National Identity in Contemporary Theory

Author: Dr. Mary Caputi
California State University, Long Beach
Source: Political Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 4, (Dec., 1996), pp. 683-694
Published by: International Society of Political Psychology

Vamik Volkan
This paper analyzes two psychoanalytic readings of national identity. It scrutinizes the work of Vamik Volkan and Julia Kristeva, both of whom explain the emotional needs which undergird this category. After exploring these approaches to national identity, approaches which rebuff the postmodern insistence on fluidity, the paper then considers some problems that inhere in too adamant a defense of the nation-state. It insists that, while national identity is not easily jettisoned, this category should nevertheless be tempered by equivocation.
This essay offers a psychoanalytic reading of national identity. Specifically,it demonstrates how national identity aids in the process of ego formation, arguing that the cultural matrix which nationality bestows upon the individual plays a crucial role in the latter's progress toward differentiation. The article thus explores ways in which an empirical, geopolitical category -what it means to call oneself an American, a French citizen, a South African- actually factors into psychic processes that are internal and highly individualized.

It behooves us to consider a psychoanalytic reading of national identity. First, the international arena is currently beset by numerous shifts in geopolitical boundaries, shifts which give rise to sometimes prolonged and tragic disputes over the meaning of this topic. One cannot help being aware, then, of the tremendous emotional weight that national identity carries, given its ability to engage deep emotions and to elicit irrational responses.
Yet there exists another reason why contemplating national identity from a psychoanalytic standpoint proves timely. This arises from the fact that, as will become clear, psychoanalysis understands national identity as part of the individual's larger project of establishing moorings. National identities strive to denote stable, clearly defined sets of meanings, meanings unsullied by annoying ambiguities and ambivalences. They aim at functioning as signifiers untrammeled by the sometimes disturbing openendedness that can otherwise characterize our sense of self. They seek to engender definition, clarity, and closure; moreover, one need only think of the numerous jokes involving different national temperaments to realize that, to a good degree, they succeed in this task.
Given this success, national identities are in many ways out of step with the reigning postmodernist paradigm. Indeed, this highly charged category so vital to contemporary politics and enduring in its impact offers significant challenges to the postmodernist undertaking. It undermines the latter's insistence that all forms of fixed identity are ultimately spurious in their claims - lingering vestiges of a worn-out bourgeois order waiting to be discarded. It calls into question those efforts at disabusing the subject of his or her need for stable parameters. Consequently, national identity can meaningfully counter certain postmodernist assumptions and suggest limitations to the latter's scope.
Both authors central to this essay present psychoanalytic readings of national identity, readings which indeed insist upon our (even if ultimately illusory) need for cohesion. These authors are Vamik Volkan and Julia Kristeva.While only Kristeva addresses explicitly the debates within contemporary theory, both authors' texts engage the topic of ego formation and the individual's need for a social identity not beset by fragmentation. Both demonstrate the crucial role that national identity plays in its ability to facilitate differentiation and resolve the process of splitting begun in childhood. My purpose, then, is to employ Volkan and Kristeva in order to reveal the psychoanalytic underpinnings of national identity. In exposing these underpinnings, I hope to demonstrate the seriousness of the psychoanalytic approach, one which subsequently suggests limitations to postmodernism's too facile dismissal of fixed identities.
This does not mean, however, that I find the nation-state unproblematic as a theoretical or political entity. Nor does it imply that I endorse an unqualified rehabilitation of national identity per se. As will be made clear, my interest in the need for collective meanings, a need resulting from differentiation, should not be read as an unequivocal endorsement of all that modern nation-states promise.
Where this topic is concerned, postmodernism is right to insist on equivocation-the question is how much.


