Identity in Question


Anthony Elliott & Paul du Gay

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    View Copyright Page


    Identity in Question derives from a conference of the same title held at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, UK on 28–29 June 2005. The Conference was jointly organized by the Centre for Critical Theory (CCT) at the University of the West of England, Bristol and the Center for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) at The Open University. We owe considerable thanks to Fiona Watt and Elizabeth Williams at CCT, and Denise Janes at CCIG for their excellent administrative support and help throughout the conference.

    We are grateful to the staff at St. Hugh's College for the many ways in which they support the conference and made our work possible over two fabulous summer days. We would also like to thank those academics that gave of their time to join the work of the conference, but for one reason or another are not represented in this collection. In this context, we acknowledge in particular the contributions of Richard Sennett, Lynne Segal, Anthony Moran and Alison Assiter.

    We are greatly indebted to Daniel Chaffee, who assisted us with all aspects of the final editing process at Flinders University, Australia. His meticulous attention to detail, interpersonal skills and good humour proved vital in pulling all the chapters together, and in fact his many suggestions have added considerably to the book.

    Thanks to our editor at Sage, Julia Hall, who commissioned the text and supported it's progress in so many ways, and to Mila Steele who has helped to guide it to completion. Thanks also to Katie Forythe and Rachel Hendrick at Sage for their sterling work in getting the whole thing fit for purpose! Finally, Anthony would like to thank Nicola Geraghty along with Caoimbe, Oscar and Niamh. Paul would like to thank Jessica, Ella and Natalya.

    AnthonyElliott, AdelaidePauldu GayOxford

    Notes on Editors and Contributors

    Lisa Baraitser is Lecturer in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, and an integrative psychotherapist in independent practice. She writes on the maternal in the fields of psychoanalysis, social theory, feminism and philosophy. She is author of Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption (Routledge).

    Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the universities of Leeds and Warsaw. His recent books include Liquid Times (2007) and The Art of Life (2008).

    Ulrich Beck is Professor of Sociology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich and at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His recent books include Cosmopolitan Vision (2006) and Power in the Global Age (2006).

    Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim is Professor of Sociology at the University of Erlangen. She is the author, with Ulrich, Beck, of The Normal Chaos of Love (1995).

    Drucilla Cornell is Professor of Law, Women's Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University, USA. She is also a Professor at the University of Cape Town, and holds a National Research Foundation Chair in Customary Law, Indigenous Values and the Dignity Jurisprudence. Her most recent book is Moral Images of Freedom (2007).

    Paul du Gay is Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Warwick University and Adjunct Professor of Organization Studies at Copenhagen Business School. His recent publications include Organizing Identity (Sage, 2007) and Conduct: Sociology and Social Words (eds. with Liz McFall and Simon Carter, MUP, 2008).

    Anthony Elliott is Professor of Sociology at Flinders University, where he has served as Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). He is also Visiting Research Chair of Sociology at the Open University. His most recent books are Concepts of the Self (2nd edn, Polity Press, 2007) and Making The Cut: How Cosmetic Surgical Culture is Transforming Our Lives (Reaktion Books, 2008).

    Jessica Evans is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Cultural Studies at The Open University, UK. Among her publications are Identity in Question (2000, co-edited with Paul du Gay and Peter Redman) and ‘Against Decorum! Jo Spence, a voice on the margins’ (2005), in Jo Spence: Beyond the Perfect Image, (Barcelona, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona).

    Stephen Frosh is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. His most recent books are Hate and the ‘Jewish Science’: Anti-Semitism, Nazism and Psychoanalysis (Palgrave) and the second edition of For and Against Psychoanalysis (Routledge).

    Charles Lemert is John C. Andrus Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, USA. His publications include Durkheim's Ghosts: Cultural Logics and Social Things (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Thinking the Unthinkable (Paradigm Press, 2007).

    Angela McRobbie is Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

    Jeffrey Prager is Professor of Sociology at UCLA, USA. He is the author of Presenting the Past (1998).

    Janet Sayers is Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology at the University of Kent, UK. Her latest book is Freud's Art (2007). She is currently completing a biography, provisionally called Picasso's Freud: The story of Adrian Stokes.

