The psychoanalytic identity: five hypotheses for discussion Giovanni Foresti

The psychoanalytic identity: five hypotheses for discussion

Giovanni Foresti

“That which is different from something is different by something, or in some respect, so that it is necessary that something wherein they differ should be the same…”


If you look up the topic of “identity” in the pages of the glorious Einaudi Encyclopaedia you are quickly directed to the entries which conclude volume VI, where the heading Identity/difference (Rambaldi, 1979) comes between Identification and transference (Bernard-Weil, 1979) and Ideology (Vuillemin, 1979). In order to conceptualise the theme which the Rivista di Psicoanalisi has decided to address in this edition, the editors of the summa of secular thought in the nineteen-seventies offered a conceptual summary which – and here is the first hypothesis – remains persuasive even today. “Identity and difference,” they wrote (ibid., 1143), “form one of the most important philosophical couplings, inseparable extremes of any method, whether analytic or synthetic,” recognised from the beginning as “indispensable categories for a systematic knowledge of the world” (ibid.).

The two concepts have different origins which derive, on the one hand, from the vicissitudes of subjective psychic life (the identifications and transferences which constitute it) and on the other from the processes which produce and reproduce the collective forms of thought (theories, philosophies, and ideologies).

In the following pages I have tried to bring together observations and reflections which aim to shed light, not on the paradoxes of identity in general (an endless topic, and not appropriate to the purposes of this paper) but on those posited specifically by psychoanalytic identity (and here too, only those which seemed to me the most necessary and relevant).

The few words chosen for the title announce the conceptual principles of the discussion offered here and anticipate the hypotheses that seem necessary for reflection on this topic. What is most characteristic of psychoanalysis – that is, its relative conceptual homogeneity and its robust theoretical and technical identity – does not float in the solitary autonomy of an isolated speculative void, but is a legacy of the concepts and methods which have been developed along the boundaries that separate our discipline from other areas of reality and of knowledge. Which leads us to consider that the processes to be borne in mind when discussing the problem of psychoanalytic identity cannot be addressed with sufficient rigour if their constitutive paradoxes are eliminated. These paradoxes specific to psychoanalytic identity can only be “seen” with the necessary clarity if we accept a confrontation with the irreducible and heterogeneous complexity which determines them.

In other words, and put more succinctly, the theme of psychoanalytic identity compels anyone who addresses it to take into account both what is within the boundaries of the clinical and theoretical field of psychoanalysis, and some topics which can be better understood if we study the subject from an odd, external angle. These differences are the factors which help us to understand identity; but identity is the principle which enables differences to be recognised.


For a better illustration of the hypotheses I am proposing, I will try to specify the perspective I am adopting by resorting on some extra-disciplinary references. According to Peter Pesic, the problems posed by the organisation of identity can be addressed by means of operations whose logical lowest common denominator is explicit in the title of his book Seeing Double (2002). Taking up a similar perspective, I suggest we focus on the topic of psychoanalytic identity by using a variant of the “binocular vision” which Bionian tradition speaks about (Levine, Civitarese, 2016; Sandler, 2005; Torres, Hinshelwood, 2013). I have in mind a variant of the psychic binocularity which does not avoid the unease deriving from the experience of seeing double. That is, I am suggesting we use a logic based on a plurality of perspectives which accept the lack of the happy ending of an integrating synthesis: so it is a deliberate diplopia rather than a smoothly-functioning binocularity. 

Thinking about the topic/problem of identity, we cannot concentrate on one thing only, hermetically isolated, but are compelled to observe phenomena which usually tend to appear together and which cannot be instantly recomposed into an integrated and harmonic picture.

The principle developed in the encyclopaedia entry quoted at the start refers to disciplines that aspire to exactitude (Rambaldi, 1979), but can be helpfully adapted to our purposes if we translate them into a theorisation rooted in biology. In the medical sciences, the device which guards the boundaries of the organism’s identity is its immune system. It patrols the areas of the body in which it operates in order to prevent the immunologists’ self (the bodily Self of biology) being invaded from outside by infections and/or parasites, or being altered from within by mutations or oncogenesis. In contemporary medicine, one of the limiting factors in transplant technique – the most audacious modification of the way identity is organised in human nature – is rejection: in other words, attack by the immune system of the organism hosting the transplanted organ. Conversely, however, the other important manifestation of this type is the attack by the transplanted organ on the host organism. There are diseases of the immune system that cause a deficit in its functioning which renders the organism easier to attack from inside and outside. In these cases, we can say that the biological identity is not protected enough and that the immune system is no longer able to guard it effectively. However, there are other diseases which derive from excesses of immune function and which result in attacks by the body against itself (these are physio-pathological processes which can be observed in “auto-immune” diseases such as scleroderma, systemic lupus erythematosus, polyarteritis nodosa, etc.).

