I want to begin my interrogation of the concept of 'identification' by looking at Freudian theory, to which it is so central, and in particular at Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.
Freud explains the formation of group as resulting from a process of identification. There are two things that are interesting about this account. First, it blurs the traditional psychoanalytic distinction between object cathexis and identification (the two ways in which libido is supposed to form emotional bonds between the ego and others [p. 37]). The second point of interest is that Freud’s little book really clarifies how psychoanalysis thinks about imitation and hypnosis—quite strictly through the concept of identification. Furthermore, identification—while it is, quite correctly characterized by Freud as a more penetrating concept than Tarde’s notion of imitation (p.20)—shows its limits as a metaphor in this discussion, and thus calls for being reconfigured.
Let’s start with the first point: what breaks down the individual’s critical faculties when he or she becomes part of a group is that becoming a member of a group is like falling in love. But instead of falling in love with another person, one falls in love with the leader of the group. Whereas in a normal romantic bond the instinctual aim is sexual gratification, here the libidinal bond (i.e. the cathexis) manifests itself minus this aim. But it also turns out that being in love is also a form of identification, i.e. of introjection of the loved object into one’s superego. To love someone is to relinquish to them one’s critical faculty. In this respect, love and hypnosis are identical. “There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism toward the hypnotist as towards the loved object” Freud remarks (p. 46). He adds shortly afterwards: “No wonder that the ego takes a perception for real if its reality is vouchsafed by the mental agency which ordinarily discharges the duty of testing the reality of things. The only difference between hypnosis and group formation is the scale: the former happens between two individuals while the latter happens between a leader and a multiplicity of subordinate individuals. To sum up: what falling in love, hypnosis, and group formation all have in common is what Freud calls a little earlier, in his discussion of love, “idealization” (p. 44). In other words, the hierarchical social relationship within the group is reproduced via identification in the psychical structure of the individual.
One of the many things that are quite interesting about all this is that the second explanation for the formation of the social bond (introjection of the image of the leader into one’s superego) seems to override and submerge the first, namely the object cathexis with the leader that was supposed to be at the origin of the analogy between romantic love and group formation. More generally, how can falling in love be both an object cathexis and an identification at one and the same time since object cathexis presupposes precisely the thing which identification cannot survive, namely the maintaining of a difference between the subject and the beloved? This, obviously, also applies to the social relation to the leader: one cannot at once love the leader and be the leader—otherwise, the leader is no longer leader. Another way of saying this is to grant the identity of cathexis and identification which Freud seems to posit here, and then point out that if that is the case the psychoanalytic distinction between the two is purely formal, i.e. that every cathexis is always already an identification. But in that case, what truly differentiates Freud’s notion of identification from Tarde’s ideas about imitation? If all libidinal relations are at their core identifications there is very little room left in Freud’s concept of the ego for the kind of asocial monad upon which is premised his whole theory of civilization, for instance.
There is also something else that happens in group formation according to Freud that is quite important. The subject does not simply identify with the leader; it also identifies with the other led subjects. But whereas it introjects the leader into its superego, it identifies with the other followers at the level of the ego (pp. 47-48). What is interesting about this final observation is that it suggests that identification does not have to happen vertically or hierarchically. One could also conceive of a transversal form of identification, an equalitarian or communist identification, since the two (introjection of the leader into the ego ideal and introjection of the other members of the group into the ego) are analytically distinct psychic processes.
Of course, the question of what transversal identification looks like—the nature of its psychical topography and its processual mechanism—is not answered by Freud, understandably since he has attached himself to the problem of analyzing groups organized around stable leaders (p. 25). Nonetheless, on the basis of what he says here we can extrapolate a bit more, both on the topic of identification and on the question of disidentification, which he does not tackle at all in this book.
