From Fanon to the Postcolonials: For a Strategic and Political Use of Identities

Sandro Luce
Università Di Salerno

Volume 9, 2016

In this essay I will focus on some theoretical issues concerning Fanon’s thinking. The aim is to grasp the influence his thought has exerted over the theories of some of the scholars of the postcolonial field – such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak – but also to emphasize the turns that the latter have impressed on his conceptual legacy. These authors all share an interdisciplinary outlook in which the often unorthodox use of psychoanalytical categories allows not only to critically analyze the relationship with otherness and the processes of identification, but also to evoke the entrance on the stage of politics of the mute and motionless subjects of Western history: the colonized, migrant and subordinate; as Rancière would say “la part des sans-part”, in reference to those who are excluded from the democratic process. The aim of ‘provincializing’ the dominant narrative of Western modernity is inseparable from the need to properly theorize processes of political subjectivation capable of producing effects within the folds of such a discourse.

It is well known that Fanon was among the first to analyze critically the ambiguous relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. His aim was to define a project for a radical transformation of social relations through a ‘seizure of the word’ by the colonized. In the opening pages of Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) he writes: “Aux colonies, l’infrastructure économique est également une superstructure. La cause est conséquence: on est riche parce que blanc, on est blanc parce que riche” (1961 9). From such a stand, he calls attention to a decisive aspect that is central to most postcolonial works, namely, the refusal of economic reductionism—predominant in the Marxist approach—that considers the racialist ideology of colonialism as a classic superstructure without evaluating its impact on the structural plane. Fanon uncovers the incapacity of economic exploitation to justify the demarcation between black and white, a line coinciding with the one between rich and poor. The racial administration of the population presents itself as an ordering principle of social relations – including economic ones. Using an Althusserian notion we might say that the concept of the colonized is overdetermined. The social relations within which the colonized is placed are always immersed in a symbolic process beyond which no literal meaning capable of reducing the relations themselves to the necessary moments of an economic law, can be identified. Appealing to a logic of overdetermination implies the theoretical necessity to show the constitutively incomplete, open, and politically negotiable character of each identity.

Thanks to an eclectic and unorthodox use of psychoanalytical, philosophical, and experiential references Fanon’s analyses are centered on the symbolic construction of the subordination of the colonized, structured through the subjection to the discourse of the Other that hegemonizes its meaning, stabilizing it. The act instituting the Other is based on a deletion (the deletion of the black). Resuming the Hegelian image of the master/slave struggle, Fanon remarks that: “un jour le Maître Blanc a reconnu sans lutte le nègre esclave” (Peau noire, masques blancs 214). In place of a recognition, which would imply in its agonistic dimension an intersubjective relationship, there is a ‘naming’; the attribution of a meaning within which the subject, in spite of himself, is placed and fixed. It is the order of the dominant discourse, which can be overturned only by gaining an awareness that decolonizes the mind freeing it in the process from an authoritative act of signification. This does not imply a rediscovery or a reaffirmation of an original identity or lost purity, but rather the use of identity even in its possibly essentialist sense (beyond the initial infatuation with Césaire and Senghor’s negritude theories, here Fanon’s position might seem ambiguous) as a strategic weapon to activate processes of political subjectivation. One could take into consideration the use of the veil in L’an V de la révolution Algérienne where, from a symbol of identification, by abandoning its use it becomes a strategic weapon for the revolutionary struggle (Fanon 2001, 16-50).

