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  • Benítez Rojo and Las Casas's Plague of Ants:The Libidinal Versus the Ideological Unconscious
  • Malcolm K. Read (bio)

In a recent work, La isla que se repite, Cuban critic Antonio Benítez Rojo rereads one of the digressive "fictions" within Las Casas's Historia de las Indias, concerning a plague of ants that occurred in the Caribbean islands in 1519-21, and, through the deployment of the key Freudian notion of the uncanny, argues that it rehearses the Spaniard's deeply entrenched sense of guilty complicity in the importation of Negro slaves, who were currently "plaguing" these same islands. The initial goal of the present paper will be to review, metacritically, the theoretical apparatus that Benítez Rojo brings to bear on Las Casas's text. Psychoanalytic readings, as we know, have long been a commonplace of (post)colonial studies, although never conducted with an easy conscience. The problem, in its general outlines, is fairly clear. On the one hand, few would contest the transhistorical existence of a psychic human apparatus, succinctly alluded to by Freud himself in his famous observation concerning the Trobian islanders: "Don't they have an anus then?" On the other hand, we have the warnings of Frantz Fanon against the uninhibited application of manifestly "European" theoretical categories to a psychic economy of the colonized, on the grounds that the latter is manifestly inflected by the material brutalities of imperialism. Benítez Rojo is himself firmly persuaded of the relevance of psychoanalysis: the texts of Las Casas, he avers, constitute nothing less than a "performance psicoanalítica" ("psychoanalytic performance") [Benítez Rojo 139/110]. Reading Benítez Rojo against the grain, we will argue that, while the existence of an unconscious association between the ants and Negroes is undeniable, the psychoanalytic details mustered in its support are, in themselves, rather less convincing. The effect is to raise serious concerns about the ahistorical bias of psychoanalysis and, more specifically, the virtues of conducting "case studies" of premodern individualities.

Our second goal will be to juxtapose to the libidinal unconscious its ideological counterpart, as articulated by the Spanish Marxist Juan Carlos Rodríguez. From the latter's standpoint, the universalized application of psychoanalytic categories cannot help but appear a risky enterprise, particularly when it comes to assuming, as part of our metacritical baggage, notions of subjectivity whose historical production needs to be properly theorized. The Spanish empire, within this context, has the virtue of being something of a test case through which to take the measure of relevant transhistorical and historical forces. The texts of Las Casas are shown to be overdetermined by two conflictual ideological structures, one associated with the feudal mode of production and the other with a mercantilist-capitalist mode. Our conclusion will be that the [End Page 60] materialist reading, staged in terms of Rodríguez's key categories, is far more persuasive than its psychoanalytic counterpart.

Given such contrasting evaluations, it is important to clarify at the outset one particular point of principle: our aim is not to disqualify psychoanalytic criticism per se nor, more broadly, to promote some brand of structural monism. We readily concede (a) that the psychological sciences are no mere region of the "continent of history," to be explained away through a process of reduction to more fundamental levels of inquiry; and (b) that, by the same token, the social and psychological sciences need to be applied conjointly in the analysis of social formations, past and present. There can be no question, furthermore, of simply reducing the elements of a structure to the status of its effects, a view commonly attributed to Althusserianism. These positions, we believe, are perfectly compatible with the central concern of our paper, namely, to prioritize determination (in the last instance) by the ideological unconscious, whose pervasive influence is registered precisely in, but extends far beyond, the texts of Las Casas that Benítez Rojo has selected as the basis for his own analysis. Compatible for the simple reason that the reductive impulse is as unacceptable vis-à-vis the social sciences as against their psychological counterpart, particularly in the form of an attempt to treat the class struggle as a regional instance of...