Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies

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Dead Subjects is an impassioned call for scholars in critical race and ethnic studies to engage with Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. Antonio Viego argues that Lacanian theory has the potential to begin rectifying the deeply flawed way that ethnic and racialized subjects have been conceptualised in North America since the mid-twentieth century. Viego contends that the accounts of human subjectivity that dominate the humanities and social sciences and influence U.S. legal thought derive from American ego psychology. Examining ego psychology in the United States during its formative years following World War II, he shows how its distinctly American misinterpretation of Freudian theory was driven by a faith in the possibility of rendering the human subject whole, complete, and transparent. He traces how this theory of the subject gained traction in the United States, passing into most forms of North American psychology, law, civil rights discourse, ethnic studies, and the broader culture. Viego argues that the repeated themes of wholeness, completeness, and transparency with respect to ethnic and racialized subjectivity are fundamentally problematic as these themes ultimately lend themselves to the project of managing and controlling ethnic and racialized subjects by positing them as fully knowable, calculable sums: as dead subjects.

About the Author:
Antonio Viego is Associate Professor in the Program in Literature and the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Dead Subjects offers an approach that could remediate many of the impasses and failures of the ego-psychological underpinnings of contemporary ideas of ethnicity and identification. These ideas have had a strong impact not only on academic ethnic studies but also on the very shaping of American law. Antonio Viego provides an important alternative model to them that will have immediate academic relevance. I also think that the influence of Dead Subjects may well be broader than the American case that Viego emphasizes. As thinkers all over the world struggle to frame new ways of dealing with immigrant and ethnic identities, the book can serve as an important guidepost. Viego’s carefully drawn distinction between the ego and the subject, based on Lacan’s work, is key to the new model.”—Juliet Flower MacCannell, author of Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Cultural Unconscious

“A strikingly original contribution, Dead Subjects represents a new and sophisticated movement in Latino/a studies and the critical discourse on race and psychoanalysis. Arguing that the psychic realm should be read along with the social if our analysis of ethnic/racial subjectivity is ever to surpass ‘weak multiculturalism,’ Antonio Viego situates Lacanian analysis through carefully chosen case studies and examples. He reveals Lacanian thought as relevant in a way that will be nothing short of startling for most readers.”—José Esteban Muñoz, author of Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822340997
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Antonio Viego is Associate Professor in the Program in Literature and the Department of Romance Studies at Duke University.

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Read an Excerpt


Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies
By Antonio Viego


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4099-7

Chapter One

Hollowed Be Thy Name

Although provisions were not made to provide food, medical care, assist with resettlement and establish schools for recently freed African slaves until the Freedmen's Bureau was established by Congress in 1865, records do show that in 1862, fifty-eight African American subjects were treated for "insanity" at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., for the very first time. In 1860 the federal census reported the existence of 766 "colored insane" out of a population of 4,441,830 African American subjects. By 1880, the number of "colored insane" had risen to 6,157 out of a total African American population of 6,580,793.

In 1890, American psychiatrist A. H. Witmer reported these facts in a paper he delivered before the Tenth International Congress at Berlin. The numbers alarmed him, since in his conversations with former slave owners he had been told that although "colored idiots and epileptics" were not unheard of in the years before the Civil War, they had never heard of an "insane colored person." In 1893, three years after Witmer's presentation in Berlin, another American psychiatrist, Dr. McGuire, also found a reason to panic over these numbers. He communicated his worries to the readers of the Virginia Medical Monthly: "During the days of slavery, insanity was very uncommon among the negro race. Now, our large asylums are not capacious enough to hold the insane negroes of both sexes."

