Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Student protests as ‘acting out’

The recent, and still continuing university student protests across the country call for a more fundamental theoretical approach. Although one could always address them at the level of “common sense” or everyday discourse (which is what I have done here before), it is perhaps time to elaborate on the fruits yielded by a psychoanalytical perspective on the matter.

There are many other theoretical approaches – for example that of Julia Kristeva, framed in terms of her recuperative concept of “revolt”. Then there are the critical-theoretical principles underlying Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse’s responses to the student rebellion of the late 1960s in the context of the crisis of capitalism at the time (their correspondence in this regard can be found here) but in my view by far the most productive theoretical angle is found in Freudian and particularly Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.

What are we dealing with when confronting the disconcerting spectacle of sometimes violent student protests in South Africa today, together with the unpredictable events they give rise to, such as the recent occurrence of violent attacks on protestors who had invaded a rugby field at the University of the Free State during a match between University of Free State and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University teams? One could easily dismiss these protests as the irrational actions of “spoilt” students, who (according to many observers) should return to their studies instead of wasting precious time and resources on redundant, childish remonstrations. In other words, as far as one can gather from comments made by members of the public, it is simply a matter of “accepting and bowing to the authority of university management” or, mutatis mutandis, of the government of the day.

But is it that simple? Anyone familiar with the discipline that enables one to understand the often unconscious motives behind human behaviour, namely psychoanalysis, would know that it is not. Such motivations are often (including in cases like the present protests) not easily or openly perceptible, and not straightforwardly subject to “rational argument”, because they do not present themselves to conscious scrutiny. This is why one has to have recourse to psychoanalytic thinking, which enables one to come to grips with a phenomenon that would otherwise remain elusive.

Many theoretical perspectives in psychoanalysis overlap in productive ways for an understanding of protests or rebellion of any kind (on the part of individuals or groups), but within the available space I shall concentrate on only two interrelated psychoanalytical concepts: “acting out” and “transference”. For Sigmund Freud, the difference between repetition and remembering is crucial is psychoanalysis – if the subject cannot remember certain traumatising events in the past, they “return” in the form of actions. These actions are then the “acting out” of repressed materials, and the psychoanalyst’s task is to help the subject remember them, lest she or he be caught in their repetitive grip interminably. Furthermore, for Freud, “acting out” is recognisable insofar as such behaviour appears to be impulsive, and as such not in keeping with the way such a person usually acts. However, the person who is “acting out” usually does not grasp the significance of their actions.

Jacques Lacan augments the Freudian notion of acting out in an important way – while agreeing with the basic Freudian concept, he understood that something crucial was missing, namely the “intersubjective” element, or what Lacan calls the domain of the (big) Other; that is, social normativity as embedded in the symbolic order of language. In other words, the remembering that was (correctly) at stake for Freud, is never a remembering in isolation, as the very practice of psychoanalysis underscores; it inescapably has to be a recollection which is communicated to another if it is to have a therapeutic effect.

Hence, Lacan argues, “acting out” occurs when the opportunity to communicate past events – specifically disturbing ones – to another is thwarted by the other (or the Other, that is, society at large), who has “become deaf”. And in the face of such deafness the subject resorts to “acting out”, even if he or she does not understand the import of their actions. In his Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London, Routledge, 1996), Dylan Evans puts it as follows (p. 3):

“When the Other has become ‘deaf’, the subject cannot convey a message to him in words, and is forced to express the message in actions. The acting out is thus a ciphered message which the subject addresses to an Other, although the subject himself is neither conscious of the content of this message nor even aware that his actions express a message. It is the Other who is entrusted with deciphering the message; yet it is impossible for him to do so.”

Interestingly, when one turns to the meaning of the often misunderstood concept of “transference” in psychoanalysis, it illuminates the meaning of “acting out” further, because the two concepts are in a sense opposed to each other. While “acting out” designates the (irrational) “return of the repressed”, which has been blocked from conscious linguistic articulation, “transference” denotes the process in which the relationship between the subject and the analyst unfolds, or as Lacan stresses, the “structure of an intersubjective relationship” (Evans p. 213). Both Freud and Lacan note the strong affects (like love, aggressivity and hate) which are brought into play in the transference, but Lacan insists that its meaning is essentially to be found in language, or “the love of knowledge” (Evans, p. 214).

