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‘The township’ and ‘the gated community’ : a psychosocial exploration of home and the (a)symmetries of belonging.

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What does it mean to be ‘at home’ in an uneven world? How is belonging performed in bodily, spatial, discursive and affective ways that materialise in physical boundaries of demarcation? This research sought to explore these questions in post-apartheid Johannesburg. The city landscape continues to bear the scars of racial segregation, as affluent spaces jarr abrasively and defensively against spaces of poverty (Murray, 2011). The critical scholarship on place identity has steered us in the direction of a performativities framework to understanding belonging, not as an ontological given, but as an achievement (Bell, 1999), structured by historically informed discursive iterations of power (Butler, 1993). The current research extends on this body of work; at the same time, addresses a lacuna in the scholarship. The latter has overlooked the role of desire to explain why we are ‘gripped’ by sociopolitical projects of belonging counterintuitive to the ideals of social transformation (Glynos & Stavrakakis, 2008). The research, situated within critical psychosocial studies, aims to explicate how, in our ‘mundane’ everyday doings, we (un)consciously perform home as a psychosocial project of belonging. Specifically, a Lacanian-Žižekian framework is offered to map out how belonging is an intersubjective process that orientates us towards the trans-individual unconscious, our transferential relationship to the ‘big Other’ whom we look to for direction, purpose, meaning, love and approval (Žižek, 1989). The research aims to illuminate desire as a negotiated, fantasmatic transaction performed with others, but aligned to the ‘big Other’ (Hook, 2008b), an alienating and incomplete social system that prescribes the ‘rules’ for how to belong. To explore these subtle complexities, the research is set across two divergent ‘home spaces’, in proximal distance, yet contrasting in socio-spatial and material ways. These two sites are referred to anonymously as ‘The Township’ and ‘The Gated Community’. The research offers a ‘mapping’ of the affective topographies of belonging, using a combination of sit-down narrative interviews and go-alongs with participants in and through their home and communal spaces. Participants across both sites were held together in commonality through crime talk as an orienting narrative imaginary (Jackson, 2002) to ‘make sense’ of the violence and chaos of living in a broader environment perceived as dangerous. The privileged home as a fantasmatic construction offered ‘The Gated Community’ residents the promise of idyllic beauty, freedom and safety from the terror ‘out there’ – ‘the criminal’ – metaphorically and metonymically embodied in the figure of the ‘poor black man’. For ‘The Township’, the making of home was centred on narratives of ‘survival’, evincing a struggle to make meaning in a “place where meaning [has] collapsed” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 2-3). The clean and proper ‘surviving’ body was set apart from ‘the place where I am not’; of dying, decaying or dead bodies in an abjected zone, designated as ‘dark city’, a reception area for criminals, foreigners and other ‘outsiders’. The research highlights jouissance (a painful pleasure) as a transgressive ‘subtext’ that completes the fantasy of being ‘at home’ to provide the “ultimate support” (Žižek, 1994, p. 32) for racial ideologies that structure our desire to belong. The researcher’s complicity in fantasmatic constructions, alongside the surprising ‘ruptures’ to these imaginary and symbolic narratives, highlights the search for home as a process that is incomplete, elusive, perpetually shifting and persistently uneven. Our moments of attunement with the other make room for a comforting ‘mutuality’ in belonging, but they risk a painful alienation from the abjected ‘foreigner’ within ourselves (Kristeva, 1991).


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.