The safeguarding of the bodily identity is therefore the result of processes that are subject to errors and pathologies, which actively constitute and constantly control the difference between self and not-self. I suppose that in the experiential fields where the distinction between subject and object of knowledge is clearer, it is easier to tolerate the coexistence of hypotheses which cast doubt on the ontological status – that is, the identity – of the object under study (as in the vignette I shall recount shortly).

But when the problem concerns the identity of an object which also calls into doubt the identity of the subject (as happens regularly in psychoanalysis) things get more complicated. In these cases, there is less of the emotional and cognitive space that is necessary for developing clinical reflection: in other words, that type of work that we can describe as a continual alternation of processes of identification and de-identification which eventually produces differentiation and development (Bolognini, 2002; Ferro et al., 2008; Ogden, 2005).

If the question of identity becomes pressing, it means we are in a critical area where thought is at a high risk of disorganisation. In fact, at that point, a problem arises which it will be difficult to address in a regulated and balanced way because it concerns the organisation of the subject itself. Only a system organised according to the elasticity and permeability of its own identity boundaries can interact with the environment and maintain the good management of the flow of the exchanges which give the system life – flows that go in the direction inside→outside and those that proceed in the opposite direction, outside→inside.


The oldest psychoanalytic examples of the logic which values the paradoxical side of psychic processes is found in the works of Freud: in particular, we find obvious traces of it in those that, according to a fine essay by Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, show the strongest influence of his self-analysis – that is, the works of the early and late Freud (Grubrich-Simitis, 1999). Given the aim of this paper, I shall confine myself to noting the writings which constitute the theoretical and technical testament of the founder of psychoanalysis: ie. Constructions in Analysis and Analysis Terminable and Interminable (Freud, 1937a and b).

Re-configuring the value of interpretation, of which he declares that he has never accepted the definition (Deutung instead of the more philosophical Auslegung), in Constructions in Analysis Freud emphasises the disconcerting similarity between the ideas that analysts develop while listening to their patients and those which organise the fertile phases in the construction of a delusion. For the founder of psychoanalysis, the difference between psychotic constructions and the analyst’s interpretative hypotheses resides in the clinical effects that the latter enable us to obtain. The characteristics which make the two kinds of thought appear almost identical are nevertheless interesting, and very instructive for the analyst. Both types of construction aim at filling a void and enable the attribution of meaning to emotions that run the risk of having none. Based on an inescapable lack of knowledge, they derive their force of persuasion form the plausibility with which they inscribe the mnestic traces on which they are founded (Anzeichen) in a coherent representative whole: the Konstruktion.

Picking up the famous analogy with the work of the archaeologist, Freud claims that the other’s discipline is based on the study of material that has been dead for some time. The analyst on the other hand is concerned with a more complex, still living object which responds to the proposal of a construction that derives from the analyst with an activity which produces in the analysand’s mind a personalised and plastic reconstruction of the material to be interpreted. The not too hidden paradox illustrated by this text is that interpretation results from a process which is set in motion by the analyst’s construction, but developed thanks to a work which takes place in an intermediate relational space between analyst and analysand (Ferro et al., 2013 and 2016; Giaconia et al. 1997; Nissim Momigliano, 2001).

In the second paper cited, Analysis Terminable and Interminable, Freud tackles a clinical observation as obvious as it is deceptive: the outcomes of analytic treatment are often partial and, even when they appear to be satisfactory, with the passing of time they show themselves to be unstable. The clinical objective of psychoanalysis is “to replace repressions that are insecure by reliable ego-syntonic controls (zuverlässige ichgerechte Bewältigungen)” (Freud, 1937b, 229). Unfortunately, however, he writes, “The transformation is achieved, but often only partially: portions of the old mechanisms remain untouched by the work of analysis (bleiben von der analytischen Arbeit unberührt)” (ibid.). The conclusion is disenchanted and lucid. “There is nothing surprising in this,” observes Freud, “since the power of the instruments with which analysis operates is not unlimited but restricted (beschränkten Machtmitteln), and the final upshot always depends on the relative strength (Kräfteverhältnis) of the psychical agencies which are struggling with one another” (ibid., 230).

The theoretical premise behind the reasoning which Freud develops in these papers is very clear: “The aetiology of every neurotic disturbance is, after all, a mixed one. It is a question either of the instincts being excessively strong (überstarke Tiebe)—that is to say, recalcitrant to taming by the ego (Bändigung durch das Ich)—or of the effects of early (i.e. premature) traumas which the immature ego was unable to master (nicht Herr werden könnte)” (ibid., 220).

