Présence Africaine & Frantz Fanon: an Exploration of a Postcolonial
Dialogue on National Culture
In this essay, I explore a dialogue on national culture between the de- and post-colonial voices of Martiniquais intellectual Frantz Fanon, Moroccan literary journal Souffles-Anfâs and Paris-based cultural journal Présence Africaine. The question ‘How to define oneself after others have denied one the autonomy to do so for years?’, stands at the heart of this dialogue. In intersecting and contrasting the answers of Fanon, Présence Africaine andSouffles-Anfâs, I provide an analysis of the latter’s demise. Those who have studied Souffles-Anfâs, have elucidated its demise as caused by the journal’s increasingly militant Marxist vision, posing a threat to the regime of Moroccan king Hassan II. I aim to go beyond this explanation. More specifically, I argue that Souffles-Anfâs did not only function as a mouthpiece of the Moroccan left, but also called for another relationship with the West, distinct from what the former metropole had envisioned. That is, the magazine’s groundbreaking voice did not only pose a threat to the regime of Hassan II, but also to the former colonizer.
“It had been very keenly felt that it was now necessary for black men to make the effort to define themselves au lieu d'être toujours défini par les autres” [“instead of always being defined by others” (own translation)], were the words James Baldwin chose in his commentary on the First Conference of Black Writers and Artists in 1956 (Baldwin, 1985, p. 62). The context: a decolonizing world, with newly independent states seeking to (re-)define themselves. At the heart of this search remains the question: how to define oneself after others have denied one the autonomy to do so for years? This is a question Moroccan journal Souffles, Paris-based journal Présence Africaine and Martiniquais intellectual Frantz Fanon tried to find an answer to. The words produced by these post-colonial voices appear to enter in dialogue on (re-)establishing national identity. Souffles and Présence Africaine are placed in the same tradition of literary and cultural journals that fuelled the spirit of the decolonial and postcolonial era (Harrison & Villa-Ignacio, 2016, p. 9; Maraini, 2010, p. 1). In search of an answer to the question of how to (re-)define oneself in a postcolonial condition, both journals seem to depart from Fanon in an understanding of identity as necessarily intertwined with culture (Fanon, 1961, p. 154). This essay will explore the dialogue as presented by Fanon, Souffles, and Présence Africaine. First, the following paragraph will provide a brief biographical overview of the three objects of study.
Fanon was born on the island of Martinique, on July 20th, 1925, and came to be known as a ‘revolutionary intellectual’ (Hansen, 1974, p. 25). Fanon was and remains to be highly influential in the fields of post-colonial theory, Marxism and critical theory. Just after Fanon passed away in 1961 due to leukemia, his work The Wretched of the Earth was published (Hansen, 1974, p. 34-42). As an analysis of the cultural, economic and psychological violence inflicted by the colonizer on the colonized and the meanings and trajectories of decolonization (Bhabha, 1961, p. xiii-xxviii), this work will serve as a referential framework for the essay at hand.
The year the young Fanon went to France for his higher education, 1947, was also the year in which Paris-based Présence Africaine was first published. The journal was founded by Senegalese, French-educated Alioune Diop, who was supported by prestigious French intellectuals, among whom Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Georges Balandier (Diop, 1992, p. xiv; Mudimbe, 1992, p. xvii). Présence Africaine was both a publication network and an intellectual movement. Diop’s journal was a project that questioned Western imperial ambitions and aimed to embody the voice of a silenced Africa (Mudimbe, 1992, p. xvii, xviii). Diop passed away in 1987, but up until this day his Présence Africaineremains to be a present voice (“La Maison d’édition”, 2019).
