In the past two weeks I paused this blog from the regular psycho-yabbering after suggesting that, although my primary interest and focus is creative writing, a basic familiarity in psychoanalysis dovetails the study of literature nicely with “concepts of narcissism and libidinal investments to explain how language…can affect change.” Today I pursue the topic by presenting this: a synthesis of ideas of theorists as diverse as Kenneth Burke, Heinz Kohut, Lacan and Freud to explore the relationship between language and subjectivity, and to investigate the power by means of which literary texts are able to fashion new and distinctly rhetorical experiences for readers.
DISCLAIMER: No argument is ever fully finished, and this post is no exception; there is still more and more to be said, more research and support to give to claims, more, unfortunately, intellectual yabbering needed for extra clarity. So writers and psychoanalytic readers alike, please withhold your guns until we get to the bottom of this… Anyway, in continuation of Freud and the Literary Libido Redux, I suggest how the production of literary texts begins and ends with narcissistic self-love, and how a reader’s interest in these texts is directed by libidinal investments — something I’ve been laboring about in my absence.
All for the love of words. And for being idle. And for vivisecting all those tiresome ”Why I Write” poetics. So read on, dance along, yeah.
“Ideology necessarily implies the libidinal investment of the individual subject.” – Jameson, The Political Unconscious
This essay is about change — changes in people, changes in value, changes in thinking, changes in perception, changes in attention, and changes in the intensity of attention. This subtle continuum between changes in people and changes in the intensity of attention is intrinsic in the complexity of change. Because readers direct (and to some extent control) acts of attention, a better understanding of this continuum is important. One needs a theoretical framework if one is to understand how changes in the intensity of attention affect social action and value.
Of course, there are many simple ways to explain change in human behavior. In the liberal arts, however, there has been a long-standing assumption that language, in and of itself, can cause change. This power, located ambiguously in language, has been traditionally termed rhetoric. Rhetoric designates a force in language manipulating how people experience value. Too often, this assumption about the power of rhetoric to affect change is either totally dismissed as wishful thinking or so crudely believed that different political groups are willing to harm others in their attempt to control or regulate the use of language.
Because of the nature of human change, both social and psychological, we must investigate more thoroughly the subtle resources of rhetoric. For many scholars, rhetoric refers to a formal study of language and communication. Rhetoric is concerned with the rules, strategies and structures of discourse. For others, rhetoric describes the experience of a discourse stimulating change. This often ignored relationship between the structure and the experience of language is another concern of my present study. I do think that the vague, theoretical ideas that we entertain need to be supported by our very experiences and our empirical observations. Theoretical discussions of language should help us make better sense of the everyday experience.
Kenneth Burke, whose overall study of language is broadened by his study of psychoanalytic theory, makes an important contribution to understanding puzzling relations between language and experience in his equation of the mechanism of rhetoric with identification. We are prompted to agree with speakers, or to understand characters in a fictional story, he says, when we come to identify with them. In many respects, I am interested in pursuing Burke’s observations in the relationship between language and identification. Identification, however, is a complex and unwieldy concept. The term applies equally well to situations where we imagine ourselves as different from what we are, as we try to imagine ourselves as like another, and situations where we imagine others as different from what they are, because we want them to be like what we think they ought to be. In the former case, we try to change ourselves in order to be more like others. In the latter case, we try to change — or perceive others differently — to mold them in our image. Identification is crucial for all rhetorical functions, but the term identification oversimplifies the complexity of the psychological processes involved in responding to the discourse of others. For reasons I soon make clear, I have decided to elaborate on Burke’s term, identification, by giving special emphasis to another related term, narcissism. Recent study of narcissistic processes has yielded a more complete understanding of the various forms and intensities of identification.
