The children of colonial psychoanalysis - chapter 13 part 1

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Since Freud first formulated his theories a century ago, practitioners and enthusiasts have considered psychoanalysis to be more than merely a humane therapeutic treatment for psychiatric disorders. Freudian interpretations have been variously applied to entities as diverse as  corporations, nations, and religious traditions. In a study of the use of psychoanalysis in colonial India, Christiane Hartnack wrote:

“Beyond healing individuals, [psychoanalysts] also hoped to provide an understanding of complex and threatening cultural phenomena that would be a first step towards the solution of social problems”.

Chapter 18 of this volume describes how non-Whites, or people of color, were often depicted as untamed, innocent children, whom white Americans could benevolently train to become civilized and socialized. During different phases of America’s history, different peoples were identified as the savage de jour, such as Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Filipinos, including today’s ‘illegal aliens’. By the late nineteenth century, such blatant racism was sugarcoated with an icing of ‘race sciences’. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics applied psychoanalysis to the fields of archeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Published by Freud in 1913, it provided yet another quasi-scientific theoretical veneer, lending credibility to such ideas as eugenics.

Freud classified cultures and societies based on developmental schema. Natives or primitives were likened to children through a twofold process. First, different cultures of the world were classified into a hierarchical model of developmental stages of historical and cultural progress. Since Europeans formulated the scale, naturally they placed themselves at the top. Secondly, these societal stages were seen as an externalization of individual, biological development. Therefore, due to their culture’s position on the scale, it was scientifically justified to classify any individual belonging to a non-European culture as being inferior to Whites. This assumption was amplified if the nation or culture of the native had been colonized, because that label came with an automatic and morally convenient justification of being in need of Western tutelage.

In the context of applied psychoanalysis, when Abrahamic monotheism is placed at the apex of religious hierarchy or cultural potential—as it has been for millennia of Eurocentric thinking—then both dharmic thought and the polytheistic lens through which Hinduism is perceived, by many outsiders, become fertile and exotic fields for psychoanalytic searches dredging for pathologies.

Post-modern deconstruction theories have legitimized analyses that dislocate symbols from their sources, making them available for ‘slippery’ meanings that are often antithetical to the tradition and irrelevant to mutually understood referents. (For more on this, please read page 133, chapter 13)

Freud’s theories have been applied to Indic themes since the early twentieth century. Hartnack explains how two British officers in the colonial army, Owen Berkeley-Hill and C.D. Daly, were inspired by reading Freud’s theories in psychoanalytical journals such as Imago and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. On this basis, they “attempted to analyze and interpret some of those elements of Indian culture, religion, sexuality and politics that they apparently found strange, puzzling, uncanny or even frightening”. Hartnack adds that “psychoanalytical interpretations of Hindu religious rituals” were particularly fascinated by “the imagery of Kali”.

Under the subtitle, Hindu as the White Man’s Burden, Hartnack describes the early use of psychoanalysis in the Indian context. Hartnack mentions Berkeley-Hill’s 1921 essay, The Anal-Erotic Factor in the Religion, Philosophy and Character of the Hindus, published in the
International Journal of Psychoanalysis:

In this work, [Berkeley-Hill] gave a range of examples of what he considered to be a sublimation of, or reaction formations against, anal-erotic impulses among Hindus. According to him, reverence for deities such as Agni, Indra and Surya shows anal-erotic fixations, as these deities are associated with passing enormous amounts of wind. The singing chants of classic Hindu liturgies also appeared to him to be related to the same flatus complex. He further pointed to classic Vedic texts that indicate a preoccupation with control over the sphincter muscles, and discussed hatha yoga in this respect ‘breath exercises are really efforts to direct flatus into a most elaborate quasi-philosophical system’.

In other words, the intention of a Hindu, while chanting mantras, is to pass wind as an expression of reverence for Agni, Indra, or Surya—the hot air presumably being indicative of the nature of Hindu devotion. In this colonial version of the use of applied psychoanalysis in the interpretation of Hinduism, breathing exercises such as pranayama are relegated to elaborate exercises in passing gas. The earliest use of psychoanalysis to interpret Hinduism focused almost exclusively on flatulence, in all its audible forms. Such early psychoanalytical approaches were Eurocentric, phallocentric, and profoundly naïve.

