2021, issue 2
Willem Schinkel & Rogier van Reekum
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Krisis 41 (2): 76-78.
762021, issue 2
Willem Schinkel & Rogier van Reekum
[W]hen the colonized hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his
knife – or at least he makes sure it is within reach. (Fanon 2002 [1961], 46)1
Savages are not better human beings.One can nd in Black students
(Negerstudenten) of national economy, in Siamese students at Oxford, and in
devoted art-historians and musicologists of petty bourgeois background
generally the inclination and readiness to combine the appropriation of what
is new and to be learned with a boundless respect for what is established,
validated or recognized. (§ 32)
It is 1952, a year after Adorno wrote Minima Moralia, an acclaimed culmination of cul-
tural criticism. Fanon takes out a knife and cuts Adorno’s throat. Let Martin Jay (1984)
ruminate over the motherfucker’s picture now: no longer mournfulness, not even (this is
important) surprise, just despair. You can just see Adorno think, with his despair-ridden
deer-in-headlights gaze, ‘but that was only a theoretical model!’
Or so we imagine. We imagine Fanon’s knife as a device of invention, as partak-
ing in the invention of human beings that he describes, in 1952, in Peau noire, masques
blancs. This invention is the invention of modalities of togetherness that do not yet exist,
and the very imagination of invention already constitutes what Harney and Moten have
called fugitivity (Harney & Moten 2013). A mode of being that recognizes, as Adorno
does, that there is no escape, but also that there is, at least, at the very least and all the
time, fugitivity, lines of ight, invention.
What appears to have hardly been noted thus far is that Fanon, anyhow preoccupied
with the role of the knife in Algerian (anti-)colonialism, seems to be ring o of Nazi
poet Hanns Johst: “Wenn ich Kultur höre... entsichere ich meinen Browning. What
Fanon establishes seems, at rst sight, to be the exact inverse of Johst: the deployment of
a fascist trope against fascism itself. But he’s deploying it against the fascism long recog-
nized (by Du Bois, Césaire, and many others) as expressed in the fact of the colony as
both precursor to and experimental testing ground of the European concentration camp.
And this means it’s not quite an inversion. It’s an inversion that ends up with
an excess, a bycatch. Johst inverted gives something that doesn’t only put the knife
to fascism’s throat, but to Adorno’s as well. Like a magical mirror showing more
than expected the ghosts in the room putting the knife to fascism’s throat means
putting it to something that, more generally, ruminates about its culture, assesses it over
against those Adorno calls savages (Wilden) – by which he means Black people, Asians,
non-occidentals generally speaking, perhaps accidentals. This something that shows up
as Fanon’s bycatch to fascism, this excess that extends the very meaning of fascism, is what
can simply be called whiteness. Invisible, until it appears in the reection of Fanon’s blade.
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Adorno, we imagine, does not survive Fanon. He does not survive this encounter with
blackness that he very well knows (herein lies Adorno’s exceptional contribution) to be
the epicentre of the double helix of fascism and capitalism. And so he avoids it, being
caught up in, and most forcefully and tellingly expressing, an aect we might call ‘white
pessimism’ – but only if you promise to crack a smile, or giggle a little at the very idea,
at the very thought that this could be an aect one is caught in.
White pessimism acts as, pretends to be, the last defense against… well, what
else: history. Against the return of history, of all those ghosts, of lives expended. Payback
time. This pretense acts to hold up, swallow and piteously regurgitate the history of
mankind so that our future never arrives and is forever cast as a foreshadowing of man’s
disillusionment. Caved still. Negative dialectics: something to claim to have arrived at, a
claim to history, history now undone – undone only now, it is implied.
The catch, of course, is that the pessimism is fully justied. There is nothing to
redeem. We will be stripped of everything we may once have thought was ours, and
we lack even a single reason to object. As it was gained, it will be lost. Capital will not
endure anything else. So as long as one pretends that all of this would eventually come
about, that all of this, however contingent, has been unfolding along some temporal arc,
progress now unmasked as doom, one is still masking, still clinging to whiteness and,
as such, even if resigned to a stationary posture, still waiting for some contradiction, for
help. However, as Jonathan Jackson writes to his brother George, “While we await the
precise moment when all of capitalism’s victims will indignantly rise to destroy the
system, we are being devoured in family lots at the whim of this thing. There will be
no super-slave” (Jackson 1990, 10-11). There was never going to be one. Dialectics is
how this thing called whiteness entertains itself in the meantime. Or, and this cannot be
controversial: dialectics tracks the time it takes the master to abolish himself. A long time.
And while we wait: what if we practice pessimism not as any negative con-
clusion to what humanity, at one time, might have expected, but as the lived reality of
our common existence in invention? The ever-recurring inventiveness that lives from,
in, and through the failure of the world. Never getting stuck on words. So let’s quickly
rush past words, words about how white people don’t deserve pessimism. White people,
like the rest of us, deserve nothing to begin with. The pessimism that is our existence
in common was already right there, plenty already, escaping history, coming with us,
returning with us. We were never going anywhere, so what’s the wait? Why the posture?
Martin Jay is right to point out the despair and mournfulness on Adorno’s face. But
why is Adorno not surprised when Fanon cuts his throat? Don’t you know he’s been
talking to Houria Bouteldja all along?
Adorno’s despair, this aect of total capture, emerges as the ultimate realiza-
tion of capital’s avowal of its operations as eacement, as desertication. Is there any-
thing negative here? Anything that is not folded into a logic that claims total capture,
but that of course fails to achieve it, fails to preclude invention? Why does Adorno
appear to believe capital’s confession of total capture, this armative admission of guilt?
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Why does he perform it? Why, when it is clear (to him) that capital generates outsides,
that there are outsides generative of capital, that capital always already presupposed the
not-quite-human subjects (not-quite-subjects) of ‘race’, never quite enlisted as life but
always available as death, as objects for the act of killing? Why, when it is clear that,
despite all that, there is and will be fugitivity, invention?
Adorno writes: “Hitler’s stupidity was a ruse of reason” 69). Now, in the
fullest loyalty of betrayal, let’s paraphrase him. Let’s substitute Adorno for Hitler (and
is this substitution not the secret summary of Adorno’s theoretical program?): Adorno’s
stupidity was a ruse of reason. Now cut it.
“[...] lorsqu’un colonisé entend un discours
sur le culture occidentale, il sort sa machette ou du
moins il s’assure qu’elle est à portée de sa main.
1Rogier van Reekum is an assistant professor at the
department of Public Administration and Sociology
of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His work
focuses on the politics of migration and knowledge
controversies. Rogier has published on border
visuality, nationalism, place making, citizenship &
migration politics, immigration policy and education.
Willem Schinkel is professor of social theory at
Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Peau noire, masques blancs. Par is:
Fanon, Frantz. 2002 [1961]. Les damnés de la terre.
Paris: La Découverte.
Jackson, George L. 1990 [1972]. Blood in My Eye.
Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press.
Jay, Martin. 1984. Adorno. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. 2013. The
Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study.
Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.
Notes Biography