Jorge Assef by Luz Saint Phat
“The United States are burning”, this was one of the headlines shown in the news these days in different places around the world to portray the scale and historical significance of the social outburst that took place after the murder of George Floyd in the city of Minneapolis. The African American man was smothered by a police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
The tragic event brought to the table the racism that still exists in North America in the 21st century, and which is reproduced within other societies worldwide.
— How can racism be conceptualized from the Lacanian psychoanalysis point of view?
— Jacques Lacan mentions racism as one of the ways of segregation that takes on many faces and features. It can be the color of the skin, religion, sexual orientation, class status. To a certain extent, Lacan was a visionary because, at a time when the word ‘globalization’ did not exist, he stated that “Our future as common markets will be balanced by an increasingly hardline extension of the process of segregation.” He is already announcing there a perspective of a future that, far from becoming more tolerant, more pacifist, more open to the difference, is going to be a time when the processes of segregation will become more intense.
And then you have, for example, that there is a president like Barack Obama (whose great-grandfather was a slave, I think) and 8 years later you have a president like Donald Trump in the very same country. In this sense, there are religious fanaticisms also; and not only the Islamic radicalization, but also what has been taking place for years in Brazil and what we see with president Bolsonaro.
Lacan points out that racism does not require some complex ideological frame, but a “plus‑de‑jouir” a trait of jouissance. For example: We are all tolerant to everything and no one is a racist. I see a Chinese person walking on the street and I am not a racist. I see this Chinese person at a café, and I am not a racist. Now, this Chinese family moves to my building and begin to cook with all the spices Chinese people like to eat. I start smelling those spices and this Chinese person now becomes unbearable for me. In other words, anyone can be very tolerant to the differences until this difference of the other begins to confront my own way of life.
In Lacan’s thesis on paranoia we can find an explanation for the seeds of any type of segregation. We all have a point that we do not know about ourselves and, at that point, we are all foreigners. Then, when something of my own jouissance comes to me from the other, the most fundamental backlash is put into action. So, what is rejected and segregated is the other’s jouissance eventually, but more precisely it is that which links me to my own unknown mode of jouissance.
Therefore, if humanity needs so many requirements and so many prevention systems to avoid crimes of segregation and discrimination, it is because it does not go without saying that human beings are so tolerant to differences. Quite the opposite. It seems that a certain human evolution needs to be worked on.
— To what extent do you think these days events relate to Donald Trump’s policy? What other elements can be discerned?
— I think what is happening in the USA is something very peculiar. It is necessary to emphasize that the fact that this seed exists, does not mean that the backlash against the different mode of jouissance of the other as a subjectivity provision should be made into a system.
I mean… I’m referring to a utilitarian system of socio-political development which transforms that seed into a systematic oppression mechanism used by one of the groups for the benefit of another human group, such as the enslavement of African Americans or the power of men over women. As a matter of fact, one of the topics under discussion in feminism is around the unpaid jobs of women which are considered parts of a system of financial benefits. So, the fact that a group has taken advantage of all these subjective provisions to set up an oppression system is a completely different thing.
The United States, because of the different waves of immigration that are part of its history, has had to manage and sustain a more or less peaceful co-existence of social groups in very little time, especially in the big cities. Each community lives within its own culture and while that happens inside its borders it seems that things work alright, and they even seem fun. However, when there are crosses and intersections these problems arise.
Now, for me the timing is no coincidence. Because white police man commit crimes against black people all the time. But, what is it that makes this crime so especial? I think is the context of coronavirus, this is the context, and 70% of the killed by the virus are Afro-American or Latin people. Also, unemployment rates are extremely high, but affects the most vulnerable communities mainly. So, in the context of the pandemic, which is unmasking social inequalities, this was the factor that sparked the bomb.
— The news had a great impact in Argentina, the horror over there is well perceived but not so well the horror over here, how would you explain this?
— The ways of segregation are pretty much naturalized, I think, in each of us. Because when you visit the USA and you go to a restaurant and see that the person that cleans the table, or brings your food or walks you to the table is from any Latin American country, you think, this is unbelievable! But it is as if you could not see the same effect with human groups that are typical of certain communities and that are confined to underemployment in some types of jobs in your own country. I mean, it is easy to see segregation in other cultures and not in your own.
We are born in a society that is structured by systems of segregation. There was a graffiti these days that read: “Their racism is our classism.”
Even in Córdoba city (the second largest Argentinian city) with the so-called “code of conviviality” what is hidden is that there are people who just cannot enter the city. In the lootings during the strike of the police in 2013, these people went precisely to a neighborhood where some sectors never go in. Living and growing up in ostentation and inequality has a price. Sometimes this price is paid in brutal forms.
— What can be the contribution of psychoanalysis to conviviality or some other concept allowing the articulation of a bond for the future?
— I think that the contribution of psychoanalysis could be along this way of providing a chance to understand why each individual rejects what they reject. When you understand something about the things that cause your fears or rejection, the other becomes much less dangerous. When Lacan defines the analyst’s desire, he says that what encourages their work is to obtain the absolute difference in each subject. This is the opposite of the segregation process. It means leaving behind the mass identity, which can be a shelter, but that can also be our worst prison.
Originally published in Spanish on June 4, 2020, in the newspaper Comercio y Justicia. Available online.