Trauma and Race
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Trauma and Race

A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity

Sheldon George

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eBook - ePub

Trauma and Race

A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity

Sheldon George

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African American identity is racialized. And this racialized identity has animated and shaped political resistance to racism. Hidden, though, are the psychological implications of rooting identity in race, especially because American history is inseparable from the trauma of slavery.

In Trauma and Race author Sheldon George begins with the fact that African American racial identity is shaped by factors both historical and psychical. Employing the work of Jacques Lacan, George demonstrates how slavery is a psychic event repeated through the agencies of racism and inscribed in racial identity itself. The trauma of this past confronts the psychic lack that African American racial identity both conceals and traumatically unveils for the African American subject.

Trauma and Race investigates the vexed, ambivalent attachment of African Americans to their racial identity, exploring the ways in which such attachment is driven by traumatic, psychical urgencies that often compound or even exceed the political exigencies called forth by racism.

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Race and Slavery

Theorizing Agencies beyond the Symbolic

The traumatic past of slavery has rooted African American identity in contradiction. Where this identity is tasked with representing a people engaged in an ongoing struggle for social equality, the concept of race itself, which grounds this identity, leaves open the African American subject to both the racism and the trauma that issues from this past. What I would like to begin to articulate in this first chapter of Trauma and Race is the argument that race has emerged as a precarious apparatus of being for African Americans. The central charge of race in American culture is to mediate a relation to what we may view as a transhistorical jouissance of the past, a traumatic excess of pleasure and pain that emanates from slavery to organize both subjective identity and the broader American social sphere. This past of slavery has produced both race and racism as modes of jouissance, as methods of accessing being. Jouissance, I would suggest, is embedded in the very signifiers of race themselves, which enable remanifestation of structures of enjoyment that bind subjects equally to concepts of race and to practices of racism. It is therefore a focus on the function of the signifier that must contextualize this study. While I most specifically address the effects of the racial signifier upon contemporary African Americans in chapter 2, what I would like to delineate here, through reference to both the history of slavery and narratives by ex-slaves themselves, is a core relation among the signifier, jouissance, and the past of slavery that is missed by much of the contemporary scholarship on race.
The limitation of most African American scholarly investigations of race, I argue, is their allegiance to conceptions of discourse, race, and agency that are framed not by psychoanalysis but by poststructuralist criticism. Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist argument that “centers” of meaning have “no natural [or] fixed locus” but are secured instead by discourse provides for the scholarship on race an anxiously alluring appeal.1 The anxiety associated with this theory emerges because poststructuralism poses a challenge to the very concept of race itself, which for many African American scholars provides both a sense of identity and a route toward agency. As early as 1987 Barbara Christian, a pioneer of African American studies, articulated the rationale for resisting this theory, observing that poststructuralist critique of the center emerged “just when the literature of peoples of color . . . began to move to ‘the center.’ ”2 But, even when not explicitly employing poststructuralist theory, African American scholars nevertheless mirror its signature processes of decentering and discursively resignifying identity in their efforts to establish race as a “social construct.” We see this, for example, in the assertion of leading African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. that “precisely because ‘blackness’ is a socially constructed category, it must be learned through imitation,” and, most important for Gates, it is therefore also open to “repetition and revision.”3 This attempt to revise race discursively is essential to African American theoretical conceptions of agency; but, like poststructuralist models, it is limited by its frequent failure to acknowledge and account for influences upon race and the racial subject that lie outside of the structure imposed by discourse.
