A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria
Karima Lazali / Translated by Matthew B. Smith
Prologue by Mariana Wikinski
Colonial Trauma is a path-breaking account of the psychological and political effects of colonial domination. Following the work of Frantz Fanon in the 1950s, Lazali draws on historical materials as well as her own clinical experience as a practising psychoanalyst to shed new light on the ways in which the history of colonization leaves its traces on contemporary postcolonial selves.
In her clinical practice, Lazali found that many of her patients experienced difficulties that can only be explained as the effects of ‘colonial trauma’ dating from the French colonization of Algeria and the postcolonial period. Many French feel weighed down by a colonial history that they are aware of but which they have not experienced directly. Many Algerians, on the other hand, are traumatized by the way that the French colonial state renamed the colonized Algerian and severed the links with community, history and genealogy. The French state regarded Algeria as a territory with neither history nor culture; people were renamed or un-named, so that family members became strangers and links with the past were broken. The systemic destruction of family and social connections contributed to feelings of loss, abandonment and injustice, feelings that were reinforced by the postcolonial state when it imposed new names on people and the land. Only by reconstructing this history and uncovering its hidden consequences can we understand the impact of colonization on the inner lives of individuals and give them the tools to come to terms with their past.
By demonstrating the power of psychoanalysis to shed light on the subjective dimension of colonial domination, this book will be of great interest to anyone concerned with the long-term consequences of colonization and its aftermath.
The history of French colonization in Algeria: a blank space in memory and politics
My psychoanalytic practice takes place between different languages (French and Arabic) and locations (France and Algeria). This has probably sharpened my awareness of difference, and made me realize what difference reveals about the reach of politics in both places. It has also made me aware of the impact of this political reach on the formation of the subject. In Paris, the fact that a vast number of French patients who, caught in a generational confusion and stagnation, evoke at some point the signifier “Algeria” invites further reflection. These French patients, usually three generations removed from colonialism, express being weighed down by a colonial history experienced more often than not by their grandparents, who were involved in either colonization or the War of Liberation, but about which these patients know very little. It is surprising to see how they are grappling with questions of shame and responsibility due to this legacy. Expressing an acute sense of discomfort, they are caught in a history they never experienced, one that, more often than not, they inherited cloaked in silence. They are beset with a number of questions: how do you inherit a past you never bore witness to and which, for unknown reasons, you can’t even speak about? Where does this leave you? Where did their parents and grandparents really stand politically in relation to “coloniality,” a term that covers a long period (132 years) of domination and violence, whereas now their descendants are forbidden from thinking about it? How do you develop your own story when this parental silence is met with a political blank space?
One might argue that Algeria crops up repeatedly in the discourse of patients because the analyst’s familiarity with the matter invites it. But these patients initially came to her for a variety of symptoms that bore no inherent relation to this episode in History. And at some point over the course of several conversations they express the painful impression of being held hostage and left defenseless by an inaccessible past. Following the patterns traced by the signifier “Algeria” thus leads to a blank space in memory and politics. The work of historians can hardly help these patients work through the ideological blind spots they inherited, for the formation of subjectivity is beyond the reach of the historical record. On the other hand, subjectivity needs and demands acknowledgment from the political order. Otherwise, the part of History refused by the political order continues to be transmitted from generation to generation and creates psychic mechanisms that entrap the subject in existential shame.
In Algeria today, the colonial question is so pervasive that we tend to think of it as a historical template. But its official history is frozen in time, one-dimensional and therefore lacking in nuance. It is a matter for politics, probably its lone and major preoccupation. Since the devastation wrought by colonialism is widely acknowledged, it is treated as though there is no point in exploring the matter any more deeply from an interdisciplinary perspective. There is no room for dispute: the matter of colonialism is, by unanimous decision, a closed affair.
The ideological blind spots shaping the current understanding of coloniality – both inside and outside of Algeria – provided the impetus for this book. The myth-filled grievances expressed by so many patients thus hide the orchestrated effort to ensure that these blind spots persist in Algeria and in France. In this way, each individual’s responsibility in shaping History goes unquestioned. History is seen as a set of facts and the interpretation of those facts. This straitjacketed history prohibits subjects from exploring their own layered, complex, and intricate family histories. As one cannot access the history of colonialism through official channels in either France or Algeria, one must find another way in. This entails ignoring the myths and legends attached to it and seeking what lurks behind the curtain of the historical record.
