This paper asks: what are the epistemological and broader political implications of the employment of psychoanalytic theories in literary studies in South Africa?
In the implicit endorsement of psychoanalytic theories of the subject in much poststructuralist and some postcolonial theory, academics subscribe to a value-laden conception of the self. Psychoanalysis rejects as "primitive" notions of self such as those circulating amongst indigenous South African cultures while it privileges the individualised psychological person who emerges in the early modern period in the West. Thus, however fruitful psychoanalytic theories may be, if they are not made accountable to local thought systems then their complicity with intellectual imperialism may render them at best suspect, at worst incapacitating to South African students. What is needed is a kind of theorising which involves a dialogue with alternative models, models such as traditional Zulu thought and its attendant literary forms. If students are, for example, exposed to Zulu auto/biographical practices, and are encouraged to consider the philosophical underpinnings for such practices, they will be able to question the implications of the adoption of theories like psychoanalysis.
In hierdie artikel vra ek: Wat is die epistemologiese en breer politieke implikasies van die gebruik van psigoanalitiese teoriee in literere studies in Suid-Afrika?
Deur die implisiete aanvaarding van psigoanalitiese teoriee van die subjek in poststrukturalistiese en sommige postkoloniale teoriee, onderskryf Suid-Afrikaanse akademici die gelaaide begrip van konsep van die self. Psigoanalise verwerp die "primitiewe" begrippe van die self soos dit in inheemse Suid-Afrikaanse kulture voorkom terwyl dit voorkeur verleen aan die geindividualiseerde psigologiese persoon wat in die vroee moderne periode in die Weste te voorskyn gekom het. Dus, hoe vrugbaar psigoanalitiese teoriee van die subjek ook al mag wees, indien hulle nie verantwoordbaar is aan die inheemse denksisteme nie, maak hulle medepligtigheid aan intellektuele imperialisme hulle verdag, of erger nog, ontmagtigend vir Suid-Afrikaanse studente. Wat nodig is, is 'n tipe teoretisering wat 'n dialoog met alternatiewe modelle insluit; modelle soos die tradisionele Zulu-denke en die verwante literere vorms. Indien studente byvoorbeeld blootgestel word aan Zulu outo/biografiese praktyke, en aangemoedig word om aandag te skenk aan die filosofiese grondslag van sulke praktyke, sal hulle in staat wees om die implikasies van die aanname van teoriee soos die psigoanalise te bevraagteken.
There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation. Herbert Spencer Everyone claims analytic descent from Freud. John Forrester
In the 1990s, Literary Theory was central to the teaching in English departments at universities in South Africa. In mid-decade, in response to queries, I found that most undergraduate and all postgraduate syllabi included study of contemporary literary theories. Arguably, poststructuralism dominated in the 1990s; now, in its various incarnations, it is fundamental to gender studies, cultural studies, media studies and postcolonial theory. This means that careful examination of its precepts and assumptions is no less pressing. This is no easy task, for poststructuralism is heterogeneous, even contradictory, and involves interdisciplinary modes of inquiry. One recurrent feature, however, is its acknowledgement and incorporation of psychoanalytic modes of thought (Young 1981: 8). (1) Jameson has argued that the only people still seriously interested in Freudian criticism are the Freudians themselves, but that "at the same time ... the prestige and influence of the Freudian oeuvre and of psychoanalysis as a method and a model has never been so immense at any moment of its history" (Jameson 1981: 65). Focusing on the adoption of (Freudian and Lacanian) (2) psychoanalytic theorisations of subjectivity in poststructuralism and its legatees, this essay asks: can psychoanalysis be universally applied? What are the epistemological and political implications of the employment (however latent) of psychoanalytic theories in South Africa? What indigenous cultural practices can be drawn into the debate?
