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Culture and Nation

Culture and Nation
Note to the facilitator(s)
In returning to the earlier question of how colonial social and economic structures reproduce
themselves long after colonial regimes have handed over power, we must consider – as Fanon did
– the question of ‘culture’. Culture is an extremely contentious and notoriously difficult to define
term. This exercise does not present a complete picture of the range of meanings and debates
concerning the meaning of culture. Rather, presents an opportunity for participants to begin
thinking about why culture matters when thinking about social and political change. Fanon offers
the following meaning of culture (note he is using the word ‘nation’ here to refer to ‘people’ in a
broad sense):
A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its
models. Other taboos, other values, other models are formed at every level of the entire
As we will see in the reading for Step 3 of this exercise, Fanon is examining the role of culture in
struggle. He specifically takes struggle to mean political or armed conflict. Fanon sees culture as
energising struggle through renewing and transforming the relations between people. In the
process, people themselves are transformed. Fanon continues:
This struggle, which aims at a fundamental redistribution of relations between men,
cannot leave intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture. After the struggle
is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized.2
But we cannot limit our understanding of culture just to the expressions, communications, values
or representations of particular groups of people even if, as Edward Said says, these are a source of
identity (see below). If we wish to understand the persistence of colonial relations of power, we
have to examine the ways in which culture becomes institutionalised and the ways in which
culture conveys status in society. For this reason, in Step 2 of the exercise, participants will
examine briefly the idea of ‘cultural hegemony’ as advanced by the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio
Gramsci3. Gramsci recognised the role of culture in relations of domination and subordination in
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) p.177. Grove Press, Translation Richard Philcox
Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937) was an Italian Marxist intellectual and political theorist. A founding
member of the Italian communist party, Gramsci was imprisoned in 1926 by Benito Mussolini’s fascist
regime. He remained in jail with his health steadily declining until 1933. He died in 1937. Gramsci’s Prison
Notebooks, containing amongst others his conception of ‘Cultural Hegemony’ were written between 1929
and 1935 and were smuggled out of prison, published in the 1950s and translated to English for the first
time in the 1970s.
society and the fact that these inequalities in turn, translate into differential capacities to
contribute to cultural and political life.4
All of these ideas will be consolidated and applied in Step 3 of the exercise, when participants will
have the chance to look more closely at an extract from the Fourth chapter of The Damned of The
Earth called ‘On National Culture’ – a statement Fanon gave at the Second Congress of Black
Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959.
Materials and Preparation
6 sheets of plain A3 paper for Step 1
Data projector and computer set up to display text
Printed ‘Handout for Exercise 3: The Meanings of Culture’ (one per participant)
Printed ‘Extract for Exercise 3: On National Culture’ (one per participant)
STEP 1: Opening discussion on the meaning of ‘culture’
Begin by breaking the larger group into smaller groups of about 5 people in each. Distribute a
clean sheet of A3 plain paper to each group and ask them to discuss an answer to the question:
‘What is culture to you?’. After they have done so, ask the groups to think of an example of an
expression of ‘culture’ in the world. Each group should be given the opportunity to share their
example with other groups.
During this discussion about culture, the following questions should be raised by the facilitators:
1. Where does culture come from? Have you considered material as well as non-material
elements of culture? What could be an example of each?
2. What does culture ‘do’, what is its purpose?
3. How is culture transmitted and who get to do the transmitting?
4. How are values transmitted through culture?
Now distribute ‘Handout for Exercise 3: The Meanings of Culture’ to the groups. Allow them to
read the extracts and debate or review what they have written. Having read the extracts and talked
further, groups should be given a short opportunity to share a summary of their discussion on the
meanings of culture with the room at large.
Some of the definitions refer to culture as a complex of ‘traditional’ behaviour. This emphasises culture
as a structure, but should be problematised since ‘traditional' practices or ideas are not simply, given
they are constructed.
