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Poles Apart? A Question Of Identity: From A Unified Self To A Divided Subject

The Letter, Issue 20, Autumn 2000, Pages 147 - 166


POLES APART? A QUESTION OF IDENTITY:

FROM A UNIFIED SELF TO A DIVIDED SUBJECT

Peter Kelly



Introduction

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once referred to common sense as the 'metaphysics of the savages' and in this rather smug way I think he was attempting to draw a distinction between serious reflection and what can at times pass for such. This quote struck me quite often as I was writing the present work for it seemed to cut to the quick of my subject matter. In other words, is the true-self the opium of a psychologically informed cultural discourse, a search for a psychic holy grail, or is it, as Lacan would argue, an alienating fiction produced as a defence against the painful realities of unconscious desire?

What seem to be at stake here runs to the heart of the psychoanalytic enterprise: the individual versus the subject, the ego versus the unconscious, wholeness versus division, either the true-self or the split subject. From Oprah to the self help groups and manuals, to the many 'experts' who are wheeled out by the media to explain psychological suffering, the inference appears to be that happiness is not only a right, but just a stone's throw away, and can be had once we have shed the onion-layered defences that conceal our true selves. In other words, implicit in this notion is the idea that there is something organised, stable, and central about the self, that (if you like) selfhood comprises a core element of each individual's personality and subjective existence, whether this be in the guise of some inner essence with form and substance, or in a facilitating environment and maturational process that predisposes the individual to a subjective harmony and stability.


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