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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