The term narcissism is associated with the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus and its theme of creative self-love, and is used by both psychoanalysts and literary critics to describe a wide range of conscious and unconscious, inter-personal and intra-personal phenomena. If we turn to Freud to discover precisely what narcissism means, however, we are likely to turn away more confused. In his 1910 footnote to “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” Freud associated narcissism with autoerotic self-stimulation and speculated that such tendencies could explain homosexuality. In later years Freud also saw wider applications for the concept of libidinal “self-love.” In On Narcissism: An Introduction,” Freud used the concept of narcissistic cathexis (the self’s investigating energy in itself) to explain narcissistic rewards to be gained from sleep, schizophrenia, and hypochondria. These conditions, Freud postulated, offer satisfaction because they offer a regressive experience of returning to early childhood’s blissful oneness with the mother. Freud still imagined narcissism as a particularly self-reflexive dimension of experiencing and pursuing desire, but he began to take an interest in the concept’s potential to make sense of various transformations of libido. In his account of mourning in 1917, Freud explained the mourner’s loss of “libidinal” interest in the external world in terms of narcissism. Mourners, he suggested, lose interest in the outside world because they have “narcissistically” withdrawn libido from the self.
Freud’s concern for the puzzling symptoms of mourning, profound dejection, cessation of interest in the external world, inability to love, general inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-esteem, indicates and important truth about the nature of human libidinal attachments. People seldom respond to major loss by simply choosing and pursuing a new object of desire. Instead, people suffer a feeling of emptiness that must be “worked through” before “transformational libido” can be directed to new objects. A physically painful experience of emptiness must be suffered by the self; a complex process of suffering must be accepted and endured before “libido” can be redirected again to the outside world. If an old refrigerator quits working, people typically junk it and eagerly go out to buy a new model. If “Lassie” dies, however, no one quickly dumps the body and walks happily to a well-stocked pet store. Changes in deeply invested objects of human desire are not simple affairs. To explain these changes adequately, one must understand Freud’s observations about “transformations in libido” and its relation to narcissism.
Literary theory in general most often talk about transformations in value, rather than transformations in libido. We often think of changes in value as a rational (of an irrational) process that proceeds forward as if the subject were an inert appendage being dragged along by other very different forces. In some cases this is true; but it is not true in those cases that affect us most. As Jameson’s quote (see the epigraph above) suggests, major transformations in value must occur first at the level of transformations in the “libidinal investment of the individual subject.” The changes that most require rhetorical skill, those made difficult because of deep investments in ideas and values, require complex libidinal transformations.
My intention in this essay is to demonstrate that the central focus for rhetorical study should not be language exclusively, but should include the relations between language and libidinal structures. Psychologically speaking, libidinal structures are the components of self-structure. These structures are composed by our interaction with language and experience and they modify our sense of both ourselves and the world. If we look carefully at literary language, we can see interactions between self-structure and libidinal structure driving rhetorical operations. In order to understand this claim, however, we must develop a greater understanding of libido. I have stated that the concept of identification can be more thoroughly understood by examining psychoanalytic research on narcissism. I also want to suggest that narcissism can be more thoroughly understood if we examine its relationship to libidinal transformations.
The concept of libido has always been charged with ambiguity, but psychoanalytic theory has found the term very handy for discussing the flow of human desire and for describing changes in the object or intensity of desire. Heinz Kohut talks of libido as a force that makes people and objects “seem interesting.” Libido is an energy investing objects (including human beings in the psychoanalytic sense of the term) with appeal and desirability. In the crudest sense, libido is the force of sexual attraction. This sexual dimension, however, should not be confused with anything outside the study of psychology, but I have chosen to generally ignore the distinction between narcissistic libido and sexual libido. Freud sharply distinguishes between attachments based on sexual instincts (erotic cathexis) and attachments based on ego need (narcissistic cathexis). According to this theory, the subject has an original libidinal investment in itself that is later transformed and investment in objects. This distinction is clearly an oversimplification of the mechanisms involved; texts, however, do not offer the same concrete access to experience as analysis, and for this reason I am not attempting to be consistently thorough in analysis of such distinctions operating in analysis. Reading Freud we learn that sex is a powerful organizer of experience, subtly and powerfully affecting the tone of our perceptions. In common experience, however, the sexual energy of libido often seems quite diffuse. People are libidinally invested in many objects – clothes, cars, computers, guns, coffee makers. This does not mean that there is an explicit sexual experience generated by these objects, but it does mean that the investments made in these objects are not trivial.
