Tag Archives: Frantz Fanon

This is the third and last (for now) of this little series of students’ papers from my course Diversifying Philosophy, the 2nd edition. This time you can read the work of Jasmine Campbell, who took the original (and relevant) approach to read the work of Fanon from an eco-philosophical perspective. Postcolonial critique and ecological philosophy are understood more and more in connection with each other, and this paper is a way in which this is practiced. I hope you will find this a fascinating piece. Here it is:

Postcolonial Sustainable Development. An Ecocritical Reading of The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon


The way in which countries are categorised or ranked is very often in terms of their level of development. Development is seen as the most important factor determining how well a country is doing, this often being with a very economic focus. We speak of developing and developed countries, or the third world and the first world, although these are often coined outdated and offensive.

Sometimes too the phrases less developed and more developed countries, or LEDCs (less economically developed countries) and MEDCs (more economically developed countries), are used. This distinction very much divides the world into what people perceive as better and worse countries. Better in this sense is almost synonymous to richer and worse to poorer. This division was once made by colonisers between the colonial powers and the colonies, and this division is still very much one that the West imposes on the rest of the world. Of course development is important, but why should all countries have to live up to this very economically focussed definition of development?

Further, what has in more recent times become of more and more importance is sustainable development. With global climate change a development that can be sustained for generations to come and that is more environmentally friendly is deemed to be of utmost importance. We can see this in the change from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to their Sustainable Development Goals1 and the introduction and many signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement in 20162. However, many ask whether all countries should have to develop as sustainably as possible. For one, it is argued that only few countries, such as China, the United States who are the biggest polluters and together generate 44% of worldwide emissions3, so arguably contributing most to global climate change. It is also argued that the West got the opportunity to develop it’s industries unsustainable without caring for how much they were polluting to get to the point at which they are now and, therefore, developing countries should have this same opportunity. So, this view suggests that only the biggest polluters should be more sustainable as they are the cause of the problems and that developing countries should have the right to emit carbon without restriction to ‘catch up’. But this again reinforces that developing countries should ‘catch up’ with the West and that they would want to use the ‘western method’ in the process.

In this paper I would, thus, like to explore sustainable development and environmentalism in postcolonial thought. I have chosen to look at Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and take an ecocritical reading of his work. I will be looking at how this ecocritical reading of Fanon fits into the broader field of ecocritical postcolonial thought. Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique. He wrote particularly influential works in the field of postcolonial studies, such as ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (1952) and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1963)4. Fanon’s work was more human centred than environmental and focused on the way in which history can be seen in terms of oppression of colonisers and struggle of colonies5.

Fanon on Development and the Environment

In the conclusion of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ Fanon seems to express his views on development and how decolonised countries should approach developing. The central idea of the conclusion is to avoid ‘the European way’, in all senses, to avoid their violent manner, genocide, slavery and exploitation. Fanon writes that they must “Leave this Europe”6 and “Shake off their heavy darkness”7. More importantly, he writes to abandon the ‘European method’, writing “We today can do everything so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.”8. He advocates the creation of a new method of growth and development. This development can also be said of Europe’s treatment of the land. Fanon does not explicitly write this but it does in a sense point towards this. The ‘western mentality’ or “European spirit”9, as Fanon puts it, being focussed on rapid growth no matter the consequences has led to exploitation of people but also very much of land in the process. Therefore, when Fanon says to abandon the European way, this can also be said of the treatment of land and the environment when developing, as well as of people.

Fanon, further describes how Europe, in their need for continuous growth, power and wealth, are “running headlong into the abyss”10. This can be seen by the damages and pollution the West’s economic growth has caused. In their growth they have caused for global warming, mass extinction, rising sea levels, and many more disastrous effects11. If they keep going at this rate this will quite literally lead to a fall “into the abyss”, as scientists have warned us about the negative effects and the American Association for Advanced Science also has said that climate change is “is a growing threat to society”12. Fanon then writes that it is the task of the ‘third world’ to do better, to solve the problems Europe has created by not following this same mentality and extreme focus on economic growth. He writes “to resolve the problem to which Europe has not been able to find the answers […] what matters is to stop talking about output, and intensification, and the rhythm of work.”13. This can be said of the way the West is keen on mass production, over consumption, the living of very materialistic lifestyles, and in general the capitalist system, that in only being focussed on money exploits people and land.

Photo by Angela Roothaan

Fanon, in the chapter ‘On Violence’ in his The Wretched of the Earth, also describes a trait of the Europeans, or the West, that in decolonisation is discovered to not apply to the previous colonies. He describes a trend in the change of mentality from very individualistic to community oriented. He writes about how the ‘colonised intellectual’ follows the ‘coloniser bourgeois’ in their individualism, but then “witnesses the destruction of all his idols: egoism, arrogant, recrimination, and the idiotic, childish need to have the last word”14. He will see the strength of community, of village assemblies and caring for one another. Fanon describes how he will move away from the ‘every man for himself’ thinking and the economic growth oriented thinking. Fanon writes about a movement from “personal interests [becoming] the collective interest”15. This difference in mentality can also be regarded in terms of a relation with the environment. The ‘western individualism’ Fanon describes, or the ‘every man for himself’ concept, focuses on personal growth regardless of others and regardless of the land. This individualism can also be said to be a cause for capitalism. The ‘Westerner’ is much more prone to exploiting the land in his quest for wealth, which has led to the global climate change we see today. This focus on personal growth also does not consider the future generations and is not sustainable.

