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The shifting identity of the subject : a psychoanalytic inquiry Sarte, John 2011-04-01

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1            The shifting identity of the subject: A psychoanalytic inquiry John Sarte Explorations & Education Conference UBC Faculty of Education Vancouver, BC April 1, 2011        2  Identification and disassociation with representations are far more complicated because, as a dynamic, identifications are partial, ambivalent, and shifting.  They pass through specific memories and unconscious desires and therefore are uniquely singular.  (Britzman and Pitt, 1996, p. 120)  In this paper, I use psychoanalytic theory to re-consider the concept of identity.  I begin with a brief and unavoidably insufficient summary of my understanding of several Lacanian concepts leading to questions about identity and desire.  I aim to illustrate the generative possibilities of thinking through psychoanalysis (as well as some potential pitfalls) by interpreting my desire and motivation to be a graduate student.  Lastly, I will re-consider the identity of the researcher within the context of a methodology that draws on psychoanalytic theory.  Identity and desire As the above quote from Britzman and Pitt notes, identity can be multiple and always changing.  Predicated on the existence of the unconscious limiting the ability of the conscious to achieve total control over the psyche, psychoanalytic theories make a knowable ‘self’ much more elusive, an interminable formation (Blackburn, 2008; Felman, 1982; Hill, 1997).  In other words, “human identity is never fixed” (Brown, 2008, p. 419).  The subject or person is not created independently but constituted by the network of language, symbols, and social relations in which she or he finds herself or himself entangled (Dashtipour, 2009; Žižek, 2006).  Identities are constructed intersubjectively, that is, through communication among multiple subjects.  Moreover, identity shifts over time, with new experiences, in different contexts, and through the evolution of language and symbolization (Rhedding-Jones, 2000). 3  Using Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, I now re-consider the subject’s identity with respect to the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real.  The Imaginary concerns the idealized self, in other words, the image that the subject hopes to see when looking at her or his reflection (Žižek, 2006).  The Symbolic is the realm of language, including letters, words, and numbers (Hill, 1997).  And the Real can be considered as whatever resists symbolization through language (Brown, 2008).  That is to say, communication through words, symbols or even images can never represent the Real because meaning is always incomplete, filtered and dependent on intersubjectivity.   Identity is contingent on the big Other and the ego.  Simply stated, the ‘big Other’ refers to the symbolic space of language and gestures where subjects find themselves directed and controlled (Hill, 1997; Zizek, 2006).  The big Other, through shared language or discourse, invisibly determines what can be said or performed. The ego negotiates connections between the subject’s unconscious and the world (Hill, 1997).  According to Lacan, there are three different versions of the ego – the ideal ego, the ego-ideal, and the superego; these correspond to the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real (Žižek, 2006).  In relation to the Imaginary, there is the ideal ego which “stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, the way I would like others to see me)” (p. 80).  The ego-ideal relates to the Symbolic and “the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and impels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize” (p. 80).  And, related to the Real, the superego is “the cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and then mocks my botched attempts to meet them, the agency in whose eyes I am all the more guilty” (p. 80). 4  To illustrate how these concepts of the ego and the big Other might appear within my work related to the motivation and desire to learn, I will consider my response to the interview question: ‘What motivated you to take up graduate studies?’ Teacher: I have always wanted to get a PhD.  Originally I thought it might be in science or engineering, but as it turned out, I am very much concerned with education.  I completed a Master’s degree in 2007 and thought I would like to do more, to learn more.  I suppose I also had to believe I can complete the degree. To do this degree, I am actually earning less money than I would as a school teacher, but I’m not doing this for more money.  A Master’s degree results in a pay increase but a PhD has no immediate financial benefit.  Of course, it could provide new career opportunities in research, at the post-secondary level, or in a different city.  Thinking through psychoanalysis, within this text the big Other is apparent in the themes I use to respond to the question.  