The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Seeing History From the Margins

In Feminism, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Politics on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 am
The first in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”
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peck mirage

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by Bonnie Morris

“What’s wrong with you, Mr. Stillwell? Don’t you want to remember? No; you don’t. That’s why you’ve blacked it out. You’ve stubbed your conscious mind, and you’ve put a bandage of forgetfulness on it until it recovers. Have the courage to face that terrible thing that made you forget.”

Mirage, Universal Pictures, 1965

Screen techniques, the subconscious mind, and the political messages imbedded in Hollywood film are all important tools for me as a professor of history. What the camera’s eye “uncovers” is a means for discussing how we hide historical truths, only to reveal them later in the screenplay of American culture.

At George Washington University, it’s my job to acquaint first-year college students with everything their high schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach: scholarship on gender and sexuality. The history of slavery and segregation. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exclusion of women from schools and jobs and athletic fields. The utter suppression of lesbian and gay lives. Usually, such unflattering pictures of discrimination in not-too-distant America were skipped over in my students’ K-12 curriculum. Too often, the history of the Other is buried–marginalized. So, how do we begin to uncover it and restore it to collective consciousness? On the very first day of class, we start talking about seeing history from the margins; from the authentic perspective of the marginalized.

It’s exciting work. Unfortunately, the rich disciplines of women’s studies/black studies/gay and lesbian studies are still reserved for college courses and advanced degrees, and kept separate from “regular” American history. The subject of American women, who today make up over 51% of the population and almost 60% of college enrollment, is still a “special topic.” That’s as problematic a marker in the academic world as “special interests” are in government. It means my classes only reach self-selecting students; no one has to take women’s history. It also means that even these committed, interested students, who may have attended progressive private high schools, are stunningly unfamiliar with the ugly side of American history. My challenge, each fall, is simply convincing these sheltered and privileged students that racial segregation and No Women Allowed actually happened, and happened right here in the nation’s capital.

“No way—that’s crazy! That couldn’t possibly be true!” is a familiar outburst in my Western Civ class.  Some want to know: am I exaggerating? Inventing? Indoctrinating? No. But encountering the unfamiliar in a humanities class lesson bewilders some students, who, moreover, are anxious to do well and to earn an A.  Teaching “from margin to center”, to use the great book title by critic bell hooks, means teaching students to see what was never made visible in their schooling before now.

What does it mean to focus our “eyes” on the previously unseen and unspoken history too often consigned to the footnotes of a page? When I ask my American students what they know about World War II, for instance, most reach for an emblematic American memory, one that sticks out from a lifetime of rote memorization. Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima. D-Day. We won. Part of what I’m asking is for them to shift the way history is retold, in the same way they might reassess their own “life moments” as individuals. When we sift through our personal memories, we may find they are stacked top-heavy with proud achievements and celebrations, the first kiss, the winning game, graduation.  These happiest images are the ones kept in the slide-show carousel (or, updating technology a little, the personal power-point overview.) But when are we old enough to find the extra slides, the buried images that tell other stories?  This is where the film screen helps my students with recovering, and thus completing, our marginalized national memories, both good and bad.

I tell my students that what helped me was a movie called Mirage.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk and released by Universal Pictures in 1965, it tells the story of a man [Gregory Peck] suffering from amnesia. As he wanders through New York he becomes aware that men are out to kill him. He’s being followed, shot at, and threatened by a mysterious bad guy called “the Major,” while desperately trying to understand the meaning of it all: the past two years and his own career identity are a blur. A nervous psychologist, a brooding detective, and a cynical ex-girlfriend each give Peck small clues to his circumstances. Then, at last, one shard of memory floats up to the surface: Peck begins to see an image of himself in a Southwestern setting, clearly not Manhattan, meeting with the leader of a prominent peace foundation–a man who recently suffered a fatal fall from a top-story window. What does this memory reveal—or conceal? Did Peck play a role in this other man’s death? Read the rest of this entry »

The Mother as The Child’s First Bully

In Uncategorized on February 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm
Marx Ernst, 'La Vierge corrigeant l'Enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Eluard et le peintre,' 1926

