Introduction to ‘Concerning Violence’ Film Screening

by China Mills (Department of Education, University of Sheffield)

Screening took place on 23rd April, 2015


What does violence mean in a world where ‘love’ is used to describe a relationship with one’s car; where the idea of being your best self is used to sell anti-depressants; where the idea of freedom is used to justify war and a person’s right to own a gun?

Let us think about the work of a man whose doctoral thesis was initially rejected, and which, since published as a book, has become a tool, a language, a currency in multiple national liberation movements across the world, from Palestine, to Sri Lanka, to South Africa.

Frantz Fanon has come to be known as an anti-colonial revolutionary and philosopher. He was also a psychiatrist. The place where Fanon worked in colonial Algeria was a psychiatric hospital. It’s Fanon as a psychiatrist, the thing not often mentioned when people speak of Fanon, that I want to talk about now, before I turn to talk about violence.

You must be mad to resist: How colonial psychiatry reconfigured acts of resistance as ‘symptoms’ of ‘mental illness’

What is madness?

Madness is to run away from your master.

Madness is to refuse to be someone’s property.

Madness is to see colonised land as stolen.

Madness is to imagine a life where the colonisers go home.

Madness is to imagine a world, to remember a time, when the colonised were not inferior.

Those who resist colonialism must by definition be mad.

(China Mills)

In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), published shortly before Fanon’s death in 1961 (and the first chapter of which shares the same name as the film ‘Concerning Violence’), Fanon denounced the colonial practice of psychiatry that manifest a concern with the brains of the ‘natives’ over the structural conditions of colonialism.  Fanon (1961:245) gives the example of how, during colonisation, ‘the lay-out of the cerebral structures of the North African’, were seen as responsible for their supposed laziness, inaptitude and impulsivity, when in fact, these signs may be symbols of resistance, where laziness marks ‘the conscious sabotage of the colonial machine’ by the colonised.

The dog eared textbooks of psychology and psychiatry are full of parallels drawn between colonised peoples (‘savages’, ‘primitive peoples)’, and people with ‘mental illness’.

Francis Galton (1865) in an article called ‘Hereditary Talent and Character’ (hailed as marking the beginning of modern British psychology), said that European ‘civilised races’ alone possessed the ‘instinct of continuous steady labour’, while non-European ‘savages’ showed an ‘innate wild untameable restlessness’ (cited in Fernando, 1988, p. 19). In 1951, Dr Carothers, a psychiatrist in Kenya, said there was ‘a resemblance between the African and the leucotomized European’, and that Africans do not use the frontal lobes of their brain (Fernando, 1988, p. 26). And Eugene Bleuler, a psychiatrist and eugenicist, said;

‘The negro does not understand how it can be obvious that he committed theft when he denies it today although he admitted it yesterday and there is clear evidence of his guilt’ (1911:20, cited in Heinz, 1998: 430).

And the disciplines of the psy too are interlaced with slavery. Where slavery was seen as ‘natural’ for black people, any deviation from this ‘norm’ was identified as ‘disease’ (Fernando, 1988, p. 23). In 1851, Samuel Cartwright wrote in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that the tendency of black slaves to run away from their captors was a diagnosable mental disorder called ‘drapetomania’ caused by biological lesions and treatable by whipping. In 1913, Evarts, a psychiatrist in Washington D.C., wrote an article that argued that Negroes were ‘biologically unfit’ for freedom (from slavery), and that ‘bondage in reality was a wonderful aid to the colored man’. She noted that as increasing numbers of African-Americans became emancipated from slavery, increasing numbers also came to be incarcerated in asylums (cited in Metzl, 2009, pp. 30-31). This ‘mental illness’ among African-Americans after the abolition of slavery in the USA was caused by ‘Negroes’ biological ‘inferiority’, they said, or because of their African heritage (Fernando, 1988, p. 24). Freedom it seemed churned out nutcases (Galeano, 1985/1995).  But there are other way to read this – for Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ this is to plunge ‘deep into the black art of escape, guided at first…by the seemingly demented one who had learned his craft in slavery’ (1952/2001:122). Here being ‘seemingly demented’ is itself a craft learned in oppressive conditions. And to this Fanon says:

The Algerian’s criminality, his impulsivity, and the violence of his murders are therefore not the consequences of the organization of his nervous system or of the characterial originality, but the direct product of the colonial situation (Fanon, 1961, p. 250).