History doesn’t speak for itself. It speaks through subjects who, ideally, debate historians and politicians over its interpretation. Psychoanalysis cannot do without History, and yet depending solely on it would neglect the private interpretations tirelessly made of it by individuals. Practicing psychoanalysis in Algiers has in this respect been instrumental in understanding how subjectivity stands both within and outside History. To be clear, every subject is formed within and by History. But the subject also hides behind History in order to elude questions concerning individual responsibility. Everyone is familiar with the common refrain from patients: “My past has made me who I am.” And who hasn’t heard healthcare practitioners claim: “They are like that because of their past”? The subject strives continually to move beyond History and yet, instead of breaking free from it, the subject hides behind it. How, then, can one read and draw on History without letting this reading drown out the subject’s own interpretation of history (both personal and collective)?
To address colonialism’s impact on subjectivities in Algeria today, I have drawn on the work of historians as well as on works of Algerian literature, principally those written in French. My aim is to bring together fictional enunciations [énonciations de fiction] and historical statements of facts [énoncés historiques de faits] as nothing comes closer to the texture of subjectivity than the literary text. The turn to literature is both fruitful and necessary, since the discussions I had with patients which drove me to write this book remain protected by confidentiality – a delicate matter in Algeria, where the act of revelation is negatively perceived in both its religious and secular iterations. Not to mention the fact that psychoanalytic treatment remains restricted to a small minority of people who are already concerned about preserving their ability to speak openly and who remain fearful that the presumed secrecy of this encounter may be betrayed. On top of all this, colonialism finds expression through the blank spaces of thought and speech – in other words, through non-discursive acts.
When I first began my research, I was surprised to note how little clinical work there was in Algeria and France on the psychological effects of colonization, apart from that of Frantz Fanon in the 1950s, which is itself a treasure trove of information and rigorous analyses on the psycho-physical harm caused by colonization.1 His untimely death at 36 years old in 1961, and the dearth of subsequent clinical research in this field, has resulted in an absence of studies on the lasting and wide-ranging psychological effects of colonialism. This is thus a largely unexplored and unknown territory. On the other hand, the clinical effects of colonialism haven’t failed to garner attention from other fields: history, anthropology, sociology, literature. What explains this blind spot in the field of medicine and psychoanalysis? Does the impact of colonialism not merit its own analysis? Do existing notions, such as trauma, go far enough to explain colonial violence?
Probably not, if one considers that the blind spot in the psychological literature signals a larger problem: the longtime silence of leading public officials on colonial violence and its persistence today in a number of disciplines, especially in the clinical and social sciences. The logic of colonialism lives on in the thoughts, speech, and practices of former colonizers and those once deemed “indigènes.” This logic defies treatment, in the medical sense of this term: it doesn’t respond to care or examination. This holds true regardless of the subject’s place within colonialism (colonizer or colonized). The matter is clearly expressed through the blank spaces found in writing from both sides of the Mediterranean. This poses a serious challenge to clinical studies, which would like to establish a set of clear issues and carefully trace them back – following visible signs – to the matter of colonial violence. No such signs exist in this case. This blank space has risen to a deafening pitch in French and Algerian society, where it can be felt by all. For the clinical psychologist, the legacy of colonialism exposes an unusual psychic phenomenon, namely, the existence of a whole field of invisible traces that, in spite of their seeming absence, give shape to subjectivities and political discourse. The clinical psychologist is forced to deal with a history deprived of archives, literally and metaphorically. It is now no longer a question of deconstruction, but one of reconstructing traces that exist outside of memory.
A much-needed interdisciplinary approach
For the time being, uncovering this history is left to historians, whose work, although indispensable, fails to account for actively troubled subjectivities. What’s more, in France, once a historical record is reconstructed, it rarely gets noticed outside of its own disciplinary framework. This is in stark contrast to the multidisciplinary approach of postcolonial studies in the Anglophone world, which have remained largely inaccessible to Francophone readers, in spite of the fact that these works draw on the writing of major French-language theorists: Césaire, Sartre, Fanon, Memmi, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault. Further developed and articulated abroad, this French history is paradoxically hard to translate back home. This paradox seems symptomatic of an impossible reciprocity, which results in so much research, so many carefully crafted arguments remaining in utter obscurity.
