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Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism.

Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helen Moglen, eds. Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 373 pp. $48.00 cloth/$17.95 paper.

Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism marks the first time that black and white feminists have come together to explore the viability of psychoanalysis as an interpretive strategy to examine subjectivity in African American women's texts. The scope of this collection of essays--some new, but most reprinted--includes: questioning the politics of reading across racial boundaries; reconceptualizing psychoanalytic discourse to analyze female subjectivity inclusive of race, class, and sexuality; and formulating and investigating African-inspired African American spirituality as a legitimate means of academic inquiry. Regrettably, the title belies the rigorous interrogation of the conceptual boundaries of race, psychoanalysis, and feminism undertaken in this provocative anthology.

The four sections in this collection of sixteen essays confront the most pressing issues challenging contemporary feminists who explore the terrain of subjectivity. The essays in the first section, "Crossdressing, Crossreading, or Complementary Theorizing," best reflect the collaborative spirit promoted by the editors. Ann duCille's essay, for instance, elucidates the numerous ways that black women have become the "fetishized object of contemporary critical inquiry" and are forced into a state of "hyperstatic alterity." Two essays respond specifically to these charges. Margaret Homans grounds her study of the necessary interdependence of figurative and material racial configurations in black feminist thought, while Elizabeth Abel begins her discussion of Toni Morrison's short story "Recitatif" with a frank discussion of cross-racial anxieties and fantasies, and proceeds to question white feminists' (including her own and Homans's) investment in black women's literature. As a result, their work implicitly mak es room for Tania Modleski's thorough investigation of the merits and inherent dilemmas of Anna Deavere Smith's quest for a "diasporic consciousness." While this level of dialogue is not maintained, the authors' intellectual engagement with each other is sustained through the entire work, thereby making all the essays more accessible, particularly to those readers who are not well-versed in psychoanalytic discourse.

The next two sections revise the psychoanalytic perspectives of Freud, Lacan, and object relations theory in order to addresses the long-standing criticism of psychoanalytic theory's requirement of the transhistoric subject. Luckily, the critics in "Representing the Unrepresentable: The Symbolic and The Real" do not simply use historical specificity to satisfy complaints. In fact, they vary greatly in assessing the function of the historical. Laura Wexler, for example, disrupts the Freudian image of the sentimental family by examining the literal photograph of a black nursemaid and white child. She finds that "the historical, photographic, and psychoanalytic task" is one of reifying the visual, social, and psychological signs of the unequal power relations between black and white subjects, as well as the black subject's resistance to them. In contrast, Hortense Spillers argues that there are avenues in psychoanalysis which make psychic liberation imaginable for the African American collective. Unlike Wexler, she calls for the politically charged work of reconceptualizing a psychoanalytic cultural criticism specific to African Americans.

The essays in "Race, Psychoanalysis, and Female Desire" supplement the revisions by examining the construction of subjectivity with a focus on the ways in which race, class, and sexuality inform and rework the female psychoanalytic subject. The authors here all expose the assumptions of whiteness as normative for the subject, but their discussions of the representation of black female sexuality diverge, considering the complexity of that subjectivity: how the taboos of miscegenation and homosexuality work together to make possible the racially pure, heterosexual subject, and how patriarchy requires the sexual submission of male and female slaves. Both sections offer insights into the psychological effects of the social, sexual, economic, and political conflicts affecting black female subjectivity which outweigh the limitations of psychoanalytic discourses to express them.

The final section, "Healing Narratives," considers spirituality as a means to interpret the unconscious. This section begins with an historical analysis tracing the subordination of the spiritual to the psychological in late-nineteenth century psychological thought. Cynthia D. Schrager's exploration of the works of William James and his influence on the thinking of W. E. B. Du Bois and Pauline Hopkins adds credibility to an alternative methodology recently gaining recognition in academic circles--the recent number of conferences on spirituality serving as evidence. And while the essays here contemplate such undervalued ideas as the transmission of ancestral energies, and the healing potential of "fixing ceremonies," their inclusion in this anthology is not a vaguely idealized gesture to silence critics. The theoretical potential of the spiritual is subjected to the same intellectual scrutiny by the editors as are the essays in the rest of the text.

This book will interest practitioners of several schools of psychoanalytic theory and will best serve those who are working to resolve their traditional shortcomings. Those who are skeptical but still receptive to the probity of psychoanalysis will also be interested in these thought-provoking essays, since they do not try to deny incompatibilities or force any reconciliations. However, there is an inverse relationship between historical specificity and psychoanalytic terminology which, had it been explained, would have fortified the editors' intentions. Therefore, hard and fast materialists will likely remain unconvinced of the merits of analyzing black female subjectivity in this way. Nevertheless, the depth and range of this valuable collection demonstrates that feminist, Marxist, and formalist schools of literary and cultural criticism are indebted, to some extent, to psychoanalytic theories of the ways in which the human subject conceives of, and experiences, the unconscious, the body, and the world through language.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jones, Joni
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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