Both Frantz Fanon and Présence Africaine served as influential references for Moroccan magazine Souffles(El Amrani, 2018). The latter’s first issue appeared in 1966. In order to understand the impact of Souffles, it is necessary to consider the context of its establishment. Despite the fact that the first issue was published 10 years after Morocco gained independence, the far-reaching consequences of colonial violence were prominent. This was, among others, highly visible in the realm of culture (Maraini, 2010, p. 2; ʻAyyāsh, 1990)A Eurocentric vision still dominated the Moroccan cultural scene, which was largely defined by the Moroccan bourgeoisie (Maraini, 2010, p. 1). This group of population had largely either lost touch with its culture, or tried to get hold of it by gripping onto a nostalgic vision of the cultural past (Maraini, 2010, p. 2). A modernist void was left open: a vision for the new Morocco had not yet been proclaimed or debated. A group of young Moroccan artists and poets stood up to fill this void; to steer away from a state bureaucracy- and bourgeoisie-led cultural imagination and creation. Among them was poet Abdellatif Laâbi, who established the magazine Souffles (Maraini, 2010, p. 2). Laâbi and his contributors committed themselves to combatting cultural colonization. The search for a national identity stood at Souffles’ heart;, and brought with it the dilemma of which language to employ. Until issue 10-11, the magazine was written in French and afterwards it turned into the French-Arabic bilingual magazine of Souffles-Anfâs (Maraini, 2010, p. 1).
The life-span of Souffles-Anfâs can be divided into two periods, the transition being marked by an ideological turn. From 1966-1969, the magazine was driven by the passion to create a new Moroccan and Maghrebi culture and identity; a project fostered by poets, writers and artists. From 1969-1972 the character of Souffles-Anfâs drastically changed and transformed into a Marxist-Leninist magazine (Maraini, 2010, p. 1). The literary section increasingly gave place for the political section, shifting the attention to colonial imperialism in the Arab world and to national politics (Maraini, 2010, p. 1, 4). Those who have studied the demise of Souffles-Anfâs claim this as the driver of its eventual disappearance. Their analysis is as follows: as “the Arabic-language mouthpiece of the Moroccan opposition” (Harrison & Villa Ignacio, 2016, p. 6), the increasingly militant Marxist vision of Souffles-Anfâs began to pose a threat to the regime of king Hassan II (Harrison & Villa-Ignacio, p. 6). In 1972, the magazine was violently suffocated by this regime:Souffles-Anfâs was banned and Laâbi arrested and tortured for his political opinions (Gibson Miller, 2013, p. 170; Harrison & Villa-Ignacio, 2016, p. 1; Stafford, 2019, p. 228). Exit Souffles-Anfâs.
However, is it that simple? At first sight, this analysis seems a statement of the facts, and thus credible. However, history is not a mere statement of facts. History is history-telling: it will always be inevitably told from a particular perspective. Studying history is the act of questioning, challenging, unlearning and reconsidering history as it has previously been told. Therefore, I will analyze the demise of Souffles-Anfâs beyond the Marxist ideas the magazine took on. Its revolutionary voice carried wider than that.
I will argue that Souffles-Anfas did not only function as a mouthpiece of the Moroccan left, but also called for another relationship with the West distinct from what the former metropole had envisioned. As such, the magazine’s groundbreaking voice did not only pose a threat to the regime of Hassan II, but also to the former colonizer. In order to build a case for this argument, it is necessary to comprehend the dialogue between Fanon, Présence Africaine and Souffles on national consciousness. The following sections will explore this dialogue.
Entering in Dialogue
Fanon on National Culture
‘National consciousness’ is a concept coined by Fanon in his work The Wretched of the Earth (1961, pp. 145-180). National consciousness, Fanon states, is the very expression of culture. Every culture is national at its roots (Fanon, 1961, p. 154). National culture, finally, is a collective thought process of a people that describes the actions that hold them together, and keeps their heads up high (Fanon, 1961, p. 168). It is the sum of the expression of a “nation, its preferences, its taboos and its models […] the outcome of tensions internal and external to society as a whole and its multiple layers (Fanon, 1961, p. 177). Under colonial rule, national culture is violently suppressed. It is in this context that the decolonized intellectuals must reconstruct their cultural identity.
