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anne anlin cheng

Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

W hat is psychoanalysis without symptoms? This question

is really an inquiry about the nature of diagnosis and reading—indeed,
about diagnostic reading, a method of interpretation that psychoanalysis
has bequeathed to both clinical technique and contemporary critical
practice in the academy. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud
links the term interpretation to the clarification of a hidden meaning.
Based on this, basic psychoanalytic concepts such as “working through,”
“catharsis,” and the “talking cure” all appear to promise the pleasure and
relief of insight, the possibility of making conscious (and hence curable)
that which has heretofore remained unconscious and symptomatic. This
interpretive model, with its diligence for symptom detection, has its paral-
lel in, or more accurately serves as, the inspiration for what has come to
be the normative mode of analysis for contemporary critical practice in a
wide range of critical perspectives, from historicist to materialist to psy-
choanalytic modes of interpretation. “Symptomatic reading,” a term first
coined by Louis Althusser, himself influenced by Freud and Lacan and
then made de rigueur in the Anglo-American academy by Fredric Jameson,

Volume 20, Number 1 doi 10.1215/10407391-2008-017

© 2009 by Brown University and d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
88 Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

presents, to put it schematically, an interpretive method in which what a

text means lies in what it does not say, which can then be used to rewrite
the text in terms of a master code. According to Jameson, by disclosing
the absent cause that structures the text’s inclusions and exclusions, the
critic restores to the surface the deep history that the text represses.
It is clear why this hermeneutics of suspicion would be so amenable to
the critical ambitions of cultural studies and to any field invested in the
critique of power.
For psychotherapy and literary analysis alike (especially those
of left-leaning inclinations), the unveiling of repressed or suppressed
meaning promises to bring about beneficial changes through the attain-
ment of insights. Hypersymptomatic reading, as outlined by Jameson, is
thus arguably what psychoanalytic, Marxist, deconstructive rhetorical
analysis and cultural studies have in common. Marxist literary criticism
gains narrative momentum from the process of ideological demystification;
psychoanalytic criticism calls attention to the diagnosis of signs of repres-
sion, resistance, transference, and displacement; deconstruction produces
in some sense a textual machine for generating hermeneutic suspicion.
Even those committed to identity politics, who might attack deconstruc-
tion for speciously positing a neutral subject, remain equally committed
to detecting aporias, exclusions, and unrepresentable differences.
But something has happened to stall all this euphoria. The wan-
ing interest in psychoanalysis in American mainstream culture since its
early enthusiasm for the “talking cure” in the 1950s has everything to do
with the dawning realization that psychoanalysis is less about achieving
happiness than about learning to live with one’s symptoms. It turns out
that the very therapy designed to bring about curative change is also the
philosophy that tries to reconcile one to the very impossibility of change.
A similar kind of disillusionment has been perceived to have befallen
literary criticism. It is assumed that the unveiling of the hidden ideology
that generates cultural symptoms should be in the service of political
progress. For a majority of the liberal left, symptomatic reading ought to
provide the groundwork for change; the idea is that social critique should
equal social transformation. But the practice of symptomatic reading
from Marxist criticism to postcolonial studies has hardly produced the
political utopia that liberal critics had hoped for. The practitioners (and
here I include myself) find themselves uneasy about the material efficacy
of their critical projects, even though this unease has not seemed to stop
many of us from continuing to read, almost convulsively, symptomatically,
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and suspiciously. (This is what Tim Dean took Slavoj Žižek to task for in
his article on “Art as Symptom.” And, from a different perspective, what
Bruno Latour calls the death of “the critical spirit” under the engine of
symptomatic reading.) The possibility that social critique does not always
or even necessarily spell social change haunts the edges of every humanist
project that imagines it is also doing political work.
So has a hermeneutics of suspicion failed in some fundamental
way, by producing blind spots of its own or by replacing iconoclasm with
more iconoclasm? Let us take for example the moral certitude that drives
corrective readings of phenomena such as Primitivism and Orientalism.
The relationship that Modernism bears to both discursive practices has
been much noted, especially in art historiography, and is almost exclu-
sively thought of as a form of theft on the part of Euro-American colonial-
ism in the name of empire or “love.” But appropriation as the sole mode
of understanding the relationship between the West and its racial others
has produced certain limitations. For instance, this kind of reading tends
to reproduce Modernism, Orientalism, and Primitivism as monolithic
structures even as it reifies the ideal of an authentic or genuine other on
the other side—what Edward Said so famously alluded to as the “brute
reality” of the East.
Today, we are justifiably wary of reifying definitions of culture
and certainly of essentialized notions of identity; yet at the same time,
corrective theories of creolization, métissage, and hybridity have often
ended up reinforcing the empirical, geographical, and biological fact of
boundaries and borders, recalling the imperatives they seek to undermine.
Suspended somewhere between fetish and fact, the objects of Orientalism
and Primitivism remain persistently ghostly.
This paradox also feeds into an impasse in liberal discourse
when it comes to the recuperative project of transforming objectified indi-
viduals into full, healthy subjects. The attribution of subversive parody,
for instance, to historically disenfranchised subjects is almost a reflexive
gesture these days, but as Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter and others
have pointed out, this move necessarily repeats, at times even reconsoli-
dating, the very stereotypes that it is meant to dispel in the first place. The
assignation of agency often comes at the price of neglecting the material
circumstances as well as the afterlife of power, and it just as often pre-
sumes authorial intention and its effects. Agency is thus this highly prized
yet severely undertheorized entity. Is there a third position besides that of
the victim or the parodic?
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Indeed, a host of related terms such as social visibility, com-

