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Taboo SubjectsReview - Taboo Subjects
Race, Sex, and Psychoanalysis
by Gwen Bergner
University of Minnesota Press, 2005
Review by Petar Jevremovic
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)

This book is about gender and culture (American culture), it is about psychoanalysis and literature (American literature). Its main concern is dealing with basic (implicate or explicit) representations of the human identity. It is about being male or female. Also it is about being white or being black.

Narrative organization of human experience we could call it textuality, or even literature is seen as something parallel to (more primitive, prelinguistic) visual organization. Gwen Berger believes that there is a social construction of basic gender and racial categories. She also believes that there is great need for psychoanalytic deconstruction of these social constructs.

In her own words: "Like much American literature on race, psychoanalytic discourses compress the complex and invisible processes of subject formation into visual crisis. From this commonality between African American and psychoanalytic discourses both describe visual traumas that trigger identity formation I establish a framework of reciprocal analysis. In this book, I juxtapose American literature and theory on race with psychoanalytic theory to explore how race and gender intersect in subject formation. Intending to privilege neither discourse, I do not simply use psychoanalytic theory to read African American literature. Rather, I examine how literature on race disrupts psychoanalysis's conventional models of gender identification, forcing a reconsideration and reconfiguration of many foundational psychoanalytic texts. By considering the politics of race in psychoanalytic development, I am to address psychoanalysis's historic inattention to race; to extend psychoanalysis beyond the scope of its modernist, European origins; and to ground analysis of subjectivity in a material and social context. In turn, psychoanalysis provides a critical vocabulary for theorizing racialization, as it intersects with sex and gender, for both black and white Americans".

As one might guess, this book is about mediation. Thinking about categories such as race, gender and politics implies the realm of mediation. The life of any human being (American or not, male or female, black or white) is necessary mediated. Being human implies being self-conscious. Being self-conscious (or being unconscious) could not be reduced to something like commonly human natural substratum. These categories could not bee seen as something essential (or natural). They are effects of rather complicated and multilevel social (interpersonal) interchange.

Gven Bergner is right. There is really a need for something that could be named postcolonial psychoanalysis. Classical psychoanalysis is (we must admit) heavily burden by its own metaphysical and colonial presuppositions. This conjunction of race and psychoanalysis might discomfit some, given psychoanalysis's record on race and cultural difference. A modernist discourse of subjectivity, classic psychoanalysis ignored race as a constitutive factor of identity, perpetuated colonialist ideologies of the savage primitive, and touted as universal its paradigms, which were, in fact, drawn from European culture. Early psychoanalysis not only declined to address racial difference as a constitutive factor of subjectivity but also veiled its own implicit racialist assumptions. For one of psychoanalysis's key insights the gender is constructed depends on the category of the essential an unchanging primitive for articulation. In Freud's works, notably Totem and Taboo, the primitive exists in a timeless, unevolved state associated with infancy, femininity, homosexuality and neurosis. With the primitive forever marking this starting point of human evolution, Freud can trace the psychological development of white, European, male subject. Comparing colonialism's figure of the Dark Continent of Africa to the impenetrable mysteries of feminine subjectivity, Freud constructs a mesonymic chain... which links infantile sexuality, female sexuality, and racial otherness. Although the image of the black primitive pervaded the white imagination of Europe and America the start of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis din not recognize its force in the white unconscious. As Jean Walton demonstrates, even key early female psychoanalysts, such as Joan Riviere, Melanie Klein, and Marie Bonaparte, who strived to advance theories of feminine subjectivity, treated their own and their analysands' fantasies of racial difference as something irrelevant. It is not, then, that race is absent from early psychoanalysis, but rather that it is put to stealthy use without being considered a legitimate subject of analysis.

Our symbolic compels individuals to assume raced subject positions as white or nonwhite through racial difference has been figured most forcefully in American law and custom as a black/white binary opposition. In positing a (racial) symbolic organized in relation to the privileged signifier whiteness, Gwen Bergner is following Seshardi-Crooks conclusion that whiteness operates as mater signifier (without signified) that establishes a structure of relations, a signifying chain that, through a process of inclusions and exclusions, constitutes a pattern for organizing human difference. Second, just as the incest taboo determines the phallus as signifier of lack, so also does the miscegenation taboo inflect the terms through which symbolic lack is signified. Like the phallus, whiteness signifies desire; the absence of whiteness signifies subjective lack. Consequently, whiteness too, covers the lack of being with a fantasy of sufficiency and wholeness. Third, the racial symbolic also operates through the Laws of Language and Kinship; the miscegenation taboo determines the subject's relation to paternal Law and the Name-of-the-Father. Fourth, the symbolic order of racial difference and its attendant fantasy of white sufficiency are reflected in America's ideology of white supremacy, which operates through state apparatus or discourses of Law, science, custom, and violence that legislate and maintain racial groupings.

In Gwen Bergner's discourse it is easy to recognize many (implicit or explicit) references and influences. I will just mention Frantz Fanon, Jacques Lacan and all that lacanian and post-lacanian tradition of (critical) reading. Her text is coherent, convincing and relevant. It could be informative, but also it could be seen as more than just informative.




2006 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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