Violence and Recognition
Aspects of Autobiographical Thinking in Frantz Fanon and Jean Améry
"Ich habe keine Begabung zur Systematik und wahrscheinlich auch wenig Achtung vor ihr: man kann, ich habe es oftmals in der Geistesgeschichte beobachtet, Strukturen errichten und die Wirklichkeit ihnen einpasse – so entstehen gewaltige, aber manchmal gewalttätige Begriffsgebäude. Die Ergebnisse stehen zumeist in keinem Verhältnis zur Anstrengung der Abstraktion."
Jean Améry (1982): Le feu oder der Abruch. Roman – Essay. Stuttgart: Klett – Cotta. S.174.
It is obviously not very original to think through again the live and thought of Jean Améry and Frantz Fanon. Even though academic fashion has moved away from the founding father of postcolonialist studies, even though the works of the German writer are still largely not or only inadequately translated, Fanon and Améry hold a well deserved and unchallenged place in the canon of cultural studies. No obligation, therefore, to justify the choice of theoreticians. Still, classics are usually newly or reinterpreted. I will fail to do so, and can offer only a rather conventional, if unfashionable interpretation of their thinking. The subject of my interpretation is not so much the relation between the two, but the respective relationship between their live and thought, between theory and autobiography. I will try to enunciate opportunities and pitfalls of approaching Fanon and Améry autobiographically. In the following discussion, special attention will be paid to methodological implications, particularly to the relation between narrative, racism and anti-Semitism and academic knowledge production. I emphasise what Fanon and Améry have in common. This cannot do justice to the originality of these thinkers. Not only therefore, this analysis is by no means exhaustive, rather a starting point for future investigations. I will move back and forth between biography and theory, and provide close readings of certain parts in the classic At the Mind’s Limits and Black, Skin, White Masks.
At first sight it may seem strange that the anti-Semite’s outlook should be related to that of the Negrophobe. It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: ‘Whenever you hear someone abuse the Jew, pay attention, because he is talking about you.’ And I found that he was universally right – by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and my mind for my brother (1986: 122).
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) links their life stories: he knew Jean Améry from the days of the Résistance, in which both were active. Sartre also wrote a foreword for the first edition of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, published in France in 1961. However, the proximity between Fanon and Améry is not only personal, but there exists a deep communality, as Paul Gilroy has noted (2000: 89-91). Mediated by Sartre’s phenomenology, the two philosophers are part of the same tradition which goes back to the dialectics of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). In the 20th century, the Russian-French scholar Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) played a key role in the dissemination of Hegelianism with his lectures on the Phenomenology of Mind in the 1930s. Students of his were, among many others, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), as well as Sartre. I will argue that Hegel’s ‘dialectic of master and bondsman’, is of paramount importance for both Fanon and Améry as a model of intersubjectivity and identity formation. This dialectic also provides the philosophical core of Jean-Paul Sartre’s study Anti-Semite and Jew, first published 1946, an important common point of reference for them.
Moreover, their proximity is a political one, for they understood their activities as belonging to a common cause. Améry frequently referred to the Algerian anti-colonialist struggle, to which Fanon dedicated most of his adult life. Fanon, in turn, acknowledges the salience of anti-Semitism in unequivocal terms.
Moments of proximity
If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger in his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization (Fanon 1988: 54).
Let us start by comparing some basic biographical facts. Frantz Fanon was born on the 20th of July 1925 in Martinique, a small island in the Antilles, then a French colony. He grew up in the island’s capital Fort-de-France in a middle-class family, His father a government official and his mother a shopkeeper. During the Second World War, he joined army in 1944 to fight against the Germans, was wounded and received the Croix de Guerre for bravery. In 1947, he began his studies of medicine in Lyons, France. This city was the place of a key experience: he, who was raised to define himself as a French was struck by the everyday racism of his fellow citizens who regarded him as racial inferior. He tried to make sense of this experience with Black Skin, White Masks (first published in France in 1952), originally titled An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks. After his medical studies, he moved to Algiers, Algeria, where he began working in the ‘Blida-Joinville Hospital’, the nation’s largest psychiatric hospital, in November 1953. During the three years of his occupation there, he treated victims of the Algerian war of independence, Arab combatants as well as their French torturers. Soon he felt the limits of psychiatric endeavours in a colonial situation, and resigned in the summer of 1956. For him, colonialism results in an ill society.
