Derek Hook


Motivated by concerns of increased social division in South Africa, this project investigates the identifications and affective network of belonging of the country’s most privileged sector – white English-speaking South Africans. While sociological and discourse analytic studies have explored the prevailing self-representations of this group, what remains still to be developed is a ‘libidinal economy of the mass’ able to investigate the particular psychical investments of this group, and to link subjective identifications with a network of belonging. This project explore such issues of belonging and identification – and thereby issues of social division – by gathering a series of 50 interviews, many captured on video, of white South Africans of differing backgrounds. To encourage talk on social identification and belonging, interviews will accordingly take place both in participants’ familiar locations (homes, neighborhoods) and at sites of cross-racial public interaction (shared and/or recreational spaces underwritten by values of ‘the nation’). The aim will thus be to track both longstanding historical discourses of belonging and the potential of newly-emerging points of subjective investment in South Africa. The semi-structured interviews will be analyzed by psychoanalytic discourse analysis and will be linked to a conceptual frame derived from psychoanalysis. Freudian group psychology pin-points those trajectories of affect – discourses and affects of identification here being intractably interwoven – that prove indispensible in constituting a group. These include: 1) an idealized regime of self-representations; 2) the factor of a symbolic legacy; 3) the supposition of a lost/utopian object; and 4) shared forms of suffering or enjoyment. Collectively these nodal-points outline a ‘libidinal economy of the mass’ which links discourses and affective ties. The functioning of this economy – its particular dynamics, patterns and repetitions – will be characterized by means of recourse to psychoanalytic notions (as hysterical, neurotic, perverse, melancholic, etc. in nature).

The Research Idea

If one is to understand the social cohesion of a national mass and its potential to return to historical forms of separatism, then it pays to attend to the particularities of each of its constituent groups, to the affective and discursive bonds that binds them. This is a crucial factor in considering the ongoing viability of a multi-cultural, multi-racial society with the entrenched social divisions of post-apartheid society. This research varies from the standard line of analysis which approaches national group identification in terms of prevailing discourses. As important as such work is, it often fails to adequately account for why certain discourses are more persistent, ‘stickier’, than others. That is to say, not all discourses are equal in their ability to garner support, to mobilize passionate attachments; what propels a given discourse is a particular economy of affect. Two lessons immediately come to the fore. Firstly, that we need to trace the patterns and dynamism of affect underlying discourses of social belonging. Secondly, that the ties that most powerfully bind groups, that coalesce around social anxieties, around the rewards of particular ideal-images, and around the intensity of shared modes of enjoyment, are ties not merely of discourse but of passion. In short, one way of investigating the possibility for future division – or indeed, further future integration – in South Africa, is by exploring the libidinal economy of what remains a dominant group, the former oppressor, who now needs re-negotiate their ongoing role in the nation.

The Focus

Texts such as Bloom’s (2009) Ways of staying, Vice’s (2011) How do I live in this strange place?, Durrheim’s (2010) Race trouble effectively isolate the emergence of new white narratives of belonging along with the prospect of new lines of social division. While there is much to be recommended in such texts, they often shy away from tackling a pressing factor in these texts: their underlying affective nature, the libidinal commitment to a notion of belonging and community. Two shortcomings can be identified here: speaking of affects in a merely descriptive manner, rather than engaging them in a properly analytical way in order to understand their distribution, their dynamism, the patterns and repetitions which would make such formations predictable and open to critical intervention. Secondly, in focussing almost exclusively on talk, on texts, as many discourse analysis projects do, the resultant conceptualization of social agency neglects the agentic quality of affect itself, of those less than rational libidinal ties which determine the parameters of what is viable, ‘thinkable’ emotionally permissible for its constituency. It is for these reasons that the current project attends to the libidinal power of discourse itself in its potential for attractions, repulsions and bindings that create stable sites for identification. In tracing such ties of belonging this research hopes also to expand on the author’s previous work on formations of post-apartheid whiteness which identified three discursive tactics of white anti-racism: selective historical identifications, declarations of privilege, and the ‘giving something back’ trope of charitable anti-racism.