The most important aspect of “transference” that throws light on “acting out” is this: while “transference” promotes intersubjective understanding and hence therapeutic effects, “acting out” represents “resistance” to such therapy. It is therefore interesting to note that, for Lacan, “transference is the attribution of knowledge to the Other” (Evans, p. 214), with the supposition that “the Other knows”. In its absence, a therapeutic development is unlikely to occur.

Does this not cast the current student protests in a more comprehensible light, one that “authorities” at South African universities ought to take note of, since they seem to have misunderstood the “message” of the students up to this point? It also explains why Lacan was sympathetic to the student protests of the late 1960s: the “authorities” had not listened to their “message”, but turned a deaf ear, and hence the protests can be seen as “acting out”, in the same way as the local protests can be construed as such. Put differently, until the authorities can legitimately be seen as “people who know” by the students, and “transference” can take place, these protests will not be resolved. Repressed, unresolved issues have a way of being channelled through “any body” (or “any bodies”) that can serve as a conduit for “acting out” that which did not, or could not, be communicated intersubjectively.

In conclusion one should note that among the unresolved issues at stake, one of the (if not THE) most important concerns the economic factor of inequality and hence, economic disempowerment, just as it played a crucial role in the student protests of the 1960s. People often forget that the latter – not just in Europe but also in the US at the time – marked one of the greatest crises in capitalism’s history, and it is no accident that then, as now, the students formed an alliance with economically disempowered workers. Hence, for “transference”, and therefore “therapy” or recuperation to happen, these economic issues should be addressed, which cannot be done without addressing the “problem of capitalism” – the hard, traumatic kernel within the mass of student bodies “acting out” their repressed distress – in today’s increasingly unequal society.

Anyone interested in a sustained account of suffering under capitalism can read my paper, “Capitalism and suffering”, in the journal, Psychology in Society (PINS) 48, 2015, pp. 1-21. Available at:

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    • Maria Marquez

      The more difficult question, of course (which could probably not be dealt with in such a limited space) is the accountability of subjects “acting out”, which also involves the difficult concept of the “passage to the act”. Although the latter is not likely to be involved in these actions, if not “acts” in the Lacanian sense.

    • Rory Short

      Bert a fascinating and needed analysis of the current student unrest. I wonder if it will be heard by those who need to hear or will their deafness continue?

      I completely agree with you when you write …. ‘the (if not THE) most important concerns the economic factor of inequality and hence, economic disempowerment, just as it played a crucial role in the student protests of the 1960s.’

      But I think this very real economic disempowerment is merely serving as a hook into a much deeper sense of individual disempowerment.

      One of the hidden consequences of Apartheid was that it suppressed many black dividual’s, if not whole communities, sense of self-worth and thus their natural sense of agency in life. Anger at this suppression is a wholly natural response. This anger can either be directed at self, in which case the individual becomes inert and lifeless, or directed outwardly. If it is directed outwardly this too can take one of two forms. The first form is when it is directed destructively at some other body e.g. university management for example. The second form is when it is still directed at some other body but done so with a constructive not destructive intent.

      The reality is that we all face problems in life and it is those with a stronger sense of self-worth and con-concomitant sense of self agency who are more likely to direct their anger over a problem into constructive channels. Those with a weaker sense of self-worth and concomitant weaker sense of self agency are more likely to lapse into behaviour that is destructive.

      Sadly this issue has never been addressed by the ANC that I am aware of. All that the ANC has done is legislate crutches into existence, in the form of AA and BEE legislation, for those with a weakened sense of self-worth and agency. This does nothing to fix the weakness it just re-inforces it. Self worth and agency are like muscles they need to be constantly exercised if they are to be healthy and flourish.

    • Barry Saayman

      >>”What are we dealing with when confronting the disconcerting spectacle of sometimes violent student protests in South Africa today, together with the unpredictable events they give rise to, such as the recent occurrence of violent attacks on protestors who had invaded a rugby field at the University of the Free State during a match between University of Free State and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University teams?”

      Indications are that the infamous University of Free State may spark the beginning of a race war in South Africa:-

      “The white sabre-rattling is the same as always: gloomy predictions and poisonous assumptions, all masquerading as pessimism but barely disguising a nihilistic longing for Gotterdammerung.

