‘The power of art can never be underestimated’ – Amit Sengupta in conversation with Anjali Prabhu

Anjali Prabhu is Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Wellesley College. She was the director of the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley from 2015 to 2018. She is a member of the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association, where she has served in numerous elected and nominated capacities, most recently on the Editorial Board of PMLA. In 2007, she published Hybridity: Limits, Transformations, Prospects (SUNY) and in 2014, Contemporary Cinema of Africa and the Diaspora (Wiley Blackwell). Her current book project, for which she was awarded a fellowship at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, is on the Mysore kingdom of Tipu Sultan in 18thCentury India. Her work has been published by journals such as Diacritics, French Forum, Cinema Journal, PMLA, Research in African Literatures, Levinas Studies, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, International Journal of French and Francophone Studies, Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry.

She speaks with journalist Amit Sengupta for The Polis Project.

You often refer to Frantz Fanon in your lectures as a liberating writer of his times whose relevance extends beyond infinity in both Social Sciences and Literature. Tell us the significance of Frantz Fanon and why you value his work so much.

Yes, I do tend to come back to Fanon often in my teaching and in my research. In the U.S., outside the academy, Fanon has been most dominantly associated with the Black Panthers: his influence on Huey Newton and Bobby Seale is well known. Guerilla-type liberators throughout the world, often influenced by Mao Zedong, have also embraced Fanon. As a result, he tends to be quickly dismissed by some theorists and thinkers, often those who cite Hannah Arendt, as being all about violence, and he is accused of condoning its extensive use. But, as his one-time teacher, Aimé Césaire, who outlived Fanon by many years, wrote in Fanon’s obituary: Fanon’s violence was “non-violent,” and “[h]is revolt was ethical, his approach one of generosity.” Fanon’s acute, phenomenological understanding of the forms and the experience of racism, his analyses of colonialism and its aftermath, his critique of nationalism and his ability to refrain from romanticizing the heady independence movements that were gathering (and many of which were in part a result of the influence of his own thinking), are unsurpassed.

I am drawn especially to the way Fanon inserted himself into history — embracing everything around him and his circumstances while employing what seems like the most perfect ethics that were emotionally coherent and potentially healing — so that he became historical himself.I never tire of the simplicity and clarity of his ideas, which are couched in a range of tones and textures of language. He is, for me, forever the poet of ideas speaking in the language of the lover while he is a revolutionary actor whose stage is the reality of the oppressed. I suppose what I admire so much in Fanon remains his ability to embody his thought, to act his theory, and, above all, to inhabit his body and space in the most historically conscious and conscientious manner. His 1956 resignation from the post of director of the psychiatric division of the Blida-Joinville hospital in Algeria illustrates just that! As a psychiatrist and a servant of the French government, Fanon felt he could no longer purport to be part of the hospital, which was a mechanism to address alienation, while it operated within a larger system of colonialism that perpetuated the worst forms of alienation in extremely violent ways (including torture). Therefore, his decision was to quit in order to end the intractable contradiction of his position, which entailed addressing the alienation of those for whom he cared in order to return them to the most dehumanizing society that colonialism had made of Algeria. This decision was accompanied by what, to him, was the logical move to become part of the Algerian struggle and thus to become Algerian himself. Fanon presented that logic without pretension to self-sacrifice; rather, he saw it as the necessary outcome of his particular experience of, and role in, the colonial situation where he ultimately worked for the French state. I haven’t come across a more striking instantiation of the Sartrean notion of existence preceding essence than what we see in Fanon – and it is lived with a boldness and clarity of style and inserted in every sentence he wrote (or dictated). In Fanon, we have, arguably, the most mature, historically attuned intellectual, well before he was aware of his impending death. Sartre wrote that after Engels, “Fanon is the first to bring historical processes to the clear light of day.” I am drawn especially to the way Fanon inserted himself into history — embracing everything around him and his circumstances while employing what seems like the most perfect ethics that were emotionally coherent and potentially healing — so that he became historical himself.

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You have been teaching Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and reinterpreting him in the contemporary context and you have introduced his Black Skin, White Masks at Ashoka University in India. This is almost a forgotten book when compared to his more famous first book. Tell us about the importance of Black Skin, White Masks.