I am arguing for a historicisation of psychoanalysis which examines the historical and social conditions which made possible both its methods and its objects of study, an engagement with key issues in the heated debate which still rages about its validity. Webster (1996) seems to have reinvigorated the fervours of both supporters and detractors, as does Tallis, who claims, in support of Webster and other critics like Fredrick Crews, that "psychoanalysis is utterly without merit" (Tallis 1996:671). Reservations notwithstanding, this is not a plea to reject such theories from the curriculum. For now, at least, Freud's assertion that "on account of its hypotheses and the comprehensiveness of its connections, psychoanalysis deserves a place in the interest of every educated person" (Freud 1991b: 437) still holds because psychoanalysis (of a specific sort) informs contemporary literary theories and is central to Western thought--which is generally acknowledged to dominate the nonmetropolitan world. As Appiah has noted,
for us to forget Europe is to suppress the conflicts that have shaped our identities; since it is too late for us to escape each other, we might instead seek to turn to our advantage the mutual interdependencies history has thrust upon us. (Appiah 1992: 72)
Indeed, but we need to invite scrutiny of Western theory's imperium over the world, to consider whether this is "as clearly of universal value as it [is] certainly of universal significance" (Appiah 1992: 144).
The suspicion of reason which psyhoanalysis and poststructuralism provoke must be retained when we consider our teaching: do South African literary departments rationalise what is taught so as to justify a fear of deviating from the path of certainty and security of Euro-American theory (and its convenient textbooks and journals)? Have we (of whatever racial category) been seduced by the notion of the superiority of Western modes of thinking? Teachers of theory can become blinded to their own investment in this often difficult and obscure body of texts; they can use theory to feed their own sense of intellectual prowess, which would be somewhat unsettled in a teaching practice that is also a learning from those who are taught. In the language of psychoanalysis, we need to be careful of our own needs to fetishise theory.
As long as such theories silence oppositional discourses by claiming "universal" validity and tending to theorise resistance out of the realms of possibility, and also by excluding "folkloric" or "popular" understanding--they too are guilty of intellectual imperialism. In addition to scrutinising motivations, instead of locating epistemic violence elsewhere, we need to confront its inevitability in all explanatory orders and recognise (pace: Foucault) that discourses may be resistant in one respect, but collaborative in another. However, as it is important not to collapse indigenous praise poetry into a (false) "black South African" genre, I have focused exclusively on one discourse. As Appiah observes: "in the academy, as in politics, true detente requires more than the regular expression of a desire for rapprochement" (Appiah 1992: 89). Thus the scrutiny of psychoanalysis's use in literary theory might be usefully achieved by way of contrast with local (usually strictly excluded) explanatory models. I offer the Zulu tradition of izibongo as an example. I have chosen this because most of my students are Zulus. Other indigenous paradigms might work just as well. Ania Loomba makes a related point:
Whatever the nature of the metropolitan academy, it continues to hold much influence over its counterparts in once-colonized societies, and this obliges us to engage with its debates. I say "us" and "its" because, despite the heterogeneity of and conflicts within academic structures at either end, and despite the obvious and growing overlaps between work done in "first" and "third" world universities and research institutions, as well as between issues of neocolonialism, racism and minority politics within Western countries, there remain important differences between them. Moreover, "influence" does not suggest unmitigated dependence or mimicry.... In any case, the institutionalization of whatever we understand by "influence", in the shape of publishing networks, funding agencies, ... patronage networks, educational, research and "development" institutions, needs to be underlined. Like all neocolonial scenarios, this one also implicates the internal politics of the "Third World". (Loomba 1994: 305-306)
The point is that whatever (specific) local models are drawn into the theoretical conversation, the teaching method I propose would mean an encounter with theory which does not depend on the evacuation of the very subjects who have to grapple with it:
difference is distorted and obscured in totalistic theories, the obvious path for resistance to take is to provide alternative mappings of specific regions of the social field. In other words, theoretical pluralism makes possible the expansion of social ontology, a redefinition and redescription of experience from the perspective of those who are more often simply the objects of theory. (Sawicki 1988: 188)
Psychoanalysis has permeated Western thought. Even critics like Richard Webster acknowledge that Freud appears to have been the twentieth century's "leading intellectual force" (Webster 1996: 3). Auden wrote: "To us he is no more a person/ Now but a whole climate of opinion" (Auden qouted by Webster 1996: 10). Given the longstanding global hegemony of Western conceptual patterns, psychoanalytic theory has a significant role in university curricula. Furthermore, it offers unprecedented insights and poses valuable heuristic questions. A critic like Webster, for instance, though both thorough and useful, fails to acknowledge the importance of the insights which psychoanalysis affords and his critique is itself not without flaws: for one thing, in identifying Freud's insistence on the validity of his theory, Webster fails to acknowledge that Freud frequently admits to incomplete knowledge, and that the tone of his discourse, as the following sentence demonstrates, is often diffident: "It ought to be possible eventually to understand these things; but as yet we cannot" (Webster 1991: 328).
