Intervention – “Impermanence: On Frantz Fanon’s Geographies”

Julia Aguiar, Afsheen Chowdhury, Misha Falk, Lizzy Hinds-Heuglin, Aakriti Kapoor, Yaniya Lee, Katherine McKittrick, Milka Njoroge, Channon Oyeniran, Nat Rambold and Victoria Valliere (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada; contact [email protected])

[T]here is a constant obsession with identifying the exact historical moment of struggle … (Fanon 2004:163)

In Autumn 2020 we met to think about the geographies of Frantz Fanon with the hope of identifying how his ideas about liberation and anti-colonialism are tied to the production of space. Our meetings, conversations, and writings took place alongside the overlapping brutalities of a global pandemic and rebellions against racial violence, both of which are enveloped in sustained expressions of white supremacy. We are scholars from different disciplines (gender studies, black studies, cultural studies, geography, studies of settler colonialism and anti-racism, education, history) who are committed to interdisciplinary thought and methods; our different and overlapping scholarly backgrounds inform this piece and how we conceptualize geography, anti-colonialism, and freedom. We read three of Fanon’s texts: Black Skin, White Masks; A Dying Colonialism; and The Wretched of the Earth. We also screened Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask and we also read, together and alone, works by Bobby Wilson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Lewis Gordon, Simone Browne, Nigel Gibson, Minelle Mahtani, Ian Baucom, Glen Coulthard, Diana Fuss, Ato Sekyi-Otu, Paul Gilroy, Lisa Lowe, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Sylvia Wynter, Aimé Césaire, Gillian Rose, Tim Cresswell, Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Steve Pile, Doreen Massey, Clyde Woods, and Stuart Hall, among others.[1] Our preliminary conversations focused on streets, radios, monuments, urban geographies, the body and embodiments, clinics, care, gender, time and temporality, diaspora, political economy, land, rurality, the veil, war, revolution, homes, barracks, police stations. As we worked through Fanon’s writings, we noticed how normative geographies, what might be crudely termed colonial geographies, were clearly delineated divisions designed to contain and/or demarcate communities according to race, economic status, and gender. These divisions often reflect Fanon’s insights on Manichean space, which Ato Sekyi-Otu (1996:215), building on Cheryl Harris, describes as a “conception of the world which instigates in all the colonized the dream of whiteness, the impossible project of trespassing on the preserves of ‘whiteness as property’”. However, Fanon also makes clear that the spatialization of Manicheanism is not absolute; the impossibility Sekyi-Otu alludes to, particularly in terms of geography, uncovers contestations and struggles, overlapping racial histories and identifications, and insurgent potentialities.

For Fanon, black history seeps into contemporary geographies:

The ports of Holland, the docks in Bordeaux and Liverpool owe their importance to the trade and deportation of millions of slaves. (Fanon 2004:58-59)

For Fanon, one place holds multiple selves:

I existed in triple … (Fanon 2008:92)

The geographies that Fanon studies are not sites of unmistakable black-white segregation, per se, but rather a series of narrative maps that allow him to work out his ideas by drawing attention to the differential geographies of colonialism. Put otherwise, we noticed that Fanon uses geography, landscape, cartography, architecture, space, place, and borders, to make sense of blackness and oppression and liberation; across his texts, Fanon is the arbiter of geographic knowledge, and this positionality provides him with a kind of cartographic precision that simultaneously holds on to, and collapses, coloniality. What we observed in Fanon’s writing, then, was an entanglement: colonial violence produces the conditions for a different (black) sense of place, but this is not a one-way linear process wherein it is colonialism (the beginning) that sparks a response (the resistance). Rather, Fanon presents us with a set of diverse, divergent, and overlapping geographies, sometimes concrete and heavy, sometimes fleeting – always fractured and imperfect – that are nested in, yet cannot be fully defined by, the colonial imperative. In this way, we theorized that Fanon’s geographies of liberation are engendered and expressed through his attention to the mutual construction of identity and place and his nuanced and complicated understanding of time and temporality. Fanon envisions anti-colonial geographies as always in flux; stasis – even the street or the walls of the clinic – is impossible. Colonial geographies are thus unsustainable because, even in their heaviness, they are impermanent (impossible, in flux, alterable). Time (and here we nod to Fanon’s well-known essay, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” [2008: Chapter 5]) is punctuated by the undoing of temporal linearity.

