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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.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.