South Africans present papers at the Theoretical Psychology Conference, Chile

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

A number of South Africans have made thought-provoking contributions to the International Theoretical Psychology Conference at the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile. 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.

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

Extract from an article by Bert Olivier, Mail & Guardian, 11 May 2013