Mapping the personal and the social
Theoretical Overview The Implications for Self if Language is viewed as Performative
Critical theorists view language not as a neutral phenomenon that represents that which it describes, but as an active process that not only constitutes experience, but also performs important social functions in the process. Within this frame language ‘does something’, it constitutes our reality, generates our experience and performs socio-political functions. This is in keeping with Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy, in which he proposed that the meaning of words and thereby language, is dependent not only on the context in which it is brought forth, but also on its use or function within that context (Durrheim, 1997; Jost, 1995). Within this frame language is regarded as a political activity that involves the simultaneous operations of Foucault’s binary power/knowledge (Favell, 1999).
An important implication of this line of critical thought in relation to language, is the challenge posed to the understanding of self, popularised by mainstream western psychology. Within traditional texts, the self is construed as a consistent essence that can be developed, known, universally applied and accurately represented through language (Anderson, 1997; Gergen, 1991). In critical psychological texts, however, the focus is not on what the self ‘is’, but on what the self ‘does’. Hence, texts adopting Foucault’s genealogical approach, explore the socio-political functions being fulfilled by construing the self in particular ways at particular points in time. In keeping with this Andrew Favell (1999), in his presentation at the second Qualitative Methods Conference in 1996, entitled The Body Politic, noted that all languaging around our experiences draws upon prevailing discourses, which specify "what can and cannot be said and who can say what about what" (p. 185). Given that discourses are regarded as products of the existing power dynamics operating within a social-political-economic context at a point in time, any act of describing experience, including any description of the self, is constrained by the prevailing power dynamics. Thus, according to Foucault, processes of power within a society interact with language and social systems to produce selves (or subjectivities) that support the prevailing social order (www.massey.ac.nz).
Some critical theorists, however, tend not to leave the self suspended in discursive space devoid of agency. Even Foucault proposes that the processes regulating our subjectivities exist in relation to processes of resistance. This is in keeping with his view of power as constituting particular relationship networks, rather than as linearly repressive. According to Foucault the operation of power within a society is met by opposition, not submission, so that where there is power there is also resistance (Foucault, 1982; Rabinow, 1984). The Interrelationship between the Physical and Abstract: Skin as a site of political meaning
This relationship between language and self may be expanded upon to include a consideration of the interrelationship between language, self and body. For example, in The History of Sexuality Foucault (1979) examines how the very personal experience of the sexual dimensions of one’s own physical body, may inform and be informed by abstract notions of the body as the site of sin. Within this framework the physical body is positioned as both an object inscribed with meanings and a subject that actively contributes to the production of meaning (Nuttall, 2002). Hence, abstract meanings constructed within particular philosophical and ideolo gical frameworks, may inform the experience of one’s physical subjectivity, and by implication one’s sense of self. These interrelationships, between the physical, psychological and social, were very evident in the machinations of the apartheid state. In keeping with the central apartheid dichotomy of black-white, black and white skin, and by implication the black and white self, were construed and positioned in ways that enabled the upholding of the apartheid social order.
In the South African context therefore, the physical materiality of skin has become associated with varied political-racial specifications of personhood. Hence, when therapists and clients of similar or different racial denominations encounter one another in the context of therapy, the physical manifestation of their skin and associated constructions already acts as a ‘something’ that informs the position each adopts in relation to the Other. In turn, according to Davies and Harré (1990), the position participants occupy within this encounter will influence how they language around the presenting issue and inform the understandings that are arrived at within the therapy. The question incited by this rationale pertains to what the possible impact on the therapeutic encounter and the evolving subjectivities may be, if the political-racial meanings and associated effects are considered to be ‘nothing’ and as falling outside of the therapeutic domain.
The Implications for Self if Language is viewed as Performative
The Interrelationship between the Physical and Abstract: Skin as a site of political meaning
Implications for the practice of therapy
Given these understandings of the interrelationship between language, body, self and larger social systems, the practice of psychotherapy is understood as being a political endeavour. Hence, according to White and Epston (1990), therapists can no longer assume that on the basis of their good intentions alone, that they are able to adopt positions in relation to their clients that are devoid of the power dynamics inherent in their culture. Even more importantly, if we take these suppositions seriously and seek to apply them in practice, rather than only muse over them in theory, then as therapists we need to regard understanding the socio-political history of relationships between persons and groups within our own country, as part and parcel of our ethical responsibility. In addition as practitioners we need to assume responsibility for establishing the impact this history has had on our own selves and consider how this affects the position we adopt in relation to our clients (Nicholas & Cooper, 1990; White & Epston, 1990).