The Colonized Intellectual
According to Fanon, the colonized intellectual passes three stages. Firstly, colonized intellectuals change bodies: they undo their own body and mind by employing the rhetoric and the ontology from the metropole, proving their assimilation with the former colonizer (Fanon, 1951, p. 159). The colonized intellectual aligns his work with the traditions brought forward by Europeans. Slowly but surely, the convictions in which the intellectual’s work were rooted, are shaken: the convictions are not his’. In trying to assimilate with western counterparts, colonized intellectuals have alienated themselves from their people; have become “outsiders”. In response, they resort to the past, trying to find their national culture in what once was (Fanon, 1951, p. 159). The intellectual then comes to realize that the past no longer reflects the reality of her people today (Fanon, 1951, p. 159). This brings him to the final stage: after integrating with her own people, he awakes and struggles with them through “combat literature” (Fanon, 1951, p. 159). The colonized intellectual realizes the conditions necessary to reconstruct African culture lie in the liberation of the continent, and in combating new forms of colonialism.
Culture and the Colonial Struggle
This process of the intellectual’s coming-to-consciousness gives rise to the following question: “what is the relationship between the struggle, the political or armed conflict, and culture?” (Fanon, 1961, p. 178). Fanon argued that the coming to consciousness, leading to an organized struggle in order to restore national sovereignty, is at its core a cultural manifestation (1961, p. 178). Similarly, national liberation is the condition to which the existence and proliferation of culture are bound (Fanon, 1961, p. 177). The intellectual arousing the struggle to decolonization does not only create new cultural manifestations; but will also create a new audience: a decolonized audience (Fanon, 1961, p. 178). Poetry has an important place in this process. Its task is as follows: poetry should challenge which is in place, yet be analytical and descriptive (Fanon, 1961, p. 167). A good poem should be both a political and an intellectual act, as it should present a new future and arouse hope for this presented future. The duty of the poet is to give substance to his hope; putting words into action by standing alongside his people (Fanon, 1961, p. 167).
Souffles: Arming the People with Culture
Souffles serves as a perfect example of Fanon’s “combatting literature”. The magazine creatively and critically employed language to organize and politicize the people (Villa-Ignacio, 2018, p. 20), “arming” them with culture (Villa-Ignacio, 2018, p. 20). The contributors of Souffles did so in a deeply Fanonian rhetoric: Laâbi noted that colonization does not only entail the exploitation of material and human activity, but also promotes cultural imperialism (2016, pp. 62-65). Political and cultural liberation, therefore, go hand in hand. However, Laâbi argued that Fanon’s theories cannot be applied to the Arab condition in the same way as to the African condition: a notion also touched upon in Fanon’s chapter On National Culture (Fanon, 1961, pp. 151-152; Laâbi, 2016, p. 65). In this essay, I choose to identify Moroccans as Arabs, as Souffles been placed in the tradition of Pan-Arabism and has mainly focused on issues concerning the Arab world (Harrison & Villa-Ignacio, 2016, p. 2, 6). Also Laâbi outspokenly identified the magazine with Moroccan-Arab culture (Harrison & Villa-Ignacio, 2016, p 6; Laâbi, 2016, p. 65). In making this choice, however, I do not mean to delegitimize Black and Berber consciousness in Morocco.
The Arab and Black-African Condition
Fanon claimed that nationalist feelings in the Arab world were present before colonization (1961, p. 152). Those feelings were maintained at a level standing in stark contrast with the Black-African world (Fanon, 1961, p. 152). The latter was unfamiliar with the intensity of nationalism as present in the Arab world. However, nationalism and national culture are not the same (Fanon, 1961, p. 179). The Arab cultural experience, Fanon argues, is Arab and not national. Thus, intellectuals of the Black-African world and the Arab world have crossed paths on the same scale of coming-to-consciousness: that of pitting a common culture against the West (Fanon, 1961, p. 152, 153). While recognizing the distinction between Black-Africans and Arabs can be blurry in Morocco (Hamel, 2014, p. 1-14), it is at this intersection Fanon, Souffles and Présence Africaine meet. Whereas Souffles seemed to trespass the racial scale, and move towards the national scale of coming-to-consciousness, Présence Africaine did not. At this intersection, both journals shared the question: what form is culture ought to take and how should a relationship to the West be shaped?
