Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Critical psychology in Santiago, Chile

When it is your first time in Santiago, Chile, you may be forgiven for being somewhat taken aback by the friendliness and warmth of the people in this South American country. Few people here speak English, but it has happened several times that, when we stop to consult our map, someone comes up to us and offers their assistance. By presenting the biennial International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) conference in this beautiful city, on a continent where critical psychology is widely taught, one is in a privileged position — here one can extend the boundaries of this important discipline further. Against the backdrop of the ever-encroaching “space of flows” (Castells), with its dehumanising influence, the importance of critical psychology cannot be overemphasised, in contrast to the still largely hegemonic function of mainstream psychology. The latter merely assists subjects in their obsessional-neurotic attempts to adapt to neoliberal society, which alienates them from their creative human potential.

The more thought-provoking papers at the conference elaborate various lines-of-flight (Deleuze) in relation to our society of increasing control. Here I can only comment on a few of them. Gregory Bistoen of Ghent in Belgium expanded the theoretical field within which both resistance to the status quo and hope for a reconfiguration of the social are located, by drawing an illuminating parallel between Lacan’s theory of trauma and Badiou’s understanding of the “event” in pointing to the isomorphism between the two. In both cases one witnesses a rupturing of an existing state of affairs by something excessive (the elusive real, for Lacan, and the “event” for Badiou). The effect of this is to tear apart the fabric of individual self- and world-comprehension, on the one hand, and to shatter the social fabric in a similar way, on the other. What Bistoen argued is that, in both cases, it is the inability to account for the excess in terms of existing symbolic and imaginary structures that opens the way for a reconfiguration of subjectivity and of the social bond, failing which the normalising order would simply reassert itself, pre-empting any possibility of salutary change.

Esteban Radiszcz and Danilo Sanhueza, in their evocative interpretation of the installation, “Lament of the Images” by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, demonstrated the power of artistic sublimation in the Lacanian sense. Jaar’s installation, juxtaposing texts pertaining to the disappearance of important images through a kind of “theft”, made possible by financial and military power, with an empty, but dazzlingly bright screen, lays the foundation for viewers’ experience of the paradoxical function of art : its capacity to subvert dominant power-relations by triggering their desire for a surplus-enjoyment occluded by the privatisation and militarisation of image-space.

One of the most interesting experiences at the conference was participating in an active workshop on the role of “Critical Psychology as Process in a Neoliberal Context”. This was organised by three psychologists from City University of New York, namely Michelle Billies, Akemi Nishida, and Rachel Liebert. Staged as a series of actions through which one could rediscover the tangible, physical effects of the neoliberalisation of universities globally on one’s body, we were invited to identify ourselves as that body-part (your lower back, from long hours in front of the computer, or one’s stomach, where stress manifests as irritable bowel, etc) which registers, symptomatically, the effects of neoliberal norms. The latter include corporate models of hierarchy in education (turning deans and heads of departments into “managers”), the prejudicial distribution of resources, expectations of hyper-productivity in publishing, relentless competition, standardisation and selfish individualism. As the presenters pointed out, these values, which have been transferred into academia from the corporate world, effectively create barriers to collegial participation among academics in teaching and research. In addition the expectation of administrative “thoroughness”, of bureaucratic archiving and of self- as well as peer-policing, combined with downplaying of individual responsibility, have the effect of reducing individuals to passive cogs in the academic machine.

What became clear in the course of the workshop was the extent to which academics are constructed as passive agents of the reinforcement of the neoliberal regime, in so far as they participate, willy-nilly, in the transformation of universities — supposedly places of higher learning — into cash-generating, customer-serving, graduate-producing factories. What gave me hope was the enthusiasm and determination, on the part of participants, to combat the neoliberal scourge at all costs and in every manner possible. In fact, my hope was strengthened by the many papers at this conference — with delegates from many countries of the world — that focused on themes related to the conviction that neoliberal capitalism represents a grave threat to the richness of human experience. One of the best papers I listened to was provocatively titled “The devil in business suit: The shift in the imagination regime and the salaried bourgeoisie”, by Mihalis Mentinis, of the University of Crete.

