This is to outline some of the rudiments of what it means to take a discourse at its word. In reading race, we have these concepts to guide us: the letter, the unconscious, the Other, jouissance, drive, fantasy, the imaginary, symbolic and real.
I invoke Lacanian psychoanalysis in this context with some caution. Lacan’s concepts were designed for use in a clinical situation, in which the suffering subject is finding ways to speak the unspeakable. The role of the analyst in this context is to hear the gaps through which the unconscious Other is speaking within the analysand’s discourse. A great deal of his work which is applicable to discourse is only of use in the clinical situation with its dynamics of transference and resistance. In this context, interpretation is one means among others - punctuation and scanning - to produce more material. Hence the generally oracular, elliptical quality of Lacanian interpretations which are intended, not to make sense, but to “make waves”. (Lacan, quoted in Fink, 2007: 81) To attempt to apply the same methods to a transcript, let alone a structured piece of writing or a work of propaganda that may have been collectively laboured over, would appear to be futile. No confirmatory material can be generated. There is no analysand to affect. Unlike in the clinic, we have no choice but to ‘understand’, since there is no other criterion of success.
There is, moreover, a gulf between the subjective or inter-subjective level of psychoanalysis, and the broader ideological structures to which we hope discourse analysis might give us access. Psychoanalysis is concerned with the particular. In this vein, Paul Verhaeghe (2008) contrasts psychoanalysis, which begins with the general (diagnostic categories, registers of analysis) and reaches toward the particular (the symptom, the fundamental fantasy), with medical practices which begin with the particular (symptoms), and proceed toward the general (diagnosis and prescribed cure). A precondition for any successful analysis is that the analysand can be situated in relation to one of the major diagnostic categories - neurotic (obsessive or hysteric), psychotic, or pervert - but this doesn’t indicate the treatment so much as provide broad guidelines for proceeding with further analysis. For example, in the treatment of a neurotic, the analyst’s mission is to weaken their ego, their already-too-strong sense of self, to put their desires into question (and thus into motion). In the treatment of a psychotic, such an approach would be potentially disastrous. In that case, the analyst seeks to strengthen the ego, and to help create an anchor in meaning around which they can organise their relationship to reality.
Lacan himself expressed scepticism about the attempt to analyse neuroses and so on at the social level: ‘mass psychology’ is not very useful when individual agents, rather than societies, experience symptoms. (Lacan & Granzotto, 2004) He also classed psychoanalysis as a ‘conjectural science’, suggesting a distance from the ‘exact sciences’ (Lacan, 2006: 732). His use of tropes from game theory, set theory and so on constituted an attempt to close that gap, but it seems to remain wide open. This being the case, what sort of epistemic violence might be wrought by taking these conceptual operations out of their context and trying to make them work abroad? If I want to derive any general conclusions about 'whiteness', surely it would be more appropriate to use a Foucauldian or Gramscian - that is to say, historical and genealogical - mode of discourse analysis?
And yet, beginning with Freud’s writings on art and war, psychoanalysis has often furnished us with analyses of collective, trans-subjective phenomena. There are today a number of influential or at least authoritative psychoanalytic readings of ideological ‘symptoms’, of cultural formations, and particularly of race. (Bhabha, 1983; Davids, 2011; Fanon, 2008; Hook, 2004; Hook, 2005; Kovel, 1997; Seshadri-Crooks, 2000; Žižek, 2008a; Žižek, 2008b) One can be sceptical of the extraordinary range of phenomena which analyses, originally devised for the clinic, are being used to explain - particularly as there isn’t even an abundance of proof that they are even ‘true’ in their original setting. Still, to leave matters there would be to dismiss a range of extraordinarily sophisticated and suggestive writing in quite a summary way. And such abstinence would be supererogatory.