National Culture and the Western Intellectual
Souffles: Turning its Back to Europe
National culture is “a will, a necessity, and a condition of being”, Laâbi stated in Souffles’ sixth issue (Laâbi, 2016, p. 103). However, it is a condition that cannot be reached through the West and the Western intellectual. Both the West and decolonized countries must question and develop themselves through their own social, historical and cultural frames of reference (Laâbi, 2016, p. 99). Even though the first issue of Souffles invited “Maghrebi, African, European, and other writer friends” (Laâbi, 2016, p. 17) to contribute to the project, the magazine conveyed a clear message to the former metropole. It warned decolonized countries against allowing the Western elite to take the position they were yet too comfortable with: Souffles would not allow former colonizers to think for them (Laâbi, 2016, p. 100).
Laâbi provides an insight into the role of the “Third- World intellectual”, who continually undergoes a “ceremony of introductions” (Laâbi, 2016, p. 102). The European presenter, involuntarily entangled in a production-consumption circuit controlled by capital, entwines the “Third World intellectual” with Western needs and obsessions. As such, the intellectual’s work becomes morally and economically integrated into the European cultural circuit (Laâbi, 2016, p. 102). Laâbi called upon the “Third-World intellectual” to no longer accept this state of affairs (Laâbi, 2016, p. 102). Présence Africaine did not seem to heed this call.
Présence Africaine: “We All Need the West”
Présence Africaine adopted a fundamentally different stance on relations with the former metropole. The committee of patrons, consisting of French, white, male intellectuals that supported Diop and his journal, diametrically opposed Souffles’ project. Western civilization, however destructive, “[...] is the seat of the most powerful institutions to support democracy, justice, and love [...] we all need the West”, the journal proclaimed (Diop, 1992, p. xvi). Whereas Diop was a proponent of dialogue between the Black world and the West, Laâbi stated that one cannot engage in a dialogue on unequal terms (Laâbi, 2016, pp. 98-99).
Complicating this dialogue, Souffles, with the introduction of Anfâs, increasingly focussed on the national level, whereas Présence Africaine operated at a transnational level (Diop, 1992, xiv). What form then, does this dialogue take when intersected with Fanon’s legacy on national consciousness?
In the following paragraphs of this essay I propose that, on the basis of Fanon’s text on national consciousness, Souffles-Anfâs’ voice appears comparatively stronger than Présence Africaine’s.
Cultural Identity: the National and the Trans-NationalFanon claimed national consciousness as the highest form of culture. Therefore, he argued it would be a mistake to surpass the national stage in establishing a cultural identity (Fanon, 1961, p. 179). Since, Fanon continued, international consciousness arises and established itself at the very core of national consciousness (Fanon, 1961, p.180). Whereas Souffles-Anfâs operated in this framework of ideas, Présence Africaine seemingly made the mistake Fanon was trying to guard newly independent, decolonizing states from. Indeed, as was argued for in Souffles as well, Africa needed to stand up as a continent in order to liberate itself (Laâbi, 2016, p. 65). However, the free, sovereign, nation eventually forms the precondition for (re)defining national culture (Fanon, 1961, p. 177). In other words: to define a cultural identity, one must operate at the national level (Fanon, 1961, p. 177). The ‘African’ identity Présence Africaine aimed to establish could never be realized (Fanon, 1961, p. 169). Fanon wrote that whereas the Earth’s black populations share the painful, dehumanizing experience or memory of colonialism, this does not constitute a common culture (Fanon, 1961, p. 168-169). To this remark, Diop would have replied that cultures do not exist in isolation (Diop, 1992, p. xv). This is a valid point, and likewise a note with which Souffles’ contributors would have heartily agreed. This becomes clear in the debate concerning in which language to write in: a dilemma central to the issues of Souffles-Anfâs. Laâbi argued that language is an ever-changing hybrid material, subject to external transformations. Language, Laâbi continued, is the organ of any culture. The bilingual magazine acknowledged that cultures do not, as Diop argued passionately, stand in isolation (Diop, 1992, p. xv). However, acknowledging this does not have to mean one should engage in a project of interculturality in which all can participate—including the former colonizer. Such a dialogue of cultures, rooted in unequal power relations, Laâbi would argue, merely serves to disguise the continuation of mental and cultural colonization (Laâbi, 2016, p. 98).