Fanon’s decision to side with the anti-colonial liberation movement in Algeria was the outcome of theoretical convictions as much as the result of personal experiences. He became a member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), for which he worked as an official. He died in 1961 of leukaemia. In the same year, his influential The Wretched of the Earth was published.
Jean Améry was born in Hohenems, Austria on the 31st October of 1912. Until the issue of the German racial laws, the writer did not consider himself an assimilated Jew, in fact not as a Jew at all. When did he start ‘feeling Jewish’? “It didn’t begin until 1935 when I was sitting over a newspaper in a Vienna coffeehouse and was studying the Nuremberg laws” (1980: 85). When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, he went into exile to Belgium, where he was active in the Résistance, until he was arrested in July 1943. He was tortured and sent to different concentration camps, to Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, finally to Auschwitz. After his liberation, he refused to return to Austria, living in Brussels, but publishing newspaper articles and books in Germany. He became known with At the Mind’s Limits, first published in Germany 1966, a collection of his radio talks about his torture and Shoah experiences. In the following years, he was one of the best known left-liberal intellectuals in Germany. He attempted suicide in 1974, but was rescued. After the conclusion of his discourse on the right to determine one’s own life, On Suicide (1999), he made another attempt and succeeded on the 17th October of 1978.
These lives contain too many parallels to be followed here. I want to describe only a few key moments: their politicisation through Antifascism, their exclusion from what Benedict Anderson would have called the ‘imagined community’ of the French and German nation, the connection between this experience and their thinking, and the move towards the existentialist, but in the last instance Hegelian dialectic of recognition. This comparable appropriation of theory was characterised by a revolt against positivism. Both Fanon and Améry cannot be understood outside of a dialectic that enabled them to acknowledge the factual power of producing subjectivity (as reality, not as fiction), while on the other hand endowing them with the power of negation. The violence of denied recognition is countered with the violence of theoretical and ultimately practical negation, hence the importance of violence in The Wretched of the Earth and At the Mind’s Limits.
Fanon’s and Améry’s Appropriation of Sartre’s Model of Denied Recognition
self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness in itself and for itself, that is, it is only by being acknowledged or recognised (244, italics by the author).
Because it contains the most systematic development of the critique of denied recognition, I will give a brief summary of this theme, as it is presented in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon draws on Being and Nothingness (1958), where Sartre tried to show that the constitution of self-consciousness is a process that can function only in relation to the other. Sartre describes a certain situation to explain the pivotal position of the other as an example. Someone is spying through a keyhole, when he or she discovers that another person is observing him or her at the same time. The resulting feeling of shame and guilt is not possible in the presence of things, only in social situations. In a certain way, to be ashamed entails accepting the other’s authority as a judge. Thus the other is recognised as a subject. In turn, this recognition is the only way for the first person to experience him- or herself as a subject, i.e. to behave in relation to the own ego. “They recognise themselves as mutually recognising each other” (Hegel 1977: 226), or, in another formulation,
If the constitution of self-consciousness is based on mutual recognition, how do these general ontological foundations of self-consciousness relate to the fact of racism? For ethical and theoretical reasons, any theory of racism must start with the racist, not its object. “It is the racist that creates his inferior” (Fanon 1986: 93). But their subject constitution is not only parallel, it is in a strange way reciprocal.
The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing ‘them’ well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence (Fanon 1973: 28).
