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A word on sociogeny and ‘lived experience’

The work on this course, Understanding Race, is a work in progress. When I began teaching it in 2018 I had the ambition of providing different content each year, or developing a new theme. The first year was a collection of recent books and articles that I was most excited about that year, while in 2019 I focused on racial capitalism. Last year, I was on sabbatical and the course didn’t run. That gave me time to reflect in what would be best to do with this course and I decided to develop a more or less general syllabus that could work year to year but to which I could add/take away different readings while keeping the basic structure. That might change in future as part of what I want to do with this course is (selfishly) to assist myself in my own development as a scholar. I say selfishly, but actually I think if we don’t grow and learn ourselves – admitting where our gaps are and what we still need to know (in my case infinite amounts) — then we don’t do a very good job of teaching. Rolling out the same references year upon year is something I have seen far too much of, and while I don’t agree with throwing out the old (I disagree with a recent twitter thread that drew a lot of ire that suggested that we only need to include references from the last five years), it is tiresome to see reading lists full of old debates from 1990s postcolonialism, for example, that don’t take into account the extent to which Indigenous and decolonial scholarship has challenged that body of work. 

So, in view of these comments, some of what I want to do is to return to and/or add to comments that I made on earlier blog posts for this course. In Week 2, we looked at whether or not social constructionism is a useful concept and/or what work it has to do to be useful. This builds on the commentary here, ‘Concepts and Debates: Race as a social construct’ which is actually the most visited post on my blog and formed the basis for Chapter 1 of my book, Why Race Still Matters, ‘Race Beyond Social Construction’. Please read that post before reading on if you haven’t before, or access chapter 1 of the book here

What I wanted to do here was to elaborate on the discussion we had in class after we read a short excerpt from Sylvia Wynter‘s essay, ‘Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of “Identity” and What it’s Like to be “Black”/’. (Unfortunately this version of the reading has a little cut off at the end of the pages, but it doesn’t take away from the overall meaning).

Sylvia Wynter

In class, we read the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon in which he mentions the notion of sociogeny, the basis for Wynter’s development of what she calls the ‘sociogenic principle’. We had a brief discussion in class about the difficulty of Wynter’s writing and I suggested that, while it is important to be able to write in a straightforward manner, sometimes when everything is handed to us on a plate the we don’t have to work hard to understand. With Wynter, I find myself going back on sentences again and again, but then there are glimmers. By reading together in class and sharing passages that are meaningful it allows those helpful glimmers to burst through as part of overall learning. I told the students about a professor at Columbia, who once told me that sometimes his students spend the whole semester reading a paragraph! An exaggeration perhaps but you get the point!

When I discuss the socially constructedness of race, the main contention is a simple one, that it is insufficient to state that race is socially produced, and that it is imperative to show how and under what circumstances it was produced and continues to be reproduced in a variety of settings over time. Race is understood as a fundamentally shape-shifting phenomenon that is adaptive to time and location.

However, we also spoke about the importance not to anthropomorphise race: who and what is enacting power in racial rule must be named. That is why I have named the goal of race as a technology of power as the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy, understanding that more and more, white supremacy drifts from its strict location in white dominant states and has iterations that mirror the operations of white power even when they are not white, Christian or European; Zionism and Hindu nationalism being two cases in point.

Leaving this aside, for the purposes of this blog post I wanted to focus on a different question, one raised by Wynter in her appraisal of Fanon’s contribution, that is the reason for why Fanon emphasises the social origins of race, or more specifically in the case of the discussion in Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM), blackness. The notion of sociogeny—social genesis, which Fanon opposes to both phylogeny (species level origins) and ontogeny (the development of an individual organism in its own lifetime)—speaks to the intrinsically relational nature of humanness for colonised Black people. 

In Chapter 5 of BSWM, ‘The Lived Experience of Blackness’/’The Fact of Blackness’, Fanon describes Black people as having ‘no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man’ and then he immediately writes,

‘Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.’  

BSWM (p. 83)

Here, Fanon echoes W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness, in which Black people are forced to see themselves, both through their own eyes (‘his customs and the sources on which they were based’) and through the eyes of whites, a vision imbued with negativity, leading Du Bois to ask ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ Sylvia Wynter recognises this, introducing the idea of ‘normality’. People like both Fanon and Du Bois, educated within white institutions, socialized through their ‘bourgeois education, to be “Man” and therefore, to be “normal”’ were thus forced to experience themselves on ‘doubly conscious terms, as being both the norm and the Other’ (Wynter p. 22). She goes on to explain regarding Fanon, that ‘had he been “white” he would have experienced no disjuncture: indeed he would have been unable to conceive of what it’s like to be not “Man”, to be “a black man” and as such the negative other to the human’ (ibid.).

So, the question of sociogeny is intimately tied to epistemological questions regarding standpoint and perspective. The entire structure of the racialised conception of ‘Man’, to use Fanon’s terminology, or ‘the Human’, is predicated both by self-referentialism (white Europeans modelling the vision of what it is to be human on themselves), but also on an unspoken denial that this is the case due to the elevation of the idea of objectivity. So, humanness is said to be objectively conceived but at the same time, the emergence of the idea of what it means to be human at the very same time as ideas of racial supremacy were being elaborated in contexts of colonial and societies built on slavery meant in practice that humanness was always based on a comparative vision of white people vis-à-vis Black and Indigenous peoples, and all those whom whiteness excluded. (I am not making any original point here and for more on the connection between race and the human, see this earlier blogpost).