    Editors' Introduction

    AnthonyElliott and Pauldu Gay

    Whilst undoubtedly one of the most central issues in contemporary social science and social theory, the notion of identity has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. The aim of this book is to provide a detailed analysis of those changes, by confronting the impact of – amongst other social forces – globalization, postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and post-feminism upon our identities in an age of widespread social uncertainty and insecurity. The discussions in this volume of how the contemporary age transforms our understanding of identity range across the major traditions of social theory prominent today. The result is a decisive intervention into debates concerning identity, individualism and individualization.

    This Introduction seeks to sketch out, in a necessarily provisional manner, the theoretical backdrop for the contributions contained in this book. We begin by situating identity within a broader set of debates over postmodernism and postmodern culture, which until relatively recently have been an essential ingredient of many studies of identity. We then turn to look at some recent alternative accounts which emphasize ideologies of individualism, as well as the emergence of individualization processes, in the constitution of identities today. In the final section, the contribution of psychoanalysis to the analysis of identity is considered and reviewed.

    Identity after Postmodernism

    One of the central theoretical legacies of the final decades of the twentieth century was the current of postmodernism, which has had a tremendous impact in cultural and media studies as well as having significantly influenced social science conceptions of identity. As one of the key buzzwords of recent social thought, there is no need here to retell the narrative of the rise of the postmodern (see Smart, 1993; Bauman, 1997) – although it is, we suggest, worth pausing to reflect briefly on its implications for the analysis of identity. The term ‘postmodern identity’ is undoubtedly one of the most widely used in much recent social theory, ranging as it does across transformations in subjectivity from information culture to iPods, the crisis of masculinity to mobile phones. Nonetheless, some terminological precision is needed in this context. It is important to distinguish, first of all, the more structural, sociological term ‘postmodernity’ from the aesthetic, more cultural term ‘postmodernism’. Whilst postmodernism denotes an aesthetic style or form of culture which takes off in the West, roughly speaking, following the decline of modernism, especially in the fields of popular culture, literature, architecture and the plastic arts, postmodernity means something more specific about changes in everyday life, social relations and the lived textures of identity. Postmodernity, at least in terms of identity, involves the deconstruction and reconstruction of the self as fluid, fragmented, discontinuous, decentred, dispersed, culturally eclectic, hybrid-like. Postmodern identity means life lived in the wake of the collapse of modernist grand narratives of reasons, truth, progress and universal freedom, with a profound recognition that the Enlightenment search for solid foundations and certitude was, ultimately, self-destructive. A streetwise, sceptical culture, postmodernity involves a radically ironic turn (see Rorty, 1989). Rejecting the Enlightenment dream of solid, foundational forms of life and knowledge, individuals in conditions of postmodernity live their lives as a kind of artful fiction. Identity, in the post-traditional world of the postmodern, becomes principally performative – depthless, playful, ironic, just a plurality of selves, scripts, discourses and desires (see Elliott, 2004).

    For some theorists of the postmodern, these profound social and cultural changes signal the end of modernity altogether. The postmodern, in this view, is the historical unfolding of an epoch beyond modernity. However, for other theorists of the postmodern condition, including Zygmunt Bauman, who contributes to this volume, postmodernity should not be conceptually bracketed off from modernity in this fashion. Postmodernity, as Bauman's work makes clear, is not some overarching totality in the same sense as modernity. Rather, the postmodern is perhaps best conceived as a form of reflection or state of mind that rounds back upon the modern itself. In Bauman's influential formulation, ‘postmodernity is modernity minus illusions’ (Bauman, 1990). What this means, essentially, is that fabrications of postmodern identity do not mark a point beyond modernist forms of life and identity, but rather function as reflective engagements and reworkings of some of the core presuppositions that frame personal and social life.

