Interrogating identity by Homi K. Bhabha

To read Fanon is to experience the sense of division that prefigures and fissures – the emergence of a truly radical thought that never dawns without casting an uncertain dark. Fanon is the purveyor of the transgressive and transitional truth. He may yearn for the total transformation of Man and Society, but he speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change: from the area of ambivalence between race and sexuality; out of an unresolved contradiction between culture and class; from deep within the struggle of physic representation and social reality. His voice is most clearly heard in the subversive turn of a familiar term, in the silence of sudden rupture: ‘The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.’ The awkward division that breaks his line of thought keeps alive the dramatic and enigmatic sense of change. That familiar alignment of colonial subjects – Black/White, Self/Other – is disturbed with one brief pause and the traditional grounds of racial identity are dispersed, whenever they are found to rest in the narcissistic myths of negritude or white cultural supremacy. It is this palpable pressure of division and displacement that pushes Fanon’s writing to the edge of things – the cutting edge that reveals no ultimate radiance but, in his words, ‘exposed an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born’.

The psychiatric hospital at Blida-Joinville is one such place where, in the divided world of French Algeria, Fanon discovered the impossibility of his mission as a colonial psychiatrist:

If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization…The social structure existing in Algeria was hostile to any attempt to put the individual back where he belonged.

The extremity of this colonial alienation of the person – this of the ‘idea’ of the individual – produces a restless urgency in Fanon’s search for a conceptual form appropriate to the social antagonism of the colonial relation. The body of his work splits between a Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, a phenomenological affirmation of Self and Other and the psychoanalytic ambivalence of the Unconscious. In his desperate, doomed search for a dialectic of deliverance Fanon explores the edge of these modes of thought: his Hegelianism restores hope to history; his existentialist evocation of the ‘I’ restores the presence of the marginalized; his psychoanalytic framework illuminates the madness of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power.

As Fanon attempts such audacious, often impossible, transformations of truth and value, the jagged testimony of colonial dislocation, its displacement of time and person, its defilement of culture and territory, refuses the ambition of any total theory of colonial oppression. The Antillean évolué cut to the quick by the glancing look of a frightened, confused, white child; the stereotype of the native fixed at the shifting boundaries between barbarism and vicinity; the insatiable fear and desire for the Negro: ‘Our women are at the mercy of Negroes…God knows how they make love, the deep cultural fear of the black figured in the psychic trembling of Western sexuality – it is these signs and symptoms of the colonial condition that drive Fanon from one conceptual scheme to another, while the colonial relation takes shape in the gaps between them, articulated to the intrepid engagements of his style. As Fanon’s text unfold, the scientific fact comes to be aggressed by the experience of the street; sociological observations are intercut with literary artefact, and the poetry of liberation is brought up short against the leaden, deadening prose of the colonized world.

What is the distinctive force of Fanon’s vision? It comes, I believe, from the tradition of the oppressed, the language of a revolutionary awareness that, as Walter Benjamin suggests, ‘the stat f emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight.’ And the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. The struggle against colonial oppression not only changes the direction of Western history, but challenges its historicist idea of time as a progressive, ordered whole. The analysis of colonial depersonalization not only alienates the Enlightenment idea of ‘Man’, but challenges the transparency of social reality, as a pre-given, image of human knowledge. If the order of Western historicism is disturbed in the colonial state of emergency, even more deeply disturbed is the social and psychic representation of the human subject. For the very nature of humanity becomes estranged in the colonial condition and from the ‘naked declivity’ it emerges, not as an assertion of will nor as an evocation of freedom, but as an enigmatic questioning. With a question that echoes Freud’s ‘What does woman want?’, Fanon turns to confront the colonized world. ‘What does a man want?’ he asks, in the introduction of Black Skin, White Masks; What does the black man want?’

To this loaded question where cultural alienation bears down on the ambivalence of psychic identification, Fanon responds with an agonizing performance of self-images:

I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema…I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects…I took myself far off from my own presence…What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, an hemorrhage hat spattered my whole body with black blood?

From within the metaphor of vision complicit with a Western metaphysic of Man emerges the displacement of the colonial relation. The black presence runs the representative narrative of Western personhood: its past tethered to treacherous stereotypes of primitivism and degeneracy will not produce a history of civil progress, a space for the Socius; its present, dismembered and dislocated, will not contain the image of identity that is questioned in the dialectic of mind/body and resolved in the epistemology of appearance and reality. The white man’s eyes break up the black man’s body and in that act of epistemic violence its own frame of reference is transgressed, its field of vision disturbed.

‘What does the black man want?’ Fanon insists, an in privileging the psychic dimension he not only change what we understand by a political demand but transforms the very means by which we recognize and identity its human agency. Fanon is not principally posing the question of political oppression as the violation of a human ssence, although he lapses into such a lament in his more existential moments. He is not raising the question of colonial man in the universalist terms of the liberal-humanist (How does colonialism deny the Rights of Man?); nor is he posing an ontological question about Man’s being (who is the alienated colonial man?). Fanon’s question is addressed not to such a unified notion of history nor to such a unitary concept of man. It is one of the original and disturbing qualities of Black Skin, White Masks that it rarely historicizes the colonial experience. There is no master narrative or realistic perspective that provides a background of social and historical facts against which emerge the problems of the individual or collective psyche. Such a traditional sociological alignment of Self and Society or History or Psyche is rendered questionable in Fanon’s identification of the colonial subject who is historicizes in the heterogeneous assemblage of the texts of history, literature, science, myth. The colonial subject is always ‘overdetermined from without’, Fanon writes. It is through image and fantasy – those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconscious – that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition.

