9:00 a.m. is an ungodly time for any class to begin. A young white student sits bored among her classmates in a half-empty classroom, waiting for the lecture to start. Head resting in hand, she doodles in her notebook and absent-mindedly glances at a syllabus. The day’s topic reads specters of race. “Something to do with prejudice,” she mumbles to herself, half in the hopes that at least today’s video, what was it, oh yeah, Frantz Fanon, would be something to look at. These classes were particularly difficult for her, a situation she’d remedied through daily gripe sessions with friends. “The reading assignments are way too long for an art course,” they’d tell each other. “And the language the professor uses, what’s up with that ?” The class screenings were lifesavers in that regard. And if the videos were agonizing, like that movie Suture, you could still use the time in the dark to catch up on some Z’s. Suddenly she remembers the class had moved to a room where the windows have no blinds. “God, I hope this is good,” she mumbles. A few students within earshot roll their eyes in agreement.
The video begins. A black man appears and speaks of being “an object in the midst of other objects,” or some such stuff. Guy’s not bad looking, she muses. Sound bites extracted from Fanon’s famous text Black Skin White Masks fill the room.
“Look, a Negro....Mama, see the Negro! I’m Frightened!”
Oh, yeah now that’s an old term, the girl thinks to herself. Funny how hip hop brought that back, like how they’d all say “hey neeegrow” to each other on In Living Color. Now that show was dope. Cool how all that stuff is back again, like “Negro” an’ Tony Bennett an’ shit.
I am over-determined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance. I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed.
The girl yawns, stretching her arms up behind her head languorously, then begins to doodle again, unable to sleep with all that sun beaming in. She studies the face of the black man playing Fanon. Hmmm, nice mouth, fleshy and round, but not too much...let’s see, sort of like this. And there upon her notepad it began to emerge: the soft lips and round nose of “Fanon.” As the movie progressed, she became more consumed with her caricatures, leaving one illustration of Fanon’s lips to perfect another, followed by his nose and eyes, all in bits and pieces scattered across the blue college-lined sheet of paper.
* * *
Entering class that day to instruct a seminar on the work of Franz Fanon, as interpreted by filmmaker Isaac Julien, we had a goal: to illustrate the manner in which white and black subjectivities are “imbricated along the axis of inauthenticity,” as post-colonial theoreticians have argued. Yet it soon became apparent that we had entered into a situation where everyone was taking aim, but at what? As Lacan has pointed out, an aim is different from a goal. A goal is tangible and can be met. An aim, however, needs no goal, just as the anorexic who fetishizes food need not eat. When confronted with those who take aim as a recreational practice, one's goal becomes superfluous. A position of poised attention to the words of a professor certainly wasn’t their goal, nor was the rejection of any such lesson. Rather we functioned as a deflector device for an aim that is always already internalized. And this internalized aim1, we soon came to understand, was consistent with what psychoanalyst Nicholas Abraham has termed the “phantom”, pointing to what we’d like to call the trouble with Fanon.
A filmic manifestation of the phantom occurs in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, in which a young couple struggles unsuccessfully to bury the woman’s ex-husband, Harry. Their inability to face the secrets entombed with Harry required that the body be repetitively dug up, re-buried, and so on. Since he is never quite laid to rest, Harry psychologically “haunts” those trying to keep his accidental death a secret, a death for which each person mistakenly takes responsibility at different points in the story. In the end, the young woman exclaims with exhaustion, “the trouble with Harry is that he’s dead.” But it wasn’t actually Harry’s death that haunted them, if we borrow Abraham’s definition of the phantom. It was the gap left within them by the secrets of Harry’s life that haunted the survivors. His less than savory existence implicated them all. For instance, his wife’s own lack of empathy for Harry’s death—“He was a real bastard”—entangled her in a potential murder trial. Thus, the “secret” of Harry’s death was unknowingly internalized by all those who individually feared that they had killed him for different reasons. This dilemma was consistently played out through an open secret that necessarily protected the integrity of both the legend of Harry as well as those who survived him.