In addition, libido operates according to its own principles, often indifferent to the demands of rational thought. Both Freud and Lacan argued that humans develop logical abstract thought in order to free themselves from childlike attachments to objects and images. But logic and abstract thought do not end more primitive thought attached to objects; it simply pushes it into the unconscious. According to Freud, “The system Ucs contains the thing-cathexes [the libidinal investments] of the objects, the first and true object-cathexes.” We might thus consider the unconscious not simply as a reservoir of repressed or forgotten memories, but as a system of unconscious libidinal attachments that affects our attention to and response to conscious objects.
Understood in the broadest sense, libido is a “psychic energy” that can invest almost anything with an attractiveness that does not at all seem sexual. Advertising, art, literature and material things attempt to orchestrate the flow of libido in order to reposition or revalue particular cultural items, ideas, or situations. The glamorous blonde draped languorously over the hood of the red sports car may be “sexy” in the literal sense of the word — and this example is a favorite cliché — but her presence bestows the car with a “sexiness” of another order. The car becomes the center of an acquisitive gaze that makes all its details seem glamorous and noteworthy. Clearly, an understanding of libidinal “flow” can contribute to our understanding of rhetoric. The car ad example makes it clear that the cold metallic and mechanical structures of a vehicle can become rhetorically enhanced by means of libidinal manipulations. Advertisers know they can manipulate viewers into feeling an attachment for the car if they can first elicit an attachment their viewers already have for the blonde.
Although narcissism is usually associated with self-love, it is rather easy to see how the admiration of cars and many other fashionably produced objects can be as narcissistic as gazing in a mirror. When we are libidinally invested in cars, it is often not the cars that we actually care about; we care about ourselves. In looking at the car, we are concerned about our own self-image. The car takes on value because we project something narcissistic about ourselves into it. Though we are not conscious about it, we are creatures of reason, and this makes us active and not passive in the creation of our own feelings. We project libidinal qualities onto objects — cars and blondes — according to complicated rules of status, gender, memory and mood.
A separate, long complicated article could be written at this juncture about the distinction between “object libido” and “narcissistic libido.” As our understanding of of narcissism has deepened, these ideas have undergone considerable readjustment and debate. Again, I do not attempt to summarize an immense wealth of detailed discussion, but I can give a good sense of the range of these ideas by quoting from Stephen Mitchell, Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: “In classical drive theory,” he says, innate instincts make us who we are by driving our response to the sexual power of appropriate objects:
psychosexual urges and wishes propel experience and behavior, and one’s sense of self is derivative of the expression of these underlying motives. Various authors from different traditions have turned this casual sequence around, arguing that the maintenance of a sense of identity and continuity is the most pressing human concern and that sexual experiences often derive their meaning and intensity by lending themselves to this project.
Some theorists want to make all examples of libidinal investment examples of object seeking behavior. Other theorists, however, see all examples of attachment as expressions of self-identity. I must admit that I can neither synthesize these two views nor choose between them. In the example of the blonde by the car I would not want to insist that, for heterosexual men, biology plays no role in “determining” the woman’s appeal as an example of “object libido.” I would, however, insist that glamor, which shapes sexual experience, is heavily determined by our culturally conditioned response to details — clothes, poise, body image, hair color, legs — fashioned by dominant social value. These details — examples I presume of “narcissistic libido” — undoubtedly provide cues for sexual arousal.
In the Analysis of the Self, a ground-breaking work on the concept of narcissisim, Kohut observes that whereas narcissism is usually associated with self-love (or the libidinal investment of the self), narcissism actually supports a wide array of libidinal investments. People, material objects, human activities, texts and even thoughts can be invested with “narcissistic libido.” Narcissistic libido, not only for Kohut (unlike Freud), contributes to “mature object relationships” (to healthy human relationships). It also forms “the main source of libidinal fuel for some of the socio-culturally important activities which are subsumed under the term creativity.” Artists, Kohut argues, direct and invest “narcissistic libido” when they spend enormous time and effort in shaping a work — an apparently inconsequential flow of words or a squat block of wood — that becomes singularly important because it seems to “contain” or “express” a deeply human feeling.
