Race(ism) and Psychoanalysis

Synopsis of a contribution to the Unbehagen conference of October 15 2016 by Dr Scott Von:

If you examine the philology of “race” you find that the concept was only created in the 17th century as a way of categorizing or creating a taxonomy of humans with an uncritical mixture of genetic and socio-cultural traits. It is and has remained a social construction since then used for various purposes. It is not only metaphorically but actually parallel to the creation of medical and psychiatric categories at a similar moment in time. We could refer to Foucault on this topic. The emergence of enlightenment science and knowledge came to replace the moral and religious paradigms of taxonomy that had preceded it. In terms of race, the accelerating juxtaposition of diverse cultures through travel inspired this knowledge inseparable from the politics of power involved in colonization. We could say that medical-psychiatric colonization provided the concomitant “internal colonization” of the bodies and minds of people from the same nation, culture, or tribe. 

What is it that psychoanalysis offers to this complex of social and psychiatric biopower and psychopower? The move to the singularity of the subject. Freud’s science of the soul, psychic reality, inner experience. The political project of psychoanalysis in extension is a move to replace identification with the discourse of analysis: that is a desire for absolute difference beyond the categories of identity. As long as categorical identities – racial, sexual, psychiatric, medical, or other wise – remain the focus of oppression and liberation, the very problem of such taxonomy, colonization, and judgement risk being solidified. Artaud declared the project: “to have done with the judgement of God.” To speak psychoanalytically this means that despite the death of God and fall of patriarchy, the function of the father or phallic indexing of meaning remains propped up by an endless series of invisibly repressed founding acts of judgement, exclusion, and hierarchy. Taking responsibility for one’s symptomatic condition and enacting it as a form of desire and expression supersedes the question of identity which is a form of ego-superego mirroring. To echo Lacan’s late declaration, identity is paranoid defense as relation to the Other. 

Rather than debate over definitions and judge others’ actions, I would hope to listen to the experiences of those who have experienced the negative and limiting effects of prejudice. Rather than race-ism or “implicit bias,” we would do better tospeak of an “ethics of prejudice.” To go from the singular to the general and develop a map of understanding based on a series of cases or experiences is scientific. To go from the general to the specific by applying this science or map to a singular case is prejudice. Nevertheless there is no way for a human or any animal for that matter to avoid a continual assimilation of experiential knowledge by which it comes to interpret and “pre-judge” the external other. This fact is clearly elucidated from ancient Buddhist psychology to Husserl’s phenomenology to Freud’s original “Project” and recent research in neuropsychology. What we can do is strive to continue to hold this previous experience in abeyance through an “evenly suspended attention” as Freud’s method attempts and remain open to surprise, difference, the new, the other at each moment. Not only does this allow the subject to practice an ethics of (non)prejudice as non-judgement but it makes life full of rich complexity and enjoyment – provided one is willing to let go of fear. I hope to see this project practiced at this conference and into the future of humanity.