The first paradox of the Freudian testament refers to the bi-personal nature of analytic work. It is the analyst who offers the reconstructive hypotheses, but the interpretative activity is a work à deux and the clinical effects it produces depend to a large degree on the reconstruction elaborated by the patient/analysand. This is an activity which – as Bion will say thirty years later – we can describe by recourse to the formula learning from experience.

The second paradox brings into play the diachronic character of the psychoanalytic process and concerns the end – in both senses – of the treatment. Although we work to conclude the treatment, we know that it is in fact by nature interminable. We must accept the fact that the stability of the clinical effects depends on continuing psychic work by the person with whom we have collaborated “in order to subdue portions of his id which are uncontrolled—that is to say to include them in the synthesis of his ego” (ibid., 235). The end result of our efforts is nevertheless unstable and Freud compares it to a journey with a highly uncertain outcome: the situation “can only be compared to being out walking in a country one does not know and without having a good pair of legs” (ibid., 237).


Let’s now make a leap of about eighty years and see how the problem of psychoanalytic identity tends to be posed today. In volume 9 of the Annata Psicoanalitica Internazionale there are two very helpful articles for this purpose (Golinelli et al., 2017). Both are re-elaborations of reflections and experiences matured in the Working Parties of the European Psychoanalytic Federation (EPF) by the dozens of psychoanalysts who have brought these researches into life.

The first article – “What do we learn in a psychoanalytic training?” – was written by Eike Hinze, an analyst from Berlin, and examines the results from a study group which has worked for more than ten years on the evaluation of the outcomes of training. A brief description of the method of the ETEP (End of Training Evaluation Project) may be helpful for a better understanding of this article’s conclusions. “Training analysts of different societies,” writes Hinze (2015, 757), “present supervisory material in internationally composed groups of training analysts, and the group tries to find out how the presenter is evaluating his candidate.” The conclusions are therefore the result of a transcultural and multilingual comparison, in which theoretical pluralism is the conceptual background of research and the premise for the reasoning. It is to be supposed that the outcomes are relatively independent of the theoretical orientations of the participants in the project.

The consensus of those who participated in the ETEP is that candidates must show five competences:
1.The ability to understand the patient’s emotional demands and the turbulence which derives from them;
2. The habit of grasping and valuing free associations;
3. The necessary experience for maintaining a neutral stance;
4. The acquisition of a viewpoint which appreciates the interweaving of transference and countertransference;
5. The ability to conceptualise what happens during the course of the sessions.

Although these areas of competence may seem “a very modest equipment,” writes Hinze at the end of her paper, they nevertheless constitute the only possible “basis on which future development can take place” (ibid., 769-70).

The most significant discovery of this research concerns the last point cited. “A candidate about to qualify should be able to link his theoretical background with his clinical practice and to make conceptual generalizations from his clinical experience” (ibid., 766). When this does not happen, it is because “of the three columns of the Eitingon model we emphasize the importance of personal analysis and supervision, whereas theoretical seminars often have a somewhat neglected existence shadowed by the first two” (ibid.). In order to contribute to the constitution of a solid psychoanalytic identity, the training institutions should therefore encourage candidates to elaborate a grounded hypothesis (Tuckett, 1994) which enables them to justify the choices that have guided their understanding of the case, and the technical reasons for the interventions they have made in the session. As Hinze clarifies it, “This does not mean that an analyst is supposed to think too much and too intellectually in a session” (ibid.). It means that between one session and another the analyst and patient have the chance to balance, more or less harmoniously (binocularity or diplopia?) the nexus which correlates the primary and secondary processes. This is a matter of being able to integrate, on the one hand, associations which are far from free, with theoretical and technical hypotheses on the other. Reflective space – that is, the triangularity that is necessary for identifying with another person’s subjectivity and for differentiating oneself from the fusional dimension which results from his – nevertheless requires an identity-structure that presupposes good relations with the community of one’s colleagues and a solid professional discipline. Hence the importance of maintaining an open and critical rapport with theory and with the scientific community which cultivates and develops it. 

The second article which helps us to think about the topic of psychoanalytic identity is entitled, ‘The Analyst’s Anxieties in the First Interview: Barriers against Analytic Presence’ (Møller, 2017) and takes its starting point from an observation at once counter-intuitive and clinically obvious. If we study the processes that are observed in the first interview of an analytic treatment, as the EPF Working Party coordinated by Bertrand Reith (WPIP: Working Party on Initiating Psychoanalysis) has done for years, we find ourselves dealing with yet another paradox: the resistances to beginning analytic work do not only come from the patient but also from the analyst.

