Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements

Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements

by Julietta Singh


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Julietta Singh challenges the drive toward the mastery over self and others by showing how the forms of self-mastery advocated by anticolonial thinkers like Fanon and Gandhi unintentionally reproduced colonial logic, thereby leading her to argue for a more productive human subjectivity that is not centered on concepts of mastery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369394
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Pages: 214
Sales rank: 553,397
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.45(d)

About the Author

Julietta Singh is Associate Professor of English at the University of Richmond.

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Decolonizing Mastery

Love can fight; often, it is obliged to.

— MOHANDAS K. GANDHI (1976) I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple.

— FRANTZ FANON, Black Skin,White Masks (1967)

At a quick historical glance, it would be easy to cast two of the twentieth century's most radical anticolonial thinkers — Mohandas K. Gandhi and Frantz Fanon — as politically antithetical. While indeed there is much to distinguish their thinking, postcolonial theorists have pointed to the foundational role that both thinkers have played in the emergence of postcolonial theory as a mode of critical inquiry. Leela Gandhi, for instance, has argued that Gandhi and Fanon are "united in their proposal of a radical style of total resistance to the totalising political and cultural offensive of the colonial civilizing mission" (1998, 19). She follows Gyan Prakash, who positions Gandhian and Fanonian thought as "theoretical events" that situate their work squarely within the emergence of postcolonial theory (1995, 5). Against the common historicization of postcolonial theory's emergence in the 1980s when it swept the academic scene, these scholars enable us to see postcolonial theory's longer critical history. Returning to Gandhi and Fanon as early iterations of postcolonial theory, then, is vital to the task of revisiting the postcolonial project today in the efforts to reinvigorate and to mobilize it toward new world dynamics.

In this chapter, I dwell on the works of these two central figures of twentieth-century decolonization in order to query their mappings of thoroughly decolonized subjectivities. For both Gandhi and Fanon, decolonization hinged on the necessity of a fundamental reconstitution of the self in the shaping of a postcolonial world. And yet, to achieve this end,the subjection of other bodies appeared almost necessary to anticolonial self-recovery. I trace the intertwined and overlapping circuits of love and violence across Gandhi and Fanon and attend to forms of anticolonial embodiment that each thinker advanced. In particular, I am interested in how two such distinct thinkers reveal within their accounts of decolonization seemingly inescapable sacrificial frames, ones in which particular bodies come repeatedly under masterful subjection in the narrative accounts of psychic, bodily, and socio-structural liberation. While they aimed in utopic gestures toward masterful practices that could lead to a liberation of the "whole," I argue, Gandhi and Fanon could not adequately account for the remainders of mastery — for those figures of abjection that were reproduced through the liberatory horizons of anticolonial discourse.

My critique of Gandhi and Fanon is born from the haunting knowledge that my own thinking is, like theirs, always producing remainders I cannot yet identify. To look back at Gandhi and Fanon critically is in effect to reflect on how those of us positioned on the intellectual left are also (and often despite ourselves) creating outsides to our own desiring inclusivities. Far from disciplining anticolonial politics and current critical thinking, I want to mobilize their messiness. Perhaps embedded within the knotty contradictions of decolonizing discourse lies the very possibility of unmasterful styles of being. Attending to the remainders that could not be enfolded into the unifying efforts of Gandhian and Fanonian politics is thus a way of bringing history forward to meet our own political projects. Sifting through the mess of utopian anticolonial politics is an act of becoming more sensitive to those remainders we continue to produce in the present moment. José Esteban Muñoz describes this as a melancholic politics that can become "a mechanism that helps us (re)construct identity and take our dead with us to the various battles we must wage in their names — and in our names" (1999, 74). My critique of these monumental figures of decolonization is thus based not on an ungenerous desire to expose the contradictions of those to whom I am so undeniably indebted but to bring Gandhi and Fanon with me into the present. Doing so, I aim to listen to the haunting legacies and inspirational force that continue to resonate through them in the service of those who have been forced out of ethico-political movements, and those we might yet come to embrace.

Returning to Gandhi and Fanon toward a revitalized thinking of postcolonial theory, we can begin to see how anticolonial solidarities are forged by way of mastery even while particular forms of colonial mastery are rebuked. Critically, we can also identify how the pursuit of mastery produces remnants of the social body that come to be employed by and excised from the rhetoric of a decolonizing body politic. Within Gandhian and Fanonian narrative accounts of decolonization, there is a continuous way in which particular figures — colonized women, indigenous peoples, the "uncivilized" groups of the emergent nation-state, the animal, the cripple, and nature itself — must be subjected by the emergent master who is himself the embodiment of the new nation-state and who maneuvers away from colonial domination toward freedom. As a literary scholar, I emphasize here narrative — how Gandhi and Fanon craft their emergent politics through political discourses that tell stories of becoming psychically and corporeally decolonized. What careful attention to these narratives reveals are figures of difference that are exiled from and subjected by masterful anticolonial movements, ones that linger at the margins of its discourses as exclusions that betray the purportedly inclusive aims of anticolonial futures. Within this anticolonial discourse, I read for and toward the most vulnerable subjects of decolonization. Attending to the slips and sacrifices of "other" bodies within this discourse becomes critical to the making, shaping, and reading of our own psychic, bodily, and relational selves.

