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The shifting identity of the subject

A psychoanalytic inquiry
John Sarte
Explorations & Education Conference
UBC Faculty of Education
Vancouver, BC
April 1, !11
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. "Brit#$an and %itt, 1&&', p( 1!)
*n this paper, * use psychoanalytic theory to re+consider the concept of identity( * ,e-in
.ith a ,rief and unavoida,ly insufficient su$$ary of $y understandin- of several /acanian
concepts leadin- to 0uestions a,out identity and desire( * ai$ to illustrate the -enerative
possi,ilities of thin1in- throu-h psychoanalysis "as .ell as so$e potential pitfalls) ,y
interpretin- $y desire and $otivation to ,e a -raduate student( /astly, * .ill re+consider the
identity of the researcher .ithin the context of a $ethodolo-y that dra.s on psychoanalytic
Identity and desire
As the a,ove 0uote fro$ Brit#$an and %itt notes, identity can ,e $ultiple and al.ays
chan-in-( %redicated on the existence of the unconscious li$itin- the a,ility of the conscious to
achieve total control over the psyche, psychoanalytic theories $a1e a 1no.a,le 2self3 $uch $ore
elusive, an inter$ina,le for$ation "Blac1,urn, !!45 Fel$an, 1&45 6ill, 1&&7)( *n other .ords,
8hu$an identity is never fixed9 "Bro.n, !!4, p( :1&)( ;he su,<ect or person is not created
independently ,ut constituted ,y the net.or1 of lan-ua-e, sy$,ols, and social relations in .hich
she or he finds herself or hi$self entan-led "=ashtipour, !!&5 >i?e1, !!')( *dentities are
constructed intersu,<ectively, that is, throu-h co$$unication a$on- $ultiple su,<ects(
@oreover, identity shifts over ti$e, .ith ne. experiences, in different contexts, and throu-h the
evolution of lan-ua-e and sy$,oli#ation "Aheddin-+Jones, !!!)(
Usin- /acanian psychoanalytic theory, * no. re+consider the su,<ect3s identity .ith
respect to the *$a-inary, the Sy$,olic, and the Aeal( ;he *$a-inary concerns the ideali#ed self,
in other .ords, the i$a-e that the su,<ect hopes to see .hen loo1in- at her or his reflection
">i?e1, !!')( ;he Sy$,olic is the real$ of lan-ua-e, includin- letters, .ords, and nu$,ers
"6ill, 1&&7)( And the Aeal can ,e considered as .hatever resists sy$,oli#ation throu-h lan-ua-e
"Bro.n, !!4)( ;hat is to say, co$$unication throu-h .ords, sy$,ols or even i$a-es can never
represent the Aeal ,ecause $eanin- is al.ays inco$plete, filtered and dependent on
*dentity is contin-ent on the ,i- Bther and the e-o( Si$ply stated, the 2,i- Bther3 refers
to the sy$,olic space of lan-ua-e and -estures .here su,<ects find the$selves directed and
controlled "6ill, 1&&75 Ci#e1, !!')( ;he ,i- Bther, throu-h shared lan-ua-e or discourse,
invisi,ly deter$ines .hat can ,e said or perfor$ed(
;he e-o ne-otiates connections ,et.een the su,<ect3s unconscious and the .orld "6ill,
1&&7)( Accordin- to /acan, there are three different versions of the e-o D the ideal ego, the ego-
ideal, and the superego5 these correspond to the *$a-inary, the Sy$,olic, and the Aeal ">i?e1,
!!')( *n relation to the *$a-inary, there is the ideal e-o .hich 8stands for the ideali#ed self+
i$a-e of the su,<ect "the .ay * .ould li1e to ,e, the .ay * .ould li1e others to see $e)9 "p( 4!)(
;he e-o+ideal relates to the Sy$,olic and 8the a-ency .hose -a#e * try to i$press .ith $y e-o
i$a-e, the ,i- Bther .ho .atches over $e and i$pels $e to -ive $y ,est, the ideal * try to
follo. and actuali#e9 "p( 4!)( And, related to the Aeal, the supere-o is 8the cruel and insatia,le
a-ency that ,o$,ards $e .ith i$possi,le de$ands and then $oc1s $y ,otched atte$pts to $eet
the$, the a-ency in .hose eyes * a$ all the $ore -uilty9 "p( 4!)(
;o illustrate ho. these concepts of the e-o and the ,i- Bther $i-ht appear .ithin $y
.or1 related to the $otivation and desire to learn, * .ill consider $y response to the intervie.