Here what psychiatry calls ‘mental illness’ is read as a product of the colonial situation, of inequality and alienation. Psychiatry in the colonies thus worked to reconfigure colonial hierarchies and social inequality as ‘natural’ through coding them in genetic dysfunction, and in the ‘neurologically primitive’ brains of the ‘natives’ (McCulloch, 1993, p. 39; Heinz, 1998). This enabled colonialism to remain uninterrogated because ‘medicalised explanations for dissent’, are ‘far preferable [to those in power] to economic and political analyses that might find colonial practices to be culpable in African unrest’ (Mahone, 2006, p. 250). And so Fanon’s psychiatry was embedded within, and set itself against, this landscape.

The poor are plagued by poverty… blacks by exploitation…Fanon rallied against a ’psychologism’ that dealt with all of these estranging afflictions as if they were…mere states of mind (Adams, 1970, p. 811).

For Fanon, psychiatry as a therapeutic means of restoring those alienated from their environments was an impossibility in the colonial situation. This was evident in his resignation letter to the psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria where he worked as Head of Psychiatry,

If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man to no longer 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 (Fanon, 1967, cited in Bulhan, 1985, p.249).

Fanon was critical of many practices of psychiatry, particularly the coercive, punitive practices within many large institutions, which he felt denied real liberty (Bulhan, 1985). For Fanon, mental illness is ‘a pathology of liberty’, and thus psychiatric intervention had a political role in restoring liberty (Hook, 2004b). Here psychiatry is explicitly linked to decolonisation.

Because of this, Bulhan rejects the popular idea that Fanon abandoned psychiatry for politics, instead it was ‘his ability to connect psychiatry to politics or private troubles to social problems and, having made the connection conceptually, to boldly act that made him a pioneer of radical psychiatry’ and of psychopolitics (1985, p. 240).

Psychopolitics: The ‘psychic life of colonial power’

Fanon’s psychopolitics is the one of the things I find most exciting about Fanon (Mills, 2014a). Psychopolitics, is an anxious shifting between the socio-political and the psychological, a continuous ‘to- and fro- movement, whereby the political is continually brought into the register of the psychological, and the psychological into the political’ (Hook, 2012, p. 17).

Psychopolitics does not dissolve politics into psychology, or psychology into politics, and it does not abandon one register in favour of the other. A psychopolitical analysis falls into three forms; the ‘politicisation of the psychological’ (Hook, 2004b, p. 85); deploying psychological concepts in understandings the workings of power; and putting psychological concepts to work politically as ‘a means of consolidating resistances to power’ (Hook, 2012, p. 18).

Psychopolitics – by linking ‘symptoms’ to oppressive systems and not faulty brains – resists a complete abandonment of the psychological register, for a solely structural or socio-economic lens, or for a collapse of the biological and psychological within the socio-economic. This is to resist an ‘anti-psychologism’ that is often made in reaction to over-psychologisation, and yet which often works to belittle ‘the long-term cultural and psychological effects of violence, poverty and injustice’, which persist in the post-colonies after centuries of oppression, violence and inequality –a distortion of cultures and minds that often establishes powerful justifications for suffering ‘in the minds of both the oppressors and the oppressed’ (Nandy, 1987, p.26).


But here I start to get lost, or perhaps I always have been lost.

And the place I start to get lost is the place of violence.

And so to help me on this journey, I need others to walk alongside me. I need Ashis Nandy, a contemporary post-colonial theorist from India. I need Derek Hook, a white South African scholar who uses Fanon’s psychopolitics to interrogate racism. I need Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a Portuguese post-colonial theorist who writes of cognitive injustice, of the killing of other ways of knowing – of epistemicide. I need you.

Fanon’s formulation of colonial violence seems to allow a reading of violence not only as force but as symbolic violence, an ‘identity violence’ (Hook, 2005, p. 475&480). This violence creates a ‘nervous condition’ (Sartre, 1990, p. 17) that is both political and psychological, for it arises when one’s cultural resources have been eradicated (or almost) ‘by the cultural imperialism of the colonizer’ (Hook, 2005, p. 480), ‘the violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 33). This identity violence works at multiple layers, of body, psychology and symbolic, as the subject’s relation to each of these layers is traumatically fractured (Hook, 2012, p. 75). Thus, reflected in Fanon’s making of himself an object: colonialism dehumanises and objectifies, it is ‘colonisation = “thingification”’ (Césaire, 1972, p. 21). Ashis Nandy (1983, p. 3) says that,

Particularly strong is the inner resistance to recognizing the ultimate violence which colonialism does to its victims, namely that it creates a culture in which the ruled are constantly tempted to fight their rulers within the psychological limits set by the latter.

