A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial: ’Race’, Racism and Psychology - On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial: ’Race’, Racism and Psychology
On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Hook, D. (2012) A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial: The Mind of Apartheid. London and New York: Routledge.

Richards, G. (2012) ’Race’, Racism and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History (2nd Edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Psychology developed as a separate academic field of inquiry towards the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and became powerful as an academic and professional practice in the United States in the early twentieth century. US psychology was increasingly adopted as the benchmark for ’international’ research in the discipline and, with some few exceptions, this kind of psychology — laboratory-experimental in form — had been rapidly globalised by the beginning of the twenty-first century. The time and place of its emergence, and phenomenal success today as its practitioners are called upon to advise, diagnose and improve the lives of individuals, raises a series of questions about its intertwinement with colonialism.

Graham Richards, in a classic text first published in 1997, now in this second edition of ’Race’, Racism and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History includes discussion of postcolonial interventions, and makes a distinction between ’Psychology’ (with a capital P) as the academic and professional discipline (and which is his main focus in the book) and the domain of ’psychology’. The book is part of a sustained project of, to borrow from the title of another of his books, ’putting psychology in its place’ (Richards, 1996), that is, to locate this discipline at a particular point in history and simultaneously to, as it were, ’provincialise’ the limited accounts of our internal mental states that are provided by psychologists. The second aspect, of ’psychology’ (in lower case), refers to everyday forms of subjectivity which the discipline feeds upon to produce its own theories and then engorges with its own popularised ’findings’ and speculations about human behaviour, cognition and feeling. This ’psychology’ — itself colonised, we might say, by the discipline — is the main focus of Derek Hook’s A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial: The Mind of Apartheid, a theoretical articulation of the work of a range of anti-colonial writers.

The two books thus complement each other both in terms of their chronological account — Richards charts the background assumptions in the discipline as it gathered pace, and Hook brings us up to date with current debates and some suggestions as to how things should be taken forward — and in terms of the emphasis in critical research on the way our psychology is defined by psychologists and how we might reconfigure our inner states in defiance of what the discipline says about us.

Disciplinary conceptions of ’race’ in psychology are, in Richards’ account, the seedbed for forms of racism that granted a peculiarly virulent power to the discipline when European and then US scientists applied their work to colonial populations, and brought the results of that work to bear on different ’racial’ groups at home. In one chapter, for example, Richards excavates a history of the 1898 Cambridge Torres Straits Expedition, which was to define how British psychologists thought about ’race’, while another chapter provides a review of the way the ’race’ and IQ debate has evolved from the late 1960s to the present-day. In both cases, we can see how different characters — intimately related to different political positions located in different class positions — took up contrasting views. At every point, the intersection of ’psychology’ and ’Psychology’ operates as a field of intense debate.

Richards’ conceptual distinction between ’Psychology’ and ’psychology’, between discipline and experience, is useful but it is also one that Hook troubles, and the political-historical coordinates Hook uses are spelt out in his earlier work on the relevance of Foucault to critical work in the discipline (Hook, 2007). Within that Foucauldian frame, psychology is part of a constellation of theories and practices that have little in common bar the kind of methods they use to observe, measure and adapt individuals to the social (Rose, 1985). Psychology comes to operate during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century alongside psychiatry, social work and psychotherapy as part of the apparatus of the ’psy complex’, and this psy complex requires that its subjects be willing and active participants.

This is a disciplinary matrix that calls upon individuals to speak to professionals, to bare their souls to them, and to speak to each other in such a way as to rehearse what we now recognise to be psychological ways of being. Now, the focus of Hook’s intervention — the domain of subjectivity, how it is itself colonised and how it might be ’liberated’ (to use a rather non-Foucauldian formulation) — takes centre stage. For without that ’psychology’ among everyday folk that is drawing upon and then sustaining the work of the discipline, there would be barely any ’Psychology’ as such.

It has been the hope of some ’critical psychologists’ that the domain of ’psychology’ might be reclaimed, and that the discipline of ’Psychology’ could be turned into an empty shell, made irrelevant. And then, against this hope, there has been a nagging suspicion that, if the Foucauldian account is correct, everyday psychology is now the site of all of the disciplinary and confessional processes critical scholars wanted to avoid, and the psy complex is most of the time responding to the avid demands of thoroughly psychologised consumers. If this is right, then the truly dire history of the discipline that Richards describes pales into insignificance against contemporary neoliberal psychologisation which has succeeded in configuring us as victims of our own individual freedom (De Vos, 2012).

