Reading and Identity

Norman N. Holland

© 1998, Norman N. Holland, all rights reserved

This is a description of "identity theory" as we developed and used it at the Center for Psychological Study of the Arts, State University of New York at Buffalo in the 1970s. We began with an inquiry into the way readers read. We soon found ourselves re-thinking from the roots up what psychoanalysis can say about the ways people sense and know things.

We theorists of literature used to think that a given story or poem evoked some "correct" or at least widely shared response. When, however, I began (at Buffalo's Center for the Psychological Study of the Arts) to test this idea, I rather ruefully found a much subtler and a more complex process at work. Each person who reads a story, poem, or even a single word construes it differently. These differences evidently stem from personality. But how?

The key concept is identity (as developed by psychoanalyst Heinz Lichtenstein). I see it as forming the latest of the four characterologies that psychoanalysis has evolved. First there are diagnostic categories like hysteric, manic, or schizophrenic. Second, Freud and his followers added the libidinal types: anal, phallic, oral, genital, and urethral. Although these terms could bring larger segments of someone's behavior together in a significant way, they pointed toward childhood; necessarily they infantalized adult achievements. A third, ego-psychological, notion of character was Fenichel's: "the ego's habitual mode of bringing into harmony" the demands of the external world and the internal world of personal drives and needs.

Lichtenstein suggests a way to conceptualize Fenichel's central term, "habitual." We are each constantly doing new things yet we stamp each new thing with the same personal style as our earlier actions. Think of the individual as embodying a dialectic of sameness and difference. We detect the sameness by seeing what persists within the constant change of our lives. We detect the difference by seeing what has changed against the background of sameness.

The easiest way to comprehend that dialectic of sameness and difference is Lichtenstein's concept of identity as a theme and variations-like a musical theme and variations. Think of the sameness as a theme, an "identity theme." Think of the difference as variations on that identity theme. I can arrive at an identity theme by sensing the recurring patterns in someone's life, just as I would arrive at the theme of a piece of music. I would express it, not in terms from elsewhere (either diagnostic words like "hysteric" or structural words like "ego"), but in words as descriptive as possible of that person's behavior.

For example,I phrased an identity theme for a subject I'll call Sandra: "She sought to avoid depriving situations and to find sources of nuture and strength with which she could exchange and fuse." Similarly, "Saul sought from the world balanced and defined exchanges, in which he would not be the one overpowered." "Sebastian wanted to unite himself with forces of control, to which he would give something verbal or intellectual, hoping to sexualize them." Thus, Sandra's thoughts about the need for equal strengths in marriage were one variation on her identity theme, and Sebastian's desire to please an aristocracy or Saul's fear of me as an interviewer were variations on theirs, just as their various readings were.

For instance, these three read this clause in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" describing Colonel Saratoris: "he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron." Sandra adjusted the phrase to just the amount of strength she could identify with: "It's a great little touch of ironic humor, I think [of] the voice in the story as meaning it that way . . . Using these heroic terms to describe such a petty and obvious extension of bigotry . . . It was such a perfect undercutting of the heroic Colonel Sartoris." Sebastian discovered an aristocratic, sexualized master-slave relationship: "I react to the term `fathered' the edict . . . Fathering the edict seems to in some way be fathering the women, to be fathering that state of affairs. So it implied for me the sexual - well [he laughed] - intercourse that took place between whites and Negroes." Saul, however, had to reduce the force and cruelty of the original: "`Fathered' . . . is the word you're asking about, I suspect . . . It means practically the same as `sponsored,' I think. I don't know. Although I suppose you could talk about paternalism . . . No one should appear on the streets without an apron. That's just identifying the servants . . . . That's a social thing."

One could have labeled Saul, Sandra, and Sebastian hysterics or obsessionals (in diagnostic categories) or oral, anal, or phallic (in libidinal stage characterology) or as identifiers, reversers, or deniers (in a characterology of defense and adaptation). But these categories would have lumped together and blurred the particular details of their readings of stories, and that is what reading involves--responses to detail. Saul, Sandra, Sebastian, and the many other readers and writers we have studied led us to a general principle: we actively transact literature so as to re-create our identities.