I like Black Skin, White Masks for a lot of reasons. But let me tell you why I like reading it with undergraduates. I read it as much (or even more) for form as for content. The well-known chapter 5, “The Fact of Blackness” – or “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” depending on which translation is used – is the one I love to re-read with undergraduates as often as I can. I never tire of it and I never tire of discovering it with them. I am always amazed at how it can still speak to such a variety of student readers and how much we learn about methods of reading and about rhetoric just by following its argument. In this essay (because it really can stand alone), Fanon catches our attention by opening it with the dramatic moment of a black man being singled out in a white culture (“Look! A negro!”): the entire essay dissects that moment of being radically and conspicuously “other” and unpacks that feeling (the literal feeling “in his black skin”), which affects one’s being and one’s possibility. Using direct address, irony, and metaphor, the narrator walks the reader through what blackness has felt like as it has been constructed through the history of colonialism and how the black (man) has responded. At the same time, the narrator of the text strains against the idea of needing to be a response rather than, in the somewhat romantic terms he suggests, a poet at the source of the world. It is often difficult to get students to understand that stark difference as it is structured in the tight hierarchical situation of colonialism, because they have a much-altered view of difference that moves quickly towards multiplicity. This essay is able to get students to think more critically and historically about that multiplicity while they also get a visceral sense of the despair (and, though seemingly contradictory, resolute hope) with which Fanon’s text resonates. Students also get a chance to critique the overt masculinity of Fanon’s discourse in Black Skin, White Masks and to think about this issue in the broader context of independence movements.

Through this text, I also get student writers, especially aspiring writers in the professional or vocational sense, to understand the versatility of quotation, effective paraphrasing, the importance of tone, the ability to convey vast reams of history meaningfully, the different ways in which “I” and “we” are constructed within a text and what that means for movements and their spokespersons or leaders, the narrator as distinct from the author… all core ideas without which students cannot read, let alone write with efficacy, no matter what their chosen fields. I am struck each time by how beautifully this chapter accomplishes its ends.

In terms of Fanon’s relationship with Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (two French philosophers of “existentialism” despite themselves, and with whom the book remains in constant dialogue), Black Skin White Masks exposes the importance of articulating historically, existence and experience through black perspective, particularly through and beyond colonialism. The newly discovered and published work by Fanon is yet to make its mark in the way these two texts have done alongside the collection of essays on the Algerian revolution. The impact of Fanon’s work on psychiatry is perhaps less evident, and further study of these writings no doubt deeply indebted to his experiences with François Tosquelles, would show how Fanon was far ahead of his time in his experiments at “inclusion,” rather than using methods of excluding and secluding those confronting acute problems that play out at the level of self.

In the famous foreword written by Jean Paul Sartre for The Wretched of the Earth he says that there will come a time when black people will sit around a fire and resurrect their own oral and folk traditions and their own original histories, which have been buried brutally by white colonialism and organized slavery. What are your thoughts about Sartre and his relationship with Fanon’s liberating instinct?

Sartre reminds the reader in his preface to Wretched of the Earth of what he had already said in his 1948 preface to the anthology of black poets (now often read as a separate essay “Black Orpheus”): that there is a conversation amongst black people that does not concern whites and to which Europeans are irrelevant. Yet, writes Sartre, it is a conversation that whites must heed. In presenting Wretched, Sartre writes that “[t]his book has not the slightest need of a preface,” but that he writes one to record the process of decolonization that concerns Europeans: “the settler that is in every one of us is being savagely rooted out.” Sartre places the burden of a collective responsibility on Europe and suggests that there is no neutral position: anything short of embracing the path the colonized peoples have taken to liberate themselves amounts to taking the place of the oppressor. Despite the many criticisms of Sartre – save perhaps that of his 1967 capitulation to pressure before taking a decision on Palestine – we remain grateful for his thought, which was crucial to Fanon’s idea that when thinking about violence in the context of colonialism, such theorizing should never be severed from the goal of freedom. Sartre himself had had both the courage and the humility to take Fanon’s ideas on liberation and understand that “freedom,” as he had painstakingly described and explicated it through what we know as “existentialism,” was in some sense obsolete when thought “from Europe.” This is because certain premises in existentialist thought did not hold good beyond a particular white, European subjectivity as Fanon illustrated dramatically. However, what manifested as Sartre’s pro-Zionist position constituted a contradiction with his deep understanding and appreciation of Fanon’s work.

Fanon’s widow, Josie Fanon, who would take her own life in 1989, was instrumental in the removal of that preface.

Is there a synthesis between literature and social sciences? For instance, how do you relate Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s creative and subversive literature with their critique of society and politics? How do you link theory and praxis in literature?

