Transcendence and Reflexivity in Fanon: Nationalism and National Consciousness

The key distinction between nationalism and national consciousness with respect to culture is not, as it first appears, the mere redefining of relationships. Now, you could make an argument that it is just about redefining relationships. If you did this you would say something like the meaning of inertia is stasis, relationships staying the same, whereas the dynamic culture is one in which relationships are changing, redefined. This would not require a notion of transcendence, you could think it purely in terms of transformation on a single theoretical plane, no reflexion only disruption. And perhaps the birth of national sentiment, and the initial attempts to “to reanimate the cultural dynamic and to give fresh impulses to its themes, its forms, and its tonalities” remains for Fanon on an immanent plane, not yet reflexive, not yet “conscious”. The evidence for this is that the effects of these re-animations are “nill”. If they are reflexive, their reflexivity will show up in their taking account of not having an effect. To speak simply: those who re-animate cultural dynamics in a way that merely reproduces existing power relations and acts as a pacification for settler colonialism or other forms of oppression are only reflexive insofar as they actually reflect on the political impact of their work.


Now, the reason why I think you need a notion of transcendence is that in order to move from nationalism to national consciousness you need a “consciousness”. The consciousness is the national culture becoming conscious of itself as having a role at reforming the culture, meaning the “whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence”, and directing that reform towards liberation and against the colonizer. This reflection is transcendental, or transcending if you want, because it doesn’t remain fully embedded in the thing it is reflecting on. You could think about it this way: if self criticism isn’t transcendental, then you could never come to any answer in self-reflection other than everything you’re doing is great, all your ideas and the relationship between your actions and your ideas and your beliefs don’t need any change, and everything you’re doing is having all the effects you are expecting it to have. This would amount to a kind of un-consciousness, and that’s I believe what immanence literally is, a kind of pure determinism. And of course we may believe that we are more determined than we think we are (i.e. Foucault especially early Foucault). But there is something weird about this – from the fact that we can criticize our self-consciousness as not really self conscious but actually secretly determined actually implies that we are even more free than we thought, because we can stand above our whole forms of seemingly free discursive production and recognize the unfreedom in it and then try to effect changes to moderate those forms of implicit coercion.


Using transgressive Artists as an example, there is no reason to think this reflection should be theorized only abstractly, you can as easily do an anthropology of it by interviewing artists who are criticizing their own work in terms of its political impacts, and evaluating art cultures which are collectively engaging in this self criticism. Self-criticism is a part of the struggle as important as force because force without self-criticism can probably always be contained by a counter force which is self critical (not only the revolutionaries are conscious and reflective – the state is eminently reflexive with how it responds to resistance!). And of course analysis of this self criticism can benefit from critiques like Foucault who might show that what we thought was self-criticism was actually much more determined than we thought – but again this is not an argument for the non-transcendental quality of reflexivity rather an empirical and political matter about the difficulty of such criticism – and the reflexive/transcendental attitude is the one that doesn’t give up the possibility of criticism because it is hard but faces this difficulty as a challenge.


There is perhaps an ambiguity in the notion of ‘dynamic’ and this gives rise to the multiple possible interpretations of Fanon’s work, if we think that dynamic just means changing then any random chaotic and/or externally determined process is dynamic. But liberation is not merely a reaction against the colonizer (anti-colonial) but also the overcoming of internal repression and inertia in which the colonized liberate themselves and become freely, actively, consciously engaged in the production and reproduction of their lives, which means, their culture. Now I’m perfectly guilty of perhaps over stressing the anti-colonial aspect of Fanon’s theory (in reaction against the notion of post coloniality), but if we take this idea of “consciousness” seriously we must admit that Fanon is not merely anti-colonial but also a theorist of beyond the anti-colonial. But this is not “post colonial”, at least not the common meaning of the term, because all postcolonial theorists ever talk about are the remnants of coloniality in the “post colony”. The true after of anti-colonial struggle is not “freedom-from” colonial oppression (i.e. defined as “after” the colonial period), but “freedom-for”, in other words a self-conscious liberated culture that determines itself.


Fanon’s belief in the transcendent imputus of armed liberation was probably too strong. He believed even that in places where the struggle was relatively short the fact that the people were involved in it would make them un-dupable, un-trickable, encouraging them to de-mystify their culture and take charge of their own destiny. This belief was probably justified, but not as a political philosophy but a truth which is the postulate of the militant on the barricade. No one dies on the barricade for incremental progress, and no one joins the FLN to theorize about how shitty the decolonized state will be to live in because culture won’t become self conscious, because people won’t internally decolonize, and because the armed struggle will create a culture where people believe problems can be solved by guns in which resort to armed violence is a normal part of the political process and every party has a militia.


Perhaps, then, Fanon’s belief in transcendence, and belief that armed struggle is a motivating source of transcendence is too strong a belief. Contestation, confrontation, maybe these forms of experience have less transcendence in them than Fanon believed. Not none, because that would be to deny the potentiality of political positive transformation altogether. But without reflexivity on the side of transgression, norms will adapt and win – and we should never under estimate the importance of security states like Occupied Palestine and in the past Ireland as laboratories in which the state uses force and reflection to strengthen its capacity and finess in responding to transformative disruptions. If those engaged in the projects of transformative disruptions, whether in non violent protest, art culture, or armed struggle, are not more reflexive, more transcendent than the state, then we may be properly be able to say that Revolutions have no future.


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