A Cypriot Turk and practicing psychoanalyst, Vamik Volkan holds an especially keen appreciation of the enormous complexities that surround the topic of national identity. He recognizes the latter as being not only an ideological and geopolitical issue, but one that is infused with emotional, unconscious, and frequently irrational dimensions. For Volkan, national identity represents a highly volatile subject, one that reaches deeper into the human psyche than we tend to acknowledge.
This is why his The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relationships (1988) insists that psychoanalysis has much to offer to the areas of diplomacy and international relations.Typically missing from these fields, Volkan maintains, is a grasp of those basic psychic processes originating in the pre-Oedipal phase, processes that inform the political sensibilities of even the most polished diplomat. Missing is an understanding of what in fact comes into play when alliances are formed and enemies targeted, when adversaries clash over issues of political legitimacy, religious heritage, property rights, and other forms of power. And absent, too, is an appreciation of what friend and foe, writ large, actually represent to one another. Were those in positions of authority to grasp the psychoanalytic dimensions of international relations, Volkan argues,they might gain useful insights into the diplomatic process in particular, and into human relations in general.

Volkan posits "splitting," a process associated with object relations theory, as central to the psychoanalytic contribution to international relations. He maintains that this mechanism proves particularly useful in efforts to comprehend the behavioral dynamics between political enemies and allies, to make accessible to human understanding even the most emotional closing of ranks or drumming up of animosities. According to object relations theorists such as Melanie Klein(1957), splitting is a process employed by pre-Oedipal children beset by the anxieties of differentiation. Unable to weld together the simultaneously good and bad images of mother -the mother who arrives promptly and the one who tarries, the mother who feeds and the one who takes away- the child experiences intense conflict. He or she remains too cognitively and emotionally immature to tolerate the ambiguity of feelings that these good and bad images stir up, yet knows that the rage elicited by mother's bad image could prove detrimental. This inability to tolerate ambiguity, to allow that good and bad images refer to the same person, causes the child to split the contrasting images of mother one from another. In this way, the initial need to resolve ambiguity no longer exists. Hence splitting means that love and rage need not appear to coincide in one relationship. Instead these emotions can be thought of as discrete until the child is able to accept both pleasant and unpleasant aspects of the mother's behavior.
Yet the process of differentiation more broadly conceived implies not only the child's acceptance of the mother, but a gradual growing away from her, a lessening need for her constant supervision. Whereas initially the child perceived its mother's absence as signaling his or her personal disintegration, now her absence is tolerated more easily.

This form of maturity comes about thanks to the child's ability to hold internalized representations of the mother within, to sustain mental and emotional recreations of her which jettison the anxiety formerly produced by her absence. Volkan writes:
The more enduring images are called representations. There is a close relationship between the differentiating and maturing ego and the establishment of representations.... As object relations are successfully formed and as object representations are assimilated into self-representations by means of identification, the ego gleans enough nourishment to continue differentiating and yielding further mature object relations.(pp. 26-27)
While the ability to hold mother within varies enormously among children, Volkan acknowledges this process's central importance to the establishment of stable ego boundaries.
Important for Volkan's purposes is the fact that this trajectory of psychic development from splitting to internalization remains quite fragmentary. Indeed, Volkan's insistence on this fragmentary nature of the psyche's maturation constitutes his contribution to political psychology, for it is precisely this fragmented dimension which links his field of psychoanalysis to the topic of national identity.
Volkan argues that portions of the mother's split good and bad images that were emotionally meaningful to the child during the pre-Oedipal stage are simply never welded to the ongoing, internalized representations formed of her later. Instead these images, which correspond to the child's developing sense of self, remain as residual, unabsorbed remnants neverfully integrated into the representation of the mother. For whatever reason -perhaps because they continue to cause anxiety or to overwhelm- certain fragments of the pre-Oedipal experience fail to be included in the process. "I hold that the absorption of residual trauma into character... is ... never completely accomplished"(p. 39).
What becomes of these residual images? Volkan explains that they are externalized onto suitable targets, targets which reactivate the emotions associated with them. Anything which reactivates, say, certain good dimensions of the mother-her all-benevolent, larger-than-life image which is never welded into her internalized representation-now awaits a suitable target onto which it can be externalized. The same is true of her hated dimensions: images of her ability to frighten, threaten, or overwhelm the child never integrated into her internalized representation now search for suitable targets for externalization. Volkan insists that our national identities, our friends and foes, all represent examples of suitable targets of externalization, targets capable of resonating with those emotionally charged remnants by joining them to idealized or devalued external objects. This marks the origin of both our love of homeland and our disdain for (certain) foreigners.
[A] child develops idealized images in reacting to the loss experienced with the welding of good and bad units and ... some idealized images coalesce in the maturing superego... Beneath the layer of more sophisticated thought and symbolism that develops in later life lie elements of self-images and images of others that have not been integrated. These images are made of primitive stuff and are accompanied by the raw derivatives of our drives.(pp. 32, 42)

