This stimulating volume is certainly a fresh contribution to the study of psychiatry
and colonialism. It adds to other recent works that have taken the field beyond the
asylums and hospitals which, as fecund document producers, have inevitably attracted
the attention of historians. But it is also more than that. Just as Freud and his
followers aimed to go beyond the study of psychopathology in pursuit of a gain for
normal psychology, at its most ambitious this volume seeks not only to explore the
clinical role of psychoanalysis in colonial and post-colonial contexts, but its wider
role in the constitution of modern mentalities, to see the psychoanalysable subject
as a globalised phenomenon as much as capital and commodities. It also shows how psychoanalysis
itself, as a product of European modernity, was born twinned with colonialism.
The contributors are critical of psychoanalysis, which is shown to be rife with the
assumptions of colonial ideology. However, they are more concerned to contextualise
psychoanalysis than to bury it. The volume is refreshingly distant from the ‘Freud
Wars’. Moreover, the chapters are alert on occasion to liberatory potentials in psychoanalysis.
As Joy Damousi notes in a discussion of the Hungarian analyst Geza Roheim’s ethnography
in Australia, psychoanalysis has had – perhaps more than any other artefact of cosmopolitan
psychiatry – a particularising drive that could partially challenge the primitivism
of colonial discourse. Yet it remained too steeped in that discourse to escape it
completely. And psychoanalysis was, no less than other psychiatric theories, prey
to the conundrum: assertions of universality risk colonising by suppressing the local,
yet, as Didier Fassin shows in a trenchant chapter on French ehtnopsychiatry, assertions
of the particular run the opposite risk, of colonising by exoticising.
There is much more work to be done. The volume left me wondering about psychoanalysis’s
own cultural figuration as Jewish and Viennese may have led to it being ‘orientalised’
even amidst its success in Western Europe. I would have loved to see more exploration
of certain figures, such as the South African psychoanalyst Wulf Sachs, and the ethnographers
Georges Devereux and Meyer Fortes. Most challenging will be to move even further beyond
the contexts of clinicians and experts into broader mentalities. Such a study will
probably reveal not only the colonial reach of psychoanalysis, but the limits of that
Like recent books on psychoanalysis by Eli Zaretsky and George Makari, Unconscious
Dominions shows that the history of psychoanalysis is far from being an over-studied
topic. It is a major current in the making of modernity and has many unexplored tributaries.