Dr Fanon on Colonial Narcissism and Anti-Colonial Melancholia

  • Colin Wright
Part of the Studies in the Psychosocial book series (STIP)


Frantz Fanon is rightly known as a theorist of anti-colonial resistance and decolonisation who put his ideas into practice as a member of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) during the Algerian war of independence. He is justifiably received as a major figure within so-called Third World Marxism and considered a cornerstone of postcolonial theory. However, what is often forgotten or passed over far too quickly is his training but also innovative practice as a psychiatrist, despite the central role it plays in his critique of the pathogenic effects of racism and colonial oppression. For far from the DSM-dominated mainstream psychiatry of today, Fanon’s clinical as well as critical thinking was shaped by a strand of French psychiatry itself increasingly radicalised in the 1950s. At Saint-Alban in central France for example, Fanon worked under François Tosquelles, himself a militant veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and then the French résistance, whose development of a ‘socio-therapeutic’ approach was an explicitly political project that paved the way for the (somewhat inaccurately called) ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement that exploded in the 1960s. Fanon went on to apply Tosquelles’ socio-therapeutic approach in Algeria, although its limitations in the colonial context contributed to his resignation as a psychiatrist, and immersion in the independence movement.

Nonetheless, it by no means follows that psychiatry was left behind. Foregrounding Dr Fanon the militant psychiatrist as in continuity rather than discontinuity with Fanon the anti-colonial activist enables us to better grasp the central function of psychiatric, but also, inseparably in France at that time and still to some extent today, psychoanalytic concepts in his personal, political and philosophical trajectory.

This chapter will therefore argue that the Freudian categories of narcissism and melancholia, especially if re-read from a Lacanian perspective, can be seen as more pivotal in Fanon’s work than has been recognised hitherto. His apparently very Hegelian phenomenology of the dialectic between Coloniser/Colonised, for example, arguably owes an intellectual debt to ‘On Narcissism’ in its focus on a certain violence of the ego as a ‘saming machine’. This is even clearer when one reads Freudian narcissism via Lacan’s mirror stage, a response to an unresolved theoretical dilemma in Freud’s paper, and an argument Fanon makes explicit reference to in Wretched of the Earth. A certain notion of ‘racial melancholia’, too, can be seen to inform Fanon’s comments on both self-loathing amongst colonised blacks and the tendency to direct violence not against the colonising Other that is its origin, but internally, back on to fellow colonised subjects, reminding us of Freud’s statement: ‘the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis […] it is able to direct against itself the hostility which relates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world’. The final chapter of Wretched of the Earth, ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorders’, offers some clinical vignettes to support this emphasis on Fanon’s relationship to melancholia, as both a psychiatrist and a revolutionary.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin Wright
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Cultures, Languages and Area StudiesUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK

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