The importance the ‘third world’ places on community that Fanon describes shows a respect for others and for the land. It respects the homes of others and the environment. This community oriented thinking may also be much more prone to considering future communities or generations and their lives, and is this way much more sustainable. Coming back to the conclusion of Fanon’s work, this difference in mentality also would very much affect how these decolonised nations may go about their development and points at a much more sustainable development.

Postcolonial Ecocriticism and Sustainable Development

Coming back to more current thought on development and environmentalism, as was mentioned in the introduction, there seems to be a discussion going on on how non-western countries should ‘catch up’ in terms of development with the west. In 1986 the UN introduced the Right to Development to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights16. The UN describes how this right applies to people, it should be human centred but state led17. They do recognise that historically development has very much been considered a “primarily economic process measured by growth in gross national product”, and that this understanding still very much persists among many18. The UN considers the Right to Development to be closely linked to the fundamental right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty over natural wealth and resources19. The Right to Development, the UN writes, is also included in the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention [No. 169], in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indegiounous Peoples and in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights20. It can thus be seen this right, and, therefore, also the importance of development in general, is widely recognised, not only by the west. But, of course, not necessarily in its focus on economies but the human centred notion of development, which is also described by Fanon in his ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. The UN does note that development should be sustainable and highlights the importance of sustainability in their Sustainable Development Goals, in particular when it comes to development in goal 11: ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’21. However, the question still goes to what extent sustainable development is required from, or in other words a duty of, developing countries.

Some would rather say that in order to ‘catch up’ with Europe, as Fanon strongly rejects the need for, European methods would have to be adopted and so developing countries should be exempt from reducing carbon emissions as western countries are being obliged to to respond to the threats that climate change brings for our future. Professor Zewei Yang adopts this view, writes about how reducing carbon emissions may inhibited China’s ability to further develop and describes “the right to carbon emission as a new right to development”22. Another such thinker, that Professor Yang also quotes in his paper, is Professor Albert Mumma of Nairobi University in Kenya, who states “the emission entitlements, in effect, are a proxy for the right to develop and meet the needs of one’s nation and the well-being of its people.”23. Yang goes on to describe how this right to carbon emissions represents the right to use the Earth’s resources in order to develop and that this should particularly be the case for developing countries24. Further, Yang describes how in the second article of the Copenhagen Accord also states that “. bearing in mind that social and economic development are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries”25.

Photo by Angela Roothaan

This view seems to require carbon emissions for the development of a country. It would seem that this is then also following the ‘European method’ of development, and opposes Fanon’s view.

This obsession ‘to catch up with Europe’26 Fanon writes of, is somewhat present in the idea that developing countries ought to have the right to carbon emissions to reach the same level of development as Europe and before they should consider environmentally friendly or sustainable development. Fanon, on the other hand, insists that it is the aim of developing countries to come up with new solutions to European problems, these problems here being pollution levels from carbon emissions, and can be said to thus recommend sustainable development in developing countries. This would also avoid the ‘running headlong into the abyss’27 that Fanon describes Europe’s method of development.

Many postcolonial thinkers would, like Fanon, disagree with Yang and Mumma’s stance. In the field of postcolonial ecocriticism the central task, as described by Helen Tiffin and Graham Huggin, is to contest and provide alternatives to western conceptions or ideologies of development28. Some thus hold that development as a whole is a European construct that is imposed on the rest of the world in order to keep Europe first. Sustainable development, in this view, is just a new version of this imposing development with a ‘pretty cover’, so to speak. It is made to look more attractive and good for the earth, but is just used to keep Europe ahead and in charge. German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs also states “what development means depends on how the rich nations feel” and that development is “at best a form of strategic altruism”, it is used as a reason for countries to give other countries aid to make these self-describe developed (and in their views thus also better) countries look good and is aimed at their concerns of their own politics and economies29. Development has also been described as adapting to the “needs of those who use it” and being used to self-congratulate and condescend, being based on Western presuppositions30. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin also describe in their ‘Postcolonial Ecocriticism’ (2006) the perhaps more extreme view held by Oswaldo De Rivero of

how “the myth of development, taking false support from ideas promiscuously linked to the Enlightenment ideology of progress and the Darwnian survival of the fittest” urging the ‘developing’ Southern countries to catch up with ‘developed’ Northern countries and so aso implementing a capitalist growth model that is damaging to the environment and unequal31. These views often extend to sustainable development. Wolfgang Sachs describes sustainable development as giving new life to development and covering up the criticism of development and its “destructive tendencies”32.

Sustainable development being said to be an effort to save the planet Sachs sees as “little more than a political alibi” to justify state intervention because the West wants to implement their methods of environmental management which very much concentrate on the survival of the industrial system33.

The rejection of the idea of catching up with Europe here by implementing its method of growth, being capitalism, can be very closely compared to what Fanon writes in his conclusion of ‘The Wretched of The Earth’ (1963). As stated before, Fanon very much rejects the need to ‘catch up’ with Europe and Europe’s methods, and would agree with this. Fanon also does not explicitly write about development, this is the term I chose for what he describes. Fanon describes “moving forward… in the company of all men” and of wanting to advance humanity34, which I would call development, not in the economic-centred sense of the term but rather a very human-centred development. However, Fanon may well have agreed with De Rivero’s notion of development as being a myth made up by the West, as it would be in line with his rejection of any inspiration from Europe. However, if we look at development as simply describing growth and increased well-being, this is very much what Fanon describes in his text. Sustainable development, in Fanon’s view may well be very important as previously described, but Sachs’ view here introduces the element of the Western notion of sustainable development versus other versions of sustainable development. It can thus be said that Fanon would rather advocate a sustainable development that does not follow or take inspiration from the western model of sustainable development.

