Listening to and as Contemporaries: W.E.B. Du Bois & Sigmund Freud
Inspired by the recent Black Perspectives “W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150” Online Forum, SO!’s “W.E.B. Du Bois at 150” amplifies the commemoration of the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth in 2018 by examining his all-too-often and all-too-long unacknowledged role in developing, furthering, challenging, and shaping what we now know as “sound studies.”
It has been an abundant decade-plus (!!!) since Alexander Weheliye’s Phonographies “link[ed] the formal structure of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the contemporary mixing practices of DJs” (13) and we want to know how folks have thought about and listened with Du Bois in their work in the intervening years. How does Du Bois as DJ remix both the historiography and the contemporary praxis of sound studies? How does attention to Du Bois’s theories of race and sound encourage us to challenge the ways in which white supremacy has historically shaped American institutions, sensory orientations, and fields of study? What new futures emerge when we listen to Du Bois as a thinker and agent of sound?
Over the next two months, we will be sharing work that reimagines sound studies with Du Bois at the center. Pieces by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Kristin Moriah, Aaron Carter-Ényì, Austin Richey, Julie Beth Napolin, and Vanessa Valdés, move us toward a decolonized understanding and history of sound studies, showing us how has Du Bois been urging us to attune ourselves to it. To start the series from the beginning, click here.
Readers, today’s post (the first of an interwoven trilogy of essays) by Julie Beth Napolin explores Du Bois and Freud as lived contemporaries exploring entangled notions of melancholic listening across the Veil.
–Jennifer Lynn Stoever and Liana Silva, Eds.
When W.E.B. Du Bois began the first essay of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) with a bar of melody from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” he paired it with an epigraph taken from a poem by Arthur Symons, “The Crying of Water”:
O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
A listener, the poem’s speaker can’t be sure of the source of the sound, whether it is inward or outward. Something of its sound is exiled and resonates with Symons’ biographical position as a Welshman writing in English, an imperial tongue. At the heart of the poem is a meditation on language, communication, and listening. Personified, the water longs to be understood and sounds out the listener’s own interiority that struggles to be communicated. The poem’s speaker hears himself in the water, but he is nonetheless divided from it. If he could understand the source of the sound in a suppressed or otherwise unavailable memory, the speaker might be put back together. But listening all night long, that understanding does not come.
Together, the poem and song serve as a circuitous opening to Du Bois’ “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” an essay that grounds itself in Du Bois’ training as a sociologist to detail “the color line,” which Du Bois takes to be the defining problem of 20th century America. The color line is not simply a social and economic problem of the failed projects of Emancipation and Reconstruction, but a psychological problem playing out in what Du Bois is quick to name “consciousness.” As the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895, Du Bois had studied with psychologist William James, famous for coining the phrase “the stream of thought” in his modernist opus, The Principles of Psychology (1890). In her study of pragmatism and politics in Du Bois, Mary Zamberlin describes how James encouraged his students to listen to lectures in the way that one “receives a song” (qtd. 81). In his techniques of writing, Du Bois adopts and reinforces the paramount place of intuition and receptivity in James’ thought to conjoin otherwise opposed concepts. Demonstrated by the opening epigraphs themselves, Du Bois’ techniques often trade in a lyricism that stimulates the reader’s multiple senses.
I argue that Du Bois surpasses James by thinking through listening consciousness in its relationship to what we now call trauma. While I will remark upon the specific place of the melody in Du Bois’ propositions, I want to focus on the more generalized opening of his book in the sounds of suffering, crying, and what Jeff T. Johnson might call “trouble.” The contemporary understanding of trauma, as a belated series of memories attached to experiences that could not be fully grasped in their first instance, comes to us not from the scientific discipline of psychology, but rather psychoanalysis.