modification, performance, mimicry, projection, and reception requires
further theorization when it comes to a subject who is historically both
much too seen and not seen at all. For in spite of our cultivated impatience
with identity politics and attending notions of essentialism, those of us
working in a field or fields organized under identificatory rubrics continue
to engage with identity politics and its irresolvable paradox: the fact that
it offers a vital means of individual and communal affirmation as well as
represents a persistent mode of limitation and reinscription. This is why
identity-driven fields of inquiry have both acquired institutional recogni-
tion in the last fifty years and continued to suffer from what Hazel Carby
calls “cultural apartheid.” We might say that this paradoxical state of
affairs is the result of larger, ongoing institutional and cultural discrimi-
nation, which it certainly can be, but if the mission of these fields had
been to battle that marginalization, then we must confront the prospect
that the achievement of disciplinary status has not done the work it was
meant to do.1 And closer to home, for those of us in the fields of race and
ethnic studies, what are our own agency and relationships to our “objects”
of study?
If race, ethnic, and postcolonial theories have worked to unveil
the fetishism of the Western imperial eye, is the liberal scholar’s passion for
his or her research subject free from fetishistic impulse, especially when
those subjects tend to exude the precious promises of self-identification,
knowledge, and location? This question is, of course, most charged for
racialized intellectuals engaged in the construction of counternarratives
(that are sometimes narratives of self-identification) in the service of the
production of academic knowledge. When Henry Yu reminds us that “the
ethnographic imagination lay in making a place seem strange and then
gradually replacing the confusion with knowledge that makes the place
and the people seem familiar enough to be understandable and perhaps
even admirable” (35), we are then compelled to ask whether race and
ethnicity scholars are free from the critical sway of the ethnographic
imagination. Indeed, if reification and objectification are the dangers of
paying too lavish an attention to difference, then we must remind ourselves
that the liberal gesture is not free from the domain of the fetish and is not
itself symptom free.
I do not raise these issues as a critique of, or an explanation
for, the double consciousness built into the critical stance of the racial-
ized intellectual in race studies. Rather, I am interested in confronting
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this duality in order to explore how our methods might be revised so as

