Dr. André Beetschen

What can a psychoanalytic approach to identity shed light on when it presents itself today as a social and political concern, the source of violent confrontations?


Although Sigmund Freud linked, in ‘Analysis terminable and interminable’, these ‘three impossible professions’: to analyze, to educate and to govern[1], three professions having in common a human interaction, there remains nonetheless the fields of politics and psychoanalysis which are distinct. Closure of the analytic space on one side, with the refusal of enactment, while action and decision are, on the contrary, the principle feature of politics; on the other, intimate speech, preserved by absolute confidentiality. Here, at the opposite of public statement, which seeks to convince elsewhere, in psychoanalysis, judgment is suspended, as is denouncing or dividing. The political field, on the contrary, supports the action to be carried out.

Nevertheless, despite the peculiarity of his or her practice, the psychoanalyst is immersed in the life of the city and the nation and we know that analytical practice is complicated or impossible, even endangering, under regimes of dictatorship or supervised freedom. Insofar as politics is a field of conflicts in which instinctual forces are unleashed, also insofar as the psychoanalyst's speech is not ideologically ‘neutral’, as soon as it becomes public (especially if it engages in hazardous interpretations!), one can only underline, as Lise Demailly  writes, ‘the embrace of psychoanalysis with politics’[2], even when we admit that ‘it is the responsibility of psychoanalysts to contribute their share to the common effort to think about the situation, to think about its dangerousness…’ [3].

Freud did so in his response to Albert Einstein, ‘Why war?’, as well as his reflections on ‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’ and Civilisation and its Discontents, and with the prudent judgment he carried out in relation to the experience of communism. Among the many psychoanalysts who have followed this vein, I include Jean-Claude Stoloff who underlines, in a recent book, the fruitfulness of a rapprochement between psychic conflict and democratic debate[4]. Most of these analysts set out to explore how the catastrophes of civilization in the 20th century (the Shoah and other genocides) had given a new turn to the analytical thought seized by political situations, and by the self-destructiveness suddenly revealed in ‘the human’.

Contemporary psychoanalytic reflection on politics is therefore supported by a responsibility assumed when suffering is imposed on bodies and minds, either by real or symbolic violence. Thus we could read, in the argument of the 30th Conference of the European Psychoanalysis Federation (The Hague, April 2017), whose theme was ‘The Familiar and The Unfamiliar’:

We chose this theme because the Europe of today, in the short space of its history, has found itself facing immense political, economic and cultural challenges, which contain a high potential for conflict and challenge the social structures well known until now.

One of these political and cultural challenges has taken the name of identity, arousing passionate concern and conflict, also leading to political decisions and choices, including the drafting of laws modifying societal space. Politics are indeed the choices to be made in the face of the regulation of immigration flows or the preservation of humanitarian rights in the face of the tragedies experienced by ‘migrants’, when the Mediterranean Sea has become a maritime cemetery...

‘Crises’ or ‘identity claims’, threats to borders and ‘home’, fears of losing the roots of cultural identity when, conversely, ‘radicalization’ is dangerous, worries about secularism when religious fundamentalisms take hold: withdrawal and fractures threaten the possibility of ‘living together’ ... Elections are said to be threatened by ‘an identity trap’ which sharpens old political oppositions. There was, even in France, for a time, a ministry of national identity! And faced with the anxiety of losing identity, as much as belonging, we sometimes hear the fantasy of a ‘great replacement’ formulated.

So what is identity the name of? The word invasive has become a slogan for political confrontation, while veiling the nature or the reality of the phenomenon. There is another matter of words: ‘separatism’ intends today to replace ‘communitarianism’. Identity belongs also to concerns over the ‘assignment’ of gender and sex. The questioning of identity in contemporary politics summons the relationship with the other, abroad, their possible exclusion by the defensive measures which contribute to it.