Another postcolonial ecocriticism is also very present in criticism of neocolonialism. This can be seen all over the world where multinational companies can be said to replace colonial power by taking control of a country’s resources and industries and exploiting people for cheap labour. An example of this would be oil companies in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995), was a Nigerian environmental activist and writer35, who stood up against these oil countries and wanted them to be held accountable for the destruction of his home36. The oil company was stealing their natural resources and prohibiting the inhabitants of the land from benefiting themselves from the resources and building their own industries and economies around them and was also exploiting the land. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s advocacy and writing on this subject makes him an important figure not just as an environmental activist but also very much in postcolonial ecocritical thinking. Although, he is often left out of the field as ecocriticism, according to Rob Nixon, often focuses much on American-based writers and postcolonial criticism has concentrated “on a handful of ‘representative’ writers”37.

Similar are development projects in India that are introduced inspired by the West and a need to catch up. An example would be the Narmada Valley Development Project, which was a project to build dams in the Narmada river in order to provide electricity and safe drinking water to people in India38. The project is described by Arundhati Roy (1961-present), an Indian author and political and environmental activist39, as being “India’s Greatest Planned Environmental Disaster”40. The project caused mass protests and was found to use more energy than it produced41. The project caused for hundreds of thousands of local people to be displaced with a complete change to their daily lives, culture and economic self-sufficiency42. It can be seen that this western idea of development is being implemented but it does not contribute positively to the well-being of people, it is not human-centred development and focuses only on economic growth. The costs of the project were for a large part funded by the World Bank, which has also caused for India into an “economic bondage” which overcoming seems impossible43. It further contributes towards the increasing privatisation of natural resources and of energy sources, all in an effort to catch up with the West.


In conclusion, many links can be found between Fanon’s work and postcolonial ecocriticism. Taking an ecocritical reading of Fanon shows many similarities with ecocritical postcolonial thinkers and brings an interesting addition to discussions on environmentalism and sustainable development and critiquing western ideologies of sustainable development and development in general. We can clearly see Fanon’s disregard of the European method and the need to catch up with Europe are very present in postcolonial ecocritical writing such as that of Sachs, De Rivero, Saro-Wiwa and Roy. The aim of developing countries that Fanon describes as being finding new and better solutions for the problems Europe has created is very much in line with the project of postcolonial ecocriticism, being to contest and provide alternatives to the western ideologies of development. These problems Fanon describes can be seen as being, at least partly, to do with the environmental consequences of western development and so alternatives to this would be the solutions Fanon calls for developing countries to find. Fanon’s thinking would, thus, still also be very applicable in response to and as critique of neocolonialism as when it comes to multinational companies taking on the role of colonial powers this is very closely tied to a western notion of development and the imposing of this development on other countries.


1 Background of the Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

2 The Paris Agreement. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

3 Which countries are the world’s biggest carbon polluters? (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

4 Drabinski, J. (2020). Frantz Fanon. Retrieved 20 December 2020, from fanon/

5 ibid

6 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 311). New York: Grove Press.

7 ibid

8 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p.312). New York: Grove Press.

9 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 313). New York: Grove Press.

10 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 312). New York: Grove Press.

11 Global Warming Effects. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

12 AAAS Reaffirms Statements on Climate Change and Integrity. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

13 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 314). New York: Grove Press.

14 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 11). New York: Grove Press.

15 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (pp. 11,12). New York: Grove Press.

16Fact Sheet No. 37: Frequently Asked Questions on the Right to Development. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

17 ibid

18 ibid

19 ibid

20 ibid

21 Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

22 Yang, Z. (2012). The Right to Carbon Emission: A New Right to Development. American Journal Of Climate Change, 01(02), 108-116. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2012.12009

23 ibid

24 ibid

25 ibid

26 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth. New York: Grove Press.

27 ibid

28Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

29 ibid

30 ibid

31 ibid

32 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

33 ibid

34 Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth (p. 315). New York: Grove Press.

35 Ken Saro-Wiwa. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from Saro-Wiwa

36 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

37 ibid

38 ibid

39 Arundhati Roy. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

40 Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge. 41Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge. 42 ibid

43 ibid


AAAS Reaffirms Statements on Climate Change and Integrity. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from integrity

Arundhati Roy. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Background of the Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Drabinski, J. (2020). Frantz Fanon. Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Fact Sheet No. 37: Frequently Asked Questions on the Right to Development. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of The Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Global Warming Effects. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Huggan, G., & Tiffin, H. (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism (pp. 27-46). New York: Routledge.