For the author of this article, Mette Møller, analysis is a lively, interactive process right from the start, one in which the analyst/analysand dyad brings to life an emotional matrix marked by stormy exchanges and bi-personal processes which are difficult to understand and manage. “Contrary to our first hypothesis,” write the editors of the WPIP, “what we saw [studying the unconscious dynamics of the first interviews] was not that the analytic couple had to work to permit an up-welling of affective and representational derivatives of the patient’s unconscious conflicts, but rather that these derivatives were immediately and intensely active” (Reith et al., 2011, 70, quoted in Møller, 2015, 488). As with the work of the ETEP summarised by Eike Hinze, the authors just quoted believe “Bion’s (1979) idea of an unconscious emotional ‘storm’ that arises whenever two persons meet, to be a particularly apt way of describing” psychoanalytic processes (ibid.).

The theorisations which Mette Møller uses to conceptualise some clinical problems posed by the outset of treatment are those of Stefano Bolognini and Agostino Racalbuto. From the former, Møller draws the reformulation of the technical topic of “negative capability” which Bolognini has described/conceptualised as a “concave” emotional disposition: a mobile and receptive internal organisation which permits the analyst to be accepting and to defer judgement, tolerating the fact that he has to remain in a position of not-knowing (Bolognini, 2011). An active and “convex” stance would risk prejudicing the development of the process, conditioning it with the assertion of one’s own convictions and dispositions, whereas psychoanalytic presence is an ingredient to be asserted discreetly and indirectly. While waiting to make use of an explicitly negotiated and external setting, this would entail offering the analysand an internal and provisional setting which must initially be left entirely implicit.

Agostino Racalbuto’s theorisation can be connected even more directly to the topic of psychoanalytic identity. In the article which distils his contribution to the WPIP (Racalbuto, 2011) there is a reflection on the psychic functions which enable the analyst to metabolise the interaction of analyst and analysand during the first interviews. Racalbuto compares the situation in which the analyst is working in these circumstances to a full identity crisis. Bearing a state of suspension on the borderline between internal and external experiences, being able to oscillate between subjective and objective perceptions, placing oneself in a dark area between the system Perception-Consciousness and the unconscious, are activities which require a disciplined capacity for endurance and an uncommon readiness for personal destabilisation.

Various factors converge to obstruct the development of an identity susceptible to such flexible processes of deconstruction and reconstruction, and according to Mette Møller these obstructive factors can be attributed to the mutual intensification of states of great fragility in the identity and processes of persistent idealisation. Training is a strongly socialised institutional process and always highly guided, whereas the analytic development which follows on from training is a protracted, uncertain, and to a large extent solitary process. In a context characterised by technical pluralism, the inevitable slowness with which an analyst’s clinical experiences accumulate tends to obstruct the organisation of an independent personal disposition and exposes analysts to the recurring and all too obvious risk of clinging to a charismatic leader, or too quickly becoming reliant on a theory they believe to be foundational, or losing themselves inside a group/tribe that acts as their benchmark.

When this happens, the psychic space ceases to be concave and there is no opportunity for the transitory crisis of identity that is necessary for entering into the dynamic of the dyad. This results in the assertion of what Britton and Steiner have called overvalued ideas (that is, the opposite of the selected fact: the therapist’s fixed ideas, his “bullets”), and the analyst remains “trapped in a narcissistic prison” formed by processes of “devaluation and idealisation of psychoanalysis and his own analytic Self” (ibid., 176).

The paradox proposed here is explicable as follows: only by bearing in mind the inevitable contradictions of training and development can we keep the disposition of our own identity open and relatively stable. Resorting once again to an analogy with bodily functioning, we could say that the analyst must work to keep a stabilising mechanism active inside him, comparable to the sodium/potassium pump: a device which enables him to maintain a constant potential difference between the environments outside and inside the cell (and as we know, without a potential difference between the two sides of the cell wall, there would be no potential for action and no synaptic transmission).

THE tHeoretical-technical chiasmus 

The great paradox which gives rise to many of the individual and particular paradoxes discussed here is that analytic development (which is what happens over the entire course of an analyst’s professional life, and is not to be confused with training) consists essentially in knowing how to correlate the theories and technique of analytic work in an unstable and problematic way: ie. with deliberate double vision.

Now let’s go back for a moment to the problem of training.

