Most of the readers of this blog are based in North America, Europe, or Australia. I would imagine that the majority of those are white. So let me ask you, white readers, a question. What makes you white? That blotchy skin you're wearing? Those grey eyes which you call 'blue'? Hardly.
The 'privilege' you have, or think you have, or deny you have at all costs? Maybe. But at what level do you really believe in this privilege? In political practice, the question of privilege usually comes up in relation to statements or behaviour that are supposed to be informed by it. The invitation to 'check your privilege' can usually be translated as, “consider how your specific material circumstances, your having been socialised as white or male, might have affected what you just said or did”. And you know as well as I do how that plays out in practice. Ask someone to 'check their privilege', and they might just be conscientious or just polite enough to acknowledge the point - but most of the time I think they nod and quietly curse you under their breath. Why? Well, there are good reasons and bad reasons. Privilege-checking can quickly become formulaic and a way of not thinking something through, a way of summarily dismissing something that merits consideration. It can became a way of ending a conversation rather than beginning one. But also, the person thus privilege-checked might genuinely not see any particular inflection of privilege in what they have just said or done. And they may see no reason to problematise their own assumptions or actions. And ironically, that may itself be a manifestation of what we're calling 'privilege'.
Du Bois was the first to theorise this privilege as both a “public” and “psychological” phenomenon, but Fanon was the first to work out a systematic psychoanalysis of whiteness as an unconscious investment, both for the coloniser and the colonised. Indeed, partly because of the relative silence of the psychoanalytic establishment on race - indeed its capitulation to banal psychologisms in this respect - Fanon's insights have only infrequently been systematically built upon and developed. His approach is fundamentally based on two key concepts: projection, and introjection. For the coloniser, racism, the fear and loathing of 'blackness' as the condensation and visible manifestation of the aggression and violence which is constitutive of the colonial project itself, is a classic form of projection. In the case of the colonised, the introjection of this racist fear and loathing, the internalisation of racism and the unconscious identification with whiteness, produces lethal effects. This is a critique of racism that focuses, so it would seem, on its imaginary dimension, the realm of image, identification, aggression and narcissism. However, there is a subterranean Lacanian current in Fanon's work, and it is not a psychoanalyst but an English professor, Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, who does the immensely valuable work of re-pivoting Fanon's analysis on a consistently Lacanian terrain, by demonstrating the symbolic dimension of racism, the role of signifiers in the situating and organisation of fantasies, the role of the symbolic order in organising racial difference, and above all the extent to which this symbolic work is taking place unconsciously. I want to use this analysis to pose the question of what kind of work 'whiteness' is doing today.
I will come back to why it is necessary to pose the question in this register, and not just in an historical or genealogical key. But let me ask you: isn't it just a matter of urgent curiosity? Don't you want to ask how this 'racecraft' works on you and in you, whether you consider yourself white, or black, or of colour? What would happen if all the unconscious investments in race no longer existed? If you could destroy it all in a split second? Wouldn't the idea of race start to disintegrate? Wouldn't we look at the world, baffled, no longer able to make sense of it? How would you help reproduce a world of white-supremacy if you couldn't understand what white-supremacy even was? I suspect that apart from anything else, you just want to ask what it even means to be white. And even if psychoanalysis doesn't give you the answers you're looking for, sometimes it's a good enough start to be able to pose the question. I don't want to lecture you, I want you to be as urgently searching for the answers as I am. Do you believe that race matters? That the ideology of white-supremacy matters? That the complex desires and fantasies that are organised around 'whiteness' matter? Then let us pose the question as if it did matter. Let us pose it as if something depended on it.
At its word
I make the working assumption that the reader of this post knows little or nothing about psychoanalysis or Lacan. So, before I start to pose the question about 'whiteness', I have to tell you something about psychoanalysis that most people don't know. It is about the banal and the everyday. As difficult and abstruse as the language often is - and I'm keeping the bibliographical references embedded in the text so that you can look things up - the first thing that psychoanalysis is concerned with is the obvious.
From the first time that Freud sat and listened to a woman 'hysteric' explain herself (badly, as all subjects do), the founding gesture of psychoanalysis was to take what was said seriously. It was to notice the obvious in speech which we often overlook - all the slips and apparent mis-statements and ambiguities and contradictions - and to treat it this symptomatic current in the discourse as meaningful. This is what we need to learn to listen for in speech. And don't look 'beneath the surface' - Lacan tells us there is nothing there. Trying to look 'beneath the surface' of discourse is like looking into a two-way mirror: you are certainly right to believe that there is someone on the other side, but all you find is yourself.
