- Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics by Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce
Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-78660-093-6. Paper, 307 pages. $39.95.
What would it mean to view Frantz Fanon as first and foremost a psychiatrist? What presiding portrayals of Fanon would be challenged in doing so? This, the image of Fanon as primarily a psychiatrist, is a difficult image to hold in focus, especially given the competing attempts to appropriate Fanon to various rival conceptual domains (psychoanalysis, revolutionary Marxism, post-colonial theory, etc.). We also have to take into account the standard narrative of Fanon as abandoning psychiatry so as to pursue revolutionary political action. While Fanon's revolutionary calling cannot be doubted, and while Fanon himself was insistent that the socio-historical and political realities of colonialism not be reduced to the psychical, we should also insist that Fanon's political thought and action never completely superseded the realm of the psychiatric. The clinical vignettes contained in "Colonial War and Mental Disorder," the closing chapter of Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, makes this abundantly clear. Nigel Gibson and Roberto Beneduce's Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics is thus both a well-overdue and very welcome addition to the existing literature on Fanon, especially given their assertion that "Fanon never abandoned the possibility of the authentic practice of psychiatry, which attempts to treat and [End Page 400] liberate humankind" (246). Or, as they put it in the book's final chapter: "[T]he more Fanon the political revolutionary advanced in imagining the new society, the more Fanon the psychiatrist could not forget the wounded society on which the new society would be built" (232).
Working through and reflecting upon Fanon's early psychiatric writings allow Gibson and Beneduce to take aim at a series of caricatured depictions of Fanon. Fanon, they argue, was not "a dreamy anti-empiricist, critical of all scientific methods, dismissive of history" (4). They take umbrage at the oft-espoused view (in David Macey's work, for example) that, for Fanon, psychological emancipation can only occur through the catharsis of anticolonial violence:
despite what is often read into Fanon's ideas on violence, we don't think he made the jejune argument that trauma is cured by political action. Fanon's psychiatric writings . . . trouble the view that he had a singular therapy . . . and] that [political change] was not brought about by a talking cure but by a sudden . . . painful encounter with the real. While maintaining that the end of colonialism is necessary for mental health, Fanon's psychiatric research . . . challenge[s] the idea that violence became the therapy, functioning as a kind of psychotherapy of the oppressed . . . or that only violence could remediate the psychical damage by colonialism.(5)
To anticipate a potential misreading: Gibson and Beneduce certainly do insist that for Fanon the work of healing trauma and mental disorders can only begin "as the result of individuals taking political action based on self-reflection," and by the subsequent "bringing [to] an end the violence of colonial domination" (5). Concrete political action, or, indeed, the bringing to an end of the violence of colonial domination, is still an absolute priority. However—and this is the benefit of reading Fanon's early psychiatric writings in conjunction with The Wretched of the Earth—decolonization must be "viewed as a social struggle for freedom and mental liberation [which] requires the creation of reflective, actional and social combatants through praxis" (6). Fanon's psychiatric writings are thus, as Gibson and Beneduce proclaim, helpful in elucidating Fanon's politics. In their own words: "Fanon's psychiatric writings help us to reconsider whether his thinking is reducible to an unambiguous notion of counter-violence" (7). [End Page 401]
What would then be a decolonizing form of psychiatry? From what sources might it take its inspiration, and what might be its agendas? Perhaps foremost here is an underscoring of the plight of those who one is endeavoring to treat, and a radical realignment of how suffering is to be understood. "The tragedy of the exploited and subjugated African...