This insight constitutes the crucial link between psychoanalysis and international relations, for it offers a cogent theory of the vital need to which our national identities, with their attendant enemies and allies, respond.
Such a thesis creates parallels between Volkan's work and recent writings by Julia Kristeva(1983, 1987, 1991, 1993). Kristeva concurs in Volkan's analysis of the relationship between psychoanalysis and national identity. She similarly argues that internal mental dynamics loom large in producing empirical, political phenomena. Hence in such texts as Nations Without Nationalism (1993) Kristeva situates the discussion about national identity into an ongoing polemic - the postmodern polemic highlighting the danger of fixed identities. In so doing, she draws Volkan's theoretical frame work into a larger contemporary debate, and argues vehemently infavor of our need for established boundaries, fixed identities, and a clear sense of friend and foe. She insists that from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, national identity performs a crucial function:
National pride is comparable, from a psychological standpoint, to the good narcissistic image that the child gets from its mother and proceeds, through the intersecting play of identification demands emanating from both parents, to elaborate into an ego ideal. By not being aware of, underestimating, or degrading such a narcissistic image or ego ideal, one humiliates and lays subject or group open to depression.(1993, p. 52)
Hence in an open letter to Harlem Desir, leader of the French collective SOS Racisme!, who is admittedly skeptical about the nation-state, Kristeva states flatly:
No, I do not believe that henceforth the future can no longer be set within the national framework. No, I do not count myself among those who consider that to insist on what is "national" is inevitably to impose, indirectly, racial values ... [The] ethical course suggested by psychoanalysis but also, in different fashion, by contemporary philosophy . . . which is written as a defense of the dignity of the strange ... does not exonerate us, quite the contrary from putting the "national" back into question. (1993, pp. 49, 51)
A theorist rightly associated with postmodern philosophy, Kristeva nevertheless warns against dismissing the concept of a national identity too hastily. Impatient with those who conflate national pride with racism and other expressions of intolerance, she insists that like all forms of cultural identification, nationality deserves serious consideration as a discourse seeking to provide cohesion and points of reference to a subject fundamentally beset by fragmentation and relativity. Her clinical practice undoubtedly renders her especially sensitive to our need to be held together in speech, to be situated within established discourses from which we take our bearings.
Those familiar with Kristeva's work will recognize this interest in even the most status-quo identity as typical of her movement away from revolutionary politics, a movement which took place more than 10 years ago. Her earlier insistence on the avant garde's disruption of established meanings has indeed given way to an interest in more conventional cultural practices and in more received forms of knowledge. Kristeva today is obviously less interested in a contrapuntal approach to meaning than in our accepted, mundane ways of shoring up an identity from within the establishe dorder. Her defense of the concept of nationality thus resonates with such statements as "I desire the Law" uttered in Tales of Love (1983), statements which have disenchanted many feminist scholars who so admired her earlier maverick strain. True, she does write in Nations Without Nationalism that "I was among those who, in 1968... chanted 'deGaulle,resign'... I am sure that ten years later (or thirty) I would follow the same path. "Yet how can one now defending the nation also be awaiting the enormous cultural and political changes anticipated in The Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), which appeared in French in 1974?
Nations Without Nationalism partakes in this ideological shift. This text seeks to rehabilitate the claim that national identity performs an important function. Vehemently opposed to the easy conflation of national pride and an intolerant disposition, Kristeva criticizes those who question the nation's role in an increasingly interdependent world. She defends national identity, and in this endeavor invokes not contemporary postmodernis thinkers, but 18th century Enlightenment philosophy. Convinced that les philosophes have been too summarily treated by contemporary theorists, she explains that it is Montesquieu's concept of l'espirit general which most inspires her to cite the Enlightenment's favorable impact on the modern nation-state. A central concept in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), I'espirit general insists that a distinct national identity, one rooted in a given country with its own values, customs, and history, must admit a degree of heterogeneity within its territorial boundaries. This notion finds favor with Kristevain that it breedsatolerant,heterogeneousnation-state, one which does not seek uniformity but remains open to difference. Kristeva quotes Montesquieu, who writes that under l'espirit general, "Men[sic]... would be confederates rather than citizens."

