In this series of articles we will be meeting important thinkers in psychotherapy, psychology and related disciplines that have pushed the boundaries of theory and given birth to new and powerful trains of thought. As this first issue of Frontier Therapy is a new beginning – a seedling sprouting fresh from the earth for the first time, it seems appropriate to start with an article on Frantz Fanons work which is so focused on the devastating psychological effect of being alienated from our roots. Fanon is often read in postcolonial theory, yet his grounding in psychoanalysis means that holding the mirror of transpersonal psychotherapy to his work we can gain some deep and provocative insights.
Frantz Fanon led a rich and often controversial life – born in the French colony of Martinique, he fought for the Free French Army during the Second World War. Experiencing racism both from the collaborating and Free French forces he began to formulate a philosophy and psychoanalytic theory based on his experiences. After having fought in the war for the Allies he travelled to Lyon France in order to gain further education in psychiatry and philosophy writing his first influential book during this time under the title ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ at the age of 27.
Fanon then worked as a psychiatrist during the time of the brutal Algerian war of independence as the country attempted to liberate itself from colonial rule. He had the chance to work psychotherapeutically with not only the victims of the torture and abuse occurring during the war, but also with perpetrators. Sometimes he would work with both on the same day, providing him with a unique parrallel access to the psychology of the colonizer and the colonized. This allowed him to develop further his ideas on the effect of colonization on the psyche of both parties and although he produced excellent results during his tenure he later resigned his post claiming that patients could not be ‘cured’ of their alienation without a change in the social system.
As a result of his experiences and his theories on the psychopathology of colonization he became a member of the Algerian socialist party the National Liberation Front and his contentious book published after his death ‘the Wretched of the Earth’ called for revolution through violent resistance, as well as expanding on the earlier insights in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. Although a Marxist, Fanon was criticized heavily by many left wing intellectuals yet the book was introduced by his friend and philosophical heavyweight Jean Paul Satre. The book was censored in France, and Fanon was vilified after his death owing to this contentious support of violent revolution and the support of Algerian independence.
Fanons relevance for psychotherapy
Fanon was attempting in his work to try and look at the relationship between race, culture and psyche from a perspective outside of the westernized colonial ruler. He primarily did this by drawing on his own experience as a Martinique islander (a French Colony) his time analyzing patients as a psychiatrist in Algeria ( a colony in revolt) and by looking at what he saw as the psychic damage done through the process of alienation to the colonized subject.
Fanon employed the lens of psychoanalytic theory to perform this critique, he felt that this would allow him an ability to expose the damaging effects of racism and colonialism on both personal and social levels (his theories often jump between theses planes and the interaction and cross-fertilization between the two are fundamental to his work). As a result of bringing his unique ‘outsider’ perspective to the body of knowledge of (what was then) White, European psychoanalysis Fanon asked important questions of many of the heavyweights of psychoanalytic theory – challenging such dogmatically accepted constructs as the omnipresence of the Oedipal complex and Jung’s theory of universal archetypes; although this was done back in the early twentieth century these questions are still pertinent, showing the penetration of Fanon’s thought.
The heart of Fanon’s theory on alienation was the idea that there is a socially conditioned inferiority complex inflicted onto colonized people, not as a result of any biological inferiority (as racial theorists had suggested previously), but through the imposition of an alien culture into the unconscious as an ego ideal. This is fatally combined with the total dissociation of people from their culture of origin (He termed this the “Death and burial of its local cultural originality”). In Fanons work the invading ideal is the result of social conditioning and largely unconscious. his book title speaks to us of this unconscious invasion and alienation as the person with black skin is forced to put on the white mask and unconsciously work towards an unattainable ideal of ‘whiteness’.
Fanon declares his aim as being the need to “disalienate” through the exposing of ties that bind our culture to these racial myths and these often unconscious colonial forms of oppression. Despite living in a world which is largely free of colonies in the classical 19th century sense, race and culture still form a powerful influence over our interpersonal interactions (witness the rise of UKIP based on anti eastern european xenophobia for example). Fanon’s work is still powerfully relevant for people who might be coming to therapy for problems around cultural alienation, alienation from the Self and also those who have been in relationships with narcissistic partners or parents and have perhaps introjected these figures as ego ideals also; setting up a ‘false self’ system as a result.
