hosted by the Postcolonial Studies Research Network, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

18–20 November 2015

University of Otago


Professor Robert Bernasconi (Penn State)

Professor Rosalyn Diprose (UNSW)

Dr David Goodman (Boston College)

With their areas of interest and methodologies persistently shifting and morphing, nothing stands still for very long in the humanities and social sciences: after an “ethical turn” and an “affective turn”—to name but a couple of the notable recent shifts and changes—we are now, it seems, increasingly swept up in a “relational turn.” Whether it is psychoanalysis or continental philosophy, eco-criticism or posthumanism: what anchors a wide range of contemporary discussions across the disciplines is the idea that as relational selves we stand in intricate and intimate webs of connection with all those with whom we come into contact—be they human or animal, animate or inanimate. Why this turn to relationality? Why now? What is at stake here?


Influenced by the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, as well as the relational turn in psychoanalysis, the current emphasis on relationality challenges the Cartesian conception of discrete, self-founding subjects—so stubbornly persistent in the Western imagination—and instead asserts the primacy of relationships in the constitution of subjectivity. However, while clearly a radical concept insofar as it invites us to rethink our very “being” in the world, and with it our governing regimes of power and domination, relationality is hardly a new idea. Within psychoanalysis, for example, the early object relations theories of the likes of Fairbairn, Guntrip and Winnicott quickly emerged to challenge Freud’s original drive theory with its implicit focus on the individual ego. Within philosophy, similarly, ideas such as Hegel’s “mutual recognition” or Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world” (to name but two prominent examples) have long offered alternatives to the reductive subject/object dynamic that is the distinct legacy of Cartesianism. Given this well-established history of relational thought, why has relationality become “an issue” for us only now, at this particular historical juncture?

What emerges from the recent debates is a growing awareness that relationality is both a promise and a problem for us: relationality, that is to say, is the pivot point for a set of conflicting impulses. On the one hand, relationality is frequently associated with ethical potentiality: as inherently relational beings we are co-implicated in each others’ lives, and drawn into responsibility for those with whom we stand in relation. On the other hand, however, what the focus on relationality throws into sharp relief for us is the sheer difficulty of guarding this ethical impulse in our everyday lived encounters—both personal and political. In other words, our inherent relationality notwithstanding, what often marks our psychic entanglements, as much as our political relationships, is not an affirmation but a disavowal of relationality: a disavowal which manifests in what Leela Gandhi, in the context of imperialism, has pointedly called a “crisis of nonrelation.” Arguably, then, what is at stake in the contemporary relational turn is not just relationality’s ethical promise in its various forms of expression and areas of application; what is equally (if not more so) at stake is the pressing question of what gets in the way of this promise and leaves us facing relationality’s pathological alternatives instead. In other words: what is it about our relationality that sees us forever tempted to disavow the very thing that makes us who we are? Wherein lies the temptation of “nonrelation”? Why do we repeatedly flee the scene of our relationality in anxious pursuits of the kind of narcissistic solace promised by solitary self-enclosure? Or to ask more bluntly: what feeds the eternal recurrence of Cartesianism?



Dr Simone Drichel

Department of English & Linguistics

University of Otago


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