For instance, I specifically address the financial and career considerations of pursuing graduate studies yet the question itself does not require such a response.  This theme is from the socio-symbolic space, that is, the language and gestures common to the teacher’s world, rather than originating strictly from within the subject.  Additionally, my claim “to have always wanted to get a PhD” is, according to Lacan, the Other’s desire (Žižek, 2006).  That is to say, the teacher wants more credentials because they are perceived as desirable by the big Other and not because credentials are intrinsically desirable.  Moreover, schooling (i.e., graduate studies) may be considered a means of becoming more desirable to others because it leads to another degree. Furthermore there is the smoothing over of the teacher’s narrative as the consciousness attempts to construct a response so that the teacher may appear more like her or his ideal ego.  Hence, the teacher diminishes the financial concerns by also stating that “I’m not doing this for more money.”  But why say this at all unless, of course, money is a concern (Žižek, 2006). 5  Throughout the teacher’s response is the judgement of the big Other, the comparison to the ego-ideal.  According to the ego-ideal, perhaps the teacher should have more credentials, earn more money, and aspire to a new career, different from a school teacher.  Hence, underlying the statement, “Originally I thought [the PhD] might be in science or engineering, but as it turned out, I am very much concerned with education,” lurks the guilt over the failure to fulfill the impossible demands of the superego.  The superego criticizes the teacher by relentlessly questioning her or his ability to be an expert in a knowledge based economy: “I suppose I also had to believe I could complete the degree.”  In this way, I attempt to understand the subject’s identity as multiple and shifting, fragmented rather than cohesive, because of the tensions among the ideal ego, ego-ideal, and superego.  How are identity and desire related? It is desire that lies at the heart of the subject’s existence (Hill, 1997).  Although desire is often unconscious, according to psychoanalytic theory, desire is the root cause for the subject’s actions, behaviours, and symptoms (Briton, 1997; Brown, 2008).  And it is those actions, behaviours, and symptoms that make a subject identifiable and recognizable to others (or unidentifiable and unrecognizable).  The identity of the subject and the meaning she or he intends to communicate is intersubjectively constructed in an ongoing conversation among subjects, the big Other, and the object of desire (Briton, 1997).  Identity is not simply a manifestation of the subject’s unconscious desire, but also an interpretation of the Other’s desire.  The subject’s identity might then shift towards being recognizable and desirable to others. Returning to the teacher’s response to ‘What motivated you to take up graduate studies?’ it is reasonable to recommend that the subject should pursue the image of the ego-ideal.  By 6  attempting to be whatever the big Other desire’s – a successful scholar, in this case – the guilt of incompetence, incompleteness, and failure emanating from the superego will presumably diminish.  On the other hand, Žižek (2006) believes Lacan would not accept a life dedicated to fulfilling the ego-ideal.  Lacan identifies a fourth agency, ‘the law of desire,’ as critical to developing a better understanding of the ego-ideal and superego.  The ‘law of desire’ is the agency that tells you to act in accord with your desire.  The gap between this ‘law of desire’ and Ego-Ideal (the network of socio-symbolic norms and ideals that the subject internalizes in the course of his or her education) is crucial here.  For Lacan, the seemingly benevolent agency of the Ego-Ideal that leads us to moral growth and maturity forces us to betray the ‘law of desire’ by way of adopting the ‘reasonable’ demands of the existing socio-symbolic order. (p. 81)  Thus, the feeling of guilt from the superego emerges from the subject giving up her or his own desire in pursuit of the ego-ideal (whatever is desirable in the eyes of the big Other).  Therefore, in order to diminish guilt, the subject must pursue her or his own desires.  Of course, determining the subject’s desire is complicated because it is often unconscious and entangled in language (Hill, 1997).  In what ways can narratives be generated to study desire?   Since narratives produced by the subject have a tendency to abstrusely integrate the ideal ego, ego-ideal, and superego, interpreting such narratives cannot assume a simple analysis of the subject’s desire.  Also, it should be noted that psychoanalysing a single response to an interview question is not good research (Kvale, 1999).  And psychoanalysis suggests that an interview protocol should yield multiple stories from the subject preferably over time. Representations of the self in participants’ narratives are never complete and, moreover, the identities represented are changing (King, 2000).  Participants’ identities evolve during the process of constructing narratives for research purposes (Brown, 2003).  