Forensic Fanon in a Colonial Court
Updated: Mar 14
The oppressor's government can set up commissions of inquiry and of information daily if it wants to; in the eyes of the native, these commissions do not exist. The fact is that soon we shall have had seven years of crimes in Algeria and there has not yet been a single Frenchman indicted before a French court of justice for the murder of an Algerian. -Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
While serving as director of the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital in Algeria, Frantz Fanon was at times tasked by the local courts with ascertaining whether Algerians who repudiated their own clear confessions were afflicted with some form of paranoid insanity. It is the job of the forensic psychiatrist to determine whether or not the accused was insane at the moment of committing the crime or at the time of trial: are we dealing with a criminal capable of understanding his own acts or a confused madman? Is she mentally fit to stand trial, or is she better suited to the madhouse? The feeling of being persecuted and controlled by mysterious figures of authority is the most recognizable motif of paranoid thought in the European medical tradition: Daniel Paul Schreber is under hypnotic attack from a psychiatrist-God, distant machines controlled by malevolent engineers stimulate a young woman’s genitals in Berlin, a gang of politicians perpetrate gas attacks against psychiatric inmates in Bedlam and transmit specific thoughts straight through into his skull. In these cases, the victim is not persecuted on account of a tangible transgression, but seemingly for no reason. According to the central European school of psychiatry, those enraptured by paranoia cannot be responsible to the law, because their insanity either compels them to act or so thoroughly clouds their perception that the difference between right and wrong acts disappears along with the common world the sane inhabit.
What is the psychiatrist to make of the fact that 80% of the Algerians who made clear and verifiable confessions were later retracting them when further questioned? One trained in the ethnopsychiatry of the Porot school had two ready-made explanations: the North African is biologically predisposed to lying or he acted under influence of a reactive psychosis (likewise on account of a phylogenetic and constitutional feebleness). Porot supposes that the widespread retractions amount to a primitive instinct reaction:
The only intellectual resistance of which they are capable takes the form of a tenacious and insurmountable obstinacy, of a power of perseveration that defies all undertakings and that in general is only exercised in a direction determined by interests, instincts or essential beliefs. The wronged native quickly becomes a tenacious and obstinate plaintiff (quoted in Khalfa, 193).
In the 1955 text “Conducts of confession in North Africa,” Fanon and his colleague Raymond Lacaton dispense with the narrow clinical concerns of medical jurisprudence to open up the problem to the wider moral, ethical, and political conditions of a colonial state.
True to the divergent methods of the Blida-Joinville psychiatric milieu, Fanon and Lacaton sidestep the question of illness at the jump and ask instead what it is about the courts that give rise to this phenomenon. This commencing evasive maneuver sheds the veneer of professional expertise or disciplinary exclusivity by framing the problem as politico-juridical rather than medical. What is the purpose of a confession? Surely, for the court, its primary aim is to “discover the truth of the act,” but the authors suggest that the gesture of confession belongs to the “foundation of the truth of its author” (Alienation and Freedom, 410). Confessing to the truth of a specific act betrays the common foundation of that truth. How one confesses, to whom, and in what context is contingent on the ethical universe the perpetrator locates themselves within. In the philosophical register of Sartre’s existentialism referenced by the authors, the criminal who confesses takes responsibility for his fate while the one who denies his acts is trapped in a state of alienation and absurdity.
The confession, Fanon explains in a talk given at a psychiatric conference in Nice on the same topic, has two poles: one civic and the other moral. On a superficial level, one could say that this means that the transgressor, through their confession, recognizes their fault in respect to the law and in respect to shared moral or ethical principles; the confessor says “I confess as a citizen and I validate the social contract” and “I confess as a man and I am sincere” (414). Confession is not a simple act of admitting to a wrong; it admits too of a prior recognition of the validity of the law and its operational reality. The latter recognition is no less real for being silent, for any particular redress is not possible without the passive acceptance that the conciliation will happen within existing legal infrastructure in accordance with juridical norms. Juridical norms are, in turn, inseparable from ethical norms: the confession is the “price of [the perpetrator’s] reinsertion into the group” (Fanon and Lacaton, 410). When the perpetrator confesses, they publicly acknowledge their entanglement in reciprocal ethical standards, and commit to their continued enforcement.