For Gandhi, "love can fight," and it can do so both through the self-mastering body that resists external forms of violence and through the body that enacts physical violence against others in the service of less violent futures. What we see through careful attention to Gandhian ethico-politics is that these forms of "fighting" are never as separable as they appear. Acts of self-mastery can and do also entail forms of violence against other bodies. As I look to Gandhi's work on self-mastery as the antidote to holding mastery over others, and to becoming self-governing and free from the hold of the colonial master, I attend to how his narratives of swaraj (self-rule), satyagraha (truthforce), brahmacharya (celibacy/abstinence), and ahimsa (nonviolence) often involve the subjugation of other bodies. Women, indigenous peoples, animals (both human and nonhuman), and "uncivilized" groups who do not properly conform to the struggle for Indian national unity are all figures that reveal the contingencies, remainders, and dominance of Gandhi's masterful politics. Such bodies, I argue, become subjects of and subjected to a Gandhian ethico-politics of self-mastery. Decolonization was likewise an embodied process of self-making for Fanon, whose psychoanalytic practice led him to advocate for collective violence against the colonial forces that restricted the (masculine) colonized body. Fanon framed himself explicitly as a "master," one that had been "crippled" through the colonial relation. For him, decolonization was an act of reclaiming this lost, masterful humanity that had been stripped from him through the racist dehumanization of colonialism. He articulated this through the language of humanism and universal love, even while he cast his anticolonial humanist politics in tension with women, the disabled, and, more subtly, the natural world.

These admittedly crude summations of Gandhi and Fanon's masterful anticolonialisms illustrate how tightly linked they are, despite one being lauded as a nonviolent activist and the other criticized as a thinker who promoted violent action. Both popular formulations selectively pluck from the oeuvre of their political writings, abandoning, for instance, the often perplexing necessities of violence in Gandhian thought, or the explicit calls to love and orientation toward the Other across Fanon's writing. Following their narrative paths, I aim to consider their resonances through their mutual calls for new forms of embodiment in the process of decolonization and to attend to what such forms of masterful self-practice and embodiment shape and efface in collective struggle for liberation. In the narrative accounts of each thinker, the decolonizing body aims toward more loving relations and more peaceful forms of sociality. Both Gandhi and Fanon make clear that the domain of love is not dissociable from violence, and that violence is at stake in every act of remaking the self and is always embedded in the engagements of love toward oneself and others. Attending to the messy entanglements of love and violence in these thinkers allows us to move past the overly simplified versions of Gandhian and Fanonian politics in order both to offer more nuanced and generative accounts of their foundational contributions to anticolonial thought and postcolonial theory and to loosen some of the knots of their political thought so as to develop through and alongside them different political possibilities for the present.

Fanon's Sacrificial Women

Feminist readings have already stressed women as glaring figures of difference and subjection across anticolonial writing. Kalpana Sheshadri-Crooks, for example, refers to "the now over-familiar feminist contention that most national liberation movements and thought tend to be masculinist in their orientation and rhetoric" (2002, 93). I will trace some of these critiques here both because they bear repeating and because they are related to the other figures of alterity that remain outside Fanon's political purview and to which I turn later in this chapter. Feminist scholarship has aptly pointed to the crucial fact that liberation was mobilized in these discourses through practices of control over female bodies in the remaking and restaging of specifically masculine ones. Women often emerge in the discourses of liberation as self-masters par excellence, subjects that without pause remain steadfast in the face of danger. Yet they are also the weak links in the trajectories of national freedom — freedom that remains bound to new visions, performances, and embodiments of masculinity. If women are both instrumental and sacrificial in the creation of anticolonial masculinities, this does not mark a paradox but signals instead a logic of anticolonialism. Within this logic, bodies marked as feminine are abjured in the recuperation and transformation of masculine bodies in the act of liberation.

Fanon, whose anticolonial politics were shaped by and through psychoanalysis, insisted on the primacy of race in the processes of identification. In Identification Papers, Diana Fuss locates identification within a particularly colonial history (1995, 141). She explains that identification "is itself an imperial process, a form of violent appropriation in which the Other is deposed and assimilated into the lordly domain of Self. Through a psychical process of colonization, the imperial subject builds an Empire of the Same and installs at its center a tyrannical dictator, 'His Majesty the Ego'" (145). As Fuss and feminist scholars after her have argued, however, the woman of color in particular disappears in Fanon's framing of identification. For Fuss, identification has a genealogy that is rooted in colonial history. Yet she argues that while Fanon situates race as central to identification, he "does not think beyond the presuppositions of colonial discourse to examine how colonial domination itself works partially through the social institutionalization of misogyny and homophobia" (160). In effect, Fanon races identification while he erases the woman of color from its purview. Fanon could write of the psychosexual lives of white women (1967e) and dwell at length on Algerian women's heroic psychic and bodily sacrifices toward the revolution (1965), but on the psychosexuality of the woman of color, he declared outright (in an echo of Freud): "I know nothing about her" (1967g, 180). Hegel and Fanon make funny bedfellows here: While Africa was, as I discussed in the introduction, absolutely unknowable for Hegel, he nevertheless fabricated and produced decisive readings of it that contributed to the imperial project on the continent. Fanon produced psychoanalytic readings of Algerian women in the struggle for decolonization even while he professed that he "knows nothing" of black women, whose sexual desires and psychic constitutions appear too inconsequential and confounding to be folded into his larger narrative of decolonization.