Freud viewed all human possibility through the lenses of the first (anal) and the second (procreative) chakras. In contrast, Indic thought aims to put the focus on higher chakras that represent more elevated or evolved states of consciousness. Moreover, Freud encouraged the
application of these anal-oriented perspectives to entire societies, not just individuals. (For more on Freud’s views, please read page 134 and 135, chapter 13)

The psychoanalytic discipline’s traditional purpose is a methodology through which a trained analyst and his or her paying patient discuss the patient’s problems and work together to ameliorate neuroses by analyzing dreams and childhood experiences. There is a strong, peer enforced, ethical covenant between the two which the psychoanalyst only violates at great professional peril. However, when a psychoanalyst—trained or untrained—embarks on an ethnographic study of an entire social unit or civilization, rather than an individual, he or she is dealing with many layers of abstraction—each one of which can be manipulated at will. Instead of the analyst working with the patient to achieve optimum mental health, the ethnographer simply records data obtained through paid or unpaid native informants and interprets the alien culture based on ad hoc use of psychoanalytic theories. Such imagined data is exemplified by Kripal, and carelessly woven into Courtright’s work on Ganesha. The native informant’s role is not as an equal who should be accorded the dignity of being a partner in the search for understanding. Ultimately, the subject has no role in shaping the context, much less a right to critique the final product of the research. The very idea of such ownership is repugnant to most contemporary researchers.

Susantha Goonatilake in his book, Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Eurocentric Misadventure, points out that it is doubtful if any of the informants will read their own ethnographies because they are usually only published in European languages. Hence, the informers do not even get a chance to talk back. Certainly, there is no chance of giving a rejoinder. Ethnographic psychoanalysis may claim to enhance the understanding of non-Western cultures, but in actuality, it simply imposes Eurocentric constructs to describe the Other.

Hinduism as Flatulence

Hartnack’s description of early attempts to use psychoanalysis as a tool to interpret Hinduism exposes stark examples of abusive scholarship:

Berkeley-Hill further claimed that the essence of the notion of atman is that in Brahmanism, the flatus complex masquerades as a metaphysical spirit. What he saw as the excessive ritualism of
Brahmanism is also an indication of classical pedantic-compulsive, anal-erotic components. To prove this point, he gave detailed descriptions of repetitive elements in Brahmanic rituals, for example eighteen rules for answering the call of nature, and nine for cleaning the teeth. Berkeley-Hill also discussed the enormous units of time in Hindu myths, e.g., thousands of golden ages, millions of years within each yuga, and the extremely high numbers associated with deities, such as ten million royal deities. He saw in this propensity to juggle with large arithmetical quantities an expression of the moulding capacities characteristic of early anal activities.

Thus, as explained in Chapter 8, David White’s reduction of Tantra to a weird sex-cult of hypocritical Hindus consuming each other’s sexual fluids is based on the colonial-era psychoanalytical precedents. It is a genuine coin of the colonial regime.

Not surprisingly, quite a few colonialists had serious cases of Kali-phobia. Hartnack wrote:

Daly pointed out that Kali is worshipped as the all-embracing mother, but that she is also considered to be the goddess of death, destruction, fear, night and chaos, as well as the goddess of cholera and of anti- and asocial groups, such as thieves and prostitutes, the symbol of cemeteries, the destroyer of time—in short, the source of all evil. (For more on Daly’s iconographic representation of Kali, please read page 136 and 137, chapter 13)

This image of the Hindu Goddess as a bloodthirsty, phallic being is faithfully echoed to this day. In Caldwell’s description, Kali is “first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis . . . she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female . . . ”
Of course Caldwell ‘updates’ the thesis by attributing newly fashionable homosexual psychopathologies to Hindus who worship the Goddess. Her stated ambition is to “show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense preoedipal fixation on the mother’s body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity”.