This is a very big question and a very basic question, although I’m not so sure that research in the social sciences always links so seamlessly or even accurately to life (or “society and politics”). Regarding literature and the arts, though, that there is a link and in fact that the link is the very thing that makes literature a living thing, I know; and anybody who thinks about why s/he loves literature knows this. I don’t believe that it should be a straightforward job to describe or discover such a link or pertinence (I dare say “usefulness” in the sense of literature being something that helps us understand ourselves or others and our relationship to the universe or helping us to create for ourselves a meaningfulness in life – or precisely the lack of meaningfulness as described by religion or nation, if that is one’s proclivity). Indeed, the more intriguing or complex the link between literature and the world, the more interesting literature arguably becomes and the better it “works” in refining one’s ethics or approach to the world through a confrontation staged through art. Although reading like an amateur has many merits, and this might make the job of the critic or the teacher irrelevant, every culture needs the creation and flourishing of the arts in order to access alternative ways of thinking and even of understanding beyond strict rationality. Every culture depends on the exploration of creative acts of mind and body that can then open up paths to new ways of being. Moreover, we need these as much in informal, amateur, private spheres as we do in the realm of education and in public conversation so those steeped in these ways of thinking can influence and even forge a public culture undergirded by these insights gleaned through a closeness with art.

We are losing that sense of the oblique connection, of the surreptitious link, of the unconscious understanding, of the play of form – beyond the very contrived or overt allegory or the use of magical realism, for instance —  as we look to instrumentalize literature, film, or other art to produce a one to one correspondence with reality when read within some closed forms of ethnic studies or postcolonial studies, for example. Literature and art become especially vulnerable to such a demand for a representative function within certain “global” conceptions of literature (and the world) in which there are more simplistic measures within the criticism to highlight local versus universal elements in the art, even when the universal has been thoroughly critiqued in its European and colonial form. On the other hand, criticism as a fluid map to experience art or literature, as an attempt to historicize a work and ourselves as its audience or particular reader, as an exercise in thinking of the timelessness of certain ideas and the timeliness of others, as a space for the contemplation and even the creation of art that is linked to the revelation of something about life or oneself… is essential in the making of “cultured” adults – “cultured” in this sense would mean to have a sense of one’s place and one’s role in a culture and of the latter’s intersections and limits. Those who are able to absorb the experience of art as they experience the world and who can allow these experiences to inform one another are poised to open up a broad spectrum of creatively conceived possibilities at every level of society whether they happen to inhabit a world of science or politics or if they will pursue an artistic vocation or become critics themselves.

The power of art can never be underestimated: Turkish authorities knew what they were doing when they banned the pro-Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtas’ poem “Contagious Courage” even though he was already in jail.Perhaps the coming together of activism and literary (and intellectual) creativity is a thing of the past in the way you describe the work and influence of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I think the place of the public intellectual in French culture is quite particular, quite special, taking us inevitably to the Philosophers and their implication in the Revolution of the 18th century. Prominent writers in France have always taken very public stands on events of their time: Voltaire, Diderot, Germaine de Staël, Zola, Sartre (of course), Camus, and certainly Simone de Beauvoir and Assia Djebar, the Algerian novelist, activist, filmmaker and academic. But there are contemporary writers who have those aspirations and draw from this and other traditions. There are young rappers, bloggers, and even Instagram artists, who feel the pull to be actors in the world and have found ways to do so through art. The power of art can never be underestimated: Turkish authorities knew what they were doing when they banned the pro-Kurdish leader, Selahattin Demirtas’ poem “Contagious Courage” even though he was already in jail.

What is your view of Indian democracy in contemporary times? Do you think it will recover from this era of fascism? Can arts and literature help intellectual and political resistance?

Indian democracy has become invisible when viewed from the outside.Indian democracy has become invisible when viewed from the outside. When the measures of what democracy is supposed to mean are looked for, the way decisions for the country are made, the way different groups come to a common understanding of how to proceed on any given topic that concerns any or all, when the instruments of democracy are looked for… it is becoming harder and harder to call India a democracy. At the same time, it is hard to argue that this is the result of some kind of coup because there is wide and vocal support for this erasure of democracy as we have known it, and which in India has historically been linked to plurality even though its inherent elitism is also what comes to the fore in this questioning of democracy today. But Indian democracy (or any democracy) will not die so easily precisely because it was far from complete and in India’s case it is terribly imperfect even while it was assumed by many to be flourishing. So, democracy, as a form of self-government, is alive in many youths, in women, in “lower castes,” in the urban poor, in farming communities, in traditionally organized communities from borderlands, and in all those who are disenfranchised, who had always been disenfranchised by the idea and reality of Indian democracy.

