The numerous questions Frantz Fanon raised during his brief life (1925–1961) increasingly tease scholars across the entire spectrum of human studies into exploring ways to engage with his emancipatory thoughts. Yet despite a steady flow of works engaging with the rich aspects of his oeuvre, little is available that directly addresses the urgent call he made for the creation of a genuinely independent person free from the dehumanizing traces of racism. Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man is therefore a welcome study, highlighting the revolutionary thinker’s brand of existential phenomenology as it applies it to an analysis of oppression in the contemporary U.S.
Using colonialism as a leitmotif throughout his discussion of racism, Gordon lays the groundwork for an existentialist analysis of racism by identifying European man as such (“Euro-man”), thus successfully decentering him as designator of Man and Reason. This move closely echoes Fanon’s own declaration of independence from Eurocentric definitions in the concluding chapter of his final work, The Wretched of the Earth, where he urges the insurgent not to model themselves upon European institutions, claiming that “‘such an imitation . . . would be an obscene caricature.’” Once the Eurocentric criteria—the white masks—are removed, a void results which only the authentic, existential subject can fill. Anything short of that would be an act of bad faith.
Racism remains as pervasive today as it was during Fanon’s life. Hateful statements mouthed by speakers of the dominant discourse are still “white noise,” part of the humdrum. But, when the oppressed [End Page 936] articulate their anger, the powerful react disproportionately. Thus Fanon, whose analysis of the role of armed struggle in the process of decolonization is but one facet of his rich thought, has occasionally been reduced by critics to an advocate of violence. Gordon aptly addresses this biased reading, emphasizing the frequently overlooked fact that racial and/or colonial oppression is itself a state of violence which necessitates the same to be successfully eradicated. “If the master’s dirty values are accepted as a source of liberation, then no slave can be free without getting his hands dirty. But why must the colonized be ‘clean’?” Yet the tragedy of works such as Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, which depict the reversal of a dialectical power relationship, is that “Unlike the theater in which an audience sits for dramatic edification, there is no exit awaiting revolutionary subjects beyond their resolute awareness, reflection, and decision to create one.”
As he urges the oppressed to “create” an exit, Gordon unequivocally champions individual agency. His work, then, contributes to the latest development in Fanon scholarship: contemporary ways of engaging with the revolutionary rhetoric of the 50s and 60s. Gordon does not attempt to explicate Fanon further. Instead, he uses Fanon as a springboard for articulating his own project, that of reasserting the place of the human person in what he calls “misanthropic times.” While postmodern philosophy claims the death of the self, Gordon espouses a pragmatic existentialism that affirms human agency. As such, his work is a conscious and well-articulated dissociation from theoreticians who, despite their claims that writing includes praxis, exhaust their energy on textual analysis at the cost of reality and the individual. We have in Gordon’s work an analysis of social life, of the lived experience.
Yet Fanon called for a tabula rasa that alone can allow for the creation of a genuinely new person. In an ultimate act of good faith, he removed his white mask and confronted the primal void where white light, the white gaze, had not penetrated. Consequently, it is hard to understand why Gordon, an heir to the Fanonian legacy of existentialism, uses the Western academic master’s tools, citing only philosophers steeped within the European tradition and writing in a learned and gender-specific style liable to alienate many victims of racism. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man is a provocative and rich engagement of [End Page 937] the thoughts of a...