The stereotyping mechanism initiated by the act of deletion reveals the ideological legacy of a dominant discourse that is constructed through the structuring of an imaginary that produces in the colonized a degraded image of itself that acts on his self-esteem and the perception of his own body. From this ensues the specific psychopathology of the black man, his alienation that, I repeat, does not refer to the socio-economic formation of human relationships but to the psycho-existential complex created through the cultural contact imposed by colonialism. Here the other’s (the colonizer’s) gaze is the basis of the construction of a ‘false self’ by the colonized. The stereotype is a simplification not only because it produces a false representation of reality, but also because it fixes it, denying difference. Here we are facing the violence of a Western discourse that– and herein lies the ambiguity – pushes the colonized not only to hate but also to desire to become like and, as far as possible, to imitate the colonizer. The identification process is grasped through the tension between demand and desire, thereby showing the split that takes place in the subject. As pointed out by Fanon; “Le Noir veut être Blanc” (1952 31). Desire is made visible in the exchange of glances between the native and the settler, thereby shaping the paranoid fantasies of unlimited possession that are constantly reversible since authority over the Other is also the fear of being dominated by the Other (Fanon refers to the fear of the settler, who complains that “they want to take our place”). Such a desire is translated into a series of imitative acts. Homi Bhabha emphasizes their unsettling effects. The mimetic attitude is in fact always partial and it produces a similarity perceived as a threat by the colonizer: the Unheimlich is understood, going beyond Freud, as a feeling of alienation from daily existence that destabilizes identity and the assimilationist strategies of the hegemonic subject.

Fanon’s emancipationist project, which is steeped in radical humanism, is inhabited by a ‘scopic’ (ocular) logic. This is to say that the subject is questioned by the images captured by the gaze. It is the petrifying gaze of the West that forces the colonized to assume a mask.[1] The process of political subjectivation implies abandoning the stereotyping of the colonizer-colonized relationship through a struggle of liberation in which the subordination remains ‘within’ the model of Western culture; subordination is thus self-conscious (or at least must acquire self-consciousness) and unified. Homi Bhabha goes beyond this approach by placing himself on the edge of the great essentialist narratives of the nation and of ethnocentric imperialism in order to deconstruct their discursive and political foundations.[2] The use of psychoanalytic categories is enriched by the language of textuality and discourse that challenges the mode of representation of otherness, and to highlight how the ambiguity and conflicting nature of colonial discourse lies within the deep unrest running through it. On one hand, it is the (ideological) representation of otherness; on the other, it projects out of itself and disowns difference. For this reason, the authority of such discourse needs to be continually reaffirmed, and yet it continuously slips away. In the discrepancy occurring between the time of utterance and the time of reception there is always an Entstellung, a distortion through which the act of signification is inevitably confronted by resistance.[3] This split does not comply with an oppositional or a dialectical rationale. It recedes into a third space of enunciation, an in-between dimension of hybridization in which there is no negation, but where, on the contrary, negotiation is established. It is an iterative structure that allows the emergence of new, unnamed and unrepresented subjectivities. As Bhabha points out, the gazes evoked by Fanon “are the signs of a structure of writing history, a history of the poetics of the postcolonial diaspora, that the symbolic consciousness could never grasp” (53). It is only through their circulation, repetition, rewriting and, therefore, hybridization that it is possible to frustrate the desire for the fixity of differences (sexual, racial etc.).

Bhabha pushes to the limits not only Fanon’s thesis, but also the idea of metissage à la Amselle or Glissant: the deconstruction of all fundamentalist claims, racial or cultural, never allows for the waning of the importance of identifications in ‘doing’ politics. Identifications will not constitute a counter-hegemonic power block (according to the tradition that runs from Gramsci to the culturalism of a Stuart Hall and, with some differences, to Fanon himself) since not only the social block is heterogeneous, but, furthermore, hegemonic action itself is a process of iteration and differentiation. Identifications will therefore always be partial, fluid, and unstable far from the unifying claims so characteristic of the modern subject. The generalization of hybridization resulting from ‘colonial encounters’ occupies a problematic limit since it risks replicating a universalizing perspective in which subjectivities have no gender, do not belong to a class, and, in short, are not contextualized (Parry 5-24). This issue is also absolutely clear in Gayatri Spivak’s deconstructive work focusing on the crucial issue of the positioning of the subaltern subject, in which, as in Bhabha, the question of overcoming Eurocentric arrogance is tackled through a critical analysis of so-called “unexamined nativism” (Spivak 1999, 173). Through the Lacanian notion of foreclusion, attention is centered on the operation of the phantasmization of the native informant (Bazzicalupo 29-50), that is, he who informs and in doing so represents himself, shaping his own origins and informing his alleged naturalness.[4] His foreclosure is literally an act of deletion. The point for Spivak is not to show how the denial of this otherness produces a stereotype, but rather to elicit how the entire Western philosophical and political framework that defines human normativity is based on this exclusion. We are faced with a sort of ‘inclusive exclusion’ in which the informant (but we could also call him the subaltern) is the ‘outside’ of the human nomos despite being paradoxically placed in every sentence-representation that the imperialist discourse uses to articulate such normativity. The epistemological as well as the ontological problem, therefore, pivots around the subjected-subjects that represent not only the unknowable Other but, moreover, are deprived of their voice; they are ventriloquized.

