Unveiling Frantz Fanon: On Agency, Cixous and Algeria

Exploring Notions of Agency, Femininity and Body Politics in the Algerian War of Independence

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


 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?).


‘Immortal’ Algerian Novelist Assia Djebar Dies, 78

Arabic Literature (in English)

Algerian novelist Assia Djebar — frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender and one of the “immortals” of the Académie Française — has died in a hospital in Paris:

assiaAccording to Algerian state radio, Djebar — whose given name was Fatima Zohra Imalayène — will be buried in her native Cherchell, where she was born in 1936.

Djebar wrote novels and short-story collections striking for their wide historical sense and their fiercely female focus. They included: The Thirst, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, A Sister to Scheherazade, So Vast a Prison, Algerian White, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment and The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry. She also wrote poetry.

She moved to France to study at 18. There, began her life as a bearer of many “firsts” when she became the first Algerian woman to be admitted to the country’s top literary university, the Ecole Normale Superieure. She published her…

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Battle of Algiers: The Full Film

What better way to spend the friday night than to watch a film with a glass of red wine? Well, a lot of other ways. For those of you who still have nothing planned on this chilly evening, I highly recommend you watch this film, which goes under the name of The Battle of Algiers (1966). I already gave a teaser of this film in my first (!) post, but since teasing people is a generally a bad thing, I decided to post the whole film here. Provacative yet informative, beautiful yet horrific, this film depicts the tensions of the Algerian war of independence in a rather direct way. Especially the choice of music (in the ‘bombing scene’), which is, according to ‘Саша Б92′ on YouTube qarqab, a instrument characteristic in Gnawa music, gives this film a peculiar aura. 


First Things First: The Laugh of Cixous

cixousWhat a fine sunny day to write about a fine sunny person. During my research, Hélène Cixous will be of big importance. But, one may ask, who is this woman, and is she the same woman as depicted in the above featured image? The answer to the latter question is; yes, yes she is. And to answer the ‘who?’ will be answered below. I must say that, maybe to others, I might leave out pivotal information regarding her life and works, because can one everever, write enough about Cixous? The answer is: certainly not. But since I am confinedto this considerably small amount of words (because that is how blogs work, right?), I will focus on those aspects of Cixous’ thoughts and ideas that will be of importance in my research. Moreover, since you, my dear reader, are already on the World Wide Web, Wikipedia is available at any time. Now, let us feast on the ideas that Cixous brought into this world

Hélène Cixous (1937), and Algerian born writer, theorist and (whereas she herself would never approve of these labels, and I therefore apologize in advance) feminist, grew up in France. Cixous is considered as one of the founding mothers of the poststructuralist feminist school of thought. One of Cixous’ most influential texts is ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, where she wrote the notorious words that

[w]oman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. (Cixous 1976: 875).

Cixous has always had a specific preoccupation with femininity and writing (the latter counting for all poststructuralist thinkers); she argued that our ‘everyday symbolic order’ (or: language as we know it) was a marked language; marked by patriarchy and phallic power. For Cixous, this ‘phallocentric order’ was a order that was constructed of irreconcilable divisions between the self and the other, the centre and a periphery; one can only express oneself by contrasting ‘the self’ (whatever that may be) with ‘that whom/which is not the self’. Women cannot express themselves in this phallocentric order, characterized by binaries, since ‘woman’ does not have this illusive ‘phallic’ power. If the phallus is indeed the center of this phallocentric order (see Jacques Lacan’s ‘Signification of the Phallus’ (2006 [1958]: 576), the woman will never be able to represent herself; instead, she is always reduced to the one who is represented by those who are center of this order; men. Cixous therefore called for a radical change in our language, and proposed a new language based not on binary oppositions, but on plurality and multiplicity. A language where the phallic holds no power, where women can move freely since they do not lack anything. Instead, they can free themselves, and write from their sexuality. Cixous coined this new language écriture féminine.

If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, (…) inventing for herself a language to get inside of. (Cixous 1976: 887)

Écriture féminine served as a means to (re)inscribe the female body into text; the female body, and the female sexualilty, has been caged and oppressed within the dark confines of the phallocentric order for too long, and it is therefore time to reclaim it; reclaim it through the means that was initially the hotspot of patriarchy and oppression; reclaim it through the symbolic order.

This connection between language and the body may come as an absurd connection, but for Cixous it is a rather obvious connection. Cixous writes that

[c]ensor the body (…) you censor breath and speech at the same time. (Cixous 1976: 880)

In the phallocentric order, the woman, as already stated earlier, is always represented; her body is oppressed, silenced, and spoken for (and not spoken by). Censor the body, censor breath, censor speech. If women want to reclaim their voices, they must do so by starting with their body; write the body into text, the voice is allowed to speak and the text simultaneously becomes the body; the body through which this voice speaks.

