The Freud Museum

Events Archive

6 December 1997

Understanding Cultural Identity

Conference Report

Freud struggled with issues about cultural identity for most of his life. His last years were spent in the analysis of his own cultural roots, writing Moses and Monotheism.

The conference 'Understanding Cultural Identity' was inspired both by Freud's work and a profound sense of contradiction. On the one hand there is diversity, hybridity and cross-fertilisation between cultures; on the other hand a resurfacing of petty tribalism and ethnic hatred. On the one hand a 'movable feast', as Stuart Hall has called it, of disparate historical narratives and social roles; on the other hand fragmentation and a sense of not 'belonging'. On the one hand plurality; on the other, 'dumbing down' and homogenisation.

The conference was for academics, social workers and mental health professionals who wished to explore new ways of thinking about cultural identity, and was opened with great skill and verve by the historian Peter Stead from the University of Wales. Speaking soon after the Welsh people had only narrowly voted to establish a separate Welsh Assembly he reminded us that 'cultural identity' was often a conscious process of manipulation by the State. A process of turning disparate groups of people into 'citizens of the State', and it is to a certain extent a question of choice. As an example Prof. Stead revealed that Ernest Jones was a Welsh Nationalist in the early days. He claimed a deeper understanding of Freud because of also being a member of an 'oppressed people'. (Perhaps Jones' paper 'The Inferiority Complex of the Welsh' was a counterpart to Moses and Monotheism !).

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Ugandan Asian writer and social researcher, came to Britain when her family were expelled from Uganda in the 1970s. She questioned the possibilities of choice. In giving a moving account of the influences which shaped her own sense of cultural identity she depicted the divided loyalties by which many of us live. Nevertheless she argued for the need of a 'core identity' as something ancestral , despite the obvious dangers inherent in such a notion.

In the following paper the psychoanalyst Fakhry Davids referred to clinical material to think about the notions of 'self' and 'identity'. The repudiation of our childhood 'self' may mean that parts of the self are located in other people or things. To 'know who someone is' we have to build up a picture of their inner world, including their 'objects'. He criticised the idea of a division between the 'cultural self' and the 'individual self' in some forms of inter-cultural therapy. Instead he brought to the fore the problem of integration of the culturally different other and reminded us that beneath the skin no two people are the same.

The psychotherapist Narendra Keval, who has worked at both the Tavistock Clinic and Nafsiyat Inter-Cultural Therapy Centre, elaborated an idea of culture as 'amorphous, fluid and multidimensional'. Being on the interface between the inner world and the outside world, he used the notion of 'playing' in both Winnicott's and Klein's sense to describe cultural activity. Yet processes of adhesive identification may function to glue identity together in a false self system, while the disavowals and projections characteristic of the racist imagination may be related to deep anxieties concerned with 'knowledge of the other'.

Jacqueline Rose gave an impromptu resumé of the days proceedings before delivering her paper on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. She asked us to acknowledge something of the violence at the core of subjective identity and made brilliant use of Freud's work to consider problems of justice and ethics. How can the superego become more than a self-punishing ideal?

The day ended, as Freud may perhaps have approved, with the debate still open and the struggle to understand far from over.

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