According to Fanon, the black seeks the other’s recognition. But for the white racist, coloured skin represents a ‘race’. The person of colour is not perceived as a individual with individual character traits, but serves as a screen for various projections. To the white’s mind come “legends, stories, history” (1986: 109), the discourses of race. Through these discourses the black is constituted as the antithesis in a binary system of oppositions, representing the particular, nature, body, emotion and sin as opposed to the general, culture, mind, reason and morality.In sadism, one abstracts one’s identity into complete subjectivity by ossifying all other human beings into dehumanized corporeality... Yet his concentration on Other’s corporeality abstracts from his own, until in focussing on Others, he fancies himself a pure, disembodied subject – pure mastery, absolute negation of specificity (Gordon 1995: 19-20).
The racist evades the confrontation with the other, like the sadist evades the gaze.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre also discusses specific forms of what he calls ‘bad faith’, the avoidance of freedom and responsibility. Provocatively, he denominates two forms of bad faith ‘masochism’ and ‘sadism’. The form of sadism is especially important for our discussion of racism.
But why must blacks insist on the recognition of racists? Could they not turn somewhere else? “Alterity for the black man is not the black but the white man” (1986: 97), says Fanon, for “the black has to be black in relation to the white” (110). There is no escape: the white’s recognition is essential, but denied. Fanon describes this denial drawing on his own pain and humiliation. Being robbed his individuality and his status as a subject, he finds “that I was an object in the midst of other objects” (110).
In Towards the African Revolution, Fanon, who was so quick to see collectivity on the part of the colonised, sharply criticises the notion of a collective ‘Negro people’.
The object of lumping all Negroes together under the designation of ‘Negro people is to deprive them of any possibility of individual expression. What is thus attempted is to put them under the obligation of matching the idea one has of them (quoted in Gordon 1995: 46).
In order to nevertheless establish a form of exchange with the other, the black person is forced to engage with the discourse of race, with the different versions of ‘what it means to be black’. Fanon shows how several notions of ‘negritude’ lead into a dead-end.
(M)y unreason was countered with reason, my reason with ‘real reason’... I wanted to be typically Negro – it was no longer possible. I wanted to be white - that was a joke. And, when I tried, on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched way from me (Fanon 1986: 132).
It must be emphasised that no positive identity arises from this encounter. And this is for good ethical and theoretical reasons: a successful identity formation cannot inform social critique. It is worth to quote W. E. B. Du Bois’ description of the predicament at length.
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and second-sight in this American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see through the revelations of the outer world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the other, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on it with amused contempt and pity (1997: 3).
When Du Bois speaks of the outer world, he in fact means the ‘white’s white world’. This unhappy consciousness is a particularly painful form of self-reflexivity.
Under the present circumstances, no conciliation is possible. Ultimately, the chain of denied recognition can only be broken through violence. Hegel famously described the fight for recognition in his dialectic narrative of master and bondsman as “trial by death” (1977: 233). Not surprisingly that Fanon agrees: “Given that the other was reluctant to recognize me, there was only one solution left: to make myself known” (1986: 92). And in The Wretched of the Earth:
At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of his inferiority complex, of his contemplative or despairing attitude. It makes him intrepid, rehabilitates him in his own eyes (1973: 70).
There is only one mentioning of Frantz Fanon in the works of Améry, tellingly in this context. Améry describes an event in Auschwitz:
In situations like mine, physical violence is the sole means for restoring a disjointed personality. What I later read in Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre, in a theoretical analysis of the behavior of the colonized peoples, I anticipated back then when I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face (1980: 91).
Strategic identities?Negritude is, according to Sartre, the weak moment in a dialectical process. The theoretical and practical assertion is the thesis, and the positing of negritude as an authentic value is the moment of negativity or anti-thesis. It will in turn be transcended by the synthesis or realization of the human ‘in a society without races’ (Macey 2000: 186).
Lewis Gordon believes that Fanon insists on the absolute, not relative nature of his experience, and brings this in proximity to Fanon’s notion of ‘the fact of blackness’ (1994: 31-3). However, according to Macey, this academically current notion came into being through a mistranslation of L’Expérience vécue de l’homme noire, the title of the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs.
