Interview with David Macey on Fanon, Foucault and Race


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

Simon Dawes interviews David Macey about his contribution to the Special Section on Frantz Fanon in the current issue of the TCS Annual Review, and about his 2009 article in the TCS Special Issue on Michel Foucault.

Read more to find out why (and for whom) Fanon is a source of embarrassment, the link for Foucault between race and the legitimacy of power, and why we should all be reaching for our copies of Fanon and Aimé Césaire.

Simon Dawes: In your article on Fanon in this year’s TCS Annual Review, you represent him as a source of ‘embarrassment’ for the French, for the Martinicans, for psychiatrists and for cultural historians and critics, but not for Algerians. Could you elaborate on this?

David Macey: I’m not sure that Fanon is sufficiently ‘present’ in Algerian memories to be an embarrassment. He is, of course, ‘commemorated’ from time to time. There are streets and institutions –the hospital where he worked in Blida – that commemorate his name and colloquia are organized from time to time (though I’ve never been convinced that these are really for domestic consumption). In any case, commemoration is not necessarily the same thing as ‘remembering’: Paris, for instance, has monuments and sites that commemorate, say, the massacres of 1961, but it would be hard to describe them as being part of an active memory: they can all too easily be ignored.

If Fanon were remembered in Algeria, he probably would be an embarrassment in that his vision of the post-independent period departs significantly from that of the FLN. The FLN’s proclamation of 1954, which was in effect a declaration of war, predicates the emergence of an independent Algeria upon an Arabic-Islamic identity (which is not to say ‘Islamist’ in the current sense of that term); Fanon, especially in Sociologie d’une revolution (L’An V de la revolution algérienne) looks forward to an Algeria in which women would play a major role, and in which there is a place for the European minority (and, at least by implication, for Berber and Jewish minorities who would not necessarily define themselves as Arabi-Islamic). His nationalism is not, that is, based upon ethnicity, but rather upon a will-to-be-Algerian. That is, to say the least, very difficult to reconcile with the FLN’s position. Fanon is a distant reminder that there could have been a different Algeria.

SD: Fanon discusses racial divisions in terms we would normally associate with a discussion of class struggle. How convincing do you find his application of Marxism to the colonial context?

DM: Even though Fanon tries to ‘stretch’ it, Marxism and its vision of class struggle are difficult to apply to situations like colonial Algeria. And in fact, Marxism always had difficulty with colonialism, and often seems to view it as a form of forced and accelerated modernization (think of Marx on British India). The French Communist Party, in particular, often argued that colonial liberation was dependent or –and would be subsequent to—a socialist revolution in metropolitan France. Fanon’s third worldism might be viewed as a form of internationalized class struggle, but ‘classic’ Marxism had alarmingly little to say about Algeria. Individual Communists were, of course, a different matter altogether.

SD: The other articles in the section focus on Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Why did you choose to focus on Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks? And could you tell us a little about the context of the Algerian war, the events of May 1958 and the Paris massacre of 1961, and the links between this context and that of the Vichy government and the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War (i.e. the subjects touched upon by you and the other authors in the section)?

DM: Mainly because I wanted to look at the ‘Martinican’ side of Fanon, and because I feel that Black Skin is, strangely enough, the more contemporary of the two. Although it is not always obvious from the text itself, the backdrop to The Wretched of the Earth is supplied by the Cold War and by the emergence of non-aligned movements from the Bandung Conference of 1955. Arguably that period ended with the brutal coup of 1965 in Indonesia, which resulted in the physical elimination of the largest Communist Party outside the Socialist Bloc. Now that China, India and Brazil are becoming regional super-powers (and perhaps more than that), it is difficult to speak of a ‘Third World’ that once appeared to offer the potential for some kind of revolutionary future. The Wretched of the Earth seems to me to oscillate between descriptions of an Algerian revolution to which Fanon was certainly committed body and soul, and more general invocations of a Third World that can be surprisingly abstract: it appears, for instance, to consist mainly of Africa, and there is little mention of either Asia or the Americas. Black Skin seems to have rather more to say to us now.

I think that Françoise Vergès in perfectly right to say that Black Skin foregrounds the issue of race and racism in ways that are very uncomfortable for a France that prides itself on a Republicanism that supposedly takes no heed of difference and that claims that a French citizen is precisely that, and neither man nor woman, black nor white, Jewish or Gentile but a citizen of a universal republic. And yet that ‘mask’ often slips and reveals something very frightening. To take a recent press report (Nouvel Observateur, 28-3 November 2010): Speaking on TV news on 15 October, Jean-Paul Guerlain, sometime CEO of the Guerlain perfume makers, remarked quite baldly: ‘For once in my life, I began to work like a nigger, not that I know if niggers ever did really work like that …’ This stung Audrey Pulvar –a TV journalist born in Martinique, to say on air ‘Well, this nigger says piss off!’ She reportedly attributed the quotation to Aimé Césaire; it is in fact from Fanon, not that it matters much in the context. To her surprise, no politician thought fit to condemn Guerlain. Perhaps Pulvar was being surprisingly naïve: when a Minister can greet a journalist of Algerian origin by ‘jokingly’ asking if he has his identity papers on him (see my article in the current issue of TCS), we should all be reaching for our copies of Black Skin, White Masks. And of Aimé Césaire.

