(New York University)

“Complicity Today”

My interest in complicity comes from my research on the intellectual. After reviewing briefly what may be viewed as a continuum of complicity, from the more restrictive to the more expansive, from the legal to the moral, and even metaphysical implication of ourselves in the acts and omissions of others, I proceed to discuss, in detail, the theory put forward by Jean-Paul Sartre in “A Plea for Intellectuals.” There Sartre distinguishes between the “technician of practical knowledge” and the “intellectual.” The former applies their knowledge within a circumscribed sphere, but may, on perceiving the damaging and wrongful effects of this application, seek or advocate to change their use. This “universalization” is what makes them into an intellectual. Having set out Sartre’s view, I turn to the career of Frantz Fanon, the Martinican anti-colonial thinker who, having trained as a psychiatrist, and having served in colonial Algeria, resigned his post to join the revolutionary struggle. Analyzing his letter of resignation, his psychiatric writings, as well parts of his last work, The Wretched of the Earth (which Sartre prefaced), I make two observations. First, I show how Fanon’s decision that institutionalized psychiatry could no longer serve the ends of freedom for colonized Algerians, is an example of the conversion of the “technician of practical knowledge” into an “intellectual.” Second, I show, more critically, how Fanon’s “universalization” of the liberatory potential of psychiatry brings about the quasi-metaphorical displacement of assumptions from disciplinary psychiatry into the sphere of politics—which, although distinctive and far-reaching in their program, also bring with them the trace of the harmfulness of the therapeutics on which the metaphor is based (I draw here on Robert Young’s observations about Fanon’s assumptions about various types of shock treatment). The complicity of the psychiatrist turned revolutionary is thus addressed at one level, only to return at another. My goal, by drawing attention to a particular structure of complicity, the means of overcoming it, as theorized by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the ambiguous consequences of that overcoming in Frantz Fanon, is to invite reflection on the applicability of this theory to other situations where professional competence is translated, without quite leaving behind the assumptions, or at least the conceptual vocabulary associated with that competence, into a moral or political demand.