(F)or Fanon, there is no fact of blackness. The world is, in his view, experienced in particular ways by ‘the black man’, but this experience is defined in situational terms and not by some transhistorical ‘fact’ (Macey 2000: 26).
It is no coincidence that Fanon can be used for both contradictory positions. He once wrote that “it is the white man who creates the negro (sic). But it is the negro who creates negritude” (quoted in Macey 2000: 181). But the creations of negritude are still determined from the outside, secondary and to be transcended.
I hope to have shown how indebted Fanon is to Sartre. However, as a political thinker Fanon is forced to specify the ontological categories. Obviously, the need for recognition is distributed unequally in a world dominated by the descendants of ‘Europe’: “What (the master) wants from the slave is not recognition but work” (1986: 220). This is not the place to discuss all the political ambiguities Fanon entered as a political activist of anti-colonialism, and a self-appointed adviser of the ‘nationalist bourgeoisie’ in the Tricontinentale. But ambiguities can also be detected in his theoretical understanding of black identity.
I will now return to Jean Améry who captured the situational ambiguities of the racialised other with the paradoxical formulation ‘necessity and impossibility of being a Jew’. In his discussion of identity in At the Mind’s Limits ‘How much home does a person need?’, he repeatedly emphasises that neither he nor his family had a connection to Jewish religion or wider traditions. On the contrary, as a universally educated intellectual, Améry was soaked with ‘German’ philosophy and literature. But looking back, he notes:
I certainly was a Jew as I had come to realize in 1935 after the proclamation of the Nuremberg laws... At that time I still did not bear that French-sounding pen name with which I sign my works today. My identity was bound to a plain German name and to the dialect of my more immediate place of origin (1980: 43).
For Jean Améry was born as Hans Maier, as German as a name can be, and after the Shoah an unbearable name. What was German or Austrian in Améry was robbed and destroyed in exile and the concentration camps: “We had not lost our country, but had to realize that it had never been ours” (50). The exile was excluded from the German nation and its language, effective even for the past: “In Auschwitz... the isolated individual had to relinquish all of German culture, including Dürer and Reger, Gryphius and Trakl, to even the lowest SS man” (8).
Both Fanon and Améry form their identity in retrospect. They accept what they cannot deny. Compare Fanon, writing about his youth in Martinique: “I am a negro – but I naturally do not know that because that is what I am” (1986: 155), with Améry, writing about his in rural Austria: “If being a Jew implies having a cultural heritage or religious ties, then I was not one and can never be one” (1980: 83). Racism and anti-Semitism establishes a fact. Améry accepts this fact, but is very clear about the status of this identity: “I accepted the judgement of the world, with the decision to overcome it through revolt” (90). However, this identity is not a personal question, but one of taking sides, a political and collective question. Améry changed his name, and henceforth devoted his life to intellectual struggle. A similar exercise of freedom (in Sartre’s sense) can be gauged in Fanon’s later expression “we Algerians”. His conscious, deliberate decision to become this future subject corresponds with Algeria’s status as a nation in waiting. His identification was one across cultural and ethnical divides, albeit unconditional.
It was the feeling of rejected love that inspired their rebellion, an involuntary exclusion. When Frantz Fanon (1925-61) joined the Free French Army in 1944 to fight against the Germans, he did so for political if rather lofty convictions: “Fanon’s own motives were grounded in the conviction that his own freedom, that of Martinique and that of France were inextricable bound together” (Macey 2000: 91). But soon he came to the opinion that a black from Martinique and the French nation could not have common interests. Laconically, he wrote in a letter to his parents on the 12th of April 1945: “I was wrong!” (quoted in Macey 2000: 104). The reason was his encounter with racism that denied him the status of a citizen, being “a Frenchman and not a Frenchman” (Gordon 1995: 6). His position is ambiguous, included and excluded at the same time. In turn, Améry said about his reaction to rising National Socialism: “I was not yet ready to take Jewish destiny upon myself... I really found myself in a confusing state of mind: I was an Austrian who had been raised as a Christian, and yet I was not one” (quoted in Myers 2002: 45).
