Theory Teacher's Blog

Intercultural Competency: A Psychoanalysis

For the past decade or more, colleges and universities around the country have been revising their curricula to include something that the administration likes to call “intercultural competency” (something I have written about twice before [here] and [here].) The idea is so prevalent that there is even a wikipedia article about it, as well as many textbooks such as this one [here] for majors in Communication, Elementary Education, Business-Management, and so on. The basic idea is that in the pluralistic, multicultural world in which we live today, college graduates are more likely to work with people of other races and people from other countries than ever before, and therefore colleges ought to prepare its students. To put it another way, the administration is catching up to what literature professors have been doing already for the past thirty years and to what the Civil Rights movement campaigned for half a century ago. Different colleges have implemented this requirement differently, some requiring just one class on the appreciation of difference, and others requiring two distinct classes, one on the subject of racial diversity within the United States and the other on international relations and cross-cultural dialogue. Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses, but those will not be the subject of my blog post today. Significantly, one of the most popular television shows of the past decade among the undergraduate population, The Office, devoted its second episode to the subject of intercultural competency. In this satirical comedy, the more the boss tried to be interculturally competent by instituting “diversity day” at the office, the more he exposed how incompetent and culturally insensitive he actually is. The show is more than just a parody of the impotence of badly managed intercultural competency; it is also symptomatic of the psychological anxiety many Americans still have about the issue. As Freud points out in his famous essay on jokes, it is that anxiety that makes the joke culturally resonant and makes us laugh, even though the joke typically displaces that anxiety onto something easier for the audience to deal with emotionally.

As the episode of The Office and Freud’s essay suggest, what might make a class on intercultural competency hard to teach — and even harder to institutionalize — is that it is not simply a set of information that the student must learn. Rather, it asks that the students come to terms with their selves — their biases, desires, privileges — some of which may be conscious, some of which may be unconscious. And as all my students in my introduction to theory are well aware, once the notion of the “self” is posited as an important dimension of the curriculum, then things get tricky. Often the course may enter uncomfortable territory not because the student is encountering a new, foreign culture (as many administrators wrongly believe), but actually because they are encountering uncomfortable things about themselves that they already know but don’t want to think about. For instance, ideally, we have all been taught that an equitable society for men and women of all colors and creeds is desirable, but at the same time we also recognize that this is not in fact the case and that there is a huge gap between the ideals of our society and its realities. Some of us may have privileges, opportunities, and good fortune that others don’t have. Everyone is aware of this gap, but few want to confront it. Notice that this discomfort has to do with a political and sociological difference, not a cultural one. Hence, the very conceptualization of “intercultural competency” is already a problematic displacement of a thorny political question onto a cultural schematic. In my view, the fact that many people naturally gravitate towards the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar isn’t enough to cause discomfort in intercultural competency classes; rather, what’s uncomfortable is the things about ourselves and our world that we are all too familiar with but would prefer not to take responsibility for.

Now, I don’t want to claim that intercultural competency is all about the psychology of the student, or that it’s all about the equally problematic psychology of the institution. Most of it is about the appreciation of different cultures along with the history of race relations and/or international relations, including histories of colonization and imperialism. Such is the manifest content of class work — the stuff one studies. However, the latent content of the class is its meaning for the self. And because I just taught my intro-to-theory class the essays of Freud, Lacan, and Derrida, I am deliberately using terminology from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams that distinguishes between the “manifest content” (or the stuff in the dream) and the “latent content” (or, what the stuff means.) In other words, the stuff on the syllabus for any class is naturally going to be primarily content about different cultures, ethnicities, races, etc., and there are hundreds of ways to approach this content that reflect political and methodological differences among faculty. However, regardless of the content, the impetus behind the syllabus, or the drive that motivates requiring it, is of course the actual relationship of the student not only to people of other cultures or races, but also the student’s understanding of his or her ethical understanding of self and other. In some ways, then, the latent content of the class is ethics and psychology, even though most of the manifest content may not be either ethics or psychology. There would seem to be a slippage between the manifest content (the study of culture, history, literature, etc.) and the latent content (ethics, psychology, etc.). When the slippage between multiple subjects is considered, it is easy to see why this is a hard curricular requirement to wrap one’s head around. The course slides between the academic subjects of history, literature, culture, psychology, ethics, etc.  Moreover, always grounding this linked chain of subjects is another subject — the self or “I” (note the double meaning of “subject” here), what Freud calls the “ego.”

