From the new January-February 2012 issue of News & Letters:
Woman as Reason
by Terry Moon
Blogger L Boogie has written part one of “Fanon, Alienation and Sexual Harassment,” exploring Frantz Fanon’s 1952 Black Skin White Masks in an exciting way for feminism, by relating his thought to street harassment. (See http://nothingbutahuman.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/fanon-alienation-and-sexual-harassment/)
She begins by relating several incidents of harassment, noting that recollecting them reminded her of “how violent street harassment of female-bodied people can be. It also reminded me,” she writes, “of the contours and relationship of gender, patriarchy and alienation which comes out in harassment.” She relates four incidents and notes that “the toll of years of harassment is stunning” and that it shapes her activity. It is the fact that she is “made to not feel safe in my own body,” and that she is “alienated from my own physical self” that made her turn to Fanon.
THE THINGIFICATION OF WOMEN
She goes on to quote several paragraphs from his chapter “The Fact of Blackness,” including the expression that what we find imposed upon us is a “crushing objecthood.” She concludes, in part, “There is much more complexity to the ideas that Fanon is presenting in this text, but I want to pick up on this point about the bodily experience of alienation. Fanon at one point describes it as one’s body being given back to them sprawled out, distorted, re-colored, clad in mourning.
“Street harassment has the same effect. Every time I’m harassed, I’m reminded that my body is not my own…”
Boogie is expressing anew what it is about Fanon that has spoken to the oppressed since his works appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. His articulation of alienation is profound, perhaps because it is grounded in his lived experience as a Black revolutionary thinker, activist and writer from Martinique, and in the philosophical thought of Marx and Hegel.
I was not alone discovering, at the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Movement, that Fanon expressed women’s alienation in a profound way. Women were working out that the oppression we were experiencing was because we were women, not because there was something wrong with us as individuals, but that we did not meet the expectations of our society, or we railed against those expectations, because society considered and treated us as less than human, as an object. This is what Boogie was describing with street harassment. Those who consider you a person don’t think you’re there to meet their needs, and if you dare to refuse, scream in your face that “you’re a f___ing bitch.” The violence that meets women when they refuse to play games on the street is because we have asserted our humanness. How dare we upset the status quo!
NEEDED DEEPENING OF HEGEL’S DIALECTIC
The founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, though she never met Fanon, considered him a co-thinker, not only because he too was a revolutionary humanist, but because he was part of the fantastic milieu of the 1950s when revolutionary thought and activity changed the world with the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the East European revolts and the start of new African revolutions. She saw Fanon challenging Sartre, who considered labor–the worker–the focus of change, and the Negro only a particular in that greater struggle, a minor term. Dunayevskaya turns also to “The Fact of Blackness,” to show “the difference of the dialectic when it comes not from knowledge but from anguish…”
In Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, the slave, the laborer, gains a mind of his own through his labor–through transforming reality. To Hegel, Dunayevskaya says, paraphrasing Fanon, “you would be able to force some recognition of yourself, as man, as woman, and not just as slave, from the master. But says Fanon, Hegel didn’t consider the Black, and it isn’t the least bit true that the master is interested in the Black at all. The really Absolute, where there is no reciprocity, is this slave who in addition to being a slave, in addition to being the exploited labor, is Black, and is not at all recognized by the Other.” Then Dunayevskaya makes her own development of the discussion: “Therefore, the dialectic would have to be much sharper, and see a certain transformation of reality which was deeper, than that of Hegel.”
How deep does the dialectic need to become when the subject is woman, is Black woman?
Women’s interest in Fanon is part of that passion for philosophy that Dunayevskaya recognizes as a “passion for freedom.” I’m looking forward to seeing how the discussion that L Boogie has begun again continues.