Dialectics of Oppression: Fanon's Anticolonial Critique of Hegelian Dialectics.

Author:Ogungbure, Adebayo A.
Position::Frantz Fanon - Critical essay

"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." --Audre Lorde "For me, oppression is the greatest calamity of humanity." --Albert Memmi Introduction: Being and Non-Being

In a recently published essay titled "Frantz Fanon's Contribution to Hegelian Marxism," Peter Hudis argues that Fanon's insights in Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM) "instead of representing a departure of the dialectical tradition, represent a crucial extension and concretization of Hegelian dialectics." (1) The rationale for this claim lies in the fact that Fanon cites a lot from, and appropriates, Hegel's notable writings on dialectics to depict the condition of the Black human. As Hudis puts it, "while his [Fanon's] discussion of Hegel in Black Skin, White Masks is well known, less recognized is that the entire book, as well as much of The Wretched of the Earth--in which Hegel is not even mentioned--is deeply rooted in Hegelian dialectics." (2) It is clear from these assertions that this scholar was deeply entrenched in the project of a Hegelian (Eurocentric) reading of Fanon, so much so that some key elements of Fanon's engagement with Hegel went unacknowledged. For instance, Hudis fails to mention the purpose and critical nature of Fanon's engagement with the writings of Hegel concerning human consciousness and the axis of recognition between the subject and the object of consciousness. Although Hudis mentions that recognition, for Hegel as well as for Fanon, is about much more than acknowledging an individual's formal equality before the law--it is instead a demand to be recognized for the dignity and worth of one's being (3)--he ignores the fact that Fanon's insight is different from that of Hegel, especially Fanon's diagnosis that the Hegelian "master-slave" dialectics institutionalizes racialized violence. That is, violence is aufgehoben, preserved, in the fundamental inequality of recognition: the "master" is recognized by the "slave" but does not reciprocally recognize the "slave". Such inequality is institutionalized in the shape of domination, lordship and bondage. (4)

Fanon was very clear on this issue when he articulates in a crucial footnote in BSWM that "we hope to have shown that the master here is basically different from the one described by Hegel. For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master scorns the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work." (5) The absence of reciprocity between the "master" (colonizer) and the Black "slave" (colonized) makes the Black "slave" focuses his gaze on the "master" whereas the "slave" in the Hegelian dialectic focuses on the object of consciousness. The "slave" in Fanon's critique of Hegel cannot focus on the object because he lacks recognition and as such is fixated on the "master"; this is the genesis of the conflict inherent in the process of recognition that leads to the internalization of inferiority for many Black people, in Fanon's estimation. This is also a consequence of what Fanon rightly diagnoses as the absolute reciprocity that must be highlighted at the basis of Hegelian dialectic. (6) What this implies is that the nature of Fanon's engagement with Hegel's dialectics is not co-extensive. Fanon was more interested in showing how Hegelian "master"-dialectics impedes the recognition of Black humanity and thus cannot be applied to the lived experience of Black people.

However, in an apparent, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to defend Hegel against the critique of Fanon, Hudis provides a somewhat bewildering explanation on why Hegel possibly snubbed the consciousness and the lived experience of the "slave" in his dialectics. Hudis states that when the "master-slave" dialectic "is viewed in terms of race, we get a very different result from what Hegel describes. Regardless of what Hegel did or didn't know of the history of Black slavery and the revolts against it, such as the Haitian revolution, it is clear that the historical context of Hegel's master/slave dialectic--more correctly translated as 'lordship and bondage'--is the ancient and medieval world, in which slavery was not based on race." (7) This explanation fails in two important respects: it ignores the prevalent notion of race in Hegel's context of writing and Hegel's anthropological assumptions in his Philosophy of History.

In the Philosophy of History, Hegel wrote comprehensively about the world in terms of geo-spatial territories and human hierarchies while employing the ethnological views of race about Black people especially in late 19th and early 20th century Germany. In fact, Hegel demonstrated a knowledge of slavery based on race while providing a justification of "Negroes" who are enslaved by Europeans and sold to America as something based on the absence of any formalized ontological category and weak moral sentiments among Negroes. Which in his estimation, is function of the fact that "Negroes" (Black people in more contemporary usage of the term) are outside of the realm of consciousness and as such can be reduced to a 'thing' and 'object' of no value.' (8) As Hegel affirms, "it is the essential principle of slavery that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing--an object of no value." (9) He would later elaborate on this in The Phenomenology of Mind and The Philosophy of Right in terms of the attainment of Absolute spirit and the expression of consciousness as the ultimate marker of being human or a human being.

Thus, Hudis' claim that Hegel's "master/slave" dialectic is constructed upon a notion of slavery not based on race is patently false when we consider Hegel's own racist assertion that "Africans [Black people] exhibit the most reckless inhumanity and disgusting barbarism" (10) and his assertion that:

In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence--as for example, God, or Law--in which the interest of man's volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. This distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting. The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality--all that we call feeling--if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. (11) This is where Hegel's anthropology reflected what I am referring to in this essay as a dialectics of oppression--a system of dialectical racialized violence that reduces an entire race of people (African people (12)/Black people) to the realm of nothingness or a "thing"--an object of no value. Especially noting his submission that "what we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature." (13) Hegel contrasted this debased characterization of Black people, with the European, who he thinks of as the Absolute spirit who has attained consciousness through reason and is able to declare his Being by avowing thus: "I am I, my object and my essential reality is ego; and no one will deny reason this truth." (14) Here, Hegel centers the power to define who is Being and who is non-Being essentially in white Europeans. This goes to show the brutal nature of Hegelian dialectics. As brutal as the writings of Hegel cited above appears, it is not really astounding when we take into consideration the fact that this was the predominant white supremacist notion of race between late 19th and early 20th century Germany, (15) which was the context of his writing. It is the notion of race that portrayed a low level of development for a primitive, barbarian "Negro", which gave rise to a feeling of Western superiority, above...

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