Queer Subjects of Latina/o Psychoanalysis

Interview with Antonio Viego, Conducted by Joshua Javier Guzmán September 19th 2013

"Untitled (Orpheus Twice)" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres 1991
"Untitled (Orpheus Twice)" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres 1991

JG: I will start by asking how is it that you conceptualize performance and does it factor into your work? Do you see your research contributing to the field of performance studies at all?

AV: I will have to say that I am not at all trained in performance or in performance studies. That said: some of the first objects that I looked at or that said something to me and that were exciting was the early work of Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Coco Fusco and “Couple in a Cage.” That piece in particular I always used as a way of thinking about—what I was waiting for Rey Chow to theorize as “coercive mimeticism” and the ways in which the subject is already in a cage, in a zoo and being looked at. I feel Gomez-Peña and Fusco in some ways began to theorize those things that don’t come up until 2002, the date of Chow’s text.

I have often thought that if I do anything with performance, or that would might make sense to a performance studies scholar and may overlap with performance theory, is the work that I am doing now, which is trying to pay attention to two things: both different performances of different psychoanalytic orientations because analysts perform very differently their labor as analysts. I know that this is slightly or may be too literal an understanding of performance, but when you actually think about what a Kleinian does in an analysis versus a Lacanian, I mean the technical aspects, very different technical ways in which “This is how I am”, “This is how I perform analysis.” So, that I think feels to me in a vague way related to performance theory. And then it extends beyond that, lets say if I were to think about the clinical setting, which I think about a lot. So, I write about what do offices look like? What’s the mise-en-scène of a Lacanian office or a Kleinian office, and the buildings itself? Maybe this is something more like film studies, but there is a lot of attention I pay to how “set ups” are performed and how different orientations handle the question of transmission, from one generation to the next. There had to be an element of a performance of a theory that can be passed down from one generation to another. So that’s the first thing that comes out when I am asked that question, though I have never been asked that question before, actually.

JG: I think one sort of theoretical bent of performance studies is to say that performance theory is more interested, or rather less interested in what things mean or how it is that we know something empirically or what not, and shift to what these objects of knowledge do in the world. In which case, it seems like your work is really sort of preoccupied with this question of knowing what latinidad is or if that is already an impossible project in and of itself. And you do shift into what the Latino subject incites, does and enacts whether within the social fabric of the US or within the psychotherapeutic setting. So maybe you can talk about what is it that the Latino subject creates or does for you?

AV: I think what is happening right now, which is resonating on many different levels with the way I am responding to your question about how I work in relationship to performance studies, is that I do think about how objects, and simply objects, in political settings are made to perform a certain kind of work for the analyst. And they are supposed to move the analysis in one direction versus another. There is a classic example of Lacan, where in his later years when we all know he would stand in sessions and he practiced variably lengthened sessions. But also one thing he would do is he would make them, the analysands, start analysis in one particular room and then make them move to another room and make them stand, looking out of the window. So he was constantly shifting every possible feature of the space itself to see what might happen, what might yield from it. I’ve reached a limit right now—I spoke a little about this yesterday in the paper I delivered last night —what’s really frightening and upsetting in the ways that Latinos are conceptualized in the contemporary psychotherapeutic literature, and by that I don’t mean psychoanalytic literature, where Latinos aren’t written about as a separate entity. There is, however, a Latino psychiatric field where you will find something called Latino psychiatry and common to Latino psychiatry and psychotherapy are a set of assumptions such as: Latinos all collectively experience this tremendous respect and esteem for their therapist which can get in the way of the actual therapy. What these various psychotherapist theorists are doing is they are telling us, for example, that a Latino can never enter into Lacanian psychoanalysis, because the end of a successful analysis in a Lacanian setting is that the analyst has to fall from the position of the Subject (who is) Supposed To Know. But we are told that Latinos are not capable of allowing the analyst to fall from that position. So, I feel like there is an incredible dumbing-down and simplification of the Latino that falls perfectly in line with the way the word and term itself is a dumbing-down and simplification. And I wonder if that is ever going to change. In the lecture, “The Latino Psychiatric Patient” this psychotherapist (Ernestina Carrillo) says what she is supposed to say about the Latino; that it is somewhat of a vacuous term because it refers to too many things. Then she goes through and breaks down the different groups. But then ends up saying…

[food arrives at table]…tofu and beef, here. Then she says “tofu and beef,” that’s what she says. [laughter]

JG: Latinos are kind of like tofu and beef.