When a narrative relates 7  to the participant’s identity, it also tends to reinforce a coherent life story (Pitt & Britzman, 2003).  Therefore, research involving the identity of the subject (and the ego) must always be interpreted in a particular socio-historical context and attentive to the incompleteness of identities as they are intersubjectively symbolized in language (of the big Other).  In addition, the subject may never be fully satisfied that her or his story has been told because of the gap between the subject’s desire and the big Other’s desire.   The psychoanalysis of the teacher’s narrative in the fashion illustrated above is not good research on its own although I find it provocative.  Psychoanalysis is interpretation, repeated and reprocessed, over time and through multiple narratives and dialogues (Hill, 1997; Kvale, 1999).  Neither a psychoanalyst nor a researcher should articulate an answer, albeit tentative, after the analysis of only a single response.  Nevertheless the possibility for interpretation through psychoanalytic theory is attractive and it suggests that an interview protocol should allow for the collection of multiple stories preferably over time.  Brown’s (2008) understanding of Lacan’s work proposes that individuals construct self-narratives but because these constructions are necessarily (mis)interpreted by others, individuals must continually refine and reconstruct them.  Moreover, in the process of using language to represent a person’s identity, the identity is altered at the same time; hence, over recurring cycles of self-narrations the identity changes from what it was in the past.  Indeed the process of identification is always ongoing.  Therefore, an interview protocol should not be focused on obtaining an answer to a single, direct question, such as ‘What motivated you to take up graduate studies?’  Instead, the interview protocol should provide time for the participants to think about their responses and re-consider them.  The questions should not be direct, but rather consist of multiple ways of eliciting stories from the participants.   8  For example, Pitt & Britzman (2003), in their study of ‘difficult knowledge,’ use an interview protocol that is provided to participants in advance of the interview.  Their “purpose in doing so is to familiarize [participants] with the conceptual geography of the project and to allow [them] to think about [their] learning and teaching prior to the actual interview” (p. 771).  The researchers ask participants to describe themselves and then discuss any of a variety of ‘thought prompts’ in the form of ‘think of times when…’ in order to provoke experiences on difficult knowledge. Likewise, I might consider using an interview protocol that asks participants to comment and reflect on experiences that are parallel, tangent, or orthogonal to my interest in the needs, demands, desires, drives, and motivations to learn.  For the researcher who seeks an ‘answer’ from the researched subject, more may be gained by indirect questioning that produces multiple narratives so that something of significance emerges (or is found lacking) that challenges and informs the inquiry.  Who is and what is the role of the researched subject/researcher? In light of my understanding of identity with respect to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, I will conclude by re-considering the relationship between a researcher and a researched subject or participant.  What does it mean to be the researcher or the researched?  Is there a clear distinction or a definite transition where a researcher becomes a research subject? I will take the researcher and research subject as a binary and consider its deconstruction.  Derrida (1988) insists that deconstruction is neither a method nor a form of analysis or critique.  Likewise, Biesta (2009) observes that deconstructions are continuously occurring and that there are opportunities to witness them.  Hence, if deconstruction is not a method, then at least anyone 9  interested may “bear witness to events of which the condition of possibility is at the very same time the condition of impossibility” (p. 394).  Nevertheless, despite claims to the contrary, deconstruction has been taken up as a method.  For instance, Lather (1996) describes a double reading or process of deconstructive moves in her effort to make sense of the issue of accessible/inaccessible language. First, I perform an oppositional reading within the confines of a binary system, by reversing the binary accessible/inaccessible.  Second, I perform a reflexive reading that questions the inclusions/exclusions, orderings/disorderings, and valuations/revaluations of the first move of reversal, as some effort to reframe the either/or logic that is typical of thinking about the issue at hand. (p. 526).  Following Lather’s approach to deconstruction, I will first take the binary of researcher/researched and reverse the normal opposition that privileges the researcher as “the subject presumed to know” (Felman, 1982, p. 34) and subordinates the researched or the participants in the study.  