Recall that for Lacan, there is no subjectivity without the Other, in relation to which the unconscious is formed. Sedimented in the unconscious is precisely “the deposit, the alluvium, the petrification” (Lacan, quoted in Soler, 2014: 27) of group experience - nation, race, gender, sex, and all of the historically produced, mortified and transfigured realities which constitute the group. In the highly specific chains of significations that constitute each particular subject, one finds their relation to the symbolic order and ideological imaginary. In a 1955 seminar, Lacan gives the example of a writer whose cramp was related to the fact that in Koranic Law, theft can be punished by the amputation of the hand - a traumatic fact for the subject whose father had been accused of being a thief. In effect, refusing to understand the relation between theft and amputation, he cut off his own hand. (Lacan, 1991b: 129-130) His discourse was no doubt highly particular, but also impossible to extricate from, or analyse without reference to, the social structure, the judicial order, and the prevailing moral discourse. Thus, as Palacios (2009: 20) puts it, “The fact that Lacan ‘translated’ Freudian psychoanalysis to the language of linguistic structuralism makes the transition and interaction between individual selves and social selves very smooth: they are both ‘sewn’ by the signifying operation of language.” What Lacanian analysis can gives us a unique access to, then, is the subject’s relationship to the social link, to the space which is usually called ideology.
There are also, irrespective of the ‘truth’ of Lacanian psychoanalysis, advantages to deploying it in this context. In the first instance, the unique Lacanian take on meaning allows me to combine a hermeneutics of suspicion with an approach that takes the subject’s discourse seriously. It makes it possible to read the text in a critical fashion without making the untenable assumption that the reader knows what the author ‘really’ meant to say. Because subjects give a bad, incomplete and contradictory account of themselves, while simultaneously offering explanations to conceal the lack, we can take subjects fully at their word, without necessarily believing a word they say. We can “hold on to this dialectic, this movement between fragmentation and integration” which is integral to the subject’s discourse. (Frosh, 2014: 20) Secondly, this approach does not seek to flatten or reduce the discourse by ironing out ambiguities and contradictions, but treats them as points of enlightenment. This is made possible by an approach to subjectivity in which the self-contained subject driven by biologically given needs (self-preservation) linked to rationally ordered preferences, is decentred, displaced by the split subject, whose statements are likely to be polysemic, even to the point of expressing contradictory feelings and desires. That there may be more than one thought formation going on at the same time, that indeed it is not always clear which subject is speaking, is a necessary corollary of psychoanalysis. (Van Haute, 2002). This gives us the chance to make space for several, contending thoughts expressed in a seemingly simple statement. Thirdly, the core of psychoanalysis is the patriarchal family and its normal dysfunctions. This gives us a unique way to speak of race in relation to sex and reproduction. So I maintain that with appropriate caveats, and with due sensitivity to the context of their operation, it is both possible to deploy psychoanalytic readings in the analysis of discourse and ideological formations, and advantageous to do so.
For the purposes of this discussion Parker’s (2005, 2014) “seven theoretical elements”, identifying some coordinates of a Lacanian approach to discourse, will orient me in analysing the texts which I want to look at. These do not constitute, and will not be deployed as, a methodological schema, a series of ‘steps’ that I can take to exhaustively analyse a text. Rather, they can act as starting points for a flexible inquiry, some being more productive than others. These elements can be summed up schematically here as:
i) the primacy of the formal quality of a text over its apparent or intended meaning;
ii) the importance of ‘quilting points’, or ‘master signifiers’ which guarantee the structure of a text when the relation of signifier to signified is otherwise apt to slide;
iii) the agency of the unconscious in discourse, where the unconscious is “the discourse of the Other”;
iv) the structuring of discourse by its relation to knowledge, specifically what the Other is ‘supposed’ or hypothesised to know;
v) the way in which speaking subjects are positioned by language relative to another;
vi) the emphasis on contradiction, dissent, and deadlocks of perspective, rather than consensus, as the condition of possibility of speech;
vii) interpretation that operates on the surface of speech, rather than attempting to divine the internal world of the speaker.
