Taboo Subjects: Race, Sex, and Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Bergner, Gwen
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed By: Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, XXIX, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 45-46

In the exclusive world of psychoanalytic theory, race is not a topic commonly considered. Though literary critics have broached the topic more often than psychoanalysts, very few are as thoughtful or thorough as Gwen Bergner. In Taboo subjects: Race, sex, and psychoanalysis, Bergner deals with race, class and gender in a brave, honest and pioneering way. So few works investigate any of these topics, and even fewer investigate all three, but to exclude one from the other is to deny the lived realities of our patients. Taboo subjects discusses how the miscegenation taboo, continued psychological impact of slavery, and a movement toward bi-/multi-racial terms require a combining of object relations and Lacanian psychoanalysis if we are to more fully conceptualize the social and symbolic as they affect psychic reality.

Bergner begins her work with a discussion of double consciousness, which is a term used to suggest that “…identity forms in response to the other’s gaze” (p. xiii). She explains that while in some academic circles race is commonly understood as a social construct, psychoanalysis “…is only beginning to consider race as a constitutive factor of identity” (p. xiv).

She goes on to point out that we perform race and gender based on social hierarchies that are internalized. In other words, the social and personal are interwoven throughout one’s development and absolutely affect one’s life, particularly if one is oppressed in some way.

Bergner uses several texts to make her arguments. She begins with Fanon in chapter one, whose Black Skin, White Masks “…is a foundational text for reconfiguring psychoanalysis to account for race… ,” although he “…takes the male subject as norm” (p. 3). She shows how Fanon was a trailblazer in his psychoanalytic exploration of racial identity and discusses the Black man’s [heterosexual] desire for White women, the White man’s historic rape and subjugation of Black women, and how men express power differentials through their sexual practices, often across racial lines, all of which is ultimately related to colonialism. Never before have we seen Fanon’s work discussed in this way, and it is quite illuminating.

With chapter two, Bergner moves on to Frederick Douglass. She points out how, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Douglass idealizes his masculinity and eclipses Black women in the way slaveholders (i.e., White males) eclipsed slaves (i.e., Black people). Referring to both as myths, Bergner compares Freud’s Oedipus complex with Douglass’s Narrative, “…because each is working out of comparable Western norms of masculinity” (p. 23). Bergner challenges conventional understandings of both texts in ways that sometimes seem irreverent but are nevertheless highly stimulating and thought provoking. She is ultimately successful in demonstrating how neither work may be considered anything other than culturally specific.

In chapter three, Bergner discusses the miscegenation taboo and the racial symbolic via Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. It quickly becomes clear how flimsy categories and hierarchies based on race actually are when considering the mulatto (i.e., half-Black, half-White individual). The concept of ideology as “…the shared fantasy or collective belief in a society that governs the relations among the members of that society” (p. 53) helps us understand just how influential sociopolitical forces can be on the formation of a sense of self. In a fascinating summary, Bergner explains

…the symbolic work done to produce an ideology of “Race,” whereby people are seen as white or black, or even white and nonwhite, cannot accommodate the concept of a mixed-race individual. Such an individual belies the fiction of racial difference and so cannot be represented within the ideological system. (p. 55)

This analysis continues in the Afterword about bi- and multi-racial individuals, where Bergner illustrates how the concepts of race in the U.S. are not easily obliterated from the unconscious.

Bergner continues her brilliant work in chapter four with a focus on William Faulkner, particularly his book Absalom, Absalom! She discusses how Faulkner painted a very different picture of the South than Gone with the Wind, which was published in the same year, and the ways in which “…nationalist ideologies construct race and class with reference to the terms of normative masculinity” (p. 83). She likens sociopolitical disfranchisement with “castration fear,” or fear of racial contamination, and discusses the miscegenation taboo and the “…collapse of racial distinctions” that are an integral part of slavery.

In chapter five, Bergner focuses on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She considers West African cosmology, a psychoanalytic understanding of the mother-daughter relationship, and a revision of slavery through an African Americanist perspective. Bergner illustrates how complex and genius Beloved is, in the way it intermingles individual and collective trauma, both in the present as well as the past. Bergner’s discussion weaves in psychoanalysis to help us understand not only how it is possible that slavery continues to affect an entire group of people but also how we cannot possibly disentangle the social from psychic reality. It is clear that, even though psychoanalysis has not sufficiently included race in its formulations, its practitioners hold the ability to help people move through their trauma, including trauma related to racism and other oppressions.

A particularly insightful aspect of Taboo subjects is Bergner’s argument that object relations can better respond to race than Lacanian or Freudian psychoanalysis. She acknowledges that psychoanalytic feminists argue that “…object relations embraces essentialist, normative conceptions of gender, sexuality, family structure, and parenting role” (p. 121) but explains that this is due to limitations in how the theory has been implemented thus far, not the theory itself. She argues that it is important to look at the “…links between an individual’s relational identity and group identity” (p. 122), and offers a merging of object relations theory with Lacanian psychoanalysis so that we may have a fuller understanding of how the social and symbolic are connected. Without this, “…there is no room for individual agency or cultural difference in relation to processes of subject formation” (p. 136).

Bergner successfully demonstrates how classical interpretations of texts and theories are limited because they do not account for all levels of oppression and subjectivity. As we know, interpretations often say more about the person offering the interpretation than the original theory, which is particularly dangerous in racist, sexist, and classist contexts. However, according to Bergner, some theories are inherently limited because the theoretical components are so bound in racism or sexism, such as Freudian analysis. Specifically, Bergner claims that Freud’s theory may be unable to ever fully account for the sociocultural influence(s) on identity formation because of its almost complete neglect of females from the theory. That Bergner re-reads and re-analyzes classic theories is a powerful reminder that they are not static entities to simply be digested but, instead, dynamic processes to be interrogated.

One of the few complaints against the book could be that Bergner only considers African Americans in the text. While it is impossible to cover everything, especially in 200 pages, one cannot help but wonder how her work relates to other so-called ethnic minority groups in the U.S. She acknowledges this limitation (p. xxxii) but I continue to believe that it would be illuminating to see how Bergner conceptualizes other groups given the atrocities they have also suffered in the U.S.

It must also be made clear that Bergner’s work is focused on the U.S. This is very helpful to anyone desiring an understanding of the contradictory and hypocritical race relations of the U.S. One could easily argue that the concepts related to expanding interpretation of classic theory to recognize sociocultural context remains true regardless of geographic location, but the specific ways in which she does so in Taboo subjects is certainly U.S.-bound.

Ultimately, Bergner has written a brilliant book. Taboo subjects is one of the few works currently available that is willing to look at the complex intersections of race, class and gender as they affect real people. I appreciate Bergner’s ability to separate theory from theorist, and acknowledge what is useful about a theory while dissecting what is not helpful or accurate. She is willing to be complicated and thorough, rather than ignore the complexity of the issues she investigates. She is honest with herself as well as the audience, and I imagine it would be much easier to simply discount her ideas rather than actually attempt to consider and digest them. For the benefit of us all, I hope the reader will choose the latter.

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