One of the proposed threats to the fragile stability of South Africa’s post-apartheid social consensus revolves around the question of white South Africa’s role and involvement in the post-apartheid nation. National debate has questioned the commitment of this group to the goals of racial integration, and their willingness to participate fully in the redistribution of social and material resources. The issue of this group’s emotional ties to the country – alleged to be ambivalent, transient and self-serving – has also been much contested. A great deal of news-media speculation has, likewise, questioned the role that this group intends to play in terms of social redress, in undoing the relations of racialised privilege that has for so long benefitted them. Of the options presented as part of this often anxious process of re-definition, several predominate: withdrawing from public and civic participation; retreat into a privatized enclaves; forms of economic ‘remote control’, i.e. of ownership from sidelines. In each of these cases genuine and social integration is avoided, past privilege largely consolidated and the prospect of new forms of hierarchical division, socio-economic segregation and cultural separation are furthered. The political judgment in each case is not simply rational, but affective in nature; political judgement here needs be viewed as in part the outcome of a type of identification, a shifting investment of belonging. Hence the aim here of viewing crucial political decisions as contingent upon affective formations, of analysing the political through considerations of how the group constitutes itself.

Theory & Evidence Base

The project aims to develop notions latent in the work of postcolonial theorists Frantz Fanon and Homi Bhabha who conceptualize racism and discourse as phobic and fetishistic in form, respectively. However, while there are many studies of this sort in social theory that speak of social formations built on various types of libidinal economy – melancholic for Judith Butler and Paul Gilroy, narcissistic for Christopher Lasch, perverse for Slavoj Zizek – work of this sort seldom pays attention to detailed interview transcripts. Hence the gap between empirical social science and psychoanalytic theorization, something that this project aims to remedy by means of centralizing recorded interview material. One appreciates thus the importance of qualitative research frameworks – such as that of Lacanian discourse analysis – that link the terrain of psychoanalytic conceptualization to strategies of textual reading practice. A further pitfall the research aims to avoid is that of an overwhelming focus on the omnipresence of social injustice and disempowerment that blinds the analyst to the prospect of new shared social ties. An analytical priority lies with the prospect of inter-group, ‘inter-racial’ modes of identification that open up onto more inclusive networks of belonging with the capacity to reach beyond previous socio-political fault-lines. This research remains attentive thus to types of conviviality and cosmopolitanism specific to the post-apartheid situation, to facets of the post-apartheid public sphere in which historical or exclusivist models of identification make way for something more expansive.


Semi-structured interviews – approximately half of which will be video-recorded – will be analysed by means of psychoanalytic discourse analysis, a qualitative approach which ensures that the analysis moves beyond the level of descriptive overview, able to explore tacit associations and disjunctions in the material. By developing strategies within the emerging field of Lacanian discourse analysis, a type of psychoanalytic textual practice will be applied which advances a form of symptomatic reading attuned to displacements and condensations within narratives, to symbolic juxtapositions that may broaden the field of potential meaning and explore lateral connections between texts. The project will be informed by a solid conceptual frame, a dynamic model derived from Freudian group psychology that pinpoints a series of nodal-points in the formation of social ties of belonging. These nodal-points includes: 1) an idealized regime of self-presentations (narcissistically-loaded depictions that groups have of themselves, heroic narratives, etc.); 2) the factor of symbolic legacy (prevailing ‘master-signifiers’, issues of historical inheritance and agency, the trans-subjective social network linking a given community); 3) the supposition of a lost object, along with utopian or nostalgic visions that wish to reclaim something of the past or to stake a claim on the future; 4) perceptions of shared forms of libidinal enjoyment that consolidate the group. Collectively these nodal points enable one to map the key co-ordinates of a ‘libidinal economy of the mass’ which links discourses and affective ties. The operation of this economy can itself be qualified by reference to psychoanalytic concepts (neurotic/perverse/narcissistic/melancholic, etc).


The results of the project will be disseminated by means of publication, conference presentation, and via a montage of filmed interviews. The project will result in 3 key publications in internationally peer-reviewed journals: a paper on ‘white identifications and networks of belonging’ in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, an article on ‘Affective cartography’ in British Journal of Sociology, and a paper on ‘Libidinal economy’ in Qualitative Research. These papers will also form the backbone of a proposed book on the topic of libidinal economy by the author. The first two of these papers will be presented at the Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society Conference in 2014, and at the International Theoretical Psychology Conference in 2015. Given that a key objective of the project has been to combine scholarly outputs with more accessible research products, a key output will be a montage of extracts from filmed interviews, to be offered to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg (as a video installation) and to the Apartheid Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand (for inclusion in the Archive’s website). By utilizing the dissemination possibilities of a short-film, the project aims to reach beyond a merely academic audience. A crucial objective of the project is to devise a novel qualitative methodology – that of tracing libidinal economy – that is able to link discourse analytic approaches to the mapping of constellations of affect in large groups. The provision of procedures for such a methodology would prove a valuable resource for qualitative research in commensurate areas.