A Revolt Against Positivismall attempts at economic explanations, all the despairing one-dimensional allusions to the fact that German industrial capital, concerned about its privileges, financed Hitler, tell the eye-witness nothing, tell him just as little as the sophisticated speculations about the dialectics of enlightenment (viii).
Instead of positivist knowledge production, Améry demands a theory that prevents clarification in the sense that
nothing is resolved, no conflict is settled, no remembering has become mere memory. What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted. I rebel: against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus falsifies it in a revolting way (xi).
Does that mean to give way to arbitrary particularism? On the contrary, Améry is far from being a relativist. He strongly believes in the enlightenment notion of truth, defined as “the will and the ability to speak phenomenologically, to emphatize, to approach the limits of reason “ (1980: xi). His and Fanon’s way of theorising is exemplary in the respect that they value their practical experiences, but never tire from trying to bring them in accordance with theory. They do not fear objectifying themselves, but being objectified by the other within racist categories.
To theorise enforced identities with notions like Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’, Michel Foucault’s ‘fictions that function in truth’ or comparable ones is misleading. Imagination produces concrete reality; a fiction that produces truth is no longer fictitious. The recognition as a black, as Jew is not imaginary: “Antisemitism, which made a Jew of me, may be a form of madness; that is not what is in question here.. Whether it is madness or not, it is in any event a historical and social fact”, says Améry (1980: 98). To be sure, a fact to be challenged and changed.
We should not neglect this problematic as an irrelevant thought game. This problematic points to epistemological and therefore methodological problems at the heart of every research, to questions of authority and method. Common sense denied full humanity to the black colonised, not to speak of the Nazi’s attempt to eradicate what they defined as Jewish ‘subhumans’. For those of this status, the very fact of theorising, of privileging one’s own experience over the received and naturalised truth involves a revolt.
The theoretical tradition Fanon and Améry shared informed their revolt; Jean-Paul Sartre allocated it a prominent place in his phenomenology. But as a general feature of being human, the existentialist notion of revolt facilitates and exacerbates their position at the same time. For them, using dialectics and phenomenology means walking the thin line between particularism and ontology. However, a ‘specific ontology’ is obviously a paradox. It is one of the results of racism that certain philosophical operations are not possible: “every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society” (Fanon 1986: 109). We cannot understand ‘man as such’, if ‘man as such’ does not exist.
Améry and Fanon have to claim a certain authority to enunciate their specific, particular plight. This authority is the outcome of lived experience, expérience vécue, as the subtitle of Peau noire, masques blancs reads. All through Améry’s discussion of the Shoah runs his insistence on his first-hand knowledge: “I was there. Let no young political scientist, no matter how clever he is, tell me his conceptually untenable stories” (1980: viii). And nine years later, writing his treatise on suicide, he insists: “Only those who have entered into the darkness can have a say in this matter” (1999: 10). Améry rejects any individualistic pathology of the victims, as does Fanon for the colonised. The racialised other is no more ill than his society. From this position, he sharply criticises fascism theories:
Maybe Améry did not rid himself thoroughly enough from positivism. “To be a Jew, that meant to me, from that moment on, to be a dead man on leave” (86) – says he who died by his own hand. His torturers succeeded insofar as he never developed trust is the world again. When he speaks about his urge for revenge, and the denied recognition of his sufferings in Germany, he says frankly: “I must encapsulate my resentments. I can still believe in their moral value and historical validity? Still, but how much longer?” (81) Who is mad in a mad world? Is the racist normal in the racist world? Can we understand the suicide of Améry, who praised “exact thinking” (18), as a final surrender to factuality?