In France, there seems to be an assumption that the history of colonization falls strictly within the purview of historians and former “indigènes,” and therefore that they have the exclusive right to treat it. And in Algeria, that colonialism belongs entirely to those who were colonized, making the rest of us apathetic to its debates and complex history. Go along now, nothing to see here! In both places, there are unbridgeable divisions – an effect of coloniality. And this issue cannot be tackled without an interdisciplinary approach, as each discipline offers a distinct vantage point on the matter. Otherwise, by succumbing to a crude partitioning of the past, present, and future, the colonial world will continue to remain sealed and inaccessible.
In Algeria, the effects of colonialism are so embedded in the psyche of individuals that it becomes difficult to distinguish between what results from direct impact and what has formed over time into an “identity” crisis caused by its disruption of the core network of subjectivities and the social bond. Subjectivities are thus entirely suffused with coloniality. This is now accepted as an unequivocal and indisputable historical fact, which undermines the idea that the primary interpreter of History is first and foremost the subject. This is probably why the consequences of colonization appear only in public discourse as cries of pain and resentment, which target the Other of colonialism while staying mute about the impacts of History on one’s personal history. In Algeria, it is as though colonization is the one and only trauma. Whereas in France, the notion of colonial trauma is flipped on its head and exploited by the political order: much talk is made of the “benefits of colonization” for “indigène” subjects. The political order thus strives to make the historical record disappear and to discount the role the subject plays in History. Here again, no clinical work has considered the specificity of these traumas and their impact on the social bond. Instead, we are stuck in the hell of this duality which allows the war to persist by other means.
Bringing together psychoanalysis, history, and literature in an attempt to discern the invisible role played by politics, this book’s approach may be judged problematic from within the specialized fields of each of these disciplines. But I can think of no better way of treating the politico-subjective “matter” of coloniality in Algeria, a totality that cannot be contained by isolated disciplines. Specialists from these fields each see themselves as the best positioned to take on the wide-scale devastation of this affair. But the coalition formed in this book with these three disciplines creates a dynamic approach where each discipline informs and alters the other, the cumulative effect of which, I hope, will not be lost on any reader. This trans- disciplinary configuration is also a way of mounting a defense against the blanket-statement generalities and deadly binary logic that affect anyone who has tried to take a closer look at colonialism.
Literature strives to give expression to the blank spaces and the ideological blind spots present in the historical record. Above all, it alerts the reader to how a text is continuously shaped by its invisible margins. The psychoanalyst, for her part, works to read and analyze what can be read without reading. This works only insofar as the psychologization of characters and writers can be carefully avoided. It is a matter of treating the literary text as a literal object. This is clearly at odds with most approaches to literature, in the same way that my subjective approach to history stands in contrast to the historian’s objective approach. The other challenge this approach encounters is its use of psychoanalysis as a tool for understanding the political dimension of history and society. One must strive to avoid psychologizing society and/or “sociologizing” the subject. Although, as Freud says, no boundary separates the individual from the community, it remains a challenge for the psychoanalyst, whose practice is based on individual experience, to understand the community through the individual and vice versa.
Putting psychoanalysis, history, and literature to use in this way brings us the closest to what has been, and continues to be, erased by the political order, whose subjects are kept in the darkness of a sleepless and endless night. History seizes, literature writes, and psychoanalysis reads what resides in the blank space of the text’s margins.
Excerpt from "Introduction: The Difficulty of Acknowledging Colonial Trauma" from Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria, 2-7, Polity Press, 2020, Translated by Matthew B. Smith.
Conversation on Colonial Trauma, Karima Lazali (Psychoanalyst, Algeria and France), Ranjana Khanna (Duke University), Stefania Pandolfo (UC Berkeley), Felwine Sarr (Duke University), moderated by Natalia Brizuela (UC Berkeley).
April 2, 2021
About the Authors