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'Dirty nigger!' Or simply, 'Look, a Negro!'
Frantz Fanon, The Fact of Blackness
Whenever these words are said in anger or in hate, whether of the Jew in that estaminet in Antwerp, or of the Palestinian on the West Bank, or the Zairian student eking out a wretched existence selling fake fetishes on the Left Bank; whether they are said of the body of woman or the man of colour; whether they are quasi-officially spoken in South Africa or officially prohibited in London or New York, but inscribed nevertheless in the severe staging of the statistics of educational performance and crime, visa violations, immigration irregularities; whenever 'Dirty nigger!' or, 'Look, a Negro!' is not said at all, but you can see it in a gaze, or hear it in the solecism of a still silence; whenever and wherever I am when I hear a racist, or catch his look, I am reminded of Fanon's evocatory essay 'The fact of blackness' and its unforgettable opening lines.
I want to start by returning to that essay, to explore only one scene in its remarkable staging, Fanon's phenomenological performance of what it means to be not only a nigger but a member of the marginalized, the displaced, the diasporic. To be amongst those whose very presence is both 'overlooked' - in the double sense of social surveillance and psychic disavowal - and, at the same time, overdetermined - psychically projected, made stereotypical and symptomatic. Despite its very specific location - a Martinican subjected to the racist gaze on a street comer in Lyons - I claim a generality for Fanon's argument because he talks not simply of the historicity of the black man, as much as he writes in 'The fact of blackness' about the temporality of modernity within which the figure of the 'human' comes to be authorized. It is Fanon's temporality of emergence - his sense of the belatedness of the black man - that does not simply make the question of ontology inappropriate for black identity, but somehow impossible for the very understanding of humanity in the world of modernity:
You come too late, much too late, there will always be a world - a white world between you and us. (My emphasis)It is the opposition to the ontology of that white world - to its assumed hierarchical forms of rationality and universality - that Fanon turns in a performance that is iterative and interrogative - a repetition that is initiatory, instating a differential history that will not return to the power of the Same. Between you and us Fanon opens up an enunciative space that does not simply contradict the metaphysical ideas of progress or racism or rationality; he distantiates them by 'repeating' these ideas, makes them uncanny by displacing them in a number of culturally contradictory and discursively estranged locations.
What Fanon shows up is the liminality of those ideas - their ethnocentric margin - by revealing the historicity of its most universal symbol - Man. From the perspective of a postcolonial 'belatedness', Fanon disturbs the punctum of man as the signifying, subjectifying category of Western culture, as a unifying reference of ethical value. Fanon performs the desire of the colonized to identify with the humanistic, enlightenment ideal of Man: 'all I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and build it together.' Then, in a catachrestic reversal he shows how, despite the pedagogies of human history, the performative discourse of the liberal West, its quotidian conversation and comments, reveal the cultural supremacy and racial typology upon which the universalism of Man is founded: 'But of course, come in, sir, there is no colour prejudice among us.... Quite, the Negro is a man like ourselves.... It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are.'
Fanon uses the fact of blackness, of belatedness, to destroy the binary structure of power and identity: the imperative that 'the Black man must be Black; he must be Black in relation to the white man.' Elsewhere he has written: 'The Black man is not. [caesura] Any more than the white man' (my interpolation). Fanon's discourse of the 'human' emerges from that temporal break or caesura effected in the continuist, progressivist myth of Man. He too speaks from the signifying time-lag of cultural difference that I have been attempting to develop as a structure for the representation of subaltern and postcolonial agency. Fanon writes from that temporal caesura, the time-lag of cultural difference, in a space between the symbolization of the social and the 'sign' of its representation of subjects and agencies. Fanon destroys two time schemes in which the historicity of the human is thought. He rejects the 'belatedness' of the black man because it is only the opposite of the framing of the white man as universal, normative - the white sky all around me: the black man refuses to occupy the past of which the white man is the future. But Fanon also refuses the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical schema whereby the black man is part of a transcendental sublation: a minor term in a dialectic that will emerge into a more equitable universality. Fanon, I believe, suggests another time, another space.