    The debate over the postmodern, which focused largely on the eclipse of modernity, raged during the late 1980s and 1990s. During this period, social and cultural analysts of identity drew from the modernity/postmodernity debate to consider afresh major transformations in personal and social life. In social theory and cultural studies in particular, much valuable work was done on the intersections between subjectivity and personal identity on the one hand, and new forms of popular and media culture on the other. In general, this was a period of consolidation for the development of identity studies in the humanities and social sciences. That said, the 1990s, or at least the latter half of them, were a time of mounting criticism of the notion of post-modernity, and by association the critique of postmodern identities. For one thing, the unduly negative side of postmodernity became increasingly palpable and frustrating to many critics. The postmodern culture of ‘anything goes’ may have seemed liberating and intoxicating to some, but for others it was merely another narrative about ‘endings’, with little of value to say about the novelty of identity-transformations in the current age. For another, it was increasingly evident to any casual observer of politics and society that modernity was far from over, and that modernist solids, traditions and customary ways of organizing identities continued to inform our social practices.

    In Chapter 1, ‘Identity in a Globalizing World’, the doyen of postmodern sociologists Zygmunt Bauman situates identity in the aftermath of post-modernity. Moving beyond the modernity/postmodernity division, Bauman reflects on the increasingly fractured, fluid, mobile and liquid dimensions of identity strategies available to women and men in these early years of the twenty-first century. As the do-it-yourself biographers of our own identities, people today for Bauman are increasingly caught up in (and subject to) the globality of networks and with that their dependencies – all of which renders identity inconsequential, episodic and brittle. Emphasizing the decentred character of the self in the wider circuit of globalization, Bauman writes of ‘the atomization and privatization of life struggles, self-propelling andself-pertuating’.

    Identity as an Individualized Project

    The period when postmodernism was pre-eminent in critical social theory displayed one quite curious feature. Postmodernism seemed to mix transformations in identity and culture in equal measure. If there was pulsating desire and frenetic depthlessness to postmodern identity, there was also cultural dispersal, discord and disillusionment. In this, postmodernism made a fetish out of difference, thereby underwriting the plural, multiple and fragmented texture of human experience in an age of intensive computerization and hi-tech. Yet it was ironic that postmodern thought should be so mad with desire for difference, given that its own tendency was to actually totalize the eclipse of identity. For authors working in a broadly postmodern tradition, and certainly for those influenced in some significant way by the premises of post-structuralist social theory, identity appeared largely as an upshot or construct of the linguistic or symbolic systems which help constitute it. Identity in social theory had, arguably, always been about representations and signs; but with postmodernism, even the interior life of the subject became coterminous with the supremacy of the signifier. A variety of concepts were introduced to capture this symbolic determination of the subject, from Foucault's notion of ‘technologies of the self’ to Baudrillard's account of ‘simulacra’, or the virtualization of identity. These accounts, in quite different ways, sought to specify the ways that the decentred world of postmodernity extended to the core of experience and everyday life, locking identity into new structures of seduction, securitization, mediatization and virtualization. The political conundrums (and, in time, dead-ends) of postmodernism were that culture in the form of decentred and differential identity seemed increasingly out of step with our rapidly globalizing world – particularly the globalizing forces of media, communications and culture. It seemed difficult, to say the least, to track signs of cultural difference and identity diversity in a world increasingly dominated by the News Corporation, CNN and Yahoo.

    As a consequence, new theories of identity emerged. There were, for example, a variety of new theories of individualization – for which identity in the broad sense was conceived as more than a mere ‘imposition’ from the outside, or ‘society’. According to this account, identity is viewed not as an outcome of external linguistic or symbolic systems, but as an open-ended and reflexive process of self-formation. In recent years, social theorists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have developed powerful accounts of such a view. For the Giddens of Modernity and Self-Identity, identity today becomes increasing reflexive: self-identity is cast as a self-defining process that depends upon the monitoring of, and reflection upon, psychological and social information about possible trajectories of life. Any such information gleaned about self and world is not simply incidental to experience and everyday life; it is actually constitutive of what people do, who they think they are, and how they ‘live’ their identities. ‘The reflexivity of modern social life’, writes Giddens, ‘consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character’.