In a manner reminiscent of Richard Kearney’s The Wake of Imagination — a genealogy of the concept of imagination — Mentinis traced the history of the prejudice against the imagination as something demonic, intent on disrupting God’s created order. This is related to the biblical prohibition against the construction of images as objects of worship, and to the notion that God does not have a corresponding image. The iconoclasm of Protestantism is directly related to this endemic suspicion directed at the imagination throughout most of history, until the turning point in the late 18th century, from where it was increasingly valorised — in the work of the romantics, with their glorification of the creative imagination of the genius, for example.

This celebration of the imagination has taken an ironic turn under late capitalism, Mentinis argued. As in the case of romanticism, it regards imagination as an indispensable quality of individuals who are at the forefront of product development — in fact, capitalism’s “growth”, if not its very survival, depends on such ingenuity on the part of individuals, who hence resemble the genius valorised by romanticism. The difference is, of course, that imagination and creativity are exploited for profit in the case of capitalism, instead of being the source of human fulfilment and social critique as in art. In this regard Mentinis employed Alain Badiou’s fourfold conceptual grid of Love, Science, Art and Politics — which comprises the essential domains within which human life is played out, for Badiou — to demonstrate the regression that has occurred under capitalism. Here I shall quote Mentinis:

“If the anti-imagination regime aimed to break the link between imagination and the disruption of the established order as well as the production of events in the four generic conditions of love, science, art and politics, then the pro-imagination regime has re-affirmed imagination only to maintain an anti-evental state of things that transforms these four productive conditions to four sterile, non-event producing pseudo-conditions; those of sex, technology, culture and management respectively. Sexual practices … state and corporate management, technological manufacturing and cultural production in general are rendered inseparable from imaginative labour and inconceivable without a constant exploitation of creativity.”

Moreover, Mentinis pointed out, this coincides with the emergence of what is sometimes referred to as the “creative class”, epitomised by the “familiar figure of the sexy and sexually liberated, technologically skilled and cultured manager”. As his use of Badiou’s fourfold of “event-producing” conditions indicates, however, while on the face of it there would seem to be nothing wrong with the appropriation of creativity by capitalism, anyone familiar with the meaning of “event” in Badiou’s work would know that the order signified by sex, technology, culture and management — instead of love, science, art and politics — is sterile precisely because it is a self-perpetuating order, while the quartet of love, science, art and politics, on the other hand, represents a realm of creativity which is the source of the truly novel, the history-transforming, status-quo rupturing reconfiguration of society.

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    • JM Davis

      Psychology will follow sociology along this ill-chosen political road, described above, to certain academic and professional oblivion.

    • john patson

      That workshop sounds as though it was fun — as long as one avoided a Porterhouse Blue….

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      What annoys me about being a pawn in the neo-liberal game is that every student that you expected to work hard and learn something and a client to whose demands for medications and treatment that could cause harm can go to rate my professor, or doctor, give you very low marks that affect your evaluation. Luckily this never happened to me. We are reduced to numbers in league tables that are designed to quantify and control us.

      We are value-laden practitioners wanting to be good teachers, academics and doctors, but fall within these numbers that we need to satisfy for our economic survival. We are also forced to produce very raw publications in order to meet the numbers of publications.

    • david

      Psychology has been so medicalized that its status as an independent discipline is in serious peril. So subtle has its gradual incorporation into neuroscience been, that its own practitioners, by-and-large, are unaware of their unfolding “academic and Professional oblivion” , (JM Davis, above), should they remain passive in the face of this co-option by neuroscience and its commercial arm Big Pharma. The success of this medicalizing Project, which is just one aspect of the neoliberal, capitalist Project, will most certainly result in global dehumanisation and the loss of Olivier’s (above) quartet of love, science, art and politics as the drivers of our humanity. That psychology is complicit in this dehumanisation by its conflation of neuroscience’s categories with mind/consciousness, is unforgiveable for two reasons: firstly for their muddled thinking and logical errors in conflating mind with brain, thus making the medicalization project absurd and, secondly for betraying their humanisation mandate given to them by the public, by sitting idly by while Big Pharma and Neuroscience reduce our humanity to jiggling neurons and chemistry in the brain. To expose these contradictions, and thus rescue psychology from its imminent demise, will require the critical thinking capacity Olivier refers to. Hegemonic forces always take root in the absence of this capacity, and the reconfigured society that humanises us will require heavy and sustained critical thinking generally.