What is the definition of insanity in the "professional" community during this time in the United States? Researching one of the premier journals on the "science of the mind," the Alienist and Neurologist, between the years 1880 and 1920, I came across many attempts by researchers to hazard a definition for "insanity." In an 1888 editorial there is an entry, "The Nature and Definition of Insanity," where the author, imbued with a cautious certainty, offers, "But it is not impossible to define insanity or anything else if we fully understand the thing to be defined. The true basis of every rational definition of mental derangement must be delusive mental perversion engendered by disease affecting the mind, displayed in the conduct or speech of the individual, as compared with his natural self or what ought to have been (if perverted or arrested development had not prevented its display) the natural self-type of the individual." The Alienist and Neurologist interests us because over an especially contentious twenty-year period from 1880 to 1900, in its pages one witnesses spirited, cantankerous debates over whose "scientific" discourse would reign supreme in the conceptualization of insanity precisely during the time-if we can be allowed here to add three new scenes of "ethnic-racialized trouble" to those already being spectacularly staged in the immediate post-Reconstruction years-of mass immigration and ethnic relocation to the United States, the beginnings of the institution of American immigration restriction policies, and the professionalization of the field of American psychology.

The simultaneity of these "scientific" conflicts, traumatic ethnic relocations, and the legal restrictions on immigration to the United States provides me with a craggy sort of scaffolding onto which I suspend hooks, around which I thread two ostensibly major lines of inquiry that support a great share of the weight in this project. Initially, I consider the dissimulating function of notions of ethnic-racialized difference in the field formations and theoretical assumptions of psychoanalysis, ego psychology, and social psychology in the United States. I then explore generally how the field of psychology-and its "experts"-would by the mid-twentieth century insinuate itself in the legal apparatus, crafting and codifying in the process enduring psychologistic and thus reductive legal and extralegal understandings of ethnic-racialized subjectivity, trauma, and loss that are still with us today.

In A History of Affirmative Action: 1619-2000, Philip Rubio argues that "whiteness as property," a term coined by legal scholar Cheryl Harris, emerges forcefully in the years following the Civil War and is intensely protected. Although Rubio and Harris do not discuss this, we should add "insanity" to the list of holdings belonging to the property of whiteness. In the conversations and exchanges in the psychiatric and neurological community toward the last third of the nineteenth century, one sees in addition to the debates regarding what insanity is and what discourse most effectively conceptualizes its etiology another consideration: can African American subjects claim insanity? Returning to the 1888 definition for insanity, we might consider whether the African American subject is seen to qualify as an "individual" at this moment, possessed with a "natural self"-with a psychology, period. How might the scientific contributors to the journal have understood slavery as what could pervert or arrest the development of human subjectivity and effectively make one go insane and, to be generous, make the United States crazy?

They don't say. They don't want to know. Although these debates on the meaning of insanity and whose definition will rule the day, as well as the new question that emerges regarding whether or not African American subjects can make legitimate claims to insanity, are not explicitly linked in the literature, insofar as they are not seen to share space in the same argument put forth by any researcher, I would like to suggest that they are in fact related. This relation, moreover, reveals a larger issue my research has made obvious to me: that the history of psychology and psychoanalysis in the United States has always included as a crucial part of its history a witting and unwitting reflection on the meaning of ethnic-racialized difference in U.S. culture. When the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis in the United States have over the years asked themselves what they constitute as a practice, a science, a therapeutics, a curative, or a salve, they appear to have to call up the spectacle of ethnic-racialized difference in order to operate these moments of self-reflection. This complex and confusing problematic will become clearer to the reader in the pages to come.

The antagonism between alienists-the name used to refer to individuals who were basically superintendents of asylums-and neurologists was especially pronounced in the mid-nineteenth century. There was during this time a generally very negative view of North American psychiatry, with a more hostile attitude still waiting in the wings for psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century. As neurology began to claim possession of a more and more detailed and intimate knowledge of the nervous system and the human brain, their claims as to what they could treat became far ranging, covering everything from brain tumors to insanity to hysteria. The dream of neurology during this time, that it would be able to explain exhaustively all of the operations of the brain and nervous system and that all so-called mental diseases would be assigned specific physiological causes, is clearly still today on the minds of many in the medical profession. Neurologists' ability to persuade others, even in the absence of convincing, irrefutable evidence, of its explanatory power is partly responsible for the virtual eradication of psychoanalysis in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Commenting on the current situation and the battle lines drawn between psychoanalysis and neuroscience, the psychoanalyst André Green remarks:

We have been attacked by the neuro-biologists and specialists of the brain, and this is the thing that we have to keep in mind. The closer people are to what we do, the brain and the mind or the body-mind problem, the more they fiercely attack us. This is not a problem of "objective knowledge"; this is a subjective problem of inner beliefs, of prejudice, of refusing to take into account some things that we think are very important things and cannot be ignored. Today, it is the progress of the neuro-scientist, the brain specialist, which is the most harmful to us.

The conceit of American neurologists in the late nineteenth century was fueled by the first successful experiments using electrical stimulation to determine the localization of brain functions.

Arnold Davidson has written that between the years 1870 and 1905 psychiatry was caught somewhere between neurology and pathological anatomy. Can we mark a moment when psychiatry effectively distances itself from neurology and pathological anatomy in the manner in which it confronts and analyzes so-called mental disease? Davidson, following Michel Foucault's thesis in Birth of the Clinic, argues that psychiatry emerges as an autonomous medical discipline at the moment when pathological anatomy can no longer serve its purposes. Davidson uses the following passage, first cited in Foucault's text, to illustrate the nature of the pathological anatomist's gaze: "For twenty years, from morning to night, you have taken notes at patients' bedsides on affections of the heart, the lungs and the gastric viscera, and all is confusion for you in the symptoms which, refusing to yield up their meaning, offer you a succession of incoherent phenomena. Open up a few corpses: you will dissipate at once the darkness that observation alone could not dissipate."

In other words, the symptoms will offer up their real meaning once the seat of disease has been located-once the defective organ, upon the opening up of the corpse, is located. The diseased organ constitutes the disease. Returning to the 1888 definition of insanity, it is clear that insanity is being theorized as an organic problem and one whose seat of disease is the brain: "The true basis of every rational definition of mental derangement must be delusive mental perversion engendered by disease affecting the mind." If we are attempting to determine how these understandings play out when the subject in question is a subject like the recently, at the time, freed African American subject, what else informs the anatamo-clinical gaze? In her insightful study, Amina Mama writes,

It was to the new biological sciences that the establishment now turned. Insanity ceased to be associated with moral degeneracy and instead increasingly attributed to organic sources in the brain. Madness now became linked to 'evolutionary complexity' rather than degeneracy, and mental illness was re-theorized as an unavoidable result of the stresses of being civilized, as a by-product of the greater sensitivity and creativity of the white race. In a re-hash of noble savage ideas, black people's brains were now said to be too simple and retarded to be affected, and their apparent lack of insanity was taken as being further evidence of mental inferiority.

Mama provides us with another layer for considering what changes may have been effected in the analysis of insanity in neurology, psychiatry, and pathological anatomy when one rotates the focus of the question slightly in order to train one's attention on the ethnic-racialized subject, and for assessing the impact notions of ethnic-racialized difference may have had on the reasoning strategies of pathological anatomy and psychiatry. Returning to Davidson's argument regarding when psychiatry emerges as an autonomous discipline separate from pathological anatomy, we know that, unlike pathological anatomy, psychiatry did not insist to the exclusion of everything else that disease was to be located in the brain, or sexual and reproductive organs. Mama's point above implies that when the bodies in question were African subjects, the pathological anatomist's focus on the organ-qua-brain still held sway in psychiatric reasoning on the nature of mental illness. In other words, the shift from pathological anatomical reasoning to psychiatric reasoning did not require a recalibration in logical reasoning when the subject in question was not a white European. There was no shift in reasoning.