While this focus upon discourse directs much of contemporary race theory toward analyses of what we may call after Jacques Lacan the social Symbolic, Trauma and Race is an attempt not only to articulate the impact of the discursive signifiers of race on the unconscious of African Americans but also to circumscribe a traumatic Real that escapes and indeed structures the agency of the signifiers of the Symbolic. Lacan speaks of the Real as the excluded center of the subject. Coining the term “extimate,” Lacan defines the Real as that which simultaneously is most intimate, or internal to the subject, and excluded from symbolization.4 This extimate Real, I suggest, is what a theoretical focus solely upon discourse misses. My work links this Real to slavery as an exclusion within the social Symbolic that yet shapes the discourse of race and indeed founds central aspects of African American and American identity. However, my interest is not so much in the history of slavery as in the ineffable experience of jouissance—or excessive, traumatizing pain and pleasure—that issues out of this Real past to fuel the psychic desires and fantasies of Americans. Tying this trauma to the fundamental trauma of subject formation, the traumatic elision of being that occurs with the onset of subjectivity, I read slavery as marking an upsurge of jouissance, such that slavery comes to signify a moment in time when the pleasures and pains associated with being are open to manipulation by white Americans. What enables such manipulation is the concept of race itself, thus constituted by slavery as an apparatus of jouissance that African Americans today still struggle to control and manipulate. But this precarious source of jouissance and being remains for African Americans an illusory object of attachment that binds them to the unbearable past. Through the function of the signifier, I argue, race enables a psychoanalytic process of repetition that once again produces for African Americans the psychic trauma of the Real.
Maintaining, therefore, that slavery has produced a historical legacy that is both discursive and psychical, I turn to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory because his fundamental assertion that the “unconscious is constituted by the effects of speech on the subject” offers a more expansive understanding of the workings of the signifier than is available in other theoretical models.5 Though indebted to Freud for his ideas on the unconscious, much of Lacan’s thinking on the signifier emerges from a rereading of the seminal work in linguistics and semiotics produced by Ferdinand de Saussure, a theorist whose thinking also influenced Derrida. However, the divergences between Lacan’s and Derrida’s theories offer radical implications both for how we understand the effects of the past upon African Americans and for how we conceptualize an African American agency meant to resist this past and its continuing legacy. Both Lacan and Derrida derive from Saussure the notion that signifiers have no inherent meaning6 but instead produce meaning by operating through what Lacan calls “themes of opposition” and “functions of contrast and similitude.”7 Derrida advances this Saussurian reading by reducing signification to “absolute chance” and the “genetic indetermination” of the signifier, arguing that meaning only ever accumulates as a “trace,” as the by-product of differential relations established between signifiers in their “movement [along] a chain.”8 Where Lacan differs from both Saussure and Derrida is in his understanding of the signifier as not arbitrary or indeterminate but contingent upon causation that is external to the Symbolic.
The concept of contingency is what brings Lacan to a notion of trauma as structural to the functioning of the unconscious and conscious. Lacan explains this contingency by linking it to what he calls “cause,” which involves “impediment, failure, split.”9 Cause is the traumatic and eruptive core around which the signifiers of consciousness ever assemble themselves, if only in the defensive act of establishing for the subject a protective distance from this core. In tying cause to both failure and split, Lacan points to its extimate relation to the subject, its internal externality: cause, as trauma, may manifest itself in a movement outward, through the failures, slips, and stumbles of the subject as she or he unknowingly charts a repetitive path toward a traumatic past that remains internally salient, simultaneously enticing and terrifying; but cause manifests, finally, as an intrusion external to the system of signifiers that structure meaning for the subject, as an experience that splits the subject between meaning and nonmeaning. Emerging as that which traumatically defies meaning, cause is always “something anti-conceptual” and thus is inevitably bound to the Real as that register of the psyche that is removed from symbolization.10
The cause that Trauma and Race demarcates is what I call the jouissance of slavery, a psychic experience of trauma that emerges from the past and repeats itself in the present through the agency of the signifier. It is the signifier that establishes the link through which this traumatic cause, germane to the slave’s experience and not to that of his or her descendant, intrusively establishes its place in the internal lives of African Americans. The signifier defines the category of race, allowing for a conscious association of African Americans with a chain of signifiers that links them to the brutal historical past. This linkage confronts African Americans not only with the terrible history itself but also with a traumatic lack that, I will argue, was made manifest by slavery. What the signifiers of race do, therefore, whether emanating from the racist other or whether willfully embraced as a source of identity, is rearticulate the subject’s sense of self around an unveiled lack once defined in the racist past. Thus, I maintain, the discursive linking of African American identity to this past becomes the means through which the trauma of slavery is repeated in the experiences of African Americans.