We can refine that principle further, however. I see Sandra bringing to this sentence both the general expectations I think she has toward any other (that it will nurture or protect) and also specific expectations toward Faulkner or the South or short stories. She also brings to bear on the text what I regard as her characteristic pattern of defensive and adaptive strategies ("defenses," for short) so as to shape the text until, to the degree she needs that certainty, it is a setting in which she can gratify her wishes and defeat her fears about closeness and distance: "a great little touch." Sandra also endows the text with what I take to be her characteristic fantasies, that is, her habitual wishes for some strong person who will balance closeness, nuture, and strength, here, "the voice in the story" which undercuts the bigot. Finally, as a social, moral, and intellectual being, she gives the text a coherence and significance that confirm her whole transaction of the clause. She reads it ethically.

These four terms, defense, expectation, fantasy, and transformation (DEFT, for short) connect to more than clinical experience. One can understand expectation as putting the literary work in the sequence of a person's wishes in time, while transformation endows the work with a meaning beyond time. Similarly, I learn of defenses as they shape what the individual lets in from outside, while fantasies are what I see the individual putting out from herself into the outside world. Thus these four terms let me place a person's DEFTing at the intersection of the axes of human experience, between time and timelessness, between inner and outer reality.

Our readings of readers imply still more. We may extend what we have found out about the perception of texts to other kinds of perception. If Sandra uses Faulkner's words to re-create her identity, will she not use The New York Times or, indeed, any words the same way? If she DEFTSs the narrator or Colonel Sartoris, characters in fiction, will she not DEFT characters in real life?

Freud seemed to believe in "immaculate perception." He assumed that eyes and ears faithfully transmit the real world into the mind, where later these originally sound percepts may be distorted by unconscious or neurotic needs. Few, if any, twentieth century students of perception would agree. Hundreds of their experiments have shown that perception is a constructive act. The very cells of our eyes and ears have already begun to shape the transmission of the outside world to our minds, separating out voices from noise or an approaching object from an approaching aperture. In some complex acts of perception, such as recognizing particular objects, relative positions or distances, contrasts, and so on, the role of the perceiver becomes even clearer and stronger.

Psychologists who study sensing, knowing, or remembering have long recognized the importance of the person who senses, knows, or remembers. They have asked for a "top-level theory of motivation" to take that whole person into account. That is, a person's needs, motivation, and character shape even small details of perception, cognition, and memory. But how can we articulate that relationship?

I believe identity theory provides the necessary top-level theory. That is, we can conceptualize sensing, knowing, or remembering - indeed, the whole human mind (as William T. Powers has done) as a hierarchy of feedback networks, each set to a reference level from the loop above it. At the lowest level, the outer world triggers signals from the cells of retina or cochlea which, if they are big enough by the reference standards set from above, stimulate movements of eyeball or ear canal to vary and test those signals. Higher loops will deal with intensities, sensations, configurations, objects, positioning, tracking, sequencing, changing sequences, and will look more like DEFTings. The highest reference level will be set by the identity loop: we transact the world through all these particular transactions so as to re-create our individual identities.

Because identity theory lets us integrate psychoanalysis with at least some kinds of experimental psychology and psycholinguistics, we have begun to teach psychoanalytic theory at our Center in new ways. We see identity theory as moving psychoanalysis definitively into a third phase. At first, Freud explained things by the polarity: conscious versus unconscious. Then, after Freud's 1923 revision of his early work, ego psychology explained things by the polarity: ego as against non ego. Now, we believe, psychoanalysis has grown to fill a still larger conceptual frame: self and other - as in the work of Lacan, Kohut, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Winnicott, Milner, or in the identity theory of Lichtenstein as applied and developed by the so-called "Buffalo school."

We believe that identity enriches the psychoanalytic theory of motivation. Freud began with a two-level theory. The pleasure principle (really, the avoidance of unpleasure) was the dominant human motive except as it became modified by the reality principle (we learned to delay gratification so as to achieve a net increase in pleasure). Later he provided a third, deeper level, "beyond" the pleasure principle, a death instinct or perhaps a drive toward a constant or zero level of excitation, an idea questioned by many psychoanalysts. Lichtenstein suggests replacing it with an identity principle: the organism's most basic motivation is to maintain its identity. Indeed, we will even die to be true to what we hold fundamental to our being. So deep and strong is identity, it defines what the pleasure and the reality of the other principles are.

