Lene Auestad

SUBJECTIVITY AND ABSENCE –
PREJUDICE AS A PSYCHOSOCIAL THEME[1]

– How come I’ve never seen you people here before?
– Because we are the people you do not see (Frears 2002).

This article aims to examine prejudice as a psychosocial field of study. The term ‘psychosocial’ refers to theoretical approaches that strive to integrate a psychological understanding of human subjectivity with attention to the impact of social situatedness.[2] On the background of my understanding of respect as involving an ability to see people both, and simultaneously, as subjects and as objects, I identify with the psychosocial project of aiming to avoid psychological reductionism, which disregards social circumstances, on the one hand, and social reductionism, which disregards subjectivity as active interpretation, on the other. The article makes a case for framing a questioning of prejudice, not in terms of normality versus pathology or deviance, but to look for it in what is socially unconscious.  It is argued that psychoanalytic studies of prejudice as a feature of the prejudiced person’s subjectivity leave out the extent to which this phenomenon is founded on a silent social consensus. The social norm, the prejudice that ‘works’, is left untouched. Using Michael Balint’s theoretical reflections on trauma, I argue that assessments of whose subjective responses and evaluations count are themselves socially structured. This model, and Gadamer’s hermeneutics, is used to show how, when detachment becomes an unqualified epistemic aim, prejudices are concealed and preserved rather than addressed. The phenomenon of prejudice reveals that psychosocial studies should not only be concerned with subjectivity, but equally with what is absent from subjectivity on an individual and social level – with positions which have been rendered unreal, or meaningless. In other words, I present an argument as to why psychoanalytic thinking is of interest to social studies, with its focus on what is unconscious, and otherwise left out, and also why a critical social focus is of interest to psychoanalysis, with its focus on the impact of power relations on what can and cannot, and what need and need not be made conscious, individually and socially.

[1] An earlier version of this article was published in L. Auestad ed. Psychoanalysis and Politics: Exclusion and the Politics of Representation. London: Karnac 2012.
[2] There is no one definition of ‘psychosocial’ that is generally agreed on. Rather there are ongoing discussions in the UK on how to understand the term and the field, and even on whether it should be spelt with or without a hyphen. A special issue of the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society is devoted to such discussions (Clarke/Layton 2008). Therefore, I shall not offer a more refined definition here – rather, this whole article can be seen as debating such questions, with a focus on prejudice.

tHE PHENOMENAL QUALITIES OF PREJUDICE

In an interview with Juliet Mitchell, in the context of speaking of creative artists as well as analysts, Enid Balint said the following: “to perceive something you have not perceived before is terribly difficult; we fight against it like mad” (1993:235). “Like the physical,” Freud wrote in 1915, “the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be. We shall be glad to learn, however, that the correction of internal perception will turn out not to offer such great difficulties as the correction of external perception – that internal objects are less unknowable than the external world” (1915e:171). If this is indeed the case, we may wonder whether it is a cause for consolation or for increased worry.

The phenomenon of prejudice presents itself, one the one hand, in most brutal and violent forms, and this is the kind of manifestation that catches the eye, and then sometimes becomes an object of study. What we then have is a study of a subject who appears as more prejudiced than the average. Thus it tends to become an investigation not into the prevailing social norms but into an aberration. When psychoanalytic studies focus on prejudice as a feature of the prejudiced person’s subjectivity, the extent to which this phenomenon is founded on a silent social consensus remains in the dark. The prejudice that “works”, because it agrees with a social norm, is left untouched. When one tries to examine it, it tends to appear as something vague, indistinct, uncertain – Dalal (2002) opens his book on racism by pointing to the experience of trying to sort the origin of his anxiety in encountering a white Britain as internal or external, or rather what weight to assign to each, and it is in the nature of the problem that such final sorting remains highly difficult.