We know that every candidate’s spontaneous expectation is that the supervisors and mentors with whom he interacts will sooner or later make available to him the Rosetta Stone which would enable him not only to comprehend the logics of the unconscious, but also to correlate psychoanalytic theories with the technique to be applied in the treatment of each individual case. The paradox to which the beginner must reconcile himself consists in precisely the contrary of what he expected: it is not a question of eliminating the gap which separates theories and techniques, but of tolerating its constant presence. It is a question of learning (in the true Bionian sense of learning from experience) that the inevitable caesura which tears at the imaginary chiasmus between theories and technique is not a destructive castration, but can become a precious source of experience and thought (Foresti, 2008; Kernberg, 1998).

“The analysis of the future analyst,” wrote Jean-Luc Donnet (quoted in De Mijolla, De Mijolla Mellor, 1996), “is not done to complete theory but to confirm its incompleteness, its non-closure, the irreducibility of the gap between theory and practice.” Picking up an idea that is widely circulated in the French analytic tradition, Donnet (and Jean-François Rabain, whose hypothesis he is citing and developing) also writes, “Psychoanalysis is precisely that truth which needs a subject to give it a constantly new origin” (ibid., 738). And how is this vital and stably unstable subject constituted and sustained? Our French colleagues conceptualise the topic in this way: “Psychoanalysis cannot be learned the way one learns from a book, and still less is it the learning of a doctrine: it is first of all a lived experience, an individual journey which places the unknown of the dream” – our “core of night,” wrote André Breton – “at the limits of the discovery of the unconscious” (Rabain, ibid., 737). It is the poetic and unintelligible solution to the problem posed by the paradoxes of psychoanalysis. [The quotations in this paragraph and the note have been translated by the translator of this article.]

There are, however, other paths.

In Italian tradition, the central nucleus of the analytic identity – which the French put so well by resorting to Freud’s contrast between what is unconscious (unbewußt) and what remains unknown (unbekannt) even at the end of the interpretative work – is reformulated in a post-pluralist perspective which appreciates the representational and bi-personal dimension of the Bionian O.

In an article published a few years ago in which she summarised the research of other writers, developing a series of hypotheses which she identified as fundamental, Anna Ferruta placed the emphasis on the decisive importance of the multidimensional nexus which correlates the analytic setting, intersubjectivity and method/technique (Ferruta, 2013). Beginning with an article by Winnicott (1955) and the historical-critical Note by Fausta Ferraro and Celestino Genovese (1986), “Analytic setting and space for the other,” takes up the researches into the representational dimension of interpretation and stresses the need for the practising psychoanalyst to be able to establish – and safeguard – the spatio-temporal coordinates which give shape to psychic space. According to the theorisation proposed by this programmatic and carefully judged text, psychoanalysis would be a “dramatic discipline in the theatrical sense of this term” because its development is energised “by interactions between persons and not between concepts” (ibid.). [Translated by the translator of this article.]

In 1985 Giuseppe Di Chiara had suggested understanding psychoanalysis as an inter- and intra-psychic interaction in which three successive key stages could be observed: the meeting, the story, and the goodbye (Di Chiara, 1985). Continuing his reflections in Construction and Interpretation (and so, another observation on Freud’s clinical last testament) the three-part series became, years later, a list of five aspects which compose the psychoanalytic process:

  1. 1) The formation of the analytic field;
  2. 2) The generating of inner representations;
  3. 3) The reorganisation of the narratives into narrative constructions;
  4. 4) The interpretation of the discursive formations which are circulating in the analytic field, and lastly;
  5. 5) The transformation of these during the course of the work.

In the same year in which this text appeared, Anna Ferruta re-read Di Chiara’s hypotheses maintaining that the setting can be conceptualised as a sum total of a few unvarying rules which make it possible to represent objects and processes within a relational space-time (Di Chiara, 2010; Ferruta, 2013). As a necessary element of technique, the setting is the topic which allows us to think deeply about the analyst’s task of permanent learning and his relationship with theories. Being subject, like any human artefact, to defensive use (Nissim, 1988), the setting is also the material premise which makes it possible to transform the aporias and psychic ambiguities into conflicts and paradoxes. It enables us to see clearly the differences between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, but also makes it possible to intuit correlations and extensions. It obliges therapists to exercise the necessary methodological rigour, but facilitates the learning of an essential and salutary dose of flexibility. It produces containment effects which depend on the analyst’s ability to combine the two series of ingredients which, as Ogden has emphasised, are substantially different: Bionian containment and Winnicottian holding (Ogden, 2005). Lastly, it makes it possible to address clinical work without the ballast of an overly oppressive theoretical apparatus because it emancipates us from theoretical constructions extraneous to the clinical material (the overvalued ideas mentioned earlier) facilitating the use of conceptualisations which will from time to time reveal themselves as more helpful and relevant.

