Resurfacing the Surface, Or; On Fanon’s Configurations of the Surface

by rooswijnants


 loaded words defused themselves as soon as uttered, that by their very nature they lost their power to touch me (…). The word had simply drowned before reaching its destination… (Assia Djebar Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (1993): 126)

In my earlier posts, I briefly discussed and explained why I am ‘conducting’ this research, and why I am using Cixous as one of my central primary works. But the question that keeps sneaking around the corner is the question of the How and the Where: How to deconstruct Fanon, and where does Cixous’ (autobiographical) text becomes and essential part of my analysis. Obviously this is not a question that I am able to answer in just one blog post, but it is a question that is in desperate need of consideration.

But before diving quasi deep into the world of Fanon and language (spoiler alert), I feel that I need to emphasize that I am not on a quest to ‘bash’ Fanon, and even if so, this would be a useless quest since Fanon’s writing and books are of such excellence that  I do not even dare to textually assault him. I fully acknowledge, and am gratefull, for Fanon’s contribution and influence on post- and decolonial studies, psychologie, psychoanalysis, cultural studies and so forth. Moreover, it is precisely because of his ‘grandeur’ (the good kind) that I am doing this research; that I am trying to make more sense of his text by also considering the possible critique, which in my case would be the lack of a feminine, agential and perhaps even an embodied voice. Having said this, let u now feast on new ideas and notions that will help us continuing our way towards a more inclusive, feminine narrative of the female presenting Algerian warrior.

In order to get a better grip on the ‘how’ and the where’, it is important to take a step back and look at Fanon’s work from a surface, yes, to look at the surface. Suzanne Gauch, in her article ‘Fanon on the Surface’ (2010), is preoccupied with ways in which Fanon configures ‘surfaces’. Gauch argues that appearances in Fanon’s work are central; the colour of the skin, the wearing of the veil. Gauch analyses the ways in which the ‘configuration’ or inscription of these surfaces both in Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and his ‘Algeria Unveiled’ differs, and consequently, what the inscription and centralizing of these surfaces mean for Fanon’s project of liberating the colonized subject. Gauch states that the ‘surfaces’, the skin, the veil, are more than religious or racial ‘signifiers’. Instead, Gauce proposes,

The term ‘surfaces’ brings into view the range of traditional conceptual oppositions that Fanon’s texts challenge. Although the term ‘surface’ in its most abstract sense presents itself as an opposition to ‘depth’, in Fanon’s work surfaces are additionally those historically determined particularities that alternately oppress their bearers and yield them the promise of a dialectical overcoming of the objectifying identities that colonial discourse assigns them. (Gauch 2010: 117)

In Black Skin White Masks, it is the ‘black skin’ that is yielding the ‘colonial objectification’, whereas in ‘Algeria Unveiled’ it is, take a guess, the veil. Both these surfaces are symbolically charged with cultural and political signifiers: the black skin as being ‘inferior’, as being ‘a colonized subject’, and the veil is consequently the bearer of gender (since only women wear the veil) and mystery. But, as Gauch rightly points out, in Fanon’s Black Skin White Mask, he also includes a elaborate consideration of the French language, and how the mastery of the French language by the ‘colonized subject’ could or could not complicate the surface of the black skin. In ‘Algeria Unveiled’, there is no mentioning of the (not so) ‘liberating’ appropriation of language. Gauch argues that, in her comparative reading of the notion of surfaces in both these works by Fanon,

First, the Algerian woman’s veil [as discussed in ‘Algeria Unveiled’] simultaneously determines her cultural identity and her gender. Secondly, although Fanon’s essay depicts women as revolutionary agents, it is signiŽfcant that Algerian women ‘speak’ only through the veil or, later, with their bodies. Thus summarizing Algerian women’s experiences, but never quoting an Algerian woman directly, Fanon not only side-steps issues that might otherwise arise from his translation into French of the experiences of Arabic or Berber speaking Algerian women, but also locates the revolutionary potential of these women squarely in their status as spectacle. Looks, for Fanon, become everything. (Gauch 2010: 118)

