The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father

I have been reading The Psychopolitics of the Oriental Father: Between Omnipotence and Emasculation by Bülent Somay, a text which has provided some new theoretical perspective that is different and in some ways more compelling than what is found in the work of Fethi Bensalama in his canon-forming text, Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam. Benslama, Moustapha Safouan and other Lacanians that have written on Islam and psychoanalysis have been accused of peddling in a form of neo-Oriental racism by Joseph Massad in his chapter on psychoanalysis and liberalism in his latest Islam in Liberalism work.

Psychoanalysis and Islam has long been of interest to me. You can read my notes and thoughts on the topic here and here.

But Massad refuses to confront psychoanalysis at the level of its own theoretical propositions. He neglects to perform a deeper investigation into the theoretical models that psychoanalysis deploys to theorize the libidinal structure of subjectivity in Muslim societies. Massad’s text thus shuts the door on psychoanalysis and Islam all together, arguing that psychoanalysis attempts to laïcitizé Islam, secularizing the psyche of Muslims. Derrida argued much the same. I think Somay opens some new insights on the topic and he does so my linking psychoanalysis to political power and to capitalism. In what follows, I am not planning an extensive review of his very excellent text, but rather want to highlight some key points that I find novel in his work.

Somay’s text is a historiography of political authority focused on Turkish intellectuals during the colonial period from a Lacanian perspective. This psychohistory of the colonial period and its residue on the psychopolitics of the Turkish intellectual culture also makes claims that are applicable to other Muslim majority societies, and other colonized Muslim societies. He provides a theoretical model for thinking Islam and psychoanalysis. His argument is that the imaginary of the Oriental father is a trans-Orient-Occident construct, imposed by the Occidental west but imaginarily embodied by the Orient. The Oriental father is now dormant, but his imaginary rise was the construct of the conflictual colonial meeting between the two cultures.

The Oriental father is made into an imaginary body that is both omnipresent and omniscient; he is not killed in a fratricidal primal moment as the Occidental father is. The fact that he is not killed in the mythology found in the Qur’an, the Oriental father prevents any equilibrium or equality with his presence and rule. As a side note, we should mention that the position of the father is foreclosed in Islam according to Benslama, which leads to a perversion of origins around the figure of Hagar. This reading of the father in Islam I find to be riddled with problems, but it nonetheless is something to think about. We will discover how Somay adds an important twist to this narrative precisely by historicizing the father.

For Somay, revolt is denied to the brothers, i.e. to the society, which is another way of looking at the issue of what is now called sunni quietism. In Lacanian terms, the father is kept at the level of the imaginary and does not enter into to the law of the symbolic after his murder by the brothers. One cannot identify with the father who still possess the jouissance or enjoyment of the community. Muslims are stuck in having to imitate the father’s desire, and this leads to the development of a split, hysteric desire. As Somay writes:

“The uninterrupted omnipresence of the father figure locks the Oriental subject in a permanent semi-infantile state, in the throes of a non-resolved (and irresovable) Oedipus complex, regressing the Oedipal settlement from the symbolic to the imaginary (or rather not allowing it to advance from the latter to the former) and hence threatens to stunt superego formation almost permanently” (75).

The father’s omnipresence and omniscience means that politically speaking, his subjects, (what Freud refers to in Totem and Taboo as the ‘brothers’) cannot create an equilibrium with him. Revolt is denied outright. The western version gives the brothers some equality while the father retreats to a spectral symbolic presence. In the Oriental version of the myth of the primal father, the brothers compete against one another to gain favor in the father’s eyes, and they do not commit a patricide — this is for example the structure of Cain and Abel: they do not kill the father, they compete for his attention and admiration. The result of the brothers not performing a patricide on the father is that their identification with the father as we have in Freud’s Group Psychology, which is formed around the Ideal Ego, is a non-castrated identification, forming an identification around the Ego-Ideal, that takes on the desire of the father as one’s own as opposed to an identification around the ideal of the ego.

What makes Somay’s text valuable, and ultimately what prevents it from peddling in Orientalist cliches itself — i.e. ascribing Muslims a status of perverted subjects that secretly desire to be ruled — is that he extends this structure of the Oriental Oedipal function into the colonial period showing how it falls apart and fragments into something else. Unlike Benslama, who presents a static reading of libidinal subjectivity and the function of the father based solely in the Qur’an and in the tradition of Islam, Somay’s Oriental Oedipus breaks apart when the colonial powers kill the father from outside, bringing the father into a position of an absentee presence. The locus of mediation is now the colonial capitalist structure, and no longer is it the primal father scene, although this scene still haunts the social and comes in the form of competing primal fathers.

The colonial period emasculated the father, replacing him with a capitalist big other system where enjoyment was extracted from the sphere of commodities, where commodities became the substitute for the big other. Somay argues that the old Oriental father, like the pervert who is supposed to know precisely what he desires, (and the moment his desire becomes uncertain his position becomes problematic) disappears from the social scene entirely. This creates a situation where the Turkish intellectual developed a ‘conflicted fascination’ with the European gaze. It was the European an culture during the Victorian period that transferred their pleasures which were forbidden onto the Muslims. This is where we get the overly sexualized despot in the harem who steals all the jouissance. The politics of enjoyment thus begin with the threat that the Muslims have stolen the jouissance of the westerners.

Somay’s Oriental father now lies dormant, having been emasculated, but not killed, by European colonialism and replaced with a market logic that promotes a type of hysteria. In the concluding chapter he shows how the Gezi park demonstrations and occupation were unique in that they presented a type of politics that denied the old Oriental Islamist father from returning as you had secular anti-capitalist practicing Muslims participate, alongside secular non-Muslim Turks — both rejecting the neoliberal father in the figure of Erdogan whose rule presents serious cracks in the edifice of the very illusion that the father is necessary at all.



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