Narcissistic libido helps to produce a work of art, and, in a different way, makes a work of art interesting. Narcissistic libido accounts for the laborious attention that critics give to such seemingly inconsequential products. The uninitiated often find art criticism tiresome, but the art critic usually takes great pleasure in the inspection, analysis and discussion of art. Minute details that would seem accidental or irrelevant to many people appear full of meaning and consequence. Works of art repay such attention because they, in some manner, initiate complex imaginative experience and “gratify” the narcissistic libido of those who invest time in them.
People who appreciate art (including literature) claim that it prompts them to see things differently, that is, to experience events differently. We sometimes imagine that these events are caused by the external object, but in reality these experiences are caused by the interaction between the observer and the object observed. These experiences occur when observers “invest” something of themselves into the object.
This notion of “investment” is an important idea; we might understand it best by considering our relationship to people. When narcissistic libido is invested in people, narcissistic needs can give people a special aura of “grandeur” or desirability. Kohut argues that this grandeur is the result of narcissistic libidinal investments, namely, something produced by an investment of “narcissistic libido” because an unconscious aspect of the observer’s self-structure makes the person observed seem attractive. Part of the psychic structure missing in the observer is perceived as existing in the object observed. In The Analysis of the Self, Kohut points out:
The intensity of the search for and of the dependency of these objects [people] is due to the fact that they are striven for as a substitute for the missing segments of the psychic structure. They are not objects (in the psychological sense of the word) since they are not loved or admired for their attributes, and the actual features of their personalities, and their actions, are only dimly recognized.
On Textual Investment
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman’s attachment to Willy illustrates the commonplace truth of Kohut’s ideas. Linda “than loves” Willy, Miller writes, “she admires him as though his mercurial nature, his temper, his massive dreams and little cruelties served her only as sharp reminders of the turbulent longings within him, longings which she shares but lacks the temperament to utter and follow to their end.” Because Willy serves Linda as a substitute for a missing part of her own nature, Linda does not see him fully. She is repeatedly hurt by his failings and his “little cruelties.” But, as Miller observes, she has developed an iron repression of her exceptions to Willy’s behavior.”
In this example, as in many others, the investment of narcissistic libido in objects operates to make objects seem grand or valuable. At the same time, however, this investment can disguise the real nature of the thing admired. Certain people or objects are needed because of narcissistic need, but this same need dictates that these people or objects cannot be seen realistically.
This overinflation of the object of person should be an interesting theme for rhetoricians. I suggested earlier that narcissistic libido makes objects seem valuable primarily by disguising their true qualities; but I should draw more careful attention to this behavior. Narcissistic libido seems to disguise an object because it encourages us to pay only selective attention to it. Narcissistic libido can be considered a sort of light that, when shone on an object, can partly hide it by revealing it according to a particular and limited effect of shade and shadow; some facets are accentuated, other facets are hidden. Rhetoric constantly makes use of this lighting effect as it presents objects in particularly crafted ways in order to make them appear useful or valuable.
Rhetoric, I argue at some length, is facilitated through the libidinal manipulations of an object. Other psychoanalytic accounts of rhetoric emphasize the importance of fantasy, transference and identification. These phenomena are indeed important, but consideration of libidinal manipulation offers an added tool to investigate rhetorical transactions. It allows us to examine texts more closely, to see interactions between signifiers and experience, to see links between particular words and wider patterns of signification found in plots, characters, and even readers.
Many things in daily experience are made more real, alive and important because of narcissistic libidinal investments. As a writer and as a reader, this moment of special “recognition” is very familiar, the moments when you feel you “relate” to the text. Yet this event is infrequently discussed in philosophic or psychological terms, and often negotiated in intuitive terms only.