In "Algeria Unveiled" (1965), Fanon illustrates how the "liberation" of women's bodies in the colonies became central to the colonial enterprise through a process of domination that Spivak would famously come to formulate as "white men ... seeking to save brown women from brown men" (1988, 305). Fanon argues that the figure of the veiled woman became for the colonizer both the symbol of cultural savagery in the colonies and the most effective tool for controlling the colonized body politic. If the veil was the most glaring sign of the Algerian woman's oppression, it became the unrelenting task of the colonial administration "to defend this woman, pictured as humiliated, sequestered, cloistered" and in urgent need of liberation from the barbaric Algerian man (1965, 38). She became a means by which the colonizer could gain full control over Algerian culture: "In the colonialist program, it was the woman who was given the historic mission of shaking up the Algerian man. Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wrenching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over the man and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture" (39). Here we see the "civilizing mission" of colonial practice framed precisely and most effectively through the mastering of the female body. This body reflected for the colonizer a barbarous patriarchy that itself needed to be brought to full submission. Unveiling the Algerian woman would thus not only "liberate" her but would perversely bring her into a pseudomasterful role (always under the authority of the white man) by empowering her to hold a "real power" over Algerian men. By being laid bare, brought into the fold of Western femininity, she would become able to emasculate the Algerian man who had enslaved her. This emasculation would in turn make the Algerian man more easily dominated by colonial power, "destructured" by his woman into a form ripe for full submission to the "real" (white) Man. In his reading of colonial logic's confounding contradictions, Fanon emphasizes how the Algerian woman emerged all at once as absolute victim, weapon of imperial conquest, and gateway to conquering the Algerian man and "delivering" him into colonial submission.

While Fanon "unveils" colonial logic, he also cannot help but to affirm the Algerian woman as a threat to Algerian masculinity even as he is determined to defend her honor. His aim is to illustrate how the colonial imagination of the Algerian woman has been a radical mischaracterization. In fact, for Fanon she is selfless in relation to the revolution and, even more strikingly, she is one who best performs self-mastery: "This revolutionary activity has been carried on by the Algerian woman with exemplary constancy, self-mastery, and success. Despite the inherent, subjective difficulties and notwithstanding the sometimes violent incomprehension of a part of the family, the Algerian woman assumes all the tasks entrusted to her" (1965, 53–54). Although she is "sometimes" subjected to the "violent incomprehension" of parts of the patriarchal family unit, the Algerian woman remains undeterred by this violence and is steadfastly committed to "the tasks entrusted to her" (54). Her agency in Fanon's narrative is here limited to a masculine revolution that decides to "entrust" her, that makes use of her body and her determination in carrying out revolutionary acts. She is an agent but not agential: she follows the orders of the revolution because she remains so devoutly committed to the embodied masculinity of the anticolonial men whose bodies and psyches will, unlike her own, be positively reshaped and humanized by the revolution.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Reading against Mastery  1
1. Decolonizing Mastery  29
2. The Language of Mastery  65
3. Posthumanitarian Fictions  95
4. Humanimal Dispossessions  121
5. Cultivating Discomfort  149
Coda. Surviving Mastery  171
Notes  177
References  187
Index  197

What People are Saying About This

The Queer Art of Failure - Jack Halberstam

"Seeking new genealogies for decolonial acts and thought, Julietta Singh unknots the connections between stubbornly resilient mechanisms of rule and current forms of knowledge production. Singh sketches the disastrous consequences of the ongoing investments in mastery that result in a ravaged environment and persistent racialized hierarchies of being, thereby giving us a critique of the human, a glimpse of the decolonization of the human, and the promise of something beyond the human."

Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics - Christopher Breu

"Notions of mastery have remained uninterrogated in theory for too long. No matter how reflexive we have become about other forms of power, mastery has been invoked as an essential good. Julietta Singh powerfully challenges this unproblematic invocation of mastery while revolutionizing postcolonial theory by fusing it with new materialism, animal studies, and queer theory. Balancing theoretical sophistication, textual nuance, and self-reflexive engagement with brilliance and care, Singh produces a powerful new theoretical synthesis that accounts for mastery and colonial violence in all their forms."

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