The call therefore is for a far more dominant role to be assigned to the political (in both its narrow and broader sense) in the training and practice of therapy. This constitutes quite a shift, considering that politics has shared as uneasy a relationship with psychotherapy as religion, or as has understanding the impact of economic systems on our subjectivities and therapeutic positionings in significant depth. A call for this focus is not posited here as being a cure-all, as ultimately it is debatable as to how much of our own socio-cultural embeddedness we can actually apprehend. It is, however, an expression of the (albeit idealistic) hope that the practice of therapy can fulfill a healing role even at a national level, by making a space in which culturally specified subjectivities may be deconstructed and resisted. For example, by exploring how the client has been situated as a ‘racial’ subject within historical discourses, and even how it is reiterated in his or her relationship with the therapist, may provide an avenue through which the client can explore, challenge or resist his or her oppressive experience of self.
However, the question raised earlier that should be considered, is whether or not it is even possible to translate these theoretical ideas in order to render psychotherapy more critical in its practice? Will educating therapists how to deconstruct the possible social-political functions being fulfilled by their language and construction of meaning within the therapy, enable therapy to become a medium in which therapists and clients can explore, challenge and resist their raced and classed subject positions, in much the same way that feminist theorizing has helped challenge and resist gendered positions and their effects through the therapeutic medium? Or does the structure of therapy within itself, as a paid relationship in some instances and/or an expression of elitist western education systems in others, perpetuate the disparities that inform our raced and classed positions as South Africans? Is therapy the medium in which to explore these issues, or can these subjectivities only be successfully resisted in other contexts, which in themselves then act to resist the way in which the practice of therapy too contributes to oppressive racial and class subjectivities? In turn however, how does placing the site of resistance outside of therapy, leave intact what is here construed as problematic in its uncritical practice, and in that avoid the complexity imbued in these dilemmas through a ‘too easy’ solution?
I don’t know if there are satisfactory answers to such a debate, and I think the tension imbued by the latter questions should be born in mind, if one seeks to explore some of the possibilities presented here in the training of therapists. In this regard, the incongruence envisaged at present, is that many models used in the training of psychotherapists endorse the performative view of language and the self discussed above, without simultaneously exploring in any depth the socio-political implications of the sense of self, therapist and client transport with them into the therapeutic domain. Hence the self of the therapist may still be explored along dimensions akin to psychodynamic formulations, even in programs that endorse alternate views. The idea here is not that a social-political exploration of the therapist’s self should replace intra-personal understandings, but rather that both should be an area of focus in training.
Theorising ExperienceSketching the Context
Some of these ideas were explored with a group of black and white South Africans in November 2001. They participated in conversations that sought to explore the meanings they attached to their race, and the effect they believed this to have on the position they, as therapist and/or client, took up in therapy. The participants in this enquiry were therefore situated in the multiple positions of therapists in training, clients in therapy, and collectively as members of Agape, a therapeutic community located in Mamelodi, Pretoria. While the intent of the enquiry was not to offer specific comment on the practice of ‘inter-racial’ psychotherapy within the context of Agape, conducting the conversations within this context nonetheless had a profound impact on the meanings constructed (Oosthuizen, 2002). For these reasons it is important to briefly situate Agape in its historical context.
Its ‘inception’ dates back to 1987, when a group of therapists from the University of South Africa and Rand Afrikaans University, together with members of the Shoshanguwe and Mamelodi communities, collaborated in establishing a psychotherapy service in the township of Mamelodi. The aim was to make the services of Clinical Psychologists available to this community, in light of the fact that they, as black and historically disadvantaged South Africans, did not have access to the medium of psychotherapy under apartheid (Lifschitz & Oosthuizen, 2001). Given that Agape laid its roots during the height of apartheid and provides a meeting point between black and white South Africans from varied socio-economic backgrounds, it was positioned within the enquiry as a micro-system that mirrors the larger socio-political context of South Africa. Since its’ beginning Agape has undergone many transformations in everything from its geographic location to the ethics that guide its practice. Through the process of learning more about themselves and the community they have become an integral part of over the years, these practitioners have challenged many of the traditional Western notions that continue to inform our understanding and practice of psychotherapy. For example the ethic in this context, that healing is also for the healer, functions to challenge the traditional dichotomous boundaries between therapist and client, or any distinction between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. This challenge to traditional Western notions about therapy is similarly informed by the architecture, where the Lapa and Tree replace the traditional structure of Office, and its associated meanings. In this regard I have always perceived Agape as striving to put into practice and live many of the theoretical assumptions, that challenge an indiscriminate practice of psychotherapy from within mainstream Western therapeutic norms. The political-racial dimensions of the South African Self
The conversations held with the participants in this enquiry were discourse analysed according to the criteria and philosophy advocated in the work of Burman and Parker (1993). The texts of the transcribed discussions were first examined for the meanings of the racial self that we, as participants and ‘re-searcher’, had co-constructed. In this regard, the co-constructed meanings were understood as drawing both upon the racist discourses of apartheid, as well as emerging ‘new’ South African discourses.