Most often our libidinal investments are relatively fixed by the structures of our character. We might consider character as something very much like an organization of libidinal investments. These investments are relatively stable, so we see the world according to customary patterns of perception and value. In reading, as I will argue in some detail in the following paragraphs, rhetorical strategies make libidinal investments fluid so that libido can shift to new objects, allowing us to consider as “interesting” objects we might in other situations dismiss or recognize only according to established patterns of habit. Through rhetorical manipulation, things not otherwise invested with narcissistic libido become invested with narcissistic libido.
Just as the blonde can make the car seem appealing, a Romantic lyric about the wind can suddenly seem important when it engages rhetorical structures that promote identification and shifts in libidinal investment. Students of literature who may initially care little about Shelley’s meditations on the west wind in Italy can often identify with the mood changes described in the poem and soon come to feel that the experiences described are very much like their own. In “light” of this perception, metaphors such as the “breath of Autumn’s being” and images such as “dead leaves,” winged seeds,” and “sweet buds” become the focus of a caring attention that frequently deepens and intensifies the reader’s own appreciation of both nature and inner experience.
My discussion of Miller and Shelley indicates that shifts in libidinal investment help readers to take a more particular interests in the subjects on discourse. In the following paragraphs I shall describe rhetorical structures as devices that allow libido to be more “fluid,” more able to move from one location to another. We often think of a text’s rhetoric as equivalent to the value it endorses: A text’s rhetoric is its message or meaning. But we might more usefully think of a text’s rhetoric as broader and more encompassing, something quite different from “message” or “meaning.” Rhetoric, considered from this perspective, is not the message of a text, but the specific ways — often present in the form of textual scenes, structures, syntax or vocabulary — by means of which texts prompt readers to entertain, in the literal sense of the word, a new argument about value.
If we think rhetoric as a force that pulls a reader or listener from one value to another, then the rhetorical power of a text would reflect its ability first to divide readers from their own customary self with its rigidly invested values, and second, make them feel that such a customary self is not desirable. Rhetoric works by convincing us that, although we have not considered it seriously before, we are really happier with a new perspective. This new perspective is something we have hitherto disregarded or seen as undesirable, but by means of the text’s modification of our perceptions, we now see it as more compatible with our larger system of value. In the case of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” a reader participating in the strategies and libidinal shiftings of the poem may come to see that poetry is not dead and unimaginative, but relevant and engaging.
Textual rhetoric is aided by the mechanisms with which literary texts promote a “fluidity” of libidinal investments. I see this fluidity of cathexes promoted by literary texts as the product of something present in the artist’s self-structure. Heinz Kohut, for example, describes the artist as having a fluidity of narcissistic cathexes. When the rhetoric of a text is successful, the libidinal structures of the reader are modified by the libidinally charged linguistic structures of the text. Texts that promote a fluidity of libidinal investments have more rhetorical power than texts that simply and rigidly assert a value position. Many literary works labor to promote fluidity by encouraging multi-layered conflictual and complex judgments on values, each position inviting identification. When texts simultaneously both invite a play of identification and structure a perception of conflict, they put pressure on fixed patterns of libidinal investments. The effect of explicit oscillations of judgment within texts is to underline the importance of the act of judging while rendering its outcome undecidable. Often texts seem to need theorists and critics to encourage readers to appreciate such “fluid” modes of judgment. But often enough, writers consciously discuss the importance of encouraging contradictory perceptions. For example, in the The Crack Up, Fitzgerald argues that
the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
Literature is a verbal genre that is conspicuous in its ability both to induce identification and promote a conflictual vision of value. Literature is also a verbal genre that encourages us to appreciate and take aesthetic pleasure in an ambiguity or conflict that, in other contexts, we might find too stressful and disorienting. Thus, at the same time that it structures a perception of conflict, literature typically reduces our anxiety about it. As Aristotle observed long ago, we can take pleasure in literary representations of the tragic. When we read fiction we are ordinarily relaxed and secure, so that we can see things that might elude us at other times. In imagination we can experiment, try out various approaches to our problems, alter this or that circumstance to see what results ensue.
