User account

Stephen Frosh: Fragile Identities: The Self between Normality and Pathology
Fragile Identities: The Self between Normality and Pathology
(p. 27 – 36)

We are always part of an and and a between.

Stephen Frosh

Fragile Identities: The Self between Normality and Pathology

PDF, 10 pages



The title of the Panel, The Self between Normality and Pathology, which was part of a series of talks entitled Fragile Identities at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich, can perhaps be read as a provocation rather than as a neutral or scientific label. It would be possible to dispute every word, to offer objections and refutations: there is no singular self (the self); normality and pathology, classic bedfellows, are roped together to create a judgemental axis – there is a norm, the departure from it is pathological, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. I won’t do this, however; I will just note that I don’t think we can speak easily – maybe we cannot speak at all – about the self, normality or pathology. Which leaves me with only two useable words from the title: between and and.

As it happens, in relation to questions of fragile identities, I think these are very useful words. One issue that has been confronted in recent discussions of identity has been whether it is singular or plural and if the latter, which is the predominant critical view, what kind of plurality is being evoked by the term? Specifically, are we talking about something that is fragmented or something that is multiple? Is the human subject notionally one, but through exposure to forces of various kinds, ranging from the excessive competing demands of post-modernity through to devastating trauma, it becomes a split subject? Or does the multiplicity of selves and identities (to run the terms together for a moment) reflect the simple reality of life – we are multiple beings, and our task is to do something with this multiplicity, not to wish it gone? It is this position that I would like to maintain here, and to build it upon our small but ubiquitous conjunction, and. If integration suggests a mode of colonization in which one thing becomes another, perhaps is taken over by it or perhaps joins up with it, then multiplicity is characterised by leaving the different elements alone, by an addition rather than an equals sign. And suggests summation, one and one and one: with each addition something is added, something new, however much it might seem the same as what we already have. And is a term of inclusion and potentially of love, or at least of other-reference rather than self-aggrandisement. “I agree with you and…” is very different from “I agree with you but…” The latter is a mode of politeness masking aggression; the former is an attempt to collaborate and to open up the possibility that something new might emerge from the addition of what I think to what you think. (Although one has to say that “you did this and this and this wrong” is also distinct from “you did this wrong, but…” The first phrasing piles up the pressure, the second allows it to be ameliorated.) In principle, there is no limit to this cumulative process: you and I, and now another and another and another. We are already in the field of multiplicity (this is Badiou’s philosophy, I believe, in which love is defined as experiencing the world from the position of two, not integrating this two-ness into a unity). We are not dealing with substitution (you or I), but with accretion, an open field in which identities maybe do not have to be based on violent exclusion, but can expand as more and more other subjects enter in.

I take this summative, reiterative mode of subjectivity to be the ground of what Judith Butler, following Hannah Arendt, calls co-habitation, which for her is the foundation of an ethics of plurality and acceptance that is continually unpicked, for sure, but that is also the necessary condition for identity formation as an ethical subject. Meditating on Arendt’s account of why, despite all her criticisms of the Israeli judicial process that condemned him, she thought Eichmann deserved to die, Butler makes central the charge that Eichmann attempted to assert proprietary rights over the earth. He refused a fundamental fact of existence, that we cannot choose who to share the earth with, and hence that we cannot choose who to define as human, in so doing relegating whole classes of others (but one other would have been enough, by this logic) to non-existence. Rewriting Arendt in her own words, Butler states:

Eichmann thought, and he represented those who thought, that they could determine that they did not need to ‘share the earth’ with the Jewish people and people of other nations, and insofar as they decided that they did not need to share the earth with any specific population, no one, no member of the human race, as she puts it ‘can be expected to share the earth with you.’ And it was for this crime, the crime of not sharing, that she concludes: ‘this is the reason, and the only reason, that you must hang.’

This is the limit case, no doubt, in which the subject who refuses multiplicity is himself refused, on his own behalf and on behalf of all the others implicated in this refusal. This case has its own difficulties, as Butler clearly avows, around issues of state violence and the logic of retribution; after all, one point of law – again this is Butler – is precisely to regulate the social order by agreed principles and away from the potentially endless talion cycle of retributive justice. Nevertheless, even in its extreme and negative case form, it advances a very clear ethical principle, one which Butler has recently made central to her own work in political philosophy and practical politics. She writes:

If Arendt is right, then it is not only that we may not choose with whom to cohabit, but that we must actively preserve the unchosen character of inclusive and plural cohabitation: we must not only live with those we never chose and to whom we may feel no social sense of belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve their lives and the plurality of which they form a part. In this sense, concrete political norms and ethical prescriptions emerge from the unchosen character of these modes of cohabitation.