“Do not try to understand!” Lacan told his students, in a typically Delphian formulation. Why? If it's all so obvious, what is this all about? Well, 'understanding' is, in a way, exactly what the 'patient' - or 'analysand' in Lacan's idiom - always does. Rather than puzzling over his own discourse, he writes off the 'slip of the tongue' as an accident, the dream as an inconsequential fantasy, the self-sabotage as misfortune. Rather than considering the possibility that more than one thought was forming when he spoke, that the dream is a teasing creation of his desire, and that failure is willed by some part of himself, he rushes to the normal self-justifying understandings that we all have. And the analyst can make the same mistake. It's normal, when listening to someone, to look for meanings that are consistent with what we already understand. Meanings consistent with our social class, gender, regional upbringing, education, and so on. And if we do that, and don't pay attention to the letter of speech, a potentially auspicious deposit of meaning is lost. So what should we look for in someone's speech? Lacan argued that analysts should “listen for sounds and phonemes, words, locutions, and sentences, not forgetting pauses, scansions, cuts, periods, and parallelisms”. (Miller, 2011: 1-13; Fink, 2014a; Lacan, 2006: 394)
To put it another way, the analyst is not interested in what you ‘meant’, but in what you said. What one ‘means’ turns out to be whatever is consistent with the ideal image that one has of oneself - I'm a socialist, anti-racist, militant, etc - whereas what is said will tend to be polysemic and exceed this ideal image. The parapraxes, missed syntagms, mixed metaphors, deletions, litotes, compromise formations, absences, catachreses, constant associations and slurred statements in the subject’s discourse are not to be smoothed over as they would be in every day conversation. If, for example, I tell a friend that since losing a source of income “I’m not well… off”, the friend would likely overlook the significant pause and assume the ‘intended’ meaning was obvious. The friend would ‘understand’. For the analyst, on the other hand, what is obvious and objective is what has actually been spoken, and its ambiguity. Rather than gloss over this ambiguity, the analyst might ‘punctuate’ at this point, repeating the analysand’s words back to him: “not well?” The technique of analysis thus involves a particular kind of listening without rushing to understand, a “free-floating” attention (Lacan, 2006: 394) wherein the analyst resists the ingrained tendency to automatically cut up what Saussure refers to as “the ribbon of sound” issuing from the subject into units “on the basis of the language as we think we know it”. (Fink, 2007: 20) By hearing the unconscious in the subject's speech, the analyst allows it to be heard by the subject.
Everyone knows that the master-concept of psychoanalysis is the unconscious. The unconscious is a part of the subject’s knowledge that has been made inaccessible to him through the mechanism of repression. In Lacanian terms, the development of the (normal, neurotic) subject proceeds through two 'alienations':
i) the ‘mirror stage’, in which the child recognises the image in the mirror as his own and “becomes aware of his body as a totality”. This entails both an “imaginary mastery” over his body even before motor control has been achieved, and a “differentiation from the external world”. This primitive stage in the ego’s formation constitutes “the original adventure” through which he “has the experience of seeing himself, of reflecting on himself and conceiving of himself as other than he is”. (Lacan, 1991a: 79) This is also the stage at which identification, rivalry, and aggressivity are formed. The being which operates on the imaginary register considers others in light of how much smaller or bigger they are, how similar or different they are, and what sort of satisfactions they can offer. Already, however, there is a role for the symbolic order. As Lacan suggests, to see an image in the mirror is to have a particular perspective, a position. And such positioning relative to the other is “characterised by its place in the symbolic world, or in other words in the world of speech”. The child looks in the mirror, looks back to the mother for ratification, and receives the message: “Look what a big boy he is! Yes, he is a big boy!” (Lacan, 1991a: 80; Van Haute, 2002: Loc. 1837);ii) Oedipalisation, in which the child’s acquisition of language is sutured to the installation of the “paternal function”, “paternal metaphor” or “Name-of-the-Father”, as Lacan variously calls it (2006: 230, 479). The Oedipus complex is more fundamental than the mirror stage, constituting the “initial cell” of “the order of the symbolic relations which covers the entire field of human relations.” (Lacan, 1991a: 67) In Lacan’s (still phallocentric) version of the Oedipus complex, the imaginary, dyadic relation between mother and child is disrupted by the paternal ‘no’ which prohibits the child from obtaining erotic