Writing in 1927 Fanon made a number of challenges to both Freudian and Jungian analytic theory, much as he challenged the universal dominance of western culture his work also attacks perceived ‘universals’ in therapy – as a theorist he was an early in suggesting that the Oedipal complex may be a cultural artifact of the western style of family, rather than a universal formula as Freud proposed. He also drew on Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious whilst again challenging the formulation of archetypes as being ‘universal’ and inherent proposing instead that they were culturally conditioned – this opens up important questions from the view of a transpersonal theory as we are often presented uncritically with the idea of archetypes as ideal platonic forms – Fanon is saying that these are far more mutable artifacts of our cultural background… giving us more agency and ability to change the psychological landscape that we live in:
The collective unconscious is not dependent on cerebral heredity; it is the result of what I shall call the unreflected imposition of a culture
this was a view which Jung came to look at himself a decade later in 1936 in which he wrote his own essay on ‘racial’ archetypes named after the old Germanic god of frenzy ‘Wotan’, a piece of work which is still often seen as controversial and occasionally latched on to by far right groups.
Narcissism and Fanon
Interestingly Fanon’s ideas tie in theoretically to psychotherapeutic work with narcissism. In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ Fanon describes the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized as a narcissistic relationship. With interesting parallels to the work of Buber (2004) and Levinas (in Drabinski 2011), the process that interests Fanon above all is the way that the colonizer turns the colonized ‘subject’ into a soul-less ‘object’ through what he calls its ‘gaze’. We can often observe the same process occurring within a family in which one member becomes an object to be used by the other, or the therapy situation in which we can find ourselves used as objects by narcissistic clients. In this context there is an attempt to disregard the autonomy of the person and instead to turn them into an image of oneself, through projection of internal objects onto them.
“The eye is not merely a mirror, but a correcting mirror.” – Fanon
For those who are successfully ‘colonized’ by the gaze of the narcissist and alienated from the roots of their true Self Fanon shows they are limited in their response.. They can never truly ‘be’ the narcissist whose medusa-like gaze has captured them, but as they are so alienated from their root they have no option but to live a life desperately attempting to define themselves through the lens of the colonizer.
Fanon in reference to colonization provocatively makes the statement that for those captured by the narcissistic gaze ‘the only way out is White’ – meaning that the only escape route is through imitation of the colonizer themselves – a Sisyphean task. We can see this on a microcosmic level in the family- through clients who become the carbon copy of a narcissistic parent, or embracing the ‘good girl’ or ‘bad boy’ persona projected on to them by their family. Having been cut off from their own roots the empty colonized subject takes on the projection as their sense of self and defines themselves through the gaze of the Other.
“Everything that an Antillean does is done for The Other. Not because The Other is the ultimate objective of his action… but, more primitively, because it is The Other who corroborates him in his search for self-validation. “ – Fanon
Why does a narcissist turn those around them into objects? – according to Bromberg in ‘The Mirror and the Mask’ (1983), the acknowledgement of the Other as an independent, sovereign subject with its own existence is a fundamental stage of development. It is a massively jarring experience for a newborn who has previously lived in the illusionary bliss of its own omnipotence to discover there are subjects out there which are not under its control. We can see evidence of the jarring nature of this experience through tantrums and rage of the toddler when its world does not conform to its wishes.
Some people are unable to make this developmental jump into realizing the Other as a separate entity, and instead become ‘stuck’ in the illusion of omnipotence. They need to feel some level of control over the other in order to fend off the anxiety involved in experiencing a separate entity in all its living, breathing, unpredictability. These are the people that come (or are often referred by others) to therapy for treatment of what is termed ‘pathological narcissism’.
Taking these psychoanalytic insights back to Fanon, we find ourselves asking if colonization and racism attempts to deal on a social level with the anxiety of the discovery that there are independent, alternative and equally valid modes of existing other than those of the western European culture which we find ourselves embedded in. Do we live in a culture which has (at least until recently) not been able to make the jump into recognizing any alternatives as valid on their own terms?
This was Fanons contention – that the final outcome his work as a psychiatrist and critical theorist was not to adjust people to the whims of a narcissistic culture, but instead to support people to the point where they were ready to participate in creating lasting social change and adjusting the system that had caused them an inescapable and unjust alienation in the first place. To that end he accomplished his goal by becoming one of the founding theorists of postcolonial studies – a field which has grown and developed since his death. Nearly a full century after the arrival of his first book and fifty years since his death, Fanon remains a relevant and provocative thinker in an area which can still feel taboo to many.
About the Author
Nicholas Opyrchal can be reached for psychotherapy at firstname.lastname@example.org please visit his website https://nickopsychotherapycounselling.wordpress.com/ for more information
Bromberg, P. (1983). The Mirror and the Mask, on Psychoanalytic Growth. Contemporary Psychoanalysis. 19 (1), 359 – 387.
Fanon, F (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Gove Press.
Fanon, F (2001). The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin Classics. New Ed.
Buber, M (2004) I and Thou. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1937. Reprint Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004
Drabinski, J (2011) Levinas and the Postcolonial. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press