The courts cannot keep up stolid and solemn appearances in the colony. In Algeria, where “lawlessness, inequality, and multiple daily murder of humanness were erected as legislative principles” (434) recourse to dominant European legal ethics as a basis for conduct was worse than empty rhetoric, it was an insult and affront to a colonized people who experienced the juridical system as a convoluted extension of the policeman’s gun and the warden’s baton. Existential and juridical-moral ideals must be thrown out and discarded to understand the colonial encounter. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon often argues by means of stark contrasts and oppositions; he takes to tracing the outlines of the colonial encounter in sharp lines. In the chapter on violence, one of his exemplary contrasts is that of the colonial society compared with an advanced capitalist one: in the latter, power is mediated through moral teachers and intermediaries while
In the colonial countries, on the contrary, the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force. (38)
The court leverages a violence parallel to the policeman’s bullets against the world of the native. Somewhere in their stolid law books are codes and statutes so malleable and meaningless that robed judges regularly lock away Black and Arab defendants for the same crimes the white policeman is celebrated for. The courts likely received almost very little sustained attention in Fanon’s work because he saw them as merely ancillary to the rifles and mines that populate colonies. Gavels struck wood only after the bullets had already sprayed the hideouts of insurgents and only retroactively to justify the massacres. The entire legal apparatus—from the letter of the law to the court’s routine procedure—stood naked on public display as a weapon in the hands of the colonizer.
Doctors and psychiatrists, in their role as forensic experts for the courts, were no better: they were frequently called upon in Algeria to falsify autopsies and clear torturers of legal culpability. They were even recruited to administer electroshock and “truth serums” to suspects, directly engaging in a system of coerced confessions (“Medicine and Colonialism,” 136-8). Psychiatrists were thought to be particularly useful for exploiting their knowledge of how to make suspects break and mobilized their knowledge of supposed “treatments” to torture the colonized and extract information. That the “colonized perceives the doctor, the engineer, the schoolteacher, the policeman, the rural constable, through the haze of an almost organic confusion” (121) should come as no surprise. A little later, it should be noted, Fanon used his position in a fashion diametrically opposed to that of his colleagues: he taught militants how to harden their minds and emotions against the torture devices and mechanisms he knew from his own training.
The complicity of medical examiners and forensic experts in police violence has continued unabated. Sylvia Wynter, in her 1992 intervention directed at her academic colleagues in the immediate wake of the Los Angeles riots “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” describes how the police chief could explain away police culpability for their choking murders of Black men by explaining that they “had something abnormal with their windpipes” (42). In the summer of 2020, the first medical autopsy following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis cited coronary artery disease, hypertension, fentanyl, and meth as potential contributing factors to his violent murder by Derek Chauvin. While the latter still had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, another officer reportedly said he was “worried about excited delirium or whatever” (Santo). The diagnosis of “excited delirium” is not recognized by any major psychiatric association or diagnostic manual, but is regularly applied retroactively to victims of police murder by medical examiners and forensic experts to soften the responsibility of or fully exculpate the involved officers. Excited delirium suggests that Black victims of police executions are invulnerable monsters in life, but still so vulnerable to human touch that the slightest routine contact causes a biological shutdown and death. Just a few months prior to Floyd’s death, Nekeya Moody was murdered by the Ramsay County Sheriff’s deputies who were called after she went into cardiac arrest and was having a seizure. The officers restrained her in handcuffs and left her on the ground unattended for ten minutes. The medical examiners reported that her death four days later was caused by “probable complications of excited delirium with recent cocaine use” (See: Roth, Giorgiades). It seems that in the United States today, as in colonial Algeria, there exists a whole milieu of forensic professionals whose only purpose is to excuse the fatal violence of the police.
What then becomes of the confession when the accused cannot possibly integrate a law that excludes and abuses them, who’s in a situation where they were never a part of the group that now prosecutes them for a “crime” they don’t recognize? The native, put plainly, has not “established a commitment toward this social group, in whose power he is now held. Does he feel bound by a social contract? Does he feel excluded on account of his wrongdoing? And then, from which group?” (Fanon and Lacaton, 411) The native cannot be reintegrated into a social group they were never a part of; the sense that they violated a social contract experienced primarily as a violent imposition from outside doesn’t amount to much. The initial confession followed by its total retraction perfectly captures the contradictions of colonial North Africa: the understanding the colonizer's law is dominant is quickly followed by a clear rejection of its claims to a higher legitimacy. As Fanon and Lacaton explain:
What we probably see concretized in this way is the total separation between two social groups that co-exist—alas tragically—but where the integration of one by the other has not begun. The accused Muslim’s refusal to authenticate, by confessing his act, the social contract proposed to him, means that his often profound submission to the powers-that-be (in this instance, the power of the judiciary), which we have noted, cannot be confounded with an acceptance of this power (412).
