Back to top

Elliot's Concepts of the Self


Concepts of the Self.

Elliot, Anthony. Malden: Blackwell Publishers (Polity Press), 2001. 184 pgs. Softcover, $49.95. ISBN: 0745623689.

"A Privatization of Politics": Anthony Elliot's Concepts of the Self

Paula Murphy

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough." (Pound 1913, 23)

<1> It would be difficult to find a more appropriate image of selfhood in the modern world than that found in Ezra Pound's poem "In a Station of the Metro." It is a selfhood which is at once unique and conglomerative, fleetingly visible then tantalizingly out of focus. It is this slippery, indefinable entity that is the subject of Anthony Elliot's book. The title bears witness to the enormous breadth of its subject matter: Concepts of the Self is an attempt to engage with the various contemporary theoretical frameworks through which selfhood is explicated. Elliot's approach is admirably inter-disciplinary, including symbolic interactionism; modern sociology; post-structuralism; feminist and queer theory; psychoanalysis and post-modernism. With such a broad theoretical perspective, Concepts of the Self has the potential to cater for a major gap in contemporary thinking on subjectivity. Theories of the subject are all too often studied in exclusivity and a book of this kind enables the author to critique theoretical positions in a comparative manner. The 21st century self is such a complex, hybrid entity that it is virtually impossible for one theoretical perspective to adequately articulate the multifarious factors that create and define identity. This brimming potentiality is disappointed somewhat however. Elliot admits that the limited scope of the book necessarily means "some sacrifice in respect of detail and complexity" (21). In an attempt to explain and critique concepts of the self from such a variety of disciplines, Elliot chooses only a handful of exponents from each area, leading to an analysis that sometimes ignores the nuanced differences of opinion and complex debates within particular areas, leading to conclusions that are misleadingly straightforward.

<2> Elliot begins by outlining the cultural and theoretical background to his project. The "self" that is outlined is clearly a product of modern consumerist culture. As the pace of our modern lives increases, conversely, the self becomes an entity that is increasingly dispersed and fragmented. In our culture of rapid social change, the advent of mass media and the onset of globalization, the changing mechanisms through which the self is constructed need to be redefined. The nature of the relationship between self and society forms the fundamental point of conflict between modern theorists of the self. While the field of sociology focuses on "cultural constraint or social exclusion" (3), positing the self as a site of contestation between individual agency and cultural forces, psychoanalytic theories emphasis the internal construction of selfhood that is presented as inherently divided. This radical division in human subjectivity is taken up by post-modern theorists who see the multiplication of narratives of self as potentially redefining the relationship between self and society. Concepts of the Self focuses on five specific theorizations of selfhood, which form the five central chapters of the book: sociology, psychoanalysis, Foucault, feminism and post modernity. Elliot reviews and critiques these existing theorizations of the self, questioning their utility as frameworks with which to negotiate "The New Self" (1).

<3> Elliot's first main chapter, entitled "Self, Society and Everyday Life" concerns sociological attitudes to selfhood. The critics G.H. Mead and Herbert Blumer feature as exponents of the tradition of symbolic interactionism. The basic principle of this tradition is that humans communicate through symbols, which are a "common currency" (25) through which a sense of self is created through interaction with others. Mead's theory neatly avoids the trap of positing a sense of self that is constructed entirely through symbols and society by making a distinction between two different "selves": "I" which is the unsocialized self; the font of individual desires and needs, and "me," the socialized self, the self within society. His student Blumer elaborates on Mead's theories by placing a greater emphasis on the role of self in monitoring and interpreting outside symbols, pointing out that meaning is to some extent created and not necessarily imposed. Elliot rightly identifies the flaws of symbolic interactionism: namely, the obsession with rationalism and the wholesale disavowal of the emotional aspects of the self. The American sociologist Irving Goffman would seem to articulate a rather more fluid version of selfhood. Irving's self is constantly engaged in a performative space, routinely playing specific roles within particular scenes of social interaction. This conceptualization of self too is not without its flaws, for although Irving maintains that there is a self behind the masks, it is not this self but rather its performative role-playing that appears to be analysed in Irving's theory. Despite these criticisms however, Elliot points out that Irving's theories, describing a self that is at once constructed yet shifting and deferred, can be viewed as a precursor to postmodern conceptions of selfhood.