Positivist social psychological and sociological approaches have tended to shy away from attempts to plot affective constellations underlying a given grouping. This has occurred either on the presumption that affect is not an adequate scientific construct, or due to concerns of psychological reductionism. Br drawing on Freudian and Lacanian notions of what constitutes a group, this project advances a research model that aims to trace the particular affective patterns – distributions, rhythms, dynamics – of crucial political discourses of identification. Such a model of libidinal economy, which probes and maps a group’s passionate attachments, promises to be powerful research tool. It offers in fact a novel mode of enquiry for a range of researchers interested in linking the political and the psychical, in connecting discourse analysis to that crucial factor of social motivation often neglected by positivist social scientists – the affective regime of a given social constituency. By drawing out key facets of mass affects which are, by definition, societal, trans-individual, the proposed methodology bridges the domains of the psychoanalytic and the sociological (discursive, historical, structural modes of analysis). The empirical focus of the project aims, more specifically, to pin-point the constitutive bonds, the network of belonging of white South Africa at an historical point in which its privilege is being re-negotiated. It will deliver a sketch of a multi-layered formation of affect that best illuminates this group’s ongoing role and commitment in advancing – or obstructing – the post-apartheid project of redistribution and socio-cultural and political integration.


The ‘Post-apartheid libidinal economy’ research project, as carried out in the 2014 calendar year, enabled the researcher to conduct fieldwork and collect relevant data in South Africa. It likewise enabled the researcher to engage with associates pursuing similar forms of psychosocial work on contemporary post-apartheid South Africa, and, furthermore, to present the emerging findings to colleagues and students at a variety of institutional locations. The time for sustained and largely uninterrupted work on the research project also enabled the researcher to experiment methodologically, to devise new modes of collecting and analysing research data and – as importantly – to reconceptualise the results of the analysis of collected materials. Several publications have already resulted from the research, and several more are forthcoming.

Data collection and presentations of the research

The overall aim of the project was to trace the distinctive patterns of affect – the libidinal economy – underlying the collective identity of white South Africans in the contemporary post-apartheid (and post-Mandela) period. In this respect it was of considerable importance for the researcher to spend time immersed in the South Africa context and to collect data in situ (particularly newspaper clippings, information pertaining to current debates, popular South African literature, etc.). I was successful in doing just this: spending time in South African University libraries; immersing myself in South African news-media material; engaging with university associates and students; being directed to various sites and less well-known work in the field. One real gain of being able to spend 4 months in South Africa was that of developing a broader collegial network of scholars (and potential reviewers and collaborators) working in the same field.

Colleagues were interested in the findings of my work, and although I had not yet settled on the rubric that would best synthesize the diverse findings of my project – namely that of what I call ‘white anxiety’ – I did learn much from presenting various facets of the project (‘Post-apartheid libidinal economy’) at seminars and public talks at a number of South African institutions (listed below).

Key findings and methodological innovations

The research attempted to investigate key nodal-points of affect in the group identities of white South Africans seeking to locate themselves in the changing socio-political domain of post-apartheid South Africa. Given that the project focussed on the period between 2013-14 – a period during which Nelson Mandela died, the country celebrated 20 years of democratic rule, the Oscar Pistorius trial reached its conclusion, and the fourth democratic elections were held – it was unsurprising that such collective emotions were not hard to find. Several thematic clusters immediately came to the fore: memorializing Mandela; Jacob Zuma as symptom; Julius Malema and the spectre of black anger; the spectacle of blame; and suspended retribution.

Each of the above clusters brought to the fore a fantasmatic theme and a corresponding psychical dynamic: idealization in the case of Mandela, aggressivity and disavowed identification in the case of Zuma; an anxiety-provoking ‘return of the repressed’ in the case of postulates of black anger and the figure of Julius Malema; collective jouissance in the case of Pistorius and, strikingly, a sense of suspended temporality – or ‘petrified life’ – in the case of imagined retributions.

