2007-08 Pembroke Seminar

"The Question of Identity in Psychoanalysis" 
Bernard Reginster
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center

The 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s birth has occasioned many reassessments of psychoanalysis, some of which are quite critical. Such criticisms tend to ignore two facts. One is that some of Freud’s most basic ideas have become so deeply entrenched that they remain untouched by those criticisms, and their Freudian origins are overlooked. The other is that, over the century since Freud’s early psychoanalytical works, the discipline he invented witnessed a theoretical explosion of new ideas, primarily about the issues of identity and intersubjectivity, which themselves became more and more closely involved with empirical research in psychological development. These new ideas have produced a rich and sometimes confusing fabric of theoretical effects on disciplines as diverse as cultural studies, race and gender studies, literary and media studies, philosophy, religious studies, history, and anthropology. The time has come to take stock. In 2007-2008, the Pembroke Seminar will explore psychoanalytic views on identification, intersubjectivity, and their interrelation. The claim that identification (understood as the development of an identity or sense of self) is fundamentally intersubjective (takes place in a context of relations with others) can be found in a wide variety of guises and across a wide variety of disciplines. But it is in psychoanalysis that most of these disciplines continue to find their theoretical bearings on these issues.

What is the identity, the “ego” or sense of self, of which psychoanalysts speak? What does it mean to claim, as Freud did, that “the ego is primarily a bodily ego”? What are we to make of the fact, recently acknowledged by both child psychoanalysts and developmental psychologists, that some of the earliest, most primitive layers of the sense of self develop before the capacity for verbalizable (self-)representation? What is the relation of identity to basic human needs? Is the development of a sense of self the incidental by-product of frustration in the effort to gratify basic bodily needs, as Freud believed, or is it the gratification of a separate and fundamental need for a stable and enduring sense of self, as some of his successors argued? One of the most central and distinctive claims of psychoanalytic theory is that identity is not an innate given but the product of a psychic process that can be disrupted or altogether thwarted. How does the fact that some people may lack a sense of self affect, for example, the discourse of disciplines (such as moral philosophy, political science, or economic theory) that continue to treat as basic and unproblematic the categories of selfishness and unselfishness? The possibility that identification can be disrupted has inspired the creation of a new category of psychopathologies, the so-called pathologies of the self. What implicit normative views about psychological health, or human wellbeing, find expression in this new category? Among the pathological conditions it is thought to include, we find the lack of an integrated personality, or excessive compliance with the demands of one’s social environment. But what implicit values motivate the characterization of these conditions as pathological, and what value do they themselves possess?

The role and significance of relations with others have arguably become one of the most central issues in psychoanalytic theory, as attested in the names given to numerous post-Freudian theories—object-relations theory, interpersonal psychiatry, relational psychoanalysis, intersubjective psychoanalysis, and recent psychoanalytic engagement with attachment theory, to mention a few. The centrality of relations with others raises fundamental questions. What is the “other” in psychoanalytic theory? Is it simply an object that provides gratification of one’s own basic bodily needs, with which one can therefore develop at best a purely instrumental relationship? Or is it the final object of a basic need to relate? Or again is it a formation having to do with the drives and with the subject’s entry into language? What does the “otherness” of this other consist in? And what are the implications of the various conceptions of otherness we can find in psychoanalytic theory for the psychoanalytic understanding of certain distinctively interpersonal relationships, such as love and trust? The significance of interpersonal relations is most evident in the concept of identification, which is widely viewed as an essentially intersubjective process. But here, too, we find considerable theoretical variation. To mention only one example, is identification the consequence of certain sorts of relational failures, as Freud thought, or is it on the contrary disrupted by such failures, as many of his successors argued?