Concerning Absolute Violence

"Concerning Violence" is something other than a straightforward entreaty to revolutionary action. It is an encouragement to face the specter of absolute violence, from both sides of the imperial divide, and decide where we stand politically and ethically in relation to it.

On Fanon and the ethics of anticolonial resistance

Still from "Concerning Violence," dir. Göran Olsson, 2014

Göran Olsson (director). Concerning Violence. 2014.

It’s December 2013, and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sits in her office at Columbia University surrounded by books, photographs and diplomas. Out her window is a somber New York winter tableau, a skeletal tree against an austere academic facade. Spivak clears her throat, glances at the camera and then back down at her script, and begins. “Okay. Frantz Fanon was born on the Caribbean Island of Martinique in 1925 and grew up a gentleman of the French empire. He realized when he came from the island of Martinique to the mainland of France in Europe, through involvement in the French army elsewhere, that his class privilege among his own black people did not mean anything in the country of the colonizing masters.”

This is the opening of Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialist Self-Defense, an archival documentary film based on Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. Spivak’s preface is the only portion of Olsson’s film that refers to Fanon in the third person, and one gets the sense that Olsson conscripted her in part to provide an overview of Fanon’s biography for the uninitiated. The rest of the film is a collection of found footage from 1960s and ’70s decolonization efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. Lauryn Hill reads excerpts from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth over the footage: white Christian missionaries in Tanzania and black iron miners in Liberia; Rhodesian settlers bowling on tidy green lawns and Mozambican guerillas training in the claustrophobic forest.

Olsson is known for his 2011 film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which remixed archival footage of ’60s and ’70s black radical organizing in the U.S. The methodology of Concerning Violence is roughly the same: Olsson’s new film is a collage of European (mostly Swedish) documentary footage of African national independence movements in what are now the states of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, and others. As with The Black Power Mixtape, Olsson’s process has a strong editorializing effect— the original reportage, though vivid and probing, carries a quality of inquisitive innocence, while Olsson’s arrangement elevates it to the level of argument.

Spivak’s role in Concerning Violence is to establish the film’s terms of engagement, with both Fanon’s work and the collected footage. In particular, she insists on Fanon’s literal definition of violence. When Sartre read The Wretched of the Earth, she tells us, he interpreted it as an “endorsement of violence itself, not reading between the lines where Fanon insists that the tragedy is that the very poor is reduced to violence because there is no other response possible.” This is the central theme of the film: physical violence, both imperialist and anti-imperialist. Olsson’s concern is under which circumstances violence must be denounced and under which it might be justified. We’re not talking only about the symbolic violence of the colonized mind, though that was also a primary concern of Fanon’s. The kind of violence that interests Fanon most in The Wretched of the Earth—what he calls “absolute violence”—is slavery, torture, murder, and armed insurrection. From the outset it’s evident that Olsson, like Sartre and Spivak, plans to take Fanon at his word and explore the rationale for and implications of violent anticolonial resistance, the kind that involves killing people.

Fanon is best remembered for his writing on the psychology of oppression. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks in France, where he first experienced a frank racial prejudice that shocked him—an a priori contempt for his race that failed to account for his class privilege and education. The original title of the work, which he had intended to submit as his psychiatry thesis, was “Essay for the Dis-Alienation of the Black Man.” The abandoned title betrays the work’s subject matter: estrangement, neurosis, trauma, negative self-image, hostility and the internalization of inferiority. Black Skin, White Masks is concerned less with proposing strategies of resistance than understanding the psyche fractured by colonialism.

After he wrote Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon moved to Algeria to practice psychiatry. It was there that he began to supplement his pioneering brand of psychopolitics with a critique of physical domination and a commitment to armed resistance. He joined the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale in the fight for independence from France, and by the end of his short life he was as much a military tactician as a psychological theorist. The Wretched of the Earth was dictated from his deathbed at the age of 36—withered by leukemia, he was too feeble to write, and so the work has the oratory quality of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto. In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon is as interested as ever in unraveling the mechanics of soft power and cultural imperialism. But at the end of his life, his exhortation to oppressed people was not only that they liberate their minds—he counseled them to take up arms and liberate their lands.

Concerning Violence follows a similar trajectory, concentrating on everyday oppression before turning its attention to all-out war. Olsson’s earlier selections explore the paternalistic European settler mentality and native sub-Saharan Africans’ growing political restlessness circa the mid-1960s. A few minutes into the film, we’re in the company of an English settler sitting poolside with an interviewer on his estate in pre-revolutionary Rhodesia. An African servant brings them bottled beverages and the interviewee says, “Thank you Timothy. But you didn’t open that one, you stupid thing, you.”

When asked if the attitude of native Africans is changing, the Rhodesian says, “I’ve never seen so many Africans driving, learning to drive motor cars, because every one of them thinks they’re gonna get a motor car.” He continues, “A little garden-boy was washing my mother-in-law’s car and said to her, ‘Next year that’s gonna be my car.’ So my mother-in-law went to him and said, ‘You see this box of matches and this lighter? I’ll burn it before I give it to you.’ So that’s the attitude of the Africans. It’s changed completely.”