I don’t think we can go into the entire history of the Algerian war here: it would take too long! But that history, like that of Vichy before it, continues to haunt France and, I suspect, the dreams of so many men (now in their 70s) who served in Algeria as conscripts and who saw and did such terrible things. It is a history that France still has to come to terms with.

SD: In your article on Foucault, published last year in TCS, you focused on a reading of ‘race war’ in his lectures on Security, Territory, Population (after having already translated the overlapping series of lectures, Society Must Be Defended). Is it correct to say that, for Foucault, the idea of ‘race’ originated in the context of war (as the ‘uninterrupted frame of history’), rather than in the classificatory and taxonomical ‘order of things’ he discussed elsewhere? And can you explain Foucault’s account of the shift from races to race? How is race a strategic category of power, and how do races disrupt biopower? Also, to the extent that ‘race war’ can be understood in terms of a zero-sum game of winners and losers, how applicable is the concept of ‘race war’ to the functioning of the market?

DM: Yes, here, the idea of ‘race’ does originate from the idea that an underlying war is going on in society, and that war is about legitimacy and the ‘true’ origins of the nation: is France –and especially the French aristocracy—descended from the Franks or the Gauls (and, mutatis mutandis, are the origins of modern England (Scotland is a different matter) Anglo-Saxon or Norman?) To that extent, ‘race’ is related to the legitimacy of power. It can then become a strategic device that constructs the ‘other’ as a race or quasi-race that has no legitimacy. Although the texts Foucault analyses here are obscure to most of us, the issues prove to be surprisingly contemporary. In France, it is increasingly common –and alarming—to hear talk of ‘French subjects of recent origin’, which carries with it the suggestion that they are not ‘really’ French. Precisely the same vocabulary was used to describe Jews at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. It sometimes seems to me that something very similar is going on here when the ‘white working class’ (or what remains of it) is re-positioned as a quasi-ethnic minority in conflict with other ethnic minorities, rather than as an economic category. More generally, it could be argued that benefit claimants are being repositioned as, if not a race, a quasi-species that is lower down the evolutionary scale by the paradigm: ‘We start families; they breed…’

I’m not sure that we can see this as a zero-sum game in the true sense, but ‘race’ is usually a category that implies the exclusion or marginalization of the group in question.

SD: Finally, your works are a combination of translation, biography and critical engagement, but how would you define your methodological/theoretical approach? And after Lacan, Foucault, Fanon and Touraine, who is next on your list of subjects – Sartre, perhaps?

DM: I’m not sure that I have one approach. In any case, biography, in particular, is largely defined by generic considerations that function as implicit rules. And those considerations are determined by –and of course define—the expectations of readers. A biography has a lot in common with the classic realist novel, and especially the Bildungsroman, and there is little we can do about that. There is obviously room for manoeuvre –the emphasis can move from the psychological to the philosophical—but the underlying question remains: how did a boy from Poitiers become Foucault, and how did a boy from Martinique become Fanon? Biographers have little option but to conform to these generic requirements. As to methodology, it is mainly a matter of checking sources, of being suspicious of statements that are not supported by other evidence and of being very careful to ensure that anything that is said can be backed up … if only to avoid potentially litigious issues.

More generally, I become more suspicious of the claims of theory, and especially Theory. This is, perhaps, ironic given that I am from the generation (post-graduates in the 1970s) that discovered, and perhaps invented, the beast. It is of course possible that researching and writing the Dictionary induced a certain indigestion. More seriously, we do have to ask what theories are meant to be and what they are for. Foucault described his own concepts are parts of a toolkit, but became very irritated if the tools were, as he saw it, misused. And yet he is probably right: these discourses should not become belief systems, as they certainly were when we discovered Althusser’s Marxism and Lacan’s psychanalysis. As Paul Gilroy remarks here, we now appear to have reached the point where theories and concepts are almost fashion items with the shelf life of cheap tee-shirts from Primark.

Whilst there is no denying the importance of what we call theory, it has to be said that the basic concern of any discourse-based discipline must surely be reading: there is little to be gained from turning to, say Foucault, before we have read Fanon or whoever it may be. Reading –at once the simplest and most difficult of skills—can never be an innocent activity, as we always read from within positions that are always/already constructed by prejudices, ideologies and philosophies. But we can make every effort to be aware of our non-innocence and to combat it. Perhaps that is where theory comes in, but the reading has to come first.

I do not have any more major projects planned. I am not well, and there are a lot of uncertainties ahead. That said, I don’t think I could stand the four to five years in libraries that it would take to do anything serious. Sartre would indeed be an interesting subject – I’ve always enjoyed reading him – but there is so much of him! Where would you start? So, minor projects – perhaps – but nothing epic. I do hope to do more work on translation with students in Nottingham: it will be nice to work with the living for a change.

David Macey is Special Professor in Translation, University of Nottingham, and the author of Frantz Fanon: A Life (2000), The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) and The Lives of Michel Foucault (1993). [email:]

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website, and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

You can read David Macey’s new article, ‘‘I Am My Own Foundation’: Frantz Fanon as a Source of Continued Political Embarrassment’ here, and the rest of the TCS Annual Review 2010 here

And you can read David Macey’s earlier article, ‘Rethinking Biopolitics, Race and Power in the Wake of Foucault’ here, and the rest of the articles in the Special Issue on Michel Foucault here

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