Given the rising influence of Fanon amongst the increasingly radicalised youth of South Africa on and off the campuses, it came as no surprise to me that a student has asked to write his essay for the introductory Sustainable Development module on the link between sustainability and Fanon. I welcomed this, recalling the many hours spent in my 20s reading Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and how influential it was on my own thinking. This is how I responded: “How you find a link to Fanon is going to be interesting and challenging. In my view this link is a conception of humanism (I had given him a few weeks earlier an article on Fanon’s humanism from THES). In other words, the question at the centre of humanism is ‘what does it mean to be human?’ For Fanon, as per that article, but clearly also in WoTE, being human for the colonized is not straight forward because it means being liberated from the definition of what it means to be human imposed by the colonizer. What follows, therefore, is a dialectic of oppression and liberation that can, ultimately, lead to a new conception of what it means to be a free human that is not defined by the colonizer. That, however, is not simply a matter of identity politics – it is also a matter of economic transformation (for Fanon). If a ‘national bourgeoisie’ takes over that simply apes the behaviour of the colonizer, nothing really significant has been achieved no matter what psychological processes of liberation may have taken place. In other words, Fanon cannot be reduced to identity politics – becoming a free human is fundamentally about a structural process, i.e. economic transformation.
Rosie Braidotti, an Italian feminist/post-feminist writer, wrote a book called Post-Human which I can send you if you are interested. Her question is the same: what does it mean to be human in today’s world? She argues that Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man became THE DEFINITION of what it means to be human, that got universalised (via colonization). The Vitruvian man is white, male, alone and disconnected from nature, and perfectly proportioned. By becoming Universalised, the validity of the hegemony of Vitruvian Man was only possible by ‘othering’ all other significant relations – women were othered by sexualisation, people who were not white were othered by racialisation, and nature was othered via naturalisation. However, from the 1960s onwards paradigms emerged that challenged each of these ‘otherings’: feminism critiqued sexualisation, political ecology critiqued naturalisation, and post-colonial studies (founded by Fanon, arguably) critiqued racialisation. All three have disintegrated. This has implications for what it means to be human today. Her argument is that the essence of what it means to be human today is about a relational existence, where no gendered is ‘othered’, it is transcended; no race is ‘othered’, it is transcended; and nature is not ‘othered’, it is transcended. The result: the relational self, intimately connected to masculinity and femininity, to diversity of racial identities, and to nature in its diversity. In other words, like Fanon, Braidotti is not just about identity – becoming a free relational self (post-humanism) is dependent on a set of structural conditions that imply the collapse of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and exploitation of nature as we know it.
So what then is the link between Braidotti and Fanon? Both want to define what it means to be human for purposes of liberation. In this sense, Fanon was interested in a relational self, like Braidotti. But Fanon was writing when nature was not an issue. But one could argue that by linking identity and structure (by insisting on economic transformation), he has opened the door for taking into account any condition that has a bearing on what it means to be human. This, in turn, opens the door for a Fanonesque conception of sustainability, i.e. as a way of understanding what it means to be human not just in relation to the colonizer (a la post-colonial studies) and economic transformation (Marxist analysis), but also nature (a la political ecology), and, for that matter, gender (a la feminist studies). In other words, we use Fanon’s humanism as the point of departure and then run it to its logical conclusion in light of knew knowledge since he wrote, i.e. nature and gender matters. I think this would be a perfectly logical way to proceed.”