I am hesitant here, and certainly do not want to grant his enemies a final victory. Only that he might have fought from a better position by embracing the dialectic, in whatever form. Is it not only ironic that the theoretical tools Fanon and Améry use stem from the heart of German idealism. Maybe Frantz Fanon does attack the core of Eurocentrism when he rewrites the ontological dialectic of master and bondsman in a historically specified way. But there is more to Fanon’s and Améry’s reluctant drawing on Hegel, a theoretical communality. The dialectic prioritises contradiction over identity.
If it were a question of grading the two determinations, and they had to be kept separate, then contradiction would have to be taken as the profounder determination and more characteristic of essence. For as against contradiction, identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only insofar that something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity (Hegel 1969: 439).
This results in a dynamic understanding of history and meaning. I would argue that it the paradoxical structure of Améry’s formulation ‘impossibility and necessity of being a Jew’ is no coincidence. The Negro is what the world says, and he is not. The Jew is ‘Untermensch’ and is not. Any theory that fails to make some kind of distinction between substance and appearance falls into the ontological trap. Lewis Gordon notes that when he discusses the logical structure of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “The a posteriori proof of the inferiority of inferior people is that one is able to degrade them” (1995: 26).
The racialised other finds himself in a circle, endlessly spinning around. The other establishes a relation between them, but then leaves him alone, returns to his private life. “It is like rape” (40), says Améry. Only the other’s recognition could end this circle. But the counterpart here is the anti-Semitic torturer in Améry’s case, as is the white as opposed to the black in Fanon’s. It is in this context that Améry analyses revenge and resentment:
The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today. When SS-man Wajs stood before the firing squad, he experienced the moral truth of his crimes. At that moment, he was with me – and I was no longer alone with the shovel handle... When they led him to the execution, the antiman had once again become a fellow man (70).
Narration as a MethodOne can reconstruct one’s life and follow its traces. What I experienced in 1919 – my entry into elementary school, the immediate results of the collapse of a proud empire – became false in the light of 1930, became true in the perspective of 1940, and is once again a lie when I direct my eyes to it today (1999: 147).
Fanon’s and Améry’s insistence on their authority is the corollary of their late exclusion. ‘You don’t know how they are,’ a white Australian once said to me about Aborigines whom he despised. The racist always already knows about ‘them’ what he needs to know. Expressed with the visual metaphor: he does not need to look. The claim to knowledge is part of Fanon’s and Améry’s rebellion against a racist world. In the biographical context, the claim to authority is one to authorship. In On Suicide, Améry tells an anecdote in which a neurologist told one of his friend that dramatic suicide attempts “belong to vaudeville”. He comments: “A trifle had escaped the doctor: what is to be called vaudeville and what is to be called tragedy is decided by the author” (1999: 9). The author is the subject which has to defend its self-determination even if that entails taking one’s life. This is not without methodological importance: when biographies of theoreticians are discussed, usually the real world influences their thinking. What is then easily lost is the freedom of thinkers to sketch themselves according to their conviction.
Increasingly, cultural students discover autobiography as a theoretical tool, as a way of theoretical mimesis. If, as Laurel Richardson writes “narrative is the primary way through which humans organize their experiences into temporarily meaningful episodes”, and “both a mode of reasoning and a mode of representation” (quoted in Berger 1997: 10), how can the victims of racism and anti-Semitism use narratives? What role does narration play in their thinking?
Jonathan Culler defines plot, structure and transformation as the essential features of every narration. He grants narrative a pivotal role in consciousness: “Stories are the main way we make sense of things” (2000: 78). True, and especially true for the story with which subjects make meaning of their life. The past, especially childhood are thought of as decisive for the formation of one’s personality. ‘I am like this, because I was like that!’