If, rather than focusing on the abnormally prejudiced individual versus the normal society, or on a distinction between being subject to social pressure and having a motivation that is substantially one’s own, we aim to look for condensation and displacement as evidence of prejudice in social space, we will find multiple examples of groups being naturalized and homogenized in the media and in public discourse. In instances where someone attempts to nuance the picture, to introduce more complexity, and this attempt is rejected as irrelevant, it provides evidence not only of the respondent’s stiffness, rigidity of character, extrapunitiveness and possibly conventionality (Adorno/Frenkel-Brunswik/Levinson/Sanford 1950) – it also reveals that a power structure is operative in which this response is regarded as acceptable, and the quality of the speaker’s subjectivity may not be the most interesting feature of the situation.

An article in The Observer refers to a study where;

Academics looked at the marks given to thousands of children at age 11. They compared their results in Sats, nationally set tests marked remotely, with the assessments made by teachers in the classroom and in internal tests. […] The study concludes that black pupils perform consistently better in external exams than in teacher assessment. […] Gloria Hyatt, a former secondary headteacher of black-Caribbean and Irish heritage, said the study confirmed a longstanding complaint made by ethnic minority groups. […] “This is not discrimination or racism,” said Hyatt. “It is something unconscious (Asthana/Helm/McVeigh, The Observer 04.04.10).

My position is that this does exemplify racism and discrimination, although it may well be the case that it unconscious. This study does not reveal the teachers’ motivation; it only displays that whatever their motivation may be, their judgments are systematically distorted in such a way as to result in a pattern of racial discrimination. Some of the teachers may consciously adhere to racist beliefs, others may not. Let us grant for the sake of the argument what I regard as a probable assumption, that at least a significant portion of the teachers concerned thought of their assessments as being fair and unbiased; they simply saw a less good student, and marked his or her work accordingly, without entertaining any conscious beliefs about causal connections between skin-colour or ethnicity and intellectual performance. If a large share of the teachers were indeed subjectively innocent, one might ask; “so what?”. Morally and politically the case opens up the question of what weight to assign to these actors’ conscious motivation.

Such examples lead me to conclude that psychosocial studies cannot only be about subjectivity. The phenomenon of prejudice reveals that it should also concern itself with what is absent from subjectivity, about what a ‘we’, as any society or social unit, do and repeat (Freud 1914g, 1939a[1937-39]), but do not and cannot think and experience. In what follows, I propose to use Balint’s model of trauma, built on Ferenczi’s writings on the subject, as a metaphor for how prejudice functions on a societal level. This model is one which enables one to think psychoanalytically in a more social way about the relationship between power, love, and responsiveness on the one hand and subjectivity and its absence on the other.

BALINT’s ACCOUNT OF TRAUMA

In the article “Trauma and Object Relationship” (1969) Michael Balint argued that clinical experiences reveal that the structure of trauma has three phases. In the first phase the child is dependent on the adult and is in a primarily trustful relationship (1969:432). In the second phase the adult, once and suddenly or repeatedly, does something highly exiting, frightening or painful. The child may be exposed to excesses of tenderness or excesses of cruelty; to severe overstimulation or rejection (1969:432). The trauma is only completed in the third phase when the child, in reaction to the second phase, attempts to get some understanding, recognition and comfort and the adult behaves as if nothing had happened. The adult may be preoccupied with other matters or plagued by severe feelings of guilt, and may reproach the child with moral indignation or feel that his or her action is best redressed by a feigned ignorance. Balint’s claim is that, while an economic model focuses exclusively on the second phase – having in mind Freud’s definition; “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations from the outside which are powerful enough to break through the [organism's] protective shield” (1920g:29), his own proposed three-phasic structure changes the basis for the theory of trauma from the field of one-person psychology to two-person psychology (1969:432-433). In his view, the second phase is preceded by a trustful relationship, and crucially, is followed by a non-response which deprives the event of its character of reality. Bion’s concept of nameless dread can be seen to point to a similar phenomenon: “If the projection is not accepted by the mother,” he writes, the rejected feeling does not remain the same but becomes qualitatively different; it is “stripped of such meaning as it has” (1962a:116). Thus it cannot be truly experienced but becomes indigestible, meaningless, that-which-cannot-be-thought. Like the bird mother that feeds the baby bird with food she had digested, Bion’s mother feeds the infant digested experience, leading to the growth of an ability to think (Auestad 2010d). In this case there is a feeding of meaninglessness; the infant is being fed, and left with unthinkable, unpredictable and assaulting occurrences. The situation is one where “the infant has a wilfully misunderstanding object – with which it is identified” (Bion 1962a:117) He or she becomes, incorporates, the misunderstanding object and is also at the same time the subject which is misunderstood, and thus deprived of subjectivity.