When the rhetoric of the text is successful, it weakens the rigidity of value commitment as it encourages satisfying narcissistic alliances and provides a secure space for entertaining new concerns, interests and values.
The reading of literature offers a protected space for what Stephen Mitchell calls “self-regulation”: “Human beings are simultaneously self-regulating and field-regulating.” Humans attempt, at the same time, to maintain a coherent sense of self and a coherent sense of their relations with others. “We are concerned,” Mitchell says:
with both the creation and maintenance of a relatively stable, coherent sense of self out of the continual ebb and flow of perception and affect, and the creation and maintenance of dependable, sustaining connections with others, both in actuality and as internal presences. The dialectic between self-definition and connection with others is complex and intricate, with one or the other sometimes enhance each other and sometimes are at odds with other, forming the basis for powerful conflicts.
The dialectic between internal and external world is central and inescapable for human thought. Too often in daily life, however, the human ego is too rigid and inflexible to be fully responsive to needed adjustments. Given this usual context of ego rigidity, the reading of literature can offer narcissistic support to insulate the ego from anxiety and reduce ego rigidity. In reading, the threatening world outside can seem held at a distance from vulnerable self-systems. The self does not face the world but only its representations of it. In this narcissistically protected space, our perceptions of the world can be more playful; libido is made more fluid to experiment with internal representations, thereby formulating new adjustments in both self-system and the field system.
Reading is narcissistic in three sense. First, it is narcissistic in so far as it offers a protected space for reading, space that is regressive, self-referrential, and insular. Second, reading is narcissistic because it engages the psychoanalytic dialectics that contribute to the ongoing regulation of the self-system and thus greater mystery of psychic conflict. Literary engagement relaxes the ego, so it can entertain conflict and take pleasure in narcissistic dialectics that in other contexts would be too threatening. Last, reading is narcissistic to the extent that it experiments with imaginary libidinal investments and transformations.
Theories from Freud to Lacan have described narcissism differently, but there is one thread that runs through all these theoretical positions: an interest in the nature, quality and fluidity of libidinal investments. Freud first began to develop a complicated notion of narcissism when he saw its potential to explain transformations in libido. More recently, Otto Kernberg has developed his own understanding of narcissism by emphasizing the relationship between narcissism and the “vicissitudes of libido.” According to Kernberg, “narcissism cannot be divorced from the study of the vicissitudes of both libido and aggression and from the study of the vicissitudes of internalized object relations.” For Kernberg narcissism is a term covering those processes whereby the various internal components — libido, aggression, and internalized objects — of the self are modified. Kernberg’s account of narcissism broadens Freud’s account by seeing narcissism in developmental and not exclusively pathological terms.
Kernberg’s explanation of the relationship between narcissism and libido is especially interesting because it suggests that libidinal attachments are not driven fundamentally by instinct, but driven by a culturally and psychologically conditioned flow of desire determined initially and most forcefully by early identifications with parents and caretakers. Stated simply, what we want is determined by whom we identify with. This simple statement, however, oversimplifies the relationships involved. A direct quote from Kernberg’s Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism will give a fuller sense of the range and implication of his insight:
Libido and aggression differentiate out of the undifferentiated matrix common to the ego and the id. The organization of these two drives occurs under the influence of the developing internalized object relations, [that is, early self-structure building identifications with others] which, in turn, are integrated under the organizing influence of affects…
The biologically determined intensity of affects can be channeled into ever more complex intrapsychic motivational systems; but — except under extreme ciscumstances — there is no direct mechanical relationship between biological pressures and psychic functioning.
The so-called “drives” of attachment and hostility come to us as feeling states as we participate in and imitate the subjectivity of those around us. The intensity of emotion — pleasure or pain — is partly a biological experience, but it is also an experience determined and structured by “intrapsychic” components. It is structured and made complicated by “developing internalized object relations,” or our use of the emotional structures of others as components in our own inner identity patterns. Thus, for Kernberg, it is not so much biology as various libidinal and aggressive organizations found in memory, identification and perception (organizations of libidinal investments) that lay down structures that shape enduring patterns of human pleasure or pain.