The colonized may have the understanding that opposing the law will bring consequences, but they in no way accept these consequences as natural, right, or just. The retraction of the confession—the tendency to lie to the courts upon further questioning—illuminates the truth of the colonial encounter which fosters in its core a relation of mutual hostility strictly adhering to a vertical flow of power along racial lines.
In his essay “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents,” Frank Wilderson, III analyses the various rejections of the court’s legitimacy by Black radicals in the US. In the trials of Black Liberation Army insurgents and Assata Shakur examined there, sessions in court were seized upon as opportunities to denounce American jurisprudence in toto. Wilderson’s essay differs in the main from Fanon and Lacaton’s short texts by focusing the question of the law’s applicability and domain squarely on the relation to dedicated political radicals, more precisely Black radicals and, to a lesser extent, their white co-conspirators. Their rejection of US jurisprudence was perhaps unsurprisingly more principled and categorical than the average colonized Arab defendant profiled by the Blida-Joinville psychiatrists. Through derisory humor and and outright denunciation of the juridical theater
They rejected the terms of jurisprudential engagement by refusing the hermeneutics of individual guilt or innocence. They believed the power to pose the question is the greatest power of all. In short, they sought to short circuit the court’s disciplinary logic by exploiting their trial, a window of time between arraignment and incarceration, as an opportunity to shift the terms of adjudication from moral questions of guilt and innocence to ethical questions of state power and political legitimacy (7).
Kuwasi Balagoon’s statement delivered in lieu of a legal defense is characteristic of this strategy: after recounting the recent murders of Black women, men, and children alike at the hands of the state or an unpunished white citizenry, he declares “I thought murder was legal” (quoted in Wilderson, 13). This facetious but entirely lucid thought “locates the court at the end of a metonymic chain of hate crimes, and thus, politicizes the presumed impartiality of the pending violence” and it does so much more potently than Fanon and Lacaton’s Algerian defendants’ retractions. While the Algerian militants had a diffuse urban battlefield to fight on, the BLA—lacking the numbers and means to take on the Earth’s most bloated superpower— took the fight into the courts and made them into a contentious, almost carnivalesque, political spectacle. The “facts of the case” were no longer in question: the US political project and its capacity and legitimacy to enforce the law was being put on trial.
There are echoes in Algeria of Jacques Vergès' famous "rupture defense" characterized by "rigorously accepting the description of facts that the colonial prosecution deploys, embracing the absence of attenuating circumstances to the crime, and furthermore, to affirm that the accused does not regret her or his crime and would be eager to commit more if given the opportunity" (Lambert). Prior to his more infamous and controversial cases, Vergès erupted into French and Algerian consciousness after applying the rupture defense in the case of Djamila Bouherid, an Algerian National Liberation Front militant accused of planting a bomb in a cafe that killed eleven, a scene that was later reenacted in the film The Battle of Algiers. Vergès' defense consisted neither in denying his client's participation in this act nor in trying to chalk it up to circumstances that might attenuate her guilt, but in questioning the right of the court to judge Algerians at all. Fanon and Lacaton’s concerns come into clearer relief: if “to recognize his act before a judge is to disapprove of it, to legitimize the irruption of the public into the private,” (Alienation and Freedom, 412) the point of a retraction is not to diametrically assert the legitimacy of the private individual over the public authority, but to place the operative powers that determine how the public and private are legally determined into question, or to undermine them altogether. Such a determination involves perforce more than the juridical-factual question about who is or isn’t involved in a social contract. The Algerian Muslim defendants Fanon and Lacaton study, like the Black defendants in Wilderson’s essay, are denied a more elemental reciprocity in an ethical sense: there is no “reciprocal recognition of the group by the individual and of the individual by the group” (Alienation and Freedom, 410); such defendants are not included in the “ethical universe” (412) of the colonizers and the whites.
