Lene Auestad: Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice: A psychoanalytical and philosophical enquiry into the dynamics of social exclusion and discrimination
Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice (2015) is a well-thought-out interdisciplinary work that provides us with a critical and much-needed analysis of the contemporary condition humaine, and the othering, discriminatory and objectifying processes that seem to have haunted—and are alas still haunting—humanity.
Philosopher Lene Auestad in this book interestingly enough does not focus on the legal side nor on the traditional sociological side of the current debate about racism and various types of discrimination, but rather looks at the underlying unconscious forces and structures that make up the phenomena of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, homophobia and sexism. Making use of philosophical, psychosocial and psychoanalytical perspectives—and object-relations theory in particular (see, e.g. Klein 1923; Winnicott 1953)—the author not succeeds at giving us a nuanced, detailed overview of how social prejudices, and the discrimination and violence that often tend to accompany the latter, come into being. At the same time she also shows us that in order to fully understand how a complex phenomenon such as prejudice works, we need to alter our traditional Western philosophical understanding of the subject as a supposedly fully rational, autonomous and individual agent. Influenced by object-relations theory, critical theory and philosopher Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989), Auestad namely argues that we need a more situated and relational understanding of subjectivity and the subject, as prejudice and acts of discrimination always take place in a contextualized setting between subjects whose thoughts and actions influence each other.
It is this well-elaborated philosophical framework that gives extra depth to Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice, in my opinion, and Auestad’s own notion of “other-interpreted-and-interpreting” (xvii) beings also gives an extra feminist touch to the latter. By employing this notion, the author explicitly points at how we are all situated subjects that are exposed to other people’s interpretations of us, before we become “active interpreters” (loc. cit.) ourselves—and it is this emphasis on situatedness, together with the author’s critical attitude versus the powers of ratio and rationality that have a lot in common with contemporary feminist epistemological and feminist science studies critiques that focus on situated knowledge production and situated subjects (see, e.g. Haraway 1988).
This immediately brings me to another aspect of Auestad’s thinking that has to do with the critical theory framework that holds the book together. Unlike more conservative forms of philosophy, Auestad examines the processes that make up prejudice from both a theoretical and practical point of view. This becomes especially clear in the book’s seventh chapter, in which she reads critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950)—together with some of Adorno’s other work—along the lines of object-relations theory. This attachment to critical theory—and to the work of for instance queer theorist Judith Butler and political theorist Hannah Arendt, and Butler’s thoughts about hate speech, and in Arendt’s case, perspectivism and pluralism, in particular—reveals how much Auestad is invested in analysing prejudice and discrimination not as isolated but societal phenomena that need to be critically examined and also fought against.
This critical attitude versus anti-social oppression is noticeable throughout the book, as the author time and time again not only engages with how prejudices come into being on an unconscious level, but acknowledges that they are at the same time also accompanied and embedded in various social practices that are given shape by existing power relations and differentials. Auestad therefore seems to be taking on a more feminist Lacanian stance with regard to the psychoanalytical practice, as is also noticeable in the introduction of the book where it is stated that she wishes to look at and examine prejudice from various angles and perspectives, and definitely not wants to fall back into a form of psychoanalytical theorising that would disregard the social world, and the situated position of the analyst. The idea that there is not one sole, overarching point of view that prejudice could be examined from, can in fact be regarded as the book’s leitmotiv: each chapter basically touches upon different perspectives and voices to paint a fuller—and more diverse—picture of negative prejudices and their consequences. Auestad touches upon prejudice in relation to condensation and displacement, and upon prejudicial processes as potential transfers of shame and guilt in the context of hate speech. Moreover, she also presents an interesting analysis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali:Fear Eats the Soul from 1974 to demonstrate how an examination of the experiences of the targeted objects of prejudice—in this case the experience of Ali/Salem, a Moroccan guest worker in a Germany that is still coming to terms with its haunting past—is more epistemically viable and justifiable than an analysis of the prejudiced subject’s point of view, as such a perspective would be limited and could potentially silence the voices of the targeted objects again.
Defined as a mental state, or as “something that is not yet an action, but a potential influence on someone’s actions” (xviii), Auestad puts prejudice against the notions of respect and plurality, as the former seems to be a negation of the latter two, and hence again complements her psychoanalytical perspective with a critical social one. In addition to the former description, prejudice, according to Auestad, has the following remarkable features: when somebody is negatively prejudiced about an individual or a group of people, a certain subjective meaning is transferred onto a category and then onto the individual in question that can be labelled with the latter category. Prejudice also consists of more than merely making assumptions about a subject: the negative assumptions are usually held onto even when they are clearly wrong—prejudice is hence accompanied by what Auestad rightfully calls a “resistance to change” (xxi), plus problematic processes of overgeneralisation. Prejudice—and the various types of prejudice, which in the eyes of Auestad are by the way interrelated, in contrast to what psychotherapist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl claims—hence clearly lies at the basis of social discrimination and needs to be examined by taking the experiences of the objects of prejudice into account—although the targeted objects in question do not always need to be present, while certain prejudices are being formed or uttered. The focus on the targets of prejudice, and their voices and experiences, together with Auestad’s statement that prejudice should not be framed in terms of normalcy versus pathology, but rather as a phenomenon that is partially also “founded on a silent social consensus” (1), makes Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice so thought-provoking and important, as room is made for both the unconscious and the social, and their intertwinings and entanglements.
The latter potential intertwining, and the thinking together of psychoanalysis and critical social studies and theory, is also present in the book’s last two chapters. Via an engagement with Arendt’s perspectivism that goes against the traditional attachments of psychoanalysis to a supposedly attainable view from nowhere and that takes the situatedness of subjects into account, Auestad ends Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice with a plea for a newly devised, psychoanalytically informed ethics of responsibility, in which both the subject and targeted object of prejudice, and their interactive relationships, would be incorporated. Although this ethical model of the encounter, and Auestad’s book as a whole, only hints at potential solutions, and Auestad’s engagement with contemporary feminist theory is surprisingly limited for someone who is so passionate about bringing in situatedness, ethical reflections about the other, and critical theories of social progress and change, into the theories and practice of psychoanalysis, Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice is an incredibly relevant and up-to-date must-read for those that have an interest in psychoanalysis, critical theory and philosophy and are curious to know what an enriching combination of these three fields would look like.
- Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and Nevitt R. Sanford. 1950. The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper Brothers.Google Scholar
- Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. 1974. Ali: Fear eats the soul. Film. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Munich: Filmverlag der Autoren & Tango Film. Original title: Angst essen Seele auf.Google Scholar
- Klein, Melanie. 1923. The development of a child. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 4: 419–474.Google Scholar
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- Winnicott, D.W. 1953. Transitional objects and transitional phenomena—A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 34: 89–97.Google Scholar