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Number 9: Winter 2013

Trauma and the Ghost Dance of Psychoanalytic Practice

Brid Greally

Postcolonial studies draw on psychoanalysis, despite its being critiqued as contaminated with colonial assumptions, for purposes of understanding the damaging effects of colonisation. Psychoanalysis seeks to demonstrate how  people are affected at the level of their sense of self as subject, at the level of subjectivity.  In an attempt to understand problems with self esteem and inferiority, Fanon elaborates on the paradox of internalisation and the violence of objectification whereby inferiority is internalised in the form of a sadistic superego but which simultaneously erases the possibility of interiority.  He claims that instead there is a process which he describes as ‘epidermalisation’ which excludes the possibility of a psychic life and collapses the space for psychic work. Demonstrating this, he describes a scenario of an encounter with a white child who exclaims:

‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’ Frightened! Frightened! Now they are beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible.” (Fanon 1965: 112)

Writers of fiction as well as post-colonial studies, following Fanon, examine different aspects of trauma and what I am here calling the ghost dance of the oppressed. Toni Morrison in her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), tells of the struggle of her main character a black girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio in the years following the Great Depression. She struggles with the racist ideals of whiteness as beauty and good. Fanon’s work elaborates theoretically such impossibility, as Morrison portrays in fiction, and seeks to explain how this identification with the aggressor can seem like the only means of escaping objectification and dehumanisation. He is concerned with the damaging effects of trying to gain recognition from the coloniser and how at the level of society colonisation only works with the help of an indigenous elite which carries out some of the work of colonisation, sometimes with enthusiasm. At the level of the individual it can result in perverse self-destructive desires and a sense of debilitating guilt. Leys (2007) seeks to understand these phenomena in the context of survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In her genealogy of trauma she tracks the mimetic and antiemetic understanding of trauma and how this accompanies the move from guilt to shame. She claims that the move of emphasis from guilt to shame enacts a turn to a positivist understanding of trauma. She claims that it is linked to the omission of listing of survivor’s guilt in the entries for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the DSM-IV in 1987. She claims that this reinforces the idea of an external event and a sovereign subject independent of psychic and social reality and how sometimes the turn to positivism is justified as a way of ensuring the innocence of the victim. By contrast, Fanon draws on a psychoanalytic understanding of how certain oppressive situations can revive unconscious identifications and desires; how hostility and ambivalence towards parental figures can be imbued with yearnings for love and approval. The pernicious dynamics of oppression can lead to feelings of guilt and shame from a sense of complicity and corruption. Fanon draws on a psychoanalytic approach in order to appreciate that there can be objective innocence whilst haviing a subjective feeling of guilt.