From this perspective, the O of psychoanalysis – the unconscious which remains always Other and to a large extent unknown, also because it is essentially trans-subjective – is comprehensible thanks to the dynamic and indissoluble combination of setting and process. The result remains a voyage with an uncertain outcome (“being out walking in a country one does not know and without having a good pair of legs,” as Freud had written in his clinical last testament). But the effects of this perspective on learning, as on treatment, are considerable. In this conceptual framework, psychoanalytic identity is not an immoveable fact that can be acquired, but the outcome of an always open search that can only happen thanks to a set of given, stable coordinates (the external and internal setting) which make possible an interaction that develops on different levels (intra- inter- and trans-psychic). 

the conflict of identity among the psychoanalytic families

You’d need to work it all out,

it takes time, energy, memory,

a few people who think about you […]

children’s voices, bad dreams at night,

and midday’s marvellous reality,

the perception of the cave,

the goodnight when you leave

the world behind… We’ll wait and see.

Andrea De Alberti (2017) [Translated by the translator of this article.]

Before concluding, I think we need to address a final and far from negligible problem. We have seen that the word ‘identity’ is not part of the vocabulary of psychoanalysis. What is psychoanalytic is theorising about the processes of identification and dis-identification, about the narcissistic components of the Ego’s functioning and of the Self, and about the transference; but the notion of identity in itself is a concept which psychoanalysts use without great conviction, drawing on it via other traditions of knowledge such as sociology, philosophy or anthropology (De Gaulejac, 2003; Oppenheimer, 2002). 

I hinted at this in the introduction, while in the paragraph devoted to the difference between training and learning (paragraph 3) I emphasised that the disposition of the psychoanalyst’s identity is the outcome of a series of highly diverse processes: the more or less happy and more or less stable result of a good personal analysis, numerous individual and group supervisions, effective lectures and seminars, and lastly an active series of assessments by the analytic institution of the progress made by the Candidate or Associate. When all of this functions well enough, the analysis in training acquires a personal disposition which entails sufficiently good relations with the community of his colleagues, and this community in turn becomes a fundamental psychic reality (the bi-directional flows of identity external→internal and internal→external once again). From this perspective, the acquisition of a solid professional discipline and a flexible personal equilibrium is a process to be understood as a psycho-social phenomenon which develops in the context of intersubjective, group, and institutional relations that are experienced during the years of training and are consolidated during the years that follow.

There are many obstacles on the way which make the outcome of the journey uncertain. As the years go by, analysts’ bookshelves are filled with a substantial literature which has considered the most problematic aspects of these processes, illustrating with great analytical richness the many contradictions of the psychoanalytic institutions (Eisold, 2015; Kernberg, 2017; Perini, 2007, 2013; Reeder, 2004). In a series of papers discussed in various SPI centres during 2015, Kenneth Eisold proposed using the image of the “silo” to sum up the tendency implicit in the regressive phenomena that are observed in the institutions. Left in the grip of their spontaneous tendencies, the “psy” communities too often run along retrograde lines that share the phenomenon of overboundedness – that is, the setting up of barriers at the interface with the environment, thereby blocking communication with the context (hence the metaphor of the silo: a receptacle built of impermeable materials, usually vertical and cylindrical, intended for storing edible or combustible products, but also used to contain the launch pads of missiles and torpedoes).

Besides giving a negative character to relations with the external environment, the phenomenon of overboundedness can disorganise the internal environment, transforming the institution into a dissociated space with few channels of communication between its compartments. Thus the institutional space ceases to be integrated and becomes a politicised system. In this case, it is not only the flows from external→internal and internal→external which are blocked but also the exchanges which happen within the confines of the organisation (Eisold, 2015; 2016a, b).

When a professional learns his trade in such circumstances, the disposition of his identity can end up being rigid because the organisation has developed a self-centred and segregated collective culture in which exchanges are slow or non-existent, while the internal, group, and inter-group processes become ever more disturbed and primitive. The overall result is a stagnant swamp even though it presents the appearance of a busy beehive. Processes of this type are the exact opposite of those movements that lead to the setting up of the analyst’s proverbial internal good family. Indeed, in these cases the final result is something like what Edward Banfield described in 1958 (in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society) with the formula amoral familism.