As much a political as a societal fact, the notion of identity cannot, however, be visited without traversing, even quickly, the field of disciplines which try to account for it. Thus, the vagueness of the concept and its enigmatic lexical use were the subject of a gripping analysis by Vincent Descombes[5], who examines in The Embarrassments of Identity the question of ‘Who am I?’ The linguistic analysis of the designations of the word identity has not, however, eliminated its polemical use, all the more since the affective and psychopathological charge has sometimes come to accompany it: ‘identity obsession’, for some, or ‘unhappy identity’, for Alain Finkielkraut[6]. When the philosopher François Julien assures us that there is no cultural identity, the demographer Hervé Le Bras retraces the necessarily mixed history of a nation. And as sociology is called upon by Nathalie Heinich[7], the archaeologist and historian Jean-Pierre Demoule offers a critical argument, exploring/exposing our mythical Indo-European origins[8].

Besides these disciplines, what can be the proper contribution of psychoanalysis if it tries to clarify, from its stance of subjective intimacy, the notion of identity in the political field where it manifests itself, and is sometimes unleashed? Let us first note the scarcity of the use of the word or the notion of identity in Freud, undoubtedly because it is too quickly indexed to the empire and to the psychology of the self, or of the Jean-Pierre Demoule ‘self’. We can note, moreover, that it is on this side that the reference to identity is installed in Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysis, with Erik Erikson and his development of the ‘identity crises’.

But this contribution should be part of the anthropological perspective which is always present in Freudian work, in particular in the meditation on ‘the uneasiness in culture’ where the psychic forces of connection, those of Eros and identifications, are linked to the unlinking forces of the destruction drives. In Freud, always, the vision of a ‘human individual’ emerging from the religious illusion but drawing its truth, if not its identity, from an ‘original’ heritage rests on the hypothesis repeatedly supported, notably in ‘Constructions in analysis’[9], that one can ‘apprehend humanity as a whole and put it in the place of the human individual’. Identity would then refer, on the side of subjective roots, to this indigenous person who does not pass while transforming himself.

But identity carries the destiny of that which pushes towards the similar and the identical, when it is a question of recognizing and being recognized, but also of finding the experience of satisfaction: with the pairing of ‘identity of thought’ with ‘identity of perception’. For this reunion, the primary and secondary processes are engaged. In this way, an identification process comes to the fore in the quest for identity. As indicated in ‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’, analytical thought joins the political when it is a question of examining what identifying traits attach the supporters of love or the mass to each other, in the link to the ideal of the self and the leader. But the identifying trait that brings people together can unite as well as exclude when it is based on hatred or the elimination of the other from abroad: racism and Nazi ideology, those cultures of ‘pure’ identity and of the death drive, are the sad proof of this.

Psychic work on the conflict of identifications, analytical as well as cultural work, is indeed a remission of the profession of the notion of identity: the identical and the singular are distinguished. We can distinguish collective belonging and the individual, when one recognizes oneself in the plurality of a ‘psychic personality’ with fuzzy borders and the diverse populations that compose it. So identity is, in analysis, always to be decomposed: a fragile decomposition, however, when it encounters the uncertainty of the feeling of existing, or the experience of distress. The clinical engagement of borderline states or ‘identity narcissistic sufferings’ where questions of narcissism and the boundaries of the ego are at the forefront, and therefore also those of relationships with others and abroad (as Nathalie Zilkha[10]points out in The Revealing Otherness), perhaps shed light on what social distress and claims to identity impose on politics. Laurence Kahn, however, puts forward this hypothesis:

I wonder to what extent the attraction of psychoanalysis for the therapeutic problems linked to identity failures is not to be considered as a symptom of our current cultural disease… It is on the cultural level, in the contemporary history of culture, that there has been the explosion of an inconceivable annihilation undermining the notion of identity. [11]

The light thrown by psychoanalysis on contemporary policies involving identity, a light that it draws from its own practice, could well be that of disorder and anxiety, which take into account this psychic reality: identity turns out to be impossible to define when its unitary illusion is defeated by the very existence and the action of the unconscious (the self is not master of its own house), in other words by the repetition which affects and harms it. Michel de M’Uzan thus proposed the distinction between repetition of the same and repetition of the identical: an important differentiation which sheds light on the psychic processes of repetition and their potential for transformation. This psychoanalyst has also made ‘sameness’ and ‘identity’ a major theme of his theorization, by identifying, in the psyche, an identity register, the vital-identical[12]  where the treatment of self-preservation is in the foreground. The term is proposed to echo the sexual, proposed by Jean Laplanche for the Freudian register of sexual drive, object, and narcissism.