Inherent in the common response of the racist, anti-Semite, misogynist or homophobe; “My statement was not intended to be hurtful. You must be hypersensitive. You misunderstand me,” is a similar structure to the one seen in Balint’s account of trauma. It contains the claim that the speaker’s intention should be seen as real or valid, whereas the feeling and interpretation of the recipient do not. As in his description of the trauma’s third phase, the reality of the occurrence is denied. Moral indignation may enter in, as in the accusation of hypersensitivity, where the blame is allocated to the recipient. The speaker is re-affirming his or her own subjectivity and nullifying that of the other. To allude to Bion, the reaction of the recipient is deprived of its name; the position from which it could be articulated is not significant – it is not a meaningful experience. Finally the recipient is invited, or forced, to identify with the speaker. This is the position, it is assumed, from which it makes sense to speak, thus in so far as one is making sense one is connecting with this position. Since the speaker’s version presents itself as being in line with “common sense” whereas the recipient appears as “radical”, a third party would be inclined to support the former, which appears as intuitively meaningful, while the second is on the edge of the universe of meaning. Thus we have a situation where the supposedly neutral third party in responding, to refer back to Balint, by “non-participating passive objectivity” (1969:434) repeats the third phase of misunderstanding, of depriving the event of its reality. It has become non-existent.

THE UNCONSCIOUS AND EXPERIENCE

In describing the nature of the unconscious, Freud’s characterizations are mostly negative. We are sometimes aware of absences, lacks, holes in consciousness, and psychoanalysis provides a method for making inferences about how these gaps may be filled;  “We infer a number of processes which are in themselves ‘unknowable’ and interpolate them in those that are conscious to us” (Freud 1940a[1938]:197). The description is counterfactual – “something occurred of which we are totally unable to form a conception, but which, if it had entered our consciousness” (1940a[1938]:197) could have been rendered in a particular way.  He later emphasised that almost everything we know about the id is of a negative character compared to the ego (1933a[1932]:73). The unconscious is alien, something one does not identify with, as if it were someone else (1915e:169). To the extent that it can be said to appear, is it in the form of absences, slips, errors, or as something sudden, devastating and overwhelming, seemingly attacking from behind, abruptly and unexpectedly.

“That experience refers chiefly to painful and disagreeable experiences does not mean,” writes Gadamer, “that we are being especially pessimistic, but can be seen directly from its nature […] Every experience worthy of the name thwarts an expectation” (1960/2004:350). It is an essentially negative process, wherein something is found not to be what we supposed it to be – it refutes false generalizations (1960/2004:347). Thus it changes both the object and the perceiver, providing, rather than any particular insight, an insight into the limitations of humanity (1960/2004:351). It results not in a feeling of knowing everything better than anyone else, but in being radically undogmatic, in openness to having, and learning from, new experiences (1960/2004:350).  Recall the contrasting account from The Dialectic of Enlightenment of anti-Semitism as a closed system of projection;

The inner depth of the subject consists in nothing other than the delicacy and wealth of the external world of perceptions. If the links are broken, the ego calcifies. If it proceeds positivistically: merely recording given facts without giving anything in return, it shrinks to a point; and if it idealistically creates the world from its own groundless basis, it plays itself out in dull repetition (Adorno/ Horkheimer 1944/1997:189).

This is a description on an individual level – but how do we identify society as a closed system of projection? Where Freud spoke of collective neurosis with regard to group formations and patterns of culturally embedded beliefs (1912-13, 1921c), the British tradition has spoken of psychotic functioning in relation to a social defence system (Jaques 1953, 1955, Menzies Lyth 1960), and Fakhry Davids recently stated that to account for the fact that “racism occurs universally, not just in very disturbed individuals […] we need to introduce the paradoxical idea of a normal pathological organization” (2009:178-179). But then the issue of the point of view from which this is assessed becomes problematic. In many psychoanalytically informed social analyses it appears as if the idea of the ideally analysed analyst, as an embodiment of perfect neutrality, is not a theoretical fiction but the reality.

