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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 531-533

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Book Review

Fair Sex, Savage Dreams:
Race, Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference
Jean Walton. Fair Sex, Savage Dreams: Race, Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. x + 244 pp.

In Fair Sex, Savage Dreams, Jean Walton undertakes important work. Defining as her field of investigation "what hitherto has always been allowed to remain at the level of the 'unconscious' of psychoanalysis itself," she seeks to uncover psychoanalysis's "racial subtext." Walton is particularly concerned to expose and counteract the ways in which feminist and queer encounters with psychoanalysis have uncritically preserved this subtext. Indeed, she suggests that "fantasies of racial difference" lie at the root of white women's earliest self-positionings within psychoanalytic discourses and institutions.

Using the writings of Joan Riviere, Melanie Klein, H. D., Marie Bonaparte, and Margaret Mead as case studies, Walton examines "the way in which whiteness has come to pose as deeply constitutive of female subjectivity, even in the most groundbreaking work of feminists to date." She argues further that the white women named above deployed racist fantasies of racial difference to negotiate their masculine tendencies, bisexual pleasures, and challenges to heterocentrism, as well as their bids for professional, intellectual, or artistic authority in the public sphere. An observation she makes regarding Marie Bonaparte and Margaret Mead—that both women were "situated in the formative years of their [End Page 531] disciplines, indeed, defining and legitimizing their professional lives as their disciplines were in turn being defined and legitimized"—can be extended to the other women in Walton's study. This observation subtends one of the book's most provocative suggestions, namely that white women's struggles to forge a place for themselves in the emergent (and male-dominated) arena of psychoanalysis and related disciplines determined the particular ways in which the subject of psychoanalysis was tacitly racialized. In drawing out this thread of her argument, Walton executes thoughtful close readings of a wide range of relevant, but previously underscrutinized, materials. Her claims are often persuasive, and are likely to have far-reaching impact on the field of feminist and queer studies.

In a second thread of her argument, Walton reworks a psychoanalytic model of subjectivity itself in order to account for the ways in which "the racialization of subjects is bound up in their sexualization." Fusing the work of Lacan and Levi-Strauss, she argues that the psychoanalytic subject "enters a signifying system that performs a complex operation on her: it situates her among others defined by their kinship relation to her, and in the process, both sexuates and racializes her." Walton's model turns on two, related and intersecting, binary oppositions: Lacan's distinction between being and having the phallus (which renders one either male or female) and Levi-Strauss's distinction between endogamy and exogamy (which, in Walton's account, renders one either black or white). This model strikes me as problematic on a number of counts.

When viewed in historical terms, the distinction between endogamy and exogamy does not provide an adequate explanation for how people come to be either "black" or "white." Take, for instance, the term "white." As numerous scholars have demonstrated, the boundaries of whiteness were the site and object of heated struggle during this period, indicating that the distinction between exogamy and endogamy was being deployed—and contested—just as often within the category of people who now call themselves white as it was at and beyond the borders of that category.

What the endogamy/exogamy distinction does provide is a way of making the symbolic order of racial difference conform to the same logic of binary opposition underwriting the Lacanian order of sexual difference. But this is to assume a great deal. The resulting model not [End Page 532] only fails to account for the much later historical emergence of the black/white distinction than of the male/female distinction (an emergence that surely owes more to a modern history of conquest, colonization, enslavement, and genocide than it does to age-old patterns of kinship formation). But...


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