Discussing Critical Psychology in Turkey

Conference Poster

I am attending the Third Critical Psychology Symposium in Diyarbakir, Turkey — another great opportunity for psychologists from the peripheries of North-Atlantic psychology to forge links, create alternative networks, and learn from one another about our respective approaches to (and successes and failures in) thinking and doing critical psychology. Organised and sponsored by the Association of Psychologists for Social Solidarity and the Municipality of Diyarbakir, this is the first explicitly international meeting in the series, and (according to the call for papers) ‘aims at bringing activists, students and scholars together to discuss critical psychology and its implications.’ I will reflect on the conference and the location on this blog when I return to South Africa. For now, here is a short summary of my own contribution (it is relevant to keep in mind that the conference theme was ‘social trauma’):

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Beyond Subjects of Trauma: Rethinking Psychology in South Africa after Apartheid

In this paper I discuss the relationship between psychology and politics both during and after apartheid. Whereas psychology played an integral role in the modernising, racist-capitalist South African state during the twentieth century, the mainstream in the discipline generally positioned itself as politically neutral. However, a radical psychology tradition developed during the final decades of apartheid (the 1970s and the 1980s), particularly in response to heightened political repression of the apartheid police state, which included the extensive detention without trial and torture of activists in the liberation struggle. This early radical psychology was, to a large extent, ‘practically’ rather than ‘theoretically’ orientated: in other words, rather than a critique of psychology as such, it represented a politically conscious response (by extending psychological services to those excluded from it by the state) to the psychological damage done by apartheid to black South Africans in general and to political prisoners in particular. The concept of ‘trauma’ fulfilled a central role in conceptualising the psychological dimensions of apartheid and state repression during this time: as a critique of apartheid’s human consequences, but also as a conceptual orientation for psychological intervention. The concept of ‘trauma’ was further elaborated after apartheid, with psychologists playing a key role in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings in the mid-1990s as well as in other areas of post-apartheid reconstruction. In fact, ‘trauma’ became one of the ways mainstream psychology could reposition and legitimise itself after apartheid. But whereas ‘trauma’ signalled a conscious politicisation of psychological intervention during apartheid, it signalled the opposite after apartheid. The post-apartheid moment made it possible, once again, for psychology to define itself in politically neutral terms; to orient itself to apartheid, its consequences and its overcoming, in seemingly purely ‘psychological’ terms. This has led to a problematic psychologisation of the consequences of centuries of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa (I will consider the burgeoning literature on ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ in this regard), which has further added to a restricted notion of political subjectivity. By considering apartheid and post-apartheid subjects primarily as subjects of trauma, much of psychology has remained indifferent to new articulations and activations of political subjectivity in the post-apartheid era; to the continued relevance of the self-articulation, outside of psychology, of those in the liberation movements as subjects of struggle. Struggle subjectivities in South Africa still strive beyond apartheid, not only in psychological terms, but especially in material and political terms. I will end the discussion by considering what psychology might be (and become) in relation to various struggle subjectivities – in South Africa and elsewhere.

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