How, one may ask by now, does this relate to your research, Ms. Wijnants? Well, that is precisly what I will figure out during this research. For one, Cixous’ connection between the body and the text is a connection that allows us to trace notions of agency; in inscribing the feminine body, this body becomes an ‘agential body’ (obviously, I will go more in depth about ‘agency’ and its supposed meaning later in my research): écriture féminine is a means to reclaim the body and the voice, supposedly resulting in control and ‘ownership’ of this body and voice.

Cixous’ ideas, and the overall poststructuralist ‘wave’ that was flowing through France, is one that is tightly connected to the Algerian war of independence. Jane Hiddleston, in her Poststructuralism and Postcoloniality (2010) argues that, in paraphrasing Robert Young, that

The inauguration of of deconstruction [and consequently poststructuralism] was indeed not may 68 but the Algerian war of independence. (Hiddleston 2010: 1)

Cixous’ specific position as being an Algerian Jew in France was of big influence in her theories. Therefore, the Algerian war of independence did not only leave its traces in the colonial history and collective memory of France and Algeria, but also in the Francophone literary- and cultural theories. Her specific relation to the French language is an ambiguous one; French is the ‘imposed’ language through the French colonial school system (in Algeria), but French as a global language of emancipation and modernity.

In other words; Cixous particular philisophical stance and theories are indebted in her ‘Algerianness’ and how she perceived of the (processes of) language, identity and identification. How can one identify with a language that is drenched with oppression, colonial horrors and rape (both the French as the overall phallocentric order), and simultaneously express oneself in this language? By inhabiting this language, and appropriating it: by moving through it, exploding it in, shifting it, turning around. By making it a feminine language.

But more on Cixous later, it is now time to catch the last sunbeams and let the vitamin D inscribe our bodies.

We Must First Conquer Their Women, Or; The Birth of a Research


Franz Fanon, in his celebrated essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’ (1959), writes that, in paraphrasing (in an ironic, exaggerated yet painstakingly true fashion) the French military strategy:

 “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them begin the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight” (Fanon 1959: 164).

This ‘military strategy’ that Fanon is referring to, is the strategy that was often used during the Algerian war of Independence, a bloody, brutal war against the long French colonization of Algeria. This war lasted from 1954 to 1962 resulting in the independence of Algeria (‘granted’ to Algeria by Charles de Gaulle). Enthusiastic and knowledge thirsty as I was, I devoured Fanon’s text. I was intrigued by Fanon’s stance and his preoccupation with the role of women in the war, and the central role that the veil played in this struggle for independence. Yet what struck me was the lack of ‘agency’ ascribed to these ‘veiled women’: Fanon talked about these women as if their bodies were passive and therefore easy to mobilize. In Fanon’s ‘Algeria Unveiled’, the ‘veiled women’ are either representative for nationalistic values and/or test-dummies in military strategies. As Rita Faulkner (1996) rightly, and probably more concise and eloquent than I can ever put it,

“he [Fanon] also makes use of the ancient metaphor equating land with women and women with land which can be found in texts ranging from the Koran (Surah II, verse 223: “Your women are a tilth for you [to cultivate] so go to your tilth as ye will”), to ancient Western, to modern Arabic literature. (Faulkner 1996: 847)

Their body is always representing and embodying something else than its actual, agential presence; it’s either the bearer of the national flag, the sexual being that needs to be colonized, or the test dummy of male war strategies. Fanon, whether consciously or unconsciously, deprives these ‘unveiled warriors’ from their agency by writing from a political, nationalistic and perhaps masculanist perspective. It is because of this reason, because of this lack in (post- and de-)colonial literature, that I want to explore the notion of feminine agency and body politics during processes of decolonization and struggles for independence.

In other words; Fanon seems to present a rather masculanist perspective on these veiled women, these women warriors, and I propose that a feminist perspective is therefore highly needed. And it is for this reason that this blog, and consequently this research, emerged.

For the following 7 weeks, I will post articles, columns, films, movie clips (and maybe, if I feel truly inspired, music) regarding issues of agency, embodiment and the veil from a feminist (postcolonial and poststructuralist) perspective. In doing so, I hope to establish a theoretical framework through which we can (re)consider levels of agency and bodily presence in relation to the veiled female warriors. Obviously, a research is not a research without discussion, peer review and critique. Therefore, my dear reader, I hereby invite you to join me in this exhilarating and exciting research. Feel free to comment all your thoughts, doubts, tips and critiques.

Now, how to best end this first post than with a film clip that shows in a brief 8 minutes the very foundation of my research? Feast your eyes on these two short clips from The Battle of Algiers [Italian: La battaglia di Algeri]. Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, a documentary-like drama, depicting ‘these women warriors’. The Battle of Algiers was a movie commissioned by the Algerian government, and was meant to show the world the Algerian war of independence from both the French as the Algerian.

 (Part A)

 (Part B)