Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism

by Ranjana Khanna
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2003
328 pp. Trade: $64.95; paper, $21.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3055-5; ISBN: 0-8223-3067-9.

Reviewed by Coral Houtman


This well-written, intelligent and thoughtful book is a symptomatic study of psychoanalysis and its relationship to colonialism and post-colonialism. Ranjana Khanna argues that psychoanalysis together with its sister discourses, ethnology and archaeology, sprang from the same episteme as colonialism and was contaminated with the same racism and ethnocentricity. The subject of psychoanalysis, Khanna argues, is the "Western Man" ——women and black men are the "Dark Continent" of the unknowable and the invisible. Yet psychoanalysis has been adopted as a tool for the colonised as well as the coloniser. How has psychoanalysis spoken and failed to speak for the colonised and post-colonial subject? Khanna looks at the discourses of psychoanalysis and post-colonialism and reads them against the grain in order to find a theory of the subject that does not occlude the psychic, the particular, or the material historical facts of oppression. Finally, she arrives at a trans-national feminist ethics as a tool in the continuing fight for freedom and justice in the 21st Century.

Khanna’s major thesis and the continuing trope for the book is that colonization, whether black, female, or created through exile, is constituted by melancholia although this is differently figured in different situations and in different cultures. Melancholia is the failure properly to introject lost love objects and to internalise values so that they contribute to the formation of the ego structure, particularly the super-ego. Khanna argues that the colonized subject is unable to mourn the loss of their culture or tribe as these are made unknown and invisible to them by Western hegemony. The loss of cultural memory or inability to find signifiers for themselves other than in Otherness to the White Man causes the colonized to incorporate their objects——to swallow them whole. This situation results in several symptoms: critical agency, the failure to introject leads to splitting within the ego, self-beratement and criticism of the lost object; demetaphorization, where objects prevail whole and language is used iconically and concretely; and haunting, where the object haunts the subject in a hallucination or as a trace. Khanna traces the manifestations of melancholia first through Freud’s own writings, showing that his exile and his relationship to Germany as a Jew gave his second topography the critical agency that deconstructed the Western subject and that could be subsequently used by the colonial subject to critique colonialism. She, then, looks at World War II as the moment when the self "was to be conceived ontologically so as to allow for action". She explores the existential psychoanalysis of Jean-Paul Sartre and how this approach was parochialized so that it could be adopted in struggles for independence in the colonies. Looking at the writing of Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and especially Aimé Cesaire, Khanna discerns the growth of a discourse around the nature of collective unconscious, history, and memory and the articulation of colonial repression as a force of liberation. Thus, melancholia enables resistance and the symptoms become the cure. Nevertheless, in the work of Octave Mannoni, Fanon, and Albert Memmi, melancholia still haunts the post-colonial subject, and history, memory and trauma are shown not to be eliminated by state nationalism alone. Khanna’s reading calls for a psychoanalysis embracing both ethics and politics.

Simone de Beauvoir supplies Khanna with the ethics and politics the author needs, and Khanna resituates feminism within a post-modern Derridean framework to argue for a coalition politics that realises Justice and Politics are the impossible limits that enable us to think of both. The way to emerge from the quagmire of identity politics and the hostile projections and binaries this produces is through coalition and through an understanding that the Other is Oneself, and an empathy that takes account of specific struggles and inequalities within the realm of Justice, Politics, and Freedom as necessary and absolute fantasies.

Psychoanalysis and literary criticism are both hermeneutic disciplines through which it is possible to encounter the trace and the effect of melancholia. Khanna finishes her challenging argument with post-colonial readings of Hamlet (particularly Black Hamlet by Wulf Sachs) that illuminate both the original and its traces. If I have any criticism of this masterful book, it is that Khanna does not analyse enough literature or psychoanalysis by black women, as their hauntings would surely be pertinent to her argument and would create a critical agency towards the hegemony of the European/American Man and White Woman of theory. Nevertheless, this book is persuasive, impressive, and engaging and is a must for anyone interested in psychoanalysis or post-colonialism.




Updated 1st October 2004

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2004 ISAST