Ken Saro-Wiwa. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

Sustainable Development Goals. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from

The Paris Agreement. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

Which countries are the world’s biggest carbon polluters? (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from polluters/

Yang, Z. (2012). The Right to Carbon Emission: A New Right to Development. American Journal Of Climate Change, 01(02), 108-116. doi: 10.4236/ajcc.2012.12009

Last year, long before covid happened, for the first time I taught the bachelor course designed to ‘diversify’ Philosophy. I posted about the experience here. This year the first group (we have two language programs in Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) had its classes in November and December. Its format, with presentations, self study assignments and paper writing, seemed to balance some of the loss of direct contact, and it was amazing how most students remained active during the long sessions with discussions. But maybe it was not my course design, but just their passion for learning, or their talent, that made this course so wonderful to teach.

The end papers generally were of a very high quality too. A few of them stood out by the fact that they were not only well-written, showed independent research in combination with a good grasp of the study material, but also an original focus. I asked these students if I could give their paper a bit more exposure on my blog, and all agreed. So the coming weeks you will find their papers here, a longer read than my usual blog post, but I think worthwhile.

The first piece is by Anastasia Khairova. The minimal requirements were for the students to refer to one or two of the texts read in the course and add their own questions and further readings and combine them to an essay of max. 3000 words. The course texts here mentioned were of Charles Mills and Frantz Fanon. Anastasia focused however mainly on the recent, French language work of Norman Ajari, thus introducing its content to an English language audience. Here is her essay:

Conceptualising a Black Ontology (by Anastasia Khairova)

But African, or more precisely, Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality. Thus modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ … stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world. — Frank B. Wilderson, 2010

            Racism and anti-blackness shape the dominant Western culture on such profound levels that it would be impossible to discuss in just one essay. Instead, this essay will attempt to focus on the most dire consequences of white supremacy on the inner condition of black people, and discuss how white supremacy through its three prongs — the political, moral and epistemological hegemony perpetually stunts self-actualisation of non-white people and limits the understanding of oneself as a relational being, both inside black communities and in relation to white people. A black ontology would then serve as a unified body of philosophical thought aimed at decolonising the current understanding of being, analyse the impacts of white supremacy on self-development of non-white people and encourage self-actualisation in a white supremacist system, ultimately leading to its overthrow. Such an ontology is in need of constant reworking and supplementation, as it would rely on deconstruction of the false epistemology of white supremacy and therefore be heavily based on revising history as well as unlearning the effects of racism. A project by francophone philosopher Norman Ajari undertakes a similar, although not nearly as extensive task of decolonising philosophy in order to understand the problem of recognition, which he sees as central for a black ontology; he draws upon African philosophy to create a political and ethical system of black thought as a counterbalance to white supremacy.

            The system responsible for the need for a black ontology in the first place is that of white supremacy. Charles Mills discusses the composition of the system of white supremacy in depth, describing how the white race came to dominate and impose a political, moral and epistemological hegemony which not only subjugated and dehumanised non-white people, but also stunted the growth of their culture and prevented self-actualisation in a way that was allowed for whites (Mills 16). Mills introduces a philosophical concept of a social contract between whites, titled the Racial Contract, which encompasses different ways of white supremacy operating in a society. The political aspect of the contract concerns itself with the origins of government and the political obligations of citizens (Mills 9). The moral contract is a foundation of the moral code established for a society, and the epistemological aspect of the contract prescribes an inverted epistemology characterised by ignorance and cognitive dysfunctions (Mills 10). Mills writes that white misunderstanding and self-deceptions on the matters of race is a pervasive mental phenomena that tries to hold together the system of white supremacy. To conceive of a black ontology, there needs to be a new outlook on the political, moral and epistemological aspects of white supremacist reality as to challenge the established view created by the Racial Contract.

La dignité ou la mort - Norman AJARI

            Norman Ajari, in his work La dignité ou la mort: Ethique et politique de la race aims at adopting an afro-decolonial perspective in order to “make it the starting point of a new ethical approach inspired by the Africana philosophy” (Ajari 20). At the heart of Africana philosophy and the decolonial project is the reality of struggle for recognition of black people — Ajari identifies the struggle for or in dignity as the central issue to address. He chooses to discuss three notions of dignity that marked their times — Giovanni Pico della Mirandola of the Renaissance, Immanuel Kant who shaped the German Enlightenment and contemporary Jürgen Habermas. Ajari sees dignity as the image that Europe wanted to give itself, and therefore finds it essential to study how the concept of dignity developed.

            While in the classical era, dignitas referred to the social standing of an individual, the Renaissance presented a new humanist outlook on dignity as self actualisation in autonomy and ontological solitude. The Romans viewed dignitas as a societal function — although the word does not have a direct English translation, it referred to the amount of influence and reputation a Roman citizen acquired throughout his life. Humanism radically transformed the concept of dignity, encouraging individuals to pursue the goal of enlightenment, and the Church reappropriated the Latin dignitas to be associated with Christian celestial hierarchy found in Heaven. Mirandola in his book Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) draws a distinction between the concept of dignity and the Latin notion of dignitas —  Ajari believes that through discussing dignity, Mirandola radicalised the hierarchy entailed in dignitas, thus enforcing the opposition between the human and the inhuman. Through this division, Mirandola unknowingly introduced anthropological foundations of colonisation through making a distinction between divine humans and animal beings. Ajari gives an example of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the face of humanism, the mage Prospero, is contrasted with his slave Caliban, a savage monster. The distinction between human and non-human resulting from Mirandola’s analysis will give power to the white man over others in a colonial context.