So, democracy, as a form of self-government, is alive in many youths, in women, in “lower castes,” in the urban poor, in farming communities, in traditionally organized communities from borderlands, and in all those who are disenfranchised, who had always been disenfranchised by the idea and reality of Indian democracy. Democracy might also be alive, if less consequentially in the larger scheme of things but importantly because they would still have vestiges of power or at least influence, in those who are recently put aside or made irrelevant by the new government. Democracy is created and comes alive from a consciousness of what freedom is for some and not for others, a desire for that freedom in those who do not have it. Perhaps, in its best form, democracy resides in the collective and unified desire (by those currently privileged as much as those not privileged) to undo what allows some comforts and puts others in suffering, allows some to flourish at the cost of the retrenching of others, makes some royals because there are other beggars. The question ultimately becomes: is there an alternative world to that inherited from colonialism? Can we get beyond the basic tenets of capitalism, namely exploitation of labor to generate profits which are unequally shared and which set labor back the more it produces, because the more it produces the less it can participate in the enjoyment of its fruits? It is not likely we will get there through revising capitalism or through even its critique. In other terms, we cannot get there without undoing the basic framework for understanding “freedom” (free market, free labor, and thus human freedom) which is linked to the uncontrolled freedom to own property (and other forms of capital) and to act in self-interest and with the dogmatic notion of “choice,” rather than that of the greater good.

These ideas of freedom are intimately connected to Western notions of democracy, which marched on together with capitalism and, if we are to believe Iverson and Soskice, the two are entirely compatible. It thus follows that at least the former Third World has greater reason to rethink the idea of democracy itself through its own history of insertion into the “global” world its peoples and newly-formed nations were eager to enter. Art and literature are essential to such rethinking for they conceive of the world (or can conceive of it) in radically other terms and put us in touch with a completely different image of what the world could look like. They also humanize suffering and bring it close to one’s own humanness, one’s breath, one’s structure of thought and one’s physical existence so they enliven contradictions intellectually and emotionally and thus prime society for change.

Every artistic act that is not disconnected from reality (and, is any human creation separate from reality?) can itself be resistance because it apprehends that reality, it embraces that reality, it argues with itself (and with those who “enjoy” it) for or against that reality or it presents that reality without argument, but in a way that draws you in or forces you to account for it to your own self or in your larger life if you are a sentient human being. Whether it makes you indignant, fearful or proud, art essentially inflames the imagination and one’s thinking (and we have intricate theories of how this occurs in the Natyashastra). Most of all, art allows you to confront and hone your ethical and instinctual selves in a variety of contrived situations – and in this sense it need not seem close to “reality.” In the public sphere art, especially art that is abstract or non-narrative, brings experiences of collectivity that are outside those of politics or social conflicts, but which somehow obliquely and often unexpectedly connect us to them. Songs, art, literature, theater… in times of revolution, they can have more immediate ways of bringing people together, to breathe together, move together, and survive together. Art itself obviously cannot solve problems and it does not purport to except in its own practice which is often a solution to madness, dismay, suffering or alienation. Art needs those who can read it, those who can practice it, those who can bring it to everyone, and for its longevity, it especially needs a population of educated youth who can be inspired by the form and content of art, not necessarily to become artists themselves, but to be creative (“artists” in this sense) and sensitive actors in their social and political lives as citizens and members, leaders and visionaries. That is the power of art/literature, and it is most powerful (and most needed) far away from its academic or literary circles, from festivals and prizes, dissertations and journals, and yet it is all of this apparatus that also assures its continuation and indeed validates and to some extent enables the amateur. Those robust forms and structures extend art to the everyday lives of scientists, to business milieus and politics and the law, where, say, a literary or artistic notion of coherence, clean execution, elegance or style, metaphor or comparison is not an empty cipher, but could come into play in ethically intelligent action; where a visceral sensation or memory of it might translate into an alternative worldview for decision making; or where a deeply felt sympathy could result in a radical program for privileging marginalized sections and so forth. These types of resistance are long lasting and can bring more substantial change, but for that we need a massive shift in the orientation of our education and a realignment of the place of literature and the arts in it and thereby in our societies. I am optimistic that highly technologized or technology-driven, overly scientifically ambitious, and increasingly computer-literate spaces, organizations, and communities that actually rely on these other creative skills as much as specialized knowledge for advancement will (and do already) experience an irreparable lack when art and literature pay the price for such advancement rather than being an integral part of the energy from which it draws. The upside of this is that it will inevitably (eventually) bring about a rebuilding from the ground up to reconstruct what is lost and perhaps open up the opportunity to discover new possibilities for these essential parts of human “development.” We are seeing signs of it outside the Western academy whether it be in the art associated with Occupy Wall Street, the writer Edouard Louis’ literary pamphlets in support of the gilets jaunes, or the many artists who incorporate environmental dangers into art or who use art to warn us about them (for example, Andreco’s Climate Art Project in New Delhi or Nut Brother’s use of Beijing dust and pollution in his creations). But a more complete return to valorize art and literature through hitherto unthought-of mechanisms in our societies globally, I do not know if it would come in our lifetime; however, I know many of us are working to enable the process regardless of when its time does come – again.

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