0uestionE 2Fhat $otivated you to ta1e up -raduate studiesG3
TeacherE * have al.ays .anted to -et a %h=( Bri-inally * thou-ht it $i-ht ,e in science or
en-ineerin-, ,ut as it turned out, * a$ very $uch concerned .ith education( * co$pleted a
@aster3s de-ree in !!7 and thou-ht * .ould li1e to do $ore, to learn $ore( * suppose * also had
to ,elieve * can co$plete the de-ree(
;o do this de-ree, * a$ actually earnin- less $oney than * .ould as a school teacher, ,ut *3$ not
doin- this for $ore $oney( A @aster3s de-ree results in a pay increase ,ut a %h= has no
i$$ediate financial ,enefit( Bf course, it could provide ne. career opportunities in research, at
the post+secondary level, or in a different city(
;hin1in- throu-h psychoanalysis, .ithin this text the ,i- Bther is apparent in the the$es
* use to respond to the 0uestion( For instance, * specifically address the financial and career
considerations of pursuin- -raduate studies yet the 0uestion itself does not re0uire such a
response( ;his the$e is fro$ the socio+sy$,olic space, that is, the lan-ua-e and -estures
co$$on to the teacher3s .orld, rather than ori-inatin- strictly fro$ .ithin the su,<ect(
Additionally, $y clai$ 8to have al.ays .anted to -et a %h=9 is, accordin- to /acan, the Bther3s
desire ">i?e1, !!')( ;hat is to say, the teacher .ants $ore credentials ,ecause they are
perceived as desira,le ,y the ,i- Bther and not ,ecause credentials are intrinsically desira,le(
@oreover, schoolin- "i(e(, -raduate studies) $ay ,e considered a $eans of ,eco$in- $ore
desira,le to others ,ecause it leads to another de-ree(
Further$ore there is the s$oothin- over of the teacher3s narrative as the consciousness
atte$pts to construct a response so that the teacher $ay appear $ore li1e her or his ideal e-o(
6ence, the teacher di$inishes the financial concerns ,y also statin- that 8*3$ not doin- this for
$ore $oney(9 But .hy say this at all unless, of course, $oney is a concern ">i?e1, !!')(
;hrou-hout the teacher3s response is the <ud-e$ent of the ,i- Bther, the co$parison to
the e-o+ideal( Accordin- to the e-o+ideal, perhaps the teacher should have $ore credentials, earn
$ore $oney, and aspire to a ne. career, different fro$ a school teacher( 6ence, underlyin- the
state$ent, 8Bri-inally * thou-ht Hthe %h=I $i-ht ,e in science or en-ineerin-, ,ut as it turned
out, * a$ very $uch concerned .ith education,9 lur1s the -uilt over the failure to fulfill the
i$possi,le de$ands of the supere-o( ;he supere-o critici#es the teacher ,y relentlessly
0uestionin- her or his a,ility to ,e an expert in a 1no.led-e ,ased econo$yE 8* suppose * also
had to ,elieve * could co$plete the de-ree(9 *n this .ay, * atte$pt to understand the su,<ect3s
identity as $ultiple and shiftin-, fra-$ented rather than cohesive, ,ecause of the tensions a$on-
the ideal e-o, e-o+ideal, and supere-o(
How are identity and desire related?