Building on the kind of texture that Mama's point provides us, I would like here also to give the reader a sense for how so-called ethnic division and the "immigrant threat" in the United States between 1880 and 1920 (a period increasingly assuming a kind of magical aura) affected assumptions and reasoning in the field of psychology. Andrew Heinze argues that critical changes in American psychological thought coincided with attempts to come to grips with what personal and national identity meant in an era of mass immigration and ethnic relocation. He claims that before this historical moment, there was very little sense of identity as being subject to fragmentation along ethnic-racialized lines in the United States:

The decade of the 1880s serves as a convenient point of demarcation, for those years witnessed both the emergence of professional psychology and the beginning of American immigration restriction (i.e., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Until this time Americans were not conspicuously concerned about the ethnic divisions among them.... Between the 1880s and the 1920s, however, in synchrony with the Progressive drive for a unified and purified body politic, Americans problematized their "divided heritage" and "dualistic national identity." It was then that assimilation became a problem rather than a process that occurred in the case of some groups but perhaps not in others.

Heinze presents a portrait wherein ethnic-racialized subjects are seen as stirring up all sorts of psychological trouble at the conceptual level in the field of psychology, and at the intersubjective level between American subjects differently positioned in a racialized social hierarchy. He links in not strictly causal ways the emergence of assimilation as a problem in American society to conceptual drifts in North American psychology where more value begins to attach to ideas of subjective wholeness, unity, and adaptation, thus anticipating, in part, some of the central tenets in ego psychology.

The concern with ethnic divisions that Heinze argues begins to rattle American society beginning in the 1880s is reproduced within the field of American psychology in the form of a virtual obsession with racialized divisions and the meaning of racialized difference that is revealed in their more general effort to understand human psychology. In 1902, Granville Stanley Hall, one of the pioneers of American psychology, who trained with William James and is considered to be the father of the American Psychological Association, remarked,

No two races in history, taken as a whole, differ so much in their traits, both physical and psychic, as the Caucasian and the African. The color of the skin and the crookedness of the hair are only the outward signs of the many far deeper differences, including cranial and thoracic capacity, proportions of body, nervous system, glands, and secretions, vita sexualis, food, temperament, disposition, character, longevity, instincts, customs, emotional traits, and diseases. All these differences as they are coming to be better understood, are seen to be so great as to qualify if not imperil every inference from one race to another, whether theoretical or practical, so that what is true and good for one is often false and bad for the other.

Robert V. Guthrie has argued in his brilliantly titled Even the Rat Was White that psychology's obsession with the study of African subjects in the effort to understand human psychology was due to the initial union between psychology and anthropology in Germany, which took place when P. W. A. Bastain insisted in 1871 on the essential connection between psychology and ethnology. An invaluable study published by George Oscar Ferguson Jr. in 1916, "The Psychology of the Negro: An Experimental Study," certainly confirms Guthrie's point. Ferguson's text is a study of all of the work conducted up to that point on the question of race and psychology, and he gives the famous anthropologist Franz Boas a certain pride of place in these discussions.


Excerpted from DEAD SUBJECTS by Antonio Viego Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION All the Things You Can't Be by Now....................1
CHAPTER ONE Hollowed Be Thy Name....................30
CHAPTER TWO Subjects-Desire, Not Egos-Pleasures....................48
CHAPTER THREE Browned, Skinned, Educated, and Protected....................75
CHAPTER FOUR Latino Studies' Barred Subject and Lacan's Border Subject, or Why the Hysteric Speaks in Spanglish....................108
CHAPTER FIVE Hysterical Ties, Latino Amnesia, and the Sinthomestiza Subject....................138
CHAPTER SIX Emma Pérez Dreams the Breach: Rubbing Chicano History and Historicism 'til It Bleeds....................165
CHAPTER SEVEN The Clinical, the Speculative, and What Must Be Made Up in the Space between Them....................196
CONCLUSION Ruining the Ethnic-Racialized Self and Precipitating the Subject....................224
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