Marx Ernst, La Vierge corrigeant l’Enfant Jésus devant trois témoins: André Breton, Paul Eluard et le peintre, 1926

by Diego Costa

When my sister got pregnant with her first child and was able to see what sex it was going to be assigned (that irreparable death sentence that the ultrasound enacts), she immediately knew what she would name him: Gael. She associated the name with the devil-may-care coolness of harmonica-playing boys who manage to be tough and sweet, masculine and sensitive. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal served as the perfect manifestation for the kind of boy she hoped her son would be. He was intellectual without being arrogant, manly without being brutish. Unfortunately, as she spread the name choice to everyone around her, strangers were taken aback by Gael. Doesn’t it sound like gal? Or even…gay? From Facebook comments to random women getting their manis and pedis at her local salon, folks went on about how strange, and literally queer, Gael sounded. My sister was thus bullied into re-thinking the naming of her son in order to avoid that this child who hadn’t even been born yet would be bullied because of his unconventional name. Pre-natal bullying, you may call it. He was being bullied as he was being gendered. He was being bullied into gender.

My sister decided to give up on Gael and re-name him something more normativity-friendly. For ethical reasons, I won’t say which name, but the point is that little does it matter. While Gael marks difference and rupture, Brian, Michael, or Ben offers continuity and maintenance. They leave things as they are, granting us the same cozy illusion of inevitability that the direct relationship between genitals and gender that we insist on can offer us. As the-child-formerly-known-as-Gael became, say, Ben, I can’t help but think of it as his first major castration episode. The first of a series of regulatory events that will certainly come in due time to keep him in line, to think twice before daring to venture outside the prescribed path of sameness under the “law.” Before language, before catching sight of the (“lack of”) female genitals, before letting out a cry– he has been silenced. Some fundamental protuberance that may have grown out of his singularity has been smoothed over, patched up like an irksome porthole (don’t holes tend to elicit so much anxiety?) out of which something disturbing is sure to emerge. An openness has been sealed, something has been maimed.

The Mother’s first encounter with the normativity-demanding Other could have become the stage for a symbolic intervention on her part. She could have staked a claim, she could have denied the Other’s entrance, she could have preserved the naming of her child as an intimacy between parent and child, without chiseling the baby into one that fits comfortably (for a price) in the world. Instead, she allowed her position of power, the unparalleled power of naming (and a quite violent one as is), to be contaminated by the anti-queer pre-natal police, transforming her motherhood into a function of the hetero-normative State. Here the Mother becomes not only an agent of bullying under the guise of preventing bullying, but a depersonalized baby-making machine in the service of a utopian hygenized society that is queerness-free. A society that is queer-free before queerness can even begin to manifest itself before our eyes. Like Down syndrome fetuses, which thanks to cutting edge technology, can now be spared from their birth so that we can be spared from their sight.

This has nothing to do with mothers individually or my sister’s excellence or lack thereof as a mother. I admire her as a person in the world and do not doubt her maternal love. This has to do with the Mother as function, the position of the Mother and the labor she is asked to do within the gendering economy. Under the spell of the hetero-normativity promises of an unscathed member of society, the Mother with a capital M is ironically the first to injure her baby by giving it up on a properly labeled platter to those who will actually decide if we will keep him or chuck him. Wasn’t it Eve Sedgwick who claimed that in our society the good homosexual was either the masculine homosexual or the dead one?  In order to assuage anxieties about an imagined future violence enacted by others, the Mother ironically wounds the child preemptively, robbing him of the opportunity to begin life from an authentic position. She teaches him how to lay low and pass before he gets a chance to gage his attraction to whatever it is he is passing for.

French essayist Roland Jacquard once said that bringing a child into the world is already abusing him. American culture does an excellent job bringing the violence of bullying to the headlines in a kind of masturbatory panic. It interpelates its celebrities to plead for tolerance, it creates task forces, it broadcasts TV specials, it puts bullying on display to be spoken about, judged and condemned ad nauseam. It’s like it brings us the sadistic high that the act of bullying begets but in a roundabout way that relieves us from the guilt. Yet, America administers this enjoyment mostly through finding bounded human entities to blame for it — which is the same strategy any kind of panic, fueled by claims of tolerance or hatred, tends to follow (the slut, the Jew, the black man, the homosexual, the illegal immigrant, the sex predator, the barebacker, take your pick). Someone is to blame, which leaves the social and symbolic structures (of which we are authors) conveniently unexamined. Read the rest of this entry »