The life of the research project enabled me to experiment methodologically, and in two principal ways. The first of these concerned the attempt to combine facets of creative non-fiction or ‘life-writing’ with more overtly scholarly work (see for example my publication ‘Indefinite delay’). The second – an over-arching objective of the project – was to utilize psychoanalytic notions and the terminology of affect to produce analytical insights into various aspects of contemporary socio-political life in post-apartheid South Africa. The challenges of the latter – of moving between clinic and culture, as we might put it – were certainly one of the key learning opportunities the project provided, and my published remarks on these challenges will, I hope, prove useful to colleagues and students in the domain of psychosocial studies.

The project also afforded me the time to do more reading than is normally the case, and this meant I was able to return to historical literature on white South African in addition to engaging contemporary literature on whiteness, and it enabled me to engage at length with what went on to become the chief organizing theme of the project, namely that of ‘white anxiety’. Having the time to immerse myself in this challenging research topic – anxiety that is, as conceptualized in Lacanian psychoanalysis – sharpened many of the analytical observations I was able to make in the course of the project. Fluency in this theoretical domain (societal applications of Lacanian conceptualizations of anxiety) will prove useful in informing my work in the area for years to come.

There were several unexpected facets of the research. The first was the degree to which key historical figures functioned as impersonations of given psychical operations in the post-apartheid public sphere (hence the predominance of political leaders – Mandela, Zuma, Malema – in the above listing of themes). Several of the publications stemming from the project (see below) pivoted on representations of just such figures who were both ‘actual’ historical persons (obviously) and yet also (less obviously) embodiments of fantasmatic concerns and anxious affects. One of the biggest surprises of the research was the discovery of the importance that a particular historical figure – Robert Soukwe – played as a ‘repressed signifier’, that is, as a symbol (simultaneously) of white anxiety and of the radical political aspirations of many poor and disenfranchised black South Africans.

A further unexpected finding – noted above – was the degree to which the theme of anxiety became the over-arching concept, indeed, the organizing principle that made sense of the various findings of the study. I was, additionally, surprised by how crucial questions of temporality came to be – something which in retrospect is less surprising given the anticipatory nature of anxiety.

In the initial proposal for the project I undertook to publish two journal articles pertaining to the research, one on the topic of ‘affective cartography’, the other with the title of ‘libidinal economy’. As is perhaps inevitable for a research project of this sort, the titles and conceptualizations of these projected publications have changed somewhat. I opted for a different title in respect of the paper on libidinal economy, preferring instead: ‘Love, artificiality and mass identification’ (see below). The key concerns motivated the proposed paper on ‘affective cartography’ have been somewhat differently formulated in my forthcoming paper ‘Petrified life’.

Journal Articles

Hook, D. (2016). A threatening personification of freedom or: Sobukwe and repression. Safundi, 1-24.

What is it that underlies the growing public interest in the figure of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe? Sobukwe has been the subject of a form of historical amnesia – indeed, of a consensus of forgetting – in South Africa for at least the last 20 years. One way of appreciating both the force and importance of the retrieval of this historical legacy is by treating Sobukwe not merely as a biographical narrative or historical persona, but as a signifier. Sobukwe, I argue, functions precisely as a signifier for a cluster of ideas and aspirations routinely excluded – indeed, repressed – from the post-apartheid public sphere. I begin by exploring the various ways in which the signifier Sobukwe has been marginalized, disavowed, reduced (often to a crude form of anti-whiteism), and overwritten by rival political interests. Sobukwe, I suggest, haunts the post-apartheid historical situation; his memory is a reminder of those dimensions of political freedom that remain unattained.Ultimately, however, Sobukwe is not merely a repressed signifier; his name functions as a master signifier for an alternative political future. Sobukwe operates today as one prospective name for a more encompassing project of decolonization that expands beyond the given political and institutional structures of the post-apartheid condition.

Hook, D. (2015). Petrified life. Social Dynamics, 41(3), 438-460.