    Somewhat similar arguments are developed by Beck, as outlined in his contribution to this volume in Chapter 2 – ‘Losing the Traditional: Individualization and “Precarious Freedoms”’. Traditional practices, the anchor of premodern societies as well as all early phases of modernization, take on a radically different status in conditions of what Beck calls ‘reflexive modernization’. Reflexive or accelerated modernization for Beck means that traditions become less secure or taken for granted, and that consequently the production of identity is something that becomes more and more open to choice, scrutiny, debate and revision. This is an identity process that Beck calls ‘individualization’. To live in a detraditionalized world is to live in a society where life is no longer lived as fate or destiny. According to Beck, new demands, opportunities and controls are being placed on people today, such that it is questionable whether collective or system units of meaning and action are socially significant. The rise of reflexive modernization, according to Beck, is the living of lives increasingly decision-dependent and in need of justification, re-elaboration, reworking and, above all, reinvention. As a consequence, problems of self/society cohesion – the integration of individualized individuals into the network of broader social relations – necessarily arise in novel forms at both the micro and macro levels.

    The new social theories of individualization have been subject to a barrage of criticisms. Some critics argue that Giddens and Beck's account of DIY self-actualization exhibits a distinctly individualist bent, in a social theory that reduces struggles over power and politics to mere individual negotiations of personal change. Other critics have argued that the thesis of reflexive monitoring of the self clashes with more critical understandings – psychoanalytic, post-structural and post-feminist – of subjectivity in terms of repressed desire, difference or sexual power. In Chapter 3, ‘The Global New Individualist Debate’, Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert review these criticisms of the thesis of reflexive individualization, as well as social theories of manipulated individualism (roughly speaking, the Frankfurt School from Adorno to Habermas) and isolated privatism (covering the work of various North American cultural critics). Drawing from recent research conducted by the authors on the changing social and emotional contexts of individualism across Europe, North America and Australasia, Elliott and Lemert contend that there is an emergent ‘new individualism’ sweeping the globe – one centered on continual self-actualization and instant self-reinvention. Today this is nowhere more evident than in the pressure consumerism puts on us to ‘transform’ and ‘improve’ every aspect of ourselves: not just our homes and gardens but our careers, our food, our clothes, our sex lives, our faces, minds and bodies. This reinvention trend occurs all around us, not only in the rise of plastic surgery and the instant identity makeovers of reality TV, but also in compulsive consumerism, speed dating and therapy culture. In a world that places a premium on instant gratification, the desire for immediate results has never been as pervasive or acute. We have become accustomed to emailing others across the planet in seconds, buying flashy consumer goods with the click of a mouse, and drifting in and out of relations with others without long-term commitments. Is it any wonder, Elliott and Lemert ask, that we now have different expectations about life's possibilities and the potential for change?

    What are the broader social forces sustaining this new individualism? Elliott and Lemert suggest three key institutional features impinging on people's emotional experiences of globalization: consumerism, neo-liberalism and privatization. In conditions of advanced globalization, people's language for expressing individualism is more and more fixed into the syntax of possession, ownership, control and market value. There is, they suggest, a pathological, blinkered fixation on instant change – whether of the body, selfhood or society. This desire for an instant reinvention of the self links to much broader institutional transformations of the world order. For the culture of globalization, as sociologist Richard Sennett has noted, is governed by the logic of acute short-termism. Authors such as Sennett see the flexibility demanded of workers by multinational corporations as demonstrating the reality of globalization, promoting a dominant conception of individuals as dispensable and disposable. But, according to Elliott and Lemert, Sennett fails to critically probe just how far down the global ethos of short-termism penetrates the emotional landscape of the self. For it is precisely the emergence of an ambient fear of disposability – of not measuring up to the craze for reinvention in our personal and intimate life, family and work – that fuels the emergence of ‘the new individualism’. This is a form of individualism based on a new cultural imperative for people to be more efficient, faster, leaner, inventive and self-actualizing than they were previously – not sporadically, but day-in day-out. Such an imperative lends to social life a radically experimental quality, with the thrills and spills of the new individualism to the fore. But the emotional costs are also high. Such emotional tribulations are not simply private problems however, as the new individualism is first and foremost a consequence of our world of intensive globalization. In smashing apart traditional national boundaries, globalization, ironically, offers people a kind of ‘absolute freedom’ to do whatever they like. The irony is that the world of ‘everything goes’ has become crippling, as the anxiety of choice floats unhinged from both practical and ethical considerations as to what is worth pursuing. For those enticed and seduced by the new individualism, the danger of self-reinvention is a form of change so rapid and so complete that identity becomes disposable. Instead of finding ourselves, we lose ourselves.