Heinz Kohut, in a similar argument (see The Restoration of the Self), suggests that “drives” are not biologically programmed “instincts,” but are derivatives of early forms of identifications. For Kohut, humans are “driven” most primordially by a desire to enlarge or secure the “being” of the self. Any “abnormalities of the drives,” Kohut argues, are merely “the symptomatic consequences of [a]…central defect in the self. Kohut, like Kernberg, disavows traditional Freudian theory. He argues that how we feel and what we want are largely the result of complex patterns of libidinal investments — not of instincts (innate biological drives) — directed primarily by our particular attachments, indentifications and interactions with others.
When narcissism is seen in the larger context of libido theory rather than in the more limited context of maladjusted behavior, we will be in a better position to understand the configurations of perception, emotion and cognition that fund rhetorical transformations. The work of Kohut and Kernberg distinguishes between narcissistic personality disorders and narcissistic strategies for defense of development common to all people. Kohut diverges more radically from classical psychoanalytic theory than Kernberg, but both men propose a theory of ego development emphasizing the role of narcissistic investments in the formation of the internal structure of the self. The particular nature of our libidinal investments in processes such as empathy, identification, idealization, loss and mourning, for example, can alter who we are and what we think. It seems only too true, thus, that the “rhetoric” of early character formation is the work of libidinal investment.
This theory of development (found in different ways in both object-relations theory and self-psychology) emphasizes that the structure of the self develops initially in terms of the child’s earliest identifications. Identification means not only a modeling of oneself after the external objects, but, as in the case of superego formation, a process by which the functions of the external object are instated within the psyche. The self thus takes its internal structure, its being, its emotions, fears and motivations from its interaction with others in its world. Identification is not simply a gesture that identity performs; it is a gesture that can form and transform identity.
Freud’s work indicates that identifications follow the paths of our libidinal investments. Our most profound identifications, however, seem to be in response to the experience of loss. First of all, we suffer when a person close to us is lost because, as Freud says, we are “unwilling to abandon” our libidinal attachment to the object (the person). Though the object is gone, we cannot abandon it, and we are unwilling to accept substitutions. The object is present in our imaginations, in our memory, and we persist in our attachment to it.
We are able to “work through” the experience of loss gradually as we cine to internalize the lost properties of the object. Internalization occurs when libido attached to the object is not abandoned, but instead withdrawn to the self-structure of the mourner. The person in mourning, instead of giving up that which is lost, appropriates for subjectivity particular qualities belonging to one lost. A mourner internalizes for self-structure certain qualities of the person lost. In many cases, these are “admired” qualities of the person lost and they become self fuctions; for example, many internalize a parent’s discipline or nurturing concern when we lose that parent. Human character is thus changed because of this narcissistic “transformation of libido.”
Acts of identification are not always as consequential as those acts of identification that heal the psychic wound of loss. But all acts of identification, attachment and admiration can be considered narcissistic. Narcissisic, in the broadest sense, does not refer to a specific model of deviant behavior. It refers to a rhetorical understanding of the dynamic relationships between out “internalizations” or “external” objects and our libidinal models of aspiration and identity. Although many theorists continue to emphasize the primary importance of early childhood experience in the development of self-structure, contemporary theorists are more open to considering the impact of adult experience on character.
Theories of narcissism seek to understand the ways various needs and self-images are activated or adopted in times of stress. Narcissism refers most fundamentally to a process: “the cathexis of the self,” the self’s libidinal involvement with itself, its mode of investing energy in evaluative, protective and developmental functions. In order to develop, the ego must cathect itself and must have itself as the object of its own aspirations. If the ego did not cathect itself there would be no superego, no ego ideals, and no truly human behavior. Thus the growth of human identity is necessarily “narcissistic” in the broad sense of the term. Such a usage does not imply a negative character disorder; it merely characterizes the necessarily self-referential psychodynamics of individuation.
to be continued…