restricted access Taboo Subjects: Race, Sex, and Psychoanalysis (review)
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Reviewed by
Gwen Bergner. Taboo Subjects: Race, Sex, and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. xxxii + 209 pp.

Gwen Bergner's Taboo Subjects: Race, Sex, and Psychoanalysis examines "how literature on race disrupts psychoanalysis's conventional models of gender identification, forcing a reconsideration and reconfiguration of many foundational psychoanalytic texts" (xix). Of course, feminist critics have long been engaged in the process of critiquing a model of subjectivity that makes the phallus the master signifier and equates women with the lack of that signifier. Bergner takes up this project with the difference that she focuses on racial as well as gender differentiation and turns to literature on race to reconsider the socio-psychic processes by which we design identity in culture. While classic psychoanalysis does not address race, and the traditional psychoanalytic view holds that sexualization is the inaugural difference that founds subject-formation and structures ideology, Bergner aims to show that racial differentiation is equally constitutive of identity. For example, just as in the Freudian/Lacanian account of acculturation male identity is distinguished by its differentiation from female identity, so also, in a parallel process, whiteness is made the master position by racial division; in addition, both these identities are socially enforced by taboos, the prohibitions against incest and miscegenation. Like the incest taboo, which, according to Sigmund Freud, assigns gender positions, the prohibition against miscegenation works to compel individuals to assume raced subject positions.

Bergner begins promisingly with an intriguing correspondence between W. E. B. Du Bois's theory of double consciousness and Freud's primal scene. Both theories of identity acquisition hold that a dominant gaze initiates subjectivity formation, and, in both paradigms, [End Page 211] the newly formed subject feels split. For Du Bois, as he states in his 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folk, a racial identity is composed by a dominant white gaze that forms a "peculiar" identity, a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." For Freud, (male) gender identity arises out of a visual trauma, the observation of the primal scene, an image of parental intercourse, which the child interprets as a scene of maternal castration and which compels the child to split from the mother and to identify with the father. Noting these correspondences, Bergner concludes that "specular moments thus constitute dramatic representations of critical phases in the formation of subjectivity" (xix); and, in subsequent chapters, in the hope of finding a way to break open the psychoanalytic position that patriarchy and heteronormativity are inevitably the dominant mode in the cultural, or symbolic, order, she analyzes primal scenes of identity construction in texts by authors who write from diverse racial and gender positions, namely Frantz Fanon, Frederick Douglass, Nella Larsen, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.

In her chapter on Black Skin, White Masks, Bergner shows how Fanon's account of racialization maps onto Freud's model of male gender-formation. Just as, in the Freudian narrative, male identity is constituted by the "castrating" gaze of the child-viewer of the scene of parental intercourse, in Fanon's narrative, the gaze of viewers—a child and his mother—instigated in him a racial identity and a feeling of castration. Observing this correspondence, Bergner notes that "the black man is thus placed in the 'feminine' position" (8). At this early stage in her developing argument, Bergner reveals that racialization and feminization are comparable processes: the positioning of both the feminized and the racialized subject works to distinguish white male subjectivity.

Taking up Frederick Douglass, Bergner finds that his Narrative, like Fanon's text, contains a scene of racial formation that conforms to Freud's primal scene. In his Narrative, Douglass writes that he passed through "the blood-stained gate, the entrance into the hell of slavery" (51) when, as a child, he witnessed Master mercilessly beating his beautiful Aunt Hester. This observed whipping corresponds to Freud's fantasized image of maternal domination, which fosters male gender-identification. Bergner notes that, because Douglass shares his aunt's enslaved condition, he experiences a split allegiance and that he attempts to displace "racial lack onto the feminine in order to accede to normative sufficient masculinity" (43...