to acknowledge this investment while retaining political efficacy and,
at the same time, refraining from repeating the gesture of epistemo-
logical certitude endemic to critical authority. I know that my ongoing
interests in the cultural representations and politicization of women of
color, for example, are more complicated and fraught than either the
simple poles of fetish or fact can accommodate. It is not that I no longer
believe in symptoms or their potential to signify, but rather that I question
whether we might imagine, in the future of humanist critical practices, a
hermeneutics besides suspicion.
Perhaps we ought to rethink the instrumental and moralistic
expectations attached to the reading of cultural symptoms and the pro-
duction of insights. There are whole sets of assumptions that our academy
and society continue to make about marginalized subjects and the politics
that surround them and the social preconditions that constitute them that
require reexamination. What constitutes ideas of progress, change, and
social health? Before we can entertain the hopes of cure, especially in
arenas of power where the psychic life of power not only lives on but also
lives within us, we have to acknowledge—a difficult enough task—the
profound and enduring melancholia that the legacies of imperialism, colo-
nialism, patriarchy, and other forms of discrimination have bequeathed.
The acceptance and attention to this “stuckness” may do more important
political work for the future than the rhetoric of willful progress.
I would argue that the insights yielded by literary analysis
and cultural production do their most important work not by offering
solutions or promising social change, but precisely by voicing that which
political expediency cannot afford to acknowledge and by allowing us
the difficult gift of being uncertain. It is here that we see the true affin-
ity between humanist inquiries and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis (and
Freud in particular) has often been accused of being overdeterministic.
Yet as a sustained body of work that meditates on the complex nature of
the psyche, psychoanalytic thinking opens up the radical indeterminacy
of human desires and subjectivity. This indeterminacy has always been
what makes psychoanalysis so difficult to assimilate into political agendas,
but this quality is also what makes psychoanalysis so crucial to politi-
cal inquiry into the life and effects of power. Instead of seeing change
as transformation in linear temporality, psychoanalysis teaches us that
change is the condition of subjectivity and, as such, the precondition for
political relations. Instead of identity, psychoanalysis turns our attention
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to the mechanisms and processes that constitute that “dominant fiction”

(Silverman, Male). Instead of objective history, psychoanalysis helps us
attend to issues of historicity. The problem with oppression has never been
just the question of how it suppresses a genuine subject, but how it has
both compromised and conditioned the very possibility of subjecthood.
So how do we account for the flexibility and susceptibility of
the psychical subject in narratives of power? If psychoanalysis has been
criticized for its failure to affect individual or social change, then per-
haps now, with our popular, critical, and medical cultures so over- and
prematurely invested in notions of cure and resolution, psychoanalysis
might offer precisely our obsessive “culture of redemption” (Bersani,
Culture) a moment of pause, in which we might remain and acknowledge
that which can never leave us. We might consider how psychoanalysis’s
supposed failures (failures to produce stable meaning, to procure cure,
to exorcize the past, to segregate health from illness, and so forth) are
precisely all the places that render psychoanalysis not only interesting
but ethically vital to political consideration. Thus, instead of either pos-
ing objectivity or impersonality as a response to political and psychical
appropriation, we might  think about undecidability and contamination
as ethical principles.
I am much more intrigued by the murky spaces between the
poles of fetish and fact. How do we read when we encounter those moments
of contamination when reification and recognition fuse, when conditions
of subjecthood and objecthood merge, when the fetishist savors his or her
own vertiginous intimacy with the dreamed object and vice versa?
Over the years, the literature and art that engage with issues
of racial grief and injury to which I find myself repeatedly returning are
those that have refrained from the reassurance of redemption and have
chosen instead to remain in the uneasy domain of contagion where con-
ditions of objecthood merge into the possibilities of subjectivity, where
experiences of profound invasion yield acute moments of self-making. In
William Faulkner’s Light in August, a young Joe Christmas comes to his
racial and sexual identities at the very moment when he orally ingests an
object of the other in the famous toothpaste scene, when he vomits the
“object” that is also himself. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the invisible
man finds “heart sickness” in Harlem as well as in the white man’s world.
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, the figure of discrimi-
nation is also often the figure of abuse. In Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter
Johnnie, the African American daughter who is the incest victim is also
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the subject of disturbing desire, highlighting how agency and consent