This is the external multiplicity in which the human subject is embedded: we cannot choose with whom we live, but must allow for the presence of others who have the same rights of subjecthood as we do, the same entitlement to be here. There are political claims that follow from this. In Butler’s case, these have to do with Israel and Palestine (or Israel-Palestine), a situation that has the pronounced poignancy that comes from applying a type of ‘Jewish’ ethics to this ‘normal’ state of ‘pathology,’ this endless-seeming bond of violence and oppression. The central point here is that the tolerance of cohabitation – or perhaps the welcoming of it – is a kind of post-Levinasian marker of what it means to be an ethical subject and hence to have a human identity at all. Post-Levinasian, because for Levinas the key issue is hospitality and the terminology of hospitality implies owning something that one might share with others – inviting the other in, giving the other precedence or finding something in oneself that can be presented to that other as a kind of gift. Cohabitation, by contrast, destabilises the situation, makes it nomadic: it is not that I own something that I can, out of an ethical impulse, share with you; it is that we both find ourselves temporarily in the same place (‘sojourning’ there, as the Bible would have it), and need to live alongside one another in mutual recognition.

How does all this relate to the issue of fragile identities, let alone normality and pathology? It links with a set of further claims that Butler makes in her 2012 book Parting Ways, claims which have a substantial genealogy in her work, particularly since Giving an Account of Oneself. In the earlier text, she investigates the ways in which vulnerability to the other is foundational to the construction of the self. Following the psychoanalytic account given by Jean Laplanche, Butler notes the extrinsic source of selfhood – how what is at the heart of the subject comes from the other in the form of an enigmatic message – is something implanted without awareness either from transmitter or receiver. The constitutive presence of the other means that sociality is primary in the formation and maintenance of the subject, that identity is not owned but is shared, and hence that ethics is always forged in relationality. Or, as Butler herself writes, “I find that my very formation implicates the other in me, that my own foreignness to myself is, paradoxically, the source of my ethical connection with others.” Ironically, or maybe just poignantly, this idea that “my own foreignness to myself” underpins an ethical relation to others has a pre-echo in Otto Fenichel’s speculation on what underpins antisemitism. Like many before and since, he places the racist and antisemitic dynamic as a response to what is abjected from within oneself, that is, what is foreclosed and discarded. Just as the unconscious is experienced as the not-me, so the abjected other – here, the Jew – is experienced as the not-us. “It can be expressed in one sentence,” Fenichel writes, “one’s own unconscious is also foreign.

Foreignness is the quality which the Jews and one’s own instincts have in common.” So here is the counterpoint to Butler’s welcoming in of the other as the foundation of an ethical subject. The foreigner is not wanted; instead, the foreigner threatens the self precisely because of the resonances he or she shares with the internal other, perhaps exactly because the foreigner reminds the subject that she or he is founded on strangeness, on something that cannot be fully known, controlled and made singular. Given the ‘right’ social conditions, and these are, as history has shown us, not hard to find, Jews and others can be the recipients of projections of what is feared and hated within oneself, the ‘foreign’ unconscious; they thus carry the sense of destruction and desire, of, as Fenichel puts it, “what is murderous, dirty and debauched.”

In her chapter on Quandaries of the Plural in Parting Ways, Butler has this to say about the connections between thinking, sociality, multiplicity and relational ethics: Ethically considered, one becomes capable of responding to others only on the condition that one has been first addressed, constituted by others, as one who might be prompted to respond to that interpellation with self-reflection or, indeed, thinking. Only as someone brought into language through others do I become someone who can respond to their call, and who can interiorize that dialogic encounter as part of my own thinking, at which point sociality becomes an animating trace in any and all thinking any one of us might do. Thus the dialogue I am is not finally severable from the plurality that makes me possible.

There is a powerful echo in this passage of the standard psychoanalytic and object relations trope that to be able to think, one has to have been thought about; that intersubjective recognition is crucial for the construction of a subject with sufficient agency to become self- and other-reflexive. “If to think, or at least to think well, involves thinking in such a way that we seek to preserve the heterogeneity of human life,” posits Butler, “then when we are thinking we are thinking heterogeneity.” This leads on to speculations about the bodily form of thinking, about precarity and vulnerability and hence about absolute interdependency. Which is to say, for thinking to count as thinking, for it to be the foundation and expression of human subjecthood, it has to be sourced as a variegated multiple entity, rooted in the exposure to others who also occupy the spaces of our lives. This is of course an ethical claim, defining true thinking as a social formation; this makes it what might be called an “aspirational” approach to multiplicity.