In what follows are some of the geographic highlights that underpinned our conversations, presented as keywords: time, encounter, interiority, twoness, spiral, technique, effacement, peace and calm. We are cognizant of the limits and thus present these narratives as possibilities that draw attention to Fanon’s innovative and rebellious rethinking of time, place, location, and liberation, all of which will, ideally, lead to more conversations about Fanonian geographies.


The structure of the present work is grounded in temporality. (Fanon 2008:xvi)

The question of time and temporality are in many ways related to the psychological analysis of alienation that Frantz Fanon uncovers in his texts. Colonial time is measured-teleological time and, as we see in Black Skin, White Masks, this linearity is imposed by situating Fanon as tethered to a version of blackness that collapses Eurocentric understandings of race (primitivity) with European understandings of time (sequential moving forward into the future). Notably, the figure of the black (backward thinking and without legible time) is tasked with embracing a white future (forward-thinking and forward in time). Thus, what Sylvia Wynter might call biocentric time emerges – evolutionary scripts that identify black people as less than human and who are humanized as they come to honour, or grow into, European time – even though this punishing temporality is, in fact, an impossibility. Fanon thus writes, “I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and my ancestors” (2008:92), and pairs this with “there is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white” (Fanon 2008:202). Fanon is signaling that he is at once fixed in time and out of time. This sense of time is necessarily inflected with differential spaces (Europe, Africa, Paris, Algeria, Martinique, the Caribbean, the nation, the city, the road, the train, the monument), with certain geographies being tagged as more advanced (forward-thinking, forward) than others.

Constraint is, in part, enacted through what Fanon calls “the long, historical past”, a sense of time-space that allows him to think through two entwined processes: the first is the colonial claim to land – vis-à-vis tradition narratives – which excises him from (European) place and upholds essentialized modes of racial belonging (Fanon 2008:101); the second is the dissolution of black time (African time-history, Other time-history, non-European time-history), which is legitimated through colonial institutions and infrastructures (Fanon 2008:34):

[The black man has] … no culture, no civilization and no “long historical past”. (Fanon 2008:17)

And he is put back in his place, his proper place. (Fanon 2008:61)

Fanon reveals a dynamism, between his experiential knowledge – being in place, being black in place, being beholden to colonial time – and broader geographies that are laden with racism and race thinking. For example, in his essay “The Black Man and Recognition” (2008: Chapter 7), Fanon shows how Eurocentric commemoration is correlated to the erasure and/or belittling of African culture and African histories. Colonial practices are spatialized through the construction and placement of Eurocentric monuments, thus concretizing and lauding imperialism and conquest. Importantly, the monument expresses linear time, indicating the origination and chronological perpetuation of Western genealogy in space and place. For Fanon, colonial geographies intensify linear time while also undercutting the complexities of black time, thus highlighting his commitment to rewriting the temporalities of black humanity.

Fanon imagines humanization and liberation partly through the remaking of the self temporally. He identifies colonial time as a monumental obelisk past and a static present – temporalities that also disavow relationality by attaching race to historical-place rather than a sense of time that is capacious, unruly, and global. He writes – and here his reordering of time is explicit as he invokes his attachment to and departure from the rebellion in Santo Domingo – of space-time unconstraint:

The problem considered here is located in temporality. Disalienation will be for those Whites and Blacks who have refused to let themselves be locked in the substantialized “tower of the past”. For many other black men, disalienation will come from refusing to consider their reality as definitive. I am a man, and I have to rework the world’s past from the very beginning. I am not just responsible for the slave revolt in Saint Domingue. (Fanon 2008:201)


