A Proper Conversation: Some Reflections on the Role of Psychoanalysis in Literary Study in South Africa

By Coullie, Judith Lutge | Journal of Literary Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Proper Conversation: Some Reflections on the Role of Psychoanalysis in Literary Study in South Africa

Coullie, Judith Lutge, Journal of Literary Studies


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

   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).

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A Proper Conversation: Some Reflections on the Role of Psychoanalysis in Literary Study in South Africa


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