satisfaction with the mother. This prohibition, and the castration threat it is often associated with, may be real or construed, explicit or implicit. Likewise, the father who performs this role need not be a genetic or literal father - the same function could be performed by an authority figure, by God, or even by the mother. A primary repression is instated at the same moment that the child enters language, as thoughts and desires which the child learns he has no business having, which Freud (2005: 49) would characterise as ideal representations of a drive, are driven out of consciousness. There is thus an apparent sacrifice of the drive-satisfaction which Lacan describes as enjoyment (‘jouissance’) as a condition of admission to language: in a sense, the child actually is castrated. In exchange for accepting new limits, however, he gains a “position from which to speak”, and indeed is continually positioned by the use of language in relation to another. For example, one of the earliest ways in which a subject-position is adopted is in relation to the desires expressed by the parental Other - “I wish you hadn’t been born,” “you’re going to be a doctor,” “your mummy’s little man”, and so on. The child’s speech, then, necessarily positions him in response to this desire, such that his “desire is the desire of the Other”. (Lacan, 2004: 235)
These two processes can crudely be said to correspond to the Imaginary and Symbolic registers, respectively: that is, the order of image, ego and rivalry, and that of language, and law. When both alienations are achieved, the salient result is the splitting of the subject and the formation of the unconscious.
The unconscious, Lacan offers enigmatically, is also “the Other’s discourse”. (2006: 10) The ‘Other’ in this sense is to be distinguished from the ‘other’. The small ‘other’ is an other like me, another ego with desires and gratifications like mine, or an object from which I can derive satisfaction, something which I encounter in the domain of the imaginary and which I can easily assimilate. The big ‘Other’ is something more radically alien, which is encountered in the realm of the symbolic - indeed, it precisely is the symbolic order as it affects each particular subject, and as it mediates relations with other subjects. Speech and language are profoundly Other because they are not living beings, egos to identify with or objects to get off on. They escape the control of particular subjects; their origin is not the thinking cogito, but some other locus beyond consciousness, “the locus in which speech is constituted”. (Lacan, 1993: 274) The unconscious “is the Other’s discourse” insofar as unconscious thoughts are received from and addressed to the Other, and insofar as someone - a parent, an analyst, God - can situate themselves in this locus.
There would seem to be a puzzle here. How can the unconscious be treated as something ‘obvious’, or on the ‘surface’ of speech, given that it is formed through repression? The answer is appropriately topographical. As Soler (2014: 36) puts it, the starting point of analysis is a “hole in meaning”, some sort of “non-sense”, some warp or rupture in the surface of speech which adverts to the presence of a symptom. This symptom is, as Lacan (2006: 232) put it, “structured like a language”: it “is language from which speech must be delivered”. And if the symptom is so structured, this is because the unconscious itself is “structured like a language” (2006: 737).
What does this mean? In the classic Saussurean formulation, the linguistic sign comprises a signifier (an acoustic image), and a signified (a mental concept). The relation between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, contingent upon usage. As a result, a signifier is defined not by its essential relation to meaning (the signified), as it can mean many things at a given juncture and over time, but its material difference from other signifiers: its motérialité as Lacan punned. Language is a system of differences. As such, the relation of word to meaning turns out to be rather slippery. Words tend to relate to one another through their resemblances, their shared material properties (homophony, rhyme, alliteration, anagramming), as much as by any shared relation to meaning. An example would be the case mentioned in Freud’s analysis of fetishism of a German patient who had been raised in an English nursery and had developed a fetish for noses. The ‘shine on the nose’ to which he was attracted, rendered in German as ‘Glanz auf der Nase’, was in fact a translation, of sorts, of an English phrase which he had heard, ‘glance at the nose’. (Freud, 2006: 90) A similar case occurs in Freud’s discussion of the ‘Rat Man’, a patient who had developed obsessive fantasies about rats which were connected to his anxieties about money and his father’s legacy by way of a “verbal bridge”: the German word for ‘rats’ (‘Ratten’) and ‘rate’ or ‘instalments’ (‘Raten’) were linked purely by their homophony. (Freud, 2002: 167-168) It is the materiality of the signifier that symptoms cluster around.