    In ‘Heeding Piedade's Song: Feminism and Sublime Affinity’(Chapter 4), Drucilla Cornell, seeks to highlight the affective dimensions of imaginative re-identification within feminism and the wider social world. She argues that, if feminism is ultimately to concern itself with women as subjects, then there is a deep sense in which feminists should not seek in advance concepts that would limit the imagination in its portrayal of the richness and complexity of that subjectivity. In pursuing her ethical claim that in their struggles to build transnational alliances feminists must at times forsake the drive to rationally ‘know’ each other, Cornell argues for the importance of the play of the imagination in sublime reflection. Simply put, she represents sublime reflection as a way of enabling feminism to explode what she describes as ‘the sedimented meanings we associate with the name woman, and even with the name women’. Through a reading of Toni Morrison's novel Paradise, Cornell shows how aesthetic ideas seek to express that which can never be conceptualized, including the ideas of reason themselves. She argues that in Morrison's novel, ‘paradise’ evokes a number of aesthetic ideas that ‘force us towards new insights and visions that defy total comprehension’. Paradise in its most profound sense is itself an aesthetic idea, its promising being more than any notion of it can contain. But it is just such a promise, Cornell suggests, that Morrison evokes as a possible new covenant, a new way of relating to nature and a different, ethically altered humanity.

    Identity Studies and the New Psychoanalysis

    Perhaps nowhere has identity been so radically placed in question than in recent theoretical versions of psychoanalysis. For many decades, interest in psychoanalysis throughout the social sciences and humanities amounted to little more than a cross between Freud and Lacan. This was not altogether wholly negative. Arguably, such a conceptual approach to the criss-crossings of desire and discourse did produce some genuinely insightful studies of identity, particularly the analysis of ‘identity politics’ (see, among others, Frosh, 1991; Hall, 1996). From sociology to cultural studies, psychoanalysis was employed to probe the emotional maps that actors both inherit and refashion to orientate themselves to other individuals and the wider world. In this sense, psychoanalysis functioned to provide a theoretical vocabulary for grasping how social actors, both preconsciously and unconsciously, define themselves and come to identify with others across time and space. In all of this, critical social theory sought to underscore the disruptive powers of the repressed unconscious in the reproduction and transformation of our interpersonal, cultural, sexual, ethnic and racial identifications.

    In recent social theory, however, greater analytical attention has been given to the imagined or constructed dimensions of identity constitution. As a result of theoretical developments in post-Lacanian as well as post-Kleinian and related object-relational theories, a contemporary preoccupation with both the representational and affective dimensions of human imagination has moved centre stage in critical social theory.

    In Chapter 5, ‘Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Sexual Contract’, Angela McRobbie focuses upon the reconfigurations of femininity which are being stabilised around precisely the sort of work on the self that is characteristic of the ‘new individualism’. In particular, for McRobbie, it is young women who find themselves being ‘hyper-actively’ positioned in relation to a plethora of economic, social and cultural changes of which they are now represented as the privileged subjects. McRobbie seeks to interrogate the claims of this new, post-feminist, ‘female individualization’, and to investigate what gender values underpin its constituent discourses and practices.

    Through a thorough analysis and critique of the sort of ‘can do’ girlhood envisioned in the British ‘New’ Labour government's modernising projects, particularly in relation to employment policy McRobbie shows how the duality of sexual difference is re-confirmed anew, and gender norms are reconsolidated and re-stabilised, within a predominantly commercialized and individualized framework of change, empowerment, freedom, choice and equality. She concludes that the new post-feminist ‘sexual contract’ on offer to young women can thus be read as a feminist tragedy, what she describes as ‘the fall of public woman’.

