This interview is a companion piece to Sheldon George’s book excerpt, published here, with the publisher’s gracious permission.
Daniel Gaztambide (DG): Would you mind unpacking some of the Lacanian concepts you draw on to understand racism and Black identity, such as jouissance and object a, for a general audience?
Sheldon George (SG): Jouissance is often translated from the French as pleasure or enjoyment, but it is most properly an excessive pleasure, a destructive pleasure that turns to pain. Jouissance involves going past a safe limit, and emerges in its purest form through transgression.
We can think of the excessive pleasure of a drug addict, or more germane to my work, the pleasure of the slave master. Frederick Douglass’ description of his mistress, in his 1845 slave narrative, highlights this jouissance. He describes his mistress as a gentle angel who is transformed into a demon by her mastery over slaves, and he talks of other mistresses who beat their slaves with a stick, breaking collar bones and noses and causing their slaves’ eventual death.
A core argument of the book is that slavery exposed white Americans to a unique way of experiencing transgressive pleasure, tying pleasure to excesses in violence and racism. Jouissance is bound to the death drive (the drive to destroy the self and others), because it is aimed at an absolute pleasure, and it accepts no substitutions. The subject destroys all in her path as she aims at some ascendant representative of bliss. I argue that racial whiteness promised this bliss to “white” Americans.
The way that it did so was through the object a. Lacanian theory stipulates that it is through language that we access meaning, and that our inability to access those parts of the psyche that escape language constitutes in us a sense of lack. This lack fuels our desires, as we come to desire that which will make us whole… certain objects that we view as the missing part of ourselves. So, for example, our mate comes to hold this fantastical object that can make us whole; we marry them because we believe they “complete” us. The fantastical, indescribable thing that the other has, which is capable of completing me, is the object a. It is the object that promises to bring me absolute bliss, pure jouissance.
The book argues that it was often the slave that functioned as object a for the master. Through possession of slaves, masters could present themselves as more complete than their peers. White men became white gentlemen of means and class through owning slaves. They were somehow better than all other men, more completely human, standing at the pinnacle of a perfected model of what the civilized, rational man should be. Through owning the object a in the form of slaves, they fantastically attained full whiteness, which promised an impossible jouissance, a state of completion where the perfected white gentleman is entirely unconflicted by any sense of psychic fragmentation or uncontrolled, unconscious motivations.
DG: How do you understand the 2012 Michael Dunn case and his shooting of Jordan Davis, an unarmed African-American boy, from a Lacanian psychoanalytic point of view?
SG: Jouissance is at the heart of this case. My suggestion in the book is that racism in slavery structures a repetitive mode of access to the fantasy of psychic wholeness for whites. Dunn murders because his racially informed psychic self-image is threatened.
Dunn had returned to Florida for his son’s wedding… to a place he was familiar with but that now exposed him to a racial demographic he finds too overwhelmingly present. When he stops at a gas station, he feels confined by the tight space, and he experiences racial others as oppressively omnipresent as he hears Jordan Davis and Davis’ friends playing their loud rap music in the SUV that blocks his door from opening. The boys intrude upon and recode Dunn’s physical space, his auditory environment and his psychic reality, all of which are racially defined.
But what most unsettles Dunn, ultimately, is the boys’ enjoyment of their music. Here racial difference gets coded through rap music; race is experienced by Dunn as an alien form of enjoyment available to the racial other instead of me. The racial other experiences pleasure when I do not; and indeed, this racial other has somehow stolen the pleasure that belongs to me.
What Dunn has returned to find is a social order where whiteness, and all of its pleasures, cannot be sustained. It is this crumbling of whiteness that Dunn experiences psychically, and it is to protect this whiteness that Dunn kills Jordan Davis.
DG: White supremacist discourses propagate the idea that people of color and immigrants will “replace” White People or take something away from them. Is this a similar projection of jouissance upon people of color? A jouissance whites feel “excluded” from?
SG: That is exactly correct. The chants that “Jews will not replace us” that we heard in Charlottesville, for example, play upon the same anxiety over space and racial others that we saw in the Dunn case. It is driven by the changing demographics of the country. But what most fuels this ire is long habits of enjoyment and a psychic need to defy lack.
Lacan explained the human psyche as comprised of three parts, or what he called registers: these are the Symbolic, which aligns with the world of language; the Real, which is the zone into which all that escapes language is destined to fall…the zone of lack; and the Imaginary, which is the register of fantasy, the place from where our dreams of wholeness arise.
What I have argued is that in slavery the Symbolic world of language was rooted in a discourse of racism that reinforced the Imaginary’s fantasies of wholeness. The Symbolic and Imaginary registers sutured themselves to each other, reinforcing each other as a blanket over the Real, a veil to mask for white Americans the psychic fact of human lack.
