Emmanuel Levinas and Frantz Fanon, two thinkers with vast biographical differences, share some central impulses in their thinking. One such impulse is the movement between totality and infinity, configured as philosophical concepts that become useful in pressing further, the more natural, mental processes or intellectual procedures prevalent in twentieth century thought, particularly within French philosophy. Fanon’s short life (1925–1961) and Levinas’s long one (1906–1995) put their respective writings in very different frameworks, allowing us to see how these concepts played out in divergent ways in the case of two intellectuals whose sensibilities and aspirations as thinkers place them quite close together from the vantage point of hindsight. Both of these thinkers give primacy to the notion of otherness in their thought about humanity and existence, and in both cases that notion is intricately linked to the way they were “othered” in French culture and society: Levinas as a Jew and Fanon as a black subject under French colonialism. Yet in each case, while otherness is linked to the (knowable) totality that French nationhood constructed both in Europe and well beyond, as an integral part of the civilized world, the hopes for true liberation of thought and existence lie in movement toward (an unknowable) infinity. [End Page 127]
Levinas’s understanding of erotic love provides an important theoretical move for actualizing, philosophically, a transcending of totality toward infinity — something that Fanon’s thought implicitly strained to achieve as well. Certainly, Fanon could be appropriated in order to accomplish a postcolonial reading of Levinas and to critique the latter’s thought through a postcolonial lens.1 However, here I explore Levinas’s conception of infinity and its relationship to totality, terms that enjoy a theoretical sophistication in his thought. And while these terms are apparently not available in Fanon, at the same time Fanon’s thought is punctuated with the same preoccupations, visible in the oscillation between these two poles that appear in his dual roles as a revolutionary and an intellectual.
Fanon had an urgent need to establish some form of primacy for humanity and subjectivity within the totalized form of the colonial order that encompassed the world as he knew it. Some of this pertains to his implicit dialogue with Sartre, who interwove the subjective with objective reality, and indeed, established an interdependence between the two. Fanon recognized that because colonialism so easily crushed the subjectivity of colonized peoples, the simultaneous objectification of those subjects needed to be systematically addressed by the colonized peoples in their own liberation. Levinas’s recourse to the primacy of the face-to-face, similarly, intervenes in a world that, for him, holds the potential to erupt into a totalized form of war. The nakedness and singularity of the face of the other, becomes the grounds for the self to hear a commandment as it is interpellated as a human being. While Fanon’s affective ability to think from other spaces becomes evident in the narrative tactics of his major texts, it also remains in fidelity to a Sartrean model of thought that posits collectivity as proceeding (at its best and most successful moments) from reciprocity within an ultimately totalizable reality. It is not that Sartre (nor Fanon) was unable to anticipate the limits of such a model: the notion of “humanism” in them both is precisely such recognition. Although Fanon did not, arguably, have [End Page 128] the opportunity to develop the shortcomings of what Levinas would take as a definable form of humanism — thus open to totalizability and intelligibility but also susceptible to totalitarianism — we find in his thought the intimations of a sometimes intuitive and sometimes more explicit attempt to access spaces outside that knowable totality beyond his more programmatically stated goals of transformation or revolution.
At the same time, Fanon’s notion of love remained yoked, theoretically, to the possibility of being other in the sense of a content: the native wants to be the colonialist; the intellectual thinks as the people. Making this the very method for his thought became the powerful impetus for his revolutionary life and for the extraordinary influence...