It is depressing of course – but also interesting and, paradoxically, even instructive/energising – to observe the “psy” communities being so often prey to retrograde processes. Even if they make use of adequate conceptualisations, and are governed by individuals with a careful personal preparation, psychoanalytic institutions are always at risk of inbreeding and regression, and need a constant organisational effort directed at integrating the “horizontal” levels of their structure (which tend to remain too split off from each other) with the “vertical” ones (where there is the endlessly unresolved game being played between the local institutional groups and those at the apex, between general organisational dynamics and the interests of particular groups: Eisold, 2015; Foresti, 2015). In this environment, the junction which acts as a decisive political-institutional clinamen is whatever correlates/confuses identity with authority. The temptation which tends to assert itself in institutional dynamics – which thereby become anti-institutional – is that of building up ones’ own person, or the group one belongs to, into a visible authority by means of operations which establish a very strong and highly demarcated identity in contrast to the porous and unstable disposition that clinical work requires (can one be convex and forceful at a cultural level while working on the clinical level to be concave and accepting?).

Recourse to an over-valued identity, the Profilierungsbedarf (the expression used in Germany to criticise someone who asserts an identity too strongly) worked well when analytic communities were small groups struggling to assert themselves as a collective movement, but it became a serious problem once the great dynasties of the past left the way open to the situation widely known today as psychoanalytic pluralism.

The risks that the analytic movement runs in this new phase of its history have been well described by Robert Wallerstein (1993), the writer who has contributed most to the recognition of this cultural tradition which could reveal itself to be lethally divisive in the long term. According to his definitions, the routes we must plot in order to move forward without shipwreck lead into straits where the rock of conceptual chaos on one side faces that of ossifying theory and the monumentalisation of differences on the other (Ferro, 2017; Nicolò, 2014).

So, once again it is in the field of applied theory that the most significant problems are most highly evident. I remember that this had been diagnosed by Leo Rangell many years ago when he described the phenomena of unconscious transference onto theories (Rangell, 1982). The consequences for the relationships between theories and technique had been well identified by Joseph Sandler in a highly influential article published the following year (1983). The possible solutions have been identified by all those who have seen clinical and conceptual research as a way out of the impasse caused by the identity-boundary founded on the opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

concluding reflections

By flight to split-off intellectual functioning it is possible to resolve the paradox, but the price of this is the loss of the value of the paradox itself.

D.W. Winnicott 

In the text which precedes these conclusions, I have addressed the following themes:

  • • Binocular “squinting” vision: the work needed to benefit from seeing double;
  • • Freud’s clinical last testament: the paradoxes of interpretative co-construction and the interminability of the therapeutic process;
  • • The structural/structuring distinction between training and psychoanalytic learning;
  • • The chiasmus of theories and technique, and the setting’s analysing function;
  • • The psychoanalytic families: the endemic risks of endogamy which institutions should confront.

To direct the argument I have hypothesised that psychoanalytic identity is substantially a paradox. From the logical point of view, a paradox is “an unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises” (Sainsbury, 2009). In the field of psychoanalysis, it has been understood as a counter-intuitive utterance which makes possible a constructive piece of thought-play. Tolerating it without claiming to resolve it is the only way to address problems that derive from conflicts which are not easy to overcome because they are determined by contradictions that entail a permanent tension between opposed demands. From this perspective, the paradox is a tangled knot which could be briskly untied (by recourse to splitting, for example), but o which it is better to devote as much time as is necessary. “My contribution,” wrote Winnicott in a famous passage, “is to ask for a paradox to be accepted and tolerated and respected, and for it not to be resolved” (1971, xii).

I have tried to maintain that psychoanalysis is a discipline which requires its practitioners to acquire an unstable identity: in other words, a mobile identity. This is a contradiction in terms and, evidently, a paradox: a paradox which must remain open and not be resolved. Psychoanalytic identity is a professional and personal identity (another structural contradiction: a professional identity which ultimately depends on the functioning of the personal identity) based on the ability to tolerate the (by definition, intolerable) fact that it does not have a stable identity to rely on.

The psychoanalytic identity is therefore characterised by an intrapsychic and relational functioning which must aim at keeping the problem of identity implicit and unresolved. In this, it resembles the self of the immunologists which constitutes a safe functional background since it remains tacit and unseen. When the paradox of identity becomes an obvious problem (in biology, in auto-immune diseases, in transplants and the phenomena of rejection; in cultural dynamics, with the narcissism of small, and large, differences) it means that the intersubjective relationships are becoming turned in on themselves and that the cohabitation of differences is being perceived as a danger to the identity’s survival.

Sintesi e parole chiave

In questo lavoro l’identità psicoanalitica viene discussa ricorrendo a cinque ipotesi. La prima è che l’identità sia una funzione logica e biologica che dipende dai sistemi di differenze che la definiscono. La seconda è che si costituisca come un paradosso permanente: un paradosso, cioè, che non può venir mai definitivamente risolto. La terza è che la logica del paradosso tende a essere negata, anche se è ben presente nei testi fondanti della psicoanalisi. La quarta è che l’identità psicoanalitica non è solo il prodotto del training, ma dev’essere intesa anche come l’obiettivo della formazione permanente dello psicoanalista. La quinta è che il funzionamento delle istituzioni psicoanalitiche dovrebbe mirare a facilitare la necessaria apertura identitaria, mentre numerosi fenomeni gruppali e individuali tendono a ostacolare il lavoro psicosociale che sarebbe necessario.