Nor should we allow ourselves to be too gullible regarding Webster's censure of Freud's early work, much of which Freud himself recanted. Moreover, while it is true that errors were committed, the theory had to be worked out through analytic practice, and this was necessarily a process entailing reassessment and revision. Even in his lifetime, Freud bemoaned such unfair treatment:
I may also urge that in the course of my work I have modified my views on a few important points, changed them and replaced them by fresh ones--and in each case, of course, I have made this publicly known. And the outcome of this frankness? Some people have taken no notice whatever of my self-corrections and continue to this day to criticize me for hypotheses which have long ceased to have the same meaning for me. Others reproach me precisely for these changes and regard me as untrustworthy on their account. (Freud 1991: 283-284)
Gayatri Spivak insists that, "Psychoanalytic formalism of the subject, with an informed exchange of cultural currency, can be used to evaluate everyone" (Spivak 1994: 52; my italics) and that as therapy its usefulness is confirmed.
Briefly, psychoanalysis challenges humanist accounts of unified, integrated, and autonomous individuals. It elucidates what remains unexplained in humanism--motivations, behaviours and experiences which elude rational justification: "What it aims at and achieves is nothing other than the uncovering of what is unconscious in mental life" (Freud 1991: 437). It questions the neat separations of reason and emotion, and the idea that rational thought is the only or best source of knowledge, or is trustworthy, for we may rationalise profoundly irrational desires or fears. Instead of being dismissed as nonsense, the imaginary or fantasy life receives due attention because it constitutes, for the individual, "a reality of a sort" (p. 415) which impinges on her life and even body.
Furthermore, psychoanalysis has enabled us to reclaim the body from biology in order to see it as a psychosocial product capable of transfurmations in meaning and functioning (cf Grosz 1992a: 39). The theory complicates notions of how we are socialised and attempts to explain gender relations. It accounts for the ways in which conscious and unconscious parts of the self are informed by culture, by relationships with significant others, and how relations of domination become woven into the fabric of the self. It provides a model from which we may extrapolate to reconceptualise the Manichean opposition of colonised/coloniser, to conceive of a split subjectivity, in which "'self" and 'other' are intertwined through signification" (Chow 1992: 363). As used in literary theory, it holds that subjective (private) meaning is mediated for both readers and authors by the effects of an (intersubjective) Other--the public language. It demonstrates that no one can escape the influence of the unconscious and provides a coherent account for what many readers may intuit, namely, that neither reader/critic nor author can understand all that moves them because texts evoke and encode repressed material. Lacan's point that there is no metalanguage reminds us that there is no language in which interpretation can itself escape the effects of the unconscious. In short, psychoanalysis explains not only differences between subjects within a Western culture, but also differences within subjects.
But one of the dangers of its adoption by literary studies, and perhaps the main reason why it has remained relatively unchallenged, concerns the high degree of superficiality of the encounter with the work. Such appropriations tend to distort important elements of psychoanalytic theory. For the purposes of literary theory, psychoanalysis (usually Freudian and Lacanian) is blunted and selectively harvested because it makes up just one strand--albeit an important one--of the many which inform poststructuralism and its offspring: postcolonial, gender and media/cultural studies. (The usual disciplinary mix comprises Sanssurean linguistics, structuralist anthropology, semiotics, Marxism (customarily Althusserian), Derridean deconstruction and feminism). To achieve a synthesis, one has to downplay or ignore the problems and inconsistencies within each, but also the contradictions between these models. James Donald argues that instead of a melding of psychoanalytic theory and cultural studies, there should rather be a "dialogue in which, although the two discourses remain distinct ... the questions …