Mary Lynne Ellis and Noreen O’Connor

This extract from our book Questioning Identities; Philosophy in Psychoanalytic Practice (Karnac 2010) contextualises the relevance of  20th and 21st century European philosophy to clinical work with individuals from a diversity of race, class, and cultural backgrounds, genders, and sexualities. Our book is principally concerned with questions of identity which arise consciously and unconsciously in the analytical relationship. Further details of the book can be found at:

book coverWhat can philosophy add to the wealth of theorizing in the analytic tradition? Are philosophical questions not too abstract and irrelevant to clinical practice? Has philosophical writing anything to add to psychoanalytic theorizing of the vicissitudes of normal/pathological development? Our book, Questioning Identities: Philosophy in Psychoanalytic Practice introduces a range of contemporary European philosophical perspectives which have been influential in our clinical practices.  Questions of "identity" permeate the writing of philosophers in the contemporary European tradition, such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Foucault, and Butler. We explore the relevance to the analytical relationship of their perspectives on language, mind/body, time, history, culture, class, gender, race and sexuality. Reflection on these issues is vital for the expansion of our appreciation of the conscious and unconscious experiences and perceptions of identities and intersubjectivities.  Questions regarding the status of claims of "normal/abnormal" and "natural/unnatural" are intrinsic to such themes. We show how attention to these perspectives allows for more nuanced, subtle, and complex ways of listening/responding and of articulating that which has, from the beginning, been at the heart of psychoanalysis, namely case presentations of the relationship between the analyst and the patient.

 Our book is a crucial intervention at a critical point in the history of psychoanalysis. Arguments for and against statutory regulation of psychotherapists pertain to the status of the kinds of knowledge claimed by practitioners, the kinds of techniques which follow from it, the kinds of ethical judgements which regulate it, and the kind of political society which these ethical values express. All of these questions contain explicit or implicit assumptions about subjectivity, about how we know "who" or what is reality, truth, existence, love, suffering, happiness, and justice.

Philosophers' influence on psychoanalysts, as Ellis (2008) indicates in her book, Time In Practice, is not always acknowledged, yet it can be discerned in the work of Freud, Jung, Winnicott, Fanon, Lacan, and Laing. Freud was for a period a student of Brentano's, the German philosopher who taught Husserl, and Lacan and Merleau-Ponty were engaged in public debate in France. In Jung's work there are many references to philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer, Nieztsche, Spinoza and Leibnitz. Contemporaneously Jessica Bemjamin (1990), through her reading of Hegal and Habermas, develops a theory of intersubjectivity and gender which crucially challenges dualisms of subject/object and emphasizes the importance of recognition of others' differences.

 20th and 21st centrury contemporary European philosophers and queer, gender, women's studies and post-colonial theorists variously debate how, and to what extent, psychoanalytic and/or post-modernist theorizing account for the constructions of lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, heterosexual, and trans-gendered subjectivities and identities within specific class and cultural contexts. For example, Ahmed (2006), in her book Queer Phenomenology, presents critically queer readings of Freud and Fanon in her original phenomenological analysis of orientation and embodiment in relation to gender, race, and sexuality.  Writers in these fields have increasingly expressed interest in the contributions of  psychoanalytic practitioners who engage daily with the complexities, conflicts, confusions, and pleasures which shape the lived desires and identities of individuals who consult them. The crucial importance of a cross-disciplinary "dialogue between psychoanalysts and philosophers, feminists, gay men, people who by virtue of their place in society question established norms and practices" (see Noreen O'Connor, p. 44 ) is emphasized throughout our book.

 We are both trained and practising psychoanalytically and we teach contemporary European philosophy.  Most of the chapters in this book have been presented as lectures and published as individual articles in books and journals on psychoanalysis and contemporary European philosophy. Although over the past two decades there have been significant changes in the law and in the positions of many individual psychoanalytic practitioners with regard to sexual orientation, many schools of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, counselling, and arts therapies continue to rely on uncritical readings of traditional psychoanalytic texts for explanations of the development of sexual and gender identities. Such texts rarely address questions of race and class and tend to share the view that the attainment of heterosexuality is integral to a successful analysis. It is claimed that the "causes" of  homosexuality which require analysis include, for example, fixation at an early stage of infantile or child development, problematic identifications at the Oedipal stage, fears of envious and destructive feelings and desires for reparation (related to the schizoid and depressive positions respectively), and defences against fragmentation and psychosis. A recent survey (Bartlett et al, 2009) indicates that 17 per cent of psychotherapists in Britain have assisted patients in the reduction of lesbian and gay feelings.

 It is only relatively recently, in the 1990s, that such perspectives began to be subjected to serious critique by a small number of psychoanalytic psychotherapists who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or feminist. The first book to appear in Britain which raised these issues was Wild Desires and Mistaken Identities, Lesbianism and Psychoanalysis, co-authored by Noreen O'Connor and Joanna Ryan. Its challenging analysis of how lesbian sexuality is theorized by Freud, Klein, Jung, Lacan, Deutsch and their contemporary followers highlights how "homosexuality has been the site of some of the worst excesses of psychoanalysis - gross and inadequate generalizations, explicitly manipulative goals of therapy..." (N. O'Connor and J. Ryan, 1993, p. 14). Arguing against the pathologisation of lesbianism and the universality of the Oedipus complex in psychoanalytic theorizing, Noreen O'Connor and Joanna Ryan draw on contemporary European philosophical thinking to initiate a theorizing of lesbian identities which takes into account their socio-historical and cultural specificity and the uniqueness of individuals' desires. They argue for an openness in psychoanalytic theory which "can encompass the theoretical changes that are required by new and different possibilities" (1993, p. 271). Questioning Identities: Philosophy in Psychoanalytic Practice develops these themes in relation to a range of identities.