            Deification of European humans allowed thinkers like Kant to introduce philosophical systems which discussed dignity without including Africans in his idea of personhood. Although Kant did not have a Manichean view of opposition between the demonic and the divine, he instead thought of a minority, characterised by laziness and cowardice opposed to a majority characterised by reason. This is a harsh juxtaposition with Kantian ethics, which aim to protect the inherent worth of every human and are against using anyone as a means instead of an end in itself. And yet, it is in the name of the dignity that Europe judged the black existence abject, desired the disappearance of their lifestyles and insisted on a civilizing mission (Ajari 54).

            Habermas takes a less abstract position on dignity and advocates for regaining an ethical dimension of dignity in addition of a legal one in the framework of a state. He argues that contemporary liberal democracies should guarantee dignity through norms and institutions of European nations, and ensure dignity for all members of said state through constitutionally enshrined rights. Ajari identifies a tension here between those who see European liberalism as the right arena to express that dignity and those who are threatened by that framework — state monopolisation of dignity cannot protect those on the margins or stifle human suffering.

            Ajari rounds off by discussing the dark side of modernity that has been glazed over by Western philosophers — although philosophers such as Horkheimer and Adorno wrote extensively on the negative consequences of the Enlightenment, they did not reflect on the consequences of colonisation or slavery. Ajari also uses the example of Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero who studied the subject of contemporary violence and, inspired by Arendt, developed the concept of ‘horrorism’ as a negation of human dignity. In her work, the example of Auschwitz is used as the epitome of the crimes of Europe and as the main paradigm of horrorism. The use of Auschwitz as the culmination of radical political violence is common, and Ajari highlights how the massacres of Native Americans or the transatlantic slave trade are hidden from the public eye and hardly discussed.

            After addressing the ethical and historical aspects of white supremacy through the notion of dignity, Ajari addresses the political side of the system. As asserted by several black thinkers, most notably Fanon, life without dignity leads to a necessary politicisation of being. In his work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon analyses the life of black people in a system of white supremacy, a colonised world — a life confined to a system that has through generations shaped the mode of thinking in black people. For the most ardent racists, the mere existence of a black person is a provocation: it follows then that in such a world, all of black existence is politicised. Ajari echoed Fanon’s statements: “Unworthy is black life, in the form of death, imposed by a world founded on white supremacy; the Negro philosopher himself can only appear as a learned monkey” (Ajari 100). Ajari highlights with this quote how his work as a contemporary philosopher is undervalued and ignored. He understands that only the decolonial approach can showcase the variety of experiences and political constructions of the marginalised, which is why he engages with many primary sources of slaves and black revolutionaries in European colonies of the 19th century. Drawing inspiration from many forgotten texts of historical figures, Ajari showcases his commitment to the complex process of decolonisation.

            Ajari elaborates on the space between life and death which he sees as characterising the black experience — he uses the term ‘forme-de-mort’ which could best be translated as a form-in-death, an existence on the borderline.  This parallels the thinking of American philosopher Jared Sexton, who asserts that ‘black life is lived in social death’ (Sexton 24). Walcott sees black social death as a necessary criterion for European project of modernity — humanness has been consistently defined against black people, excluding them from the category of ‘a life’ and creating an existence marked by social death (Walcott 93). Only through what Walcott calls a pure decolonial project can black existence leave the liminal space between life and death and bring an end to European rule (Walcott 104). Ajari asserts that through politicisation of suffering that the struggle for dignity was first established: the next step is the implementation of an ethics of dignity.

            Ajari discusses black theology and music as an external politicisation of the struggle for dignity — black Christianity and black churches have provided gathering spaces, information, and a space to express desire for emancipation. Fanon chastises the missionaries who went on pilgrimages in Africa and affirms them as (cultural) colonisers, but in many places in Africa or later, in the United States, Christian churches have been a privileged place for the affirmation of black dignity (Fanon 7). Christianity was the religion of the masters, legitimising the ‘civilizing mission’ of Europe, but it also became the religion of the oppressed, that which called for revolt and independence. Ajari shows how a black theology was built in order to “awaken the dignity of Afro-descendants, to restore their confidence in their individual being in their collective struggle against oppression”. Another instance of external politicisation is seen in black musical practices of jazz, blues and more recently, genres such as hip-hop. Musical expression helped testify to the racial oppression and struggle while the blues and soul music became inseparable from the Church, as it combined self expression with prayer.

            After analysing the historical and political aspects of white supremacy, Ajari finally turns to introduce a new moral outlook and an ethical philosophy crucial for the establishment of a black ontology. He aims to revive African philosophical theories to introduce a new concept of dignity, separate from Western thought, which would allow for the liberation of the black race. Ajari draws from Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, a Cameroonian philosopher who worked on the hermeneutics of Muntu, and from Desmond Tutu, a South African theologian who popularised Ubuntu philosophy. The concept of Muntu, meaning ‘human being’ in Bantu languages, highlights the relationality of the individual. This relationality of humanness is seen in the term Ubuntu, also a Bantu concept meaning ‘humanity’, which could alternatively be translated as ‘I am because we are’. For Ajari, this undermines Kant’s conception of dignity — dignity is not found in an individual, it is not a sovereign subject without external relations. Dignity of Ubuntu is not abstract, and instead is found in relationships between individuals and their histories. The ethics that Ajari is proposing is based on community and respect, as well as understanding the deeper connectedness of all individuals. Ajari writes: “to restore the dignity of a human being, to reestablish it in Ubuntu, to allow him to regain his quality of Muntu, is to allow him to deploy and weave again all the reports that terrible violence suffered or committed made impossible.” (Ajari 227).