    In ‘The Identities of Self-Interest: Performativity History, Ethics’ (Chapter 6), Paul du Gay explores the possibility, seemingly quite foreign to the debates about ‘individualization’, that different categories and practices of personhood express distinctive ethical comportments, irreducible to common underlying principles. Undertaking a brief historical genealogy of a concept at the heart of the neo-liberal programmes of organizational and personal reform outlined by McRobbie – that of ‘self-interest’ – du Gay seeks to show how and why self-interested conduct is a multiple not a singular: it does different things in different contexts, not the same thing in each and every context. Indeed, it is put together differently – normatively and technically – in relation to particular ‘local’ purposes. In contrast to the often a-historic uni-dimensionalism of contemporary accounts of ‘self-interest’, including those contained in the ‘individualization’ thesis, du Gay points to the ways in which early modern conceptions of ‘self-interested’ conduct were viewed in context as far from selfish and egotistical. Rather than presaging society's ruin, as many contemporary critics would have it, early modern conceptions of ‘self-interest’, for instance, were aimed precisely as society's salvation, by seeking to offer a mechanism that might help to bring about an end to the ruinous religious civil wars besetting Europe at the time. Rather than interpreting ‘self-interest’ as intrinsically involving a mean spirited repudiation of the public interest or common good – as the bad other to the good, reflective, deliberative, full human being – du Gay suggests that it is better to look to the particularity of the circumstances, and to the business of descriptions. We might then be able to trace how different forms of self-interested conduct are put together, and thus what they enable the agents they bring into being to ‘do’ in particular circumstances.

    In ‘The Constitution of Identity’ (Chapter 7), Elliott reviews recent trends in European psychoanalysis – specifically, the theoretical departures of Julia Kristeva, Jean Laplanche and Cornelius Castoriadis – to reframe the question of the imaginative status of identity. Throughout the discussion, he examines the tension between concepts of fantasy and representation on the one hand, and the ideas of creativity, creation and imagination on the other. Among the issues raised are questions about the constitution of representation; the debate in post-Kleinian and post-Lacanian circles over the hypothesis of a proto-fantasy or instituting representation; and the structuration of representation with reference to primary repression and identification. The current preoccupation with the pre-Oedipal register, and especially the notion of primary repression, is critically appraised, and it is here that Elliott introduces the theorem of rolling identification and representational wrappings of self and other. This terminological innovation refers in a general way to the study of the imaginary constitution of the subject, linking the psychic origins of the human subject to the foundational force of intersubjectivity and culture.

    A related issue in contemporary psychoanalytic approaches to identity stems from the coexistence of imagination and creativity with the complex array of mournful, melancholic and mimetic aspects of subjectivity. In theoretical terms, this was an issue first noted by Freud in his studies of narcissism. In his essay of 1915, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, Freud reconstructed the connections between love and loss on the one hand, and the limits of identification and identity on the other. The loss of a loved person, he argued, brings with it ambivalence and aggression. Distinguishing between ‘normal mourning’ and the ‘complex of melancholia’, Freud considered mourning a normal response to the loss of a loved person. In ‘normal mourning’, the self incorporates aspects of the other person and then gradually detaches itself from the lost love. By acknowledging the pain of absence, the mourner emotionally draws from the lost love; he or she borrows, as it were, personality traits and feelings associated with the loved person, and in so doing is able to work through these feelings of loss. In the ‘complex of melancholia’, the individual fails to break from the lost love, keeping hold of the object through identification. Unable to mourn, the melancholic cannot express love and hate directly towards the lost love, and instead denigrates its own ego. Whereas the mourner gradually accepts that the lost love no longer exists, the melancholic engages in denial in order to protect the self from loss.

    It now seems increasingly clear that difficulties stemming from mourning and melancholia are not limited to the internal world alone, as if the passions were somehow fully self-contained. Indeed, there are a range of issues – to do with narcissism, mourning, melancholia, denial and displacement – which extend to the core of identity (both individual and collective) and beyond to matters concerning groups, organizations, cultures and nations. In ‘Melancholic Identities: Post-traumatic Loss, Memory and Identity Formation’ (Chapter 8), Jeffrey Prager traces recent psychoanalytic conceptualizations of mourning and melancholia in terms of the traumatic histories of nations and considers how the survivors of trauma both forget and remember the various horrors of war, terror and genocide. Developing a powerful sociology of mourning, Prager argues that identity and loss are inextricably intertwined. From the AIDS epidemic to the emergence of International Tribunals of Human Rights, Prager contends that the psychic processes carried within identification, internalization and melancholic identity must be critically confronted in order to avoid endless cycles of traumatic repetition. As he writes, ‘Identity rather than viewed as a kind of eternal reminder of past trauma carried forth into the present, is understood rather as part of a more fluid or mobile self-understanding’.

