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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Conversion : melancholia, masculinity, and psychic change Semper, Samantha


This study chooses three representations of conversion and asks whether these might challenge or ‘talk back’ to discourse about conversion, or whether they simply transfer a deeply problematic melancholic attachment structure? This analysis considers three primary case studies: the religious conversion of St. Augustine as represented in his Confessions; John Howard Griffin’s white racial conversion narrative, Black Like Me; and the Hip-Hop conversion testimony of Caesar L. Willis, Rude Awakening, and his associated spiritual-autobiographical dance practice of krumping. The first two chapters specifically deal with religious conversion: Chapter One offers a reinterpretation of the role of the maternal and paternal object in religious conversion, and Chapter Two proposes a rereading of the conversion of St. Augustine using this model. The remaining chapters analyze conversion discourse in relation to, and from embedded stances within, the dynamics of racialized oppression and legacy of slavery in the United States of America. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva carefully distinguishes between “revolt”, from the Latin, revolvere, a productive ‘return’ and ‘rolling’ over of psychic structures, and the conversion, or conversio, turning, of the Christian man. She argues that religious conversion, the turn to religious faith, that ends in “reconciliation” or “unification” is a compromise: “a primary identification with a loving and protective agency” that is compensatory (24). It is a “fusion” with a “nourishing, loving, and protective” “breast” that is “transposed from the mother’s body to an invisible agency located in another world” (24). Building from this, my analysis argues that this compromise is a specifically melancholic compromise marked by the splitting and fusion with the maternal part-object, which is retained in a dynamic of “rejection, yet attachment to”. Because religious conversion is built on a drive toward ‘wholeness’ that is achieved through the fusion with a part-object, it does not represent an ethical relation or productive revolt. However, this analysis asks whether there are examples of conversion that do not end in a melancholic compromise, but instead open up to what Ranjana Khanna calls “critical melancholia” (22).

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