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      It is about time that critical psychology become mainstream. This has disadvantages and we need the margins. On the other hand, critical psychology must be distinguished from radical psychology and marginal psychology. It is ridiculous that post-structuralist, discursive, phenomenological, post-positivist, narrative and qualitative psychology is still critical psychology. Sociology is presently more advanced in its development than psychology. And psychology is more advanced than education. In its methods and innovations.

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      My version of psychology is a direct dialectical reflective enquiry, followed up by a dialogical-co-enquiry with critical friends, into the questions, how do I lead a more meaningful life for myself and how do I transform my experiences of emptiness, insecurity, frustration, personal dissatisfaction and self-disappointment into a more meaningful and fulfilling and secure life for myself to live? It is based on rectifying the contradiction of observing oneself contradicting one’s intention to live a life of meaning and self-fulfillment through the development of action plans that are then further transformed by dialogue with critical friends. Psychology is about the developing a life of good quality, dignity, humanity, meaning and wellbeing.

    • Tilting @ Windmills

      The reason we need psychologists is we use between one and ten percent of our mental potential. If we used 100% of our mental potential we would never make any mistakes. So find a way to develop your full mental potential.

    • bert

      J M Davis, no – the critical-psychological path is the one to political relevance. It is mainstream psychology, with all its tests and measurements that has been politically irrelevant for decades. It merely supports the social status quo.
      David and Alon, thank you for your pertinent contributions.

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      Will using 100% of our mental potential make us happier?. Psychology is about improving or sustaining individuals’ wellbeing , good quality of life and fulfilling and secure life.

    • JM Davis

      @ Bert – As soon as you depart from scientific methodology, you’re in danger of losing professional credibility, that’s the age we live in. Clients do not wish to be subjected to political makeovers during counselling, they have to be given an opportunity to make their own choices in life, instead. On your abstract philosophical level, postmodernism is perhaps the real problem, because if someone finds meaning in meaninglessness, like the bright light referred to, this points to a form of nihilism which reflects a subjective arrival at meaninglessness rather than a quality of the era we live in. The free enterprise principle has since the Age of Discovery at the end of the Middle Ages taken humanity to new levels awareness and fulfillment, and this is reflected in the voyage of the human psyche.

    • Tilting @ Windmills


      “Will using 100% of our mental potential make us happier?”

      Good question.

      100% of our mental potential is the state of enlightenment, a state of pure bliss, so no matter what the material world throws at us in the form of positive or negative karma, we are in a state of eternal bliss and can deal with it from the level of supreme intelligence.

      I teach a technique to assist people in eventually achieving this state, and many psychologists refer their really difficult cases to us, it makes their task of treating the patient that much easier and they say gives better results much more quickly.

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      Tilting @ Windmills –

      There is a neurological disorder of not forgetting just remembering everything. It is a curse and the patients are utterly miserable. 100% cognitive capability could be a curse. And dealing with life is a question of experience and learning from mistakes and experiences.

    • Tilting @ Windmills


      Like some peer reviewed research published in prestigious internationally recognized psychology journals on this mental technique or will you merely dismiss it?

    •!/pages/Applied-dialectical-method-of-improving-participants-quality-of-life/137824809676592 Alon Serper

      If it improves people’s wellbeing – great

    • http://mailandguardian Jenna

      Prof, I can’t believe you’re still writing even though you’re in Chile. Brilliant writing as usual.

    • Tilting @ Windmills


      I hope you find this useful, just browse around on this site and you will find out where the research was published etc. especially interesting to scroll down the top 100 published studies:


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