When Attachments Fail: Psychiatry, Space, and History in South Africa

Colloquium | March 20 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Stephen McIsaac, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology

 Center for African Studies

A constitutive part of both colonialism and apartheid in South Africa was the forced spatial extension of black families. A crucial concern was how to ensure black, exploitative labor for resource extraction and infrastructural labor. Today, this spatial legacy of apartheid remains a solidified part of kinship structure, with families largely spit between the space of the urban township and the rural village. As a long-standing consequence, many children are raised in between the two spaces by a variety of caregivers. The paper explores the knowledge practices that attempt to make sense of this legacy in the present. For psychologists working in the area, such a legacy becomes translated into the language of “failed attachments” – an attempt to explain the deviant child in terms of his or her failed attachments growing up between spaces, people, and worlds. I explore the tensions between experts who at once foreground and disavow the spatial legacy of colonialism and apartheid in creating what become known as “failed attachments,” who in the process legitimate a pathologization of the families for whom they care. By paying particular attention to how space -- in both metaphoric and material terms -- is invoked in ordinary spaces and clinical practice, and the lived experience of the legacy of exploitative spatial practices in South Africa, I argue that returning ‘space’ from being purely metaphor in attachment theory to a more material-historical elaboration opens up different possibilities for understanding the legacies of historical violence in the present.

Stephen McIsaac is a PhD Candidate in the Programs in Medical Anthropology and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Broadly speaking, his work addresses the cultural politics of knowledge, history, and subjectivity in the postcolony. Based on 19 months of fieldwork in Cape Town, South Africa, his dissertation explores how the legacies of colonialism and apartheid affect the experience of mental illness, and the forms of care that are imagined to address it in the present.