If according to Bhabha colonial discourse already contains a split that results from the ambivalence of a colonial authority that exposes it to destabilizing contaminations, for Spivak it is necessary to uncover subaltern positions. It is necessary to activate their strategic repositionings, always acknowledging that “the area of the subaltern’s persistent emergence into hegemony must always and by definition remain heterogeneous to the effort of the disciplinary historian” (Spivak 2006, 207). The problem – and here there is a distance taken from subaltern studies that is much more in tune with Fanon’s premises – is not the recognition of the subalterns as agencies of change through a mere functional shift between sign systems in which consciousness is shaped in the same semiotic chain.[5] Such an approach, which aims to recover a subaltern, uniform and consistent consciousness would posit itself, even if antagonistic to the dominant Western discourse, in terms resembling those through which Western culture has construed the subject of Modernity. By such a token, the cognitive failure produced by elitist historiography would be obfuscated and, most of all, we would risk a new and insidious objectification of the subaltern, understood as a possible object of knowledge.

The issue is not to recover the authentic voice of the subaltern subject. This aim is unreachable because the subject is built only through the positions he has been allowed to take on. On the contrary, it is necessary to shift the focus onto the ethics of the rhetoric that structures the dominant narrative in order to politically verify the effects those positionings have produced, without ignoring the ways in which class and gender factors have contributed to constitute a heterogeneous space capable of problematizing the notion of the ‘subaltern’ as an undifferentiated entity.


01. See Jacques Lacan (1998 203): “Since the signifier appears in the field of the Other, it produces the subject from its signification. But it functions as a signifier only by reducing the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, by petrifying it with the very same gesture that summons it to function and to speak as a subject”.

02. Bhabha (1994, 40-65) emphasizes the dichotomy, running through Fanon’s work, between a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical approach that restores faith in history (as the locus of the struggle for liberation), and a phenomenological and existentialist evocation of the relationship between the Self and the Other that, through the use of psychoanalytic categories unveiling the ambivalence of the unconscious, resurrects the presence of the marginal.

03. See Bhabha (1994, 102-122). A paradigmatic case is the one involving Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Education, the purpose of which is to induce the natives to take on the tastes, opinions, and religion of the colonizers; but in the repetition (which in this case is a re-reading) of the text, the latter is decontextualized from the system of signifiers of the colonial authority, taking on a completely different meaning.

04. Unlike Freudian repression (Verwerfung), which implies a return of the repressed, foreclosure leads to a definitive cancellation of psychic memory. In other words, in psychosis the foreclosing of the signifier would not allow the organizing of a symbolic level to which the various signifiers could access, without a center, as would be the Freudian metaphor of the phallus. See Lacan 2007, 445-89. 

05. An exemplary case of this semiotic transition is the shift from the religious to the militant, the most relevant consequence being the positioning of the agent of change among the subalterns.


Bazzicalupo, Laura. “Postcolonial studies. Tra decostruzione e antagonismo”. In Politica e Società. (2) (2009): 29-50.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York, Routledge, 1994
Fanon, Franz. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1952.
———. Les damnés de la terre. Paris, Maspero, 1970.
———. L’an V de la révolution Algérienne. Paris, Édition La Découverte, 2001
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Book XI. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
———. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.
Benita Parry: “Signs of Our Times: A Discussion of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture”. Third Text (28/29): 5-24.
Spivak, Gayatri . A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1999.
———. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography”. In Spivak In Other Worlds. Foreword by Colin MacCabe. New York, Routledge, 2006: 270-304.