Understandings constructed within this context of the racial dimensions of the self that drew upon and exerted the divisive effects of apartheid discourses, included a construction of the black self as feeling incompetent, demonstrating a lack of self-esteem, expressed in part by a wish to be able to speak the right type of English and as desiring to be white. In relation to this the white self was construed as feeling competent, representing goodness and as not expressing a desire to be black or to speak so-called ‘black languages’. These meanings were formulated as much by what was said, as by who and what remained silent. Ultimately these meanings were construed as drawing upon the overarching apartheid discourse of difference, which postulates the existence of an unbreachable divide between black and white.
These meanings were contrasted against those that inverted the apartheid constructions of black and white, with whiteness becoming associated with the negative formulations of shame and guilt, and blackness with the positives of forgiveness and worth. Positioned within the enquiry as largely aided in its formulation by the texts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we witness the emergence of the construction of a morally bereft white self, which will forever be scarred by its complicity with apartheid, and a morally worthy black self, which is all the stronger because of what it had to endure as a result of apartheid. These constructions were informed by white participants speaking of their shame at being white and need for a newly constructed white race, in which they can feel a sense of pride and belonging. Black participants in turn spoke of how proud they felt to be black, and humorously explored the possibility that now exists, for black people to be construed as being prejudiced in their attitude towards other black people, thereby allowing for the differentiation amongst themselves to emerge that was clouded by apartheid ideology.
While the meanings explored here are situated within the local context of this enquiry, the implication transcends this locality when one contemplates the impact that these politically informed constructions of race may have on one’s personal experience of self. What for example is the relationship between the construction of shame, badness or competence at the macro-level of South African politics and the personal experience of these and related dynamics on the micro-level of an intimate relationship? These parallels besides, how do these macro level understandings inform a therapeutic relationship between South Africans of similar or different race?Therapeutic Positionings
The latter question will be focused on in this section, which briefly explores how these local constructions of race were perceived to impact on the positions therapist and client adopt in the context of psychotherapy, as well as the implications this may hold for the training of psychotherapists and our practice of therapy in the South African context.
Both black and white trainee therapists participating in this enquiry believed that the black clients within the context of Agape positioned the white therapists as being more competent than their black counterparts. It was also considered how a white therapist’s assumption of this perceived competence by his or her black client, could in itself be an expression of his or her construction of white as competent, rather than the client’s experience. Within this frame, however, one of the white participants spoke about the possible therapeutic ‘usefulness’ of construing ‘white as competent’, in that it could increase her credibility in the eyes of her client and thereby the effectiveness of her interventions. This formulation of her stance was informed by her positioning of herself as an expert, a stance favoured in some of the texts of her training. Within this context one begins to wonder how the texts of our training as therapists impact on the issues raised here around racial constructions and therapeutic positionings. If, for example, a therapist is not sensitive to some of the politically informed experiences of self discussed earlier, and in addition adopts a therapeutic position as the expert, what effect would this have on a client’s sense of self if he or she, on the basis of his or her political experience as a South African, had positioned the therapist as competent?
A significant effect of the above positioning was how it constructed the position of the black therapist in turn. In this regard the black trainee therapists commented that they felt that their black clients in this context initially placed them in the ‘less favourable’ position of translator. A consequence of this construed positioning was that some of the black trainees were left feeling that they had to prove their worth as therapists much more than their white counterparts, with the unfairness of this situation resulting in a range of emotions from anger to fear. A consideration of these constructed positions may be important in the supervision of trainee therapists, particularly in a context where black and white therapists train together. In this regard, both need possibly to be assisted in deconstructing their own subject positions that may be the consequence of the prevailing constructions of race. In this manner, a deconstructed understanding of their own racial constructions may, in the words of one of the participants, help them to: "work together to help the client move beyond that as well, because they may come with the very same things that we are dealing with."
Another subject position that was construed as resulting from the overspill of apartheid ideology’s paternalistic objectification of ‘blackness’, and as demonstrating the interface between political and socio-economic discourses, is when white therapists regard themselves as their black clients helpers and /or providers. This position adopted by the white therapist in an attempt to be beneficent towards the ‘previously disadvantaged’, may be supported or unsupported by the black client. Additionally it could have the effect of positioning the black client as unable to provide for his or herself, as the white therapist may experience difficulty in acknowledging his or her client’s resources, because of the challenge this could pose to his or her own subject position. What is the impact of this positioning of being at the mercy of the white therapist’s benevolence on the black client’s sense of self? It could have the effect of positioning the black client as helpless and powerless to effect change in his or her own life. In addition, the white therapist may be left struggling to find plausibility in facilitating the client’s construction of therapeutic meaning around his or her situation, without being able to address the client’s real economic need. In this regard a number of the participants spoke about how this dynamic left them feeling powerless and struggling to make sense on what the value of psychotherapy was, when confronted with their position as ‘those who have’ in the face of their clients position as ‘those who have not.’
