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.
But what role does the denigration of culture play in the colonial enterprise? In this article we will explore Fanon’s ideas about culture in the colonial context, how hierarchies of culture are established and how they come to be used to weather esteem.
When one thinks of the vessels of esteem, that is those things, both material and immaterial, that carry our sense of self, culture is perhaps the most heavily laden of these vessels. Almost everything that we use to distinguish ourselves from others, and in so doing develop a sense of self, is a function of our culture. In the vessel, sits tradition alongside custom, history alongside religion, language alongside dress. The way we receive greetings, the way we give them, the knowledge that we are deserving of greetings, and the knowledge that we are required in specific moments to give them; all these things are held in us through that most ambitious of concepts, culture. Culture goes a long way to validating the way we move through the world, it is the intersection of history and the contemporary – what we do today has been done before, and by doing it we simultaneously show that we came from somewhere and that we are still here.
What then when one is stripped of their culture? When it is reduced, attacked and drained of life? What happens when in fact your very way of existing is labelled as the negation of culture itself, as a hindrance to it that needs to be delegitimised? What happens when your culture is made illegal, when your history is wiped from memory, your customs ridiculed, your religion demonised, your language starved of expression and your dress outlawed? What is left?
Perhaps a shell of a man.
When Fanon talks of the denigration of culture in the colonial enterprise, it is systematic and deliberate, demonstrating ‘le caractère totalitaire de l’exploitation coloniale’. The denigration of culture is not some by-product or after thought – it is an integral element in the dehumanisation process. The colonisers in all consciousness launch ‘un combat d’arrière-garde sur le terrain de la culture, des valeurs, des techniques’. The colonised man must be made into an animal, ‘une sorte de quintessence du mal’, in fact, ‘[une] négation des valeurs…l’ennemi des valeurs’. He is a disease to culture, and by extension his culture is a disease to humanity. It must be wiped out.
In the process of colonisation, the denigration of culture is a conscious and consequential enterprise.APEIKE UMOLU
Given every role that culture plays, this attack is the most brutal of all, and it is the most long-lasting. The physical wounds may heal, and therapy may ease the mind of its terror. The land and the government may even be handed back, but notice how the latter may be sacrificed for the former showing where the real power lies. In any event, the people may once again rule themselves, but respect for one’s culture, once lost, can never be fully restored. All attempts at it seems superficial, tokenist, a delusional enterprise. The culture now represents a backwardness – the thought can never be unthought. This is the permanence of the colonial enterprise, this is where the dominating culture collects its prizes. It is the cuckoo catfish that, after eating the eggs of the cichlid fish, lays one of their own in the mother’s mouth, and once the catfish child hatches it devourers the remainder of the cichlid babies, and the mother, unable to distinguish between what came from her and what has been implanted by another, protects the catfish babies with her life. This is the resulting consciousness of the colonised and denigrated. This is why Fanon can speak of the universalisation of western culture, where the colonised are fed to ‘les « Congrès de culture », [qui] lui exposent la spécificité, les richesses des valeurs occidentales’. The church, the school, the newspapers and all of literature is used to remind all of the great history and culture of the colonisers, and in the same determined stroke, profess the absence of all such things in the colonised.
Fanon summarises the psychological weight of this attack well when he writes, that in the colonised consciousness, ‘le colon fait l’histoire. Sa vie est une épopée, une odyssée. Il est le commencement absolu…En face de lui, des êtres engourdis, travaillés de l’intérieur par les fièvres et les « coutumes ancestrales », constituent un cadre quasi-minéral au dynamisme novateur du mercantilisme colonial’.
Thus, in the process of colonisation, the denigration of culture is a conscious and consequential enterprise. It is also a potent enterprise as culture, existing so largely in one’s consciousness, is disproportionately hampered by the effects of that real colonisation, psychological colonisation.
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Frantz Fanon’s brilliant, enthralling critique of the effects of racism on the psyche is a landmark study of the global black experience. Drawing on his own experiences and his work as a psychiatrist to explore how colonialism’s subjects internalise the prejudices of the colonial world, this collection established Fanon as a revolutionary anti-colonialist thinker.
In this seminal collection, Fanon dissects the colonial world and the processes of decolonisation through a number of essays that challenge perceptions and place the colonised psyche at the centre of the conversation.