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Number 9: Winter 2013

Trauma and the Ghost Dance of Psychoanalytic Practice

Brid Greally

Post-colonialism and trauma

Post-colonialism is an interdisciplinary critique of the autonomous subject of the Western Enlightenment. It deconstructs the self-contained subject who repeatedly projects and disowns in order to shore up a modern ‘national self’ in opposition to a colonial ‘primitive self’. Post-colonialism emerged in the context of reflections on the Second World War and the holocaust. At the Bandung conference of 1955, 29 newly independent African and Asian countries formed a ‘third world’ perspective which Young (2001) describes as marking the beginning of post-colonialism as a self conscious political philosophy. This approach sought to appreciate indigenous resources and cultures and to question and present alternatives to the Greco-Roman discourses of the West which valorise the triumph of reason, the missionary zeal of Christianity and the commodificaton of capitalism.

Post-colonialism is a series of critiques. Some writers highlight how certain European texts justify and promote colonialism, others write about the lived experience of the oppressed under colonialism, while some mark the effects and limitations of national liberation.  Whilst there are major differences between these writers, they share a focus on how the history and identities of the developing world and the West are implicated in each other and how the traumas of the West are linked to the traumas of colonised peoples. They mainly concentrate on the four hundred years of European imperialism and are currently involved in seeking to understand its relationship to the ‘new American Empire’ of the post-9/11 world.

Since Franz Fanon’s writings in the 1960s, post-colonialists have engaged with psychoanalysis even though they critique it as a European, modernist discourse.  Fanon’s compatriot and mentor, Aimé Césaire, wrote Discourse on Colonialism (1955) which describes how psychoanalysis as a European discourse is implicated in the interlocking of slavery, colonialism and genocide and therefore part of the murderousness of Christian humanism. He claimed that the violence and oppression of colonialism was disguised as the  bringing of civilising reason to a ‘savage’ people and/or bringing Christian salvation to pagans. He insisted that colonisation was damaging and un-civilising for Europe. Fanon elaborated on this critical stance and drew attention to the dangers of a psychoanalytic practice that might collude with such efforts under the guise of taking on the mantle of a civilising force. Post-colonial studies participate in the controversies over the question of trauma by addressing the psychological effects of colonisation which are not just the loss of lands and material resources but also the loss of a way of life, as the consciousnesses and bodies of the colonised are forcefully possessed by the colonial Other.