Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective
In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be said that I have not read John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon; so, it will be assumed throughout this essay that what the NPR book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan, has to say about it is accurate for the basis of an analysis of cultural production. From a standpoint that “text is a social space,” this is not altogether inappropriate as one of Roland Barthes’ main contentions is that there is no absolute and empirical meaning behind a text — in contrast to the liberal humanist point of view held up through the 1950s (and continuing today in some corners). In the traditional view, it was believed that a work of literature had only one inherent meaning, one appropriate way to examine and interpret the work. Barthes, on the other hand, promoted the idea that the work itself, its form and its function, is at least as important and valuable of a subject of examination as the text — if not more so.
Placing the importance of cultural examination on the form of the production is a concept which had the foundations laid by Walther Benjamin, who examined the way in which mass production of art changed the very nature of art, which in turn revealed much of what has developed in culture: “It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced” (emphasis in original) (62). This detachment from tradition which became endemic in the production and consumption of art in general (thanks to industrialization) would be the gateway through which the lack of historical thinking would exemplify the coming postmodern cultural logic, as put forward by Frederic Jameson: “In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts” (203). This historicism, along with the other hallmark of postmodernism: the pastiche, are two primary components of Wideman’s Fanon. They are the components of style, or form, transcending the text of the book, making it irrelevant — and is the reason why reviewer Corrigan warns the potential reader that they may desire more “non-demanding” forms of fiction, like chick-lit or mystery novels, instead of the problematic postmodern novel/memoir/biography. Interestingly, Corrigan refers to Fanon as a “parody of a postmodern novel.” What would Jameson have to say about a novel that parodies the very movement which he says replaced parody with pastiche? If Fanon is a parody, it is a humorless parody existing solidly in the broken signifying chain, recursively referring to pastiche, to parody, to historicity, to pastiche, etc. The supposed subject of the work, Frantz Fanon, becomes simply a half-developed pretense for Wideman’s semi-fictional memoir of writing a book about the historical figure.
And so we return to Barthes and his discussion of the work as sign:
The text is approached and experienced in relation to the sign. The work closes upon a signified. We can attribute two modes of signification to the signified: either it is claimed to be apparent, and the work is then the object of a science of the letter, which is philology; or else this signified is said to be secret and final, and must be sought for, and then the work depends upon hermeneutics, an interpretation (Marxist, psychoanalytic, thematic, etc.); in short, the work itself functions as a general sign, and it is natural that it should represent an institutional category of the civilization of the Sign. (83)
The work is the subject of criticism; the text is subservient to the meaning of the work as an artifact of cultural production. So what does this book, Fanon, tell us about the culture it is a product of? Corrigan describes Fanon as a “literary failure to commit.” This seemingly common aspect of postmodern production is a symptom of the increasingly schizophrenic nature of western society and culture. As industrialization created both strained enemies and strange bedfellows between the rural and the urban, the schizoid nature of capitalism (rife with contradictions, reification of value, and mystification of consumption) continued to grow out of this symbiotic dichotomy. As a culture, we flit from one consumption to another, one answer to a question we didn’t know we were asking to another, as dictated by market capitalism. Can we not expect the same from our artifacts of cultural production? Peter Stallybrass and Allon White were describing patients of Freud’s when they wrote: “In the absence of social forms they [Freud’s patients] attempt to produce their own by pastiche and parody in an effort to embody semiotically their distress. Once noted, it becomes apparent that there is a second narrative fragmented and marginalized, lodged within the emergent psychoanalytic discourse” (101). Yet, is this not exactly the evident symptoms of cultural production of late modern capitalism? Note what Jameson has to say about cultural semiotic distress: “When that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated Signifiers” (209-10). Wideman’s inability to focus on a singular purpose, a coherent and consistent form within the literary field (much to Pierre Bourdieu’s chagrin, I am sure), may be a consternation to someone looking for a straightforward and elegant narrative — but it is nothing more or less than a Sign of the cultural logic, without moral or ethical judgment, or statement of approval or disapproval of that cultural logic. It is simply a product of it, within it, about it.
When Barthes writes “that the Text requires an attempt to abolish (or at least diminish) the distance between writing and reading, not by intensifying the reader’s projection into the work, but by linking the two together into one and the same signifying practice” (85), he is indicating that the Text attempts to create a cognitive connection between the writer and the reader, via, the work, which is ultimately not possible in any real sense. The work itself, as an artifact, is a constant reminder of being an unrecreatable (although endlessly reproducible) result of cultural influences, market forces, historical culminations. “For, if I can read these authors,” Barthes writes, “I also know that I cannot rewrite them (that one cannot, today, write, ‘like that’); and this rather depressing knowledge suffices to separate me from the production of these works” (86). While Barthes may be directly referring to works of earlier authors such as Flaubert, who wrote in a decidedly different socio-political era, the point he makes is applicable to contemporary readers of contemporary products due to the nature of the work itself as a product of its time and place, and usefulness. The expression of thoughts or feelings or images can be crafted with endless combinations of words and plots and thematic utterances, but the form of the work is the window that gives us a glimpse of the conditions that influenced the work, and yet also separates us from the source. The sentence, “hello world,” can be written many ways: in a novel, romance or science fiction; lyrics to a song, jazz or folk; in poetry, epic or free verse; on a billboard; in a computer manual; on a shoe — and hypothetically that statement may even be intended to mean the same thing from example to example. But the form in which the statement is presented contains more hermeneutic information than the words themselves can ever contain. “[D]iscourse on the Text should itself be only text, research, textual activity, since the Text is that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, and no subject of the speech-act in a situation of judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder: the theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing” (87).
Jameson’s “waning of affect,” also an indicative attribute of postmodernism, is evident in Barthes’ description of the anxiety of separation between consumer and producer: “Today only the critic executes the work (pun intended). The reduction of reading to consumption is obviously responsible for the ‘boredom’ many feel in the presence of the modern (‘unreadable’) text, the avant-garde film or painting: to be bored means one cannot produce the text, play it, release it, make it go” (emphasis in original) (86). As a critic of Wideman’s Falon, Corrigan expresses her boredom, her separation anxiety as a consumer of a work steeped in postmodern schizophrenia, by saying: even if you write something deep, think anyone wants to hear it? “We ‘get it.’ Regrettably, there just isn’t much here to ‘get’.” On the contrary — while the Text Wideman produces may be “unreadable,” inscrutable, unfocused; that very form the Text is presented in contains a representative sample of the inscrutable and contradictory nature of the culture in which the work was created.