Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What are ‘(post)apartheid conditions’?

This may seem like a straightforward question, requiring – and allowing – straightforward answers. Nothing of the sort, it turns out, and if one had any such illusions, the new book, (Post)apartheid Conditions – Psychoanalysis and Social Formation (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013) by psychoanalytical theorist Derek Hook, rapidly disabuses one of them. Hook, of Birkbeck College, University of London (and Wits University in South Africa), has written a fascinating study of the prevailing “conditions” in present-day South Africa in terms of what he calls “different temporalities”. (I am currently working on a review of the book for a psychology journal, so this is just a kind of “preview”.)

In order to understand what he means by this, it is important to note that he opens the book with a reference to the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008, which elicited the question from many commentators, how such violence, reminiscent of the worst township brutality during apartheid, could occur in a “post-reconciliation” nation (p. 1). The emphasis, in other words, was on the temporal dimension, on “when” this happened, namely 15 years after the demise of apartheid.

Small wonder that the language used to phrase these comments is one of “temporal dislocation” – reminding one of Hamlet’s remark that “the time is out of joint” – with the use of terms such as “reversion”, or a “failure” to rid oneself of apartheid history. Some also alluded to the likelihood that one might “anticipate” more such disruptive events in the future. The Marikana massacre of August 16 2012 therefore seemed to confirm these expectations, and simultaneously to add a reminder that the historical legacy of apartheid was indeed generating more complex effects than anticipated.

It is in the light of these events that Hook’s study focuses on what he calls “psychosocial time”, specifically on instances of repetition, fixation, regression or nostalgia, which are symptomatic of different, often countervailing relations between “psychical causality” and power. Hence, instead of simply saying, as one would be tempted to do, that contemporary South Africa is the scene of clashing discourses, Hook digs deeper, in a sense, by resolutely concentrating on the very temporality that is ineluctably constitutive of discourse as linguistic being-in-the-world. He explains (p. 4):

“ … by ‘temporality’ I refer to the qualities of time, whereas with ‘history’ I refer to an amassed series of past (and ongoing) events. In this sense my concern here is with the temporality of a given history, rather than with the empirical and factual details of a history itself.”

Not that he ignores these “factual details” of history; on the contrary, his psychosocial investigations, aimed at “grasping the distinctive temporalities of given histories” have such details as their point of departure. These include the history of one of apartheid’s most iconic ideological sites, Strijdom Square, in Pretoria (which was subsequently the spatial location of a racist “killing spree” by JG Strijdom’s near-namesake, Barend Strydom, in 1988, as well as of a strangely symbolic collapse of Strijdom’s gigantic, sculpted head), which Hook reads in terms of the ambivalences uncovered by Freud’s notion of the “uncanny”. Particularly refreshing about this chapter is his concentration on the non-discursive qualities of space, something which enables him to consider how unconscious identifications with certain places are engendered on the part of subjects’ bodies when they experience these affectively.

Bodies are also the focus of attention in the chapter on “the black body-in-pieces”, where Hook interrogates the persistence of this fantasmatic motif in (post-)apartheid culture. His candid discussion of racist jokes as manifestation of white humour centring on the fantasy of maimed black bodies would enlighten even people who are unfamiliar with psychoanalysis or with this kind of psychosocial-analytic study. Hook excels at uncovering paradoxes and ambiguities at the heart of cultural practices, including Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich’s photographs of apartheid township violence, and his use of theory to bring relevant phenomena into the sphere of comprehensibility is nothing short of brilliant.

The flipside of blackness is whiteness, of course, and although this was already implicated (as the “vulnerable white body”) in the chapter on the mutilated black body, Hook recuperates the critique of whiteness on the part of Steve Biko in a sustained manner for (re-)contextualisation in relation to present “post-apartheid white anti-racism”, by means of Edward Said’s notion of “travelling theory” – the deliberate juxtaposition of past figures’ writings with contemporary ones, resulting in a critique of “charitable anti-racism”, by means of which some whites disingenuously promote their own interests.

In some ways the most difficult, albeit profound, chapter in this study concerns the problem of the different ways in which apartheid history might be interpreted or “treated” (one is tempted to use Nancy’s concept of “re-treating” here), with a view to “putting it to work” in the context of post-apartheid. As one of the researchers intimately involved with the international, interdisciplinary, collaborative Apartheid Archive Project, Hook is particularly interested in the difficulties and prospects of accessing apartheid history through the personal narratives of ordinary people who lived under apartheid, but he is not innocent in this regard. Instead, he shows how these narratives can (indeed, must) be appropriated by employing the heuristic potential of psychoanalytic concepts such as “screen memories”, “secondary elaboration” and “ego-speech”, so as to bring their limits methodologically into view.

More intellectually challenging is the alternative course he pursues vis-á-vis the task of appropriating apartheid history in a manner that is potentially transformative for the present: the Lacanian therapeutic route of elevating “impossibility to a higher order of impossibility”. The impossibility in question, of course, is that of capturing the “truth” of traumatic experiences under apartheid in a conclusive, totalising manner. In a way reminiscent of Foucault’s methodological principle of “eventalisation” (“inscribing” a phenomenon into as many different, plausible contexts as possible to optimise its comprehensibility), what Lacan, and here, Hook, stress instead, is the need for ongoing “symbolic activity”, of “multiplying” the accounts of these disturbing experiences so as to prevent a closure of sorts. In this way “working-through” historical material is promoted, with possible therapeutic consequences.

Against the backdrop of this chapter the following two tackle the task involved in actually carrying out historical “retrieval” through the analysis of some of the Apartheid Archive narratives, specifically those centred on inter-racial attachments (like those of white children to their black carers). Hook remarks on the curious fact that animals (pets) often feature in white recollections of black domestic workers, and offers a fascinating explanation for this, namely, that the pets concerned had a mediating function in a situation where contradictory apartheid practices made no sense to children, and had to be resolved at the level of the fantasmatic. The relationship with the animal, in other words, was an analogue for that with the black carer, who could therefore be slotted into relations of love, of control, and even of “ownership”, with all the degradation that implies. In the second of these two chapters Hook uses the work of Judith Butler on loss and (Freud’s concept of) melancholia to understand apartheid’s taboo on “cross-racial” relationships, but eventually goes beyond the implications of loss towards the more promising function of “compensatory identifications” (involving a rejection of the lost object).

In a way the final chapter of the book draws many of its threads together by focusing on something familiar to many South Africans today, namely the phenomenon of nostalgia in various guises. Sometimes nostalgia can work like a “screen memory”, effectively facilitating “structured forgetting” rather than aiding memory regarding apartheid’s atrocities, or it might be possible, Hook argues, to insert nostalgia into the logic of the Freudian notion of “retroactive time”, with surprising results as far as a critical appropriation of the present and the future is concerned.

As may be gathered from this brief overview of Hook’s thought-provoking book, the themes of the various chapters converge in the field of temporality, with some tracing trajectories from the past, some bearing on repetitions of history and others exploring possible lines projecting into the future. In addition to its intellectual and theoretical rigour, what is commendable about it is its sustained critical openness to the inescapable possibility of failure in the process of historical recovery. Every academic in South Africa would benefit from reading it.

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