It is a space of being that is wrought from the interruptive, interrogative, tragic experience of blackness, of discrimination, of despair. It is the apprehension of the social and psychic question of 'origin' - and its erasure - in a negative side that 'draws its worth from an almost substantive absoluteness ... [which has to be] ignorant of the essences and determinations of its being ... an absolute density ... an abolition of the ego by desire'. What may seem primordial or timeless is, I believe, a moment of a kind of 'projective past' whose history and signification I shall attempt to explore here. It is a mode of 'negativity' that makes the enunciatory present of modernity disjunctive. It opens up a time-lag at the point at which we speak of humanity through its differentiations - gender, race, class - that mark an excessive marginality of modernity. It is the enigma of this form of temporality which emerges from what Du Bois also called the 'swift and low of human doing 1,2 to face Progress with some unanswerable questions, and suggest some answers of its own.
In destroying the 'ontology of man', Fanon suggests that 'there is not merely one Negro, there are Negroes'. This is emphatically not a postmodern celebration of pluralistic identities. As my argument will make clear, for me the project of modernity is itself rendered so contradictory and unresolved through the insertion of the 'time-lag' in which colonial and postcolonial moments emerge as sign and history, that I am sceptical of those transitions to postmodernity in Western academic writings which theorize the experience of this 'new historicity' through the appropriation of a 'Third World' metaphor; 'the First World ... in a peculiar dialectical reversal, begins to touch some features of third-world experience.... The United States is ... the biggest third-world country because of unemployment, non-production, etc.
Fanon's sense of social contingency and indeterminacy, made from the perspective of a postcolonial time-lag, is not a celebration of fragmentation, bricolage, pastiche or the 'simulacrim'. It is a vision of social contradiction and cultural difference - as the disjunctive space of modernity - that is best seen in a fragment of a poem he cites towards the end of 'The fact of blackness':
As the contradiction among the features
creates the harmony of the face
we proclaim the oneness of the
suffering and the revolt.
I have attempted, then, to designate a postcolonial 'enunciative' present that moves beyond Foucault's reading of the task of modernity as providing an ontology of the present. I have tried to open up, once again, the cultural space in the temporal doubling of sign and symbol that I described in Chapter 9 (pp. 192-3): from the stroke of the sign that establishes the intersubjective world of truth 'deprived of subjectivity', back to the rediscovery of that moment of agency and individuation in the social imaginary of the order of historic symbols. I have attempted to provide a form of the writing of cultural difference in the midst of modernity that is inimical to binary boundaries: whether these be between past and present, inside and outside, subject and object, signifier and signified. This spatial-time of cultural difference - with its postcolonial genealogy - erases the Occidental 'culture of common sense' that Derrida aptly describes as 'ontologizing the limit between outside and inside, between the biophysical and the psychic'. In his essay 'The uncolonized mind: Postcolonial India and the East', Ashis Nandy provides a more descriptive illustration of a postcolonial India that is neither modern nor anti-modern but non-modern. What this entails for the 'modern antonyms' of cultural difference between the First and Third Worlds, requires a form of time-lagged signification, for as he writes:
this century has shown that in every situation of organized oppression the true antonyms are always the exclusive part versus the inclusive whole.... [N]ot the past versus the present but either of them versus the rationality which turns them into co-victims.