            After carefully considering three prongs of the system of white supremacy, Ajari can turn to the creation of a black political ontology, which he sees as the exit of the black being from the non-being zone in which he is confined. Fanon spoke how every ontology is made unattainable in a colonised society — the colonised are seen as a flaw that does not have an ontological explanation. Ontology does not permit the understanding of a black man; he can only be black in relation to the white (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 110). This creates the life suspended in death that Ajari has referenced throughout his work, and now turns to reform. He returns to the question of recognition and applies it to the current treatment of migrants in Europe, which he sees to be enduring comparable treatment to the postcolonial migrants from the former Caribbean colonies. The migrant is stripped of all dignity, their life is seen as ‘disposable’ — Ajari believes that European treatment of migrants stems from a racialised conception of nationality. Negrophobia has become the universal language of racism, and thus black struggle can become a universal refuge for all victims of xenophobia (Ajari 281).

            A black political ontology needs to show the opposition between being and non-being, between life and death, between White and Black. To think of a black political ontology is to conceive of a subject originally constituted by violence, born in dehumanisation and inscribed in a history of exclusion. In colonialism, the black being was perceived as a slave, devoid of freedom and dignity — it was an experience of negation. The phrase ‘black dignity’ marks an exit to defy this negation. “Black dignity is not the rejection of death, but the power of survival which springs from the very bottom of death, and the power of the dead which affects life” (Ajari 304). The importance of Ajari’s philosophical work lies in the fact that the sees the black condition, as a form of unworthiness, not only through purely theoretical elements, but incorporates lived experiences as well. Dignity cannot be purely theoretical. Through the relational understanding of Ubuntu, the newly created black ontology can surpass the dichotomy of Black and White and move towards a world of shared dignity.

            In trying to find a way to the creation of a new ontology that is egalitarian and anti-racist, this essay has retraced the necessary steps of decolonisation of the most important aspects of white supremacy, namely its historical, ethical, epistemological and political hegemony which has perpetually stunted the growth and development of black cultures and communities. Through the lens of dignity, philosopher Norman Ajari analysed the false epistemology and history of white supremacy, the impacts of its political dominion and the generational changes to the inner lifeworld of black people. By creating a basic framework of what a black ontology should contain, Ajari opens up the path to self-actualisation and breaking away from the chains of white supremacy, as well as a fresh vision of what a post-racist world should strive towards.

Works cited

Ajari, Norman. La Dignité Ou La Mort: Éthique Et Politique De La Race. La Découverte, 2019.

Cavarero, Adriana, and William McCuaig. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Columbia University Press, 2011.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, 2008, pp. 109–40.

—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth, Reprint, Grove Press, 2005, pp. 1–17.

Kant, Immanuel. “On the Different Races of Men.” Race and the Enlightenment, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 39–64.

Kodjo-Grandvaux, Séverine. “« La Dignité Ou La Mort. Ethique Et Politique De La Race » : Norman Ajari Dessine Une Conception Proprement Africaine De La Dignité.” Le Monde, 18 Feb. 2019,

Mills, Charles W. “Overview.” The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 1–19.

Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions, 2011,

Vermeren, Pauline. “Penser Une Ontologie Politique Noire : Race, Racisme Et Violence d’État. À Propos De La Dignité Ou La Mort. Éthique Et Politique De La Race De Norman Ajari.” Philosophiques, vol. 46, no. 2, 2019, pp. 431–443., doi:

Walcott, Rinaldo. “The Problem of the Human: Black Ontologies and ‘the Coloniality of Our Being’.” Postcoloniality – Decoloniality – Black Critique: Joints and Fissures, edited by Sabine Broeck and Carsten Junker, Campus Verlag, 2015, pp. 93–105.

Zoungrana, Jean. “Norman Ajari, La Dignité Ou La Mort. Éthique Et Politique De La Race.” Questions De Communication, Presses Universitaires De Nancy, 15 Nov. 2020,

As promised, I will come back to last week’s conference, held in a Seminary in Lodz, Poland – where I presented mIMG_3413y paper with the above title. As usual, I stuffed in many different things – a methodological question (deconstruction versus decolonization), the relation between speciesism and racism, a note on the history of philosophy/ideas, and the question what characterizes (our) animality. Yes, I managed to boil it down to a 15 minute presentation, and those present pointed out many loose ends to help me rework the paper for the submission for publication. So here is this short version (missing some of the argumentations, but presenting the main ideas) of this work very much in progress:

Aren’t we Animals? Deconstructing or Decolonizing the Human-Animal Divide

“From the influential Thomas Hobbes on, who claimed that ‘natural men’ were like wolves (taken as violent predators) to each other, Western philosophy has been characterized by a great distrust towards the animal aspects of our humanity, and a great trust in the salvaging aspects of reason and civilization, that would raise us above the animals. Several recent thinkers however have attempted to criticize and undermine this attitude. Among those I will discuss anthropologist Eduardo Kohn who aims to decolonize the Western approach to nature (plants and animals), and philosopher Jacques Derrida, who sought to ‘undefine’ the concept ‘animal’.