Second, I will demonstrate that the distinction between the two terms is permeable, thus, to be the researched is to be the researcher and to be the researcher is to be the researched.  That is to say, the conditions of being a researcher require one to also be a research subject. Researcher/researched is an unequal binary where we, as researchers, are interested in studying researched subjects.  In this binary, it is assumed that being the researcher is dominant or more powerful in relation to the researched.  For instance, in our culture we tend to talk positively about the researcher by associating it with academic accomplishment, expertise, and agency.  It becomes apparent that the role of the researcher is typically discussed in relation to actively finding or discovering something in the (passive) participant.  In other words, the researched subject is the object of study for the researcher.   10  What is a researched subject and how might she or he be repositioned in the primary role of the binary?  The participant is the source of ‘data’ collected by the investigator.  Therefore, in some way the researched subject possesses something vital to the research process.  Without the participant(s) the study could not be undertaken and new understandings could not be constructed.  That is to say, the participant in the study has the answer for the researcher although she or he does not necessarily know what it is or what it means for the researcher.  In addition, if the research subject becomes aware of her or his importance, she or he may then realize the possibility of becoming simultaneously the researched and the researcher.  For instance, in various forms of action research, the participants pursue their own interests and research questions. Felman (1982) suggests an analogous deconstruction of the analyst/analysand and the teacher/learner binaries: The analysand is qualified to be an analyst as of the point at which he understands his own analysis to be inherently unfinished, incomplete, as of the point, that is, at which he settles into his own didactic analysis – or his own analytical apprenticeship – as fundamentally interminable. It is, in other words, as of the moment the student recognizes that learning has no term, that he can himself become a teacher, assume the position of the teacher. But the position of the teacher is itself the position of the one who learns, of the one who teaches nothing other than the way he learns. The subject of teaching is interminably – a student; the subject of teaching is interminably – a learning.  (p. 37) Similarly, while the researched subjects may begin their participation in the study by believing, through the discourse invoked by the researcher and the academy, that the researcher is “the one presumed to know,” the participants might eventually believe in their own abilities as researchers through their involvement with the study.  They may seek to be recognized as co-investigators or exert some degree of agency by actively engaging the research process, influencing the interpretation and re-presentation of the “data,” and questioning the other (researcher). 11   What is a researcher and how might she or he be repositioned as secondary in the binary?  In one sense, based on the stereotype of the scientist, a researcher initiates, conceptualizes, and plans a study or investigation.  She or he identifies and recruits research subjects and collects pertinent data using appropriate methods.  Then the researcher is responsible for interpreting the data, drawing conclusions, identifying further questions and considerations, and communicating the results to interested communities.  On the other hand, although the researcher may be the expert, she or he is searching for answers to questions she or he does not fully comprehend.  Prior to wanting to do research, ‘experts’ must first realize they do not know something in order to conceive of and conduct research.  Researchers must accept their reliance on research subjects for ‘data’ that will help answer their questions.  Consequently, the researchers’ work is contingent upon the participants. Felman (1982) illustrates the researcher’s dependence on the researched in her explication of the analyst’s role as “a student of the patient’s knowledge” (p. 33): so the analyst precisely must be taught by the analysand's unconscious. It is by structurally occupying the position of the analysand's unconscious, and by thus making himself a student of the patient's knowledge, that the analyst becomes the patient's teacher – makes the patient learn what would otherwise remain forever inaccessible to him. For teaching to be realized, for knowledge to be learnt, the position of alterity is therefore indispensable: knowledge is what is already there, but always in the Other. Knowledge, in other words, is not a substance but a structural dynamic: it is not contained by any individual but comes about out of the mutual apprenticeship between two partially unconscious speeches which both say more than they know. Dialogue is thus the radical condition of learning and of knowledge, the analytically constitutive condition through which ignorance becomes structurally informative; knowledge is essentially, irreducibly dialogic. (p. 33)  In this passage, not only does Felman reposition the analyst as the learner and the analysand’s unconscious as the teacher, but further explains the dialogic essence of knowledge.  