No one simply tells ‘the story of my life’, as the standard subtitle has it. Autobiographical narratives bring order to chaos, to an array of formerly unconnected memories. They are necessarily conceptually organised in that they break a steady flow of memories into distinct chapters, equipped with a heading that identifies the main theme of that time. Memories are brought in a sometimes debatable sequence. A red thread runs through the past until today. “There must be an end that relates back to the beginning”, says Culler (2000: 80). But what is with the black hole in the middle of, say, Améry’s life? How to integrate the experience of exclusion and contempt, the exploitation as a screen for alien desires into a coherent story? Not surprisingly, Améry is sceptical.
Underlying the autobiographical endeavour are different sets of motives, amongst others clarification, justification, confession. These stories tend to have a morale, to narrate the specific life as an enlightening example. They warn and recommend. These notions are kin to psychoanalysis. The notion of catharsis is current in its most banal forms in popular culture today, especially in the US: confession is thought of as performative, it purges and rids of sin. The psychoanalytic practice is founded on the notion of ‘talking cure’. Fanon and Améry transcend this narrow frame and replace it by a vision of global recognition. Freud believed, the unconscious knows no time, therefore traumatic experiences from the past must be ‘brought to the surface’, integrated and organised in a meaningful way.
This psychoanalytic notion is clearly no option for Améry and Fanon. Influenced by Sartre’s philosophy of existential freedom, they detect forms of bad faith in psychoanalysis. Responsibility is evaded by the preoccupation with a past. Instead of rewriting the past, they choose ‘the rebellion against the past’ (Améry). One could describe their thinking following a certain narrative, but it is a historical narrative that transcends and objectifies the individual.
ConclusionsIdentity is essentially a concept of synthesis. It represents the process by which the person seeks to in integrate his various statuses and roles, as well as his diverse experiences, into a coherent self (Epstein 1978: 101).
This synthesis, however, is socially determined. Anthony Giddens describes subject formation as a reflexive process that increasingly puts pressure on the individual: “Self-identity has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (Giddens 1991: 52). What was taken for granted has become a challenge, a task. Still, people are allegedly free to choose what suits them. Giddens thereby captures a postmodern mood of ‘anything goes’. Identities are allegedly free to purchase, and what is not on offer can be produced by handcraft: an attractive body, a spiritual soul. But what does has the marketplace of identities to offer to those who, by virtue of their ethnicity or by virtue of bodily features, cannot meet what the norm prescribes?
Why is all this of methodological importance? Améry and Fanon made their first painful experiences during what Eric Hobsbawm has called the ‘century of extremes’, the era of world war, genocide and decolonisation. Between the confusing fronts in these conflicts, they held on not to the utopia, but the perspective of human liberation. Notwithstanding that humanist perspective they are quite clear that redemption will and only can be a violent process.
Even though they probably did never meet, both Améry and Fanon belong to the same tradition of écriture engagé, epitomised in Sartre. What is characteristic for their engaging thinking – engaging with the object of study and its ethical and political importance – is a certain cosmopolitanism and eclecticism in a non-derogatory sense. Fanon’s biographer David Macey calls Black Skin, White Masks “highly eclectic: Adler is cited alongside Anna Freud, reference to Lacan occur alongside largely forgotten figures” (187) – not to speak of the unconventional philosophical frame. The same is true for Améry who, in At the Mind’s Limit, cites Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Sartre, Freud, Adorno, Bataille, Marx, Wittgenstein, Carnap... amongst others. The wide scope of reference reflects their indebtedness to the nowadays largely forgotten methodological conviction that there must be a unity of method and object. To discuss methodology in a purely abstract way, that is independent from the object of analysis, is senseless. Améry and Fanon are well aware that ‘the right method’ cannot be worked out first, and then applied to multiple objects. Rather they prioritise the things themselves (if in a phenomenological sense). They use what is at their hand, but avoid contradiction.