This is where the issues addressed in these two books directly connect with postcolonial debates, and where postcolonial theory becomes a valuable resource for addressing the history of ’race’ and racism in psychology, in the discipline and in contemporary subjectivity. To shift psychology into the orbit of postcolonial studies is not merely to claim that the old history of colonialism (conceived as an instrumental mechanism for the production of new markets and for harvesting cheap labour power) has been ended and replaced by new forms of cultural dominance, as if we are now beyond colonialism as the exercise of brute force and living in times where ideological contest has become most important.

Richards shows very clearly that the early colonial period made use of psychology not only as a warrant for the exercise of Western expertise, all the more efficiently to subjugate populations and extract surplus value, but as a system of production of forms of self. The metaphors that clustered around ’race’ produced the identities adopted by those who governed, and, crucially, also incited colonial subjects to understand themselves and thus to resist domination within the terms of those metaphors and practices (Mamdani, 2004). In this sense, the history of ’race’ and racism was always already ’postcolonial’, and ideological domination today is maintained within a matrix of coercion in which the production of identity is still necessarily accompanied by systemic violence (with Žižek (2008) the most obvious reference point here for Hook’s overall argument).

Hook’s study here again neatly dovetails with Richards’, for his discussion of the place of the body — regulation of and resistance to racism as corporeal — shows us that the question of racism today is not simply an ideological one — pertaining to what traditional psychology would like to see as misjudged ’attitudes’ and overly prescriptive ’stereotypes’ — but operates at a deeper, more visceral level:

the (bodily, affective, pre-representational/prepropositional) aspects of racism in question may be ’extra-discursive’ without being extra-symbolic. Such ’unmediated’ forms of racism may, momentarily, elude the capture of discourse — at least in the sense of the network of systematic articulations that characterizes hegemonic discourse — without evading the broader context of symbolic functioning (Hook, 2011: 97).

The different sites from which Richards and Hook write also mean that their vantage points on ’race’ and racism, colonialism and postcolonialism are, if not always complementary, usefully appreciative and questioning of each other. They have clearly had access to each others’ draft manuscripts, and the overlap of material between the two books is crafted into the argument of each. Although Richards is based in Britain, and was once Director of the British Psychological Society’s History of Psychology Centre, because the history of the discipline was so oriented to what happened in the US through the twentieth century, he is unravelling the discipline from within, from within one of the old colonial centres.

His attention to the role played by British imperialism and the way that colonial history was then articulated with the development of the discipline is designed to reinforce the argument that the rise of influence of US psychology was not necessarily a more malign alternative tradition. Rather, psychology formulated and researched in Britain went hand-in-glove with British colonial interests, and something similar played out as US psychology took up the baton, but with a difference. And the difference was that the US had a sizeable racially-oppressed population to deal with, both from the legacy of slavery and of mass immigration. Richards also shows how the continental European traditions of race psychology impacted upon Britain and the US. One might say that the role of Psychology as a discipline was to manage the transition from one form of Apartheid in the US to another, from that of explicit separate development and management of populations to that of toleration of difference as multicultural mask of power.

Hook, on the other hand, while also writing from inside Britain now, is oriented to South Africa, where he was educated, and to which he is still closely connected, including through the ’Apartheid Archive Project’ which he returns to at different points in the book. The project has gathered accounts of life under Apartheid from South Africans in the then official ’racial’ categories, and is now analysing them from different perspectives. In some respects, South Africa is a perfect laboratory in which to explore precisely the intersection between colonial and postcolonial rule. As a settler state built on the violent separation of populations it also elaborated anthropological, sociological and psychological justification for this separation. The very same conditions that led to the exclusion of the majority of the population from state power also, paradoxically, nurtured a subaltern intellectual tradition that tackled the dominant psychology with a resistant psychology.

This is work which includes what Richards glosses as ’Liberation Psychology’, which is actually a rather misleading rubric which might lead some readers to imagine that this refers to action research perspectives in Latin America (Martín-Baró, 1994). This is not to say that there are not important challenges to the racism of Western psychology in the Latin American Liberation Psychology tradition, and these challenges could also be articulated with a parallel strand of ’Liberation Psychology’ that aims to develop an ’indigenous psychology’ in the Philippines (Enriquez, 1994). Richards’ point is that inside South Africa itself during the Apartheid years, there was discussion of the work of Frantz Fanon (1967), the elaboration of a distinctive Black phenomenological tradition in the work of Chabani Manganyi (1973), and writings on ’Black Consciousness’ by Steve Biko (1978) that had, as Hook shows, an explicitly ’psychological’ dimension to them.

While Richards provides an excellent exhaustive historical survey of the attempts by White liberal academics in the US to understand and ameliorate the effects of racism, Hook explores already-existing ’postcolonial’ refusal of the terms of debate set by the discipline of psychology and a connection with radical Black political action in South Africa.