In my paper I will oppose these different approaches to the human-animal divide, and will also relate them to the work of postcolonial philosopher Emmanuel Eze, who has brought to attention that white Enlightenment thinkers and their successors have been interpreting embryonic evolutionism and theories of progress in the sense that some groups of humans would be less ‘human’ than others – and therefore could be used as slaves, or as objects of ‘civilizing’ projectswe would now describe as cultural genocide. I will conclude by presenting the thought of psychoanalytic thinker Frantz Fanon, who highlighted the consequences of ‘animalizing’ human beings in a certain manner.


Selves and signs – In his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn explored Amazonian ways to understand animals and plants as ‘thinking’ – as living in sign worlds that overlap with ours, making communication on an equal level possible. He relied for this project on the philosophy of signs of pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. What Peirce did, Kohn explains, was to move beyond the understanding of signs as representation of something else (before an ideal rational subject) – taking them to “stand for something in relation to a ‘somebody’ [which] is not necessarily human […].” (Kohn 2013, 75) For selves are all ‘somebodies’ that are taken up in semiotic ‘activity’. Through many interesting examples taken from Amazonian village life he shows that not only animals, but also plants, and ‘spirits’ are selves – thus widening the ontological class of sign-users beyond the human to all ‘living’ beings, with or without bodies.

Deconstructing Animality – In a small, but profound study, Patrick Llored has made an effort to reinterpret the work of Derrida as, in effect, an enduring attempt to think animality. According to Llored, this is not a purely philosophical, but an existential matter to the philosopher of difference. Llored shows that early experiences of living in Algeria, especially in its ‘Vichi’ variety – leading to the expulsion of the Jew Jacques from school, formed the source of Derrida’s discovery of the link between racist and speciesist repression. And of its counterpart: the vulnerability of all living beings to violence (which is characteristic of animality).

In his own essay on the animal, Derrida indicated that deconstruction of the human-animal divide has three essential elements:

1) The divide (‘rupture’) doesn’t define two clearly separated domains – of ‘human’ and ‘animal’

2) The multiple and heterogeneous border of this divide has a history (the autobiographical history of anthropocentrist subjectivity) and should be traced as such

3) Beyond the human side (which is heterogenously lineated) there is not one category, ‘animal’, but a “multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead” (organic and inorganic). (cf. Derrida 2002, 399)


Enlightenment Racism – In Derrida’s work, we see the articulation of the intimate relation between speciesism and racism. This exemplifies his remark about the heterogeneous borders between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ animals. Not only are the animals not all one group, but certain groups of humans also segregate themselves from others by calling them animals. Even today, racists repeat the same imagery tirelessly, calling their targets animals, monkeys, pigs, or cockroaches.

In his work on Race and the Enlightenment Emmanuel Eze has shown, through textual analysis, that the Kantian and Hegelian construction of the idea of humanity as the center of ‘our’ understanding of the world (‘all philosophy is anthropology’) – was built on the simultaneous construction of an ‘other’, a not-quite-human: the ‘savage’, the black man. This other was not granted a culture of his own, let alone a political or legal system. Thus Kant could think that “the lives of so-called savages were governed by caprice, instinct, and violence rather than law [which] left no room for Kant to imagine between the Europeans and the natives a system of international relations, established on the basis of equality and respect […]” (Eze 2001, 78) And Hegel that “The negro is an example of animal man in all its savagery and lawlessness […] we cannot properly feel ourselves into his nature, no more than into a dog.” (cited according to Eze 2001, 24

The Need for a Psychoanalysis of White Philosophy – In Black Skin, White Masks(1952), young psychiatrist Frantz Fanon gave testimony of the difficulties of a colonial subject, a black man moving to the ‘centre of the world’ – to Europe – to affirm himself as a man and as a human being. The gaze from the other, which makes him black, confined in his skin, empties him out before he can speak. His revolutionary book is not your usual philosophical discourse, building a thesis on assumptions and by means of argumentation. It is written in a form which expresses what it tries to do: to think not from general concepts, but from failures.

To rescue his black reader from the objectivaton and dehumanization even the social sciences do unto her/him, Fanon articulates the humanity of the black person, although this should not mean integrating himself into the European idea of a supposedly non-race-sensitive humanity. This ‘Hellenistic’ idea of humanity, namely, considers black persons to be like animals (Fanon 2008, 127) – biologizing and sexualizing them, whilst desexualizing the white man as universal reason. In order to evade this dangerous situation, Black Skin, White Masks, seeks to submerge itself into the shadow side of white culture, and to investigate the fake aspect of this ‘animality’.Thus, although Fanon has the black individual in mind for his liberative project, implicitly he also criticizes, pre-figuring the Derridian approach, the idea of animality (being described as predator behavior, being driven by sexual urges, etcetera) in general as an artificial biological objectification.