Any analysis has to be guided by a reflexive understanding of the discourse of the analyst. Lacan identified ‘four discourses’ - the discourse of the master, the hysteric, the university, and the analyst. (Lacan, 1991c) It will not be necessary here to enter into a detailed account of these, or the mathemes diagramming their structure. It is sufficient for our purposes to say that of the four discourses Lacan described, only the discourse of the analyst was one of non-mastery. The discourse of the master is overtly concerned with domination, and with the production of knowledge only insofar as it will make things work. The discourse of the hysteric is one in which the subject puts the master signifier to work, producing knowledge about itself in order to expose its lack. The position of mastery remains, but is usurped by the hysterical subject. That of the university is more covertly a discourse of mastery since, while it appears to privilege knowledge for its own sake, the knowledge it is concerned with is that whose authority is the pedagogue, and which ultimately tends to justify and reproduce power.
The discourse of the analyst is concerned with something else. The analyst tries to occupy the position not of the master-signifier (master discourse), not of knowledge per se (university discourse), but rather of something more enigmatic - object a, the object-cause of desire. In practice, this means listening for the effects of the unconscious. In the context of an analysis of discourse, the analyst has to refrain from interpolating themselves as the bearer of the real knowledge about the text. As will become plain, however, this emphasis on the structural features of discourse, and the ways in which it can position subjects, is not purely reflexive. These cartographies offer a useful schema of the dilemmas of those invested in the signifier of ‘whiteness’, and threatened with its loss of potency.
The signifiers of 'privilege'
“It must be remembered that the white group of labourers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the coloured schools. The newspapers specialised on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule. On the other hand, in the same way, the Negro was subject to public insult; was afraid of mobs; was liable to the jibes of children and the unreasoning fears of white women; and was compelled almost continuously to submit to various badges of inferiority. The result of this was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labour, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labour.” - W E B Du Bois (1965: 700-701)
Du Bois’s famous formulation concerning the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness has become the basis upon which a range of critical approaches to race have been developed, above all ‘whiteness studies’. While the study of “white skin privilege” had been initiated by marxist intellectuals working in the New Left of Sixties America, the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an object of study, as a problem to be explained, came into its own in the 1990s. (Allen, 1994; Allen, 1997; Kolchin, 2002) Has too much emphasis been placed on the ‘psychological’ element of the formulation, and none sufficiently on the ‘public’ - or, as it might otherwise be stated, ‘social’? Many of the most significant studies of ‘whiteness’ have focused on the cultural and cognitive claims that it entails. (Hale, 1998; Jacobson, 1999; Jacobson, 2001; Jacobson, 2008; Krikler, 2005; Lipsitz, 1998; Roediger, 2007) Yet, the social compensations of whiteness for white workers, as listed by Du Bois, are not insignificant: deference, access to public goods and resources, access to the state, and a sympathetic media.
However, it is significant that Du Bois does not draw any dichotomy between the ‘public’ and symbolic ‘psychological’. He does not draw up two sets of books, with criminal justice listed under ‘public’ and deference listed under ‘psychological’. It is each to the extent of the other; the ‘wage’ which is allocated in the form of access to public goods has a clear ‘psychological’ dimension; the ‘wage’ which is ‘psychological’ has a social dimension. If, as Allen (1994, 1997) argues, the long-term effect of the system of ‘white-skin privilege’ is to exert social control as a mode of class domination over both black and white workers, to reduce the bargaining power of both black and white workers, and if ‘race management’ (Roediger & Esch, 2012) secures the loyalty of white workers to a system in which they produce a surplus that is exploited, their advantage is relative not just to the situation of black workers, but to their purview. In a certain, relatively immediate, short-term perspective, white workers can be invested in deference, seniority rights, the colour bar and so on which, in the perspective of class analysis and in light of ‘the actuality of communism’ (Bosteels, 2011), might appear to be nothing more than the absence of special penalty, or at best minimal compensations for subordination and exploitation.
The point here is not to query whether these privileges are therefore ‘real’. ‘White-skin privilege’ is at least as real as its effects, as real as the investments in it. But this does compel us to ask what privilege offers those who choose to invest in it. Having just said that it is in part a matter of perspective, it appears that there is nothing self-evident in the workings of privilege, no straightforward reason why the currency in which the ‘public and psychological wage’ is paid should be accepted, no reason why ‘whiteness’ should be introjected so readily, no reason why other ‘interests’ relative to a given social field shouldn’t come first, the question of what privilege does for its subjects stands out more than before. One way to answer it is to approach the problem as a matter of political strategy. As Corey Robin (2011) argues, one of the distinguishing features of conservatism’s popular appeal is that it offers some of the subaltern classes a share in mastery: a purpose for which race is ideal. Even where this mastery is largely symbolic - the majority of whites in the antebellum South did not own slaves, for example - race has a compelling ability to summon cross-class solidarities. However, in this analysis I am less engaged in trying to explain the strategic utilities and functions of race than in exploring the psychic investment in race for white subjects.