*t is desire that lies at the heart of the su,<ect3s existence "6ill, 1&&7)( Althou-h desire is
often unconscious, accordin- to psychoanalytic theory, desire is the root cause for the su,<ect3s
actions, ,ehaviours, and sy$pto$s "Briton, 1&&75 Bro.n, !!4)( And it is those actions,
,ehaviours, and sy$pto$s that $a1e a su,<ect identifia,le and reco-ni#a,le to others "or
unidentifia,le and unreco-ni#a,le)( ;he identity of the su,<ect and the $eanin- she or he
intends to co$$unicate is intersu,<ectively constructed in an on-oin- conversation a$on-
su,<ects, the ,i- Bther, and the o,<ect of desire "Briton, 1&&7)( *dentity is not si$ply a
$anifestation of the su,<ect3s unconscious desire, ,ut also an interpretation of the Bther3s desire(
;he su,<ect3s identity $i-ht then shift to.ards ,ein- reco-ni#a,le and desira,le to others(
Aeturnin- to the teacher3s response to 2Fhat $otivated you to ta1e up -raduate studiesG3
it is reasona,le to reco$$end that the su,<ect should pursue the i$a-e of the e-o+ideal( By
atte$ptin- to ,e .hatever the ,i- Bther desire3s D a successful scholar, in this case D the -uilt of
inco$petence, inco$pleteness, and failure e$anatin- fro$ the supere-o .ill presu$a,ly
di$inish( Bn the other hand, >i?e1 "!!') ,elieves /acan .ould not accept a life dedicated to
fulfillin- the e-o+ideal( /acan identifies a fourth a-ency, 2the la. of desire,3 as critical to
developin- a ,etter understandin- of the e-o+ideal and supere-o( ;he 2la. of desire3 is
the a-ency that tells you to act in accord .ith your desire( ;he -ap ,et.een this 2la. of desire3
and E-o+*deal "the net.or1 of socio+sy$,olic nor$s and ideals that the su,<ect internali#es in the
course of his or her education) is crucial here( For /acan, the see$in-ly ,enevolent a-ency of the
E-o+*deal that leads us to $oral and $aturity forces us to ,etray the 2la. of desire3 ,y .ay
of adoptin- the 2reasona,le3 de$ands of the existin- socio+sy$,olic order( "p( 41)
;hus, the feelin- of -uilt fro$ the supere-o e$er-es fro$ the su,<ect -ivin- up her or his o.n
desire in pursuit of the e-o+ideal ".hatever is desira,le in the eyes of the ,i- Bther)( ;herefore,
in order to di$inish -uilt, the su,<ect $ust pursue her or his o.n desires( Bf course, deter$inin-
the su,<ect3s desire is co$plicated ,ecause it is often unconscious and entan-led in lan-ua-e
"6ill, 1&&7)(
In what ways can narratives be generated to study desire?
Since narratives produced ,y the su,<ect have a tendency to a,strusely inte-rate the ideal
e-o, e-o+ideal, and supere-o, interpretin- such narratives cannot assu$e a si$ple analysis of the
su,<ect3s desire( Also, it should ,e noted that psychoanalysin- a sin-le response to an intervie.
0uestion is not -ood research "Jvale, 1&&&)( And psychoanalysis su--ests that an intervie.
protocol should yield $ultiple stories fro$ the su,<ect prefera,ly over ti$e(
Aepresentations of the self in participants3 narratives are never co$plete and, $oreover,
the identities represented are chan-in- "Jin-, !!!)( %articipants3 identities evolve durin- the
process of constructin- narratives for research purposes "Bro.n, !!K)( Fhen a narrative relates
to the participant3s identity, it also tends to reinforce a coherent life story "%itt & Brit#$an,
!!K)( ;herefore, research involvin- the identity of the su,<ect "and the e-o) $ust al.ays ,e
interpreted in a particular socio+historical context and attentive to the inco$pleteness of
identities as they are intersu,<ectively sy$,oli#ed in lan-ua-e "of the ,i- Bther)( *n addition, the
su,<ect $ay never ,e fully satisfied that her or his story has ,een told ,ecause of the -ap ,et.een
the su,<ect3s desire and the ,i- Bther3s desire(
;he psychoanalysis of the teacher3s narrative in the fashion illustrated a,ove is not -ood
research on its o.n althou-h * find it provocative( %sychoanalysis is interpretation, repeated and
reprocessed, over ti$e and throu-h $ultiple narratives and dialo-ues "6ill, 1&&75 Jvale, 1&&&)(