In articulating the problem of colonial cultural alienation in the psychoanalytic language of demand and desire, Fanon radically questions the formation of both individual and social authority as they come to be developed in the discourse of social sovereignty. The social virtues of historical rationality, cultural cohesion, the autonomy of individual consciousness assume an immediate, Utopian identity with the subjects on whom they confer a civil status. The civil status is the ultimate expression of the innate ethical and rational bent of the human mind; the social instinct is the progressive destiny of human nature, the necessary transition from Nature to Culture. The direct access from individual interests to social authority is objectified in the representative structure of a General Will – Law or Culture – where Psyche and Society mirror each other, transparently translating their difference, without loss, into a historical totality. Forms of oscial and psychic alienation and aggression – madness, self-hate, treason, violence – can never be acknowledged as determinate and constitutive conditions of civil authority, or as the ambivalent effects of the social instinct itself. They are always explained away as alien presences, occlusions of the historical progress, the ultimate misrecognition of Man.

For Fanon such a myth of Man and Society is fundamentally undermined in the colonial situation. Everyday life exhibits a ‘constellation of delirium’ that mediates the normal social relations of its subjects: ‘The Negro enslaved by is inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.’ Fanon’s demand for a psychoanalytic explanation emerges from the perverse reflections of civil virtue in the alienating acts of colonial governance: the visibility of cultural mummification in the colonizer’s avowed ambition to civilize or modernize the native that results in ‘archaic inert institutions [that function] under the oppressor’s supervision like a caricature of formerly fertile institutions’; or the validity of violence in the very definition of the colonial social space; or the viability of the febrile, phantasmic images of racial hatred that come to be absorbed and acted out in the wisdom of the West. These interpositions, indeed collaborations of political and physic violence within civic virtue, alienation within identity, drive Fanon to describe the splitting of the colonial space of consciousness and society as marked by a ‘Manichaean delirium’.

The representative figure of such a perversion, I want to suggest, is the image of post-Enlightenment tethered to, not confronted by, his dark reflection, the shadow of colonized man, that splits his presence distorts his outline, breaches his boundaries, repeats his action at a distance, disturbs and divides the very time of his being. The ambivalent identification of the racist world – moving on two planes without being in the least embarrassed by it, as Sartre says of the anti-Semitic consciousness – turns on the idea of man s his alienated image; not Self and Other but the otherness of the Self inscribed in the perverse palimpsest of colonial identity.

‘What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artefact,’ Fanon writes. This transference speaks otherwise. It reveals the deep psychic uncertainty of the colonial relation itself: its split representations stage the division of body and soul that enacts the artifice of identity, a division that cuts across the fragile skin – black and white – of individual and social authority. Three conditions that underlie an understanding of the process of identification in the analytic of desire emerge.

First: to exist is to be called into being in relation to an otherness, its look or locus. It is a demand that reaches outward to an external object and as Jacqueline Rose writes, ‘It is the relation of this demand to the place of the object it claims that becomes the basis for identification. ‘This process is visible in the exchange of looks between native and settler that structures their psychic relation in the paranoid fantasy of boundless possession and its familiar language of reversal ‘When their glances meet he [ the settler] ascertains bitterly, always in the defensive, ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place’. It is always in relation to the place of the Other that colonial desire is articulated: the phantasmic space of possession that no one subject can singly or fixedly occupy, and therefore permits the dream of the inversion of roles.

Second: the very place of identification, caught in the tension of demand and desire, is a space of splitting. The fantasy of the native is precisely to occupy the master’s place while keeping his place in the slave’s avenging anger. ‘Black skin, white masks’ is not a neat division; it is a doubling, dissembling image of being in at least two places at once that makes it impossible for the devalued, insatiable évolué (an abandonment neurotic, Fanon claims) to accept the colonizer’s invitation to identity: ‘You’re a doctor, a writer, a student, you’re different, you’re one of us.’ It is precisely in that ambivalent use of ‘different’- to be different from those that are different makes you the same – that the Unconscious speaks of the form of the otherness, the tethered shadow of deferral and displacement. It is not the colonialist Self or the colonized Other, but the disturbing distance in-between that constitutes the figure of colonial otherness – the white man’s artifice inscribed on the black man’s body. It is in relation to this impossible object that the liminal problem of colonial identity and its vicissitudes emerges.

Finally, the question of identification is never the affirmation of a pre-given identity, never a self-fulfilling prophecy – it is always the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image. The demand of identification – that is, to be for an Other – entails the representation of the subject in the differentiating order of otherness. Identification, as we inferred from the preceding illustrations, is always the return of an image of identity that bears the mark of splitting in the Other place from which it comes. For Fanon, like Lacan, the primary moments of such  recreation of the self lie in the desire of the look and the limits of language. The ‘atmosphere of certain uncertainty’ that surrounds the body certifies its existence and threatens its dismemberment.


Bhabba, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. Psychology Press. Chapter 2, Part 1.