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March 21, 2008


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I am not sure I understand. If working through is just a matter of bringing some material to consciousness, why should we think that will solve the problems we face?

In addition, given the violence - indeed wars - consciousness of race has led to, perhaps awareness of race will turn out to be like awareness of anger. Focusing on one's anger and bringing it fully to consciousness is a good way to fuel the fire, not dampen it down.

Noelle McAfee

A first step might be bringing a loss or trauma or difficult situation to consciousness, but as I said this needs to be done with due care so that the result isn't more violence or destruction. A second stage then is working through, which might involve the work of mourning (grieving), coming to terms with the need for change, or some kind of talking through an issue. See Coming to Public Judgment by Dan Yankelovich, an opinion researcher who learned about Freud when he was teaching at the New School along with Hannah Arendt. When it comes to dealing with fraught social and politial relationships, e.g. race in American, working through may involve some sustained dialogue. See Hal Saunders' book, Politics is About Relationships. Saunders was involved in the Camp David Peace Accords and continues to do work in highly charged regions of the world. He learned much from his friend, Vamik Volkan, a social psychaoanlyst who has worked in eastern Europe and the middle east.

Jordan Dodd

I'm not quite sure I get the big couch metaphor. But to the extent that I get it, I wonder if it falsely assumes that it would be desirable to craft one big, safe couch for Americans to work through their racial issues on. It doesn't follow from the fact that America has deep racial problems and needs to work through them that the working through should go on at the national level. Therapy is personal. It requires, among other things, self-expression. But, to play with the couch metaphor, if you've got 250 million people on a couch, no one is going to get a word in edgewise. If we're to talk in terms of couches, America doesn't need one big, safe couch. It needs millions of small couches. Some analogue of the 'Think global, eat local' slogan would be apt.

Here's another thought. Therapy sessions rarely have much impact if the patient doesn't hop on the couch voluntarily. The patient might not know just what her issues are when she sits down, but she needs to have both a belief that something important needs working through and a desire to try to work through it. If the patient lacks this belief-desire combination, therapy either won't go far or it won't even start - the would-be patient will resist efforts to get her on the couch. I wonder how many Americans have both a belief that there are big racial problems in the country that need working through and a desire to try to work through them. I fear the number is small, percentage wise. If it is, then the prospects for America working through its big racial problems at this time are slim. Moreover if it is small then Obama may have severely hurt his chances with his speech on race. Plausibly, Americans are justified in believing based on his speech that the following conditional is true: If Obama is elected, he will try to get us on the couch to try to work through the racial problems that he believes exists. But if it's true that would-be patients will resist efforts to get them on the couch if they lack the relevant belief-desire combination, then Obama has given most Americans a reason not to vote for him - i.e, it's a good means to keeping themselves from getting put on the couch.


I'm extremely skeptical about the effectiveness of Freudian approaches. Not only do its merits on the individual level remain very contestable, but the effects of applying it on a group level are totally unverified. Of course, we philosophers are fond of coming to apriori judgments about such things, but that's not a good basis for social policy. And in the present context I think one should be particularly worried that talk is going to be substituted for action.

In addition, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that somehow white and black Americans are partners in a trauma that can now be analyzed. First of all, for many blacks the trauma is on going. Secondly, there seems to be to be a pretty big different between the two groups. Members of one side are perpetrators. (The Reverand Wright's beliefs are obviously the sort that highly disadvantaged groups form; they do not indicate on the part of blacks anything like the politically powerful racism in the white community. We're keeping them from our schools, health care, etc, because of our policies.)Thirdly, given the distribution of wealth, education, health care, and so on, it seems problematic to suppose that discussion alone is going to change the fundamental imbalances.


Sorry, that should have been:
"...the effects of applying it on a VERY-LARGE- group level..."

Noelle McAfee

Regarding Jordan's and JJ's comments:
I'm not taking about therapy or the wholesale application of psychoanalysis to the American people. I'm talking about the necessary political process of working through, a process that can be understood more fully by comparing it to the smaller-scale process. Obama noted that this work cannot be avoided, nor the controversies averted, just as Freud noted the return of the repressed will continue until the original problem is worked through. It seems undeniable that peoples / nations find themselves in the same situation. Here we are on the fifth anniversary of another repetition compulsion.

As for whether the two groups will work together, increasingly it's hard to separate two tidy groups of oppressors and victims. What is Barack Obama? Or my many students of mixed class, race, ethnicity?

And as for an example, I think the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, with the whole nation listening in on the proceedings, was a powerful example of a nation coming to terms with a trauma and beginning to work through it.

It's hard to do justice to this topic in a blog discussion, though I do welcome it. I spell out my views more in a book just published by Columbia, Democracy and the Political Unconscious.

SGRP Editor

I'm not a great believer in psychoanalysis or even psychotherapy, but I do think there is plenty that needs to be done about race on many levels. One thing I found extremely valuable in Obama's speech is his modeling of one way to deal with racial conflict. In my experience, racial conflict reduces very quickly to allegations that the other side couldn't possibly understand and often to a nearly complete rejection of the other. What Obama did in the speech was to refuse to go there, and refuse as someone who has authority to speak about race and across race. Where racial conflict seems foundational and inevitable, he was able to make it a matter of disagreement, and explicable disagreement.

The speech also spoke to the tendency of those in dominant groups to view the subordinate as "all the same". To emphasize the heterogeneity of Black opinion and Black experience while also owning it, all of it, and standing in solidarity with Blacks as a group, was yet another important moment. He raised the possibility that it is possible to stand in solidarity with Blacks and also with Whites because justice might encompass the needs and interests of both groups. In the current racial climate, that sounds radical to me. And also very freeing -- the hope he offers is that we don't have to be pitted against each other. And I think many many people, especially white people, feel tremendous relief at that thought. They want it to be true and will work hard for it.

I don't think we need therapy. I think we need a leader who can model a transition from entrenched conflict to thoughtful conversation, from identity politics to something closer to deliberative democracy. Obama isn't perfect, and only substantial structural changes will really make a difference; whether he can make that happen is yet to be seen. But I've come to believe through listening to him that a change in the terms of engagement might actually help. This isn't a change in our psyches, but a change in our practices, our civil norms, and hopefully, our collective ideals.

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