Leither a psychoanalyst nor a researcher should articulate an, al,eit tentative, after the
analysis of only a sin-le response( Levertheless the possi,ility for interpretation throu-h
psychoanalytic theory is attractive and it su--ests that an intervie. protocol should allo. for the
collection of $ultiple stories prefera,ly over ti$e(
Bro.n3s "!!4) understandin- of /acan3s .or1 proposes that individuals construct self+
narratives ,ut ,ecause these constructions are necessarily "$is)interpreted ,y others, individuals
$ust continually refine and reconstruct the$( @oreover, in the process of usin- lan-ua-e to
represent a person3s identity, the identity is altered at the sa$e ti$e5 hence, over recurrin- cycles
of self+narrations the identity chan-es fro$ .hat it .as in the past( *ndeed the process of
identification is al.ays on-oin-( ;herefore, an intervie. protocol should not ,e focused on
o,tainin- an to a sin-le, direct 0uestion, such as 2Fhat $otivated you to ta1e up -raduate
studiesG3 *nstead, the intervie. protocol should provide ti$e for the participants to thin1 a,out
their responses and re+consider the$( ;he 0uestions should not ,e direct, ,ut rather consist of
$ultiple .ays of elicitin- stories fro$ the participants(
For exa$ple, %itt & Brit#$an "!!K), in their study of 2difficult 1no.led-e,3 use an
intervie. protocol that is provided to participants in advance of the intervie.( ;heir 8purpose in
doin- so is to fa$iliari#e HparticipantsI .ith the conceptual -eo-raphy of the pro<ect and to allo.
Hthe$I to thin1 a,out HtheirI learnin- and teachin- prior to the actual intervie.9 "p( 771)( ;he
researchers as1 participants to descri,e the$selves and then discuss any of a variety of 2thou-ht
pro$pts3 in the for$ of 2thin1 of ti$es .henM3 in order to provo1e experiences on difficult
/i1e.ise, * $i-ht consider usin- an intervie. protocol that as1s participants to co$$ent
and reflect on experiences that are parallel, tan-ent, or ortho-onal to $y interest in the needs,
de$ands, desires, drives, and $otivations to learn( For the researcher .ho see1s an 2ans.er3
fro$ the researched su,<ect, $ore $ay ,e -ained ,y indirect 0uestionin- that produces $ultiple
narratives so that so$ethin- of si-nificance e$er-es "or is found lac1in-) that challen-es and
infor$s the in0uiry(
Who is and what is the role of the researched subject/researcher?
*n li-ht of $y understandin- of identity .ith respect to /acanian psychoanalytic theory, *
.ill conclude ,y re+considerin- the relationship ,et.een a researcher and a researched su,<ect or
participant( Fhat does it $ean to ,e the researcher or the researchedG *s there a clear distinction
or a definite transition .here a researcher ,eco$es a research su,<ectG
* .ill ta1e the researcher and research su,<ect as a ,inary and consider its deconstruction(
=errida "1&44) insists that deconstruction is neither a $ethod nor a for$ of analysis or criti0ue(
/i1e.ise, Biesta "!!&) o,serves that deconstructions are continuously occurrin- and that there
are opportunities to witness the$( 6ence, if deconstruction is not a $ethod, then at least anyone
interested $ay 8,ear .itness to events of .hich the condition of possi,ility is at the very sa$e
ti$e the condition of i$possi,ility9 "p( K&:)( Levertheless, despite clai$s to the contrary,
deconstruction has ,een ta1en up as a $ethod( For instance, /ather "1&&') descri,es a double
reading or process of deconstructive moves in her effort to $a1e sense of the issue of
accessi,leNinaccessi,le lan-ua-e(
First, * perfor$ an oppositional readin- .ithin the confines of a ,inary syste$, ,y reversin- the
,inary accessi,leNinaccessi,le( Second, * perfor$ a reflexive readin- that 0uestions the
inclusionsNexclusions, orderin-sNdisorderin-s, and valuationsNrevaluations of the first $ove of
reversal, as so$e effort to refra$e the eitherNor lo-ic that is typical of thin1in- a,out the issue at
hand( "p( O')( /ather3s approach to deconstruction, * .ill first ta1e the ,inary of
