Understanding Violence Through the (Misread) Works of Frantz Fanon and Gandhi



References to the work of Frantz Fanon about violence are plethora in this issue, while the example of Gandhi remains a theoretical trope for systematic non-violence advocate. In this conversation, Bhakti Shringarpure provides us with a deeper reading of these two historical figures.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: It seems that you and I like to have ongoing conversations over the years! Your recently published book Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital (2019) argues that the Cold War becomes an extension of European colonialism. You have a chapter in there comparing Fanon and Gandhi’s theories of violence and the impact of their ideas on newly independent nations. In fact, we had spoken about these ideas with regards to Fanon back in 2014 after watching Göran Olsson’s film Concerning Violence. The film juxtaposes the first section of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) entitled “On Violence” read by Lauryn Hill with footage of several situations of revolutionary anti-colonial wars, in particular in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. I think that we both had problems with this film, in particular its very literal understanding of violence, but it also offered an entry to Fanon’s book, that remains the absolute theoretical reference to think of 20th century revolutionary violence. Could you tell us about it? 

BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: Thank you for restarting this conversation which still remains relevant as we work through our troubled, misunderstood and often paradoxical understandings of violence. My engagement with The Wretched of the Earth comes out of my interest in examining postcolonial civil violence; those internecine conflicts that come into the foreground once the independence has been won. The Wretched of the Earth has always provided many answers for this query especially with this exploration of the short moment of decolonization as Fanon calls it. And when you get into The Wretched of the Earth, you have to unfortunately lock heads with the controversy regarding Fanon and his supposed reputation for promoting violence. What made Goran Olsson’s film Concerning Violence interesting was that he situated the brutality of colonial violence as an a priori and Fanon’s theories as an intervention into that. There is a popular notion that Fanon propagated violence as cathartic or as a cleansing force. But in going along with Olsson’s choreographed rendition of the footage of colonial wars and its horrors, you come to see that Fanon’s thinking on the subject is steeped in a very particular historical context. The film allows us to visualize that context and this is one of the film’s merits for me even though I do agree with many of the critiques of the film.

Both Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth are his most well-known works though The Wretched of the Earth has more controversial legacy. It was also, of course, published posthumously and there is a kind of notoriety around it. One reason why this book continues to circulate is also because it has an urgent, feverish quality. Fanon knew it was his final days before the leukemia took him and it communicates his anxiety. It also synthesizes and brings together a lot of his previous work whether in psychiatry or in political speeches or in articles but they are modeled for a rigorous Pan African content. The colonized here become one entity and he works through what an African identity might look like within that.