Conclusion – In the end, we may conclude that decolonizing and deconstructing the human-animal divide, although they are different approaches, aim, in concert, to what we need in our days: first, an appropriation of the position of thinkers and selves by those colonized and animalized, exposing those who called themselves civilized and masters, and making an end to their reign; second, and simultaneously, a becoming conscious of (white) Enlightenment philosophy of its own shadow – cultural and physical genocide, enslavement and dehumanization of others, and in the shadow of that shadow – the brute desubjectization, use and abuse of ‘animot’; third, the deconstruction of the ‘rupture’ that has turned a difference into an instrument to torture and kill, and to not hear the voices of those we supposed to be ‘on the other side’ of humanity – the supposed ‘savages’. But also: the thinking forests, the wild animals, even the ‘domesticated’ intimate strangers living with us – having been equally colonized, under the cover of the civilization of ‘humanity’”

Literature –

  • Jacques Derrida ‘The Animal that therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418
  • Emmanuel Eze Race and the Enlightenment. A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 1997
  • Emmanuel Eze Achieving our Humanity. The Idea of a Postracial Future, Routledge, New York, 2001
  • Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, London, 2008 [1952]
  • Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press 2013
  • Patrick Llored Jacques Derrida. Politique et Ethique de l’Animalité, Les Éditions Sils Maria asbl, Mons, 2012

About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of ‘symmetrical anthropology’ coined by Bruno Latour. I was critical about the idea of such an anthropology back then. And principally I still am – one can not overcome the colonial attitude at work in researching ‘exotic others’ just by turning the colonial culture itself into the research object. One still didn’t listen to those ‘others’ nor has one put the problematic relationship between anthropology and the colonial project into question. The idea of anthropology itself, studying human beings apart from their self-understanding, just the non-literate, non-reflexive social phenomena that they produce could be seen to be, well, ‘racist’. When Latour proposed to turn the anthropological gaze around, and study the tribe of ‘the Moderns’, I couldn’t fathom how that would solve any of the negative effects modernity has had on relations between peoples.

I found it funny though, and that was why I read We have never been Modern in the nineties. The turning of tables was kind of naughty and potentially promised to realise a deconstruction of anthropology by using it against itself. Recently we are able to judge Latour’s project to the full, as his latest work, Modes of Existence, presents the outcomes of his anthropological research on the Moderns in a rich, full, thick volume. And in a website. As I promised to write a review article this month about the book, I set myself to reading it. And was surprised. I really really like the book. Latour’s anthropology develops into an ontology, or even a metaphysics – deploying the felicity and unfelicity conditions (a concept from speech acts theory) of the modes of existence that are factually recognized by the Moderns. The Moderns really are studied apart from their self-reflections, objectively, which is symbolized in the mysterious narrative figure of a female anthropologist. Latour describes how she tries to get behind their apologetical self-representations, and discover what they really hold to be real.

This kind of anthropology reminded me of a specific kind from the forties, not the more general approach that aims at description, but one that tried to overcome paternalism by reconstructing the ontology of a ‘non-western’ culture – taking it serious just like modernity does itself: the philosophical anthropology of Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy. The idea that culture is grounded in ontology appears to me a very ‘catholic’, say neo-thomist thought. This approach searches to understand or describe not in terms of reductionistic science, nor just in those of self-expressions, but to dig into a layer of being being intelligible by the mind. The layer of the plan, so to say, of the Creator, readable by the schooled thinker. Every culture, in this view, gets dignity allocated to it by being outlined by the ultimate Source. This kind of approach is also present in Modes of Existence. The Moderns are not explained as a phenonemon in social evolution, nor are they taken by their own word, but they are questioned as to their deepest attachments – what they really truly hold to be of value, and thereby take to be real. Thus, Latour, hopes to open negotiation with ‘the Others’ – those the Moderns declared to be other, that is. A negotiation which is urgently needed in order to make a turn from economy to ecology. To negotiate with mother earth (‘Gaia’) before she decides to get rid of us.

Actually Latour goes about his business so seriously, and digs so deep into this cultured ontology of the Moderns, that one cannot not value the book. It makes distinctions you never thought about, it really puts your mind to work, and thereby stimulates the brain like a complex musical composition. After reading you will be able to understand more complex relations. Therefore Modes of Existence is great. It is also funny in the sense of putting those who always observed others in the role of being observed. And it is crazy in its many original ideas like that of the imaginary anthropologist, or the diabolical figure of ‘Double Click’, who aims at promoting the epistemological idolatry of unmediated access to an object.

Still, my old troubles with Latour’s project hold true. He doesn’t investigate the conditions of the negotiations he is aiming at. He doesn’t look into his own belief in the power of metaphysics – although it has become a pragmatist, speech acts kind of metaphysics. He has criticized so called postmodern thinkers for being ‘just critical’ and not doing real work to negotiate a different world. I have always thought that criticism to be unfair, for it is too early to know whether we are already ready to negotiate. Whether ‘we’ moderns are allowed to participate in the negotiation at all, and on what conditions. The real question lies hidden behind the seemingly accidental replacement, by Latour, of ‘the Moderns’ by ‘the Whites’, at the end of the book. Moderns, Westerners, Whites, Colonizers… Has the world been decolonized already? Has the reign of white mythology (made fun of by Latour in the figure of Double Click) already come to an end? Can we do anthropology at all? Should we not first accept the problems that the idea of anthropos has created? What to do with an analysis like the following: ‘To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.’ If that is true, what is there for ‘the Moderns’ to negotiate? The ‘warfront’ of modernity, as Latour calls it, then will not disappear but by the final defeat of the moderns. not by telling them that they were never really modern.


The citation in the final section is from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

White Mythology is a paper by Jacques Derrida, discussed here.

Placide Tempels was a Franciscan missionary living in the former Belgian Congo, and his work on the ontology of Bantu’s led to so many discussions about ‘African philosophy’.

Modes of Existence was published in 2013. My review (which is not a longer version of this piece, but a separate article) of it will appear in ESSSAT News and Reviews.