researcher/researched and reverse the nor$al opposition that privile-es the researcher as 8the
su,<ect presu$ed to 1no.9 "Fel$an, 1&4, p( K:) and su,ordinates the researched or the
participants in the study( Second, * .ill de$onstrate that the distinction ,et.een the t.o ter$s is
per$ea,le, thus, to ,e the researched is to ,e the researcher and to ,e the researcher is to ,e the
researched( ;hat is to say, the conditions of ,ein- a researcher re0uire one to also ,e a research
AesearcherNresearched is an une0ual ,inary .here .e, as researchers, are interested in
studyin- researched su,<ects( *n this ,inary, it is assu$ed that ,ein- the researcher is do$inant
or $ore po.erful in relation to the researched( For instance, in our culture .e tend to tal1
positively a,out the researcher ,y associatin- it .ith acade$ic acco$plish$ent, expertise, and
a-ency( *t ,eco$es apparent that the role of the researcher is typically discussed in relation to
actively findin- or discoverin- so$ethin- in the "passive) participant( *n other .ords, the
researched su,<ect is the o,<ect of study for the researcher(
Fhat is a researched su,<ect and ho. $i-ht she or he ,e repositioned in the pri$ary role
of the ,inaryG ;he participant is the source of 2data3 collected ,y the investi-ator( ;herefore, in
so$e .ay the researched su,<ect possesses so$ethin- vital to the research process( Fithout the
participant"s) the study could not ,e underta1en and ne. understandin-s could not ,e
constructed( ;hat is to say, the participant in the study has the for the researcher althou-h
she or he does not necessarily 1no. .hat it is or .hat it $eans for the researcher( *n addition, if
the research su,<ect ,eco$es a.are of her or his i$portance, she or he $ay then reali#e the
possi,ility of ,eco$in- si$ultaneously the researched and the researcher( For instance, in
various for$s of action research, the participants pursue their o.n interests and research
Fel$an "1&4) su--ests an analo-ous deconstruction of the analystNanalysand and the
teacherNlearner ,inariesE
;he analysand is 0ualified to ,e an analyst as of the point at .hich he understands his o.n
analysis to ,e inherently unfinished, inco$plete, as of the point, that is, at .hich he settles into his
o.n didactic analysis D or his o.n analytical apprenticeship D as funda$entally inter$ina,le( *t is,
in other .ords, as of the $o$ent the student reco-ni#es that learnin- has no ter$, that he can
hi$self ,eco$e a teacher, assu$e the position of the teacher( But the position of the teacher is
itself the position of the one .ho learns, of the one .ho teaches nothin- other than the .ay he
learns( ;he su,<ect of teachin- is inter$ina,ly D a student5 the su,<ect of teachin- is inter$ina,ly D
a learnin-( "p( K7)
Si$ilarly, .hile the researched su,<ects $ay ,e-in their participation in the study ,y ,elievin-,
throu-h the discourse invo1ed ,y the researcher and the acade$y, that the researcher is 8the one
presu$ed to 1no.,9 the participants $i-ht eventually ,elieve in their o.n a,ilities as researchers
throu-h their involve$ent .ith the study( ;hey $ay see1 to ,e reco-ni#ed as co+investi-ators or
exert so$e de-ree of a-ency ,y actively en-a-in- the research process, influencin- the
interpretation and re+presentation of the 8data,9 and 0uestionin- the other "researcher)(
Fhat is a researcher and ho. $i-ht she or he ,e repositioned as secondary in the ,inaryG
*n one sense, ,ased on the stereotype of the scientist, a researcher initiates, conceptuali#es, and
plans a study or investi-ation( She or he identifies and recruits research su,<ects and collects
pertinent data usin- appropriate $ethods( ;hen the researcher is responsi,le for interpretin- the
data, conclusions, identifyin- further 0uestions and considerations, and co$$unicatin-
the results to interested co$$unities( Bn the other hand, althou-h the researcher $ay ,e the
expert, she or he is searchin- for ans.ers to 0uestions she or he does not fully co$prehend(
