on the Mapping of Colonial Dichotomies | FANON, Frantz

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Estimated reading time: 5 min

In his seminal essay Concerning Violence, Fanon dissects the colonial world, mapping the structures that create and preserve it. He considers the internalisation of these structures by the colonised, how liberation must be conceived of and effected, and what the resulting de-colonised world will look like. 

What are colonial dichotomies and how do they facilitate psychological colonisation? In this article we will explore Fanon’s ideas about colonial dichotomies, how they manifest, and the regard that must be paid to them in the process of decolonisation. 

Manufactured difference is the bedrock of the colonial world. The people, seemingly fit for unity given their geographic proximity, must never be united. The disunity is first effected through a “cutting” of the land, but the colonisation matures when this results in a “cutting” of the consciousness. Government, culture, language, religion – all come to exhibit the same “cut up” nature as the rural patches of land and the city quarters. In effect, colonisation is the ghettoisation of consciousness. For Fanon, this division is such a defining feature of the colonial world that it isn’t really worth mentioning: ‘sans doute est-il superflu, sur le plan de la description, de rappeler l’existence de villes indigènes et de villes européennes’. In describing the colonial world as ‘un monde compartimenté’, Fanon highlights the functional nature of the division – there is nothing remarkable to note, it is not a world trying to feign integration and fairness in the tradition of the western liberal ideal of “égalité et fraternité”, it is an aberration of society in that its primary feature first and foremost is its division. 

African History Project - Free South Africa Poster (4) copy
Poster in support of the anti-apartheid movement

But this division is not merely superficial, it sets up the framework for the creation of hierarchies of living – some must live highly, and others must live lowly. The zone for one group of people is ‘illuminée…[c’]est une ville repue, paresseuse, son ventre est plein de bonnes choses à l’état permanent’. While the zone for the other group is ‘affamée, affamée de pain, de viande, de chaussures, de charbon, de lumière’. Thus, it is not merely a physical division, the division is also a matter of quality. In one place, humans live; in the other place, another “thing” lives. The system would have one believe that this other specie is this way, because only “other” species could live in this way. But Fanon rejects this stating that it is not the living that creates the other species as ‘ce qui morcèle le monde c’est d’abord le fait d’appartenir ou non à telle espèce, à telle race’. This is what Fanon means when he describes the colonial world as a Manichaean world, defined by it division and dichotomies, defined by its hierarchies of race. 

The dichotomies, the setting up of differences, are some of the most powerful tools of psychological colonisation. Once internalised, the colonised accept the idea of division and difference, that is to say that the qualitative hierarchy is also internalised. In essence, the colonised accept the reality of a lower standard for themselves. This is what we see when they celebrate the opening of a new supermarket in their area as a sign of progress, when the colonisers enjoy five such supermarkets in an area of the same size. Or when the first among them receives a government scholarship to study at university, when in the history of the polis the colonisers have been granted tens of thousands of such scholarships. 

African History Project - FRANTZ FANON

…en 1945, les 45 000 morts de Sétif pouvaient passer inaperçus … c’est que les contradictions internationales n’étaient pas suffisamment tranchées

– Frantz Fanon

The dichotomies do not only exist in how the people are made to live but in how they are treated by the state. By definition, the state is there to protect all the citizens, but in the colonial world, not all the humans are citizens. There are two species, two peoples; one belongs, one is the negation of belonging. As such, the state’s primary aim is to protect the citizens by taking action against the other species. The colonised perceive this difference; they are made stateless by it. They are a people without protection and they know it: ‘ce que le colonisé a vu sur son sol, c’est qu’on pouvait impunément l’arrêter, le frapper, l’affamer’.

This violence, like the physical divisions of the colonial world, distinguishes the colonised from the colonisers as it is the direct tool through which the colonisers dislocate themselves from their humanity. The conditions of their two zones may simply be a difference in how people live, but the violence deployed is deployed for the sole benefit of the citizens, that is for the colonisers. It is used to protect the dichotomy it was once use to establish. The colonisers cannot deny this. How can they explain the fact that the colonised do not feel safe despite all the money poured into the security forces.Thus, this protection by the state is the greatest privilege the colonisers have. The numbers that evince this privilege are startling, as Fanon recounts: ‘en 1945, les 45 000 morts de Sétif pouvaient passer inaperçus; en 1947, les 90 000 morts de Madagascar pouvaient faire l’objet d’un simple entrefilet dans les journaux; en 1952, les 200 000 victimes de la répression au Kenya pouvalent rencontrer une indifférence relative. C’est que les contradictions internationales n’étaient pas suffisamment tranchées’. This violation of life and the ease with which it is effected is matched by the insult of not naming the dead. It is the last insult of the colonising race that they refuse to name the dead on the other side, to do so would be to humanise them. They are a mass, like a pack or a herd; the loss of one of them is not equal to the loss of an actual citizen, with all his life, and loves, and purpose. This is what Fanon means when he says that in the town of the oppressed ‘on y naît n’importe où, n’importe comment. On y meurt n’importe où, de n’importe quoi’. We should not kid ourselves, the colonised matter neither in life, nor in death.

African History Project - Free South Africa Poster (2) copy
Poster in support of the anti-apartheid movement

The result of all this is the fostering of a deep self-hatred that follows the frontier lines of the colonial world, those seen and unseen. To be of the colonised race is to live and to die without consequence; it is to not exist. In fact, while the principle aim of the coloniser is to distinguish himself so that his name will live on beyond him, the expectation of the colonised is that he is to make no noise at all and to leave the earth as he found it. Without leaving any impression, he is to live and die quickly and uneventfully, grateful to the coloniser that he has been allowed to do so. Thus, the colonised life is one of self rejection – they reject not just their physical and material conditions, but the psychological condition that these have engendered. The colonised become dislocated from themselves, their esteem is stripped such that ‘le regard que le colonisé jette sur la ville du colon est un regard de luxure, un regard d’envie…Le colonisé est un envieux’.

Thus, the dichotomies and differences create this powerful set of psychological effects where to live is a crime, so one half-lives with a constant threat of death as well as the knowledge that one’s death will matter even less than one’s life. This breeds a fatalism in the people who ‘vivent dans une atmosphère de fin du monde’. In the greatest of colonial paradoxes, for the colonised, life is a death daily reoccurring.

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