May 22, 2024

Panoptical Time and Colonial Framing (Roger Green)

Anne McClintock’s prescient study, Imperial Leather (1995), concluded: 

Within the United States, with the vanishing of international communism as a rationale for militarism, new enemies will be found: the drug war, international terrorism, Japan, feminists, the PC hordes and tenured radicals, undocumented workers, lesbians and gays, and any number of international ethnic targets. (395) 

While we might swap out China for Japan, McClintock was onto something.  She goes on to point out the “urgency in the need for innovative theories of history and popular memory, particularly mass-media memory.”   

Part of what makes McClintock’s work successful still today is her ability to draw on the intersectionalities present between gender, race and class to confront ongoing imperialism rather than relegating it to “a disagreeable fact of history external to Western identity” (5).  McClintock thus foreshadows more recent theories of race such as Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus by pointing out that “imperialism and the invention of race were fundamental aspects of Western, industrial modernity.”   

More subtle, however, is McClintock’s argument that  

the disciplinary quarantine of psychoanalysis from history was germane to imperial modernity itself.  Instead of genuflecting to this separation and opting theoretically for one side or the other, I call for a renewed and transformative investigation into the disavowed relations between psychoanalysis and socio-economic history. (8) 

Tracing the modern myth of “virgin” or “empty” lands, McClintock points to the “anachronistic space” European colonizers used to justify first their occupation of territories and later the commodity racism characteristic of Victorian advertising.  Drawing on Foucault, McClintock describes what she calls “panoptical time”: “the image of global history consumed – at a glance – in a single spectacle from a point of privileged invisibility” (37).   

Historical time, as opposed to the “anachronistic time of indigeneity,” was, according to McClintock figured through the metaphor of the family: “Projecting the family image onto national and imperial progress enabled what was often murderously violent change to be legitimized as the progressive unfolding of natural decree” (45).  The European social imaginary compiled through the 19th century scientific thought of figures such as Ernst Haeckel and Charles Darwin. 

McClintock traces the “domestic barbarism” of concepts such as “white negroes” as Irish folks and female domestic workers were increasingly racialized in English popular culture.  Such features have been a staple of children’s literature from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the working-class Weasley family in Harry Potter, though the ape-like features of the “Celtic Calibans” have been dropped and replaced by the very image of the poor-but-happy working-class family in Rowling’s books.  Children’s literature, as the featured image of this post from John Comenius’s popular Orbis Sensualism Pictus (1658) attests, were helpful in producing panoptical time.

As McClintock writes, “Abject peoples are those whom industrial imperialism rejects but cannot do without: slaves, prostitutes, the colonized domestic workers. The insane, the unemployed, and so on” (72).  This leads McClintock to recognize the necessity of “situated psychoanalysis” as a counterpart to material history for “strategic engagement with unstable power” (73).   

The engagement with psychoanalysis leads McClintock to note the intimacy between imperial power and Christianity, particularly in the performance of pornographic voyeurism (129) and Sado-masochism: 

The economy of Christianity is the economy of conversion: the low exalted, the high made low. Like Christianity, S/M performs the paradox of redemptive suffering and like Christianity, it takes shape around the masochistic logic of transcendence through the mortification of the flesh.  Through self-abasement, the spirit finds release in an ecstasy of abandonment.  S/M shares with Christianity a theatrical iconography of punishment and expiation: washing rituals, bondage, flagellation, body-piercing and symbolic torture.  In both S/M and Christianity, earthly desire exacts strict payment in an economy of penance and pleasure. (158) 

Tying this to race, McClintock notes that “Colonized peoples were figured as sexual deviants, while gender deviants were figured as racial deviants. “Fetish worshippers” in the colonies and sexual fetishists in the imperial metropoles were seen as the visible, living evidence of evolutionary degeneration” (182).  Thus, McClintock argues that female fetishism “dislodges the centrality of the phallus,” which she sees as characteristic of the “Lacanian economy of the one.”

While Lacanians might argue against McClintock’s gendered reading of Lacan’s conception of the phallus,  McClintock’s point is that the historical materiality of fetishes and feitço reveal an “excess of female agency” as opposed to the Freudian/Lacanian conceptions of lack. 

I am just as skeptical of claims that Mormon women’s book clubs that read the S/M light book, Fifty Shades of Grey, are “liberating” as I am of the translations of the colonial-Freudian narrative of Where the Wild Things Are into Mayan so as to “protect” Spanish-Mayan speakers against the intergenerational linguistic divides that threaten indigenous languages.  Nevertheless, I am compelled by McClintock’s situated psychoanalytic reading with respect to Christianity.   