Clearly, this can be said on the basis of Freud’s comments: while every vertical identification also requires the setting in motion of a transversal identificatory mechanism, any primarily transversal identification requires no vertical counterpart. Vertical identification—the identification of the superego with a putative leader—necessitates, simply for there to be group formation at all, the identification of the group’s members with each other, as followers of the leader, as brothers, etc… On the other hand, if we conceive of a strictly transversal identificatory process there does not seem to be a necessity for a vertical correlation. Members of the Nazi party must incorporate the fuehrer into their superego and, consequently, must identify with each other at the egoic level as party members. Otherwise there would be no possibility for delegation of authority, chain of command, and so on, all of which are necessary for such an organization to have an esprit de corps. On the other hand, a movement like OWS or the Direct Action Network of the late 90s and early 2000s requires only an identification of the members of the group with each other, though what that something is probably requires some elucidation. Certainly, there is an identification at the egoic level: what happens to you (the other members of the group) affects me, and vice versa. But that is not enough: there must be a parallel type of identification happening that subtends the first, that gives it its substance, that answers the question: why should I identify with you, people to whom I am in a fundamentally anonymous relation. For, this is what is exciting, what is magical about transversal movements: they come together under the aegis of an instant comaradship. Everyone knows everyone else equally, even though they may have never met each other before. What is it, then, that we all know about each other in this sort of setting? Clearly, there is no superegoic identification here since there is no duty involved, no obedience at stake, no chain of command created (at least not by the identificatory process that produces the group as such). That there is a libidinal communion is beyond a doubt. Otherwise, how could one account for the easygoing camaraderie, the immediate intimacy, and the general erotic fluidity that permeates such groups. From the heretical communistic movements of Medieval Europe to the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s to present-day equalitarian movements for social justice this sort of generalized libidinal communication has been one of the most appealing characteristics of equalitarian movements.
Freud does come up with an explanation for movements aiming at social justice, but it assumes precisely the thing which is excluded by their identificatory structure, namely the craving for a leader:
Social Justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or what is the same thing, may not be able to ask for them. This demand for equality is the root of social conscience and the sense of duty. [p. 53]
Once again, we are returned to the thesis of superegoic introjection here, which is so clearly inadequate to the phenomenon itself. Another hypothesis is necessary then, though what it is remains unclear at the moment.
There is something rather remarkable about the concept of ‘identification’ in the context of psychoanalytic theory that I have not yet discussed but that may give us a clue about the nature and origin of transversal identification, or at the very least about the obscurity that still shrouds it. What is striking about the concept of identification is that if one takes it seriously it undermines one of the cornerstones of the Freudian conception of the subject as an impenetrable narcissistic monad, a self-centered, egoistic pleasure-maximizer who is only distinguished from the subject of classical liberalism by being irrational, i.e. largely driven by unconscious forces. After all, if Freud is right about identification—namely, that it is a sort of absorption into various parts of oneself of others—then the subject cannot be nearly as impermeable or narcissistic as Freud makes it out to be.
Evidence from contemporary Neuroscience, among other disciplines, suggests, in fact, that humans are not nearly as self-contained as either classical liberalism or orthodox Freudian theory suggest. In particular, the discovery of so-called ‘mirror-neurons’ over the past two decades, which seem to be the lynchpin of the relationship between perception, and action are quite important in this context. According to neuroscientists, mirror neurons function by initiating many of the same synaptic patters during perception than occur when the action observed is actually being performed (Iacobini, 2008: 14, 36). Crucially, this parity between perception and action seems to be a condition of the development of language. In other words, the existence of mirror neurons suggests that communication can be accounted for by a sort of internal imitation by the listener of the speaker’s discourse, a sort of preliminary internalization of another’s subjectivity. From here to identification, of course, there is only a very short step. What contemporary neuroscientific evidence seems to suggest is that the subject of psychoanalysis should be conceived as much more porous than it was by Freud. In particular where Freud saw primary identifications (with father or mother) as traumatic irruptions into the infant’s narcissistic subjectivity, another account can be suggested on the basis of this evidence: primary identifications can be said to be ‘primary’ only in the chronological sense of being first. They are also more or less important depending on their duration and exclusivity (or lack thereof), of course, increasing or decreasing thereby the intensity with which they are imprinted on the child’s psychic network, thereby preparing the ground, so to speak, for all future identifications. But they are not determining in the sense of inescapably prefiguring all future identifications. The human unconscious might be regarded as a palimpsest of partial psychic imprints. ‘I’ is many.
An explanation of how these identifications take place, whether they function transversally or vertically at any given moment, remains out of our reach for now. But what is clarified by these considerations is that if identification is so difficult to pin down with the concepts of Freudian theory, it is because it suggests a very different picture of psychoanalytic subject than at least one of the strands in that theory suggests.