 We are respectful and appreciative of the analytic traditions which offer original and nuanced phenomenologies of psychic pain and suffering in their relational complexities and value many of their basic tenets: their recognition of the limits of rationality in human subjectivity, their engagement with those aspects of our experience of which we are unconscious, their acknowledgement of the significance of our histories and of the transferential relationship. However, in recognizing these we are not thereby tacitly denying the myriad questions regarding their foundational claims to know what is normal human relational development. These claims for "objectivity" of knowledge are frequently conflated with moral judgments based on the evidence of clinical outcomes. This is problematic when the theories which the practices articulate are not themselves open to question within their own frames of reference. Our book arises from our conviction based on our experiences that each human being is far more complex than can be encompassed by any one psychoanalytic framework. This conviction is a central tenet of postmodernist psychoanalytic practices.

 A crucial feature of the book is our inclusion of clinical material which illustrates how our perspective informs our analytical practices. In order to preserve the confidentiality of our patients we present composite examples. After much reflection we have decided to describe the identities of the individuals we see in analysis as "patients" in order to stress the patience required for analytic work. This contrasts with the term "client" which can imply, within a consumerist discourse, the acquisition of an already created product. Our aim is not to argue that our experience with our patients provides "proof" of the validity of our positions, as for example, Freud, Klein, and Jung often claim. We also do not assume that the conscious and unconscious connections made by our patients are causally determinate of the difficulties they bring to their analysis. The clinical material attests to the engagement between/ of patient/analyst as generative of new ways of speaking of oneself as in Wittgensteinian terms, where new language is a new form of life.

 We have found that individuals who describe themselves as suffering from discrimination because of their expressed identities do so as a result of exclusionary practices rather than because of an intrinsic psychopathology. Shared struggles against oppression constitute a socio-political identity and this does not signify a pathology. As Samuels acknowledges in his book, the Political Psyche, "(i)n late modernity there is scarcely the possibility of subjectivity divorced from a sense of marginality, woundedness and an accompanying grief - that is, subjection" (Samuels, 1993, p.37). Our theorizing of identities as does not  in any way preclude an acknowledgement of the importance of identities as empowering for individuals and groups. The ambiguity in the title of our book, Questioning Identities: Philosophy in Psychoanalytic Practice includes the notion of identities as challenging discrimination and/or dominant discourses.

 The work of Chanter, a contemporary philosopher, is pertinent to our interpretations of the different ways in which our patients speak in identificatory terms about themselves. She argues that categories of identity based on the signifiers of race, gender, class, or sexuality are far from self-evident. Not only does any knowledge claimed on the basis of identifying with such categories have to be achieved as the product of critical self-reflection, the categories themselves are historically and politically implicated in one another in ways that render them contestable. [Chanter, 2008, p. 28] Our clinical material exemplifies our emphasis on interpretations of identities as inter-related and shifting according to individuals' possibilities of voicing their experiences, conscious and unconscious, of particular historical and cultural contexts.  Implicit in our position is a critique of any notion of identity which presupposes it as a delineated psychic state already identified by someone else to be achieved or established. Therefore, throughout our book we emphasise the critical importance of the emergence in analysis of an original poiesis of the patient's own language, the articulation verbally and non-verbally of the dynamism of their lived relationships in the world. This is in contrast to self-descriptions which are either static or objectifying. Self-descriptions of this type may also be presented as identifications with particular diagnoses such as depression, alcoholism, anorexia, compulsive eating, drug addiction, and phobias etc. As Butler argues in her chapter "Critically Queer" (in Bodies that Matter), the impossibility of ...ever fully inhabiting the name by which one's social identity is inaugurated and mobilized, implies the instability and incompleteness of subject-formation. The "I" is thus a citation of the place of the "I" in speech, where that place has a certain priority and anonymity with respect to the life it animates....[Butler, 1993, p. 226]  

In her book Gender Trouble Butler points out that "theories of identity which elaborate predicates of colour, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and ablebodiedness invariably close with an...etc. at the end of the list" (Butler, 1990, p. 143). She argues that the et cetera points to the illimitable excess of the process of signification itself in that no exhaustive list of adjectives can encompass the "subject". As Kearney writes in The Wake of Imagination, "...narrative identity is a task of imagination, not a fait accompli" (Kearney, 1994, p.396). This task is threaded through narratives of poetry, ethics, and politics.

Our interest in language is reflected in our appreciation of biography and literature in interpretations of identities in psychoanalytic work. The black feminist writer Lorde's vivid and poetic novel Zami offers original insights into the complexities of lived identities as black and lesbian within the racist and homophobic culture of 1950s America. Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain poignantly explores the alienating effects of imposition of the time and routines of a sanatorium on the identities of its patients. Through her moving descriptions of how she negotiates of her shifting identities as a young Jewish immigrant who leaves Poland for Canada and later moves to America Hoffman highlights the significance of time, language, and embodiment through these transitions. Through their central characters all of these authors offer reflections which elucidate how desires and identities are lived and articulated and which are highly relevant to analytical practices.