Throughout Fanon’s writings, he analyzes how encounter is a geographic experience. The phenomenology of encounter illuminates the simultaneity of space, place, mobility, and liberation – within the context of colonialism – while also drawing attention to Fanon’s liberatory insights. The much theorized and much cited, “Look, a Negro!” from Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon 2008:89), is a moment of encounter where colonial space is revealed to impact upon the black subject in layered and complicated ways. Specifically, the encounter, the “look”, does not simply define Fanon’s status as black and other, it produces a cascade of phenomenological structures that are specific to the location: the train. Fanon’s experience of epidermalization – the triple existence where, in the same moment, he embodies and represents himself, his family, and his ancestry – presents a geographic dilemma because time and space fold into and expand outside colonial time. More specifically, the tripleness redefines space and time and reorders (flat, linear, transparent) colonial geographies and their attendant temporalities. Fanon writes, “I existed in triple: I was taking up room” (Fanon 2008:92), and in that he suggests that the cartographic syntax of the train – the seats, the cabins, the aisles, the walls, and windows of the carriages, and where he is to be as a singular subject – is imprecise. His existence on the train, a mobile technology that moves across time and space, is sutured to colonial surveillance (“look”) yet unravels as the multiformity of the Fanonian self. The encounter provides the conditions for Fanon to notice and think through how the imagination, his psyche, builds upon and potentially transcends the physical geographies surrounding him. This is, perhaps, a restructuring of the world (Fanon 2008:63) that emerges from a black sense of place.


Fanon’s “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” (2004: Chapter 5) begins with an insistence that the struggle against colonialism must be fought both over land and in the mind. Colonial hegemony does not just manifest in physical domination, but also through psychic domination that makes the colonized individual internalize the oppression they face as normal. Under the colonial gaze, which views colonized peoples as “the natural backdrop for the French presence” (Fanon 2004:182), the native subject is folded into the land. For Fanon, the colonization of land has deep implications on the psychic interiority of the colonized. Fanon’s critique of French institutional psychiatrists and their “difficulty of ‘curing’ a colonized subject correctly” (Fanon 2004:181) is brought into play; he realizes that their humanistic impulse to treat mental illness as an individual ailment, correlates with a failure to understand how colonization produces unwellness. This approach to illness negates the interiority of the colonized by denying their experiences with racial violence and, at the same time (and through), conceptualizing them as objects (scenery and landscape). Fanon emphasizes that the colonial project renders the colonized as part of the geography and, with this, he exposes the tensions between objectification and experiential knowledge. The colonized are forced by their unique condition – their lived experiences that are shaped but not obliterated by objectification – to ask the question: “Who am I in reality?” (Fanon 2004:182). In this way, Fanon untangles the eerie stakes of conceptualizing and positioning the colonized as geographic objects in that they effectively become the spatial background – the scenery – to the triumph of colonial humanism. This paradoxical space occupied by the colonized is one of subjugation, while simultaneously producing a sense of deep interiority wherein the colonized subject understands the nature of reality differently from the colonizer (on “paradoxical space”, see Rose 1993). This paradoxical space, for Fanon, is a space of cognitive emergence wherein the colonized reassess reality and form new ways of imagining the self which has been thrown into question by the many-faceted infrastructures of racial violence. This is where Fanon’s new humanism emerges from and where it bears its radical distinction from colonial humanism which imagines otherness as a backdrop for its own subjectivity. Put succinctly, the condition of colonialism produces an anti-colonial (new humanist) logic precisely because the colonized are nested within yet can see outside the infrastructures of imperialism. Liberation is achieved through both the spatial occupation of land (Coulthard 2014) and psychic spatialization of anti-colonial thought.