More recent psychoanalytic theory, with its emphasis on countertransference and interpersonal processes of projection and introjection, is in line with some of Gadamer’s epistemic points. A situation, writes Gadamer, is “a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision” (1960/2004:301), emphasizing how one’s aim is not to disregard one’s own hermeneutical situation, but relate to it in order to understand at all (321). It is a lack that he is not more frequently referred to by psychoanalysts, who alternate between descriptions of ‘reality’ as socially situated and references to “understanding it as it really is” (Klein 1935:271), “the demands of reality”, “the objective situation” (Menzies 1960:452) – where ‘reality’ is conceived of as independent of any social context. In these and similar formulations, detachment appears to have become an unqualified epistemic aim – this position, I have argued, is misguided.

Two psychoanalytically oriented theorists who take a different stance are worth mentioning here; Dalal has emphasized how both therapist and patient are implicated in the reality of social oppression, and, importantly, has criticised purely internalist readings of clinical material on the ground that they reproduce what he terms ‘the double bind of the experience and the denial of racism’ (2002:220-221)[3]. Bass, questioning of the situatedness of the institution of American psychoanalysis, compared his analysis with a young black man, Mr. A., and a second-generation Holocaust survivor, Ms. B., stating that;

despite the similar presentations, and despite the fact that both were in full-scale analysis, with Ms. B. I was acutely aware of the interface of psychodynamics and historical process, while with Mr. A. I was not, although in retrospect I believe I should have been (Bass 2003:34).

[3] “So, how might a black patient hear an interpretation from the white therapist, in this instance, the experience of social oppression, as a reflection of his or her inner dynamic? The black patient is quite likely to view such an interpretation with suspicion, in effect hearing the therapist saying ‘you have a chip on your shoulder, and what you experience as the racist edifice does not exist’” (Dalal 2002:220).

His reflections reveal an awareness of the impact of sensitivity to historical detail; both its presence in the former case and his retrospective questioning of its absence in the latter speak to the author’s credit.

Gadamer emphasizes how illuminating the situation that forms the precondition for our understanding is an always unfinished project (1960/2004:301). Thus there is a limit to the extent to which the presuppositions that guides one’s inquiry can be spelt out, not only, if we think psychoanalytically, because something has not yet been posed as a problem, but because the inquirer forms part of a system that actively prevents such questioning from taking place, holds it back or keeps it out and refutes such examination.  These conditions are not only preconscious, not-yet-conscious, but socially repressed or split off. Now if we think in terms of Balint’s three-phasic model, this state of affairs completes a series of violence, but one that is silently performed and not thought of as such. The answer to how we would recognise that we form a part of a socially instituted and upheld ‘closed cycle of projection’ is that generally we do not, and it is only in exceptional circumstances that parts of these processes are illuminated.

ENFORCED SPLITTING

“Possibly”, writes Ferenczi in a passage in Notes and Fragments, “complicated mechanisms (living beings) can only be preserved as units by the pressure of their environment. At an unfavourable change in their environment the mechanism falls to pieces” (1930-32:220). He later describes how, if beaten down by an overwhelming force that cannot be warded off, one “seems to resort to the subterfuge of turning round the idea of being devoured in [the following] way: with a colossal effort [one] swallows the whole hostile power or person” (1930-32:228) – with resulting dismemberment. Klein, citing the former passage, refers to the ego’s “falling to pieces or splitting itself” (1946:5), to splitting both as a reaction and as an active process originating in phantasy. Though her formulation that the ego is incapable of splitting the object without also splitting itself (1946:6) reveals some of the concept’s potential significance for social analysis, its applicability is limited by the fact the fact that her emphasis is always on splitting as actively initiated by the subject. In Menzies Lyth’s ([1960] 1990) study of nurses in a hospital this direction of thinking is reversed. Her reliance is on Kleinian concepts, but it can be said to be Kleinian concepts turned round in the sense that her central claim occurs in the phrase ‘forced introjection of the social defence system’ (1960:459). The solitary nurse, rather than being an author of a phantasised scenario, is forced to ‘swallow’ the system of defences already present before she arrived at the scene. It was one that ‘relied heavily on violent splitting’ – thus she was forced to split. I shall use the term ‘enforced splitting’ to distinguish the phenomenon of ‘being split’ by social forces from splitting as actively initiated by the ego.[4] As Likierman (2001:167) points out, a distinction between the two should not be taken to be absolute, but to refer to imagined points on a continuum – but the difference in emphasis is nonetheless of interest from the point of view of social criticism with regard to how ‘social forces’ are conceptualised.

