Forgotten, but not Gone: Racism and the American Unconscious.
by Peter Rollins
Walk around a graveyard and you’re likely to see the phrase “gone, but not forgotten,” etched onto a few tombstones. These words capture the idea that the departed remains in the thoughts of those left behind. It is also a phrase that hints at what it means to mourn, for to mourn the lost involves remembering them. Holding them in our mind despite the pain of the loss. When we turn away from mourning we turn away from remembering. In our pain we attempt to “forget.” The remembering is a burden too heavy to bear. Instead, we dedicate a large amount of psychic energy to the task of pushing the memories from our conscious mind so that we might be able to continue with business as usual.
The problem however, as most of us know, is that such attempts never quite succeed. The forgetting never amounts to flushing out. The unpleasant feelings might disappear from our conscious horizon, but they return to us in the form of distracting and often destructive symptoms.
In this way, the one we love is forgotten, but not gone. They remain with us in a spectral form as a type of mischievous poltergeist, disrupting the smooth running of our daily life. What we try to let go of doesn’t let go of us.
What we try to let go of doesn’t let go of us.
This idea of the “forgotten, but not gone,” brings us squarely into the surreal territory of the unconscious. That liminal space where the terrible truths we hide from ourselves return in insidious ways.
Symptoms can usually be managed to some extent. We learn to work with them, navigate them, ignore them, or deny them. But there are times when they become so painful and destructive that we can no longer tolerate them.
When they become too oppressive we seek to rid ourselves of their excessive dimension. A process that is profoundly difficult, for it turns out that we are deeply invested in that which is causing us pain. What one discovers is that our symptoms are not really the problem but, rather, are solutions to a problem. The symptom is what erupts precisely because we don’t want to face something that we imagine to be even worse. To deal with a symptom we need to look at the monster that birthed it. When faced with that possibility many of us choose to stick with the symptom rather than tackle it’s source, turning to things like drugs, religion, and work to manage it.
To understand the symptom let us take the clinical case of a young man who was going through a difficult divorce. As part of his agreement with his former partner he went to her house each Thursday to look after the children. However, a problem arose when he forgot to visit the children for three weeks in a row. Stress at work, illness, and forgetfulness were all given as reasons for the failure. Each of these were potentially legitimate, yet the question had to be asked as to whether something was being said in the forgetfulness. In short, whether it was a symptom of something. After all, it was pointed out that he was not in the habit of forgetting appointments made with friends and colleagues, even though they meant less to him than his children.
On the third occasion he forgot about his duties, his ex-partner asked, “Why are you doing this to your children, do you want them to hate you?” A statement that hit him as significant. In a moment of subsequent reflection he came to consider whether the answer might actually be “Yes,” that he actually did want his children to hate him. Part of this individual’s work involved facing up to a deep-seated sense of guilt and self-hatred that, while ignored in daily life, erupted in destructive acts designed to make other people react negatively to him.
By denying the reality of this unpleasant truth, the truth found a way to speak in unpleasant ways.
By denying the reality of this unpleasant truth, the truth found a way to speak in unpleasant ways.
It’s often only when a symptom gets so bad that we finally become willing to tackle what it veils/unveils. An act that takes us on a torturous journey through a labyrinth full of dead-ends, demons and hidden traps.
It’s not simply individuals who have symptoms. Families can also exhibit them. Take the example of a couple in a troubled relationship, but who pretend that everything is fine. On the surface the relationship might look picture perfect, yet, on closer inspection, the truth finds ways to speak.
Perhaps there are a plethora of pictures on social media showing how happy and fulfilled they are. A few pictures might be normal, but the sheer volume of new ones every week comes across as somehow excessive and contrived. Or maybe one of the children is acting out in school, or the husband is always working or the wife spends all her free time chatting to people on her computer. There can be good reasons for all of these things, reasons unrelated to the relationship. But they might also be symptoms of an unaddressed problem. Perhaps the truth about an unspoken affair, or an unrecognized resentment connected to a past indiscretion.
Things can continue along the same track as long as no-one brings up what the given symptom is standing in for. Many relationships exist like this for years, never bringing up the unpleasant truth for fear of a crisis. Not realizing that the crisis is already there, lurking in the midst and making its presence felt in a variety of destructive ways. The couple might attempt to fix the manifest issues, but unless they address what those issues express, this will end up being little more than a game of whack-a-mole, with a new symptom erupting every time a previous one is “dealt with.”
To take yet another step back from the individual we can also speak of religious and political systems possessing symptoms. Take the example of a state that has a large problem with homelessness. When confronting the situation it’s all too easy to concentrate on helping those who live on the street reintegrate into society. In this way homelessness is viewed as an anomaly that can be dealt with by attempting to get people back into the system that they feel alienated from. But this is to treat homelessness in abstraction (abstracting it from the conditions which create and sustain it), rather than understanding it as a symptom. This ensures that any acts to alleviate the problem are conservative in nature, i.e. seeking to conserve the existing socio-political order by simply integrating people back into it.
In contrast to treating such things in abstraction, psychoanalysis provides a space where individuals become sensitive to listening to that which is damaging them. An opening is created where one can be confronted with ones own repressed truth. This confrontation is not about healing any more than the point of playing football is physical fitness. But just as fitness might well come from playing football regularly so a form of positive transformation can result from learning to be sensitive to the discourse of the unconscious.
