Race and Psychic Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, and the Politics of Race
Austen Riggs Center
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Our political and social moment seems destabilized by an increased emphasis on racial difference. But psychoanalysis has long ignored the stabilizing role aggression toward racial others has played in structuring society. Decades after American slavery ended, Freud, upon witnessing the horrors of World War I, first recognized within human subjects a drive toward aggression that he argued must be repressed for the sustainability of civilization. This talk reads slavery as a full manifestation of this psychic drive toward aggression. Through recourse to Lacanian theory, it argues that race functions as a source of psychic pleasure, or what Lacan calls jouissance. This jouissance is a mode of enjoyment that lures the subject to perilous transgressions that stabilize American society into its consistently oppressive racial configuration. Moving through an analysis of American slave masters’ efforts to establish slavery as a mask for what we can describe after Lacan as the psychic lack of the subject—a mask that refuted lack with racial superiority—the talk will turn to the writings of Zora Neale Hurston to describe religion and race as mechanisms through which African Americans themselves contend against social unveilings of psychic lack. Ending with a discussion of the role played by pleasure in contemporary incidents of police violence, the talk presents race as an apparatus that mediates subjective lack. Race, it argues, binds contemporary American civilization to sustained modes of psychic pleasure and discontent that grew out of the atrocity of slavery.
Sheldon George, PhD, is a professor of English, a Lacanian theorist, and a scholar of African-American literature. He is an associate editor of Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society and a guest editor of two special issues of the journal: “African Americans and Inequality” (2014) and “Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Interventions into Culture and Politics” (2018). Dr. George’s book Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity was published in 2016 by Baylor University Press. He is coeditor of Reading Contemporary African American and Black British Women Writers: Narrative, Race, Ethics (Routledge 2020) and is currently completing a collection on Lacan and Race.