restricted access Risking Difference: Identification, Race, and Community in Contemporary Fiction and Feminism (review)
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Reviewed by
Jean Wyatt. Risking Difference: Identification, Race, and Community in Contemporary Fiction and Feminism. New York: State U of New York P, 2004. x + 286 pp.

Psychoanalysis has a peculiar place in contemporary literary studies. On one hand, there is hardly a major critic today whose methodology does not assume (however implicitly) the usefulness of such concepts as the unconscious, displacement, projection, disavowal, identification, fetishism—or, in a more Lacanian vocabulary, the mirror stage, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. On the other hand, psychoanalytic theory has never fully shaken the charge of a transhistoricism or universalism that vitiates its usefulness as an instrument of cultural analysis. The charge has gained a special urgency in the decades since the mid 1980s, as the postructuralist turn in literary studies has given way to a culturalist turn that emphasizes the historical embeddedness of cultural artifacts and practices. [End Page 717]

One result of this shift has been the restaging of longstanding debates that pit psychoanalytic theorists against the champions of historicism. A more fruitful result, in my view, has been the emergence of new and daring efforts to blend psychoanalytic and historical modes of analysis. Jean Wyatt's Risking Difference falls into the latter category. It is a powerful and moving book that will exhilarate anyone interested in contemporary literature and politics. Its most capacious argument is that feminist communities of the last few decades have been structured by the repression and disavowal of destructive forms of identification: sisterhood has required denying powerful feelings of envy that have their root in the hetero-annihilative force of primary identification. This is a form of identification that eliminates alterity as such; when in its grip, we experience others as possessing the self-coherence and vitality that we ourselves lack, and that we seek to appropriate in a deadly mimesis that leaves no room for an other separate from ourselves. Wyatt shows how this process has its roots in what Lacan calls the "ideal ego"—not that component of the superego known as the "ego ideal," but rather the impossible image of ideality that the infant encounters in a mirror image, the gap between which and her sublunary self she will spend her lifetime trying to close. Internalized as the infant's first "identity," this ideal ego becomes the abstract, purely formal basis for all idealizing identifications. The dangers that it poses for the self are perhaps as serious as those it poses for human relations. For if the ideal ego leads us to bracket imperfections and treat (some) others as unblemished ideals, it equally serves as a defensive armor that forecloses (except in the form of shame) the self's experience of in coherence and dis possession, including the sense of having a body that catches us up in growth and change.

The implications of this view of identification are socially profound and far-reaching. By emphasizing the formal character of the ideal ego, Wyatt makes it possible to see how social, cultural, and political factors determine the content of specific ideals. This has the enormously liberating effect of obviating the need to choose between the universalist propositions of psychoanalysis and the demands of materialist, historical analysis: we may all be constituted by lack and a longing for self-completion, but the content and meaning of that lack is historically variable and subject to revision. Wyatt thus traces the propensity among white academic feminists to idealize black feminists; it is as if, because of the particular social and political climate of the university, the content of what counts as ideal can be shifted onto an oppressed group in a way that both thwarts interracial dialogue and leaves racial inequality untouched. Similarly, the particular sense of internalized insufficiency experienced by Chicana women [End Page 718] follows from the specific ideologies of femininity into which they have been interpellated—ideologies embodied in the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Malinche. This means that the forms of deprivation around which Chicana femininity is structured are only imperfectly named by "lack." The lack itself needs to be thought in relation to the ideals (of purity, self-sacrifice, loyalty to men and nation) from...