Frantz Fanon’s engagement with Manichean space emerges most explicitly in The Wretched of the Earth. He describes Manichean space, a geographic expression of colonialism, as a “world divided in two” (Fanon 2004:3). This twoness recognizes how racial segregation animates the production of space, with inferiority (Africanness) and superiority (Europeanness) being concretized through the spatialization of race and settler colonial logics. Fanon thus writes that the “colonist’s sector is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed-of leftovers … The colonist’s sector is a white folks’ sector, a sector of foreigners” (Fanon 2004:4). In contrast, he notes the colonized’s sector is “a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized’s sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light” (ibid.). Notable are the ways Fanon thinks through the political economies that underwrite different geographies, with health and well-being shaping standing in his observations. The impulse of Manicheanism, to rigidly demarcate space between the colonizers and colonized, ultimately allows settlers to move through spaces more easily and seeks to render the colonized immobile and infirm (or compartmentalized, in Fanon’s terms). Fanon’s ideas for liberation are grounded in geographic movement and dynamism (between rural and urban spaces, across a world that is otherwise cut in two, through willful spatial disorganization). The dialectic within and between spaces undermines Manichean space (see also Gibson 2003). This is explored at length in A Dying Colonialism when Fanon draws attention to how the spaces of the city – both European and Arab – are masculine and how this gendered division, which underpins a world cut in two, is totally thwarted by the Algerian woman. She moves her body in a way that “distorts … [her] corporal pattern” (Fanon 1965:59) in order to pass as a European woman or, alternatively, uses her veil (and thus femininity and assumed passivity) to move across space. In doing so, the Algerian woman can move money, bombs, and weapons through the European city thus taking on a fundamental role in the revolution. The dynamic conceptualization of space can be theorized, too, as a methodology of disorganization – that is, a sense of place that undermines Manicheanism, compartmentalization, and segregation.


The oppressor, ensconced in his sector, creates the spiral, the spiral of domination, exploitation and looting. In the other sector, the colonized subject lies coiled and robbed, and fuels as best he can the spiral which moves seamlessly from the shores of the colony to the palaces and docks of the metropolis … while more dead than alive the colonized subject crouches for ever in the same old dream. (Fanon 2004:14)

While Fanon’s work uses metaphor effectively in a variety of contexts, his use of the “spiral” in the quotation above is especially revealing. We might read the spiral in this passage as a practice of mapping. The description of the movement between “the colony” and “the metropolis” references the material geographies of imperialism and different forms of extraction. The spiral in this instance indicates the degree to which extraction is a nonlinear process, joining together disparate geographies in the service of colonial profit. In the second half of the quotation, however, the spiral is also described as movement that results in the entrapment of the colonized person. Impacted by the “spiral of domination”, the colonized person is trapped in “the other sector” in which he lives in a dreamlike state between death and life. Noting that Fanon is a psychiatrist, we are reminded of the affective associations with the motion of “spiraling”, often a metaphor for someone approaching emotional or psychic collapse. The repetitive, tightening circles contained within the spiral produce a space in which movement becomes more and more limited the deeper one ventures toward the centre. The colonized in this metaphor “fuels” the spiral, while also remaining in a dreamlike state. The significance of the dream is taken up again shortly, as Fanon writes:

[T]he dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing … (Fanon 2004:15)

Here we are confronted once again with the dream, in conjunction with a sense of movement. Yet in this instance, instead of the entrapment of the spiral, the colonized person “coiled” or “crouched”, the sense of direction is entirely changed, orienting us towards a sense of vitality and energy. This movement, if mapped spatially, might look more like a frantic scramble, a jolt of aliveness. The metaphor of the spiral, as well as the potentialities of dreams, illustrates how colonial geographies limit movement and, simultaneously, generate anti-colonial or subversive movements which are not always linear or easily understood. The spiral, unlike the straight line between colony and metropolis, might elicit a sense of interconnectedness that the colonized subject is both trapped by and complicit with. The dream serves as a reminder of an unconstrained, decolonized, future in which the grasps of colonialism no longer limit movement or imagination.