(A brief theoretical joke for those who have read Jacques Lacan’s “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” Please skip this parenthesis if you haven’t. Following the example of Lacan’s joke about the mathematical algorithm for Freudian psychology, we might give the variable subjects in the class a capital letter “S” for “Subject” and the variable stuff in the intercultural class a lower case “s” for stuff. Lacan’s algorithm for the relationship between language and the unconscious is that the function of the Signifier (S) is the relationship between the ego (I) and the signified (s), and we might jokingly say that the function of the Subject (S) is the relationship between the student’s’ ego and the stuff in the class. Consequently, whatever the variable Subjects (S) of the class are, their relationship to its various stuff (s) and therefore its very meaning in society is a function of ego, hahahaha, and this is why the Subject of a class on intercultural competency inevitably slides along a chain of Subjects, from culture to history to literature to political science to ethics to psychology, etc. In other words, in Derrida’s terms, the central point of intercultural competency is by definition absent and decentered along a signifying chain.)

Hence, if there is always a psychological component, whether or not this component is actually on the syllabus, I propose a psychoanalysis via Jacques Lacan. In his seminal essay, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan argues that many pop psychologists mistakenly understand the unconscious id of Freud’s theory as instinctual drive. However, the unconscious is not instincts at all, but is in fact the aspects of our relationship to our own culture that we suppress and displace through complex symbols. His argument is long and difficult, but for the sake of this blog, I want to boil it down to three versions of the Cartesian cogito that Lacan explores. Following Lacan’s exploration of these three formulations, I will explore three versions of intercultural competency, each based on one of these formulas for the self’s relationship to critical thinking.

    • I think therefore I am.
    • I think where I am.
    • I think where I am not; therefore I am where I do not think.

The first is the famous line “I think therefore I am.” Here the philosopher René Descartes explores our ability to doubt received wisdom and to question our very existence, but ultimately resolves this doubt by positing a thinking subject that exists. There is something wonderfully appealing and universal to this idea, and somewhat radical for his own time since it places the burden of rational and ethical thought on the individual subject rather than on God. The upshot for an intercultural competency class is that the students are given the tools to think critically about their own culture. Hence, the goal is to transcend the arbitrariness and randomness of culture instead of wrongly believing that your own culture is in some way normal or universal. What many philosophers have criticized, however, is the idea of a self-contained individual subject that is doing all this thinking. Most of us are aware that our thoughts respond to external stimuli, are derived from language that we have no control over, etc. Hence, in order to situate the subject in his or her environment or cultural context, Lacan humorously suggests a revision of the statement to “I think where I am.”

What are the implications of this second formulation for intercultural competency? Well, the first version implies that all human beings are rational thinking beings. There is something wonderfully universal about this, and much of the ideology of modern Europe was the believe in the universality of modern science and human rights. However, there are many challenges to this ideology. Most of the “rights” encoded in our Constitution and the United Nations Charter are individual rights. However, people don’t live alone; they live in communities, which has caused the United Nations to add “cultural” and “community” rights to its manifest. We are not just individual thinking subjects; we are also members of specific cultural locations. Hence, Lacan’s second versions of the cogito draws attention to the goals of intercultural competency typically set forth by college administrations: (1) to appreciate other cultures, and (2)  to appreciate that one comes from a culture oneself. In other words, one may think that there is a “normal” way of doing things and a “normal” or “universal” way of understanding rights and responsibilities, or one may also think that it’s possible for a rational individual to transcend the arbitrariness of culture, but in fact our very way of thinking is conditioned by the circumstances in which we happen to live. To put it another way, when we think, we think with the various tools for thinking that our culture gives to us. And this is what Lacan means when he suggests that we think where we are. We think through our culture.