AV: They are tofu and beef! [laughter]

But after breaking down these groups, she (Carrillo) still arrives at the exact same conclusion, which is: Latinos are invested in reciprocity, unlike other groups, or in a very exaggerated way. Latino weddings and unions between men and women are much more important to them then any other group. Also in the literature, Latinos are vehemently heterosexualized; I mean you just get the sense that they (men and women) live to be with each other to have children. So again it places them at odds with the Lacanian setting where Lacan says there is no such thing as a sexual relation. That is what I always found fascinating: Because we are always so terrified with their [Latinos’] birthing-prowess, so you would think they might want to just float the idea out there that Latinos are bad at [sex] just so they can convince them not to do it any more.


JG: Yeah. Exactly. I mean what is interesting with the term “Hispanic” is that it holds together those two words: “his” “panic.” And I think you do a good job of showing in your work how anxiety somehow tells us something about the paradigm that is latinidad. Can you talk about what does this anxiety do and how is it staged?

AV: This is a good question and it’s actually one that I thought of when I am pulling this The Life of the Undead book together. We know that in the 19th century, and some people have made this argument, about the 19th century hysteric. Hysteria is still around. But that the 19th Century hysteric is now the new place nowadays for the Latino—the Latino subject occupies the same position as the 19th century hysteric. We then have to think about what then does the Latino present? When you have case studies of Latino patients who are experiencing hysterical conversion symptoms, interestingly enough it is male, so it is engendered more male. We know through Patricia Gherovici’s important work, The Puerto Rican Syndrome, where she talks about returning Puerto Rican soldiers from the Korean War who didn’t want to go [in the first place], and how they were suffering from hysteria. And it actually became a diagnosis, the Puerto Rican syndrome. What would it mean then if the Latino subject is a new figure for the late 19th century female hysteric? But the psychotherapeutic literature is telling us in fact that if there is actually a convergence symptom then maybe it has to do with anxiety. And anxiety is very different than hysteria, which is somatic speech.

When a human subject can’t speak and articulate with words, the body is going to speak anyway. But with the Latino subject it is not so much that, but that they are suffering from anxiety, and if you are following the Lacanian understanding of anxiety, anxiety has to do with the lack of lack. So for hysterics there’s lack, which means it is working. But when there is a lack of lack there is nothing there that suggests that language is lacking. Latinos is some ways are too close to the Real; the distance between the Latino and Trauma has been shortened somehow. And so I thought about this because there are many different ways to go about it. Clearly Latinos represent a kind of trauma for the United States in terms of how they are represented in immigration debates, for example. They are a trauma and even more so because they are a healthy trauma. It would be one thing if Latinos of the epidemiological literature would tell us that Latinos are sick, anxious and depressed and they’re also dying a lot. People would be more or less happy; people would be less stressed. But no! What are we told? That Latinos have anxiety and depression and that they experience this super-health. Women who receive pre-natal care have more and more children. So it’s a frightening [phenomenon] for the United States. That’s why I call the book The Life of the Undead, and I really do think of George Romero’s various Latinos crossing the border half dead and moving on. So I think there is some work that needs to be there and figure out what is the relationship between anxiety and the political, [since] we talk about hysteria and the political all the time. Hysterics remind us that something is going wrong; hysterics practice hysterical identification and so they are able to express something somatically that the culture at large cannot express. If something is going wrong, they can express it…with anxiety. Can we use the same model to think about Latino anxiety? But of course this would mean that some psychotherapists are right.

JG: What is interesting then is that there is a contradiction particularly within the anxiety you express in the writings over the reception of your manuscript-in-progress, The Life of the Undead, and some comments that have been made about how the manuscript is particularly indifferent to suffering and questions of social justice. In this way there seems to be a contradiction in saying that Latinos are expressive of something that is inexpressible, but somehow the only way we can actually make sense of this or give an account of this is through almost being indifferent to something like a political project.

AV: Yeah that is interesting. I mean I wonder what would have happened if the psychotherapists would have been the readers for the project. Because they might have something more interesting to say about, if in fact they believe Latinos do suffer from anxiety and depression more, and here is a project that doesn’t want to say anything about social justice—and not like it doesn’t say anything about social justice, it’s just that I don’t want to be charged with the task of having to solve the problem—but how would they interpret my own strong unconcern to fall into that role. I think it would be interpreted as a kind of hysterical convergence symptom in my wanting to resist. So that not wanting to do this is a kind of resistant politics.

I don’t know if you have read Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons, because I think it is a really useful book for all of us who are working in these identity-knowledge fields. José Muñoz and I have slightly different takes on it because he thinks she is using identity-knowledge in, not a simplistic way but, a reductive way and I don’t see that at all. What she means by identity-knowledge is simply those fields that have had to, for better or worse, think about identity in their fields. But I wonder because anxiety for Lacan, as anxiety for Klein, is productive; it is actually good to think with. Anxiety is not paralysis.

