaknesses or blind spots.
Critical of colonial psychiatry, Fanon was committed to reforming psychiatric institutions, as well as the interpretation and categorization of mental disorders. His commitment to social liberation, marked by conscious self-directed activity, and to culturally sensitive sociotherapy programs, is remarkably and refreshingly evident in the essays and articles. These writings confirm his search for new healing strategies and a context-related understanding of psychic suffering, which he called “situational diagnosis.” Working with North African migrants in France, and then in North Africa itself, obliged Fanon to look at madness from the point of view of the marginalized and ‘the damned’. Fanon wrote self-critically of his work with a “seventy-three-year-old peasant afflicted with senile dementia” that is suggestive of what is at stake in a medical and also political practice that looks from the point of view of the marginalized.
While his profound grasp of the traumatic realities and afterlives of colonialism and racism might be more commonplace today, his work remains important for the current generation of decolonial, antiracist, and anticapitalist activists who are in the process of clarifying and articulating their revolutionary humanist mission. In other words, while a deeper understanding of the specificity of Fanon’s psychiatric essays helps us to situate him in his proper historic context, these under-read essays also open up new avenues.
In addition, the essays provide another perspective from which to challenge the notion that Fanon was a dreamy anti-empiricist, critical of all scientific methods, dismissive of history, and prone to speculation about the inventing of a ‘new man’ and a ‘new woman.’
In Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics, we consider psychiatry and politics in Fanon’s oeuvre as well as the politics of psychiatry, the relationship between mental health and social and political decolonization, as well as the problem of anticolonial political counter-violence as necessary and psychically costly. While focusing on Fanon’s psychiatry writings and arguing that Fanon is an original thinker, our goal is not to reduce psychiatry to politics or vice versa, but to open up new contexts and new arenas within which to think about human liberation in the contemporary period.
Writing in 1958 about the need to distinguish “true independence” from “pseudo-independence,” Fanon noted that true independence must not allow any “pseudo-national mystification . . . against the requirements of reason.” And what are the requirements of reason? One is self –determination – the belief that liberation from all mystifications “must be the work of the oppressed people . . . who must liberate themselves . . . [and] build the new society.” At the same time, rather than being “committed to a teleological ‘narrative of freedom,’ ” David Marriott has suggested that Fanon asked difficult questions of freedom.
Brutally aware of the social and economic realities, Fanon argued that there can be no psychological liberation without social, economic, and political liberation that would enable the oppressed to make the leap into a new stage of freedom.
Fanon was committed to a radical social psychiatry that supported and enabled human liberation and self-directed action. On the assumption that freedom and health allow the individual “to be, to act in history,” Fanon pioneered a critical sociotherapy and ethnopsychiatry outside of Europe. His thinking was far from linear or singular. And even before the French counterinsurgency in Algeria, and his formal public alliance with the Algerian Revolution, he was already reflecting on the cultural assumptions associated with contemporary psychiatric diagnostic categories and treatments.
Always motivated to approach the world critically, Fanon studied the social dimension of neuroses and mental disorders using an approach known as sociotherapy, which he first encountered as an intern working under François Tosquelles at Saint-Alban Psychiatric Hospital in southern France. Fanon instituted a sociotherapy program soon after he was appointed to Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algiers in late 1953. Throughout Fanon’s professional life his was consistently committed to his belief that politics and mental health do not operate in separate realms. In addition, Fanon’s work in North Africa indicated his sensitivity to culture, an appreciation of non-western notions of mental illness, and a critique of colonial ethnopsychiatry. While he did not reify culture that, as he emphasized in Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, has been profoundly affected by colonization and transformed by anticolonial struggles, he insisted that reclaiming the past was essential to the psycho-affectivity of colonized people. He argued that the radical cultural changes that occur under the pressure of a war of liberation (described in A Dying Colonialism, as well as the cultural practices that encourage passivity in the face of colonialism (described in The Wretched of the Earth), are part of the same dialectic.
At the same time, Fanon’s critique of colonial ethnopsychiatry, in his articles “The North African Syndrome” (1952) and “Ethnopsychiatric Considerations” (1955) as well as in The Wretched of the Earth, were essential elements of his warning about the misadventures and internal contradictions of national consciousness, as seen in the absorption of racist European attitudes by anticolonial elites.
Furthermore, in his critique of the Algiers School of psychiatry, Fanon dismissed the veracity of any science in racist and colonial societies that takes the status quo as normal, and seeks to help individuals “adjust” to what is in essence an antihuman society. He pointed out that any psychiatry that begins from a premise that normalizes colonial society would thereby reinforce neurosis. Nevertheless, Fanon remained willing to pursue a psychiatry that was social, critical, and practical. This is evident, for example, in his development of Tosquelles’s sociotherapy, and the emphasis Fanon gave to his work at the psychiatric day hospital in Tunis. In this context, he insisted on broadening the notion of decolonization, from being simply a matter of political strategy to including the crucial question of what happens next with regard to mental health and the continuing effects of colonial violence on a “postwar” population.
In short, Fanon never doubted that the practice of psychiatry was political or that conscious, human action was central to psychological and social liberation. Fanon’s existential commitment to radical humanism carried through to his practice as a physician so that encouraging action and reflective participation was as much the goal of his political work as it was of his clinical practice. By action, Fanon meant activity that brings victory to the “dignity of the spirit.” Fanon’s resignation from Blida-Joinville Hospital, and his assertion that psychiatric practice in colonial Algeria was impossible, did not mean that he considered psychiatry unnecessary or mental health unimportant. Indeed, as he showed in the psychiatric work he did in Tunis, he saw this as crucial.
Main Photo: A banner quoting Frantz Fanon outside the Minneapolis Police Department fourth precinct following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24 year old African-American man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 15, 2015 — Wikimedia Commons