Between permanence and transformation, between fixity and movement: such is the psychic identity, crossed by the conflicting movement of identifications, the uncertainty and the wavering of psychic borders according to anxiety or amorous state, in the possible revisit of gender assignments[13]. The psychic experience that Freud offers with The Uncanny [14]  not only an experience of dread but the fruitful experience of a withdrawal: the very test of the unconscious would be a strong illustration of this anxiety, undoubtedly richer in teaching in the analytic treatment than in the social and political space!

Where do psychoanalytic thought and political convictions meet in the contemporary questions of identity? No doubt about the need to undo the vagueness or the stranglehold of a word, as Viviane Abel-Prot[15] writes, but with the need to examine the real effects of this hold. Because even to maintain as separate, on the subject of identity, the fields of analysis and politics, we are led back to worried questioning about the fragility of humans: the complexity of the identifications requested as soon as threats or tensions arise. Identity, the forces of binding and unbinding, thus provoked or unleashed, the massiveness of projective defenses too, cannot ignore the fact that appropriation and destructiveness often go hand in hand.

[1]Freud, S. (1937). L’analyse avec fin et l’analyse sans fin. OCF-XX. [Analysis terminable and interminable]. Paris: PUF 2010, p. 50.
[2]Demailly, L. (2018). Que faire des embarras de la psychanalyse avec le politique. [The embrace of psychoanalysis and politics]. Le Coq-heron, 2018/2 233, 42-47.
[3]Franck, A. (2018). Saisir le Politique avec la psychanalyse. [Linking psychoanalysis and politic]. Le Coq-heron, 2018/233, 48-49.
[4]Stoloff, J.C. (2018). Psychanalyse et civilisation contemporaine - quel avenir pour la psychanalyse. [Psychoanalysis and contemporary culture: what future for psychoanalysis]. Paris: PUF.
[5]Descombes, V. (2013). Les embarras de l’identité. [The Embarassments of Identity]. Paris: Gallimard. NRF Essais.
[6]Finkelkraut, A. (2016). L’identité malheureuse. [Unhappy Identity] Folio: Gallimard.
[7]Heinich, N. (2018). Ce que n’est pas l’identité. [That Which is Not Identity]. Paris: Gallimard.
[8]Demoule, J-P. (2014). Mais où sont passés les Indo-Européens ? Le mythe d’origine de l’Occident. [But where have the Indo-Europeans gone? The origin myth of the West]. Paris: Seuil.
[9]Freud, S. (1937). « Constructions dans l’analyse »[Constructions in analysis], OCF-XX. Paris: PUF, 2010. 
[10]Zilkha, N. (2019). L’altérité révélatrice. [Otherness Revealed]. Paris: Le Fil Rouge, PUF.
[11]Kahn, L. (2004). Fiction et vérités freudiennes. [Freudian Fictions and Truths]. Interview with Michel Enaudeau. Balland. 2004, p.288.
[12]De M’Uzan M. (2005). Aux confins de l’identité. [Structures of Identity]. Paris: Gallimard.
[13]Tamet, J-Y. (2019). Le genre inquiet. ‘Folies de la norme’, Le présent de la psychanalyse, 02, September 2019. [The anxious gender. 'The  folies of normality, The current state of psychoanalysis].
[14]Freud, S. (1919). L’inquiétant, OCF-XV. [The Uncanny]. Paris: PUF, 1996.
[15]Abel-Prot V.  La mainmise d’un mot. ‘Folies de la norme’, Le présent de la psychanalyse, 02, Septembre 2019. [The control of language. The folies of normality, The current state of psychoanalysis. 02 September, 2019].

Translation: Adrienne Harris

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