JG: And anxiety actually does something and yet it does not lie.

AV: It doesn’t lie. But then I think about the experience of anxiety itself and the paralysis I have had around writing, which I describe to my analyst as coming out of anxiety. It doesn’t lie; you’ll say anything because anxiety is about being close to something traumatic. And to be too close to something traumatic means you can’t speak, you cannot articulate it. But in talking about this here I am realizing there are a lot of things to do with anxiety. Depression not so much because the Would Health Organization has declared everyone as depressed and it’s the number one malady, etc. But anxiety is something else if you look at it from Lacanian perspective.

JG: Well, this is a question I really wanted to ask you, a question surrounding the experiential and experience as modes of doing theory or knowledge production. On the one hand, in your essay published a special issue of Women and Performance, “Between Psychoanalysis and Affect,” you have this case study, Mr. Martinez. And you want to point out that what’s important about what Mr. Martinez is trying to say is that he is situating himself as a geo-political subject. What’s important for him in the psychoanalytic scene is his trauma of seeing his brother get killed in the Salvadorian Civil War. And this somehow gets left out in the psychotherapeutic analysis. In this way, [Mr. Martinez’s] particular experience is needed in order to complicate any universalizing judgment on behalf of the analyst. But then at the same time, the experiential is used by some people in Latino studies to claim that this is the way that we should be doing theory, “on the ground theory.” We have a whole genre arguably invented in Latino literary studies call the “testimonial” that does this. How do you navigate those two uses (though I am sure there are many more), this contradiction at the intersection of the experiential and theory?

AV: It’s a really good distinction. In talking about Mr. Martinez, it’s really an effort to showcase how psychoanalysis is about deep, specific subjective history of each particular person. The story of the person is important and not just a story that is somewhere out there but how does the person try to narrativize herself as a character in her own life. That is what you are trying to keep track of. And in that case there is no knowability, and not that the analyst did not know about that war or that country. It’s more like, this is beside the point, there is something else going on here.

Now, when I think about the emphasis on the experiential and the lived experience as it happens when there is no psychoanalytic component involved, and when it’s just addressed under the rubric of history, is to be like a historian where you usher in all of this stuff and fill out the fine texture and detail of a particular person’s life. Where that errs to me and where we need a psychoanalytic component—and this is not a “diss” to all historians but [a critique] that has been made in Joan Copjec’s book, Read My Desire—is this. Historians imagine that they can look at the archive and that they can absolutely recreate and rebuild the life of a person or a community with what appears in that archive, without taking into account that when a person is offering an account of their lives she cannot articulate everything about it. There are traumas that cannot be verbalized. What does history do with that? They just don’t talk about it; it’s erased all entirely. This is my problem with a lot of studies, studies I have learned a great deal about what happens at a historical moment. In my first book [Dead Subjects: Towards a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies (2007)] I pay homage to that. But my feeling was really, “Are we really to assume that this is the real story? Why can’t we deal with it in any other kind of strategic way, because these people have traumas and so what doesn’t get communicated? Again, it’s this dumbing-down of Latino experience, and also a lending out of a kind of mastery we wouldn’t give most human subjects within ordinary language. So why are Latinos able to perfectly capture their experiences and others are not?

You can see what is difficult about psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has a question over here about the masterful relationship to language, and this is making me think about some questions I get at conferences accusing me of erasing the agency of the Latino subject. I once had a person ask me a question at a conference: “So you are basically erasing the autonomy and agency of these people?” And I responded with: “Well, no I am not. But I might be erasing your agency because you feel like you should be able to serve as a master of the experience of these other people.” But the distinction you pointed to in the question is a nice segue from the historical subjective specificity of the analysis in the psychoanalytic setting itself and what Latino historians do with history outside of that.

JG: Right. In fact, some people in Latino studies perhaps evidenced in the recent Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader that you were featured in, purport that identities are something very knowable, intelligible and that we can quantify and map them through the experiential or lived experience since we all “have histories” as it were. But of course, from a cultural Marxist prospective “you don’t have history; history has you.”

AV: That’s great. And from a psychoanalytic prospective “Language uses you; you don’t use language.”

JG: Totally. And I think you do a great job in troubling Latino studies and “revealing” certain scholars’ desires to “make sense” and to want to feel as if they have some mastery or control over their lives and the field in general. So, maybe we can close on something like: In [Eve] Sedgwick’s perhaps misreading of Klein’s depressive position, a position of non-mastery is realizing, what Lauren Berlant might call “non-sovereignty,” that the good comes with the bad. How would something like that look like in Latino studies? Are you suppose to be the bad that comes with the promise of what all these other scholars are trying to articulate as something “good”?

