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“We Are All Children of Algeria”

Visuality and Countervisuality 1954-2011

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Author
Frantz Fanon, page 2 of 4

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Lectures in Tunis (1959)

Fanon, Society and Control

In Algeria, Fanon had created a practice in which staff worked with patients to address their conflicts, eating and socializing with them, rather than maintaining the classic clinical distance. Drawing on the teachings of Fanon's professor, the Spanish anti-fascist François Tosquelles,  this now familiar strategy was then new, certainly in the colonial context, where colonial psychology had claimed that all Algerians were in an infantile state. As late as 1952, the Algerian School of medicine declared in its handbook for physicians: "these primitive people cannot and should not benefit from the advances of European civilization."  That is to say, all Algerians were children from the colonial point of view. The colonized "child" was a peculiar genus because it was held that s/he would never grow up, and thus had to remain in the condition of tutelage. Here, emancipation would refer both to ending colonial rule, and, in the traditional sense, to being granted adult status. For Jews, women, colonized subjects and many others, such emancipation has often "lagged behind" that of white men, creating that sense that the "time is out of joint," the spectrality of the modern.

The spatialized hierarchy of culture created in the late nineteenth-century continued to inform such purportedly clinical judgments. Such pronouncements make it easier to understand the involvement of certain psychiatrists in torturing Algerians. Indeed, during the revolution, Antoine Porot, founder of the Algerian School, and one of his followers attributed the uprising to a pathological form of "xenophobia" among Algerians "against subjects belonging to an occupying race."  Hence revolutionary action was a form of madness, as  Pinel had suggested in immediate aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution.

Fanon's innovative ethnopsychiatry refused such stereotypes and worked to create culturally appropriate treatments, including creating a café, a mosque and a newspaper for patients. Fanon endeavored to treat his patients on a day clinic basis, meaning that they returned home at night and some even stayed in work. This approach required those in treatment to deal with their symptoms in everyday life as well as in the clinic.
In a lecture series he gave at the University of Tunis in 1959 and 1960, under the title Rencontre de la société et de la psychiatrie/The Meeting of Society and Psychiatry, Fanon developed a theoretical framework for his decolonial psychiatry. These lectures are known only from notes taken by Lilia Bensalem as a student, which were transcribed and published in Tunis twenty years after Fanon's death.

In the lectures, Fanon recharacterized the insane person as "a 'stranger' to society." Anticipating Foucault,  Fanon saw that the internment of this "anarchistic element" in society was a disciplinary measure that rendered the psychiatrist into "the auxiliary of the police, the protector of society." The segregation between the European and the native that had led Fanon to revolutionary politics was both replicated and produced in and by colonial psychiatry. Rather than segregate the patient, Fanon sought to achieve his or her "resocialization," following his emphasis on the dehumanizing effects of colonialism. 

Yet, Fanon asked, into what group was the patient to be resocialized, and "what are the criteria of normality?" His answer was to create a "society in the hospital itself: this is sociotherapy."  Fanon went on to discuss neurological and psychoanalytic approaches, including Lacan's mirror stage, before turning to the psychological effects of time discipline and surveillance. He considered the psychic impact of the time clock on factory workers, of closed circuit television on shop assistants in large American establishments, and of auditory monitoring on switchboard telephone operators. He completed the circuit by casting the presumed "laziness" of the colonized as a form of resistance to the idea that they could not be unemployed because their function was to work as and when required.

The colonial system, then, visualized its colonized subjects as the perfect Platonic workers, whose function was to do what was required of them and nothing else. In this context, Fanon's engagement with children as social actors and as the index of the Algerian revolution marked his commitment to the cultivation of a "new man," unconstrained by discipline or colonization. Read optimistically, had he lived longer, Fanon might have moved away from his emphasis on masculinity to imagine new modes of post-revolutionary gender identity, as part of this analysis of the racialized disciplinary society, a connection made by many radical Black feminists in the United States from Angela Davis to Toni Cade Bambera and bell hooks.

The question left hanging is whether Michel Foucault was aware of Fanon's ideas. While there are no references to Fanon in the multi-volume collection Dits et Ecrits, Foucault taught in Tunis from 1966 to 1968, where he taught a course on "Madness and Civilization": it's hard to believe that seven years after Fanon's lectures, someone did not make the connection. It was in Tunis that Foucault experienced a student uprising--in March 1968. Although Fanon was associated with Sartre, whom Foucault opposed, some critics have recently identified some clear affinities in their thought.
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