A Violent Being: Milbank and Fanon Between Love and Power

“However, this means that the realm of total mutual exposure, the realm of weakness within which “all defences are down,” might ironically be seen as requiring defence against an exterior which refuses this exposedness.”  John Milbank, “Power is necessary for peace:  in defense of Constantine”
It would probably be better to keep my peace and not read John Milbank.  Ever.  But I did and I want to engage what he has written from another trajectory of violence, the germinal violence of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.  Fanon, like Milbank, is looking for a space of intimacy.  Consider the beautiful and prayerful lines at the end of the book:  “Superiority?  Inferiority?  Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?  Was my freedom not given me to build the world of you, man?” (206).  It’s a desire for a world with intimate possibilities, a world where the mediation of whiteness (“there will always be a world–a white world–between you and us” 101) no longer disrupts every relationship.   
Despite this seemingly similar desire for intimacy, Milbank and Fanon are obviously worlds apart, especially since, as I have suggested and continue to argue, Milbank’s theology is ultimately a continuation of the colonial logic Fanon will fight to destroy, even through violence.
Milbank, in the quote at the head of this post, depicts a hostile exteriority which must be violently held at bay and kept separate from an interior realm of mutual vulnerability, a space where “all defenses are down.”  This realm–this space of “government” or “ruling” that is also etymologically linked to the “royal”–this royally governed space of “total mutual exposure” must be violently rendered safe, indeed invulnerable, to the violent refusal of intimacy that defines the exterior.  Outside of this realm of intimacy are those who refuse all intimacy.  And this hostile realm is encroaching, violently–for why else would a violent “defense” be necessary (and, the absence of any specification simply inscribes even more forcefully the associations Milbank intends and weaves throughout the text in other places–it is an Islamic space)?
This exterior is denied what Milbank declares to be an essential component of all violence:  vulnerability.  “Any exercise of violence always leaves one vulnerable.”  But the exterior is what refuses this exposure, this vulnerability before another.  It is, therefore, surprisingly, necessarily, non-violent.  And the realm of peace, a realm of the “power of weakness” is, also surprisingly, essentially violent.  Charity cannot emerge without power, and power, even in weakness, necessitates violence.  Accordingly, within the logic of Milbank’s argument, the realm of defenselessness is not only defended by violence, it is itself violent and must violently keep out that which is incapable of actual violence, the exterior.
The illogic of Milbank’s position is contained within a greater (il)logic, what in Fanon’s text is termed “delierious Manichaeism”:  “good-evil, beauty-ugliness, black-white…” (160).  Fanon’s famous chapter on the “Lived Experience of the Black Man” chronicles the fruitless attempts to appeal to the master of these terms, to dialectically overcome them (or out-narrate them).  The binaries represent a profound refusal to investigate the hyphen, the space between.  Ugliness/Evil/Black/Exterior must be separated and overcome (“under no condition did he want any intimacy between the races” 99).  In this situation, any appeal to the other is already blocked:  “so they were countering my irrationality with rationality, my rationality with the ‘true rationality.’ I couldn’t hope to win” (111).  The exterior/evil/black/ugly is not a point from which one can approach or engage the interior/good/white/beautiful.  It is a privation, already excluded and incapable of assimilation.  For Milbank, the exterior is, therefore, neither violent nor peaceful but something far more insidious:  the exterior is the unimaginable, the horrifying excess that cannot be contained and therefore demands, all the more urgently, our attempts to “extend the powerful reach of the very sphere of powerlessness itself,” the reign of the true human, the reign of violence and love.
“Power is necessary for peace” because both violence and peace name modalities of the interior space that must guard itself against an unruly exterior.  It is this unruliness, or perhaps, unruledness, that is the ultimate, defining characteristic of the exterior.  The exterior is simply that which the interior does not rule, and this unruledness is both real and unimaginable for Milbank.  It is an ever-present threat (and thus both named and left unnamed) but lacks any ontological depth:  to be–the true/good/beautiful–is to be ruled.  Fanon names that royal sphere and ruling power of being:  whiteness.
“In the world I am heading for” says Fanon, “I am endlessly creating myself” (204).  Fanon is insistent in proclaiming this space of positive unruledness.  It is no mere negation of colonialism but is a positive affirmation, an “unleash[ing]” (205) that invites “the reader to feel with us the open dimension of every consciousness” (206), the dimension of every consciousness that renders it inaccessible to human domination or historical determination.  “The density of History determines none of my acts” (205), for it is humankind’s “destiny to be unleashed” (205).  It is, therefore “through self-consciousness and renunciation, through a permanent tension of his freedom, that man [sic] can create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world” (206).  The destiny is both known and unknown, and within this “permanent tension” Fanon points us to the possibility of love, of human communication and intimacy even between black/exterior and white/interior.
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4 Responses to A Violent Being: Milbank and Fanon Between Love and Power

  1. Steve Hayes says:

    I've not heard of Milbank, but his title sounds interesting.

  2. Steve,The article title is also a link, in case you want to read it. I'm not a pacifist so what troubles me with Milbank is not that he isn't a pacifist but that he still operates within a kind of colonial violence, where the proper way of life ("our" life) must be violently protected from and violently spread into an exterior that is ultimately just seen as chaotic and inhuman because it isn't under our rule.

  3. Steve Hayes says:

    An interesting article. It helps me to understand why, as an Orthodox Christian, I feel closer to the Mennonites than to most other Protestants. The thing that intrigued me about the title was the "in defence of Constantine" bit. I too have defended Constantine, though not on those grounds: Notes from underground: St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West.

  4. Marcus Croom says:

    Nice. When I read "positive unruledness" I thought of Ornette Coleman's Harmolodics. I am sensitive to, embracing of, and yearning to experience the strand of what it means to be free as a black human across any disciplines that I see it surface. Thanks for another link in my journey.

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