The question as to what alternative psychology might take us forward is posed by Richards, but not pursued at any great length, and his concern is with the way that psychoanalysis as the great pretender to provide a more radical account of subjectivity actually replicates reactionary motifs of ’race’ and racism even while it softens and interiorises these notions. That is, psychoanalysis questions the racism of those obsessed with race at the same time as pathologising those who rebel against it. Richards includes a fascinating discussion, for example, of John Dollard’s 1937 Class and Caste in a Southern Town.

Dollard is now remembered by mainstream laboratory-experimental psychologists as a researcher into the ’frustration-aggression’ hypothesis (a marrying of quasi-psychoanalytic hydraulic notions with a behaviourist account of the conditions which would trigger pent-up aggression toward certain social categories). Richards recovers a qualitative, non-experimental current of work in Dollard’s study of life histories together with a balanced appeal against racial prejudice and against superstitious beliefs of ’Negros’. Psychoanalysis presents itself as an alternative Psychology and claims to access more directly the actual psychology of those afflicted by racism (both as perpetrators and as victims), but Richards has an eye to how this alternative is itself culturally-located:

The operation of these psychological mechanisms, notably those related to emotion, is comprehensible only within the complex socioeconomic context of Deep South plantation culture, with its fraught historical and cultural heritage. The binds in which the small emergent middle-class African American group find themselves are also dealt with at length. Behind all this lies the tension between the official American egalitarian ideology and the caste culture of the South in which the African American’s under-caste position has to be sustained (Richards, 2012: 418).

There is an injunction here to historicise and culturally-locate forms of psychology, including psychoanalysis, that Hook is less keen on heeding. Taking his cue from Fanon, a psychiatrist who did indeed borrow psychoanalytic ideas to tackle colonial uses of psychoanalysis, Hook frames other non-psychoanalytic writers in South Africa in terms that are more explicitly psychoanalytic. This is where writers like Homi Bhabha are enrolled to press the shape of the argument. This is quite fruitful, and Hook provides a clear account of Bhabha’s work, taking that work in some original directions which are grounded in the South African context (again drawing on accounts from the Apartheid Archive Project).

The category of ’enjoyment’ is articulated with fantasy, and his argument accumulates a series of different psychoanalytic reference points, eventually bringing together elements of Fanon with elements of Žižek to explain exactly why the liberal balanced perspectives of psychologists (and most psychoanalysts) — the perspectives so neatly outlined and critiqued by Richards — will not work: ’Our failure to harmonize the paradigms of structure and experience (of imposed versus expressive phenomenology) points to an underlying deadlock, a traumatic and irreducible “irresolvability” within embodiment itself.’ (Hook, 2011: 366).

This aporetic endpoint of the argument actually raises two questions. The first is the one posed by Richards as to the cultural specificity of psychological mechanisms of any kind. Fanon, for example, in his critique of Mannoni’s (1964) attempt at an evenhanded exploration of the ’inferiority complex’ of the colonialist and the ’dependence complex’ of the colonised, was clear that the forms of description he was providing — a phenomenology of humiliation and resentment overlaid with psychoanalytic vocabulary — was itself culturally and historically specific.

The second question concerns what is to be done when we have identified such a traumatic and irreducible deadlock. Richards does not have this problem because he has disposed of psychoanalysis as just one of a number of different ideologically-charged psychological models, and a reasoned scholarly response to this history will acknowledge the progress that has been achieved as well as their limitations. The ’reflexive’ character of the argument, flagged in the title of Richards’ book, means that we are able to understand how the discipline of Psychology is ’a product of the “psychologies” of those within it’, and in times of colonialism this means that is necessarily racist (Richards, 2012: 418).

The implication of Hook’s argument is that the non-rational grounding for forms of racism, particularly in the form of psychoanalysis he favours (that is, a quasi-Žižekian diametric alternative to the ’ego psychology’ US tradition of Dollard and his like) must mean that a reasoned rational response is doomed to fail, destined to be caught in the irresolvable ’deadlock’ he describes. It should mean that something beyond reason, some of the unconscious and fantasy should be brought to bear on challenging and changing racism, though he does not even hint at what this would be.

While the two books do present different perspectives that do, at many points, complement each other, we are left with ’deadlock’ between them. This will either be resolved as the tides of history, assisted by the more liberal forms of postcolonial theory perhaps, gradually take us beyond the residues of the old colonial racism that Richards describes, or it will explode into new forms of crisis, a reorganisation of axes of power that also reconfigure what we think to be ’race’ and really do take us into something genuinely ’postcolonial’. That might also entail, if we take Richards’ route to change, a reflexive engagement with our everyday psychology and a break from what the discipline has told us about it so far, or it might require, if we follow Hook, the construction of a different theoretical standpoint that will give us some leverage against disciplinary and everyday psychology as we currently experience it.