Finally, one of the meanings that emerged within the context of Agape that offered a cite of resistance to the above, was the positioning of the therapist as a Wounded Healer. Within this discourse healing is regarded as being a mutual encounter for therapist and client. Within the context of this discussion it has the effect of positioning whiteness as having its difficulties and blemishes too, as opposed to only black people being viewed as hurt or damaged by the process of apartheid. It may function to equalise the therapeutic relationship, positioning white and black therapist and client as equals in relation to one another and thereby transcending the historical divide. On the other side of the same coin, however, this recourse to a shared humanity, like the Similarities discourse identified by Kottler (cited in Levett, Kottler, Burman & Parker, 1997), risks obscuring our differences, which in South Africa may still be more feared than tolerated. According to Levett et al. (1997), failure to name may "actually perpetuate racism at some level. It excludes the practical and very real subjective experiences of racism which are connected to the naming of bodies and which makes the same things said by people in different social positions mean very different things" (p. 56). ]? To what extent is this perpetuated if we remain too afraid to name our race and class and its impacts on our lived experience in the context of our therapies?
Sketching the Context
The political-racial dimensions of the South African Self
This paper therefore in part highlights the importance of ‘naming the thing’, so that the ‘something’ which our shared political history as South Africans contributes to our sense of self, is reckoned with in the training and practice of psychotherapy; as opposed to being relegated to the category of ‘nothing’ and in that continuing to oppress both therapist and client. In this it asks that we consider what the practice of our theory entails, and thereby dares us to live what we so easily speak. The experiences shared by the participants in the enquiry discussed here, highlight not only the interrelationship between the socio-political and personal self, but also the real effects that these constructions may have on the therapeutic relationship. In this it illustrates not only how the practice of psychotherapy may be harnessed as a medium in which the oppressive elements of the social dimensions of one’s self may be questioned, challenged and resisted; but also emphasizes that it is our responsibility as therapists to understand how influences within our society inform our theory and practice.
I hope that there are still more difficulties and complexities in what is contemplated here that need to be considered, in order to allow these ideas to be built on, fleshed out and realized in practice rather than only remain words on these pages. In this regard the useful feedback I received in presenting these ideas at the conference was on the romance of the language I’ve used, and hence a need to consider the functions fulfilled by this paper itself. This comment was useful in motivating me to reconsider what I was proposing and to begin the process of problematising and complexifying my own ideas. At the same time however I hope I have left some of the traces of romance in my reworking of this paper. While I appreciate that writing our passions can at times amount to a lot of ‘hot air’ and little action, it can also capture something of the lived experience, that can at times may become lost in the too distanced language of academia.
Anderson, H. (1997). Conversation, Language and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy. New York: Basic Books.
Burman, E. & Parker, I. (1993). Discourse analytic research: Repertoires and readings of texts in action. London: Routledge.
Davies, B. & Harré, R. (1990). Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves. Journal of Theory and Social Behaviour, 20, 43 – 63.
Durrheim, K. (1997). Social Construction, discourse and psychology. South African Journal of Psychology, 27(3), 175 – 182.
Favell, A. (1999). Dialogical space, difference, and desire: conversations on the margins. In M. Terre Blanche, K. Bhavnani & D. Hook (Eds.) Body Politics (pp. 181 – 191). Johannesburg: Histories of the Present Press.
Foucault. M. (1979). The History of Sexuality. London: Lane.
Foucalt, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8, 777 – 795.
Gergen, K.J. (1991). The Saturated Self. Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. USA: Basic Books.
Jost, J.T. (1995). Toward a Wittgensteinian Social Psychology of Human Development. Theory & Psychology, 5(1), 5 – 25.
Levett, A. Kottler, A. Burman, E. & Parker, I. (Eds.). (1997). Culture, Power and Difference. Discourse Analysis in South Africa. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
Lifschitz, S. & Oosthuizen, C. In Seedat, M, Duncan, N, & Lazarus, S. (Eds.). (2001). Community Psychology: Theory, Method and Practice. South African and Other Perspectives. Oxford: University Press.
Nicholas, L. & Cooper, S. (1990). Psychology & Apartheid. Johannesburg: Vision Publications.
Nuttall, S. (2002). Bodiographies: Writing the body in Arthur Nortje
Oosthuizen, P. (2002). The Ideological Purposiveness of the Social Construction of Black and White in the New South Africa: An Evolving Therapist’s Exploration. Unpublished Masters Dissertation. Johannesburg: RAU.
Rabinow, P. (ed.). (1984). The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.
White, M. & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Discourse as defined by Foucault. Retrieved October 11, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.massey.ac.nz/alock/theory/foucault.htm
[Exit without saving]