Among the field’s first progenitors, Sigmund Freud, was a contemporary of Du Bois. Though trained as a medical doctor, Freud sought to free the concept of the psyche from its anatomical moorings, focusing in particular on what in the human subject is irrational, unconscious, and least available to intellectual mastery. His thinking of trauma became most pronounced in the years following WWI, when he observed the consequences of shell-shock. Freud discovered a more generalizable tendency in the subject to go over and repeat painful experiences in nightmares. Traumatic repetition, he noted, is a subject struggling to remember and to understand something incredibly difficult to put into words. At the heart of Freud’s methods, of course, was listening and the observations it afforded, grounding his famous notion of the “talking cure.” Because trauma is so often without clear expression, Freud listened to language beyond meaning, beyond what can be offered up for scientific understanding.
The beginning of Souls, along with its final chapter on “sorrow songs,” slave song or spirituals, tells us that Du Bois’ project shared that same auditory core. Du Bois was listening to consciousness, that is, developing a theory of a listening (to) consciousness in an attempt to understand the trauma of racism and the long, drawn-out historical repercussions of slavery. Importantly, however, Du Bois’ meditation on trauma precedes Freud’s. But Du Bois’ thinking also surpasses Freud in beginning from the premise that trauma is the sine qua non of theorizing racism, which makes itself felt not only outwardly in social and economic structures, but inwardly in consciousness and memory.
Du Bois claimed that he hadn’t been sufficiently Freudian in diagnosing white racism as a problem of irrationality. He didn’t mean by this that Freud himself made such a diagnosis, but rather that Freud was correct in refusing to underestimate what is least understandable about people. Freud’s thinking, however, remained mired in racist thinking of Africa. Though he claimed to discover a universal subject in the structure of the psyche—no one is free from the unconscious—racist thinking provided the language for the so-called “primitive” part of the human being in drives. This primitivism shaped Freud’s myopic thinking of female sexuality, famously remarking that female sexuality is the “Dark Continent,” i.e. unavailable to theory. Freud drew the phrase from the imperialist travelogues of Henry Morton Stanley in the same moment that Du Bois was turning to Africa to find what he called, both with and against Hegel, a “world-historical people.” As I argue, Du Bois found in the music descended from the slave trade not only a “gift” and “message” to the world, but the ur-site for theorizing trauma.
Ranjana Khanna has shown how colonial thinking was the precondition for Freudian psychoanalysis. Anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, for example, both took up and resisted Freud when he elaborated the effects of racism as the origin of black psychopathology, i.e. feelings of being split or divided. Du Bois, like Fanon after him, was hearing trauma politically as a structural event. The complex intellectual biography of Du Bois, which includes a time of studying (in German) at Berlin’s Humboldt University, mandated that he took from European philosophical interlocutors what he needed, creating a hybrid yet decidedly new theory of listening consciousness. That hybridity is exemplified by the opening of his book, an antiphony between two disparate sources bound to each other across the Atlantic through what I will call hearing without understanding. In this post, I ask what Du Bois can tell us about psychoanalytic listening and its ongoing potential for sound studies and why Freud had difficultly listening for race.
“Psychoanalysis . . . , more than any twentieth-century movement,” writes Eli Zaretsky in Political Freud, “placed memory at the center of all human strivings toward freedom” (41). He continues, “By memory I mean no so much objective knowledge of the past or history but rather the subjective process of mastering the past so that it becomes part of one’s identity.” In 1919, Freud gave a name to the experience resounding for Du Bois in Symons’ poem “The Crying of Water:” “melancholia.” Unlike mourning after the death of a loved one, whose aching and cries pass with time, melancholia is an ongoing, integral part of subjects who have lost more inchoate things, such as nation or an ideal. This loss, Freud contended, could in fact be constitutive of identity, or the “ego,” Latin for “I” (“is it I? Is it I?” Symons asks). In mourning, one knows what has been lost; in melancholia, one can’t totally circumscribe its contours.