But what we are seeing now is an unsuturing of the white psyche. As the Symbolic’s discourses of white superiority become increasingly unstable, we see a tearing apart of Symbolic reality from the Imaginary fantasies they once sustained. And what results from this unsuturing is an unbearable emergence of the Real, a confrontation with a lack that some of these subjects are willing to kill to avoid.
DG: Given how slavery transformed White people — especially men — into ideal Whites who were more “completely human,” can you talk about how racial jouissance is a tool of capitalist ideology?
SG: I would say ideology is a tool of jouissance, not the reverse. Jouissance and lack drive capitalism, and capitalism cannot content us because no object can fill our constitutive psychic lack.
One point I have made through Lacan’s work is that the birth of capitalism coincides with the birth of the Transatlantic slave trade. Capitalism provides us with the fantasy objects that promise to fill our lack; this is why slavery transformed humans into capital, into objects with exchange value. Jouissance spurred the development of capitalism as a social form designed to mediate access to enjoyment.
And so we also see a notable proximity between the birth of the American republic and the birth of American slavery.
The year 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of American slavery, and that birth paved the way for the making of the nation. Slavery structured the nation in its particular relation to jouissance, molding our national as well as our psychic selves around particular understandings of racial identity.
DG: Your reading of jouissance also informs your thinking on Black identity. How does attachment to certain ideas about race impact identity?
SG: In our American context, racial identity often pays homage to the past of slavery; and it can do so in such a fashion for African Americans that historical losses become collapsed with the personal psychic loss of the subject. Instead of dealing with his own personal psychic lack, the subject allows race to guide his desire in its path toward fulfillment.
This is something that Frantz Fanon allows us to better conceptualize. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon describes Jean Veneuse, a black man who abandons the white woman he loves. Veneuse convinces himself he abandoned her because their interracial relationship cannot work. But Fanon reveals that Veneuse is an “abandonment neurotic,” someone who was abandoned as a child and avoids a repetition of this experience by abandoning others before they abandon him. Here race becomes an excuse for Veneuse to live out his maladies.
Race masks and even diverts desire; and most fundamentality, it hides the true psychic subject below a fantasy we might blindly maintain.
Broadly speaking, I think what we see is that race impedes the function of desire for all subjects of race…including whites.
DG: Is it your position that African-Americans — and by extension, other Black-identified peoples — need to let go of or renounce the jouissance afforded by attachment to the trauma of slavery?
SG: Yes, the goal is to renounce the jouissance of slavery.
What makes this goal so difficult to achieve is slavery’s abiding presence as a structural core for the present. In truth, the victim of slavery was the slave, and the slave’s trauma is not synonymous with the contemporary African American’s trauma. So the dilemma is how to honor the truth of the past while also distinguishing it from the truth of one’s own subjectivity, as a subjectivity nonetheless inflected by the past.
The ethics of the psychoanalytic endeavor is an effort to establish the reign of one’s own desire. Where desire may be diverted by the pursuit of jouissance, the aim of psychoanalysis is to establish for subjects a desire distanced from pernicious objects and forms of satisfaction. I suggest that this is also an ethical imperative for the raced subject.
DG: This reminds me of a passage from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. He wrote “I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.” Was he trying to get at something similar?
SG: Yes. This notion resonates fully with what I have been saying.
Like many African Americans, Fanon sought at one point to assert his self-value by clinging to and revaluing blackness. He describes his desire to rush for solace to “Negro Art” and the history of great African civilizations. He speaks of his struggles to recognize in Africa a culture that is as great as white culture. But he realizes, eventually, that as easily as he could find examples of black greatness, others could find examples of black stereotypes to belittle him. The terms of race are always unstable, shifting; racial meaning ever vacillates because it is driven by fantasy.
Meaning, therefore, has to be found in the humanity of the self. This is part of what the African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates comes to realize, too. In Between the World and Me, he describes how he once responded to racism by embarking on an intellectual journey, a quest to find what he terms the “Tolstoy of the Zulus,” an African writer as great as Tolstoy. But what he comes to conclude is that Tolstoy was the Tolstoy of the Zulus. To believe otherwise is to buy into the racism that says blacks are not the inheritors of all that human civilization has created, that they are indeed a separate race, a separate class of beings.
This is a lesson that black intellectuals have had to relearn over and again because of their allegiance to race. We should learn from their example.
Sheldon George is Professor of English at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a Lacanian psychoanalytic theorist and a scholar of African American literature.
Daniel Gaztambide is Visiting Faculty at The New School for Social Research.
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