This analysis will therefore take the approach of Seshadri-Crooks (2000) as its starting point. Beginning on a problematic inaugurated by Fanon, of what it means to desire whiteness, Seshadri-Crooks argues that whiteness offers, in what can be counted a typically conservative ideological gesture, the fantasy of organic wholeness, promising a phallic fullness of being and plenitude of enjoyment. The signifier ‘Whiteness’ promises to supplement the lack in being which sexual difference introduces. Yet at the same time, it also limits this jouissance by reinstating difference as hierarchy, limiting and thus conserving the domain of sameness. In this view, race is a regime of visibility, which “organizes difference and elicits investment in its subjects because it promises access to being itself. It offers the prestige of being better and superior; it is the promise of being more human, more full, less lacking”. The enjoyment in the fullness of being offered by racial solidarity, ‘whiteness’, is - like all jouissance - excessive. There is something horrific in the fantasy of wholeness, wherein difference is eliminated, such that difference must be resurrected at another level as somatically marked racial difference. (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000: 7)
The status of ‘Whiteness’ as determinant here is, in a sense, counterintuitive. If race is, in its essence, racism, then it would appear to be only non-white groups who are raced, with whiteness appearing as effect rather than cause of this process. Such, at any rate, would seem to be the default in the racial culture of the United States. As Barbara Fields wrote in a highly regarded essay, “Americans regard people of known African descent or visible African appearance as a race, but not people of known European descent or visible European appearance. That is why, in the United States, there are scholars and black scholars, women and black women.” And moreover, “people in the United States do not classify as races peoples of non-European but also non-African appearance or descent, except for purposes of direct or indirect contrast with people of African descent”. (Fields & Fields, 2012: 115) This is to say, in effect, that there is only one race in American racist ideology: the black race.
Taken too literally, this position appears to be overstated. Whether in law, science, or political discourse, it is not uncommon to find people of European descent classified as races in American history. That the subject of whiteness has historically been contested - with Anglo-Saxonism the initially dominant strain later giving way to Caucasianism - is evidence first of how the framing of race was contingent on the politics of slavery and immigration, and second of how incoherent race ideology necessarily is, rather than evidence that the white race is inexistent in American history. (Krenn, 2006: 1-19; Horsman, 1981; Jacobson, 1998) And where the race system enters into crisis of any sort, ‘the white race’ often appears with a strident assertion of its rights and the imperatives of race solidarity. Nor is it obvious that “white racial consciousness” (Roediger, 2007: xxi) is ultimately reducible to consciousness of the black race and its proximity. Nevertheless, it is immensely and profoundly interesting that in the binaries of traditional racial ideology, ‘blackness’ has been placed on the side of biology, animality, sexuality and nature (Fanon, 2008: 124-128), whereas ‘whiteness’ has been placed on the side of culture, civilisation, and thus the ability to transcend race. Likewise, in contrast to the abundance of significations attached to ‘blackness’, which is a marked category, ‘whiteness’ is so often an unspoken default, a semantically empty, unmarked remainder. To be white is to be the race-of-no-race, to be convinced that one’s whiteness has no bearing on one’s interests and actions. (Brekhus, 1998; Dyer, 1997; Murray, 1998)
There is therefore something enigmatic about ‘Whiteness’. The puzzle is not that it appears but that it disappears so quickly and yet is still somehow active. It is true that American racial ideology holds that “virtually everything people of African descent do, think, or say is racial in nature” (Fields & Fields, 2012: 116) while the actions of white people are assumed to have in some sense transcended race. But if it also happens that “any situation” involving Euro-Americans and African-Americans “automatically falls under the heading ‘race relations’” (Fields & Fields, 2012: 117), such a turn of phrase at least implies that there is more than one race present. Indeed, if race is - like class and gender to this extent - inherently a relational system, the existence of a black race presupposes a white race, at least as a structural location. Even if it is a paradoxically non-raced race, it is a necessary part of the structure of race.
