- The American Optic: Psychoanalysis, Critical Race Theory, and Richard Wright
Mikko Tuhkanen’s The American Optic is an impressive act of critical diplomacy. As the title of his introduction—“Richard, Jacques; Jacques, Richard”—suggests, Tuhkanen’s work seeks to acquaint two writers (Wright and Lacan) and two discourses (African American literature and psychoanalysis) not traditionally understood to be on speaking terms. Indeed, as Claudia Tate observed in a pioneering synthesis, black literary-intellectual discussion has historically been marked by a “general absence of psychoanalytic models,” the reasons for which are both manifold and formidable. Tuhkanen, while keenly aware of the many hazards attending any attempt to facilitate a rapprochement, nonetheless argues for the benefit of psychoanalysis in reinvigorating our appreciation of Wright’s work and in “rethinking race as a visible category” (xi). Drawing on the insights of the so-called New Lacanians and walking some of the same ground covered most recently by Abdul JanMohamed, Tuhkanen proposes that a specifically Lacanian point of view may help us to more thoroughly distinguish the contours of what he calls the “white symbolic order” and to more readily perceive the ways that African American literature, especially Wright’s work, articulates the limitations and possibilities of the black subject’s resistance. His book is thus a welcome and largely successful bid to forge détente between two discourses that, after all, have quite a bit to offer one another.
Reciprocity is, in fact, one of Tuhkanen’s signal commitments, and he is particularly careful to avoid reproducing a paradigm whereby “psychoanalytic knowledge appears as an uncontested master interpreting its [literary] objects” (xviii). Pledging a qualified allegiance to Shoshana Felman and Francoise Meltzer, Tuhkanen recognizes with them the need for an authentic dialogue between the literary and theoretical which imagines both realms as similarly and eminently readable. He is as interested in applying the theoretical insights of psychoanalysis to literature as he is in applying the tools of literary criticism to the discourse of psychoanalysis; throughout his study, he moves with agility between the two.
He also remains sensitive to charges that psychoanalysis is “impervious to the urgency of political questions or directly racist in its basic assumptions” (xiii). Effectively parrying some of most pointed attacks, Tuhkanen argues that a more nuanced and frankly more accurate understanding of Lacanian theory obviates many of the most egregious complaints leveled against psychoanalysis. Still, in his engagement with postcolonialism in chapter three, he more often deflects than defeats the arguments of critics like Ati Seyki-Out and Nigel Gibson who question psychoanalysis’s ability to address historical and material realities. In any case, Tuhkanen argues forcefully for the singular advantages of a specifically Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, suggesting that it may ultimately provide a supple and politically viable framework for approaching questions of racialization and black subject formation in U. S. culture.
Tuhkanen largely delivers on the promises of his introduction in an opening chapter which theorizes what he calls the white symbolic order—a move made possible only by imagining that the Lacanian symbolic is not, pace Judith Butler and others, immutable, but instead characterized by a kind of variability and historical specificity (141). This is a provocative and profoundly useful reconsideration of the nature of the symbolic and it makes plausible the dialogue between psychoanalysis and critical race theory that forms the titular enterprise of the study. Tuhkanen initially theorizes [End Page 323] the white symbolic by way of Wright’s Native Son and Lacan’s Seminar XI. What most interests him in this connection is the consistent interest in Wright’s work with ways of seeing and being seen, and the possibility of linking this to Lacan’s theory of the visible. He identifies a particularly rich example in Bigger’s initial encounter with Mr. Dalton, where the eminent Chicago businessman stands “gazing at [Bigger] with an amused smile that made him conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body” (5). As Tuhkanen smartly concludes, “the white gaze does not merely assign Bigger a skin color but...