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Du Bois on Trauma: Psychoanalysis and the Would-Be Black Savant

From: Cultural Critique
51, Spring 2002
pp. 1-39 | 10.1353/cul.2002.0025

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Cultural Critique 51 (2002) 1-39

[T]he meaning and implications of the new psychology had begun slowly to penetrate my thought. My own study of psychology under William James had predated the Freudian era, but it had prepared me for it.

Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn

The diminution of the myth of freedom, the elevation of the power of slavery, allows Du Bois to establish a continuum of African and Afro-American psychology.

Arnold Rampersad, "Slavery and the Literary Imagination"

Until very recently, critics have been reluctant to deploy the critical legacy of psychoanalysis in their reading of African-American texts. Certain political imperatives and concerns have supported this hesitation; all too often the presupposed subject of psychoanalytic criticism has been white, bourgeois, and male. Yet the emergence of "trauma studies" has made it possible to reenlist psychoanalysis in the work of cultural critique. Indeed, trauma has emerged as the issue most valuable for showing the blindness and insight of Freud's legacy. One could say that trauma "traumatizes" Freud's method: it is the ur-translation problem in Freud's mental world, the operator of difference in his work, for he never stops worrying about its relationship to psychoanalysis, never feels the release from the imperative it imposes upon him to revise certain of his most basic premises. The haunting power of trauma has to do with the ambivalence Freud feels toward the concept from the moment he separates himself from the seduction theory by cutting trauma roughly in half, brilliantly elaborating symbolic resonances and somewhat hastily (though never completely) obscuring the psychic burden of actual events. Ironically, Freud's ambivalence registers a determination to resist a facile opposition between "actual" and "symbolic" trauma that often results in a still cruder conflation of their value by critics.

When W. E. B. Du Bois writes his "Apologia" for the 1954 reissue of Suppression of the African Slave Trade, he regrets his failure to elaborate the irrational and unconscious forces at work in U.S. culture. Yet references in Du Bois to the "missed opportunity" of psychoanalysis appear only after Freud's "science" had become one of the premier analytic tools for the twentieth century. Today we can read such regrets against the grain, particularly when we discover how Du Bois explores certain aspects of trauma theory closed down by Freud's early turn from the seduction theory. Indeed, French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche places trauma at the center of a revised seduction theory designed to be more attentive to radical alterity. It is my larger argument that this determination to establish new foundations for psychoanalysis can help us to uncover the new foundations already at work at the opening of the twentieth century when Du Bois calls for an analysis of the radical alterity at the center of the color line. For both Laplanche and Du Bois (and, some would argue, Freud at the end of his life), trauma's analytic potential resides both in its complex double structure and in its relationship to (or translation of) shifting political and mental states.

Trauma's meaning in Western medicine extends from a surgeon's description of a wound to the head in the early nineteenth century to a much more complex and puzzling narrative about a wound to the psyche toward the century's end. This transformation has about it a compelling social character: trauma becomes attached to psychic injury when train accident victims complain of lingering mental and physical disorders despite the fact that they emerge from accident scenes unharmed. Certain questions of liability motivate this extension of trauma's meaning: who is responsible for the disability resulting from such accidents? Indeed, the question begins to be asked, what type of disability is it? Responding to new demands of public (and increasingly "democratic") transportation, this coalition of medical and legal inquiry ironically underwrites not only the trend toward psychological exploration, but also the burgeoning institution of the insurance company.

Trauma's value can be said to have extended in this way at a conscious level, with interested parties pulling its representation to suit specific needs. Yet the transformation of trauma's meaning reaches into deeper levels of the...



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