To understand this concept of the “ethical universe,” it is necessary to make reference to Fanon’s seminal work on Black experience and psychology in a white world, Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon explains in numerous passages that Black people are uniquely excluded from any general ethical belonging in white civil society, that they are in fact defined by this principle of non-inclusion. When one meets a Russian, Iranian, German, or a Japanese person, one always knows “that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standards must be different.” However, this is not the case for Black people: “He has no culture, no civilization, no ‘long historical past’” (21). As Fanon tells it, this exclusion based on a presumed groundlessness and absence of history has pervasive and diffuse effects on the relative standing of Black and white psyches:
In Europe and in every country characterized as civilized or civilizing, the family is a miniature of the nation. As the child emerges from the shadow of his parents, he finds himself once more among the same laws, the same principles, the same values. A normal child that has grown up in a normal family will be a normal man. But—and this is a most important point—we observe the opposite in the man of color. A normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world (109-10).
By “abnormal,” one could reasonably assume that Fanon is not just referring to the mental self-assessment that one is bad or different, but also the realization that they have no place in the broader “ethical universe.” Black people are perpetually guilty from the perspective of the white law and ethics: “A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of nonexistence. Sin is Negro as virtue is white. All those white men in a group, guns in their hands, cannot be wrong. I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good” (106). Fanon doesn’t mince words on the origins of such a legal and ethical exclusion in bloody massacres and brutal occupation. Fanon and Lacaton are on the search for cracks in the juridical edifice where the seemingly impenetrable wall of guilt might be through refusal or violence, crumbled and torn apart.
Sylvia Wynter further explores the “mutual incomprehension and ontological insularity” (Bulhan, 229) at issue here in her essay, “’No Humans Involved:’ An Open Letter to my Colleagues,” referenced above. The title refers to the N.H.I. code Los Angeles judicial officials used to describe cases of police brutality or excess that involved young Black men; it meant “no humans involved” (42). The judicial apparatus here operates within an ontological paradigm and a “system of classification” that categorically and from the outset precludes the recognition of Black people as human. Wynter, borrowing the concept from Helen Fein, holds that this classificatory logic shuts Black people out of the “universe of moral obligation” that ultimately binds the interests of “the Simi Valley jurors as Whites and non-Blacks (one Asian, one Hispanic), to the interests of the White policemen and the Los Angeles judicial office-holders” (44). Wynter again quotes Fein to argue that Black people are treated as if they are outside the “sanctified universe of obligation—that circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other whose bonds arose from their relation to a deity or a sacred source of authority” (44). The principle of mutual reciprocity—central to much of Fanon’s analysis—is simultaneously the legal recognition of the other as a citizen with rights and an ethical one that sees the other as a human being with needs, desires, affect, and interiority that demand recognition. We arrive here again at the juridical-ethical logic of the courts in a civil society with roots in colonialism and slavery; it is a logic that works on account of an epistemological feedback loop that feeds its ethical failure to treat the other as human into its legal expressions and justifications of violence in order to gain cohesion. No amount of paranoia could measure up to the cynical logic of white settler law. What can one do in the face of such a law besides refuse it until the nearest crack in the wall is exposed and the project of demolition can proceed?
We have ventured quite far from the original inquiry into questions of forensic psychiatry in the Algerian court. In this case, as in so many others, psychiatric determinations are little more than elaborate obstacles to a basic question. Scores of psychiatric questions can only be understood by challenging psychiatry’s claims to authority and, just as often, by politicizing its classifications, and denouncing its apologias for rotten systems of power.
*For a general overview of Fanon's psychiatric thought and practice, see my last article here.
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Georgiades, Niko. “Say Her Name — Nekeya Moody Killed in February 2020 After Encounter with Minnesota Police.” Unicorn Riot. https://unicornriot.ninja/2020/say-her-name-nekeya-moody-killed-february-2020-after-encounter-with-minnesota-police/
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Roth, Alisa. “‘Excited delirium’ cited in Floyd case, and in other deaths involving law enforcement.” MPR News. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/07/13/excited-delirium-cited-in-floyd-case-and-in-other-deaths-involving-law-enforcement
Santo, Alysia. “As George Floyd Died, Officer Wondered About ’Excited Delirium’”. The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/06/04/as-george-floyd-died-officer-wondered-about-excited-delirium
Wilderson, Frank III. “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents.” Intensions 5. https://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/pdfs/frankbwildersoniiiarticle.pdf
Wynter, Sylvia. “‘No Humans Involved;’ An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I. 1, no. 1. https://libcom.org/files/Wynter5.pdf