The veil becomes the bearer of culture, gender, race. But, in relation to the female bomb carriers in the Algerian war, the very power lay in the notion that the veil could be removed. According to Gauch, the veil also symbolizes a temporality, and moreover, a ‘surface’ that can be overcome (Gauch 2010: 119). By removing the veil, the surface has changed. But, Gauch proposes, is this ‘unveiled woman’ not again wearing a heavily loaded surface, that of a white, European mask? As opposed to Black Skin White Masks, in ‘Algeria Unveiled’ there is no mentioning of the ‘liberating’ powers of language and the written word; all is focussed on the appearance of the woman, and how this woman can change this surface in order to help the FLN in destroying their French targets. And even if the Algerian woman has freed herself from the surface that oppresses or cages her, Fanon does not further explain the ‘what next and what about the words that this woman is not allowed to utter’. Gauch argues that, in discussing what happens after the Algerian woman has unveiled herself (be it literal or figurative)

“While it seems that language must now return as a manifestation of her new being, the Algerian woman’s words remain beyond the scope of Fanon’s essays in A Dying Colonialism” (Gauch 2010: 123)

The language, that was so central in Black Skin White Masks is missing in ‘Algeria Unveiled’, whereas language, and the right to speak, is so extremely important; being able to speak in ones own language (and not in the colonizer’s language, nor in a language that is heteronormative and phallocentric) is being able to open up processes of becoming. And it is at this point, and for this very reason, that Cixous comes in. After these women supposedly unveiled themselves, or became master of this veil, how to find the right words to express oneself since, before this ‘liberation process’, the woman was reduced to the veil; to the surface. Gauch reminds us that

Fanon’s Žfirst work draws our renewed attention for its exploration of how language intervenes in the stigmatization of a surface as a sign of insurmountable difference, but also in the potential liberation of that surface from its historically determined identity. (Gauch 2010: 126)

Well, it is safe to assume that our attention has been drawn, and consequently, an urge to explore has grown out of it. Cixous, both in her formulation of écriture féminine as well as het autobiographical works(see my previous post) allows us to consider text in close relation to the body and femininity; a feminine language that is written by the body and writes the body. By exploring Cixous’ texts in close relation to Fanon’s ‘Algeria Unveiled’, we might come to a more inclusive narrative; one that also considers the female voice and the textual body, instead of solely focussing on the implications and liberations of ‘the surface’. Moreover, as Sue Thomas, in her article Difference, Intersubjectivity, and Agency in the Colonial and Decolonizing Spaces of HélèneCixous’s “Sorties” (1994)  argues, Cixous herself is also preoccupied with the ways in which the veil is represented, and what it represents. Cixous makes this consideration in a wholly textual and poetical fashion, emphasizing the role of language and écriture féminine within the construction of ‘the veil’. Thomas writes that, in discussing Cixous’ famous word Sorties,

Cixous uses the veil as a metonym for women’s traditional state of being no-body: “Is this me, this no-body that is dressed up, wrapped in veils, carefully kept distant, pushed to the side of History and change, nullified, kept out of the way, on the edge of the stage, on the kitchen side, the bedside” ( 1986, 69). (Thomas 194: 62)

The veil as symbolizing a state of no-body: a cloth that itself stands out of history, is essentialized, and is somehow also the holder of the Algerian, feminine gender. Since Cixous’ project focusses on the liberation of language, and the actualizing of the feminine body through text, her specific configuration of the veil becomes, within the context of this research, extremely interesting.

Now that I have partially answered the ‘how’ and the ‘where’, it is time to leave this post at rest, and end this evening with again a (disturbing) movie recommendation, this time also with a lovely, super epic and almost-too-stereotypical American voice-over. Pour in a glass of wine, light some candles and insence, and let your eyes feast on this monstruous beauty(with special thanks to Miriam, who was kind enough to send me this movie):

Hors-la-loi (2010), English translation: Outside the Law (can you hear it coming?).