The point about ‘Whiteness’ therefore seems to be this: inasmuch as it is strangely absent from discourse yet still determining, inasmuch as these absences have a structural effect within the discourse, it makes sense to speak of a white unconscious. ‘Whiteness’ in this sense is, in Seshadri-Crooks’s terms, “an unconscious signifier, one that generates a combinatory with its own set of inclusions and exclusions that determine the subject. To be raced is to be subject to the signifier Whiteness.” (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000: 24-25) But what does it mean to be ‘subject to’ this signifier - or, to be more precise, master-signifier? To be a subject, in a sense, is to be a ‘bearer’ of something. (Kesel, 2009: Loc. 295) For Lacan, this something is nothing other than the order of linguistically mediated social relations: hence, the symbolic order. The subject bears a comprehension and ‘memory’ of itself provided by the symbolic order, by chains of signifiers. To be a subject of race is to be subject to a logic of differences in the symbolic order which overwrite and ‘race’ bodies.
This introduces an important cleavage, taking Seshadri-Crooks’s account away from that of Fanon. Fanon’s analysis of race is situated plainly on what Lacan would call the imaginary. Indeed, Fanon specifically refers to Lacan’s account of the mirror-stage to suggest that racial identification for “the white man” involves the imaginary misrecognition of “the black man” as the Other, that which cannot be assimilated and can therefore only be the target of aggressivity, a “phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety”. (Fanon, 2008: 117, 124) This focus on the gaze, the scopic drive, as the means by which racist identity is established, has become influential in postcolonial theory. Bhabha (1994) interprets Fanon through this Lacanian optic, focusing on the splitting or alienation of the subject on the imaginary plane. To leave it there, however, would risk simplifying Lacan’s account of the imaginary. As we have seen, imaginary identification is already situated by the symbolic register. We can add that, a condition for admission to the symbolic order is not just the introjection of a paternal prohibition, but also the ability to identify with what Lacan called a ‘unary trait’, a specific attribute of an Other (say, the little boy who carries a miniature version of his father’s briefcase) which stands in for them without effacing their alterity. (Lacan, 2014: 21-22, 40) This unary trait, in other words, is a signifier, and this mode of identification is symbolic identification. While, for Lacan, the imaginary is filled with narcissism and aggressivity, which it is easy to identify as the dominant modes of colonial domination (Ryder, 2005), it is in the field of the Other that the subject is constituted, and it is in the symbolic order that is the locus of unassimilable Otherness. And it is here that whiteness and blackness are ‘marked’ as racial difference. To overlook this necessary aspect would risk treating whiteness or blackness as brute somatic facts, and the racial visibility of the body “as an ontological necessity”. It would also risk giving an account of language as being tendentially free from race. (Seshadri-Crooks, 2000: 30-32) Seshadri-Crooks’s argument can be understood here, not as a straightforward rejection of Fanon’s interpretation of the raced body as a phobic object of the scopic drive, but as a re-stating it in more thoroughgoingly Lacanian terms.
The white unconscious
What I've described for you here is a schema, wherein it is the signifier 'whiteness' that does the most important unconscious work in anchoring race. And I think there is something to that, and it allows Seshadri-Crooks to engage in productive analyses of the literary canon. What's more, I used precisely this analysis in my PhD research to produce an analysis of white-supremacist anticommunism which I think I can claim is both original and useful. But we don't have to cling too tightly to that framework, and we should make space for what experience tells us. The important thing is to think flexibly with the categories, to work with the grain of the analytical material, whatever that happens to be, in order to produce a useful contribution to the knowledge of race ideology.
