Chapter 9

From: Identity

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A Nasty Piece of Work: A Psychoanalytic Study of Sexual and Racial Difference in 'Mona Lisa' LOLA YOUNG Both authorised and anecdotal literature have created too many stories about Negroes to be suppressed. But putting them all together does not help us in our real task, which is to disclose their mechanics. What matters for us is not to collect facts and behaviour, but to find their meaning. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon, the Black psychiatrist who fought for Algeria's liberation from French rule, wrote in France in the early 1950s that 'if one wants to understand the racial situation psychoanalytically ... as it is experienced by individual consciousness, considerable importance must be given to sexual phenomena'.l Sexual relationships between Black and White people are frequently alluded to but rarely openly discussed: even today the subject arouses fierce debate and controversy in both Black and White communities. It seems that inter-racial sexuality is the unmentionable act in the context ofa racist society. The avoidance of meaningful discussions about such relationships generally is underlined by the prohibitions associated with inter-racial sexuality on film. How might we use psychoanalysis to unravel the relationship between sex and 'race' on film? And if it is true, as has been argued, that a racist society will have a racist science,2 is there any potential for the 188 ANasty Piece of Work productive use ofpsychoanalysis to describe and explain racism? Like Fanon, I believe that psychoanalytic theory has a significant contribution to make to the understanding of the psychic processes involved in the construction of racism and racist ideologies, and thus to their dismantling. In order to explore the possibilities of a fruitful alliance between psychoanalysis and anti-racism, I should like to look at some aspects of the development of the human psyche using psychoanalytic terms. In attempting to use psychoanalytic theory to reveal the psychic mechanisms involved in the construction of racial difference, I am aware of some contradictions. Freud's challenge to the ideology of liberal-humanism through the decentring of the subject from its pivotal position - the omniscient 'bourgeois' individual - has been described as revolutionary. However, some of the uses to which psychoanalysis has been put have not fulfilled its radical potential. Psychoanalysis has frequently been appropriated as an instrument of repression, and rehabilitation into social conformity, by the dominant forms of Western psychotherapeutic practice, and there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that many institutional procedures have oppressed Black people in a number ofways.3 Also, even though Freud maintained that the phenomena he described were transcultural, ubiquitous experiences, psychoanalysis has often been criticised as a set of culturally and temporally specific observations and extrapolations which have acquired the status of a universal theory. As a result, this has led to a tendency to dismiss psychoanalysis as eurocentric and ahistorical, and thus of no use to Black people. Yet Fanon found much that was useful, especially in the description ofWhite people's fantasies about Black people. His book Black Skin, White Masks (first published in 1952) was primarily concerned with the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority to which Blacks were prone under colonial rule and he used psychoanalysis and psychology to describe and explain the effects of colonisation and oppression on the Black psyche. Fanon proposed a two-part study containing both a 'psychoanalytic interpretation of the life experience of the Black man' and a 'psychoanalytic interpretation of the Negro myth'.4 However, progress in understanding the deep structures of the mind which contribute to the perpetuation of 189 Identity racism has been slow: Fanon's questions and the issues he raised have direct relevance to the way in which we conceptualise our positions in British society today. Because the understanding of a single instance in some detail can facilitate the understanding of many similar instances, I want to take the film 'Mona Lisa' (directed by Neil Jordan in 1986) as a representative illustration of a general ideological condition. There are several reasons for looking at this particular product of the British film industry. 'Mona Lisa' is intriguing because it illustrates the ways in which issues of race may circulate in a text without being made explicit through a strong Black presence: one of the absorbing elements of the film is that although it is imbued with 'race', it continually refuses to engage with the racial issues raised. 'Mona Lisa' is also noteworthy for its combined use of racial, class and sexual difference as...



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