How might we read temporality, that is, the psychical and social experience of time, as an index of the prevailing political and intersubjective impasses of the apartheid and post-apartheid eras? This paper explores three perspectives on this broad problematic. Achille Mbembe’s thoughts on repetition and nostalgia provide, firstly, a means of understanding one characteristically post-apartheid mode of temporality: that of suspended history. Crapanzano’s notion of waiting, elaborated as a means of grasping the white anxiety of the late apartheid period, allows us, secondly, to conceptualise the de-realised experience of a muted or deadened time. A third source, an unpublished text contributed to the Apartheid Archive concerning a fantasised scene of violence, enables us to sketch a third form of temporal experience common to apartheid and post-apartheid experiences alike, namely that of imagined retribution. These ostensibly separate and distinct modes of temporality can be read as interlocking forms of “petrified life,” a term I use to link temporalities of immobilisation characterised by suspension, stasis and fear.

Hook, D. (2015). Sobukwe today. Psychology in Society.

Hook, D. (2014). Antagonism, social critique and the ‘violent reverie’. Psychology in Society, 46, 21-34.

This paper opens up a series of windows on racialised life in past and present South Africa as a way arguing for the value of antagonism as a mode of critical enquiry. Sampling a cross-section of recent writing on South African race politics, the paper calls attention both to strident critiques of white privilege, and to concerns over allegedly anti-white populism. Chabani Manganyi’s notion of the violent reverie is used to argue that such oppositional critique affords a crucial expressive modality which –perhaps unexpectedly – lessens the subjective (self-directed) violence of the historically oppressed and decreases rather than increases the possibility of objective violence between oppressor and oppressed. The paper also draws on a series of philosophical, psychoanalytic and political motifs – the ideas of ‘no hope’, Lacanian concept of the imaginary, and Mngxitama’s notion of the failure of interracial dialogue – as a means of drawing attention to the readiness with which we often succumb to comforting social myths.

Hook, D. (2014). Love, artificiality and mass identification. Psychodynamic Practice, 20, 2, 128-143.

Book Chapters

Hook, D. (2015). Mandela as master signifier. In R. Truscott (Ed.) Remains of the Social. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Hook, D. (2015). Indefinite Delay: On (Post) Apartheid Temporality.Psychosocial Imaginaries: Perspectives on Temporality, Subjectivities and Activism, 48.

Truscott, R. & Hook, D. (2015). Vicissitudes of anger: Psychoanalysis in the time of apartheid. In D. Pick & M. Fyttche (Eds.), Psychoanalysis in the age of totalitarianism. London & New York: Routledge.

Hook, D. (2015). In the Name of Mandela. The Courtroom as a Space of Resistance: Reflections on the Legacy of the Rivonia Trial, 21.

Hook, D. (2014). Nationalist libido: On love and circuits of attachment. In G. Sullivan (Ed.) Understanding Collective Pride and Group Identity. New York and London: Routledge, p. 55-66.

Review Articles

Hook, D. (2015). Mapping anxiety.

Hook, D. (2015). An Africander collection. Review of Crais, Clifton and McClendon, Thomas The South Africa reader: History, culture, politics. Psychology in Society, 47, 68-70.

Hook, D. (2014). The performativity of non-racialism and a culture of complaint. Review of Prince Mashele’s The Death of Our Society. Psychology in Society, 46, 69-71.

Hook, D. (2014). The surge of ‘post-ism’: no more comprehensive solutions? Review of Psychoanalysis and Social Involvement, by Uri Hadar. Political Quarterly, 85, 3, pp. 389-390.

Talks & Presentations

Hook, D. (2014). ‘Libidinal economy and the analysis of affects in post-apartheid South Africa’, Duquesne University, March.

Hook, D. (2014). What bonds the nation? Ties of affective belonging in today’s South Africa. Public lecture, University of Pretoria, Faculty of Humanities, 8 May.

Hook, D. (2014). ‘Mediators of race in the Apartheid Archive narratives of white South Africans’. Ububele Psychotherapy Training Centre, Johannesburg.

Hook, D. (2014). ‘Five moments in the (post)apartheid unconscious’, HUMA, University of Cape Town, May.

Hook, D. (2014). ‘The post-apartheid social imaginary’. University of the Free State, April.

Hook, D. (2014). Indefinite delay: On (post)apartheid temporality. 4th Apartheid Archive Conference, Pretoria.