For more about this see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (1977) p. 178 Oxford University Press
STEP 2: The political dimension of culture: Gramsci’s notion of ‘Cultural Hegemony’
After all the smaller groups have had a chance to present their understandings of culture,
facilitators should bring everyone back together to focus attention on the political dimension of
Distribute the following short text or put it up on the wall using a data projector so it is visible to all. A
volunteer could be asked to read it out as the group considers it together:
In analysing Fanon’s critique of how the social and economic structures of the colonial
situation persist after independence, in his book What Fanon Said, Lewis Gordon considers
the notion of ‘cultural hegemony’ as explained by the Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci
to be of central importance. Gramsci described ‘cultural hegemony’ as a:
“spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general
direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent
is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the
dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of
production [and] . . . state coercive power which “legally” enforces discipline on
those groups who do not “consent” either actively or passively. This apparatus is,
however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of
command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed.5
Questions for facilitators to put to the group:
1. What do you understand by ‘spontaneous consent’ in the first line of the extract? Can you
think of examples of this kind of consent? (How, for example, was it decided what language
today’s session would take place in? How are the gender roles for males and females decided in
society? Can you think of other examples of where such heteronormative, white/Western, or
other assumptions are spontaneously imposed on society? These are all examples of
2. What does Gramsci mean by ‘prestige’ in the third line of the extract above?
3. What is meant by ‘the world of production’ in the fourth line?
STEP 3: Reading from ‘On National Culture’
For this final step, break the group into pairs and distribute the extract from the fourth chapter in
The Damned of the Earth, ‘On National Culture’. The extract has a set of questions at the bottom,
which the pairs are asked to answer.
After reading the extract (if there is time), pairs may return to the larger group to share their
impressions from the the reading.
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971) Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed
and trans) p.12. Quoted in Lewis Gordon, What Fanon Said (2015) p.125
Handout for Exercise 3: The Meanings of Culture
Extract 1
As I use the word, “culture” means two things in particular. First of all it means those
practices, like the arts, of description, communication, and representation, that have
relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms… Second, culture
includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the best that has been
known and thought… In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the
nation or the state; this differentiates “us’ from “them,” almost always with some degree of
xenophobia. Culture in this sense is a source of identity, and a rather combative one at
that, as we see in recent “returns” to culture.6
Extract 2
A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its
models. Other taboos, other values, other models are formed at every level of the entire
Extract 3
To believe that it is possible to create a black culture is to forget that niggers are
disappearing, just as those people who brought them into being are seeing the break-up of
their economic and cultural supremacy. There will never be such a thing as black culture
because there is not a single politician who feels he has a vocation to bring black republics
into being. The problem is to get to know the place that these men mean to give their
people, the kind of social relations that they decide to set up and the conception that they
have of the future of humanity. 8
Extract 4
Culture may be defined as the totality of the mental and physical reactions and activities
that characterise the behaviour of individuals composing a social group collectively and
individually in relations to their natural environment, to other groups, to members of the
group itself and of each individual to himself. It also includes the products of these
activities and their role in the life of the groups. The mere enumerations of these various
aspects of life, however, does not constitute culture. It is more, for its elements are not
independent, they have a structure.9
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993) p. xii Knopf, New York
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) p. 177 Grove Press, Translation Richard Philcox
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) p.188
Frantz Boaz, The Mind of Primitive Man (1938) p.159 The Macmillan Company
Extract 5
Culture means the whole complex of traditional behaviour which has been developed by
the human race and is successively learned by each generation. A culture is less precise. It
can mean the forms of traditional behaviour which are characteristics of a given society, or
of a group of societies, or of a certain race, or of a certain area, or of a certain period of
Margaret Mead (ed) Cooperation and Competition in Primitive Peoples (1937) p.17-18
Extract for Exercise 3: On National Culture
Extract from statement made at the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists, Rome,
In a colonized country, nationalism in its most basic, most rudimentary, and undifferentiated form
is the most forceful and effective way of defending national culture. A culture is first and foremost
the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models. Other taboos, other values,
other models are formed at every level of the entire society. National culture is the sum of all these
considerations, the outcome of tensions internal and external to society as a whole and its
multiple layers. In the colonial context, culture, when deprived of the twin supports of the nation
and the state, perishes and dies. National liberation and the resurrection of the state are the
preconditions for the very existence of a culture.
The nation is not only a precondition for culture, its ebullition12, its perpetual renewal and
maturation. It is a necessity. First of all it is the struggle for nationhood that unlocks culture and
opens the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation that will provide culture with the conditions
and framework for expression. The nation satisfies all those indispensable requirements for
culture which alone can give it credibility, validity, dynamism, and creativity. It is also the national
character that makes culture permeable to other cultures and enables it to influence and penetrate
them. That which does not exist can hardly have an effect on reality or even influence it. The
restoration of the nation must therefore give life in the most biological sense of the term to
national culture.