Wynter explains that what Fanon does in Black Skin, White Masks, is not only to explain what it is like to be Black (which is what is meant when Fanon speaks about lived experience). Fanon also insists that to understand humans we need sociogeny – in other words we need to understand their social evolution as well as their evolution at the level of the individual and the species – is a commentary on the whole ‘intractable mind/body opposition’ (Wynter p. 10). Wynter explains that by placing his lived experience of being a Black colonised person at the heart of his analysis of what it means to be human, Fanon blows apart a central assumption of the ‘mind-body problem’: that problem can only exist if one sees the human purely as ontogenetic, in other words as alone and unencumbered by social relations (a single organism, as in biology). 

The problem raised by ‘double consciousness’ – ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ – shatters the very possibility of ontogenesis. It reveals it to be a white invention that implies superiority because it presupposes that it is possible for any human being to exist independently of her relations with others in the social world and to be wholly focused on whether the mind comes before the body or vice versa. In fact, by showing how the experience of being Black reveals that we are all always seeing ourselves through others’ perceptions of us, Fanon shows that the mind-body problem is an artificial one, or put another way, an empirical impossibility. We can have no assessment of this that is independent of the social world.

But the point of sociogeny in terms of how it functions in the case of Black experience is that it requires this second sight – this seeing both of oneself as oneself and as one is seen by white dominant society. Whiteness, in contrast, allows those it advantages to live as intact humans rather than as individuals whose self-understanding was shattered  by the confusion caused by racial thinking, that caused Black people to question their own sense of self due to the weight of negativity imposed on them under racial rule.

As Wynter explains, the experience Fanon grapples with is historically contingent. It could only have come about after ‘the landing of a Portugese expedition on the shores of Senegal, West Africa, in the 1440s, followed by the transatlantic landing of Columbus (as an emissary of the Spanish state), on an island of the Caribbean in 1492 (Wynter p. 11). So, it was only after these events led to the ‘new phenomenon of the Western world system’ that it was at all possible for someone like Fanon to think about what it meant to be Black, a state of being – an experience – brought about and given meaning by the structures imposed by colonisation and the racial project that accompanied it. These ideas of race, that emerged in Europe, were imposed upon the majority of the world’s population and changed the experience of their humanity indelibly.

Representation of Columbus’ landing

But for white people, the unidirectional nature of self-perception set up by the idea of race allows them not only to falsely believe that they are the result of ontogenesis, but also to reject the idea that how Black, Indigenous or colonised people see them in turn is at all important for their own self-understanding. Of course, this situation is wilful because arguably, white people in positions of racial dominance know full well the effects of that domination, but are permitted under the structures established by racial rule to act as though this were not the case. This is what Charles W. Mills might refer to as structural white ignorance

The point of the sociogenic principle for Fanon is ultimately to reveal the artificiality of the Black-white binary, or as I tend to explain it, its arbitrariness outside of the system of racial-colonial rule which births it. It would have no meaning were history to have unfolded otherwise. As Wynter writes, for Fanon,

‘there is nothing “natural” nor indeed “normal” in the structure of the Black/White complex.’

(p. 12)

However, the appearance of naturalness is achieved not only through the fact of economic domination established by colonial rule but via the internalisation of an ‘inferiority complex’ that accompanies this (ibid.). By establishing the terms of racial rule as the natural order of things, white colonisers wilfully omit the very sociogenic nature of its development. So an insistence on the social constructedness of race and its purposefulness – in order to achieve European dominance in colonial settings – means forcing Europeans to be confronted with the purposeful nature of race as something that was created with a specific end: the domination and exploitation of colonised peoples. 

This is the power of Fanon’s concept of ‘lived experience’ and why we insist that without due attention to it we cannot see the full scope of the impact of race. Fanon’s lived experience as a Black man is what confronted him with the fact of sociogeny, because to recap, it was only through the ability to see his humanity from both sides – how he saw himself and how he was seen by others – that he was able to understand race as a political project that causes the internalisation of an inferiority complex. 

However, lived experience has entered into the lexicon of antiracism in a rather different way, a way that misses its analytical purpose. Lived experience has been reduced to the importance of hearing individual stories for the transformation of the racial status quo to take place. The ‘antiracism training industrial complex’, to use a controversial term, has built an empire around story-telling. As we discussed in class, based on students’ own experiences, often the ‘opportunity to tell one’s own story’ strips the story teller of the permission not only to do the telling but to be an analyser of her own experience. Thus, the story is shared as such, without explanation or theorisation, historicization or politicisation. What we are left with is an anecdote – often one that is difficult for the individual to have to relate – stripped of an account of the forces of power that underpin it. What that means for the story teller is often an increased sense of powerless, far from the promise of catharsis or empowerment that is promised as the carrot handed out for telling the story. We need thus to return, and to do some further work, on Fanon’s account of lived experience as a tool in theorizing sociogeny.

In conclusion, I wanted to acknowledge how much of the framing in Fanon’s work can be experienced as deeply painful for Black people reading it. When I teach it, I hear students’ words, and see their faces when they consider his descriptions of internalised negativity. These are not easy moments, but I hope that, when we discuss them with sensitivity and respect, they can be a balm in that Fanon can speak to the experiences of so many people, which is why he continues to be read and read again. I wish to thank every one of the students I have been honoured to work with for allowing me to have these conversations with them, and I am always open to be confronted with any limitation in the way I, as someone who benefits from whiteness, have approached the discussion. 

Alana Lentin