[4] Isabel Menzies Lyth’s (1917–2008) study of nurses in a training hospital is regarded as a ‘modern classic’ in Britain, although it is scarcely known elsewhere. I have argued in favour of the points just made in a paper reinterpreting her famous study, “Splitting, Attachment and Instrumental Rationality”, where I first used the term ‘enforced splitting’ (Auestad 2011e).

From a social point of view, what has been split off has thus been rendered non-existent. To the extent that it exists, it is as purely physical phenomena, as affect seemingly without context, history or significance. It is something raw, crude and ego-alien.[5] Since it has been deprived of its sense, rendered meaningless, a lot of work of symbolisation has to take place before it can possibly come back into existence. In Notes and Fragments again, it is described how “the part of the ego which remained intact [builds] up a new personality from the preserved fragments, [one which] bears the traces of the endured struggle fought with defeat. This personality is called one that is ‘adjusted to the conditions’ (1930-32:225). But this is more of a description of adaptation à la Hartmann (1958) than of a creative engagement with reality à la Winnicott (1960). It can be assumed that these split-off elements would want to symbolise themselves – and then in forms that would be difficult to recognize, requiring an attentive listener to be readmitted into the sphere of the meaningful. What I have termed ‘enforced splitting’ bears a resemblance to Layton’s concept of ‘normative unconscious processes’ (2008:66); processes that seek to maintain splits caused by the pressure of cultural hierarchies. People, in Layton’s terms, comply with cultural demands to split off and project parts of their subjectivity “In order to be recognized as “properly” gendered, raced, classed, and sexed subjects” (60). In what follows, I shall emphasize that, due to inequalities of power, the sacrifices thus made by a member of a dominant and of a devalued group cannot be regarded as parallel. Goffman’s portrayals of fluctuations in group-identifications and often painful ambivalence and Du Bois’ conception of double consciousness provide descriptions of similar phenomena to what I have termed ‘enforced splitting’, although they do so on a more conscious level.  In Goffman’s words:

The nature of a ‘good adjustment’ is now apparent. It requires that the stigmatized individual cheerfully and un-self-consciously accept himself as essentially the same as normals, while at the same time he voluntarily withholds himself from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance of him (Goffman1963/1990:146).