Parole chiave: Identità, paradosso, training psicoanalitico, visione binoculare.

Psychoanalytic Identity: Five Hypotheses for Consideration. In this paper, psychoanalytic identity is discussed with reference to five hypotheses. The first is that identity may be a logical and biological function that depends on the systems of difference that define it. The second is that it may be constituted as a permanent paradox: a paradox, that is, which can never be definitively resolved. The third is that the logic of the paradox tends to be denied, even though it is very much present in the foundational texts of psychoanalysis. The fourth is that psychoanalytic identity is not only the product of formal training, but must also be understood as the objective of the psychoanalyst’s ongoing development. The fifth is that the operative work of psychoanalytic institutions should aim at facilitating the necessary openness to identity formation, while numerous group and individual phenomena tend to hinder the psychosocial work that would be necessary. 

Keywords: Binocular vision, identity, paradox, psychoanalytic training.

L’identité psychanalytique: cinq hypothèses de débat. Dans ce travail, l’identité psychanalytique est discutée en recourant à cinq hypothèses. La première est que l’identité est une fonction logique et biologique qui dépend des systèmes de différences qui la définissent. La seconde est qu’elle se constitue comme un paradoxe permanent: un paradoxe, à savoir, qui ne peut jamais être définitivement résolu. La troisième est que la logique du paradoxe tend à être niée, même si elle est clairement présente dans les textes fondateurs de la psychanalyse. La quatrième est que l’identité psychanalytique est non seulement le produit du training, mais elle doit être comprise comme l’objectif de la formation continue du psychanalyste. La cinquième est que le fonctionnement des institutions psychanalytiques devrait viser à faciliter la nécessaire ouverture identitaire, tandis que de nombreux phénomènes groupales et individuels ont la tendance à entraver le travail psychosocial qui serait nécessaire.

Mots-clés: Identité, paradoxe, training psychanalytique, vision binoculaire.

La identidad psicoanalítica y sus paradojas: cinco hipótesis para un debate. En este trabajo se discute en torno a la identidad psicoanalítica a partir de cinco hipótesis. La primera es que la identidad es una función lógica y biológica que depende de los sistemas de diferencias que la definen. La segunda es que se constituye como una paradoja permanente: una paradoja, es decir, que nunca puede resolverse definitivamente. La tercera es que la lógica de la paradoja tiende a ser negada, aunque está presente en los textos fundadores del psicoanálisis. La cuarta es que la identidad psicoanalítica no es solo el producto del entrenamiento, sino que tiene que entenderse también como el objetivo de la formación permanente del psicoanalista. La quinta es que el funcionamiento de las instituciones psicoanalíticas debería apuntar a facilitar la necesaria apertura identitaria, mientras numerosos fenómenas grupales e individuales tienden a obstaculizar el trabajo psicosocial que sería necesario.

Palabras clave: Entrenamiento psicoanalítico, identidad, paradoja, visión binocular.

Die psychoanalytische Identität: Fünf Hypothesen zur Debatte. In dieser Arbeit wird anhand von fünf Hypothesen die psychoanalytische Identität erörtert. Die erste ist, dass die Identität eine logische und biologische Funktion ist, die von den Unterschieden der Systeme, die sie definieren, abhängig ist. Die zweite ist, dass sie sie als dauerhafte Paradoxie bildet: D. h. eine Paradoxie, die nie endgültig gelöst werden kann. Die dritte ist, dass die Logik der Paradoxie zur Leugnung zu neigen scheint, obwohl sie eindeutig in den Gründungstexten der Psychoanalyse vorhanden ist. Die vierte ist, dass die psychoanalytische Identität nicht nur das Produkt der psychoanalytischen Ausbildung ist, sondern sie soll auch als Ziel der fortdauernden Weiterbildung des Psychoanalytikers verstanden werden. Die fünfte ist, dass die Arbeitsweise der psychoanalytischen Institutionen das Ziel haben sollte, die notwendige Identitätsöffnung zu erleichtern, während zahlreiche Einzel – und Gruppenphänome dazu tendieren, die psychosoziale Arbeit zu verhindern, die notwendig wäre.

Schlüsselwörter : Binokularsehen, Identität, Paradoxie, psychoanalytische Ausbildung.


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