In keeping with this theory, then, the instantiation of a given cultural code must nevertheless be predicated on tolerance and the acceptance of difference-"confederacy." Under l'espirit general, a given national identity (e.g., being French) can and should coexist alongside tolerance (being a "confederate," one who accepts other forms of Frenchness). Consequently, nations adhering to this premise would never display the inhumanity predicted of all modern Western nations in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment. (1969) Kristeva extols Montesquieu's contribution: "I should like to argue that the nation as esprit general (with the heterogeneous, dynamic, and confederate meaning that Montesquieu gives to a political group) is one of the most prestigious creations of French political thought" (1993, p. 57).

Kristeva thus applauds the concept of a cohesive national identity; for her the cohesion it offers, touted by others as the precursor of humanist violence, is propitious in that it helps constitute human identity within culture. Moreover, her references to Montesquieu and to l'espirit general suggest the extent to which the topic of national identity resonates within political theory. Like Volkan, her writings offer much useful psychoanalytic insight into an important political question, making clear that the ability to practice tolerance and accept foreigners need not preclude a sense of political identity. In their defense and rehabilitation of this form of human identity, then,Volkan and Kristeva distinguish themselves from various positions (Marxist, theological, but especially postmodern) which seek to erode the validity of a stable sense of self. Volkan and Kristeva advocate tolerance-"With Freud... we know that we are foreigners to ourselves, and it is with the help of that sole support that we can attempt to live with others" (1991, p. 170) - but not at the expense of the nation's acting as a target of externalization, one capable of reflecting a good narcissistic image.