However, Lacan is unsatisfied with this for all sorts of reasons. First and foremost, it’s not true. We don’t think where we are. Culture is not so deterministic, and ethical values are not so relativistic. In fact, when we think of ourselves, we always do so in relation to other people and other spaces. For instance, men both desire and fear women. Our imagination of ourselves is always in relation to desires and fears, and an important contribution of psychoanalytic theory is that we don’t simply fear difference; we also desire it. If we think of the earliest examples of classic literature, they are always imagining the self in far-away locations: e.g., Thomas More’s Utopia, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe’s Robison Crusoe. The more popular example of James Bond movies take this utopian imagination even further as the secret agent Bond always expresses himself by seducing exotic, foreign women. Even the Bible begins by defining humanity in terms of a lost paradise. So, the notion of intercultural competency that suggests we simply appreciate where we come from and where others come from is somewhat impotent and wrongheaded. More dangerously, it is also deterministic as it assumes that a culture determines the way we think. Against such a deterministic understanding of culture, we can appreciate that even though two people may come from the same culture, they may also differ from each other in all sorts of ways. The human imagination is broader and more  interesting than simply one’s cultural location. It is not simply a reflection of where one comes from. Those who posit a version of intercultural competency along the lines of “they have a culture and I have a culture and I must appreciate both” are not just factually wrong in really obvious ways; they are wrong in a way that is horribly unethical.

Hence, we have two paradigms: one is Descartes’s individual rational subject who doubts everything but seems unaware of the role cultural difference plays in his or her own thinking, and the other is overly deterministic in its premise that we simply think the way our culture teaches us to. Neither of these are satisfactory, and neither gets us very far. How do we reconcile these two very different iterations of the cogito — of how we think and how we recognize ourselves thinking?

To answer this question, Lacan concludes with this version of the cogito: I think where I am not; therefore, I am where I do not think.

This formula, I believe, provides a more useful and factually accurate understanding of cultural difference. On a very simple level, it helps students discover that stereotypes are not just incorrect understandings of others. Rather, it helps students understand how stereotypes are expressions of the cultural generating the stereotype — its desires, its fears, etc. In other words, we understand ourselves through metaphorical figurations of others. To give you a recent illustration of this, one author has angrily argued against something he calls White Savior Industrial Complex. This is a perfect example of the how Americans feel good about themselves by saving Africans, which is a feel-good situation that first requires that the Americans understand themselves in relation to a stereotype of Africans. For another example, I have written about Oromo ethnic culture in America and in Ethiopia with Lacan’s theory in mind [here]. Another example might be the popularity of “gangsta rap” in mostly white, middle-class suburbs. In addition, on a more fundamental, epistemological level, Lacan anticipates the work of recent philosophers of science and philosophers of mind that question the mind-body dualism of Descartes and assert that our mind thinks not only with our body but also with our body’s physical relationship to the world.

Therefore, if thinking always happens in relation to a world, then in order to understand ourselves, and in order to become ethical individuals, we need to understand the world, and here we come full circle back to the very impetus behind intercultural competency in the first place — the world we live in. In other words, the stuff (lower case “s”). However, it’s not enough simply to study the stuff, because how we imagine the stuff is crucial. In other words, the Subject (upper case “S”) directs our understanding of the stuff (s). If Lacan is right, that we understand ourselves through our rather metaphorical imagination of others, then the question of how to teach the psychological component of intercultural competency is key.

What I think is cool about Lacan’s formula for the relationship between thinking and selfhood is that it opens up the slipperiness of identity, the possibility of change, the role of the imagination, the necessity of self-criticism, and the recognition that we are in essence incomplete beings. Think about it. Why do we both fear and desire others? Because we are at root dissatisfied with ourselves. We are incomplete. Hence the metaphor for marriage “better half” and “she completes me.” Intercultural competency is, in part, a quest for completeness and a meaningful life.

In conclusion, and to return to the episode of The Office about the bumbling attempt to overcome stereotypes, we can see the boss articulating his own identity through various personas — Chris Rock, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. In other words, he believes he is leading his office to become interculturally competent because he is endorsing black celebrities, but his imagination of himself through them is precisely what is offensive because his starting place is the assumption of difference and the fetishization of specific tropes (metonymies) of that difference. The show clearly indicates that this is foolish, but unfortunately, the show does not give us any positive indication of what might be better. The show does not provide any space for individuals to actually have a real conversation about difference. In order for a class about difference to be meaningful, the starting point needs to be the extent to which we are interdependent, incomplete individuals. On a very basic level, I rely on others for food, clothing, shelter, knowledge,  culture, etc. Where does it all come from and how does it move? Why don’t I want to think about the conditions in which my T-shirts were made and the extent to which my identity depends on the teenage girl in Mexico who made it. That’s the starting point.


March 22, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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