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South Africans present their papers at the Theoretical Psychology Conference in Chile

Here in Santiago, Chile, a number of South Africans have made thought-provoking contributions to the International Theoretical Psychology Conference at the Pontifical Catholic University. Almost without exception, the South Africans’ presentations were of the critical-psychological variety. Claire Haggard of UCT, for instance, explored the spatial situatedness of human bodies in phenomenological terms through the work of Sara Ahmed, focusing on the migration of especially black bodies in the alienating spaces of Apartheid South Africa. The value of such a space-oriented approach for psychotherapy in a country where the debilitating effects of the political racialisation of space still linger, can clearly not be underestimated, judging by Haggard’s presentation.

In his turn, Werner Bohmke of Rhodes University demonstrated that the attribution of blame and responsibility in cases of sexual violence are far from neutral, instead of which – as revealed by a discourse analysis of news reporting on cases of sexual violence – phenomena such as rape are discursively reproduced and tend to repeat certain patterns of comprehending sexual violence. Desmond Painter of Stellenbosch University employed the notion of “manufactured whiteness” in his critical examination of the persistence of whiteness as a “cypher of normativity and a source of power” in present-day South Africa and elsewhere. Interestingly, Painter problematised the vaunted power of whiteness from the angle of current white poverty in South Africa, in an attempt to move beyond the binary of whiteness and blackness in the conceptualisation of political subjectivity.

Vasi van Deventer of UNISA argued that the increasing emphasis on ethics in psychology must be seen in the light of the collapse of traditional institutional supports. People are increasingly in a position where they have to fall back on themselves, in the absence of the guardrails of yesteryear, in this way demonstrating the inescapable ethical status of the subject. Van Deventer couched his argument in an impressive negotiation of the connections and hiatuses between Derridean deconstruction and modern theoretical physics, particularly quantum mechanics, to show that the ethical status of the subject derives from the differential structure of the self. One does not require the Levinasian “other” to ground ethical praxis; such an abyssal grounding is encountered within one’s own subjectivity.

My own paper focused on the impression that is created by consumer capitalism, that it is capable of providing consumers with what Lacan calls “jouissance” – surplus-enjoyment or self-fulfilment of an unbearable intensity – through commodity-consumption. This impression is illusory, first, because every commodity is “nihilated” by a supposedly “better” successor, and second, because “jouissance” as ultimate, unbearable enjoyment, requires the overcoming of some “law”, prohibition or unjustifiable authority (as embodied in a set of societal norms, for example those that underpinned apartheid practices). No jouissance without transgression, in other words. Far from posing as an authoritative source of prohibitions, however, consumer capitalism constantly encourages one to “Enjoy!” without restraint – as Zizek has forcibly argued – unmasking itself in the process as a purveyor of mere pseudo-jouissance. In fact, the only way to approximate jouissance under conditions of capitalism is to practise a variety of askesis regarding its normative behavioural expectations: resist or distance yourself from consumer behaviour as far as possible (buy only the indispensable necessities) and rediscover your own non-consumerist human creativity. For example, start a love affair with another human being, instead of a reifying relationship with a smartphone.

Clifford van Ommen (ex-Rodes; now Massey University, NZ) and Desmond Painter (University of Stellenbosch) combined to give a rhetorical analysis of South African psychological texts published between 1976 and 2012, with a view to uncovering strategies of self-legitimation aimed at especially Northern readers. What their analytical overview showed, was the interbraidedness of psychology with its socio-political surroundings, and its consequent inability, with rare critical exceptions, to extricate itself from the dominant ideology. Surprisingly, the most recent publications they examined (from 2012) appeared to suffer from a blind spot regarding their own ideological implicatedness, in as far as they reflected an unexpected belief that present social circumstances – which they deem “normal”, instead of being the result of “normalisation” – are self-justifying. Needless to stress, this may be seen as a kind of barometer of the success with which neo-liberal ideology and market fundamentalism disguise their own ideological or dominant-discursive status.

Van Ommen also presented another paper, on the emancipatory potential of “Black Metal” as a sub-genre of the music-phenomenon known as “Metal”. He argued that, despite the problematic and controversial nature of Metal, which is exacerbated in the case of Black Metal (given its violent history), it is possible to foreground its “radical emancipatory dimensions” without turning a blind eye to its attendant dangers. What Van Ommen perceived in what he termed an “extreme sound” was nothing less than “…the expression and co-ordinates of a significant challenge to contemporary subjectivity; a subjectivity in excess of a mere symptom of contemporary society”. Van Ommen’s paper highlighted a conspicuous feature of the conference – but probably not restricted to this one – namely, how rarely musical expression is taken seriously as an indicator of societal or, in this case, psychological conditions by practising academics.

Jill Bradbury from Wits University concentrated her presentation on the paradoxical tendency, to plead ignorance of the very psycho-social world represented in disciplines like psychology and sociology. She articulated this tension in terms of “mis-understanding” and the notion of an “ignorance contract” (Miller and Steyn, respectively), and turned her argument in the direction of the kinds of pre-understanding that operate as barriers to communication in a society like South Africa. In fact, Bradbury pointed out, referring to Miller’s work in this regard, in this country it assumes the guise of an active “not-wanting-to-know” that militates against the likelihood of mutual understanding between people, unless a kind of “un-learning” were to be practised to clear the way for overcoming the barriers set up by willed ignorance.


  • 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.