Kristeva offers further elaboration on this challenge to postmodernist premises in her book Black Sun: Depressionand Melancholia (French edition, 1987). It is in this piece that she explains the psychological tragedy that ensues when an individual loses all capacity to identify targets of externalization, to relate to a good narcissistic image. Unaligned with the surrounding lexicon of cultural signifiers, such a person experiences melancholia, technically defined as that depression brought on by the loss of a person with whom one experienced identification. Building on the writings of Freud (1917), Melanie Klein (1934), and Karl Abraham (1912), Kristeva suggests throughout this text that the classical reading of the melancholic's depression-a depression resulting from the now missing love object with whom one identified- can be construed more broadly. She suggests that this particular emotional state can prevail not only where affective relations among persons are concerned, but where the relationship between an individual and his or her surrounding culture is in question. However tenuous that culture's claims to truth, it serves the important function of providing the speaking subject with a system of meaning, one with which there must be identification. When the customs, manners, and values of a given culture are thus invested with meanings, they partake in an established lexicon which the acculturated know how to read. Hence a subject ensconced within a given culture is endowed with a specific reading of that culture's semiology; there is identification between that person and that culture. There is a sense of being at home, of being known by others. Only the presence of such identification allows the subject to experience cohesion rather than degenerate into a state of melancholia (in which identification and desire have been thwarted), or into a psychotic state (in which the signifying process has been suspended entirely). Identification thus exists as the sine qua non of a subject's cohesion. Kristeva defends this position even if -admitting some degree of postmodernist persuasion- she perceives such cohesion as extremely tenuous. As distinct from the melancholic's experience of a negative narcissism, national identity represents a good-dare I say "healthy"?- form of the same. Those who identify with a national identity can therefore be said to have experienced sufficient empathic mirroring by a maternal presence. Where there is no identification resulting from a good narcissistic image, however,there is no joie de vivre, no sense of purpose. Instead self-reproach, self-deprecation, and self-doubt prevail. Kristeva describes the immobilizing depression of one for whom the language, customs, and values of culture no longer hold meaning:
I am trying to speak to you about an abyss of sadness, about an unspeakable pain which absorbs us at times, and frequently at length, to the point of making us lose our taste for words, for actions, and even for life itself... All of this suddenly gives me another life. An unlivable life, a life weighted down by daily pain, by tears that are swallowed or that stream down, by a despair that none can relate to, a despair that is at times burning, at times pallid and empty.(Translationmine, 1987, p. 13)
The melancholic thus retreats from the lexicon of cultural signifiers, which now stand bereft of meaning. To state that one is French or American, humanist or postmodern, Democrat or Republican -none of this means anything. Such signifying systems have been depleted, and a reall but devoid of the ability to constitute the speaking subject, to hold him or her together within a given discourse. For the melancholic, "sadness is the only real object of desire: To be more precise, sadness is the substitute object to which the melancholic becomes attached, the object which he or she tames and cherishes for lack of any other" (Translation mine, 1987, p. 22). Where as postmodernists applaud a subject's sense of fluidity in the name of tolerance, intellectual honesty, and light-heartedness, Kristeva highlights the sadness which such fluidity engenders.


Inasmuch as they warn against a too facile dismissal of our need for a grounded and articulated identity, Volkan and Kristeva make important arguments. Collectively, their exposition on the significance of targets of externalization, targets which provide the subject with moorings, countervails what can be an injurious underestimation of our need for clearly stated forms of identity. Specifically, their writings illustrate the manner in which national identity, apparently bound up with solely ideological and geopolitical issues, in fact emanates from the psychological dynamic of splitting begun in childhood. In this, they suggest that national identity is not so easily jettisoned.