“No, Psychoanalysis is Not Against Gay Marriage” or How Psychoanalysis Supports Queer Inquiry

In Uncategorized on February 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Lacan rainbow

by Chase Dimock

As I write, the French parliament is embroiled in a protracted debate over President François Hollande’s push to legalize gay marriage and adoption in France. The controversy regarding the bill has swept through French society and the regular cast of conservative political and cultural interests such as the Catholic Church and the xenophobic right-wing parties has emerged in demonstrations against it. Yet, one unlikely voice of support for the bill came out last month as Jacques-Alain Miller, representing the psychoanalytic community, authored an op-ed in Le Point titled, “Non, la psychanalyse n’est pas contre le mariage gay”. I say this is “unlikely” not because it would be unexpected for a psychoanalyst to support lgbt rights, but because it is uncommon for psychoanalysis to weigh in on current political issues. In this article, Miller (who is Jacques Lacan’s son-in-law and one of the most widely published analysts still active today) does not come out in explicit support of gay marriage, but instead lambastes the conservatives who have misrepresented and instrumentalized psychoanalytic research and theory in their campaign against gay marriage. As Miller promulgates, “we Psychoanalysts are obligated to declare that nothing in the Freudian experience will validate an anthropology that is authorized by the first chapter of Genesis.” (my translation)

While it is important in the context of the gay marriage debate for scholars to publicly dismantle the pseudo-scientific and unfounded sociological claims made by conservative interests, I find that Miller’s short, five paragraph article also makes a profound, if unintended, argument for how the basic concepts of psychoanalysis are congruent with research in Queer Theory. Miller’s article comes out against the abuses and misinterpretations of psychoanalytic concepts and practices that led the ill-informed to pathologize or inject moral approbation against homosexuality based on poor readings of Freud, Lacan, and other luminaries of psychoanalysis. Miller makes a bold statement against any kind of normative moralizing and instead stresses the fluidity of gender, sex, and desire as a guiding feature of psychoanalytic practice and research. The article serves a double purpose of both defending against socially regressive misuses of psychoanalysis and clarifying the basic concepts and practices for queer scholars and activists who have been mislead by pop-psychology or misinformed critics. Here, I have translated key elements of Miller’s text for an English-speaking audience because I believe his points brilliantly illustrate how psychoanalysis has granted me and other scholars of Queer Theory illuminating language and discourse for the  study of queer identity and desire.

In his third paragraph, Miller explains that the gendered language of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is metaphorical and not meant to cement specific gender roles based on sex:

If Jacques Lacan gave the Oedipal structure the form of a “paternal metaphor” involving the “Name of the Father”, the “desire of the mother”, and the phallus, this formalization was not meant to be an anthropological invariant. Its advances have led, on the contrary, to pluralize the function of name of the Father, then to relativize it, and finally turn it into a “sinthome” (an ancient form of the word “symptom”).

Regarding the gay marriage debate, Miller corrects those that would simplify the paternal metaphor of the oedpial structure and see it as evidence that a child must specifically have a heteronormative family with a female mother and a male father. Historically, this oversimplification of the oedipal structure has led some to assume that a “normal” family will produce “normal” children and that any disruption in the nuclear family dynamic would cause psychological damage. For example, in the 50s and 60s, some American psychologists performing studies under the name of “psychoanalysis” argued that an overbearing mother and a distant father (or sometimes an overly affectionate father) would lead to homosexuality. Miller dispels this notion, asserting that the terms “father” and “mother” in this usage are metaphorical and not tied to a specific gender or familial structure.

The Name of the Father does not correspond exclusively to the male, biological father of the child, but it can instead apply to any person or entity of any sex that has a position of authority over the subject and functions as the one that acculturates the child into acceptable behavior in society and regulates desire. The phallus has no correspondence to the anatomical penis, but it instead signifies a position of agency in the subject’s life, which is fluid, contextual, and can be held by (or simply be) anyone. For Miller, the job of the analyst is to pluralize and relativize the Name of the Father, meaning that they must help the subject understand who or what has that position of authority and what impact casting that entity as the law giver has on their pursuit of desire. Read the rest of this entry »