      The declarations of war by black people, however, were new to me.

      Most were variations on a theme of exasperation. Penny Sparrow was the penultimate straw, but the attack on black protesters by a white mob at the University of the Free State was too much. Talking was futile with people determined not to listen. Now it was time for taking the land, the wealth, the power, and, if necessary, taking lives.

      I don’t presume to know the minds or lived realities of people who feel that race war is a sensible solution to anything. But I would urge warriors on both sides to take a breath and to imagine, just for a moment, what an ethnic civil war in South Africa actually looks like…………” – Tom Eaton – 01 March, 2016

    • Nyna Amin

      Bert, another brilliant piece which reminds me of Göran Therborn’s incisive analysis of the ruling class (What does the ruling class do when it rules?). A similar question may be posed about the youth as well: What do discontented students do when they are discontented? In the case of the ruling class, Therborn argues that it reproduces itself such that the distance between the ruling class and the rules classes are expanded (for the benefit of the ruling class). The reproduction of the ruling class in South Africa is particularly pernicious as it has legitimate authority garnered through a particular interpretation of democratic processes and simultaneously repressing opposition and refusing to acknowledge its complicity in the havoc we are witnessing at present: unemployment, poverty, violence, inequity and protest action. The discontent reproduces itself through the processes of historical retrieval (the glory days of revolution), blame (white privilege) and desire (access to wealth and better future prospects). The parallels between the ruling class and the ruled classes are, paradoxically, similar and terrifying. I would argue that both sides are “acting out”, both excommunicate the voices of the other, and both sides, are determined to gain the upper hand. The difference is that the upper hand (read power) resides with the ruling class. Hence our sympathies with students, their protests, their pleas, and their rights to dignity.

    • Bert Olivier

      Thank you for the valuable comments.
      Maria, you raise an essential question, but not one that can be pursued here for lack of space. Suffice to say that ‘acting out’ and ‘passage to the act’ are very different concepts in Lacanian theory. The latter is closely related, as you know (remember our discussions about this at Yale!) to (the ‘preparation’ for) psychotic episodes, which are not, in my opinion, what we are witnessing in the current protests. The protests fall squarely in the category of acting out, which still leaves the question of accountability. For Freud AND Lacan ‘acts’ proper entail ethical responsibility, and – contrary to what one might expect – this INCLUDES not only conscious, intentional acts, but also unconsciously motivated acts insofar as they can be construed as being expressions of the subject’s ‘desire’. However, ‘acting out’ is precisely not in this category, because of what I argued above – it is not merely unconscious, but also resistant to the possibility of attaining one’s ‘desire’, and hence the subject is, in a sense, NOT accountable for their ‘acting out’, which does not have the status of an ethical ‘act’. Only the recovery of a situation in which ‘transference’ could take place – that is, a mutual listening and eventually dialogue of sorts – could break the deadlock of acting out.

    • Lianne Barnard

      If the Other is language, the symbolic, do you mean that acting out is not given (has not been given) a language? That nobody is giving words to these inchoate feelings? That there are no leaders to formulate the desires, hence the acting out in aggression? And transference means that the listener can recognize the feelings and give words to the interaction, hence intersubjective communication?

    • Bert Olivier

      Rory – I am in agreement with virtually everything you have said, of which the most pertinent to the present situation is probably the matter of self-worth, and which – as you rightly point out – has not been systematically addressed by the ruling party in terms of policy. The obvious avenue to address it, ironically, is education at all levels, including the tertiary.
      Barry – I hope that ‘listening’ on the part of those in authority, as well as a corresponding willingness and capacity to enter into dialogue on the part of the students, will preclude the ‘too horrible to contemplate’ prospect that you point to in Tom Eaton’s observations.
      Nyna – Thank you for a wonderfully perspicacious comment, which highlights the continuing relevance of what many regard as an outmoded Marxist concept, namely class-struggle. In fact, your comment highlights the fact that CLASS is a far more relevant concept in South Africa today than RACE. Therborn enables one to understand the manner in which the distance between the classes is constantly widened, mainly because those in power are in a position to reproduce and reinforce their privileged position, concomitantly exacerbating the inequalities, instead of alleviating them.

