Sunday, June 18, 2006

The alchemy of "race".

Rights and Riots are appearing frequently in the UK media. Probably—somewhere in the media’s mind—this comes about as a response to the London bombings and a continuing fear of social insurrection. In a short space of time, there have been programmes on the Bradford Race Riots (2001), the Soweto Riots (1976) and the Notting Hill Riots (1976). Most interestingly, there also has been Jack Straw and Condoleeza Rice discussing the Civil Rights Movement in America and drawing a parallel between Blackburn and Alabama. Both places, apparently, had to re-build a social-structure based on slavery. BLACKburn was almost created as the UK’s welcome to the USA. One word that struck oddly in this political discussion was “transformation”, as if some magical event had taken place in the USA and the UK. A description that is unnervingly close to another song that is still being sung: the “alchemy” of race.
“Alchemy” is used quite freely as a metaphor, but its usage sits very uncomfortably in the context of race (and racism). More than anyone, C.G.Jung has drawn attention to alchemy as a psychological process. The Collective Unconscious has become a commonplace and the archetypes are no strangers to public consciousness. But there seems to be little questioning of how these archetypes are drawn. In the mainstream, the archetypes are visualised through their classical forms. They are whitened. Though the origins of alchemy are supposedly deep in Africa and the word itself translates as “(of) the Black Lands” alchemy is not exactly friendly towards blackness. Much of what is known about this art-science is passed on through the writings of the white imagination and Jung, himself, as a white patriarch, isn’t a neutral observer.
A reading of Jung’s Die Psychologie der Uebertragung (1946), described by Jung as the crux of alchemy and psychotherapy, shows this position. By 1946, Jung’s political positioning had changed: he had severed any links with Nazism (and its Wotan-archetype?) and become a psychological advisor to the Allies. But his “uncritical” depicting of alchemy, I would suggest, looks today more like Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba. This is not to imply that Jung held any Nazi sympathies. But just as a Nazi propagandist (fully aware of her country’s racial hatred towards the Black “race”) could turn into an admirer of an African tribe and be unaware of her racial fetishism, so Jung leaves the Nigredo of alchemy unquestioned: it is emulated, like Riefenstahl’s Nuba men, whilst the negative primitivism surrounding it goes unnoticed. In his work on the transformation phenomenon, Jung refers to the Nigredo/Blackness as the Unconscious, the Shadow, the Black Sun, the Black Shade, uncleanliness, sin and the spiritual pole to the Whiteness/Albedo. All of these terms assemble in the alchemist’s image of the Ethiopian, the Moor, the Black Man who needs to be washed clean. Surely, this archetype is a product of the White, European, Patriarchal, Capitalist, Colonial-minded imagination, something that betrays the interpreters of alchemy. It is hard to imagine how such a destructive image could be a worthwhile structuring principle for an individual from Africa or of African descent. The alchemy of race? Not with a racist alchemy!

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