In A Dying Colonialism, the mutability of radio in Algeria has significant spatial implications, both for the colonizers and the colonized. Fanon details the transformation of the radio as it shifts from a tool of colonial oppression to a technology of anti-colonial resistance. Prior to 1954, the main broadcaster in Algeria was Radio-Alger which produced content that Fanon (1965:74) described as “Frenchmen speaking to Frenchmen”. During this time in Algeria, radios were disproportionately owned by Europeans. Listening to the radio as a European in Algeria fostered a sense of colonial intimacy that connected one to the colonial metropole no matter where they were situated (see also Anderson 1983; Baucom 2001). This was especially significant for settlers occupying rural spaces where they found themselves distanced from colonial culture and power, and instead, entrenched in spaces dominated by the colonized. In these rural spaces, colonial anxieties over the “inert, passive, and sterilizing pressure of the ‘native’ environment” (Fanon 1965:71) were most acute. In tuning into Radio-Alger, settlers could hear the music and news directly from Paris which helped to quell these anxieties while reifying (albeit tenuously) the superiority of French culture. Radio-Alger also conferred “the feeling that colonial society is a living and palpitating reality” (ibid.). From 1954 to 1956, Algerians began acquiring both radio sets and battery-operated receivers. The penultimate shift in radio occurred when The Voice of Fighting Algeria began broadcasting at the end of 1956. Whereas once Algerians found themselves “confined in space” (Fanon 1965:79), the widespread adoption of the radio by Algerians signaled a geographic opening. The Voice simultaneously speaks “from the djebels”, which is to say that it echoes from the rurality of the mountains, while also being “not geographically limited” (Fanon 1965:82). The permeability of The Voice enables Algerians to participate in a Revolution they might otherwise be distant from. The power of the radio to transform spaces into sites of liberatory struggle is reflective of “the doubling of place” (Scannell 1996:76). Radio listeners simultaneously occupy two places: the place of the event and the place in which they find themselves listening to the event. For Algerians, occupying this doubleness facilitates a closer relationship to the Revolution.

Fanon conjures the scene of a room full of Algerians gathered around the radio with one person’s ear glued to the receiver while simultaneously transmitting the broadcast of The Voice to the rest of the room. As the radio reverberates so too do debates about the accuracy of information being relayed. The fragmented, fuzzy quality of the radio fosters “an autonomous creation of information” (1965:86). This demonstrates Fanon’s point that listeners of The Voice are not passive recipients of information, but rather, agentive in their experiences of shepherding “the first words of the nation” (1965:93). In response to the broadcasting of The Voice and to the revolutionary use of the radio by the National Liberation Front (FLN), the French colonial government jammed The Voice in an attempt to render it obsolete. Adversely, the jamming emboldens the listeners because it forces them to “figure out the tactics of the enemy” (1965:85), and work to locate the always elusive frequency of The Voice anew. This in turn makes the Revolution more assiduous in its tactics. The capaciousness of the radio is what initially allowed the radio to be wielded as an anti-colonial technique (see also Mahtani 2009). Appreciating the anti-colonial geographies of Fanon demands a serious consideration of how the dissemination of information in struggles for decolonization and liberation through sound, visuals, and text has spatial implications. As sounded by The Voice of Fighting Algeria, the liberation struggle is polyvocal spanning time and space in profoundly diasporic ways.


Fanon’s discussions of the body, embodiment, and other corporeal matters are underwritten by a dialectical narrative that demonstrates how black existence does not totally rely on seeking reciprocity from the European Other. To work this out, Fanon addresses how the anti-colonial struggle stakes its immediacy in the colonial context; the themes that emerge out of the colonial context enunciate a corporeal geography that establishes the black man as geographic and thus an agentive subject who not only inhabits but produces the world around him. It is the colonial structure that inflicts upon the colonized subject psychoneurosis and alienation. Fanon’s insights show how the black corporeal form is effaced through practices of geographic marginalization; the body is objectified, and the black experience is negated. The encounter on the train, the “look” from the white child within the geographic context of colonial transport, is exemplary once again. Fanon upends effacement by detailing how objectification and negation are not ways of being but are, instead, narratives that generate psychic and emotional responses to blackness in place (this is black embodiment, how we navigate and thus humanize the world). Put differently, revealing the entanglement of blackness and geography, Fanon highlights how colonialism inscribes inferiority on the colonized subject by pairing enclosure-segregation with objectification while also drawing attention to how the tense muscles (“muscular tonus”) of the colonized establish an insurrectionary desire that not only marks the racial difference but confirms resistance. As the neurological and physiological effects of colonialism compromise the colonized political consciousness and sabotages their wellbeing, the colonized must find ways to humanize and nurture their consciousness under conditions of unfreedom. The “muscular tonus” is harnessed under intense geographic, emotional and psychic constraint that is tethered to the promise of an emancipatory society. Fanon observes an embodied readiness for anti-colonial struggle when it becomes clear that the bodily sensations galvanize and mobilize in the colonized subject a combat spirit (Fanon 1965:65). This experience of encountering oneself through enclosure and objectification instantiates what Fanon refers to as “a genuine dialectic between my body and the world” (Fanon 2008:91). For Fanon the experience of alienation generates a “dialectical narrative” (see also Sekyi-Otu 1996) that provides the conditions for possibility for the anti-colonial struggle.

