Freud’s third identification – identification to a symptom

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

The third form of identification distinguished by Freud in Group Psychology is formed not by identifying with some one or some way of thinking, but rather with a situation engendering a particular affective relation – with a situation that is symptomatic. Freud distinguished this third form as follows:

“Supposing, for instance, that one of the girls in a boarding school has had a letter from someone with whom she is secretly in love which arouses her jealousy, and that she reacts to with a fit of hysterics; then some of her friends who know about it will catch the fit, as we say, by mental infection. The mechanism is that of identification based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation.” [1]

Freud’s use of the word “desire” needs to be examined closely here. Lacan distinguished Freud’s first two forms of identification as imaginary and symbolic identifications. ‘Imaginary’ identification was identification in terms of the primary process in relation to which the individual encountered an image of himself or herself. And ‘Symbolic’ identification was identification mediated by the (secondary) effects of language. The single trait of which Freud spoke became the ‘unary signifier’ in Lacan: the symbolic identification that anchored  the organization of an individual’s particular way of being.

Taking up this symbolic identification involved subordinating primary process to a particular way of being, resulting in a loss arising from the repression of primary process involved. This organization of signifiers standing in the place of primary process enabled Lacan to speak of what was ‘left out’ by that organization – of what could not be said or of what was in some other way untranslatable in relation to the individual’s experience. This was the lack that gave rise to desire, forming the basis of the third identification to a symptom of that lack. Thus the situation with the letter constituted a symptom of what the girls lacked (i.e. of what the girls wanted or were wanting of).  Desire was the relation to that which was symptomatic of what remained left out, constituted by the lack which was structural to the symbolic identification.  And so the third identification was an identification with a symptom of the individual’s relation to the (Lacanian) ‘Real’.

The Lacanian ‘Real’ was that which could not be articulated within the symbolic, remaining radically unknowable/incomprehensible/impossible.  So in pursuing their desire in this Lacanian sense, the individual was pursuing a symptom of what was lacking in their way of being. In these terms, the desire of which Freud spoke became a relation to what the individual found wanting in his or her current way of being, leading the individual beyond their own psychic boundary.

To the extent therefore that institutions provide individuals with support for particular ways of (embodied) being, with the third identification comes the realisation of institutions as symptomatic.[2]

[1] Freud, S. (1921c). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Signmund Freud. J. Strachey. London, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. 18: 65-143. p107
[2] The structures of an organisation support particular forms of identification. Who takes up what roles in support of what forms of identification depends on the individual’s valencies. The challenge, then, is to understand how these identifications support each other while at the same time being supported by the structures of the organisation… this is what leads to an economy of discourses.

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