For them, common sense could never be an option. Their surroundings, denying them human dignity, forced them to challenge the factual world and its ‘received wisdom’. However, and this seems of paramount importance to me, both are by no means epistemological relativists. They develop sophisticated critiques of the factual in the sense of producing facts. Who ever suffered will be more inclined to believe in dialectic, following the movement of thought from ‘it’s like this’ over ‘it could be else’ to ‘it must be else’. They are biographical thinkers only insofar as they use personal experience as the starting point and as a constant means of correcting theory. This, however, is a topical question in the ethnographic and anthropological discussion: “(M)ethodologically, anthropologists cannot avoid the intrusion of their own selves” (Cohen 1995: 4). It will be more fruitful to accept and deal with this intrusion (which also means controlling it) than to deny it. Fanon and Améry, both in their own specific way, provide a good example on how to use experience theoretically.
I would argue that the most important lesson Fanon and Améry have to give is their pointing to the violence in the process of what is today called identity formation.
Not surprising, if sad, that Améry’s and Fanon’s livelong fight was usually lost in their academic reception. Améry is treated as the ‘specialist’ for the post-Holocaust identity of German Jews, and so is Fanon, putatively a ‘specialist’ for the condition humaine of the colonised, not the conditions in a world of colonisation! The games and wars of identity are carried on, when the philosophers are approached as informers for their specific plight, as ‘insiders’ returning from ‘the field’, carrying knowledge from the exotic to the familiar, the particular and special to the general and normal. Polemically one could label these approaches as the prolonging of the musings about the ‘Jewish question’, the ‘black’ and ‘women question’ that Sartre tried to bury in 1946. Insofar, to approach the thinkers autobiographically runs the danger of belittling their insights and not recognising that they speak to us. The difficulty then is to acknowledge the special authority granted to them by their suffering.
Paul Gilroy argues that the last few decades have seen a tendential shift from older forms of racism, which were based in biological and genetic determinism, to a new, ‘culturalist’ form. Culture appears to be owned, not lived: “Identity ceases to be an on-going process of self-making and interaction. It becomes instead a thing to be possessed and displayed” (103, compare also 24). Notwithstanding the problematic notion of identity as process, it does not play much a role whether alterity lies in the genes or in learned behaviour. Both petrify the other, make him or her an object, denying him or her subject status, change, or development.
Conceptually, identity makes only sense in contrast with ‘the other’. As Gilroy notes: “Nobody ever speaks of a human identity” (98). In identity formation agency is blurred and ambiguous; the outside world works on the subject far more effectively than vice versa. Fanon and Améry remind us not to take ethnic or other cultural identities as natural and for granted. This means to approach questions of ethnic identities - may they be uttered by the subjects themselves or about them – with extreme caution.
What happens when studies of ‘identities’ follow from the question ‘Well, now tell me: how does it feel to have a heterosexual Belgian Diaspora identity in Kuwait’? What is at question – namely if individuals do define themselves according to the categories mentioned above – is presupposed, and the product is what statistics call ‘an artefact’: results that are only the outcome of methodological implications. Anthony Cohen rightly emphasises the danger every research runs, noting that we frequently “deny to cultural ‘others’ the self consciousness which we so value in ourselves” (1995: 5). Running the risk of sounding banal: Fanon and Améry can teach us respect.
Jean Améry (1976 / 1999): On Suicide. A Discourse on Voluntary Death. Translated by John D. Barlow. Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press.
Jean Améry (1966 / 1980): At the Mind’s Limits. Contemplations of a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. Translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella Rosenfeld. London: Granta Books.
Jean Améry (1984): Radical Humanism. Selected Essays. Translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella Rosenfeld. Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press.
Jean Améry (1971): Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre. Stuttgart: Klett.
Arthur Asa Berger (1997): Narratives in Popular Culture, Media and Everyday Live. London: Sage.
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Frantz Fanon (1973): The Wretched of the Earth. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. Bungay: Penguin Books.
Frantz Fanon (1986): Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press.
Frantz Fanon (1988): Towards the African Revolution. Translated by H. Chevalier. New York: Grove Press.
Anthony Giddens (1991): Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. London: Polity.
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Jean Paul Sartre (1958): Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by W. Warrock. London: Methuen.