Cue a voice-over of Lauryn Hill reading from The Wretched of the Earth: “There is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”

But Olsson’s attention is not trained permanently on the delusional arrogance of the colonist and the mounting indignation of the native. Fanon’s book advocated violent resistance to European colonialism, and Olsson’s film is an attempt to document what it looks like on the ground. Soon we join the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in the Mozambican jungle in 1972, where they have formed an encampment to train for war against the Portuguese. A woman wearing guerilla fatigues—face tattooed and teeth sharpened per indigenous custom—declares to the camera, “The revolution is going forward and we will not return to the past. Our eyes are wide open. We are united over the cause.” This scene is the film’s turning point—after, Olsson is less attentive to routine subjugation than to the nature of African armed resistance and European efforts to quash it.

Footage of European and African armies running drills gives way to scenes of carnage. War has broken out. We see a Portuguese plane dropping bombs on civilian buildings, and then we are in an infirmary watching a Mozambican mother with a newly dismembered arm breastfeed a baby with a freshly amputated leg. In her preface, Spivak calls this “the most moving shot in the film,” reminiscent of “the Venus of Milo, with her arm gone, and also black Madonna, suckling a child with bare breasts.” The audience at the screening I attended gasped at the first sight of the young woman’s amputation, her upper arm truncated and capped by a rubbery pink nub, like a pencil eraser.

Olsson holds no punches. Among his gruesome selections is a black and white photo of a native Mozambican man’s head separated from its body. The photo is deliberately arranged with the splayed body facing backward and the severed head oriented forward to face the camera, a portrait that literally dissects its subject. Olsson also proffers a series of appalling before-and-after photographs: in the first, four Portuguese soldiers surround a captured Mozambican man. They secure the limbs of his naked body while a fifth soldier brings a machete down to decapitate him. In the second photograph of this sequence, the soldiers stand shirtless and grinning behind the executioner who, blade clasped between teeth like a cartoon pirate, grips the prisoner’s severed head by its ears and holds it aloft like a double-handled trophy.

Olsson shows us, too, the death of a Portuguese soldier caught in guerilla fire. His young companions look on as he bleeds out amid the underbrush. We think at first that we are looking at a corpse, uniform torn open to reveal his chest slathered in blood, but then he lolls his head involuntarily, stammering without language. He’s alive, but barely. The eyes of uninjured soldiers scan the scene despairingly; one clutches his crucifix while another holds his head in a classic pose of collapsed existential torment. The men finally begin to carry the body of the first soldier, now naked and save for some useless bandages, his leg half-gone and tendons dangling. On a flat patch of ground, they cover him with a camouflaged tarp.

The resonance with the previous photo sequence is eerie. In both scenes, five agents of European colonial empire surround the naked body of a vanquished man, presiding over his final moments with sinister ceremony. At the time, Europe imagined its occupying soldiers as agents of enlightenment, but here they appear as angels of death. “That same Europe where they are never done talking of Man,” writes Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, “and where they never stopped proclaiming they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.”

For Fanon, the violence of European colonialism could only be stopped by means of force. Anticolonial revolt was, therefore, a purifying violence. He was utopian in his imagination of Africa after decolonization: the continent would begin “a new history of Man” which would not imitate Europe but would “advance a step further” than the culture of the colonizers. This utopian vision of a postcolonial Africa was Fanon’s ultimate moral rationale for violent resistance to European imperialism—he believed in revolution, not retribution. But to what extent does Fanon’s justification mirror Europe’s own alibi, killing condoned in service of a better world? Is absolute violence more permissible when it comes from below rather than above? Will the future be sufficiently improved to justify murder in the present? These ethical questions are the unsettled legacy of Fanon’s intellectual project, and they are at the heart of Olsson’s film.

Reviews of Concerning Violence mostly portray the film as a passionate call to arms, but it’s not so simple—there’s no blind endorsement here. Instead, the film gives us the opportunity to see what Fanon’s incitement implies, to pair the theory of violent resistance to European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa with its real-life historical manifestation. For viewers inclined to an incrementalist, nonviolent politics, the vicious dismemberment of native Africans by colonial soldiers poses a challenge: this is the immeasurable brutality of empire, the suffering it guarantees while you’re waiting for the timing to be right. And for those given to fantasies of violent resistance, the slaughter of European soldiers functions similarly as a problematizing rejoinder: armed insurrection promises liberation, but in the meantime it involves young people lying in pieces on the forest floor. We know that Fanon believed revolutionary bloodshed was both necessary and defensible, but it’s not clear that Olsson is looking to secure accord from his viewers. Concerning Violence is something other than a straightforward entreaty to revolutionary action. It is an encouragement to face the specter of absolute violence, from both sides of the imperial divide, and decide where we stand politically and ethically in relation to it.

The violence that interests Fanon most in The Wretched of the Earth and Olsson in Concerning Violence is different from the psychic pain of marginalization. It is not a word that insults, a gesture that humiliates, an attitude of hatred, or condescension expressed through etiquette or comportment or discourse. This is a violence in which blood and bone, life and death are at stake. Concerning Violence asks nothing less of viewers than to consider the moral implications of killing for freedom. It is not an exhortation to combat. It’s an invitation to reflect on the ethical formulation that Fanon, in the twilight of his short life and with nothing left to lose, put purposefully to a readership that would long outlive him.

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