Psychoanalysis — the obvious rendered uncanny; the uncanny, in a flash, rendered obvious. January 5, 2015: In his New York Times op-ed, Charles Blow joins a rising chorus of recent commentators in asserting that a most pernicious form of racism is unconscious. He reports that on the day after Christmas, a “shooter” in Tennessee fired at police and other drivers, led police on a chase, and was eventually taken into custody and brought to the police station. The shooter, he later tells us, was a 45 year-old white woman. Blow asks: what would have happened if she’d been black? A male? A black male? Why were black boys and men, men who didn’t even have weapons, deemed so dangerous they had to be killed?
Blow concludes that pointing a finger at a policeman and calling him racist makes us all feel better but does nothing to solve the problem. Why? Because it leaves the rest of us settled rather than unsettled. Black lives matter! Hands up, don’t shoot! Comfortable chants for me. But what about Fuck the Police? Like Blow, I can’t go there. There lies only a vicious circle, a repetition compulsion in the making. This is precisely where the public needs psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis needs to wake up to its possible public role.
The project of psychoanalysis has always been a radical one. When, en route to America, Freud told Jung that they were “bringing the plague,” he meant that the unconscious is radically unsettling; it puts into question the fantasy that we are masters in our own house. This dangerous fantasy persists today. Why dangerous? As feminists discovered in the 60s, raising consciousness about sexist oppression itself could not create lasting social change. To best fight oppression, feminists realized that the internalized nature of the oppression, the oppressed self’s unconscious collusions with and perpetuation of sexist relations, had to be dealt with. That recognition heralded a re-appraisal of what psychoanalysis had to offer. But in this age of short-term cure and CBT, psychoanalysis and the unconscious have become marginalized, or worse, met with contempt and ridicule, spoken of as outdated. We are not masters in our own house. The recent spate of articles focusing attention on unconscious racism must serve as a call to action. Each of us is called upon to reckon both with personal and institutional unconscious racism.
Psychoanalysis has much to offer a public in need of combatting a host of contemporary crises: the mass incarceration and loss of citizenship rights that most directly affects young black men; an economic system that increasingly pathologizes those who can’t make it, even as that system sets up the very conditions that make most people likely to fail; ideologies, like the cry for small government, that hurt the very people most seduced by them; constant assaults on reproductive rights. Psychoanalysis tells us that the place where we have been psychically wounded often becomes precisely the place from which we are most likely to be wounded again — and the place from which we are most likely to wound others. Psychoanalysts call this the repetition compulsion, perhaps its central article of faith.
We are beings that yearn to belong and yearn to be loved. Failures in love, failures of recognition create deep psychic wounds. Psychic wounds too easily bring on new failures in love, new failures of recognition. Defending against our own wounded and misrecognized selves, we make others carry our wounds when we can. Institutional racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism give some of us permission to turn mere differences into hierarchies of inferior and superior, permission to condemn and punish. Institutionalized discrimination destroys the souls of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders alike, albeit in different ways. Our disavowed wounds, the small aggressions that all of us contend with in everyday life, find quick relief in hating others or withdrawing from them. But disavowed wounds in fact only cause more psychic pain. We must unite around our common vulnerabilities. We must challenge those who use our common vulnerabilities to turn us against each other. We must challenge those who create new and unnecessary vulnerabilities, like the depradations caused by radical inequalities of wealth and opportunity, of attempts to privatize and eliminate what is left of the welfare state.
Today, the dominant ideology suggests that to be human is to be financially successful, to be at the top. Our yearning to belong attaches us to that ideology and makes us feel that if we’re not at the top, it’s our own fault. We exhaust ourselves trying to make it. We turn a blind eye to the fact that the self is embedded in larger systems that stack the odds against most of us. We punish ourselves for what looks like our failure rather than a system failure. Psychoanalysis is suspicious of harsh and punishing superegos but too often turns a blind eye to their systemic roots.
We call upon analysts to integrate our vast knowledge about the human psyche and its attachment needs with knowledge about the social milieu in which that psyche has formed and continues to be embedded. We call upon psychoanalysis to reckon with the fact that it is a political act NOT to take into account the social norms that shape the psyche.
We call upon us all to explore the ways that we are not masters in our own house, to recognize our areas of privilege and to come to terms with our own wounds. To notice how those wounds too easily avenge themselves by turning difference into distinctions of high versus low, normal versus pathological. How easily those wounds slip into acts of aggression against both self and others. The time has come to recognize the damaging effects of unconscious racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, neoliberalism. We need new language to unsettle us and counter the dangerous fantasy that we are masters in our own houses.