Zaretsky details the way that Freudianism, particularly after its rapid expansion in the US after WWI, became a resource for the transformation of African American political and cultural consciousness, playing a pronounced role in the Harlem Renaissance, the Popular Front, and anti-imperialist struggles. Zaretsky rightly positions Du Bois and his 1903 text as the beginning of a political and cultural transformation, but it is an anachronism to suggest that Freudianism contributed to Du Bois’ early work. Not only does Du Bois’ analysis of “The Crying of Water” predate Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” by nearly two decades, the two thinkers were contemporaries. In the years that Freud was writing his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, which became the body of his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Du Bois was compiling his previous publications for The Souls of Black Folk, along with writing a new essay to conclude it, “The Sorrow Songs,” a sustained reflection on melancholia and its cultural reverberations in song. 1903 is the year of Souls compilation, not composition.
Du Bois’ thinking of a racialized listening consciousness is not only contemporary to Freud, but also fulfills and outstrips him. To approach Du Bois and Freud as contemporaries involves positioning them as listeners on different, but not opposing sides of what Du Bois calls the “Veil.” It is the psychological barrier traumatically instantiated by racialization, which Du Bois famously describes in the first chapter of Souls. The Veil, Jennifer Stoever describes, is both a visual and auditory figure, the barrier through which one both sees and hears others.
To better define the Veil, Du Bois—like Frederick Douglass before him—returns to a painful childhood scene that inscribed in his memory the violence of racial difference and social hierarchy. Early works of African American literature often turn to memoir, writing their elided subjectivity into history. But we miss something if we don’t recognize there a proto-psychoanalytic gesture. In the middle of a sociological, political essay, Du Bois writes of the painful memory of a little white girl rejecting his card, a gift. In this, we can recognize the essential psychoanalytic gesture of returning to the traumatic past of the individual as a forge for self-actualization in the present.
As Paul Gilroy has described, Du Bois’ absorption of Hegel’s thought while at Humboldt cannot be underestimated, particularly in terms of the famous master-slave dialectic. In this dialectic, the slave-consciousness emerges as victorious because the master depends on him for his own identity, a struggle that Hegel described as taking place within consciousness. Like Hegel, Zaretsky notes, Du Bois understood outward political struggle to be bound to “internal struggle against . . . psychic masters” (39). I would state this point differently to note that Du Bois’ traumatic experience as a raced being had already taught him the Hegelian maxim: the smallest unit of being is not one, but two. For Hegel, the slave knows something the master doesn’t: I am only complete to the extent that I recognize the other in myself and that the other recognizes me in herself. That is the essential lesson that an adult Du Bois gleans from the memory of the little girl who will not listen to him. He recognizes that she, too, is incomplete.
The essential difference between psychoanalysis and the Hegelian thrust of Du Bois’ essay, however, is that while a traditional analysand seeks individual re-making of the past—not only childhood, but a historical past that shapes an ongoing political present– Du Bois emphasizes the collective and in ways that cannot be reduced to what Freud later calls the “group ego.” If we restore the place of Du Bois at the beginnings of psychoanalysis and its ways of listening to ego formation, then we find that race, rather than being an addendum to its project, is at its core.
We can begin by turning to a paradigmatic scene for psychoanalytic listening, the one that has most often been taken up by sound studies: the so-called “primal scene.” In among the most famous dreams analyzed by Freud, Sergei Pankejeff (a.k.a. the “Wolf Man”) recalls once dreaming that he was lying in bed at night near a window that slowly opened to reveal a tree of white wolves. Silent and staring, they sat with ears “pricked” (aufgestellt). Pricked towards what? The young boy couldn’t hear, but he sensed the wolves must have been responding to some sound in the distance, perhaps a cry.
In “The Dream and the Primal Scene” section of “From the History of An Infantile Neurosis” (1914/1918), Freud concluded that the dream was grounded in the young boy’s traumatic experience of witnessing his parents having sex. Calling this the “primal scene,” Freud conjectured that there must have been an event of overhearing sounds the young boy could not understand. In the letters he exchanged with Fliess, Freud had begun to attend to the strange things heard in childhood as the basis for fantasy life and with it, sexuality.