In splitting open those 'welds' of modernity, a postcolonial contra-modernity becomes visible. What Foucault and Anderson disavow as 'retroversion' emerges as a retroactivity, a form of cultural reinscription that moves back to the future. I shall call it a 'projective' past, a form of the future anterior. Without the postcolonial time-lag the discourse of modernity cannot, I believe, be written; with the projective past it can be inscribed as a historical narrative of alterity that explores forms of social antagonism and contradiction that are not yet properly represented, political identities in the process of being formed, cultural enunciations in the act of hybridity in the process of translating and transvaluing cultural differences. The political space for such a social imaginary is that marked out by Raymond Williams in his distinction between emergent and residual practices of oppositionality that require a 'non-metaphysical and non-subjectivist' sociohistorical positionahty. This largely unexplored and undeveloped aspect of Williams's work has a contemporary relevance for those burgeoning forces of the 'cultural' left who are attempting to formulate (the unfortunately entitled) 'politics of difference', grounded in the experience and theory of the 'new social movements'. Williams suggests that in certain historical moments, the 'profound deformation' of the dominant culture will prevent it from recognizing 'practices and meanings that are not reached for' and these potentially empowering perspectives, and their political constituencies, will remain profoundly unsignified and silent within the political culture. Stuart Hall takes this argument forward in his attempt to construct an alternative 'modernity' where, he suggests, 'organic' ideologies are neither consistent nor homogeneous and the subjects of ideology are not unitarily assigned to a singular social position. Their 'strangely composite' construction requires a redefinition of the public sphere to take account of the historical transformation by which
it follows that an alternative conception of socialism must embrace this struggle to democratize power across all the centres of social activity - in private as well as in public life, in personal associations as well as in public obligations.... If the struggle for socialism in modern societies is a war of position, then our conception of society must be of a society of positions - different places from which we can all begin the reconstruction of society of which the state is only the anachronistic caretaker.Such a form of the social (or socialist) imaginary 'blocks' the totalization of the site of social utterance. This encounter with the time-lag of representation insists that any form of political emergence must encounter the contingent place from where its narrative begins in relation to the temporalities of other marginal 'minority' histories that are seeking their 'individuation', their vivid realization. There is a focus on what Houston Baker has emphasized, for Black Renaissancism, as 'the processual quality [of meaning] ... not material instantiation at any given moment but the efficacy of passage'. And such a passage of historical experience lived through the time-lag opens up quite suddenly in a poem by the Afro-American poet, Sonia Sanchez:
You can hear it in the ambiguity between 'what might have been' and 'what could have been' - the contingency the closeness of those rhetorics of indeterminacy. You read it in that considerable shift in historical time between the conditions of an obscene past - might have been - and the conditionality of a new birth - could have been; you barely see it in the almost imperceptible shift in tense and syntax - might:could - that makes all the difference between the pulse of death and the flooded womb of birth. It is the repetition of the 'could-in-the-might' that expresses the marginalized disjunctive experience of the subject of racism - obscene with crowds / of black on white: the passage of a 'projective past' in the very time of its performance.life is obscene with crowds
of black on white
death is my pulse.
what might have been
is not for him/or me
but what could have been
floods the womb until I drown
The postcolonial passage through modernity produces that form of repetition - the past as projective. The time-lag of postcolonial modernity moves forward, erasing that compliant past tethered to the myth of progress, ordered in the binarisms of its cultural logic: past/present, inside/outside. This forward is neither teleological nor is it an endless slippage. It is the function of the lag to slow down the linear, progressive time of modernity to reveal its 'gesture', its tempi, 'the pauses and stresses of the whole performance'. This can only be achieved - as Walter Benjamin remarked of Brecht's epic theatre - by damming the stream of real life, by bringing the flow to a standstill in a reflux of astonishment. When the dialectic of modernity is brought to a standstill, then the temporal action of modernity - its progressive, future drive - is staged, revealing 'everything that is involved in the act of staging per se'.1 This slowing down, or lagging, impels the 'past', projects it, gives its 'dead' symbols the circulatory life of the 'sign' of the present, of passage, the quickening of the quotidian. Where these temporalities touch contingently, their spatial boundaries metonymically overlapping, at that moment their margins are lagged, sutured, by the indeterminate articulation of the 'disjunctive' present. Time-lag keeps alive the making of the past. As it negotiates the levels and liminalities of that spatial time that I have tried to unearth in the postcolonial archaeology of modernity, you might think that it 'lacks' time or history. Don't be fooled!