We have thus traced the increasingly essential assuring of the old cultural strata, and on the eve of
the decisive struggle for national liberation, grasped the new forms of expression and the flight of
the imagination.
There now remains one fundamental question. What is the relationship between the struggle, the
political or armed conflict, and culture? During the conflict is culture put on hold? Is the national
struggle a cultural manifestation? Must we conclude that the liberation struggle, though beneficial
for culture a posteriori13, is in itself a negation of culture? In other words, is the liberation struggle
a cultural phenomenon?
We believe the conscious, organized struggle undertaken by a colonized people in order to restore
national sovereignty constitutes the greatest cultural manifestation that exists. It is not solely the
success of the struggle that consequently validates and energizes culture; culture does not go into
hibernation during the conflict. The development and internal progression of the actual struggle
expand the number of directions in which culture can go and hint at new possibilities. The
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961) p.177 - 180. Grove Press, Translation Richard Philcox
Ebullition: the action of bubbling or boiling
A posteriori: knowledge based on observations or experiences
liberation struggle does not restore to national culture its former values and configurations. This
struggle, which aims at a fundamental redistribution of relations between men, cannot leave
intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture. After the struggle is over, there is not
only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized.
This new humanity, for itself and for others, inevitably defines a new humanism. This new
humanism is written into the objectives and methods of the struggle. A struggle, which mobilizes
every level of society, which expresses the intentions and expectations of the people, and which is
not afraid to rely on their support almost entirely, will invariably triumph. The merit of this type
of struggle is that it achieves the optimal conditions for cultural development and innovation.
Once national liberation has been accomplished under these conditions, there is none of that
tiresome cultural indecisiveness we find in certain newly independent countries, because the way
a nation is born and functions exerts a fundamental influence on culture. A nation born of the
concerted action of the people, which embodies the actual aspirations of the people and
transforms the state, depends on exceptionally inventive cultural manifestations for its very
The colonized who are concerned for their country’s culture and wish to give it a universal
dimension should not place their trust in a single principle—that independence is inevitable and
automatically inscribed in the people’s consciousness —in order to achieve this aim. National
liberation as objective is one thing, the methods and popular components of the struggle are
another. We believe that the future of culture and the richness of a national culture are also based
on the values that inspired the struggle for freedom.
And now the moment has come to denounce certain pharisees [hypocrites]. Humanity, some say,
has got past the stage of nationalist claims. The time has come to build larger political unions, and
consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the
contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If
culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the
case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture.
Self-awareness does not mean closing the door on communication. Philosophy teaches us on the
contrary that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is alone capable
of giving us an international dimension. This question of national consciousness and national
culture takes on a special dimension in Africa. The birth of national consciousness in Africa
strictly correlates with an African consciousness. The responsibility of the African toward his
national culture is also a responsibility toward “Negro-African” culture. This joint responsibility
does not rest upon a metaphysical principle but mindfulness of a simple rule which stipulates that
any independent nation in an Africa where colonialism still lingers is a nation surrounded,
vulnerable, and in permanent danger.
If man is judged by his acts, then I would say that the most urgent thing today for the African
intellectual is the building of his nation. If this act is true, i.e., if it expresses the manifest will of
the people, if it reflects the restlessness of the African peoples, then it will necessarily lead to the
discovery and advancement of universalizing values. Far then from distancing it from other
nations, it is the national liberation that puts the nation on the stage of history. It is at the heart of
national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives. And this
dual emergence, in fact, is the unique focus of all culture.
4. Look closely at paragraph 2: In what sense is Fanon using the word ‘Nation’?
5. What is Fanon saying the relationship is between the state, the nation and culture?
6. At the bottom of the first page, what is meant when Fanon says: ‘The liberation struggle does
not restore to national culture its former values and configurations’?
7. Fanon says ‘After the struggle is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism, but also the
demise of the colonized’. What do you think he is trying to communicate by saying this?
8. In the last paragraph, what do you think Fanon means in saying the will of the African peoples
can lead to ‘the discovery and advancement of universalising values’?
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