have become, for the African American family romance in the aftermath
of slavery, not solutions against power but the symptoms of its fantasy. In
Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, the most humanizing gestures of recogni-
tion, such as granting another person life, morph easily into acts of betrayal
and objectification. In the art of Kara Walker, we are asked to confront
the impossibility of segregating stereotype from parody and past forms
from present realities. (And what do we do with the sheer beauty of her
art forms given the horrors that they contain? In response to a question
posed to him after a talk he gave at the Whitney, Greg Tate noted, “We may
complain that Walker keeps taking us to an unbearable past, but she’s the
one who has chosen to live at that address.”)
These works confront the extreme and the quotidian manifesta-
tions of human horror, yet they all refrain from offering the reassurance of
change or cathartic resolution in the face of these symptoms. (Even at the
most simplistic level of plot, all the novels cited end ambiguously, and cer-
tainly Walker’s art is open-ended, offering more questions than answers.)
This reticence seems to me more than an aesthetic choice and registers
a crucial ethical decision: a decision to remain in the gift of discomfort.
I say “gift” because our contemporary culture is all about dispelling or
denying discomfort, and political comfort means the reassurance of piety
and solution. These works refuse to redeem the continued existence of rac-
ism and other forms of violent discrimination. They give us not the fact of
discrimination, but its unruly etiology and the education of desire that it
has instilled in both the dominant and minority subject. It is in those very
moments when the boundaries of the subject and object of power are most
jeopardized and most undetermined that we can truly begin to ask ethical
questions. The ethical relation we must imagine is one that accounts for,
rather than negates, this predicament.
How do we track or articulate the affective and imaginary
attachments generated by pleasures and pains that live beyond the well-
defined borders of self-serving fantasy or its dutiful correction? This is
where psychoanalysis has provided the most powerful language with
which to explore the contaminated zone of subjection and identification.
Rather than thinking about what identity can or cannot do, what
if we were to ask questions along different lines: How does understanding
the potentially intimate, identificatory relationship between subjecthood
and objecthood translate into insights about racial discrimination and
denigration? In what ways do fantasies of objecthood contribute to fantasies
94 Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

of subjectivity? By “objecthood,” I am referring to object both as materi-

ality (such as physical matter and the material body) and as a structural
position in a psychical grammar (that is, object as one side of the subject/
object dyad and understood as “the thing in regard to which and through
which the instinct is able to achieve its aim” [Freud, Instincts 122]). As
Laplanche and Pontalis point out in The Language of Psychoanalysis, the
psychoanalytic object is not to be confused with a material object:

“Object” is understood here in a sense comparable to the one it

has in the literary or archaic “the object of my passion, of my
hatred, etc.” It does not imply, as it does ordinarily, the idea of
a “thing,” of an inanimate and manipulable object as opposed
to an animate being or person. (273)

The problem is that when we come to certain kinds of social subjects (raced
and gendered subjects, for instance), that separation between person and
thing is precisely what has been thrown into jeopardy. That is, it is the
fraught relay between persons seen as vehicles for certain drives and sat-
isfaction and persons seen as “inanimate and manipulable” objects that
presses us to really reconsider what I would call the politics of objecthood
that has so long been glossed by the politics of identity and subjecthood.
What is the relationship between these two levels of objecthood?
One apparent connection in the context of discrimination must be how the
physical objectification of another (making the other into an object in the
sense of material deprivation) facilitates and naturalizes the structural
positioning of that other as the object/recipient of one’s own desires or fears.
In short, the objectification of another human subject renders that subject
a supposedly natural object, subject to property regulation and other forms
of subjection. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman suggests that this
insight is in fact built into the property laws of slavery. She maps the peculiar
form of self-extension on the part of the slave master as an “extensive capac-
ity of property—that is, the augmentation of the master subject through his
embodiment in external objects and persons” (21). Under what conditions,
then, can we speak of the enslaved’s subjectivity and his/her own relation-
ship to objectness? More importantly, what are the means through which
self-extension (or agency) may be imagined for such individuals?
This problem of mediating the meanings of objecthood or
objectness haunts the history of psychoanalysis itself, where the relation-
ship between subjecthood and objecthood has always been ambivalent—
ironic, since psychoanalysis continues to provide one of the most sustained
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bodies of work that meditates precisely on this supposed difference. Part