The more unhealthy a society the more it will repress it’s unpleasant truths, and the more it does this, the more this truth will erupt in monstrous ways. What the society attempts to forget will find ways to speak. And while we are quite adept at ignoring this speech, there will be times when it becomes all but impossible to close our ears.
What the society attempts to forget will find ways to speak.
At times like this we hit upon a moment of explicit crisis. And here the word “crisis” is particularly apt, at least if we take seriously how the word is written in Chinese. For there the word is comprised of two characters, one signifying danger and the other opportunity. At these moments where we cannot remain deaf, a fleeting opportunity presents itself, an opportunity for substantive change.
In light of this, how might we understand the horrific shooting of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson? Can this be seen as a monstrous eruption of a repressed truth? What we see in Michael Brown’s tragic death is the exposure of a reality that the political system has invested great energy attempting to forget: that racism is still prevalent.
Racism is still prevalent.
This racism is no longer explicit in the way it once was. Yet what has been hidden from direct view hasn’t gone away. It has simply diffused itself throughout the cultural edifice in such a way that it becomes difficult to point out exactly where it is or who is to blame for it.
In contrast to a world where we can point to some explicit racist organizations or individual slaveholders, we now inhabit a situation where the violence of racism has penetrated into the very soil of our most hallowed institutions. While a dysfunctional system creates dysfunctional individuals (who need to be held to account), there aren’t a few rotten apples who can be taken out of the basket to make everything better. The rot has permeated the whole orchard, ensuring that more far reaching action is ultimately required. Indeed, in many ways the indictment and imprisonment of Darren Wilson might have been a preferred outcome for the socio-political constellation, for then an individual could be made to carry all the blame for what is a systemic issue. Wilson should be held accountable for his actions, but not because he is the sole problem, but rather because he was an actor who expressed the reality of a deeper and more pervasive problem. A situation not unlike the one in Abu Ghraib, in which the individual soldiers abusing prisoners needed to be placed within the wider military complex that encouraged and even sanctioned it.
The rot has permeated the whole orchard.
Like an organism, political systems seek a type of order and are thus threatened by the explosive eruptions of symptoms that expose their disavowed brutality. Because of this they employ all manner of tactics to manage and manicure such outbursts. In contrast, the true political dissident engages in the difficult process of keeping the truth on the surface. Something we witness first hand in the Ferguson protests, in chants like “Black lives matter,” and “hands up don’t shoot,” and in viral campaigns such as #iftheygunnedmedown.
These protestors can’t work within the given system because the event of Michael Brown’s death exposes how there is a disease within the system itself. Because of the size and extent of the problem many commentators are pessimistic about the possibility of change. And the truth is that change is incredibly hard. However, it is possible.
To take one pertinent example, the police force that was established in Northern Ireland in 1922 was finally disbanded in 2001 as part of a multi-party peace agreement. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was largely viewed as structurally sectarian (engaged in one-sided policing and collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries). Firing a few high ranking administrators, or weeding out some corrupt police officers wouldn’t be enough. The system itself needed a fundamental reconfiguration. As part of the Good Friday Agreement it was agreed that the RUC would be replaced by a new force: the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). This move was signaled a commitment to both replacing the highly militarized RUC and to representing the Catholic community. Today all the major political parties in Northern Ireland support the PSNI (with Sinn Féin giving full acceptance in 2007 as part of the St Andrews Agreement).
In many ways what happened in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement was inconceivable only a few years before it was signed. But there came a point whenever the suffering caused by The Troubles had become so bad that the pain required to face the issues and make a change became preferable to continuing on the same road.
It’s impossible to tell right now what will happen in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and failure to indict Darren Wilson. These events might be a significant milestone in the abolition of structural racism, or those in power might use all the means at their disposal to repress the cry for justice that we currently hear. In the latter case more black peoples blood will be shed, more black peoples lives will be ruined and more black peoples hopes will be crushed.
This is what makes the actions of the protestors so vital and prophetic. This is why we must join them and call for change. For they are attempting to expose the horrible truth of racism to all of us who would rather ignore it and get on with our lives. They are fighting to keep this truth in front of our noses until we can no longer bear it and join the emancipatory struggle.
They are attempting to expose the horrible truth of racism to all of us who would rather ignore it and get on with our lives.
Sadly, the reality is that it will likely take more suffering before enough of us are willing to act. We might need to be confronted again and again with the implicit racism that has been diffused throughout our prison system, police service, and judiciary.
Most of us not directly affected by the racism in America, or those of us who have benefited from it, don’t want to face the difficult questions that the events in Ferguson bring up. But, if we close our eyes, ears and hearts to what is going on we condemn ourselves. If we turn from the truth that is being glimpsed today in Ferguson we will continue to walk the path of damnation, but if we face it squarely and allow it to break us, the truth may set us free.
Peter gained his higher education from Queens University, Belfast and has earned degrees (with distinction) in Scholastic Philosophy (BA Hons), Political Theory (MA) and Post-Structural thought (PhD). He is the author of numerous books, including Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine and The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, currently lives in Los Angeles and will die somewhere as yet not known.