%rior to .antin- to do research, 2experts3 $ust first reali#e they do not 1no. so$ethin- in order
to conceive of and conduct research( Aesearchers $ust accept their reliance on research su,<ects
for 2data3 that .ill help their 0uestions( Conse0uently, the researchers3 .or1 is contin-ent
upon the participants(
Fel$an "1&4) illustrates the researcher3s dependence on the researched in her
explication of the analyst3s role as 8a student of the patient3s 1no.led-e9 "p( KK)E
so the analyst precisely $ust ,e tau-ht ,y the analysandPs unconscious( *t is ,y structurally
occupyin- the position of the analysandPs unconscious, and ,y thus $a1in- hi$self a student of the
patientPs 1no.led-e, that the analyst ,eco$es the patientPs teacher D $a1es the patient learn .hat
.ould other.ise re$ain forever inaccessi,le to hi$( For teachin- to ,e reali#ed, for 1no.led-e to
,e learnt, the position of alterity is therefore indispensa,leE 1no.led-e is .hat is already there, ,ut
al.ays in the Bther( Jno.led-e, in other .ords, is not a su,stance ,ut a structural dyna$icE it is
not contained ,y any individual ,ut co$es a,out out of the $utual apprenticeship ,et.een t.o
partially unconscious speeches .hich ,oth say $ore than they 1no.( =ialo-ue is thus the radical
condition of learnin- and of 1no.led-e, the analytically constitutive condition throu-h .hich
i-norance ,eco$es structurally infor$ative5 1no.led-e is essentially, irreduci,ly dialo-ic( "p( KK)
*n this passa-e, not only does Fel$an reposition the analyst as the learner and the analysand3s
unconscious as the teacher, ,ut further explains the dialo-ic essence of 1no.led-e( Jno.led-e
is for$ed fro$ 8the $utual apprenticeship ,et.een t.o partially unconscious speeches .hich
,oth say $ore than they 1no.9 "p( KK)( ;he understandin- of the research su,<ect is inaccessi,le
.ithout dialo-ue .ith the researcher( At the sa$e ti$e, the researcher re0uires the participant
"Bther) to say so$ethin- surprisin- .hich the researcher does not already understand( Fhether
it is the analysandNanalyst or the researchedNresearcher, the t.o positions in the ,inary are neither
distinct nor separate( ;here cannot ,e a researcher .ithout a research su,<ect "or a research
su,<ect .ithout a researcher)( ;herefore, the conditions that constitute a researcher
si$ultaneously constitute a research su,<ect(
For instance, in this paper, * a$ not only a .riterNresearcher ,ut a textNsu,<ect( * a$ not
so $uch reportin- .hat * already 1no. ,ut a$ continuously in the process of -ettin- to 1no.(
As * .rite and re.rite sections of this paper, $y understandin- chan-es as .ell( At the sa$e
ti$e, $y identification shifts( @y interpretation of $y story is entan-led .ith $y understandin-
of psychoanalytic theory( Every readin- of a text elicits, reinforces, or conceals different
thou-hts5 ne. possi,ilities of thin1in- throu-h psychoanalysis ,eco$e clear .hile other
possi,ilities fade(
*n su$$ary, $y .or1 to this point stron-ly su--ests that studyin- the relationship
,et.een research and psychoanalysis can ,e productive( For exa$ple, * can see that
psychoanalytic theory is co$pati,le .ith narrative in0uiry, auto,io-raphy, self+study, and
varieties of action research .here the role of the researcher ad$ittedly overlaps .ith the role of
the research su,<ectNparticipantNco+investi-ator( ;hese for$s of research appreciate the shiftin-,
intersu,<ective construction of identity and interpretation(
*n $y interest in studyin- teachers3 desire to learn, * intend to use so$e for$ of action
research( * hope to use psychoanalytic theory to further understand and clarify the identities of
the researcher and the participants( So$e further 0uestions includeE ;o .hat extent is research
co$para,le to psychoanalysisG *s the research intervie. analo-ous to /acan3s 2=iscourse of the
Analyst3 or one of the other for$s of discourseG 6o. is the 2-a#e3 of the researcher apparent and
is it possi,le for the participants to also have the 2-a#e3G

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