restricted access Sartre as Silent Partner: Reading Bhabha's Existential Turn
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Sartre as Silent Partner:
Reading Bhabha's Existential Turn

Homi Bhabha's essay "Remembering Fanon" (1986)1 uniquely stages a political problem within an intellectual tradition: a dispute between Lacanian and Sartrean models of subjectivity as applied to Frantz Fanon's descriptions of "the black man." Though I agree with the essay's many critics that Bhabha ostensibly misrepresents Fanon's descriptions,2 and moreover that his emphasis on psychoanalytic and discursive dynamics cannot provide a convincing reading of Fanon, I also believe that Bhabha's text has the potential to do much more. In particular, it has the potential to uncover the effect of "shame" as a fundamental dynamic of acculturation, representing a broad theoretical approach to subjectivity that posits a basic mechanism in contradistinction to Jacques Lacan's complex processes of identification. As phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas explains, shame delivers to us our own selves exposed inescapably as objects, "the nakedness of an existence incapable of hiding itself" (64). In the moment of encounter with another person, shame exposes "the representation we form of ourselves as diminished beings with which we are pained to identify" (63). Giorgio Agamben adds that this moment in the face of the Other is the subject's self construction as well as his or her reduction: "This double movement, which is both subjectification and desubjectification, is shame" (106). Among the proponents of this deceptively simple mechanism, Jean-Paul Sartre delivers its richest defense in his philosophy of the subject. Like Levinas and Agamben, he situates shame as a moment of encounter with the Other, within which the subject is exposed to his or her jarring objectivity.

My aim is to open Bhabha's text to reveal a separate, unacknowledged dimension of Fanon's black man that pushes past Bhabha's Lacanian allegiances in favor of Sartrean shame and the existentialist [End Page 87] aspects of this figure. In essence, this paper seeks to use Bhabha's work on Fanon to illustrate the propitious suitability of a recently neglected Sartrean, philosophical approach to understanding the experience of Fanon's black man in a white western society. I will focus here on the extended version of Bhabha's "Remembering Fanon," which is included in his The Location of Culture (1994) under the title "Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative."

Bhabha suggests in this version that Fanon's black man undergoes a process of Lacanian identification wherein, as Lacan puts it, the very "constitution of the subject [occurs] in the field of [otherness]" (1981, 208; see Bhabha 2004, 64). The subject's own self-image and identity come to conform to a certain perspective, represented by an abstract "Other" (see Chiesa, 35): "The human being has always to learn from scratch from the Other what he has to do" (Lacan 1981, 204). This occurs in conversation with Lacan's symbolic mandate, the set of symbols and logic of interaction by which the specific coordinates for a perception of reality are supplied. For Lacan, "human action [is almost entirely] founded on the existence of the world of the symbol," which represents the dominant logic of signification by which individuals interact with one another and their environments (1991, 230). As Colette Soler explains, "the symbolic laws . . . envelop and determine . . . the subject" (52).

Bhabha ably explains that the process of self-identification is interrupted by the black man's exposure to certain kinds of racialized knowledge. The explicit determinations carried by meaning and language through discourse, argues Bhabha, interrupt the process of identification and do not allow it to come to completion (2004, 83). He uses Fanon to substantiate his claim: the subject is surrounded by meanings, "discover[ing] blackness," as Fanon puts it, as "tom toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships" (112). What results is a persistent and permanent ambivalence in the black man's identifications whereby the black man's subjectivity is put in question. At the same time, however, Bhabha posits that Lacan's process must be violently halted for the black man upon meeting the person of the Other, principally through the overdetermination of his color, in order to match Fanon's descriptions (Bhabha 2004, 75...