    • Bert Olivier

      Lianne – long time no hear! Yes, I believe you are right, except to add that – by analogy with the clinical situation – the ones ‘acting out’ are not in a position to articulate their (repressed) grievances, merely offering their bodies as a channel for expressing their distress regarding what is indeed ‘inchoate'; and while a situation corresponding to ‘transference’ would be one where the patient/analysand (here the students) might not be able to express their grievances in a rationally coherent manner, they would at least be able to say ‘associated’ things that the analyst/authorities can work with. That is, what is absent here is the relationship of trust in what Lacan calls ‘the subject supposed to know’ (the ‘authorities’), who have proved themselves to be ‘deaf’ to the demands/needs of the students. The damage has been done, and it will take time and patient listening on the part of ‘authorities’ to re-establish trust, combined with at least a potential willingness to enter into constructive dialogue on the part of students, before a situation where ‘transference’ can take place will become possible.

    • Warren Jeremy Rourke

      Excellent Bert.
      Your article was just sent through to me by one of my friends in the psychology department – no he does not know that you were my mentor – but was done rather because of some of the conversations that he and I have previously had.
      I find your analysis and application here incredibly useful (and so thank you) for something that I have myself, as a neophyte, been looking into. Namely, the search for the enunciating subject. Lacan in _Ecrits_ states: “Lest our hunt be in vain, we analysts must bring everything back to the cut qua function in discourse, the most significant being the cut that constitutes a bar between the signifier and the signified”. This is, as Roland Barthes points to, “the repression of the signified” and for us the ability to find articulation by the subject will be key.
      The “protestors”, some of whom I know from being on the ground would from the very beginning rather have you say “revolutionaries”, are also in an intersubjective situation of ‘countertransference’. What this means is that “authorities” at universities need also to take account of the way in which they themselves are “acting out” (riot gear wearing police and unmarked private security seems to be incitement of a kind and not a semiotic of fear as they may believe it to be) and which will, in any case, not lead to any meaningful dialogue but further and more entrenched “passion[s] for the real” as Badiou calls it. Perhaps there are protesting elements that actually want this?
      We could of course also speak of the spree of rapes that took place near Rhodes Memorial at the start of this year but I do not feel I am qualified for that.
      Kindest Regards as always.

    • Bert Olivier

      Warren – Good to hear from you (isn’t it strange, and significant, that – although you wrote this, which I read using the sense of sight – one tends to use the verb ‘to hear’ in this context; that is, the hermeneutic sense par excellence, stressing the importance of listening [above seeing], which also applies to the question at hand regarding ‘protesting’ in the face of ‘deafness’). At any rate, thank you for your welcome comment, specifically on ‘counter-transference’. What you point to here, is something that Ranciere sheds light on where he argues (albeit in a different idiom) that those who would claim equality (in a political sense, where the economic is part and parcel of it, of course), can only do so on condition that the demonstrate their participation in ‘logos'; that is, they have to rise above the muteness of mere violence and enter into a linguistic exchange with ‘others’ (here, the ‘authorities’). Only then can they claim ‘equality’. Inversely, the ‘authorities’ would not have to face violent protests if they had bestowed (economic-political) ‘equality’ on the protestors to begin with in the form of free education. In an earlier post on this debacle (‘Bravo students…’, etc.) I pointed out something that has been, as far as I know, absent from the debate about free education: despite the Freedom Charter being one of the ANC’s principal ‘documents of principle’, the fact that it enshrines free education has been largely ignored in this time of the rule of neoliberal capitalism, where everything, including education, is quasi-privatised. And the attitude of the government, that free education is unaffordable, does not hold water, UNLESS they can demonstrate that the hole in the fiscal bucket, namely CORRUPTION, can be plugged: BILLIONS of Rand disappear annually through corruption, which is just plain theft of public money. Plug that hole, and there will be plenty of funds for free education. In the absence of addressing this, there will be more protests and stand-offs – and ‘acting out’ – and possibly the shutting-down of ‘higher education’. The real enemy, in the final analysis, is finance capital, as Bernard Stiegler has cogently argued. I talk about this in a recent TL post on his book, ‘Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals’. These protestors are ultimately among such ‘disaffected individuals’. Stiegler lays the blame squarely on the way that finance capital imprison people today through the control of money. The protests are symptomatic of this process.