For McClintock, fetishism eventually comes to be the performative site of “panoptic” or “anachronistic” that created new liminalities as “a formative element of the Enlightenment project” (188).  She thus reads the Freudian-Lacanian method as both an imperial superimposition of the family as well as a “secularized” superimposition of Judeo-Christianity: 

The paternal imago reinvented by Lacan bears the anachronistic mark of a monotheistic, familial patriarchy.  In many respects, Lacan’s narrative rehearses a secular and tragic Fall, the Law of the Father booming forth the command of the primordial exile from Eden (but this time withholding redemption).  His trinitarian imagination – the impossible Real (like God), the Fall from the Imaginary through the Oedipal drama, the earthly travail of the Symbolic, together with his quasi-theological fixation on a trinitarian family – offers a tragic replica of the Judeo-Christian narrative. (198) 

Again, “orthodox” Lacanians may very well disagree with some of McClintock’s gendered readings, but my broader point here is to emphasize the innovation that McClintock brings to her analysis by insisting on a combined reading of material history and psychoanalysis, an analysis which, despite its critique of Freud and Lacan, does not seek to delegitimize psychoanalysis in total. 

I think of McClintock’s reading within my own family, when one of my sisters, who is a liberal (Lutheran) Christian tells me she recently asked my younger brother, who is a (more conservative?) Baptist, whether or not his church was taking active approaches to counteract the Trump administration’s decision to separate families at U.S. borders.  In conventional U.S. politics, the “focus on the family” that has traditionally been a mainstay of the so-called Christian right in this instance becomes a way for more liberal Christians to note the “break” between the Trump administration and so-called “Christian values.” 

A reading of McClintock illustrates that such claims by liberal Christians are themselves deeply conservative and entrenched in the “murderously violent” attitudes of the Enlightenment and the panoptical superimposing of the metaphorical figure of the family as “naturally progressive” history. In other words, in the melding of the metaphorical figure of the family and the equally “constructed” linear view of history we see the development of a mythological, ordering construction.   

Similarly, I have tended to read the results of the previous U.S. election not so much as the “triumph” of conservatism but as the unconscious “will” of “liberal progressives,” who are not as far from conservatives as they might think.  In “allowing” someone who broke all of the rules of the “politics of respectability” into office – both by refusing to vote in the wake of the DNC bullying Sanders out of the primary as well as in refusing to change voting laws since Gore accumulated more of the popular vote than Bush, thus indicating the desire for a representative “decider” instead of the popular majority – the liberals gave themselves a scapegoat for which they could regularly deride while feeling good about themselves, a kind of ressentiment that allows for a repetition of colonial power instead of a difference.  My point is not to censure liberals so much as it is to see both traditional liberals and conservatives as part of a larger and older colonizing ethos.   

In taking Anne McClintock’s call for new forms of historical analysis to heart, indigenous scholars such as Jodi Byrd have given especially helpful insights.  Byrd’s The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism takes a more actively critical approach of postcolonial scholarship than McClintock.  Byrd takes postcolonial scholars to task for largely ignoring the fact that for Indigenous peoples in the Americas, colonialism is far from being “post.”

Indeed, the tendency toward “post-” might be viewed from McClintock’s perspective as an impulse toward panoptical time, a visionary cathexis for the benefit of the prophetic seer.  Byrd takes up the construction of “Indianness” as necessary to colonial constructions of whiteness necessary to the ordering of historical narratives of the U.S.: 

I contend that ideas of Indian and Indianness – the contagion through which U.S. empire orders the place of peoples within its purview – emerge as distinct problems for critical and postcolonial theories.  As a transit, Indianness becomes a site through which U.S. empire orients and replicates itself by transforming those to be colonized into “Indians” through continual reiterations of pioneer logics, whether in the Pacific, the Caribbean, or the Middle East.  The familiarity of “Indianness” is salve for the liberal multicultural democracy within settler societies that serve as empire’s constituency. (xiii) 

Byrd’s method brings elided notions of indigeneity and Indianness to the center of discourse so that one might “see the stakes in decolonial, resorative justice tied to life, land, and grievabilty.”  For her, Indians and Indianness have provided the “ontological ground” for U.S. settler colonialism and settler imperialism.

Byrd argues the preoccupations of the U.S. with indigeneity “maintain Anglo-American hegemonic mastery” (xx) and, again, preceding Weheliye’s articulation of habeas viscus (while lacking Weheliye’s important critiques of Agamben’s concept of bare life), Byrd notes that “Racialization and colonization should thus be understood as concomitant global systems that secure white dominance through time, property, and notions of self” (xxiii).  