Accordingly, when we teach motivation, we set it in this third-phase framework of identity theory. We teach, for example, Waelder's notion of the ego as actively and passively harmonizing the demands of id and superego (do it! don't do it!) and reality and the repetition compulsion (find a new solution! try the old one again!). Yet the principle of multiple function operates within an identity principle. Ego, id, superego, reality, and the compulsion to repeat all exist as functions of identity. Hence, instead of structures, they can be better understood as questions about a total transaction by a self with an identity. One can ask, What in this transaction looks like an integrating, synthesizing activity? What looks like an incorporated parental voice? These questions will lead to a picture of the whole person acting, rather than five "agencies."

Similarly, in teaching development through the familiar oral, anal, phallic, etc., stages, we avoid giving the idea that the child is "done to" by drives, parents, environment or society. Rather, an active child with a developing identity marches through an "epigenetic landscape" of questions posed by his own biology, his parents, and the social and environmental structures they embody. In effect, we can read the development of any given individual as the particular answers he chooses (because they re create his identity) to questions that his particular body or family poses or that he shares with other children who have his biology and culture. And, of course, the answers he arrives at become part of the identity he brings to the questions he gets thereafter.

One can think, for example, of the oedipal stage as society, the parents, and biology all demanding that the child situate itself in a world divided into male and female persons and parental and filial generations. Different parents and societies will favor different answers. A patriarchal family or culture might treat the male-female distinction as those who have and those who lack. A more enlightened group might see not a lack but a difference, perhaps irrelevant to roles within or outside the family. Whatever the biases, the individual child must achieve an answer that will continue the growth of an identity through the physical and social questions posed by a particular landscape. Development becomes a dialogue (or, as in perceptual theory, a feedback) between identity on the one hand and, on the other, biology and culture.

Finding the principle of identity re-creation has changed the method as well as the substance of our teaching. More and more we use the Delphi ("know thyself") seminar to help students discover how they each bring a personal style (identity) to reading, writing, learning, and teaching. Students and faculty read imaginative or even theoretical texts and pre-circulate to one another written free associations. The seminar discuses both texts and associations, but eventually turns entirely to the associations as the texts to be responded to. Students master the subject matter and also see how people in the seminar use that subject matter to re-create their identities. Most important, each student gains insight into his own characteristic ways with texts and people - that is why we feel this method is particularly valuable for all teaching of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychology.

In a Delphi seminar we come face to face with the ultimate implication of identity theory. If any reading of a story or another person or psychological theory is a function (among other things) of the reader's identity, then my reading of your identity must be a function of my own. Identity, then, is not a conclusion but a relationship: the potential, transitional, in between space in which I perceive someone as a theme and variations. Just as in most psychoanalytic thinking about human development, the existence of a child constitutes a mother and the existence of a mother constitutes a child, so, in identity theory, all selves and objects constitute one another. The hard and fast line between subjective and objective blurs and dissolves. Instead of simple dualism, we try for a detailed inquiry into the potential space of that DEFT feedback in which self and other mutually constitute each other.

That inquiry is part of science, so that it no longer makes sense to ask: Is psychoanalysis "scientific"? That is, is it independent of the personality of the scientist? Rather, psychoanalysis is the science that tells us how to inquire into that very question: How does a person doing science thereby re create identity?

The question applies most pointedly to those in the human sciences. Traditionally psychologists have tried to understand new human events by impersonal if-then generalizations about countable categories. Few large-scale generalizations have resulted, however. If we define a science as yielding understanding, psychology as we have known it so far, has not been scientific.

Identity theory suggests a more promising method: one should bring not generalizations but questions to the new event, questions to be asked by a scientist acknowledging and actively using his involvement with what he is studying. That is - I now understand - what I was doing when I set out to study reading. It is also the method shared by all psychoanalytic psychologists, be they clinical or theoretical.

Norman N. Holland

If you have comments, email me at nholland@ufl.edu