This is one of the opening sentences to the fifth chapter of Frantz Fanon’s White Skin, Black Masks – “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.”
It brought to my mind the question of agency that’s been surfacing in a lot of my readings lately. So here’s a question: if the gaze of another, of a Self or a Subject can make an individual an object – and not just be perceived as an object but feel it themselves, as Fanon so powerfully communicates (again, agency), then what makes an object? If humans can be objects, then they have agency. But is the same true for material objects? Is there a scale of objectness? That’s a thought I’m even more uncomfortable with.
Perhaps the answer lies in subject-hood.
I wrote that about two weeks ago. I’m still struggling with this, but I’m beginning to accept that material objects have agency. The bookshelf I bump into pushes back against me, my computer can throw a tantrum if I demand too much of it (but it is an old thing, bechara), and if my highlighter refuses to highlight, it will force me to take action – either by shaking it furiously in the hopes that the ink will oblige me, or by reaching into my pencil case and grabbing another one.
And what about Fanon? I think he struggled with knowing that he was a Subject while feeling a foreign gaze making him into an object. It is a violent process, and a personal one. By denying Fanon the right to define himself against others, against other Subjects, Fanon had no one but himself to use as a referent. And that just makes for an existential crisis.
Performativity may be a way to take that apart, though. While people in France largely undertook the task of performing seeing Fanon as an object (subtly, unintentionally, yet constantly – they performed not recognizing him as a fellow Subject). And he equally performed meeting their objectifying gaze with different strategies. In fact, his entire chapter is a performance. He narrates his history with this gaze, his attempts to outwit it, to resist it, to cope with it and even to let it overcome him. It is a performance of violence. His anger tangible as he performs his own counter to the colonial gaze.
I really like the idea of performativity. You might take it as meaning something false – like an act or a façade – but that isn’t what it means at all. It has its roots in the work of Judith Butler, the feminist theorist, who argued that we all perform our gender without really knowing it through repeated acts which reinforce gender norms. I go to the women’s washroom, I wear a skirt on occasion, I think it’s novel to put on a large men’s shirt to protect my own clothing when I paint the house. When the gender norms we’ve been “trained” (through repeated performance and watching others perform time and time again) to accept are broken, we find it odd, troubling even – and see them as something we need to fix.
The same applies to other “norms.” Like when Fanon travelled first class on a train in France, all he received was stares. No one would interact with him.
So although we don’t realize we are performing anything, we are actually constantly performing a whole swath of things. At times, some roles come out more strongly than others. Right now I’m performing being a blogger. A few sentences ago, when I wrote “bechara” (meaning “poor wretch,” or “poor thing” in Hindi) I was performing being a product of a postcolonial Indian diasporic experience. Not intentionally, of course. It just came out. That doesn’t make it any less part of an ongoing performance, though. And while I’m performing these things, I’m still doing a number of other performances too: a masters student, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a Canadian Settler, a Non Resident Indian, and many other things.
Can you tell I really like this concept? Perform all the things!