Peace and Calm

Fanon’s attention to embodied knowledge and the struggle against what he describes as “suffocating reification” (Fanon 2008:89) results in an exploration of how racism defines black life and how black livingness – what black people know and how black people inhabit the world – exceeds the terms of white supremacy. In his writings, he captures the brutalities and subtleties and violence of oppression without describing black people as passive repositories of racist thought. Put differently, he guides us through the ways racial violence is enacted – and this is a terribly painful story that black people continue to live through and struggle against – without attributing abjectness to black humanity. Fanon offers an indictment of racism without victimizing black humanity and this is tied to the production of space and geography (time, encounter, interiority, twoness, spiral, technique, effacement, and more) and liberation (our commitment to what he describes as “new humanism”).

Fanon’s geographies cannot be theorized as enclosed or contained. His writings can be shared and discussed and practiced collaboratively and this kind of capaciousness lends to an interdisciplined and open sense of place. Fanon is not a disciplined scholar; he explodes disciplinary thinking. This kind of generosity, the explosions, sustain his relevance. Simone Browne’s book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), poignantly demonstrates this; she studies Fanon’s critiques of closed-circuit television, his insights on the embodied and psychic effect of surveillance, the politics of governmental redaction, and his cautions about labour, automation, and colonial time. Taking a different path, Glen Coulthard ties Fanon’s work to contemporary indigenous resurgences in his book Red Skin, White Masks (2014). Fanon remains relevant, most importantly, because he is committed to revolution! The Wretched of the Earth maps out several ways to both theorize and practice liberation. In addition to critiquing the violence of colonialism and white supremacy, much of the book tracks how decolonization and disenfranchisement movements can twin elite political models that thrive on nationalism; some decolonial projects, in fact, harm vulnerable communities. Fanon refuses this! He knows co-optation (the redefining of freedom as individualism and therefore dispossession) is in the shadows of rebellion. These shadows are exposed, and liberation is theorized as careful invention that is connected to reimagining spatial relations as creative solidarity building that both engenders and shares political consciousness and activity (Fanon 2004:133, 163, 167). His work is not simply about rebelling against the powerful, it is about establishing collaborative care networks that foster collective well-being. His psychiatric study of mental disorders is especially relevant here and should not be delinked from his other insights; it is stunning for the ways he deeply focuses on repairing and tending to the psychic and embodied and bodily injuries of war, violence, and revolution. These injuries and the struggle against racism are what black people continue to live with and through, and Fanon, while imperfect, shows us how to critique and carefully pull apart systems of power while tending to the intimacies of violence and grief. Fanon’s geographies and insights are, then, are lessons in anti-colonial (and anti-carceral) care: imagining and producing worlds of openness that are committed to “peace and calm” (Fanon:2004 216).


[1] While not everyone noted above is directly cited in this piece, their work informed our conversations (see Baucom 2001; Browne 2015; Césaire 2000; Coulthard 2014; Cresswell 2013; Fanon 1965, 2004, 2008; Gibson 2003; Gilmore 2002, 2007; Goonewardena and Kipfer 2006; Gordon 1995; Hall 1990; Julien 1996; Lowe 2015; Mahtani 2009; Massey 1994; Pile 1996; Rose 1993; Sekyi-Otu 1996; Sharpley-Whiting 1998; Wilson 2002; Woods 2002; Wynter 2003).


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