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  • Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism
  • Coral Houtman
Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism by Ranjana Khanna. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, U.S.A., 2003. 328 pp. Trade, paper. ISBN: 0-8223-3055-5; ISBN: 0-8223-3067-9.

This well-written, intelligent and thoughtful book is a symptomatic study of psychoanalysis and its relationship to colonialism and postcolonialism. Ranjana Khanna argues that psychoanalysis together with its sister discourses, ethnology and archaeology, sprang from the same episteme as colonialism and was contaminated with the same racism and ethnocentricity. The subject of psychoanalysis, Khanna argues, is the "Western Man"—women and black men are the "Dark Continent" of the unknowable and the invisible. Yet psychoanalysis has been adopted as a tool for the colonized as well as the colonizer. How has psychoanalysis spoken and failed to speak for the colonized and postcolonial subject? Khanna looks at the discourses of psychoanalysis and postcolonialism and reads them against the grain in order to find a theory of the subject that does not occlude the psychic, the particular or the material historical facts of oppression. Finally, she arrives at a transnational feminist ethics as a tool in the continuing fight for freedom and justice in the 21st century.

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Khanna's major thesis and the continuing trope for the book is that colonization, whether black, female or created through exile, is constituted by melancholia, although this is differently figured in different situations and in different cultures. Melancholia is the failure to properly introject lost love objects and to internalize values so that they contribute to the formation of the ego structure, particularly the superego. Khanna argues that the colonized subject is unable to mourn the loss of his or her culture or tribe, as these are made unknown and invisible to him or her by Western hegemony. The loss of cultural memory or inability to find signifiers for themselves other than in Otherness to the White Man causes the colonized to incorporate their objects—to swallow them whole. This situation results in several symptoms: critical agency, in which the failure to introject leads to splitting within the ego, self-beratement and criticism of the lost object; demetaphorization, in which objects prevail whole and language is used iconically and concretely; and haunting, where the object haunts the subject in a hallucination or as a trace. Khanna traces the manifestations of melancholia first through Freud's own writings, showing that his exile and his relationship to Germany as a Jew gave his second topography the critical agency that deconstructed the Western subject and that subsequently could be used by the colonial subject to critique colonialism. She then looks at World War II as the moment when the self "was to be conceived ontologically so as to allow for action." Khanna explores the existential psychoanalysis of Jean-Paul Sartre and how this approach was parochialized so that it could be adopted in struggles for independence in the colonies. Looking at the writing of Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon and especially Aimé Cesaire, Khanna discerns the growth of a discourse around the nature of collective unconscious, history, memory and the articulation of colonial repression as a force of liberation. Thus, melancholia enables resistance and the symptoms become the cure. Nevertheless, in the work of Octave Mannoni, Fanon and Memmi, melancholia still haunts the postcolonial subject, and history, memory and trauma are shown not to be eliminated by state nationalism alone. Khanna's reading calls for a psychoanalysis embracing both ethics and politics.

Simone de Beauvoir supplies Khanna with the ethics and politics the author needs, and Khanna resituates feminism within a postmodern Derridean framework to argue for a coalition politics that realizes justice and politics are the impossible limits that enable us to think of both. The way to emerge from the quagmire of identity politics and the hostile projections and binaries this produces is through coalition, an understanding that the Other is Oneself, and an empathy that takes account of specific struggles and inequalities within the realms of justice, politics and freedom as necessary and absolute fantasies.

Psychoanalysis and literary criticism are both hermeneutic disciplines through which it is possible to...


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