From Resignification to the Barred Subject

The anticonceptual cause of which I speak, this more than historical jouissance of slavery, is precisely what is ignored by both Derridean poststructuralism and leading African American scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker. At the heart of these scholars’ work is a focus on the Symbolic that actively limits African American agency and identity to what we may call after Judith Butler “resignification,” the effort “to lay claim” to the terms that define us “precisely because of the way these terms, as it were, lay their claim on us prior to our full knowledge.”11 Butler’s Derridean approach to agency and the challenges she recognizes in it are useful for shedding light on the mirroring route embraced by African American scholars. Working, like Butler, with a conceptualization of the Symbolic as a closed system in which existent signifiers can only be resignified and recirculated, these scholars confront a particular problematic that can be articulated as the prospect of “forging a future from resources inevitably impure.”12 Without a viable methodology by which newness can enter into the Symbolic, by which something alien to the system can either be introduced into it or act upon it, the challenge these scholars come to embrace is how to rearticulate the terms of race “that [once] signaled degradation” so that they can now “signify a new and affirmative set of meanings,” so that this “reversal” is not one that “retains and reiterates the abjected history of the term.”13
It is this focus on resignification that we see, for example, in Gates’ famous theory of “the signifying monkey,” which defines a discursive practice of resistance that is grounded in a “formal revision” that “turns on repetition of formal structures, and their difference.”14 Disregarding the psychoanalytic notion of repetition as tied to the unconscious and Real, Gates views African American culture as involved in continual efforts to produce a “chiasmus,” or what Gates articulates as a process of “repeating and simultaneously revising in one deft, discursive act.”15 Gates relies, ultimately, on a model of agency that Derrida calls after Levi-Strauss “bricolage”: the process of making use of “the instruments [one] finds at [one’s] disposition around [oneself], those which are already there,” in one’s attempt to, by “trial and error, adapt them” to a use for “which [they] had not been especially conceived.”16 Though Gates seeks to imagine a beyond of this bricolage and reach outside of the American Symbolic by asserting that African Americans must turn to their own “black vernacular tradition” itself in their efforts to “ ‘deconstruct,’ if you will, the ideas of difference inscribed in the trope of race,” Gates limits agency to language, arguing that we must “take discourse itself as our common subject.”17 Both Gates and Baker bind African American political resistance to language and thus also to the Symbolic, with Baker viewing the slave narrative and historical figures like Booker T. Washington as embracing a politics of “liberating manipulation” and “revolutionary renaming” that employs language as a “black defense against and revision of ancient terrors, mistaken identities, dread losses.”18 In the view of an African American theory of race shaped by the work of thinkers like Gates and Baker, this revisionary repetition has been and continues to be a means for blacks to alter the social structure of a racist Symbolic.
This effort at resignification is laudable and indeed necessary. But the problem with a theoretical focus on the Symbolic is that it does not acknowledge how what is extimate may impact upon the Symbolic and the discursive activities of the subject beyond his or her conscious volition, and neither does it offer a direct means to address the scars that may be left on the subject’s psyche through the operations of racism within this Symbolic. Indeed, it may be argued that what is missed in such a focus on the Symbolic is the very psychoanalytic subject him- or herself. As Lacan states, “the subject is not the one who thinks” or speaks through discourse.19 Lacan’s work continually returns to a critique of what he calls “the I-cracy,” or “myth” of “the I that masters” discourse, the myth of the “speaker” that “is identical to itself.”20 Known for his focus on the split subject, Lacan counters the I-cracy by asserting that “the point” is “to know whether, when I speak of myself, I am the same as the self of whom I speak.”21 In opposition to the speaking subject of the I-cracy, Lacan “identifies the subject with that which is originally subverted by the system of the signifier.”22 What Lacan points to is “the function of barring, the striking out of another thing” that his theory establishes as inherent in the subject’s relation to the Other’s signifiers.23
It is this process by which something essential to the subject is stricken from him or her that I propose enables an understanding of the effects of slavery upon both the slave and contemporary African Americans. Lacanian theory shows that all subjects are constituted through the Other’s signifiers...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Introduction: Race Today, or Alterity and Jouissance
  8. 1 Race and Slavery
  9. 2 Conserving Race, Conserving Trauma
  10. 3 Approaching the Thing of Slavery
  11. 4 The Oedipal Complex and the Mythic Structure of Race
  12. Conclusion: Beyond Race, or The Exaltation of Personality
  13. Notes
  14. Bibliography
  15. Index
Zitierstile für Trauma and Race

APA 6 Citation

George, S. (2016). Trauma and Race ([edition unavailable]). Baylor University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)

Chicago Citation

George, Sheldon. (2016) 2016. Trauma and Race. [Edition unavailable]. Baylor University Press.

Harvard Citation

George, S. (2016) Trauma and Race. [edition unavailable]. Baylor University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

George, Sheldon. Trauma and Race. [edition unavailable]. Baylor University Press, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.