In Ras Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry Brown wants to talk about the history of the cultural and spiritual practices of African descendants in the American south. To do this, he traces discusses the transport of central, western, and west-central African captives to South Carolina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,finally, lightly touching on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Brown explores how these African peoples brought, maintained, and transmitted their understandings of spiritual relationships between the physical land of the living and the spiritual land of the dead, and from there how the notions of the African simbi spirits translated through a particular region of South Carolina.
In Kelly Oliver’s The Colonization of Psychic Space, she constructs and argues for a new theory of subjectivity and individuation—one predicated on a radical forgiveness born of interrelationality and reconciliation between self and culture. Oliver argues that we have neglected to fully explore exactly how sublimation functions in the creation of the self,saying that oppression leads to a unique form of alienation which never fully allows the oppressed to learn to sublimate—to translate their bodily impulses into articulated modes of communication—and so they cannot become a full individual, only ever struggling against their place in society, never fully reconciling with it.
These works are very different, so obviously, to achieve their goals, Brown and Oliver lean on distinct tools,methodologies, and sources. Brown focuses on the techniques of religious studies as he examines a religious history: historiography, anthropology, sociology, and linguistic and narrative analysis. He explores the written records and first person accounts of enslaved peoples and their captors, as well as the contextualizing historical documents of Black liberation theorists who were contemporary to the time frame he discusses. Oliver’s project is one of social psychology, and she explores it through the lenses of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis,social construction theory, Hegelian dialectic, and the works of Franz Fanon. She is looking to build psycho-social analysis that takes both the social and the individual into account, fundamentally asking the question “How do we belong to the social as singular?”
While at first it might seem like there is nothing to compare in these texts—one is a religious history, and the other a theory of psychosocial development—the relation between the two books can be found in the title of the second. Each of these books works to explore how psychic space is colonized, resisted, and interrelated, at the levels of the individual, the culture, and the wider society. For Brown, we are looking a fundamental question of how enslaved people were brought to a new land against their will, but still managed to maintain a sense of cultural cohesion and selfhood, even as they adapted and changed to their new horrifying situations.
The land in which they found themselves was framed in a cultural and spiritual mode they could understand and relate to, and which, in many ways, allowed them to find a resonance with the home they had lost. The simbi spirits—or those spirits’ cousins—were waiting for them, when they arrived, and so they were able to related and navigate this new world. But the world changed those relations, as well, made them more transactional, more hierarchical than they used to be; the pressure of their oppression shaped and reframed what they needed from themselves and their community, both physical and spiritual.
For Oliver, we’re looking at a process whereby the alienation unique to oppression relates to the fluid reflexive transmission of affect—specifically, the transmission of negative affects from the colonizer to the colonized. This, Oliver says, is the source of what Fanon notes as the obsessive and phobic neuroses of blacks and whites,respectively. This alienation is different for when it’s both gendered and racialized, but the alienation is clearly and specifically compounded by sexism. As Oliver says, “if women are less able to sublimate than men, it is not because of women’s anatomy, psychology, or individual pathologies but rather because of social repression and the lack of social support required for sublimation.”
Ultimately, for Oliver, oppressed peoples are read and understood differently and are given far less leeway to rebel and individuate themselves,thus remain underdeveloped and unknown to themselves and the world. Singularity,in Oliver’s view comes from reconciliation within the tension of self and society, not the alienation from it. But colonization and oppression are the imposition of values on others, rather than the radical acceptance of the subject, and so this must be corrected, first, if there is tobe any justice. Ethics, she says, is about making meaning in a relational mode,and so the conversation of subjectivities is inherently the most ethical society we can have.
There are a few problems with these texts, but only a few. While the scope of Brown’s research is a particular range of times, he still has too few connections to modern-day transformations of the simbi. The early twentieth century is not likely the end of that discussion, and I think the overall discussion would be enhanced by at least a nod to where many of these practices stand, today. For Oliver’s part, though looking at issues of gender, race, and oppression,and writing in the early 21st century, there is no mention let alone exploration of the structural oppression of transgender or disabled folx; this is fairly large oversight for someone writing about oppression and identity formation, in 2004. Additionally, even though she uses the theory, throughout,she only once mentions intersectionality by name, in the bibliographic reference for a chapter three endnote; that endnote is also the only place she mentions Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw by name. That erasure is a bit ironic for a work about the ways oppression renders out or negates the identities of certain types of Subjects.
Both Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures… and Oliver’s Colonization of Psychic Space explore oppression and colonization can shape knowledge, culture, beliefs, and practices. For Brown, the exploration takes the form of a specific, large-scale cultural cross over in the American Southeast. For Oliver, the key is how cultural modes of expression affect a person’s subjectivity position and individuation—their process of becoming wholly themselves. For each of these authors, the main point of importance is in recognizing that these selves, these cultures, these beliefs and societies, are developed in and depend on a deep understanding of the interrelation between individual and culture, body and spirit, and life and death. Whether simbi or self, we cannot know one, without the other.