Knowledge is formed from “the mutual apprenticeship between two partially unconscious speeches which both say more than they know” (p. 33).  The understanding of the research subject is inaccessible without dialogue with the researcher.  At the same time, the researcher requires the participant 12  (Other) to say something surprising which the researcher does not already understand.   Whether it is the analysand/analyst or the researched/researcher, the two positions in the binary are neither distinct nor separate.  There cannot be a researcher without a research subject (or a research subject without a researcher).  Therefore, the conditions that constitute a researcher simultaneously constitute a research subject. For instance, in this paper, I am not only a writer/researcher but a text/subject.  I am not so much reporting what I already know but am continuously in the process of getting to know.  As I write and rewrite sections of this paper, my understanding changes as well.  At the same time, my identification shifts.  My interpretation of my story is entangled with my understanding of psychoanalytic theory.  Every reading of a text elicits, reinforces, or conceals different thoughts; new possibilities of thinking through psychoanalysis become clear while other possibilities fade. In summary, my work to this point strongly suggests that studying the relationship between research and psychoanalysis can be productive.  For example, I can see that psychoanalytic theory is compatible with narrative inquiry, autobiography, self-study, and varieties of action research where the role of the researcher admittedly overlaps with the role of the research subject/participant/co-investigator.  These forms of research appreciate the shifting, intersubjective construction of identity and interpretation. In my interest in studying teachers’ desire to learn, I intend to use some form of action research.  I hope to use psychoanalytic theory to further understand and clarify the identities of the researcher and the participants.  Some further questions include: To what extent is research comparable to psychoanalysis?  Is the research interview analogous to Lacan’s ‘Discourse of the 13  Analyst’ or one of the other forms of discourse?  How is the ‘gaze’ of the researcher apparent and is it possible for the participants to also have the ‘gaze’?    References Biesta, G. (2009). Witnessing deconstruction in education: Why quasi-transcendentalism matters. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43(3), 391-404. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9752.2009.00705.x  Blackburn, S. (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed. Revised). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Briton, D. (1997). Learning the subject of desire. In S. Todd (Ed.), Learning desire: Perspectives on pedagogy, culture, and the unsaid (pp. 45-72). New York, NY: Routledge.  Britzman, D.P., & Pitt, A.J. (1996). Pedagogy and transference: Casting the past of learning into the presence of teaching. Theory into Practice, 35(2), 117-123. Retrieved from  Brown, T. (2008). Desire and drive in researcher subjectivity: The broken mirror of Lacan. Qualitative Inquiry, 14(3), 402-423. doi: 10.1177/1077800407311960  Dashtipour, P. (2009). Contested identities: Using Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore and develop social identity theory. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 7, 320-337. Available online from  Derrida, J. (1988). Letter to a Japanese friend (D. Wood & A. Benjamin, Trans.). In D. Wood & R. Bernasconi (Eds.), Derrida and difference (pp. 1-5). Warwick, UK: Parousia Press. Available online from Felman, S. (1982). Psychoanalysis and education: Teaching terminable and interminable. Yale French Studies, (63), 21-44.  Retrieved from Hill, P. (1997). Lacan for beginners. New York, NY: Writers and Readers Publishing. King, N. (2000). Memory, narrative, identity: Remembering the self. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. Kvale, S. (1999). The psychoanalytic interview as qualitative research.  Qualitative Inquiry, 5(1), 87-113. doi: 10.1177/107780049900500105  14  Lather, P. (1996). Troubling clarity: The politics of accessible language. Harvard Educational Review, 66(3), 525-545. Pitt, A. & Britzman, D. (2003).  Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: An experiment in psychoanalytic research. Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(6), 755-776.  Rhedding-Jones, J. (2000). The other girls: culture, psychoanalytic theories and writing. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(3): 263–279. Žižek, S. (2006).  How to read Lacan.  London, UK: Granta Books.  


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