Frantz Fanon Decolonize Linguists

Why linguists need psychiatrists: towards a psycho-political linguistics

5 minutes to read
Column
Ana Deumert
22/02/2018

In this column Ana Deumert argues that linguists need to move beyond discourse and representation if they want to understand the affective, visceral dimensions of power, oppression and inequality.

A comedian might think of many reasons why linguists need psychiatrists: an obsession with rules and patterns, drawing trees of ever growing complexity on scraps of paper (and even turning them into Christmas cards for the like-minded), a compulsion to correlate, a desire to fix fleeting moments of speech on the pages of grammar books, and perhaps even a reluctance towards critical self-reflection as argued by Nick Riemer.

But the psyche of the linguist is not what this column is about. Rather,  I want to reflect on the importance of psychoanalytic reasoning for linguistics, and indeed for the social sciences more broadly. (See also Ana Deumert, Towards a Sociolinguistics of the Contact Zone).

In 1938, the American linguist Edward Sapir published a paper with the title Why Cultural Anthropology needs the Psychiatrist. The paper was one of many inspirations for this column. Sapir argues that psychiatry helps us to understand human complexity, that which is messy, subjective and, often, disorderly; as well as that which is docile and colludes with authority. Importantly, psychiatry allows us to move beyond representation, and to consider how signification is entangled with affect and emotion, experience and subjectivity.

To study the depths of the human psyche requires us to move beyond the empiricism that remains at the heart of much linguistic work.

Sapir wrote about psychiatry, not about psychology. Psychiatry - which at the time of Sapir’s publication drew strongly on psychoanalysis - is a mode of thinking that is rarely used in linguistics. The situation is different for psychology, and psycholinguistics is a well-established specialization within the field of linguistics. Psycholinguists draw primarily on experimental, cognitive psychology and understand the mind as a computer, capable of storing and processing information.

Psychiatry and psychoanalysis offer a different view of humanity: they foreground affect and emotion, difference and diversity, human vulnerability and resilience. There is depth to psychoanalytic views of the human psyche: a rational surface not withstanding, people are equally driven by secrets, desires and fantasies that are, at times, beyond their conscious control.

To study the depths of the human psyche requires us to move beyond the empiricism that remains at the heart of much linguistic work. Empiricism focuses on the visible and audible external world: on that which one can observe with one’s eyes, hear with one’s ears.

Yet, as the South African psychiatrist Chabani Manganyi reminds us in Being-Black-in-the-World (1970) sometimes one needs to listen with a ‘third ear’ – and see with a ‘third eye’ – if one wishes to understand the complexities of being and speaking. He writes: ‘the communicative act may be very refined and subtle to the extent that if one is not listening with the ‘third ear’ one may miss the import of the message’.

The two systems of power which have shaped contemporary realities of being in the world - colonialism and capitalism - have brought with them distinct psychological states, psychohistories and psychopathologies.

Manganyi’s writing on psychobiography, linking individual meaning-making to social and political processes, is an example of listening with the third ear: to himself (in Mashangu’s Reverie, 1977) and to others (in his biographies of Eski’a Mphahlele, Gerard Sekoto and Dumile Feni). This work stands in dialogue with the writings of Frantz Fanon on the violence of the colonial encounter, on the psycho-political struggles of the damnés, on revolt and revolution, mental emancipation and self-actualization. Fanon - indispendable to the way we think about decolonization - was a psychiatrist too.

That the pathology, and indeed madness, of colonialism, slavery and racism requires a psychiatric gaze is an epistemological trope of much decolonial and postcolonial thinking. In the postcolonial tradition, psychological states are not seen as being shaped by the intimate relations of the family; that is, by the Freudian constellation which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari describe ironically as ‘mummy-daddy-me’ (Anti-Oedipus, 1972).

Rather postcolonial subjectivities are shaped by the collective-historical experience of colonialism, of dehumanization, exploitation and oppression, as well as its counter-point, the anti-colonial struggles. It is here that postcolonial/decolonial psychiatry breaks with the conservative and violent tradition of European and colonial psychiatry. Instead of pathologizing the other through the enforcement of oppressive orders of normativity, the psychological register becomes an instrument of political critique, conscientization and change.

The collective dimensions of individual psychology apply not only to the damnés. The Jamaican psychologist Frederick Hickling writes in Owning our Madness (2016) about the pathology of white delusions of power and control. Europeans gave themselves the right to own, sell and oppress others, to exploit them, displaying a pathologically narcissistic identity, which relies on repression as a central psychological process.

 As linguists we also need to find ways to work with the extra-discursive, that which is felt and experienced

To locate psychological states in collective experiences also informs Karl Marx’s writings on capitalism, an economic system closely tied to colonial rule. His concepts of alienation and estrangement (from the self and others, robbing people of their humanity), commodity fetishism (imbuing inanimate things with economic value and making invisible the labour-of-production), as well as false conscioussness (one’s participation in one’s own oppression) describe complex psychological processes. And like colonialism, the capitalist system has spawned its own madnesses, traumas and neuroses, delusions and fantasies.

Thus, the two systems of power which have shaped contemporary realities of being in the world - colonialism and capitalism - have brought with them distinct psychological states, psychohistories and psychopathologies. Neither colonialism nor capitalism are external to us: they are inside us, part of who we are (and who we have become). Understanding their effects on our sense of self, our subjectivities and biographies, requires a willingness to engage with psychiatry and psychoanalysis; that is, a willingness to explore the affective and somatic dimensions of systems of domination and subordination.

I call this type of interdisciplinary work ‘psycho-political linguistics’, referring to a field of study that explores, quite deliberately, the connections between language, affect and power. This field of study draws on linguistics, psychiatry and political-social theory, and focus on topics such as racism, violence, exclusion and inequality, the politics-of-domination as well as their opposites, hope and dreams of a-better-world-to-come.

The interdisciplinary field of discursive psychology is of relevance here: it traces the representation of psychological processes in language, considering what is said, as well as what remains unsayable (Michael Billig, Freudian Repression, 1997). However, this alone is not enough. As linguists we also need to find ways to work with the extra-discursive, that which is felt and experienced, that which is non-representational and lies beyond language (Derek Hook, A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial, 2012). In order to bring together the representational and the non-representational, signification and affect, libidinal economies and linguistic practices, linguists will need to become better acquainted with psychiatry.

To return to Sapir: ‘We can postpone this psychiatric analysis indefinitely but we cannot theoretically eliminate it.’ Unless we learn to listen with the ‘third ear’, becoming atuned to the extra-discursive, to emotion and corporeality, our understanding of the way people make meaning in everyday life will remain incomplete. As a Jamaican proverb goes: bird cyan fly pon one wing, ‘birds cannot fly on one wing’.