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Reviewed by:
  • Democracy and the Political Unconscious
  • Gregory M. Fahy (bio)
Noëlle McAfee , Democracy and the Political Unconscious. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 256 pp. ISBN 0231138886. $50.00 (hbk.)

In Democracy and the Political Unconscious, Noëlle McAfee analyzes social pathologies that have arisen in the United States since September 11, 2001. In particular, she argues that we have been suffering society-wide repetition compulsions and time collapses, compelling us to experience the trauma repeatedly, and we have been acting out in ways that continue the cycle of suffering. She also presents a prescription for how we might work through these issues more democratically and fruitfully using deliberative talking cures. McAfee's application of the psychoanalytic model to society is fascinating, and she offers concrete and practical suggestions for how to better resolve social trauma.

In the first four chapters, McAfee presents a perspective on humanization that centers on social participation. Human identity is developed in making and keeping social commitments, rather than in the achievement of autonomy. Language enables humans to sublimate and channel drives into public meaning. Silence is troubling because it reflects a social unconscious that alienates people, cutting them off from full participation. McAfee argues that modernity itself causes trauma, as the world has become disenchanted and devoid of meaning. In addition, specific elements of modernity, like colonization and the slave trade, have played significant roles in the development of the social unconscious. Because our culture remains mostly silent about privilege and race, historic traumas continue to haunt us. McAfee suggests that isolationism, repression, McCarthyism, and the abjection of supposed barbarian elements are all subconscious defenses against working through modernity's [End Page 65] social traumas. These defenses prevent the development of a public sphere of deliberation that has demonstrated its ability to work through traumas in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere. Following Derrida, McAfee argues that the United States' War on Terror has prevented our country from working through the trauma of September 11, instead discharging the trauma in destructive autoimmunity. Our society also represses the trauma in the act of naming the event by the date, September 11. Instead, we need to reconstitute a public that can deliberatively work through these traumas.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to the specifics of how best to work through social traumas. McAfee views South Africa's truth and reconciliation commissions as examples of how testimony can integrate one's private experiences with the broader public. Bearing witness to suffering re-creates a community by helping others to recognize fellow participants as subjects and sufferers like themselves. The goal of the process is not mutual agreement; we don't need anything but for others to hear our narrative. The process of witnessing does not involve wresting any recognition from those in power, but the creation of a public through story-telling. McAfee agrees with John Dewey that the public is in eclipse and that democracy is not built simply in holding elections or in trusting experts. Instead, McAfee gives plenty of specific examples of the formation of public dialogue. She has been a consultant for the Kettering Foundation's National Issues Forums since 1988, and the inclusion of her practical experiences with NIF yields a rich and detailed account of public deliberation.

In chapter 7, McAfee turns to the subject of feminism, contrasting her position with the agonistic approaches of many feminists. Instead of assuming the feminist struggle is a war against patriarchy and the strict division of the world that this approach entails, she argues that our own sociosymbolic structures oppress us because they are not being sublimated; they unconsciously hold us within their limits. We can no more overturn the entire sociosymbolic field as we can choose to have a different first language. So a more appropriate feminist task is to encourage public deliberation in order to reconstruct the meanings of women and femininity, remaining conscious of the ways in which the semiotic field in which we live and work acts upon us.

Chapter 8 addresses the nature of democracy and public knowledge. Here, McAfee argues that we have accepted a proceduralist account of democracy that legitimizes state power, where support of...


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pp. 65-68
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