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Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 127-149

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Psychoanalysis and Colonialism Redux:
Why Mannoni's "Prospero Complex" Still Haunts Us1

Christopher Lane
Northwestern University

Dislocation can do the job of analysis Le dépaysement fait office d'analyse]. Being a white man among the blacks is like being an analyst among the whites.
— Octave Mannoni 2

Although psychoanalysis and colonialism share a long and fraught history, the 1986 reprinting of Frantz Fanon's treatise Black Skin, White Masks doubtless altered the course of their relationship, promoting in some academic circles even the possibility of a lasting truce. While for years critics had disparaged Freud's notorious description of femininity as a "dark continent," using this analogy to tarnish psychoanalysis with fin-de-siècle imperial fantasies, a sea change occurred in the 1980s. Scholars began representing psychoanalysis not as complicit with colonialism, but as indispensable to its critique. Emily Apter credits some of this transformation to the "return of Fanon" that began in 1986 when Pluto Press reissued Fanon's best-known work. 3 Homi K. Bhabha's introduction renewed interest in Fanon's clinical role as a psychiatrist and his shared [End Page 127] intellectual history with Jacques Lacan. 4 Although Bhabha downplayed Fanon's 1960s status as a revolutionary icon, he insisted that Fanon's "psychoanalytic framework illuminates the 'madness' of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power," so making psychoanalytic vocabulary an ally for postcolonial theory. 5

Many works on psychoanalysis and colonialism appeared in the wake of Bhabha's essay, the majority written by psychoanalytic feminists, including Elizabeth Abel, Mary Ann Doane, Diana Fuss, Barbara Johnson, Jacqueline Rose, Kaja Silverman, and Claudia Tate. 6 In most of these works, psychoanalysis is less the target of criticism than its guiding principle — the means, conceptually, of interpreting our relationship to colonial politics and history. And although ambivalence about Freud has not disappeared from academic and mainstream culture, psychoanalysis increasingly is prized today for stressing "the imperium of affect," because such emphasis enables rigorous, historically exact accounts of colonial fantasy, identification, and transference. 7

In light of such goodwill to psychoanalytic theory, especially after many mainstream intellectuals have sharpened their attacks on Freudianism, it may seem churlish to question the terms of this rapprochement. The following essay does so, however, because the principle of "dislocation," to which the French intellectual and civil servant Octave Mannoni alludes, can do much more for postcolonial critique than most scholars seem to realize. 8 Although Jonathan Crewe argued recently that psychoanalysis strives to "assimilat[e] the native subject" to universal Western notions, but finds itself "exposed in a setting conceived as alien," Mannoni, in revealing forms of self-strangeness that all races experience, makes the principle of assimilation illusory, because psychically untenable. 9 The resulting difference in perspective, crucial but underexamined, is the key point. Additionally, critics using psychoanalytic concepts often distort central moments in the history of psychoanalysis, thereby limiting, and even jeopardizing, its interpretive potential. Part of the rapprochement rests on an oft-cited but largely misunderstood debate — Apter calls it a "feud" 10 — between Fanon and Mannoni. It was Mannoni who sparked Fanon's interest in the colonial [End Page 128] unconscious and gave him the title for his best-known work, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), while irking him with a "psychology of colonialism" that allegedly promoted "native inferiority [and] full-blown cultural dependency." 11 Among even diehard Freudians, there is basic agreement that Fanon won this debate and that any knowing postcolonial critic using psychoanalysis should therefore mount a critique using Fanon rather than Mannoni.

I would argue that the reverse is true, that Mannoni's mature work is ultimately the more useful. Despite claims to the contrary, Mannoni pushes for an understanding of racial conflict that is free of essentialism — indeed, for a perspective on otherness finally devoid of racism. My rationale, then, is neither willfully tendentious nor naive. I acknowledge profound weaknesses in Mannoni's early work, including his incipient universalist psychology (which eclipses...


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