I will cease quoting Butler here, though with some reluctance. My concern is primarily to note the implications of this embrace of the and that I have rescued from the title of this panel. And is a moral stance and is related to a mode of identity formation that prohibits the exclusionary voice. It has connections with Levinas’s grounding of the subject in the other, and from within psychoanalysis also the Lacanian and Laplanchian insistence that the subject is formed in and through otherness, with no core except that which is already engaged with the additional subject who finds its way in. What is important here is that and is a cohabitative stance: come and join me, be my lover, my child, my neighbour, my friend; add something to me and I will add something to you (“yes…and”); you are welcome here. The effect of this is to create a way of doing self that is not singular, a set of identities that are indeed fragile because they gather up conflicting elements and stage relations between them that are unsettling in their contradictions and their influx of foreignness, as well as in their prioritising of vulnerability and dependence. It is because we are formed in the nexus of sociality that we are filled with the multiple identities that sociality gives us. And because of this, we can never be stable subjects, except at the price of the kinds of rigidity and thoughtlessness that one sees exemplified in racist and antisemitic abjection of the other, and quintessentially in the figure of Eichmann. In relation to our title, normality and pathology includes everything and nothing. You cannot be normal without being pathological (Lacan’s bad joke: “the ‘nor-mal’ is the ‘mal norm’”), and if you are pathological, you are normal indeed.


And is a helpful starting point for identity studies, then, because it presses us towards openness and suggests or advocates identity formations that are built around acceptance of otherness as foundational for the self. There is more to say here, however, derived from that other residual word from this panel’s title: between. The situation becomes more mixed at this point. The appeal to heterogeneity advanced through the Butlerian reading of cohabitation has a utopian, or more accurately a messianic resonance, connected to the rendering of the messianic (taken from Walter Benjamin) as a ‘flashing up’ or breaking through of past, occluded voices of resistance, something that Butler has particularly emphasised in her recent writings. In this vein, something that is between – including “between normality and pathology” – has liberatory prospects built out of the appeal to nomadism and the exilic and the relinquishing of claims to ownership and settledness. The kinds of ethics drawn upon explicitly by Butler and Levinas, and one could argue implicitly by Arendt, is forged in this exilic consciousness, the betweenness that has no absolute home. Ironically perhaps, of the three Jewish philosophers mentioned, Arendt was the most exiled and Butler the least.

If the quality of betweenness is exilic, what does this say about psychosocial modes of fragile identity that might derive from such a between position? In its recovery of Winnicott’s work, particularly his invocation of transitional (i.e. in between) phenomena and its new focus on the relational and “intersubjective,” some strands of psychoanalysis have made the in-between the core of their thinking about creativity, relationality and therapeutic change. The project here, for analysts such as Jessica Benjamin and Thomas Ogden, is to hold in tension the individual subjectivity of patient and analyst with an appreciation of the area of their mixing together – the third, in current terminology. It is this third, which is a place of meeting rather than an agent of prohibition (as in traditional Oedipal theory), that is the manifestation of a betweenness allowing new structures of self and identity to appear. That is, in the space in between the subject and the other, a sharing of unconscious elements can take place that promotes the emergence of new subjectivities. Ogden links this to the process of projective identification. His full account of it has something of a mystical tinge, but what he is trying to articulate is how analysis involves giving up something about one’s separateness in order to experience a new type of relational way of being, which can then allow the patient and the analyst to separate out again, as changed subjects. Ogden writes:

Projective identification can be thought of as involving a central paradox: the individuals engaged in this form of relatedness unconsciously subjugate themselves to a mutually generated intersubjective third for the purpose of freeing themselves from the limits of whom they had been to that point. […] The new intersubjective entity that is created, the subjugating analytic third, becomes a vehicle through which thoughts may be thought, feelings may be felt, sensations may be experienced, which to that point had existed only as potential experiences for each of the individuals participating in this psychological-interpersonal process.