Additionally, Présence Africaine can be said to have been engaging in a project of cultural affirmation (Jules-Rosette, 1992, p. 40). A main objective of the journal was to make African culture familiar to the world and to place African culture in the universal oeuvre (Diop, 1992, p. xiii). However, as Fanon has argued: the free nation provides the soil from which culture can grow (Fanon, 1961, p. 168). It is in this national fabric that a culture can open up to other cultures and can allow for permeation (Fanon, 1961, p. 177). According to Fanon, a common African or Black cultural identity does not exist and will not be brought into existence (Fanon, 1961, p. 169). ‘African culture’ then, has no real substance. The way in which Présence Africaine envisions ‘African culture’, would only exist as an affirmation of the universal - read: European controlled - oeuvre. Meanwhile, the journal’s efforts translate into a loss of valuable energy in trespassing the national stage.
The Cultural as the Political
Souffles-Anfâs chose a different path. As time progressed, the Moroccan Magazine began to direct its energy to the national level (Maraini, 2010, p. 4; “Souffles 22”, 1971, p. 240). Its revolutionary voice, consequently, grew increasingly stronger. By focusing on internal, national struggle and identity, it did not only pose a threat to the regime of Hassan II, but also to the Western imperialist cloud that remained to cast a shade over the African continent (Prashad, 2008, p. 144). Thus, analyzed through a Fanonian framework, Souffles’ groundbreaking voice was comparatively stronger. Nevertheless, it was Présence Africaine that survived. The explanation thereof can be found precisely in the analysis that its rhetoric was relatively weak in its devotion to an ideology of ‘cultures in dialogue’. The transnational approach of Présence Africaine overlooked the internal problems of Africa’s nations. Internally weak nations were conducive to European and -against the backdrop of the Cold War- increasingly US and the USSR imperialist interests. Under the umbrella of their respective ideologies, these nations could serve US and Soviet projects of power (Prashad, 2008, p. 113-114).
Those who have studied Souffles-Anfâs and its demise have failed to note that Souffles’ voice reached further than king Hassan II (who, for that matter, was a close ally to France and later the United States (Gibson-Miller, 2013, p. 165)): the journal moreover threatened the social order the former metropole tried to hold in place. As Souffles increasingly focused and brought under attention internal political, economic, and cultural problems, while excluding western intellectuals from this discussion, it carried with it the potential of combatting dependency on the Global North and its efforts of globalization (Prashad, 2008, 276-277).
Additionally, analyses of the repression ofSouffles-Anfâs, present the argument that replacing the cultural with the political is what has led to the journal’s demise. However, it has been overlooked that the cultural is the political, and the political the cultural: they are mutually constitutive (Laâbi, 2016, p. 64). That is, it is in the struggle of liberation and decolonization the call for reclaiming culture is placed at its core; the reclaimed culture, in turn, fuels and amplifying the political call (Fanon, 1961, p. 177-178). The demise of Souffles-Anfâs was not sudden. Instead, throughout the issues, the magazine had reclaimed culture through a process of coming-to-consciousness on the national scale (Laâbi, 2016, p. 65), accumulating transformative power by the issue.
Undoing the Language, Forming the WordHow to define oneself after others have denied one the autonomy to do so for years? Not by in engaging in dialogue with other cultures; especially not with those who have denied you the autonomy to do so, Fanon would have answered. By undoing their language, and forming the word (Laâbi, 2016, p. 26), Souffles would have added. It is in nurturing the soil of the national, that culture can grow - and thus identity can form, Fanon and Souffles would have agreed.
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