AV: That is a complicated question. You know in Klein’s specific definition of the depressive position is that the infant at some point is now finally able to see the mother’s body no longer in terms of part-objects. The depressive position can only come about because the mother can now be seen as whole in some way. So now the infant has to make his or her peace with the various attacks that he or she has staged in the past and accept as well that this whole object is not perfect—this is the birth of guilt, the birth of conscience. Here you see all the interesting ways Klein redoes Freud who has to do all that through the super-ego and Klein predates this by saying that all comes about in another way. So can you clarify what you were saying about the bad objects? That within Latino studies, we have to come to terms with…or how am I supposed to make my peace with the bad and good?

JG: Not maybe make your peace but sort of emphasizing…I guess on one valence: negative affects. That society can’t be productive; we are the walking dead; that the more we desire to know ourselves and have mastery is really only because it’s part of this larger state project.

AV: I see what you are saying. This is really interesting to me. In some ways I guess I am trying to do something like that and it is to challenge other Latino studies scholars to be able to think about themselves. I mean because when you say to someone: “Mastery is sort of impossible,” this is what I say in conferences and then other Latino studies scholars will come back to me and say “Oh great! Well isn’t that what we are constantly being told as Latino studies scholars working in the academy: That we never really get it right, that we are always incomplete, that our scholarship is dodgier and a bastardized version, etc?” It is always taken very personal, right. What would the moment look like when we are able to accept, on the one hand, that we have been denigrated and vilified as incomplete human subjects with respect to social, cultural, political constraints and historical textures? There’s that. But there is also an account of the human subject that has to do with language. Tim Dean talks about it like this: We have to give an account for the losses that are constitutive of the subjectivities as such and the losses that come about from the unequal distribution of social and material resources. Those are two different things. And I think that is what you are getting at…how do we do that? When you speak from within as a Latino studies scholar, even if you have marked yourself as one, then they feel, “Well accounting for those losses with becoming a human subject in language…lets just not even focus on that because that’s what we are seen as anyway.” But it just seems like shoddy scholarship to me.

JG: Right. And I think that this desire for mastery on part of some Latino studies scholarship is still somehow tied or handcuffed to not only ‘68 movements but also that weird narrative that we came to this country because of some sort of dream, and that we still can somehow make that possible by making ourselves heard within the academy and be taken seriously by whomever. Whereas, there are queer kids, as we know, who ran away from home, who were punks, who were bored and indifferent, and were not interested in that dream to begin with because they knew that it was already fake.


And so, isn’t this weird desire for mastery just another way this fantasy is playing out?

AV: I find a lot in the material on Latino focus groups from sociological research that says that it only takes like what three years before immigrants realize that the “American Dream” is really a joke. Here we get those nauseating advertising campaigns that say, “You can be anything you want to be” or “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” Which is so completely and aptly false because it is never the first day of your life. And the very sort of capitalist strain in all that: “You can be anything you want to be, the tools are there, just do it! (And if you don’t do it, you’re a loser.)” And so psychoanalysts will insist that there are constraints that are already in place that prevent certain things from happening, but it doesn’t mean you are going to be a miserable person. Are you going to be the richest person in the world—maybe not. But do you need to think about maybe why it is that you want that desire in the first place? …So, yeah.

Joshua Javier Guzmán is currently a 2015-2016 UC President's Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at UC Berkeley. In the fall he will begin as Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is completely a manuscript tentatively titled, Brown Power and Its Discontents: Queer Latina/o Performance and the Politics of Style, which examines Latino subcultural production in a very contentious post-1968 Los Angeles.

Antonio Viego is Associate Professor of Literature at Duke University and is author of Dead Subjects: Towards a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies.


1. Viego’s paper was presented at a roundtable discussion entitled “The Queer Subjects of Latino Psychoanalysis” with Licia Fiol-Mata and moderated with José Muñoz on September 18th, 2013 at the Department of Performance Studies at NYU.

2. Wiegman, Robyn. Object Lessons. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012.

3. Viego, Antonio. “The Life of the undead: Biopower, Latino anxiety and the epidemiological paradox.” Women and Performance, 19: 2 (2009). 131-147.

4. Copjec, Joan. Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicist. New York, NY: Verso, 1994.

5. Hames-Garcia, Michael and Ernesto Javier Martínez, eds. Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. See Viego’s essay in the anthology, “The Place of Gay Male Chicano Literature.”

6. Davis, Heather and Paige Sarlin, “No One Is Soverign in Love: A Conversation Between Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt,” amour 18 (2011) <http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/no-one-is-sovereign-in-love-a-conversation-between-lauren-berlant-and-michael-hardt/>