Primitivity and Violence: Traces of the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis

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Psychoanalysis, the theory and practice of the “unconscious,” has an unconscious of its own, in the sense of containing unacknowledged assumptions that continue to affect it. The unconscious of psychoanalysis can be seen in the implicit models that it holds of the nature of the human subject, and particularly in the manner in which psychoanalytic “knowledge” is disrupted by persistent assumptions and recurrent blind spots that are at best partially recognized. These operate especially strongly in relation to “otherness.” In this paper, some lingering effects of psychoanalysis’ unconscious assumptions are explored. It is argued, in particular, that the colonial elements of psychoanalysis’ heritage are visible in its conceptualization of violence and primitivity, and specifically in thinking of violence as an “atavistic” reproduction of a foundational savagery that, in its imagery and in its substance, is caught up with divisions between civilized and barbaric with very particular sociohistorical resonances.

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