Analysis works when the third of the analytic relationship, which Ogden calls a “new intersubjective entity,” allows both analyst and patient to think new thoughts and feel new feelings. This on its own is not enough, however. The patient and analyst must also become able to let go of the third without destroying or denying it. They must be able to hold it in play whilst also returning to their individual subjective positions. In all this, Ogden is holding open the prospect of a mode of being in which one can absorb oneself in the other and then come away from that absorption refreshed and changed, but still alive. It is as if subject and other fall into a pit together, become intertwined in their dark struggle to survive, and claw their way out into the light restored as separate, but transformed beings. This demands a considerable degree of generosity on each subject’s part, a willingness to merge with the other and then let go. It is also precipitously dangerous. How much does one have to trust others in order to engage with them in this way, and how can such trust be won? We surely all know that this level of dependency opens up extreme degrees of vulnerability; we were, after all, infants once.

One thing that is noticeable about this appeal to the intersubjective third as a space of play and creative merging of subject and other is that it revitalises what has been termed a nomadic subjectivity as something that creates new possibilities of emergence that are not available to the subject on its own. “The self between normality and pathology” derives possibilities from this encounter with the other who can allow a kind of madness – because this is what the loss of subjective boundaries usually means – out of which new forms of subjecthood can emerge. So far so good, if it is possible to believe in such a process; and maybe it is – after all, is not love hypothesised as exactly such a process of merger and letting go, a continuing process in which the subject is enriched and enriches another, until both carry transformed parts of selfhood with them? So let us accept that the space in-between is not a wilderness in which nothing survives, but potentially at least a garden in which a subject can find its other. Nevertheless, there is something that shadows and haunts this garden, something lurking at the gate or in the bushes, and I want to use the last part of this text to think briefly about what this might be.

The Ghost in the Garden

If the subject is filled up with the other, intertwined unconsciously, fragilely open and unstable, what else might pass through the so-called self? In what I have described so far, I have pinned the openness of identities to the presence of the other. There is a further element of this openness to the space of the other that comes from historical circumstances and currently goes under the name of haunting. This element is both easy and difficult to specify. It simply means that each subject carries the expectations and anxieties of previous generations, perhaps their desires too, embedded consciously or unconsciously, sometimes as straightforward inheritances, sometimes as uncanny remains. This latter element is the topic of many disciplines, for instance literature, history, sociology; but it is also pre-eminently the concern of psychoanalysis, which formulates its understanding of what it means to be a human subject precisely around the issue of what remains after everything else is explained. The enigmatic signifier comes to mind again, a notion derived from Lacan and developed by Laplanche. Derrida is even closer to the core issues when he argues that what is at stake in psychoanalysis is not just a therapeutic release, but an act of spectral truth that can never be fully tracked down. This is perhaps where the issue of “between normality and pathology” returns. The lost truths keep haunting us, and demand recompense. They are unwanted apparitions, troubling us; we often wish they would let us alone. Yet as well as creating unnerving shivers in the calmness which we seek, these spectral truths give psychic life its depths. “The truth is spectral,” writes Derrida, “and this is its part of truth which is irreducible by explanation.” Something is left over whenever we try to account for ourselves, some area of “opacity” as Butler terms it. It is towards this left-over, this hidden remainder, that we need to look if we are to find the thing we seek in life, whether it goes by the name of the unconscious or not.

What kinds of thing haunt us? The list includes unspoken tragedies, traumatic longings and losses, historical oppressions, secrets and lies, hidden loves and unsuspected desires. These are the warp and weft of psychoanalysis and have been theorised in various ways, including most influentially through Abraham’s and Torok’s notion of the crypt as that which both hides away secrets and attracts attention to them. We are talking about repressed knowledge that is passed from one generation to another without being fully recognised, yet also without closure – those running sores that remain open and need some kind of amelioration, but also fill up the subject with the histories and desires of what has gone before. Sometimes this traumatic knowledge is deeply unsettling and immobilising, as Gabrielle Schwab demonstrates in her examination of the history of children of Nazi perpetrators. Sometimes it brings with it a kind of comfort, as students of postcolonial melancholia have shown in their various examinations of what can be rescued from the purloined past. More often than not, it is something we never even knew we had, let alone lost, that continues to haunt us as we open out our identities for exploration and our selves for solace.