of the difficulty of “politicizing” psychoanalytic thinking can in fact be
traced to the ambiguous status of the so-called object, especially when
that object refers to a person. When Freud, Winnecott, or Klein refer to
an object, they are more often than not referring to a structural position
occupied (be it by persons, ideas, or matter) in a psychical pattern of
desires (that is, the object of a drive or affection). Consequently, as I have
noted elsewhere, Freud is notoriously uninterested in the “realness” or
potential subjectivity of the object. 2 To be the object is, by definition, to
have already relinquished certain subjective properties and to have been
entered into the subjective, phantasmatic landscape of another’s imagi-
nary. Part of the task of bringing psychoanalysis into conversation with
sociopolitical history lies in expanding and nuancing the very notion of
the object. If psychical dynamics of identification always involve an object,
then what does this mean for those persons who have been historically
made into objects? What would be their psychical mechanisms for enabling
identification, ego formation, and subjecthood?
The challenge of talking about fantasies of objecthood for raced
subjects rests in how to reconcile such psychical dynamics with the mate-
rial and historic realities of discrimination. If a discriminated individual
has been socially, legally, and materially made objectlike and inhuman
(as in slavery), then it seems highly troubling to be speaking about that
individual’s affinity for objecthood. One runs the risk of naturalizing social
objectification on the part of the victim. Rather than shying away from this
threat, however, I would like to suggest that it is in fact quite important
for us to confront the intimate relationship between the materiality and
the disembodiment of objecthood on the part of the historically objected
person. It is my supposition that this gap and yet facile elision between
the concreteness and the ghostliness of “being an object” can render most
visibly the difficulties of politicizing identification but also most urgently
call for the rethinking of the twin notions of recognition (on the part of
the privileged) and agency (on the part of the disenfranchised) thought
to be fundamental for political action.
It might be argued that one of the central concerns and chal-
lenges to cultural studies has been, broadly speaking, the question of how
to forge an ethical (that is, nonappropriative and not self-serving) relation
to the other. Critics from different disciplines have taken up the question
of how to formulate an ethical recognition or ethical identification. Think
of Jessica Benjamin’s clinical notion of intersubjectivity, which attempts
96 Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

to replace the subject-object relation with a subject-subject relation as the

paradigm for patient-analyst dynamics; Drucilla Cornell’s reworking of
“mimesis” as a nonviolent ethical relation to the other; Kaja Silverman’s
vision of “heteropathic identification” in The Threshold of the Visible
World; and most recently, Leo Bersani’s notion of “impersonal intimacy.”
While all these meditations are deeply engaging and some are politically
reassuring, they all nonetheless finally return to some notion of subjective
will or intention. (Bersani’s work is an exception to this description; for
Bersani, the forging of this kind of ethical relation relies less on intention
than on chance, perhaps even a lucky, secular form of grace.) Generally
speaking, however, much of the ethics of democratic recognition roots
itself in some form of a subject-based assumption: that is, based on the
ideal that “I” recognize “you” as a separate, individual, and equal subject
and vice versa.
But is this possible? As anyone familiar with the notion of identi-
fication knows, the very idea of an ethical identification—an identification
that is neither imperial nor incorporative—is a contradiction in terms.
Identification is an ethical crisis. As many of us know, while identification
secures the imagined integrity for identity’s certitude, it is not identical
to identity. Identification is a process of psychical cannibalism, which is
to say, it is a process that fundamentally confuses object with subject. As
such, it is easy to see why it is politically untenable. Yet is it also political
suicide in the long run not to acknowledge subjectivity’s indebtedness to
identification’s destabilizing processes? To speak of an ethics of identifica-
tion is to acknowledge the jeopardy of ethics. Psychoanalytic insights into
the process of identification, from Freud to Lacan, tell us that the “sub-
ject” is always already such an effect and that the alienating identification
with something outside conditions what is inside, what is “self.” There is
no self without that simulation and subsequent alienation. If we were to
acknowledge the racialized subject as truly a subject, then we must also
be willing to acknowledge those inevitable moments when the exception-
alism of subjectivity fails. 3
Identification, in fact, delineates a highly unstable and con-
taminated psychical zone. As the mechanism that subtends the possibility
and the limit of any given identity and as the subjective corollary (indeed,
the vehicle) for interpersonal negotiation, identification proves pivotal to
discussions of racial identity and dynamics, because it refers to the elabo-
rate, mediating process that relates self to other, subject to object, inside
to outside. This passage between self and other, where the self consumes
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and is consumed by the other, is weighted by longing, anxiety, and con-