    In Chapter 9, ‘Goodbye to Identity?’, Stephen Frosh and Lisa Baraister consider the state of subjectivity in the aftermath of post-structuralism and postmodernism as conceived from the standpoint of psychoanalytic theory. Underscoring the psychoanalytic insight that subjectivity is split between consciousness of self and repressed desire, Frosh and Baraitser are nevertheless out to show that the decentring of the subject in contemporary European social theory should be made coterminous with the erasure of identity in social analysis. This important conceptual and political point is explored with reference to a range of contemporary theorists of identity, including Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti and Jessica Benjamin. Emphasizing the notion of ‘Vulnerablity’, they focus on the affective and relational unconscious processes that underlie the constructing and reconstructing of identities in the face of enveloping social and political forces in the contemporary age.

    In a world of intensive globalization, short-term contracts, ceaseless downsizings and do-it-yourself risk management, the contemporary citizen is constructed as one, astonishingly, able to contain anxiety effortlessly while joining in the difficult work of building and strengthening communities. In Chapter 10 ‘Cathected Identities’, Evans maps the psychodynamics of community activism (in this case, public discourses on sexual offenders) by linking the concept of identity to the psychoanalytic notion of ‘cathexis’ – the investment of highly charged emotions in something outside and other. Drawing upon the psychoanalytic research of Bion and others on containment, Evans argues that where social conditions are facilitating enough, individuals can maintain basic distinctions between external and internal reality as well as manage pain and fear through emotional toleration. In discussing her case study on reactions and responses to sexual offenders in the UK, Evans argues there was an unhappy fusion between public discourses on sexual offenders and the collective state of mind of a group of protesters who made extreme investments of emotional energy in the idea of the persecutor ‘paedophile’. Throughout the discussion Evans demonstrates the ongoing relevance and utility of psychoanalytic theory to grasping political transformations of subjectivity and identity.

    Some of the most interesting new cultural ideas surrounding identity have sprung up from psychoanalytic investigations of art. This is not an unusual development within the discourse of psychoanalysis itself since, as Janet Sayers makes evident in her contribution to this volume, a fascination with the aesthetic stretches back to the earliest studies of both Freud and Lacan. The psychoanalytic study of art, or what Sayers terms ‘psy-art’, underscores the various tensions which are played out at the level of identity in terms of reconciling energy and order, individual and society, creativity and repetition, self and other. In Chapter 11 ‘Psy-Art: Reimagining Identity’, Sayers contrasts the Lacanian account of the formation of the ego with alternative accounts of identity and subjectivity from Freud to the present day. In doing so, she seeks to demonstrate how the art-work might be seen as an allegory for the regeneration of identities in the image of creativity, imagination and the poetic. This is by no means straightforward because, as Sayers suggests, the idea of creativity is itself shot through with ambiguity: psychoanalysis she says ‘tells us much more about making our own histories, albeit in circumstances not of our own choosing’.

    Identity in Question aims to convey the complexity, contentiousness and significance of current debates over identity in the social sciences and public political life. The book brings together some of the world's leading theorists of identity and its transformations, and the essays collected here represent some of their best work. Mapping the shapes, trajectories and political consequences of identity transformations in a world of intensive globalization is not, however, simply an academic affair. As the contributions to this book make clear, it is also a public and political concern. For as identity moves increasingly to the centre of political life in contemporary societies, so too does discussion and debate over the possibilities for re-imagining in more creative ways how we choose to live, both individually and collectively.

    Bauman, Z. (1990) Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity.
    Bauman, Z. (1997) Postmodernity and its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity.
    Elliott, A. (2004) Subject to Ourselves (
    2nd edn
    ). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
    Frosh, S. (1991) Identity Crisis. London: Macmillan.
    Hall, S. (1996) ‘Who Need Identity?’ in S.Hall and P.du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage, pp. 1–17.
    Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Smart, B. (1992) Modern Conditions, Postmodern Controversies. London: Routledge.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website