Nandy (1983, p. 12) warns that dissent to colonialism was often controlled by the colonisers, who put forward a way of being anti-colonial that was promoted as ‘proper, ‘sane’ and ‘rational’, making it possible ‘to opt for a non-West which itself is a construction of the West’. Here ‘the imposed burden to be perfectly non Western’ constricts the self just ‘as the  older  burden  of  being  perfectly  Western’ did…[t]he pressure to be the obverse of the West…in fact binds him [the colonised] even more irrevocably to the West’ (Nandy, 1983, p. 73).

For Nandy this is resistance in a comical imitativeness that shows the powerful to be ridiculous; yet for Fanon, ‘it is no good sending them [the colonisers] back a reflection, even an ideal reflection, of their society and their thought with which from time to time they feel immeasurably sickened’ (1961, p. 255). Here mimicry too is a ‘symptom’ of colonialism, it is ‘nauseating’, and thus, Fanon calls for recognition of the ‘mortifying setbacks such an imitation has led us’ [the colonised], for, ‘[w]hen I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 251-2).  Fanon is calling on the colonised to find something different, an alternative that does ‘not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her. Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 254). Yet when Nandy reads Fanon he sees ‘the most violent denunciation of the  West’ written in the style of Sartre – confronting us with not only the reality of colonialism produced by the ‘West’, but that this ‘reality’ produces most interpretations, and thus critiques, of colonialism – ‘it colours even this interpretation of interpretation’ (1961, p. 12).

This is why Nandy (1998, p. 147) calls for a ‘language of dissent which would not make sense – and will not try to make any sense in the capitals of the global knowledge industry’. This making no sense suggests that so-called ‘Western’ knowledge may not always be desirable for countries of the global South, for whom this knowledge is haunted by other languages – of colonialism and violence. It is a violent language that makes a nonsense of civilising claims. Thus, for Nandy (1983, p. 72-73),

That was why the cry of the victims of colonialism was ultimately the cry to be heard in another language-unknown to the colonizer and to the anti-colonial movements that he had bred and then domesticated.

Thus, ‘to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’ (Fanon, 1967, p. 38), which for many means the culture of the coloniser, where colonialism is ‘the implantation of foreign influences into the core of the colonized’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 32). In Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999, p. 157) project of ‘decolonising methodologies’, she recognises that ‘naming’ is key to retaining control over meaning, and that in ‘”naming the world” people name their realities’, realities that may only be captured in indigenous languages, not in foreign terms. In fact, for Thiong’o (1981, p. xiv), to speak in a language different to the colonisers is a key step in ‘decolonising the mind’.

For such a project, Fanon urges us to ‘work out new concepts’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 255). And for Nandy, ‘[t]he first concept…has to be the victims’ construction of the West, a West which would make sense to the non-West in terms of the non-West’s experience of suffering’ (Nandy, 1983, p. 13). This is to realise the colonisers’ fear that the colonised will discover ‘an alternative frame of reference within which the oppressed do not seem weak’ (Nandy, 1983, p. 177).

This has echoes with Gandhi’s endorsement of a ‘non-modern Indian reading of the modern West’, an attempt to refuse to meet the West’s criterion for antagonism (Nandy, 1983, p. 102). Yet while Gandhi in colonial India and Fanon in colonial Algeria talked about the need for alternative frames of reference for the colonised and about the violence of colonialism – their views on violence could not be more different, are opposite, and so perhaps like many opposites are invisibly interlaced.

So Fanon says we need new concepts. Yet because colonialism is violent- the ‘bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native’, Fanon says that ‘decolonization is always a violent phenomenon’ (Fanon, 1961, p. 29&27). In the Wretched of the earth, Fanon defends the right for colonized peoples to use violence to struggle for independence, arguing that human beings who are not considered as such shall not be bound by principles that apply to humanity. Gandhi’s alternative frame of reference is that of non-violence, a refusal to engage in the currency of the coloniser – the currency of violence. Gandhi too is refusing to speak the language of colonialism, the language of violence.

So, if the colonisers language is violence and we need new concepts, concepts that work on a different register – then it might appear that the violence Fanon advocates is a ‘symptom’ of colonialism – not a tool for decolonization. Here Gandhi’s non-violence appears to come from a different register, a different worldview. And yet, if colonialism’s power is that it structures even resistance against it, where even resistance that does the opposite to it is structured by it in that very opposition, then non-violence may not be on a different register, it may be an example of official colonially sanctioned dissent.

And so, while both see colonialism as violent, their decolonising calls take very different forms.

And that is why I am lost.

And so from this uncomfortable space where I don’t know the answer, and there probably is not one answer, I will ask some questions.

What do we mean by violence? What do they mean when they say ‘violence’? Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’?