Annie Rogers (2008), in one of the few Lacanian books with a psychotherapeutic application (another being Michael Miller's), offers a wealth of examples of this. A girl who is abused by an older boy, a babysitter, is left with things she cannot say. The signifiers, the sounds she wants to make, repeat themselves in her speech, but they also inhabit her body. The abuser, 'Ed', comes back as physical symptom: "my head hurts". Here, it is possible to hear both "my Ed", and "Ed hurts". The first, suggesting an ambivalence about her abuser, which she cannot speak. The second, alluding to the trauma that 'Ed' inflicted, which is also unspeakable. Later, as the analysis unfolds, the word enters the flesh in other ways, the symptoms progress. As long as she cannot speak about what happened, as long as there are things she cannot say, these signifiers occupy her flesh, and they repeat, over and over. Only when she can speak, and then only when she can make something with that speech, do the symptoms stop.
But not all signifiers are equal. It is important in Lacan’s account there be some way for the subject to hold meaning in place, to stop the endless slippage of signifiers. The Name-of-the-Father can be seen as anchoring meaning in this way, acting as what Lacan called a ‘point de capiton’. Later, in the analysis of ideologies, Laclau and Mouffe (1985) would use this same concept to explain how an ideological field could be formed through the quilting effect of a point de capiton, which would articulate chains of previously open ‘floating signifiers’. In being articulated into a new chain, the signifier is overdetermined by its quilting point such that, for example, ‘self-government’ means something quite different to white-supremacists, for whom it is a cultural state attained by whites, than to anti-colonials, for whom it is a political state they are unjustly denied. In ideological analysis, as in the clinical context, in order to truly hear the different dimensions of the subject’s speech, we must follow it to the letter.
And what we are likely to find as we follow its course, is that the letter is subject to enjoyment. A crucial area in which Lacan advanced the understanding of language was precisely in its relationship to jouissance. This jouissance is usually structured by a fantasy image which functions as a screen to ward off the traumatic encounter with the subject’s lack, but the materiality of language itself is also a source of enjoyment. The fact that we have ways of ‘getting off’ on language, be it the ‘la-la’ sing-song that soothes us in the cradle, or a piece of sublime oratory or prose, is essential to the success of any analysis. If the point of interpretation is to “make waves”, this is because it reaches the subject’s affect; gets under the skin of the subject’s discourse, upsets his libido, disturbs his enjoyment. After all, psychoanalysis assumes that the subject is not driven primarily by self-preservation, but by the restless search for drive-satisfaction, or jouissance. And any symptom that persists over time must become entangled with the subject’s strategy for obtaining jouissance: one way or another, the drive will get its satisfaction. To disturb the symptom is to begin to wean the subject off its satisfactions. This is a hard sell, given that we always perpetually cannot get enough of enjoyment, given that the cost of admission to language seems to be a renunciation of it. In fact, language gives us the scale with which we measure the “pittance of pleasure” that we are left with. If we did not have this scale, by what means would we measure our castration? That is, how would we determine our enjoyment to be inadequate? And how would we surmise that others seem to be enjoying more than us? Language, in a sense, creates the lack that is constitutive of desire.
At the same time, there is something inherently excessive about enjoyment of this kind: it is not pleasure in the psychodynamic sense discussed by Freud, not the homeostatic avoidance of ‘unpleasure’. The ‘pleasure principle’ is on the side of prohibition and limits, the side of the symbolic order. Jouissance is excessive excitation, transgressive, painful, and disturbing. This is the sense in which Lacan suggested that all drives are death drives, since they all push one beyond what is optimal for the organism, and any object, however dangerous, will do. The oral pleasure of sucking, initially linked to breast-feeding, may later be cathected to smoking, irrespective of the high cancer risk associated with the activity. The drives demand satisfaction and relentlessly get it, regardless of how stupidly or painfully. The symptom, in a sense, can be treated as a means of obtaining satisfaction in spite of the ‘mental scars’ that they form around. And all of this takes place on the side of a register thus far not discussed here: the Real. The real is often spoken of as a remainder, that which is susceptible to neither symbolisation nor imaginary identification: as Soler (2014: 18) puts it, it is what is at the limit of analytic elaboration, the “negativities” of the structure of discourse. And because it forms part of the subject’s being that resists symbolisation and is not part of the imaginary, it forms a hole in meaning which the subject’s discourse circles around.
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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