If you think about how you first came to understand race, you probably already understood something about the centrality of language, words, signifiers, in the constitution of racial subjectivity. I'll relate some details of my own experience which I suspect are not totally unique in the United Kingdom among my generation of people socialised as 'white'. The first time I knew anything about race was when, at approximately five years old, I saw on television a news item about the country, Niger. I said the name of the country out loud. I mispronounced. Immediately, my sibling was shouting up the stairs, "mummy, daddy, Richard just said 'nigger'!" Parental feet clomped down the stairs, and I swiftly learned that this word - this vile word - was never ever to be spoken again. Verboten, prohibited, out of bounds, don't you bloody dare. For the record, if you can imagine the experience of a five-year-old inwardly raging, shocked, frightened, and narcissistically wounded by the injustice of being told off without having been aware of doing any wrong, that's probably not too far off the reaction of most white males to being 'called out'. Talk about 'white fragility'. Anyway, there are far worse ways my parents could have handled that situation, especially in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, I still want you to notice the difference between this prohibition (which was not, I fear, consistently observed among adults), and anti-racist pedagogy. I don't remember being told anything about what that word meant, or why it was objectionable: it was simply not allowed.
What are the effects of such a prohibition? Let's follow it through. The first time I understood what a raced body was, was at probably the age of seven or eight when, looking through some of my father's bodybuilding magazine's, I asked my father about the men with dark brown skin - what about them, I said, what are they? This was not a completely naive question, if such a thing is possible, for I was already beginning to pick up things from the media about these different bodies and what they meant. I was aware that different bodies were classified differently, but I wasn't totally sure how the classifications worked. I was told, of course, that they were black, and the other men were white. They didn't look 'white' or 'black' to me, but the important thing was that they were classified according to these signifiers. Their bodily differences were 'marked' as racial difference, by language. And that structure of difference was anchored, held in place by a prohibition: that which must never be said, that which must be repressed. Behind the categories of white and black, there thus developed an unconscious racial (racist) knowledge. From the culture, I learned things about black bodies. I picked up racist significations, which were associated with the prohibited signifier, 'nigger'. There is the white unconscious for you.
Now this kind of racist knowledge, just because it is repressed, prohibited, unconscious, is not therefore inactive. It continues to come out in certain assumptions, actions, statements or slips that can most plausibly be explained as manifestations of the unconscious. Perhaps the first sign that it is active is when someone, rather than using the proper word and taking responsibility for its use in context, resorts to the infantilising 'n-word'. But the subject, the one who is the bearer of this racial knowledge, can't hear it in his own discourse: the defences are up, and they're staying up for as long as acknowledging this unconscious and taking responsibility for it is associated not with liberation, but with the apparatus of prohibition. It is active precisely to the extent that it remains unconscious, to the extent that no effective anti-racist pedagogy has taken place. And by anti-racist pedagogy, I don't mean the individualised pedagogy of confession, self-criticism, avowing privilege, and all of that useless, self-indulgent white liberal bollocks. That is just the administration of guilt, a fortification of the defences. (And please don't fill up my comments boxes with any of that. You do not have permission to narrate.) It isn't about didacticism. It isn't about being given just the right lecture. Precisely because the unconscious is an active force, shifting it is about moving onto a new plane of activity. By this, I mean political education through organisation and debate in struggle. Someone enters political struggle gripped by a new desire. They want something they've never wanted before, and it has shaken them to the core. They don't know it yet, but this is absolutely changing who they are from top to bottom. The old standards don't apply any more. They begin to think about their old convictions, assumptions and actions in light of some totally new criteria. They begin to inhabit the discourse of the analyst. And if you have political organisations where anti-racism is taken seriously and part of their active agenda, and they are not just a bunch of ineffectual, self-righteous moralists, there is the possibility - to put it no more strongly than that - for an anti-racist knowledge to displace the old unconscious configurations and investments.
So this is not an academic question. When we confront the unconscious, we're confronting what is in some ways a conservative subjective force, but also something that can become, if confronted, through the questions it poses, a source of change. When we pose the question of what work 'whiteness' is doing, we're asking something about subjectivity and change. How does one thus socialised become an instrument and agent of radical transformation? And when we ask what is at stake in 'whiteness', what is invested in it, we're asking what it takes to dispel those investments.
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