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American Imago 59.4 (2002) 389-407

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The Other

Stephen Frosh

Few of us can claim to be immune to what seems to be a resurgence of intolerance, bigotry, racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism. Throughout Europe, in the old Soviet Union, in Asia and the Middle East, in the United States of America, the hatches are being bolted down as neighbors repel each other, as good citizens fight to keep what they feel to be alien at bay. In Europe, the Right makes all the noise, and the language of swamping and controls is legitimized by supposedly social democratic politicians. In Israel/Palestine, two nations so closely alike as to be psychologically almost indistinguishable battle with each other in a tiny strip of land, leaving their diasporic relatives torn asunder by grief and anger. In the U.S.A., there is an upswelling of patriotism and a rejection of the rest of the world, drowning, it is thought, in prejudice, fundamentalism, and terror. In the U.K., there has been a spate of apparently racist attacks and murders; the response to September 11th pillories Muslims, while the response to the Israel-Palestine conflict spurs on antisemitism. Under such circumstances and in the midst of such clouds of darkness, one wonders if any lessons ever get learned. Each one of us has legitimate cause for violence, it seems, and everyone needs to fear what the other might demand.

The multiple sources of all this barely need rehearsing: colonialism, economic exploitation and privation, disenfranchisement and political oppression, the injustices of history, the legacies of domination. Writing the full story of intolerance would take something truly multidimensional—more than simply "multidisciplinary" in the academic sense. It would have to imagine not just the economic, political, and social roots of the passions of nations, ethnic and religious groups, social classes, and individuals; but also the specific histories of each conflict, the exact fantasies that each group provokes in the others with which it has contact and dispute, and the [End Page 389] interconnected web of deceit and influence that envelops the whole. It would have to be expert at the social and political level, understand economics, know its theology and mythology, above all know its history. And still this would not be enough, partly because the situation never stands still, however much it recurs; partly because as well as the various rational factors feeding each conflict—historical and material disputes, interests and investments of various observable kinds—the "causeless hatred" of racism and bigotry is never quite encompassed by rationality, it always seems to figure something else. That is, at its heart (and "heart of darkness" is now an inescapable image, precisely because of its racist connotations), there seems to be something excessive, irreducible to its apparent objective causes, something too much and over the top, something full of what Zizek (1991) calls, with bitter irony, "enjoyment." Levinas (1991), writing about the Shoah, refers to "useless suffering": "Pain in its undiluted malignity, suffering for nothing" (98). Tragically but inescapably, it seems, the two things—enjoyment and useless suffering—often go together.

There is only one real discipline of the excessive, and that is psychoanalysis. So many of its theories seem breathtakingly mad that one can only hazard a guess that its continuing existence depends on that madness, as a sign or emblem of the wildness within. Who, for instance, could really follow the Kleinian argument that the tiny infant projects the death drive into the breast, then splits the breast, reintrojecting it to create a world full of paranoid phenomena that gradually become appeased or exaggerated by the mother's attitude? Who could follow this if she did not already subscribe to a view of the "inner world" of subjectivity as somehow crazy? Who could think that the being-in-fragments looks in the mirror and joyously exclaims its existence as an integrated ego—the Lacanian moment of Imaginary ecstasy—if he did not already experience the pull of destructive dissociation within the psyche, the deep urge to throw it all away? Psychoanalysis, that is, reflects and develops the passion of that...


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