More concisely, Byrd notes that “prevailing understandings of race and racialization in the U.S. post-colonial, area, and queer studies depend upon an historical aphasia of the conquest of indigenous peoples” (xxvi).  Byrd accentuates the “cacophonies of colonialism” while juxtaposing her critiques by a rigorous engagement with critical theory: “Methodologically, an indigenous-centric approach to critical theory helps to identify the processes that have kept indigenous peoples as a necessary pre-conditional presence within theories of colonialism and its ‘post’” (xxxiv). 

Drawing on and critiquing a large list of contemporary critical thinkers, Byrd notes among them attempts to overcome sovereignty that result in a “becoming savage”: “This notion of becoming savage is what I call the transit of empire, a site through which the United States, with ties to the Enlightenment and Victorian colonialism propogates itself through a paradigmatic “Indianness” tied now to the global ascendancy of liberalism” (10).   

Byrd reads the sign of “Indianness” as a polyvocality: “As a philosophical sign, the Indian is the transit, the field through which presignifying polyvocality is re/introduced into the signifying regime, and its signs begin to proliferate through a series of becomings – becoming-animal, becoming-woman, becoming-Indian, becoming-multiplicity – that serves the regimes of signs” (19).                

In the elision of the presignification of Indianness that orients much of Western thought, Byrd argues that “claims of indigeneity are read as conservative neoliberal discourses of normativity rather than a reassertion of the basic fundamental principles of restorative justice in the face of colonial genocide” (38).  Methodologically, Byrd turns to Žižek’s parallax view to articulate the dynamics of the transit of empire by doing a kind of discourse analysis on literary interpretations of various texts.   

Her associative shifts create an active presentation of minor themes that perform a centralizing of peripheries.  Through readings of criticism on The Tempest and the Jonestown massacre, Byrd elides generic distinctions between literary and historical constructions.  She then turns to discussions of “internal colonialism” to thwart claims to the exceptionalism of the U.S. as a “postcolonial” nation.   

Byrd’s final chapter, “Killing States,” juxtaposes readings of Gerald Vizenor’s fiction with contemporary imperial-colonial policies by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, echoing the work of Winona LaDuke in works such as The Militarization of Indian Country. Byrd contextualizes this within broader U.S. histories that place imperial policies in the late 19th century with the illegal annexation of Hawaii’.  Her point is to articulate the longer history of colonial policy by attaching it to the orientalizing conceptions of “Indianness” that cannot be erased by neoliberal and multicultural languaging of “Native American.” 

As Byrd concludes:  

“Indianness” circulates within poststructural, postcolonial, critical race, and queer theories as both sign and event; as a process of signification and exception, “Indianness” starts, stops, and reboots the colonialist discourses that spread along lines of flight that repeatedly challenge the multiculturalist liberal settler state to remediate freedom despite the fact that such colonizing liberalisms established themselves through force, violence, and genocide in order to make freedom available for some and not others. (221) 

While Byrd draws explicitly at times on McClintock’s work, she does not have an overt discussion of psychoanalysis – though she certainly addresses major thinkers for whom psychoanalysis is integral to their thinking.  Instead, Byrd’s blending of genres – a blend that itself critiques notions of “hybridity” (188) – disrupts conventional distinctions of internal/external and public/private that are integral to McClintock’s analysis. 

What seems necessary to me in taking Byrd’s analyses to heart is a re-situated (in McClintock’s terms) notion of psychoanalysis that neither relies on the externalized “affective” tendencies characterized by analyses in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari nor the internalized and individuated subjectivity characterized by the condensed reaction-formation to sovereignty and decisionism.  At the risk of “essentialism” as a non-indigenous person, I would suggest that finding ways to articulate intersubjective notions that seem to be expressed by indigenous communities – I am not thinking of something Jungian or archetypal here — are especially useful to contemporary critical theory.

We see in Byrd’s work the kind of innovative work McClintock had called for and the necessity to critically assess the ways Indigeneity as imagined by the European colonial project has acted through erasure and elision to legitimate hegemonic positioning and rule.  This kind of work has been articulately argued by thinkers such as Robert J. Miller in Native America, Discovered and Conquered  with respect to legal traditions and the continued use of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in legal decisions, both in U.S. and international law.

The task is to maneuver away from a liberal multiculturalist, or as we might say today “neoliberal” frame for thinking of Indigeneity that treats the concept as “identity.”  Nor can we merely fall into the “infinite space” of pluralistic politics of recognition in a world where globalization increasingly condenses and deterritorializes notions of place.  In doing so, historical analyses must be combined with attention to desires and motivations of actors, including the temporizing of ongoing Indigenous struggles.  Calling for more attention to Indigenous perspectives is no mere towing of the line for liberal inclusivity.  We must, as George Orwell’s Winston Smith attempts, understand both the how and the why of power.        

 Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.



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