Let me give one brief example here, as a small coda that could also become the beginning of another conversation. Two especially enticing accounts have been given of Freud’s psychoanalytic couch , now to be found in the Freud Museum in London, those of Mignon Nixon and Marina Warner. The former examines it in the context of the psychoanalytic frame, cinema and cultural studies; the latter as a piece of mythologising. Both include painstakingly detailed evocations of the couch itself and of Freud’s consulting room and (in Nixon’s case) the rooms of analysts around the world. The couch is an essential symbol of psychoanalytic practice, even though there are many patients who never get to it, but conduct their therapies sitting up, facing their analyst. But for so-called ‘proper’ psychoanalysis, it is lying on the couch that counts; supposedly it facilitates fantasy, free association and transference, and in any case it links, as Warner shows, with other dreaming encounters one might have, in story-telling (the Arabian Nights) and imagination. She comments at the outset, “This relation between couch, confession, erotics, daydreaming, and storytelling reverberates wonderfully in the figure of the most famous daybed in modern culture and a prime site of modern fantasy: Freud’s analytical couch, which he covered with an oriental rug and cushions.” Nixon draws in another dimension, that of accumulation and collection, which she contrasts with the asceticism (Warner calls it the “clinical austerity”) of most analytical settings.

“Such asceticism,” she writes, “is contrary to Freud’s own invention, the consulting room as a repository of past civilizations embodied in the serried rows of so many statuettes, figured vases, reliefs, textiles, and objets d’art of every description. For Freud […] the very model of psychoanalysis is collecting.” Quoting John Forrester she lists “dreams, jokes, parapraxes, early memories” as the material collection of psychoanalytic practice that parallel the famous objects collected in his room. Indeed, anyone who has been in mainstream psychoanalysis who goes to the Freud Museum to inspect the consulting room will note just how distinctive of Freud it is; for those socialised in the school of analytic neutrality, it is a shock to realise that his patients would have been immersed in his personality, his interests, his presence. This makes Freud’s couch special, the ur-couch of psychoanalysis that has been passed down in derivative and degenerative form to all later analysts, less rich in their ways, less confident about showing themselves as they are to their patients. Freud’s room is in the and modality: things piled up on the shelves and on the desk, an overflowing effusion of enjoyment indicating an acceptance of whatever might be.

But there is also something that every psychoanalytic experience shares. Hidden away in Warner’s piece is a sharp little observation about how one is never alone. After describing the opulent rug draped over the couch, she writes, “in Freud’s study, besides the analytical couch, another small, browny-gray patterned rug hangs on the wall. Woven in two sections, the half toward the head of the couch is worn and faded compared to the other half: one patient after another must have stroked or rubbed or patted it with their left hand as they lay there and talked.” A more recent analysand, Dan Gunn, writes similarly of his own discovery. He has noticed a bald patch on the velvet on his analyst’s wall, when at the start of analysis he lay down on the couch.

Hah! There’s one mystery solved at least! For almost instantly my right hand rises to my overheated brow, the elbow protrudes to the right and so rubs against the wall – hence the bald patch. So many brows rubbed in perplexity. Make a point of squashing another few tufts of the velvet to add my trace to those of my predecessors.

Here is a mode of haunting that infects the most intimate space of encounter. Every analysand has a predecessor as she or he talks, every intimacy is new but also already known, already spoken and heard. There are always people before us who have stroked the rug or pushed their elbow into the wall. These material marks of those who have come earlier – the older siblings and parents and grandparents – are ghostly remnants that fill up psychic and social space until the void in which we thought we could reflect in peace echoes to the roaring of their voices. There is always something or someone that has lain on the couch, we are always part of an and and a between, some kind of chain that will not let us be still.

  • subjectivity
  • Hannah Arendt
  • Judaism
  • subjectification
  • identity
  • Judith Butler
  • psychoanalysis
  • family

My language

Selected content

Stephen Frosh

is Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Since 2003 he has been Pro-Vice-Master, first for Learning and Teaching and then for Research. He has researched and lectured at Birkbeck from 1979, first in the School of Psychology and since 2008 in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, of which he was a founding member and first Head of Department. From 1982 until 2000 he worked part-time at Birkbeck and part-time as a clinical psychologist in the National Health Service. In addition throughout the 1990s he was Consultant Clinical Psychologist and from 1996 Vice Dean in the Child and Family Department of the Tavistock Clinic, London. His main academic interests are investigating the applications of psychoanalysis to social issues and subjects such as gender, ethnicity and social identity as well as psychosocial studies.
Other texts by Stephen Frosh for DIAPHANES
Kerstin Stakemeier (ed.), Susanne Witzgall (ed.): Fragile Identities

What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.