Goffman describes social situations where there is an implicit negotiation of distance and acceptance, where separate parties observe a norm that need not be articulated or examined. This example is one in which there is a discrepancy in the reflection required of the parties – the stigmatized person needs to be able to perceive two contradictory norms simultaneously and to act in such a way as to take account of them both, whereas the person assumed to be ‘normal’ is allowed to remain unconscious of his or her lack of acceptance of the other. Where the latter may experience a ‘smooth’ situation, the former sees one that requires extensive manoeuvring. In other words, hyper-reflexivity with regard to some aspects of the situation is needed. Humphrey (unpublished:3) cites Martin Luther King’s example of how, during the Montgomery bus boycott, a white family summoned their black cook and asked her whether she supported such terrible things as boycotting buses and demanding jobs. “‘Oh, no, ma’am, I won’t have anything to do with that boycott thing’, the cook said. ‘I am just going to stay away from buses as long as that trouble is going on.’” The shape of her answer was determined by the need to keep her job, and the family’s contentment with the reply was due to the fact that they were not actually listening to what she was saying. Her sophisticated response managed to express, in a disguised way, her support for the strike while simultaneously playing up to her family’s idea of her as an ‘it’, as someone who does not act or interpret. In Du Bois’ words; “It is a peculiar situation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” ([1903]1994:2). There is a moral ambiguity in the situation depicted. On the one hand you could point to the fact that she has developed a complex form of expression, designed to elude the social censorship. Freud, in explaining the concept of the censor asks; “Where can we find a similar distortion of a psychical act in social life? Only where two persons are concerned, one of whom possesses a certain degree of power which the second is obliged to take into account”, and he proceeds to add; “The stricter the censorship, the more far-reaching will be the disguise and the more ingenious too may be the means employed for putting the reader on the scent of the true meaning” (1900a:141-2). There is artfulness in the response; one may assume that a high degree of reflection was needed to produce an expression in such social circumstances. At best one could think in terms Bion’s metaphor of bifocal vision – but this must be assumed to be possible only after splitting has developed into something else. The cook in the example knew that by her actions she was participating in the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott to end segregated city busses; thus she had access to a social resource that let her make sense of and give direction to her socially inflected injuries, one that allowed for some degree of healing. But in so far as something has been split off, the two positions cannot be held together in consciousness at the same time, and thus cannot fruitfully inform one another. A glimpse of a more unconscious vision of the situation may be provided, as Lopez (2004) suggests, in the Wolf Man’s dream of the white wolves staring at him through the window, wanting to eat him up. As a Russian, he failed to fully comply with the norm of European, here German, whiteness. “The wolves were quite white,” he said, “their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror […] of being eaten by the wolves, I screamed and woke up” (Freud 1918b[1914]:29). To make use of Ferenczi’s description, the cook has been devoured by the white wolves, thus she has been forced to swallow them so as to speak their language and see the situation through their eyes – a situation of eating herself and of being eaten.

[5] We may here think of Bion’s concept of beta-elements; “In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves […] Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. They are objects that can be evacuated or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to substitute such manipulation for words or ideas. […] Beta-elements are stored but differ from alpha-elements in that they are not so much memories as undigested facts, whereas the alpha-elements have been digested by alpha-function and thus made available for thought” (Bion 1962a:6-7).

Though she manages to articulate some of her own subjectivity, clothed in a disguise adapted to the circumstances, her employers do not recognize or hear what she is saying, so that her speech, in that situation, is deprived of its intent. It would be meaningless, in that setting, had it not been for the fact that the story was recounted somewhere else so that others could appreciate the meaning and thus bring it into existence. In Gadamer’s words; “I may say “thou” and I may refer to myself over against a thou, but a common understanding always precedes these situations” (1966:7) – when we say “thou” to someone a lot is taken for granted. In situations when it is not, when a prima facie credibility, acceptability, or what one may call ‘basic trust’ on a social level, is found to be lacking, something hitherto unseen makes a surprising appearance. If we dwell for a moment on the formulation in Balint’s article, of searching for ‘recognition, understanding and comfort’, it appears to sum up in a very compact way a line of thought running through the theory presented about how these three levels are intertwined. Recognition is interpersonal, and something one would think of as primarily associated with a self-conscious subject, though Winnicott’s discussion on mirroring, emphasizing how one is constituted as a whole subject only through the gaze of an attentive other, may imply that at least a pre-conscious level should be included. I hope to have indicated how the level of recognition is linked with the level of understanding – how the degree to which someone is sensed and the degree to which they are seen to make sense is connected with their social position. Discussions that make use of the concept of containment tend to leave this fact out since the focus is on what is contained, not who is contained, or on how anxiety is handled, rather than on who gains or suffers from a redistribution of anxiety. The concept does, however, establish a connection between the level of meaning and the third, bodily or sensory level, emphasizing how meaning is built in an interpersonal scenario and how what is rejected is stripped of meaning, expelled from the universe of the understandable and turned into something purely physical, external and damaging. Though in the phrase just cited, as the word ‘comfort’ appears to denote, the bodily level is referred to in a more positive sense, not just as a dumping-ground for rejected communications deprived of their symbolic impact, but, for lack of a better term, a source of meaning in its own right.