tradictions. It is neither necessarily conscious nor controllable. It is filled
with confusions about the boundary between self and other. And the status
of that other is also quite ambiguous, floating between realness and the
imaginary. In this light, the fraught intersubjective dynamic at the heart
of the human identificatory experience may constitute one of the most
difficult aspects of political negotiation.
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison offers a precise articulation
of the failure of love as a form of ethical recognition, a failure that high-
lights the psychical contamination of racial and gender identifications
and that in turn provides a stringent critique of progress, what Morrison
calls “change without improvement” (23). At the conclusion of the novel,
the narrator Claudia meditates on the nature of communal love:

We were so beautiful when we astride her [Pecola’s] ugliness [. . .].

Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we
used—to silent our own nightmares [.  .  .]. We honed our egos
on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned
in the fantasy of our strength [. . .]. Oh, some of us “loved” her.

Here, exclusion and inclusion speak through one another, a dramatization

of identification, with all its refusals and susceptibilities. It is the inelucta-
ble complicity between love and consumption, between the commonplace
and the pernicious, between normality and malady, between good will
and criminality that these texts (and psychoanalytic identification) insist
that we confront. It is in this light that we begin to perceive the necessary
failure of love. The point is rarely whether someone is seeing someone
else for who they “really” are, but to understand that fetishization may be
the form of seeing through the eyes of love.
The lasting legacies of discrimination have less to do with a
repressed authentic self than the very crisis of subjecthood that such dis-
crimination effects in the first place. Love engenders rather than redeems
the ethical crisis of intersubjective relations. This is what Morrison means
when she claims in the same text that “[t]here is no gift for the beloved.
The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutral-
ized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye” (204). We often fail to
acknowledge how the fetish as a form of perceptual logic may be crucial to
any experience of recognition and affection. I do not mean to suggest that
if we generalize the notion of the fetish, we can depathologize it. Instead,
98 Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

I am interested in applying critical pressure on the notion of objectifica-

tion and its intimate relationship to pleasure and subjectivity. The act of
objectification affords pleasurable mastery over not only the object but
also the subject itself. Self-mastery and pleasure in the other may be more
inextricably bound than is normally comfortable to acknowledge. Love
emerges at the point where the fetish economy fully asserts itself, at the
point where the consumer creates the compensatory object of consump-
tion designed to camouflage his or her identification with that imaginary
object in the first place. Our “best intentions” are compromised and com-
promising. Intentionality can be as blind as it is directive, and affection
can enslave in the name of freedom.
This is a bitter pill to swallow: that our ontological survival
depends on the cannibalism of the other, that such colonization forms the
basis of our profound narcissism, which in turn enables the consolidation
of our identities and subjectivity. All the loves that we have inside of us
rebel against such a pronouncement. Yet confronting this resistance must
surely be one of the most important challenges of intersubjective rela-
tions. And even if this insight seems crippling, at least at the outset, it may
in the long run enable a more sustained exploration of the conditions of
subjugation and the crisis of consent that it affects. The analytic of power,
like power itself, must be continuous. It is not a one-time or single-sited
problem to be solved and moved on from. Sometimes it is enough and
downright crucial just to acknowledge what is in order to understand what
will be. In short, we may have to risk the aporia of political uncertainty in
order to reinvent the possibilities of the social.
So what does History look like if it can neither remember well
enough nor move on? Let me conclude not with an answer but with a
vision. I am thinking of that gorgeous, mysterious passage from Faulkner’s
Light in August, where he meditates on the nature of history, trauma, and
communal remembrance immediately following Joe Christmas’s violent
execution by Grimm:

[. . .] from out the slashed garments about [Christmas’s] hips and
loins the pent black Blood seemed to rush like a released breath.
It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks
from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to
rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not
to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid
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and reassuring streams of age, in the mirroring faces of what-

ever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer
hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and
not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself
alone triumphant. Again from the town, deadened a little by the
walls, the scream of the siren mounted toward its unbelievable
crescendo, passing out of the realm of hearing. (440)

This passage poses something of an interpretive predicament. How can

that which soars into memory be not particularly threatful? How can
something be both memorable and negligible? What does it mean to be
triumphant but alone? How can that which is insistent (“They are not to
lose it”) also be indolent (“musing, quiet”)? Do we understand this outcome
to be one of eruption or dissipation, memorialization or forgetfulness,
apotheosis or entombment? If Christmas offers a symptom of southern
racism, what happens after the symptom is erased (if it can be erased)?
In the face of the trauma engendered by the violence of Joe
Christmas’s death, Faulkner gives us neither justice nor indifference,
the impact of that violent act for the community neither repressed nor
articulated. Yet it is precisely in this indeterminacy—this reticence from
epistemological certitude—that I would argue Faulkner most effectively
disables the readers from having an instrumental or consumptive relation
to the trauma that they have just read. Indeed, what would it mean, given
the real history of lynching that both preceeded and followed Faulkner’s
tale, to assert the redemptive value of bearing witness? The lyricism of
the passage, instead of allowing a flight into aesthetic relief or mitigat-
ing the horrors being narrated, shows us how the aesthetic experience is
itself inherently ethical: that the aesthetic experience places us precisely
in question with regard to our relations to trauma and guilt.
To remain open, then, to this aesthetic-ethical call seems to
me the challenge to political readers. If an objective, nonincorporative,
or impersonal relation to the other is in fact not possible, then may we not
counter a hermeneutics of suspicion with precisely an ethics of immersion?
That is, might we replace a hermeneutics of suspicion with a hermeneutics
of susceptibility? Can we put ourselves in a state of hermeneutic uncer-
tainty that might in turn place us in a position to listen and be susceptible
to that which “pass[es] out of the realm of hearing”?
100 Psychoanalysis without Symptoms

My gratitude to Emily Apter, Elaine Freegood, and Sharon Marcus for their insights and for
bringing my thinking to this question of symptomatic reading through their conference “The
Way We Read Now: Symptomatic Reading and Its Aftermath” held at Columbia University
and New York University, May 1 and 2, 2008.

anne anlin cheng is Professor of English and at the Center for African American Stud-
ies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis,
Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Oxford University Press, 2001). She is currently working on
a study of Josephine Baker as a fulcrum through which to explore the relationship between
the modern ideal of the “denuded” surface and the staging of racialized skin at the turn of
the twentieth century.

Notes 1 This may be perhaps why these jouisssance of melancholia, hence

fields of inquiry, thriving more on sabotaging the ego-constituting
self-reflective modes of analysis mechanism that is melancholia
than on disciplinary confinement, (7–10).
actually work better as programs
than departments. Some of the 3 By the exceptionalism of subjec-
most productive programs across tivity, I mean to highlight how
the country, such as the Pembroke received concepts of individual-
Center at Brown University, pre- ism, such as American excep-
sent wonderful models for how tionalism, for instance, implicitly
to organize a program around presume and privilege an ideal
an identificatory rubric in such a of a subject who is integrated,
way as to be always problematiz- authentic, or whole. The premium
ing that category. we place on subjectivity as an
antidote against discrimination
2 I argued in The Melancholy of and other forms of social objec-
Race that Freud’s mapping of the tification is understandable, but
“lost object” in melancholia is as I am trying to suggest here,
a peculiarly murderous one, in subjectivity seems to get invoked
which the supposedly longed-for precisely at those moments when
return of the lost object would its very condition for being is
in fact seriously jeopardize the most at risk.

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