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  • Can the Real of Slavery Speak?
  • Christopher Chamberlin (bio)
Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists by Joan Copjec. London: Verso, 2015. 288 pages. $18.95 paperback.
The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan by Samo Tomšič. London: Verso, 2015. 256 pages. $95.00 hardcover, $29.95 paperback.
Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity by Sheldon George. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. 192 pages. $59.95 hardcover.

Psychoanalysis has made a deep impression on the language we use to speak about power—what it is, how it works, where it comes from, and when it emerged. In the last three decades or so, this language has picked up a Lacanian accent. Two very general tendencies could be said to characterize it. Whether we mark the commencement of this particularly productive period of criticism with the publication of Slavoj Žižek's The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) or Joan Copjec's Read My Desire (1994), the Lacanian intervention into cultural studies is first distinguished less by a common set of agreed-upon propositions or master concepts than by the subversive function it has performed in each of the many discourses it engages. In fact, these psychoanalytic interventions have tended to aim at what is regarded to be a misappropriation of Lacanian theory—criticizing the Althusserian engagement with Jacques Lacan, [End Page 142] in Žižek's case, or the misuse of "sexual difference" by feminist theorists, in Copjec's case. A conflict over psychoanalysis—its politics, meanings, and significance—is an essential feature of cultural studies.

The broad scope of this roster of interventions, which marks the first tendency of the new psychoanalytic scholarship, makes the relative specificity of the second tendency all the more remarkable. When outlining their historical horizon—that is, where they indicate when power emerged—this Lacanian cultural criticism invariably stages the expiration of slavery as the beginning of contemporary power, whether this new regime is described as modern, liberal, or capitalist. This has had the effect of making slavery anachronistic to psychoanalysis. Representative of this procedure is what the feminist Lacanian philosopher Alenka Zupančič has recently written about the constitution of modern capitalism in the commodification of labor power: "in capitalism, the Worker doesn't exist (a Worker that existed would be a slave)."1 Asides such as these relegate slavery to the prehistory of power. Where they do not regard the "slave" with all the theoretical seriousness granted dragons or phlogiston, much of this Lacanian theory bundles serfdom with ancient and modern slavery into an ungainly omnibus.

This tendency must be juxtaposed to a parallel engagement with psychoanalysis that characterizes black studies. This line of development could trace its roots back to the writings of Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, or even W. E. B. Du Bois.2 In each instance, the vicissitudes of power are understood precisely in a dialectic with racial slavery. Instead of writing it off as only illustrative of the differentia specifica of the contemporary condition, the abolition of racial slavery is treated as a moment within the contemporary mode of racial production that affects the totality of the social link. "All modern subjects," suggests Christina Sharpe in her reading of the historical transmission of desire and trauma, "are post-slavery subjects fully constituted by the discursive codes of slavery and post-slavery."3 Continuity and discontinuity are not precise enough ways to describe this relationship between the before and after of abolition—racial slavery is governed by the logical time of the unconscious, as a retroactive cause of the contemporary impasse. If Sigmund Freud, for instance, had to speculate that a primal father was murdered to explain the hold that "patriarchal" authority exercises on the subject in the twentieth century, then black studies has had to assume the abolition of racial slavery to explain the power that the color line exercises today as a political function. Such a shifted logic of temporality might go some way in explaining black studies' consistent demands for (and on) psychoanalysis. In [End Page 143] addition to conceiving slavery as a torsion within the field of power, then, black studies also counts psychoanalysis as an essential part of...


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