SUBJECTIVITY AS UNEQUALLY DISTRIBUTED

I have argued that a limit to thinking of psychosocial studies as a study of subjectivity lies in the field of prejudice, where what is encountered is a reflexion or feeling that ought to have been there but is not or a position that ought to have been represented but is not. You could speak of condensation and displacement in public space where people are turned into masses and become mere objects of discourse. There are points of view that are entirely absent so as to be not only un-recognized but also denied resources for meaning.

In some situations when you get the question “Who are you?”, what is being asked, in Hannah Arendt’s (1958/1998) terms, is not who you are but what you are. It is not a question about the quality of your subjectivity but about your position in a social space and thus about whether, or to what extent, it constitutes a subjectivity to be taken into account. So there is a sense in which there is systematically unequal distribution of subjectivity itself – in that socially marginal positions are denied a space for articulation, and also in being forced to hyper-reflectivity about qualities a majority member is free to consciously neglect. Fortunately, alternative discourses exist, thus to allude to Layton’s (2008) expression ‘normative unconscious processes’, there is such a thing as counter-normativity – a potential source of healing for socially inflicted wounds and of multidimensionality of vision. This theme will be further explored in later chapters. A central point here has been to indicate how what is taken to be an attitude of ‘neutrality’ may reproduce, or finalize, an already existing violence, and how, tragically, the ability to spot such processes is limited in all of us. Thus counter-normativity in this context is at best to attempt to spot some of this and to listen to other such attempts.

A psychoanalytic approach that is insufficiently informed by an understanding of social violence tends to preserve a view of a human being as an active interpreter and initiator while disregarding his or her capacity to suffer from the weight of social circumstances. A more sociological approach tends to capture a human being as a sufferer, while disregarding his or her individuality and ever-present and surprising capacity for subjective interpretation. Thus they risk failing to describe and address either people’s ‘subjecthood’ or their ‘objecthood’ – both of which, in my view, amounts to a failure of respect, which relies on an ability to see them as both, and simultaneously, subjects and objects. Hence the associated risk of reinforcing, rather than addressing prejudices. Furthermore, I have argued that approaching the theme of prejudices from the point of view of examining the (very) prejudiced person’s subjectivity is not only epistemically but also morally problematic. It is epistemically problematic because it risks leaving out a major share of prejudices – those that are unconscious to a (presumably ‘normal’) majority population. It is morally problematic because it risks reinforcing an already existing pattern of silently performed social violence – this is what I have used Balint’s paper on trauma to argue for. Rather than taking up the stance, and taking over the blind spots, of a socially powerful majority, a study of prejudice should aim, however imperfectly achieved, to listen to voices that are rarely heard.

REFERENCES

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[1] An earlier version of this article was published in L. Auestad ed. Psychoanalysis and Politics: Exclusion and the Politics of Representation. London: Karnac 2012.

[2] There is no one definition of ‘psychosocial’ that is generally agreed on. Rather there are ongoing discussions in the UK on how to understand the term and the field, and even on whether it should be spelt with or without a hyphen. A special issue of the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society is devoted to such discussions (Clarke/Layton 2008). Therefore, I shall not offer a more refined definition here – rather, this whole article can be seen as debating such questions, with a focus on prejudice.

[3] “So, how might a black patient hear an interpretation from the white therapist, in this instance, the experience of social oppression, as a reflection of his or her inner dynamic? The black patient is quite likely to view such an interpretation with suspicion, in effect hearing the therapist saying ‘you have a chip on your shoulder, and what you experience as the racist edifice does not exist’” (Dalal 2002:220).

[4] Isabel Menzies Lyth’s (1917–2008) study of nurses in a training hospital is regarded as a ‘modern classic’ in Britain, although it is scarcely known elsewhere. I have argued in favour of the points just made in a paper reinterpreting her famous study, “Splitting, Attachment and Instrumental Rationality”, where I first used the term ‘enforced splitting’ (Auestad 2011e).

[5][5] We may here think of Bion’s concept of beta-elements; “In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves […] Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. They are objects that can be evacuated or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to substitute such manipulation for words or ideas. […] Beta-elements are stored but differ from alpha-elements in that they are not so much memories as undigested facts, whereas the alpha-elements have been digested by alpha-function and thus made available for thought” (Bion 1962a:6-7).