I recognize the contribution made by Kristeva and Volkan, whose writings are surely timely. I support their assertion (implicit in the case of Volkan) that certain forms of identity are so deeply entrenched within the human psyche as to be cast off only with great difficulty, an assertion which makes trouble for postmodernist claims. However, my reading of their texts is not without reservations.
I would argue that in their eagerness to shore up the significance of established identities, these authors too willingly accept national identity as that construct best able to provide the subject with a suitable target of externalization. Each explains the importance of national identity without considering the extent to which it can complicate, intensify, and strain relations between potential enemies. Stated differently, I would argue that Volkan and Kristeva scrutinize those psychoanalytic processes which undergird ideological and geopolitical constructs while failing to appreciate how fully such processes are themselves affected by the political realm. This failure prevents each author from giving serious thought to alternative instantiations around which those same psychic processes might concatenate themselves. Are there no options other than the nation-state? Might there not exist suitable targets for externalization less likely to encourage warfare? Unwilling to consider such questions, these authors posit the nation-state almost as an immutable entity, and do not engage those positions highlighting the ominous, overstated, or simply untruthful dimensions of national identity.
In Volkan's case, this tendency manifests itself when he discusses the more definitive phases of national identity's formation. According to Volkan, it is during adolescence that this form of identity "crystallizes," and we conceive of ourselves as persons having meaningful bonds with a specific nation-state (or with several of these), its history, culture, and language. Drawing on Freud's writings about group psychology (1921), Volkan argues that adolescence is characterized by the search for suitable social targets of externalization: we are eager to recognize friend and foe not just within the neighborhood, but on a larger, international scale. Hence psychic processes long under way now engage the nation-state in an effort to externalize residual images produced during the process of splitting.
No where in Volkan's text, however, is there extensive consideration of the fact that such an engagement can be unfortunate. No where does he entertain in depth the notion that the nation-state is an over rated concept, one exaggerated in its claims, bombastic in its pretensions, a harmful construct with destructive consequences. Volkan does acknowledge the importance of not allowing national identities to become overstated: "As long as rituals and ritualistic postures that serve to separate groups are playful, they function positively to keep derivatives of aggression undercontrol" (1988, p. 113). Yet his text abounds with examples of not-so-playful postures, postures sometimes producing disastrous results. Volkan offers these examples but never gives extensive thought to the manner in which the nation-state is itself part of the problem. For, in addition to providing a good narcissistic image, doesn't the national so justify, encourage, and exacerbate human aggression? Doesn't it heighten animosity among peoples to an unnecessary degree, egging on conflict which, within discourses less impressed by nationalistic claims, could otherwise be attenuated? Obviously it is not the nation-state itself which sets in motion the need for externalization: how then might this dynamic play itself out were the nation-state a less viable category? Marx's comments in "On the Jewish Question"(1843) come to mind:
[P]olitical emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation... Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being.(pp. 32, 46)
By "species-being," Marx refers to our ability to identify with all human beings,to see beyond social divisions that only mask economic self-interests: "The Communists are... reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality.The working men have no country"(1848, p. 488).
True, Volkan's purpose in writing The Need to Have Enemies and Allies is not to challenge the nation-state, but to analyze its function as a suitable target for externalization. Still, the author would do well to consider how this process might occur were national boundaries less important than they are today. In a world marked by increasing interdependence, such considerations strike me as worth pursuing.
My reservations are most pronounced, though, where Kristeva's work is concerned. Unlike Volkan who merely describes the genesis and need for national identities, Kristeva defends the latter. I have no complaint against her advocacy of Montesquieu's esprit general; today, this concept should be upheld within all geographic boundaries. Kristeva is right to point out the tolerant disposition which 'esprit general encourages, and to insist that tolerance need not stand incommensurate with the need for a good narcissistic image. However, I am not ready for her appeal to an Enlightenment thinker to summarily dismiss various critiques of that intellectual movement. I would argue that her praise for Montesquieu does not parry attacks on the Enlightenment-those, for instance, currently articulated in postmodern and critical theory circles. Such attacks insist that deeply entrenched identities, if taken to extremes, can prove at least as disastrous as the individual's suffering from melancholia. These attacks highlight those tragic examples which sadly abound in our century of national identities incapable of maintaining the flexibility and variability that Montesquieu describes. Identification with a nation- state appears just as likely to produce violent, disastrous results as it does to inspire clemency. "In the most general sense of progressive thought, "write Horkheimer and Adorno, "the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant" (1969, p. 3).
Kristeva undoubtedly agrees with my suggestion that Enlightenment philosophy need always be tempered by critiques thereof. She herself displays too many intellectual affinities with the postmodern rejection of Enlightenment premises to be singularly enamored of the nation-state or to perceive it as the sole entity capable of reflecting a good narcissistic image. Yet in her eagerness to rehabilitate the nation against predictions of its demise, she fails to articulate this point (this is true, at least, of Nations without Nationalism). She fails to consider the possibility of other concatenations of a good narcissistic image, of a world in which the concept of national identity is engaged more playfully. Volkan and Kristeva rightfully caution against the postmodern calling into question of national identities.They employ psychoanalysis in such a way as to stymie this endeavor. However, their analyses might benefit from a degree of incredulity where the concept of the nation-state is concerned. Granted, an absence of cultural identification can deeply sadden the individual. But an over abundance
of the same can prove disastrous, turning a benign tendency to identify with one's cohort into a sinister herd mentality. National identification frequently devolves into nationalism, producing a world which "radiates disaster triumphant." Because postmodernism insists  on the equivocal nature of all claims to truth, perhaps it can ultimately help dispel the more ominous dimensions of national identify.

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