‘Normal’ violence

For Chakrabarti and Dhar (2009), violence is affected on those in the global South along two axes; brute violence and benevolent violence. Brute violence is the violence marked by the logic of development, of dislocation from place as well as from local forms of life, ways of living and understanding the world. This brute violence acts with impunity. Then there are forms of violence that are often not recognised as being violent at all, violence that is reconfigured as being in people’s ‘best interests’, as legitimate and as sanctioned  in the name of civilisation and protection. We shouldn’t be surprised, for violence in the name of ‘protection’ was one of the justifications for the ‘unprecedented’ violence of the colonial encounter (Hook, 2005).

In fact, the very reason for this unprecedented violence may be because the colonised were constructed as irrational, and thus, not seen to share the same humanity as the colonisers (Weizman, 2011).  Here, where proportionality is seen as a ‘rational’ tool for calculating the necessary collateral damage of war, violence against the irrational comes from within a different economy, where disproportionate power is wielded and justified (Weizman, 2011). This is both a violence that is rendered ‘normal’ and a violence that is apparent within techniques of normalization. This is a statistical, ‘normalized, everyday, “rational” and bureaucratized violence’ (Burman, 2010, p. 47) – a banal violence.

And if violence is often not recognised as violence, indeed if the ultimate violence of violence is that it can be reconfigured as ‘not violent’, then what happens to Fanon’s violence? What happens when, as did and does happen in multiple colonial contexts, violence is reconfigured as a ‘symptom’ of ‘mental illness’ (Mills, 2014b; and Mills 2015). For example, The Black Power movement (prominent in the USA in the 1960-70s) emphasised cultural and economic self-determination for African-Americans, aiming to create black political and cultural institutions. Some of this fight for self-determination was violent because the racist systems of segregation were also violent. Yet only one side of this violence came to be constructed as a ‘symptom’ of mental illness’.

In 1968, two psychiatrists in New York (Bromberg and Simon), coined a new disorder – ‘Protest psychosis’ – a condition in which participating in the Black Power movement drove ‘Negro’ men to ‘insanity’. They claimed that Black liberation movements (not racism, not white supremacy, not inter-generational memories of enslavement) caused delusions, hallucinations and violence (Metzl, 2009, p. 100). And today in the UK, Black / Ethnic Minority groups are more often: diagnosed as schizophrenic; compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act; admitted as ‘Offender Patients’ and held by police; transferred to locked wards; and not referred for ‘talking therapies’ (Fernando and Keating, 2009).

And so here psychiatry constructs and meets the ‘angry black body’; portraying itself as a weapon, a form of a ‘humanitarian violence’, in fact something not seen as violent at all but seen as ‘treatment’, sanctioned by the law, to pre-empt and prevent further violence (because to be angry and black is to be violent, and to be a white psychiatrist is not), a violence invoked against those deemed irrational (the colonised, the ‘mentally ill’), and so a violence that does not play by the rules, a disproportionate violence (Weizman, 2011). It is a violence that resonates with colonialism, it is violence with a ‘civilizing mission’.

This raises questions of how we can conceptualize contemporary forms of violence. How will we negotiate these different forms, and should they all be understood as violent? What does violence mean in a world where ‘love’ is used to describe a relationship with one’s car; where the idea of being your best self is used to sell anti-depressants; where the idea of freedom is used to justify war and a person’s right to own a gun. What does violence mean in a world where war, and conflict, incarceration in prisons and psychiatric institutions, torture, the structural and symbolic violence of economic reforms, the retraction of welfare provisions, and on and on, can, and are, all justified at different times and in different places as humane, as in people’s ‘best interests’, as pre-empting and preventing violence?

By what ethical frames can we recognise and respond to the ordinary, everyday manoeuvres of violence; the banality of violence within psychiatric ‘treatment’; violence constructed as normal, necessary and legitimate (Dhar, 2004). How we can compare and judge such forms of ‘violence’? How can we compare the violence of brute force, of drones, and tanks, and torture, to the violent erasure of other ways of knowing, of other worldviews, what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) calls ‘epistemicide’. This erasure sometimes comes through force, other times through benevolence – through missions to civilise and educate, through claims of universalism – a form of cognitive injustice that puts forward one way of knowing, ‘one right way’. There is a violence in this single story, in this one way of doing things, in the ‘normal’ and the ‘natural’.

How can we recognise our own complicity in different forms of violence? Can we ever be allied to the violence of decolonization? However much I may wish it, can I be an ally to something that if successful would erase my way of existing in a violent world? Does the violence we speak of secure the ground for wider, more pervasive violence – the violence of normalisation, and the normalisation of violence, the normality of violence? How can we recognise and oppose, with Fanon’s violence, or Gandhi’s non-violence, the conditions under which violence becomes normal, the conditions under which violence is no longer even recognised as being violent?



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