The primal scene is therefore crucial for Mladen Dolar’s theory in A Voice and Nothing More when he pursues the implications of an unclosed gap between hearing and understanding. In the Wolf Man’s case, it is impossible, Freud writes, for “a deferred revision of the impressions…to penetrate the understanding.” In Dolar’s estimation, the deferred relation between hearing and understanding defines sexuality and is the origin of all fantasy life. This gap in impressions cannot be closed or healed, and, for Jacques Lacan it also orients the failure of the symbolic order to bring the imaginary order to language. From this moment forward, psychoanalytic theory argues the subject is “split,” listening in a dual posture for the threat of danger and the promise of pleasure. Following Lacan, Dolar, Michel Chion, and Slavoj Žižek return to the domain of infantile listening—listening that occurs before a person has fully entered into speech and language—to explain the effects of the “acousmatic,” or hearing without seeing.
After Freud, the phrase “primal scene” has taken on larger significance as a traumatic event that, while difficult to compass, nonetheless originates a new subject position that makes itself available to a collective identity and identification. The original meaning of hearing sexual and libidinal signals without understanding them, I would suggest, holds sway. Psychoanalytic modes of listening, particularly if restored to its political origins in racism, offer resources for what it means to listen beyond understanding, but such thinking of race immediately folds into intersectional thinking of gender and sexuality. Consider the place of the traumatic memory of the little girl who rejects the card. In The Sovereignty of Quiet, Kevin Quashie returns to Du Bois’ primal scene to note how the scene takes place in silence, for she rejects it, in Du Bois’ terms, “with a glance.” I want to expand upon this point to note that where there is silence, there is nonetheless listening. Du Bois is listening for someone who will not speak to him; he desires to be listened to and the card—a calling card—figures a kind of address.
It has gone largely unnoticed that, to the extent that the scene is structured by the master-slave dialectic, it is also structured by desire. This scene of trauma is shattering for both boy and girl. The desire coursing through the scene is suppressed in Du Bois’ adult memory in favor of its meaning for him as a political subject. What would it mean to recollect, on both sides, the trace of sexual (and interracial) desire? In “Resounding Souls: Du Bois and the African American Literary Tradition,” Cheryl Wall notes the scant place for black women in the political imaginary of this text. This suppression, I would argue, already begins in the memory of the girl who appears under the sign of the feminine more generally. The fact that she is white, however, casts a greater taboo over the scene and therefore allows more for a suppression of sexuality in his memory. Du Bois emerges as a political agent disentangled from black women—with one notable exception, the maternal, and this exception demands that we listen with ears pricked to “The Sorrow Songs,” as Du Bois’ early contribution to the psychoanalytic theory of melancholia.
Next week, part two will further explore The Souls of Black Folk as a “displaced beginning of psychoanalytic modes of listening,” emphasizing the African melodies once sung by his grandfather’s grandmother that Du Bois’s hears as a child, as “a partial memory and a mode of overhearing.”
Featured Images: “Nobody Knowns the Trouble I See” from The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 1, “W.E.B. Du Bois” by Winold Reiss (1925), “Sigmund Freud” by Andy Warhol (1962)
Julie Beth Napolin is Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, a musician, and radio producer. She received a PhD in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work participates in the fields of sound studies, literary modernism and aesthetic philosophy, asking what practices and philosophies of listening can tell us about the novel as form. She served as Associate Editor of Digital Yoknapatawpha and is writing a book manuscript on listening, race, and memory in the works of Conrad, Du Bois, and Faulkner titled The Fact of Resonance. Her work has appeared in qui parle, Fifty Years After Faulkner (ed. Jay Watson and Ann Abadie), and Vibratory Modernism (ed. Shelley Trower and Anthony Enns).
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“Scenes of Subjection: Women’s Voices Narrating Black Death“–Julie Beth Napolin
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Tags: Arthur Symons, “The Crying of Water”, “The Dream and the Primal Scene”, Hortense Spillers, Jacques Lacan, Julie Beth Napolin, Mladen Dolar, Psychoanalytic Listening, Rizvana Bradley, Sergei Pankejeff, Sigmund Freud, Teodor Reik, The Haunting Melody, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
About napolinjbAssistant Professor, Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College, The New School
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