Refugees and the Racism Crisis

Following on from the previous article, which analysed the content of a specific meme attacking refugees, this one – written concurrently – attempts to further dissect what motivates such memes’ racism, through recourse to specific psychoanalytic concepts in the Lacanian mode.

‘Since I must not all the same allow you to look at the future through rose coloured glasses’ – Lacan prophesied in 1972 – ‘you should know that what is arising, what one has not yet seen to its final consequences, and which for its part is rooted in the body, in the fraternity of the body, is racism, about which you have yet to hear the last word. Voila!’ Here, the body – a locus of ‘enjoyment’ – is made out to be involved with a rise in racism, and this article will try to argue why this is the case for Lacan.

This was something of an enigmatic ending to his nineteenth seminar, pessimistically entitled …ou pire – that is, …or worse (whilst ‘ou père’can also be heard in the French) – but one through which much can be explored in today’s global climate and in relation to attitudes taken to the crisis in Syria that has caused so many of its inhabitants to seek refuge outside of its borders. It is through this psychoanalytic lens that we might begin to unpack these questions, and through yoking it with other important remarks.

In keeping with Lacan’s mention of the body in this respect, Paul Gilroy – writing in the 2002 introduction to his classic study There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack – talks of ‘those sensitive spots where the body of Britain’s post-colonial polity was poorly sutured’. He lists certain ways in which such acne-filled or gangrenous spots have come about; that is, through simulacral cultural phenomena of that now-antiquated moment in time like ‘the terrace chant of ‘two world wars and one World Cup’’, which ‘sounds increasingly bizarre [as] the memory of World War II has been stretched so thin that it cannot possibly accomplish all the important cultural work it is increasingly relied upon to do.’ The sparseness of this cultural memory – which has been spread thinly, sensationalistically, and all too triumphally over ‘a long loop via Hollywood’ – has led a generation ‘to use a cheaply-manufactured surrogate memory of it as the favoured means to find and restore [an] ebbing sense of what it is to be English.’ This Gilroy calls ‘devolution and disintegration’, phenomena which have ‘intensified a nagging uncertainty as to the cultural content of national identity’, and yet one which makes the old guard feel that ‘the newly-devolved are evidently having a better time’…

racism and refugeesEnjoyment is seen clearly here as a political factor, as Slavoj Žižek might say; specifically, the enjoyment of the Other, or of everybody else: of every other body. This version of enjoyment – what Lacan called ‘jouissance’ – is inscribed in or on the body, fraternally shared through recognisability in body language. If these remarks may be beginning to seem digressive, let’s bring them in relation to a meme about the ‘migration’ crisis – as its being called – that’s been doing the rounds amongst racists on social media: two juxtaposed photographs, one apparently depicting a pair of refugees sat at an outside table adorned with teapots, both black, and smiling; the second a dishevelled white man laying against a wall with a dog, apparently homeless. The caption on the first reads: ‘“Coming to England is like being reborn…” Muhammad’; the second: ‘British ex Servicemen should be housed BEFORE asylum seekers. SHARE if you AGREE!’ (Although the racism of this meme is glaringly obvious – reinforced by the lack of any identification, authentication, contextualisation, etc. of these images – we’ll here discuss how it renders the effect its popularity in certain circles suggests it is having, and leave the debunking of its bullshit in the capable hands of Vice.)

The contrast of these pictures shows those men in the former as clearly having a better time than the other man in the latter. The claim of the contrast is that the latter’s enjoyment – like the mythical jobs of the nationalist imagination – is being stolen by the supposed ‘immigrants’ of the former picture. This is a well-trodden trope of racism; in terms of the perennial theme of employment, for example – a theme which nonetheless always seems a brand new and current epidemic to the racist imagination – fears of said thievery crop up as early as in the American slave Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his life of 1845:

‘All at once, the white carpenters took off, and said they would not work with free colored workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment.’

Enoch Powell’s ruminations on which race is entitled to the right to hold ‘the whip hand’ over others is a mere extension of the purely prejudicial ill-reasoning of the carpenters. In terms of enjoyment, to give one earlier race-based example, blues parties in the homes of Caribbean immigrants to Britain in the 1960s provided a cause of a confused jealousy over an enjoyment that white neighbours had no part in and thus conspiratorially felt was being had at their expense.

The confusional logic of this kind of thinking is relayed succinctly by the psychoanalyst Richard Klein, in relation to the superego, when he states that ‘the superego command gives the subject a right-to-enjoy which is then prohibited by calling for his punishment. The more it commands, the more intense the prohibition, and the more virtuous the subject becomes.’ When one’s enjoyment is both constituted and interdicted by the superego (that psychical realm that sadistically lays down unachievably strict rules of conduct), its puritanical ‘virtue’ becomes not only directed against the self, but can turn into a power to be punitively wielded against others, in a direct contradiction of the mantra of ‘live and let live’. The subject comes to believe that others still possess this uninhibited right-to-enjoy and becomes both envious of them and determined to close it down in them. As Klein says: ‘the morality of power makes desire disappear in favour of the service of goods. Power enjoys itself and gives itself a morality.’

With desire quashed, enjoyment transfers over into power and its resultant ‘morality’ then ‘polices’ those that figure in the odds and ends of events and current affairs that it comes across with a guilty-until-proven-innocent suspicion of others that do desire (in this example, desire escape from life-threatening situations – a strange thing for a redirected envy to be aimed at!). What the superego denies to itself – enjoyment – it sees invading whenever there’s movement out of the ordinary in its peripheral vision. The prohibitive subject then attempts to universalise their subjectivity by making nationality the identifier of their superegoic injunction to exclusivity: this leads to such tautologies as being British being the supreme British virtue (a virtue which is then seen as under threat). The question is: could international solidarity instead of nationalist exclusivity be universalised, or hegemonised, here? Corbyn’s first act as Labour leader suggests that there’s at least a hope it can.

If this in part is what has been unconsciously underlying populist and right-wing Daily Mail– and Express-led reaction (to which David Cameron may claim to be responding, whilst he and the UKIP contingent have been fostering it), it may thus represent a racism that does not yet know itself (though it is no less excusable for that): thus, after the out-and-out racists, secondary flanks of people who would never dream of using the word ‘N-word’, for example, are here readily using others just as pejoratively loaded, and drawing from a surrogate and simulacral storehouse of myth and nonsense to underwrite their opinions (one stocked knowingly and connivingly by the all-out racists).

As Gilroy warned in the aforementioned essay: ‘there can be no guarantees against the brutal effects of resurgent Islamophobia’. Prescient words in 2002; may we just hope that those two terrifying words of Lacan’s statement in 1972 – ‘final consequences’ – might be checked by the required efforts of anti-racism.

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