It may appear 'timeless' only in that sense in which, for Toni Morrison, Afro-American art is 'astonished' by the figure of the ancestor: 'the timelessness is there, this person who represented this ancestor."' And when the ancestor rises from the dead in the guise of the murdered daughter, Beloved, then we see the furious emergence of the projective past. Beloved is not the ancestor as the 'elder' whom Morrison describes as benevolent, instructive and protective. Her presence, which is profoundly time-lagged, moves forward while continually encircling that moment of the 'not-there' which Morrison sees as the stressed, dislocatory absence that is crucial for the rememoration of the narrative of slavery. Ella, a member of the chorus, standing at that very distance from the 'event' from which modernity produces its 'sign', now describes the projective past:
The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn't stay behind you might have to stomp it out.... As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place.... Ella respected it. But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.
Ella bears witness to this invasion of the projective past. Toussaint bears witness to the tragic dissolution, in San Domingo, of the sign of the Revolution. In these forms of witness there is no passivity; there is a violent turning from interrogation to initiation. We have not simply opposed the idea of progress with other 'ideas': the battle has been waged on hybrid territory, in the discontinuity and distanciation between event and enunciation, in the time-lag in-between sign and symbol. I have attempted to constitute a postcolonial, critical discourse that contests modernity through the establishment of other historical sites, other forms of enunciation.
In the figure of the witness of a postcolonial modernity we have another wisdom: it comes from those who have seen the nightmare of racism and oppression in the banal daylight of the everyday. They represent an idea of action and agency more complex than either the nihilism of despair or the Utopia of progress. They speak of the reality of survival and negotiation that constitutes the moment of resistance, its sorrow and its salvation, but is rarely spoken in the heroisms or the horrors of history. Ella says it, plainly: 'What is to be done in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.' This is not defeatism. It is an enactment of the limits of the 'idea' of progress, the marginal displacement of the ethics of modernity. The sense of Ella's words, and my chapter, echo in that great prophet of the double consciousness of modern America who spoke across the veil, against what he called 'the colour-line'. Nowhere has the historical problem of cultural temporality as constituting the 'belatedness' of subjects of oppression and dispossession been spoken more pertinently than in the words of W. E. Du Bois - I like to think that they are the prophetic precursor of my discourse of the time-lag:
So woefully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of swift and slow in human doing, and the limits of human perfectibility, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe and flickered, flamed and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Du Bois makes a fine answer in the threnody of the Sorrow Songs, their eloquent omissions and silences that 'conceal much of real poetry beneath conventional theology and unmeaning rhapsody'. In the inversion of our catachrestic, critical process, we find that the 'unmeaning', the non-sense of the sign discloses a symbolic vision of a form of progress beyond modernity and its sociology - but not without the enigmatic riddle of the sphinx. To turn Ella's words: what do we do in a world where even when there is a resolution of meaning there is a problem of its performativity? An indeterminacy which is also the condition of its being historical? A contingency which is also the possibility of cultural translation? You heard it in the repetition of Sonia Sanchez as she turned the historical obscenity of 'what might have been' into the projective past, the empowering vision of 'what could have been'. Now you see it in the gaze of the unanswered sphinxes: Du Bois' answer comes through the rhythm of the swift and slow of human doing itself as he commands the certain shores of 'modern' science to recede. The problem of progress is not simply an unveiling of human perfectibility, not simply the hermeneutic of progress. In the performance of human doing, through the veil, emerges a figure of cultural time where perfectibility is not ineluctably tied to the myth of progressivism. The rhythm of the Sorrow Songs may at times be swift - like the projective past - at other times it may be slow - like the time-lag. What is crucial to such a vision of the future is the belief that we must not merely change the narratives of our histories, but transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different spaces, both human and historical.
From The Location of Culture, © 1994, Routledge.
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