U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Hemorrhage In Facticity”: Notes on Anonymity, Racial Capitalism, Intellectual Property, Continued

Introduction

Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and the Crisis of European Man contains the following striking statement: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.[1]

What does a “hemorrhage in facticity” look like?

One example might be the famous scene from movie history: Marty McFly gazing with bewilderment at his disappearing hand in Back to the Future.[2]

McFly Disappearing

Marty, we recall, is at the high school dance at which his parents must fall in love if they are to ultimately procreate and bring him into being. As this achievement begins to seem less and less probable, his own “facticity” begins to leak. (It is no coincidence that this is the same moment that McFly symbolically labors to retroactively claim white authorship of black music; by way of a fortuitously timed phone call, Chuck Berry will have learned rock ‘n’ roll from a white teenager, the very same white teenager linked in the audience’s mind with the Reagan Revolution’s truest believer, Alex P. Keaton).

Auto-bio-politics

Back to the Future is an elaborate cinematic staging of the racial asymmetry of autobiography to which Gordon calls our attention.

The story is powered by what Brian Massumi calls the “ontology of the threat.”  Marty McFly’s is a kind of “subjunctive anxiety”—he struggles on behalf of the “will-have-been” or, more accurately—to prevent the “will-not-have-been” in the absence of the heroic gesture that proactively guarantees the desired retrospective outcome. This “subjunctive anxiety” lies at the core of white autobiography: the weirdness of fantasies of “self-making” and the seizure and occupation of one’s own person in the compulsory labor of “possessive individualism.”

The memoirist struggles to establish himself as “having had been”—to grant to himself substantiality and presence. Only a comparatively small number of humans in any historical moment compose and publish autobiographies. Here, we return to the politics of naming, named-ness, and anonymity.

Part of what powers the autobiographer’s “subjunctive anxiety” is the problem of indexicality or deixis. Philosophers have long recognized that “proper names” are very strange: they are indexical markers, par excellence, but they are also “shifters.” They are specific and general, unique and shared. Names, as conjugates of bits of sound, are, at one level, sort of stupid. At the same time, however, one’s name is the index or pointer to one’s innermost essence. Yet, I did not choose my name, and many other people share it. Not infrequently, one is named for someone else, living or dead. In a crowded mall, the call of “Kurt” causes me to turn my head. But I am only momentarily confused if I realize that some other “Kurt” has been hailed, and it causes me no existential distress to learn that other people named “Kurt” are among my co-shoppers.

Saul Kripke describes names as “rigid designators,” which solves part of the problem, accounting for the empirical fact that humans, for whatever reason, use proper names without much confusion or special effort.[3] Names, however inherently flawed, “work” most of the time.

De-scissions

In the terms that Gordon favors, this ordinary everyday functionality of names testifies, paradoxically enough, to the generality of anonymity. To be “John Smith” is to be able to participate in the business of daily life. To sign “John Smith” on a check or write “John Smith” on an envelope’s return address is to be just as ontologically filled-in as the structure of mundane life requires. It is this anonymity that is always in question when some evidence of non-whiteness is registered on the part of the structure (Fanon’s “Look! A Negro”; and compare with the angry Duke University professor ranting about African American naming practices).[4]

Ato Sekyi-Otu writes: “Quite recently (the Canadian philosopher) Charles Taylor, citing Fanon as ‘one of the key authors’ in discourses of ‘the politics of recognition,’ asserts that ‘Fanon recommended violence as a way to [the] freedom of the colonized.'” Taylor’s take on Fanon is probably the most commonly shared interpretation, but it is deeply flawed. To correct against its distortions requires, however, an insistent shift of perspective, a demand that the reading of Fanon correctly identify the questions that Fanon himself was trying to answer (a fidelity to Fanon as a situated thinker, a fidelity that would be extended as a matter of course to Locke or Rousseau or Rawls).

This is where an apparently difficult argument––such as Gordon’s proposal that the structure of whiteness itself prevents Fanon from being able to straightforwardly compose an autobiography that will not be too or not-enough a testament to some white fantasy of racial reality––that there will always be a “hemorrhage of facticity” when the author of an autobiography is black––becomes a vital weapon against hermeneutic closure.

Such a move allows us to register that Fanon is not at all concerned with the business of recognition, nor with any “violence” that could be situated in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. Fanon is interested, instead, in the anonymity that Alfred Schutz and Maurice Natanson insist is a topic of fundamental philosophical concern, and with anonymity’s asymmetrical distribution in the world––what we might call, using a term favored by Fanon, anonymity’s “scissiparité”––anonymity’s fissiparousness. This, it seems to me, is a theme with which intellectual historians might wrestle productively.

Notes

[1] Lewis R. Gordon, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York: Routledge, 1995.

[2] R. Zemeckis, Back to the Future. 1984.

[3] Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.

[4] http://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/153627

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is illuminating stuff, I need to read Gordon’s book ASAP. I’ve been enjoying David Macey’s biography lately; I think Macey does a good job at grasping Fanon’s situatedness, how he incorporated a diverse lexicon and experiences–bits of psychoanalysis, lots of phenomenology, U.S. black literature and culture, and most interestingly, the alternative French psychiatric tradition that would lead to Félix Guattari’s schizoanalysis experiments-in order to imagine a way out of the asymmetrical logic behind black anonymity. I find intriguing the use of scissiparité–I haven’t read Fanon in French–, since it is rooted in cellular biology. Wouldn’t such a metaphor, with its ontological resonance, contradict the phenomenological orientation of Fanon?

    • Great points–and really worth thinking with… does Fanon reach for “scissiparité” because it’s the word available, or does he intend something more ontologically rigid and definitive with the deployment? (The third possibility is a sort of proto-Lacanian/proto-Derridean wordplay on “scission” and “parity”; Fred Moten has suggested that FF is actually up to that sort of thing much more than readers of FF in English translation realize).

      But there is also a broader question which is really interesting–Fanon famously says (of blackness): “There is in fact a “being for other,” as described by Hegel, but any ontology is made impossible in a colonized and acculturated society.”

      What I think he means is: a) ontology is the wrong language for talking about colonial being; b) ontology is always-already “white ontology”; c) the demand for a “tell us what blackness is” by the “friendly” white philosopher always ends up asking the anti-racist to think like Gobineau.

      At the same time, Fanon freely uses terms like “Being” all the time, and I am convinced by Gordon’s argument that intellectual-historically he is an existentialist-humanist-phenomenologist–striving for a position like 50s-era Sartre without the horrible blind spots on race. I think that I often lose my grasp when I read Fanon because I impose a sort of default post-68/post-humanist framework.

      Does any of this make sense?

      • Perfect sense! And Gordon’s argument is close to Macey’s, though the latter’s chapters on Fanon’s investment in psychiatry–both from a social and a biological perspective, which might explain the use of scissiparité– are very illuminating

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