Hindus are thereby classified as a community dominated by obsessive compulsive traits. Hinduism is seen as a societal neurosis, or perhaps a collective pathology exemplified by the Goddess Kali. Among today’s scholars, Doniger brings it home with her sweeping statements to the press about ‘bloodthirsty’ goddesses and ‘inverse ratios’ between worship of the Goddess and the status of women in Hindu society. Describing this strategically implemented use of psychoanalysis from a particularly colonial point of view, Hartnack wrote:

Daly pointed out that, whereas with regard to Ireland, one might understand a favorable identification with a lovely virgin, in India the identification was with the dreadful Kali, which seemed perverse to him. He therefore considered the Hindus’ behaviour to be beyond even the broadest margins of normality and summarized his analysis of revolutionary tendencies with the following words: ‘we have a psychology which differs considerably from the European, its
equivalent with us being found only in pathological cases. They are a race who fail in their rebellion against the father and as a result of this failure adopt a feminine role with feminine character traits. There results, so to speak, a split in the male personality, the aggressive component undergoing repression, which accounts for the childlike and feminine character traits of the Hindu as a whole, and the fact that they thrive only under very firm and kindly administration, but if allowed latitude in their rebellious tendencies are quick to take advantage of it.

Handy political uses of psychology are still uppermost in the minds of many Western researchers in dealing with Indians, as can be seen from Caldwell’s call to psychoanalyze Hindu culture as a whole. For Doniger, too, this overwhelming desire to discredit any political identity for Hindus—leads to her eager approval of David White’s reductionist thesis on Tantra, not because she finds his evidence entirely convincing—she doesn’t—but because of the immense political and civilizational value of degrading uppity Hindus and taking them down a notch or two. Both Daly and Doniger seem to share a common anxiety about putting the Hindus in their proper place, lest their rebellious tendencies threaten the world order and/or academic stability.

Hartnack explains that the dominant view in Europe at the Hartnack explains that the dominant view in Europe at the time was a commonly held theory, derived from Enlightenment thought,
that the “development of the individual is structured according to the development of mankind”. She points out that Freud also adhered to this perspective. Results of this theory were racial sciences, such as eugenics in the nineteenth century, which led to institutional discrimination in America and Europe. (For more on this, please read page 138, chapter 13)

Scholars whose work have recently been critiqued by the diaspora apply this 1920s’ era reasoning to all Hindus, seeing them as stuck in infantilism and incapable of understanding sophisticated jargon.

While defending Kripal’s creative interpretation of homoerotica, Caldwell suggests to her fellow RISA researchers, that they should contextualize the ‘distorted masculinity’ of Hindu culture, and the ‘confused sexuality’ of the Hindu male. She sees this mangling of the male as the catalyst that set off a highly contested, socially emasculated politicized century of dangerous nationalistic posturing. Thus what starts as tentative, poorly evidenced, and speculative research is quickly elevated as a way of making sense of those dangerous Indians and their psychologically corrosive culture.

Regarding the article by Berkeley-Hill, The Anal-Erotic Factor in the Religion, Philosophy and Character of the Hindu, Hartnack states that “Hindus did not receive [the] article enthusiastically [when] the original English version . . . was read at the Indian Psychoanalytical Society. Perhaps what is most discomfiting to the Donigers, Courtrights and other latter-day Berkeley-Hills is that the Indians of today, particularly in the diaspora, are not shy or beaten down. They would rather debate these alleged ‘analyses’, and ask inconvenient questions, than defer them for some future debate.

Hartnack elaborates in terms that could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the particular school of contemporary scholars under review in this book:

Though some theory is tagged on to it, the essay remains a conglomeration of densely presented images and associations, wild ideas, and racist attributions. Daly freely converted prevalent
psychoanalytical concepts that explained psychopathological defects of individuals into explanations for all those aspects of Indian culture that appear strange to Europeans to substantiate his belief in the European culture’s superiority over Hinduism.

The basic interpretive view of the Judeo-Christian experience is in total contrast to Hinduism. On
the surface, Freudianism may be able to attach a few untenable meanings onto Hindu symbols, but the results are unreliable.

Read chapter 13 part 1 from page 132 to 140

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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