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Racism as abjection: a psychoanalytic conceptualisation for a post-apartheid South Africa

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Treating the analysis of racism as a key critical imperative of South African psychology, this article questions the adequacy of many of the social constructionist or discursive approaches to racism that have proved influential in critical South African social psychology of late (Dixon, 1996; 1997; Dixon Dixon, Foster, Durrheim, & Wilbraham, 1994; Duncan, 1993; 1996; Duncan, van Niekerk, de la Rey, & Seedat, 2001; Durrheim & Dixon, 2000; 2001; Foster, 1993; 1999; Terre Blanche & Seedat, 2001). While such approaches have much to recommend them as means of apprehending institutional, historical, representational and textual forms of racism, and while they offer a vital critique of de-politicising, individualising treatments of racism which reduce it to an internal psychology of sorts (a function of personality variables, perceptions, attributions, attitudes, cognitions, traits, authoritarianism, prejudice, etc.) (see for example Bhana, 1977; Bhana & Bhana, 1975; Duckitt, 1991; Heaven, 1977; MacCrone, 1930; 1932; 1949; Mynhardt, Plug, Tyson & Viljoen, 1979; Orpen, 1973; Simon & Barling, 1983), they nevertheless appear somewhat limited in their ability to grasp those less palpable and more insidious forms of racism, those structures of oppression, that, in Young's (1990a, p. 11) terms, 'lie beneath the level of discursive awareness'. By focusing on racism' overt structural or discursive forms we risk losing sight of the 'psychic density' of this phenomenon, that is, racism's extraordinarily affective and often eruptive quality, its visceral or embodied nature, its apparent stubbornness to social, historical, discursive change, the intensity, in other words of the individual racist's investment in their own racist subjectivity. Julia's Kristeva's notion of abjection has much to recommend it as the basis for a tentative analytics of racism to be able to understand racism's extremities of affect, its visceral, 'pre-discursive' and bodily forms, and its symptomatic aspects of avoidance and aversion. This model is useful in helping us to appreciate that racism is a phenomenon which is as psychical as it is political, affective as it is discursive, subjective as it is ideological.

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