Psychiatric hospitals tend to create institutionalised patients, thus further alienating them from their communities. But what also became clear to philosopher Frantz Fanon, while working as a psychiatrist at Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria between 1953 and 1956, was that patient integration was impossible in colonial societies.
By definition, colonies produce fragmented societies that are haunted by fear and suspicion. As such they remain divided and their culture, increasingly rigid.
Fanon’s short article “Confession in North Africa” was first delivered at the 1955 Congrès de Psychiatrie et de Neurologie de Langue Française. It was coauthored with his colleague and fellow director at Blida-Joinville Hospital, Raymond Lacaton. In the paper, they discussed ideas of confession, reciprocity and social reintegration. They also offered a critique of medical practices.
Like other psychiatrists working in Algerian hospitals, Fanon hadn’t only attended to patients at the hospital, but had also been called upon by the colonial authorities to assess the sanity of people accused of crimes. By definition, confessions entail a form of “reciprocal recognition” in that they are prepared for a court. Yet, they signal the taking of ownership of personal wrongdoing and guilt.
This idea of admitting one’s guilt — and paying one’s debt — is connected with reintegration into society. But the courts were finding that 80% of accused Algerians who had signed confessions after their arrest were retracting their statements. What the accused had agreed was true while at the police station was suddenly being denied. Clearly, something was going awry.
Fanon and Lacaton described a typical encounter:
Only the file remains. And the charges it contains, as we have seen, often weigh very heavily against the accused. He reenacted the crime, revealed the location of the weapon and several witnesses confirm having seen him strike (although sometimes even the witnesses retract their testimony). Then, when the time comes for the psychiatric evaluation, the expert finds himself in the presence of a lucid, coherent man proclaiming his innocence… The psychiatric expert is unable to uncover the truth of the criminal.
The question Fanon and Lacaton addressed was why the accused were unwilling to stand by their confession.
Resistance to European rule
Fanon and Lacaton argued that the accused used silence to signal their non acceptance of being defined as criminal by the colonial administration.
The courts dismissed these silences as further evidence of “North African syndrome”. It was thus consistent with the theories of colonial psychiatrists such as Boigey, Porot and Aubin, that North Africans naturally lie.
Fanon dismissed the then-hegemonic Algiers School’s notion of North Africans as pathological liars. Therefore the role of the confession had to be investigated. By extension the validity of the court itself had to be called into question.
Fanon and Lacaton suggested, therefore, that confession represented a truth built on a kind of pseudo-reciprocity. They argued that the pseudo-truth of the initial confession can be understood as a result of submission to colonial rule, but that this was,
not to be confused with acceptance.
The retraction in fact represented a real truth. It expressed the “total separation” between the two social groups — European and North African. Thus, “the refusal of the accused Muslim to authenticate the social contract” by confessing to a crime means that,
an often profound submission in the face of power is not to be confused with the acceptance of that power.
As Fanon put it in the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth,
the colonised subject is always presumed guilty (but) the colonised does not accept guilt. Dominated but not domesticated (and) made to feel inferior (the colonised) is not convinced of inferiority.
What the colonial law courts considered a failure of integration was in fact an elemental resistance to European rule.
Fanon undermined the theories of the Algiers School and the colonial project generally. The Algiers School, founded by University of Lyon-trained Porot, held theories that black people are lazy and lack imagination, Arabs are criminally inclined and over-impulsive, North Africans have a propensity to lie, and so on.
Fanon dissolved these insidious stereotypes by placing the whole issue within a political frame.
Politics of truth
Another crucial issue arises from the short paper he wrote with Lacaton, namely, the politics of truth and lies in a colonial society. Fanon also succinctly articulated this in [The Wretched of the Earth]:
In answer to the living lie of the colonial situation, the colonised subject responds with an equal falsehood.
This notion of fundamental resistance reappears in a series of lectures that Fanon delivered at the University of Tunis in 1959 and 1960, titled “The Encounter of Psychiatry and Society”. During the lectures, Fanon responded to the question of the alleged laziness of the colonised as follows:
The idleness of the colonised is a means of protection, a measure of self-defence above all physiological… Work was conceived as forced labour in the colonies and, even if there is no whip, the colonial situation itself is a whip. It is normal that the colonised refuses to do anything since work leads nowhere for them.
In a chapter in [The Wretched of the Earth] called “Colonial War and Mental Disorders”, Fanon returned to the laziness of the colonised as a form of resistance, calling the zealous worker “pathological”:
In a colonial regime if a fellah were a zealous worker or a black were to refuse a break from work, they would be quite simply considered pathological cases. The colonised indolence is a conscious way of sabotaging the colonial machine; on the biological level it is a remarkable system of self-preservation and, if nothing else, a positive curb on the occupier’s stranglehold over the entire country.
This is an edited extract from Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce’s book Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics (Wits University Press).