<4> The inclusion of British sociologist Anthony Giddens is based upon the fact that Giddens' work acknowledges the importance of emotions and desires in the construction of the human subject. Giddens' theory of reflexivity does perhaps lean more in this direction than the other sociologists discussed in the book: reflexivity refers to the way in which we defined ourselves through the monitoring of and reflection upon, psychological and social information. Elliot states an example of reflexivity as the altered expectations surrounding marriage in contemporary culture, due to the widespread awareness of the statistics of marriage breakdown. However, the reason for Giddens' inclusion becomes simultaneously the site of critique for Elliot: Giddens does consider the psychological dimension of the self, but only in a rather tangential manner, and this would appear to be Elliot's basic criticism about social theory in general: "sociologies of the self, however much they may explore the trajectories and transformations of intimacy and personal life, have scarcely shown much concern with the internal world of self-experience" (45). This criticism inevitably leads Elliot into the realm of psychoanalytic theory.

<5> "The Repression of Self" begins with an overview of the main theories of the "master of psychoanalysis" (48) Sigmund Freud. Of course, any introduction to psychoanalytic theory cannot fail to include him, since it was Freud who inaugurated the entire discipline of psychoanalysis, and his theories are still in circulation within academic discourse. Elliot covers the usual Freudian terrain of sexual repression, autoeroticism, the unconscious and the Oedipus complex, situating Freud, in opposition to the sociologists of the previous chapter, as potentially filling the gap in their theories of self by articulating an identity that is defined by individual actions, choices and desires. Yet there appears to be a radical imbalance in this overview of psychoanalytic theory. Jacques Lacan, possibly the most radical modern theorist on psychoanalytic theory and responsible for making psychoanalytic theory relevant to 20th and even 21st theorizations of selfhood, is allocated little over a page in this account. Elliot does give a brief but informative synopsis of Lacan's most famous theory, the mirror phase, in which the individual's sense of self is initially internalized as a false image, or méconnaissance (Lacan 1949, 7). Later, he states that, "Freud and Lacan are often referred to interchangeably in much contemporary cultural theory, but it is worth briefly noting that there are important differences in their approach to the self" (59). Elliot goes on to pinpoint the fundamental difference between Lacan and Freud: the latter being isolationist and the former positing identity as "in communication with others" (59). His earlier admonishment of those who carelessly interchange Freud and Lacan appears rather ironic in this context, as it would seem to ignore the complexities of both theoreticians and set up a false antithesis between the two. Although Freud's self is initially embroiled in a realm of fantasy, he cannot be deemed totally isolationist in consideration of the castration and Oedipus complexes where identity is formed within the family unit. Likewise, Lacan's self is not formed exclusively in relation to others. It does take in to consideration the other, the Other, and the Symbolic realm of language and law, but Lacan's self is also based upon the Imaginary order of the mirror stage and the Real order of drives and instincts. These three orders are inextricably linked, and are present simultaneously: "it is in relation to the same actions, the same behaviour, that we can distinguish precisely the functions of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real" (Lacan 1988, 113). In light of this evidence, Elliot's cursory summary of Freud and Lacan seems rather reductive.

<6> An outline of the major criticisms directed toward psychoanalysis is sketched in this chapter, and once again the Freudian bias of Elliot's conception of psychoanalysis is evident. The criticisms which Elliot refers to: that psychoanalysis has a false scientific status; that the inner world of fantasy is vaulted to a position of dominance; that the discipline is by nature conservative and that it reinforces patriarchal values, are all defended by reference to Freud, ignoring not only Lacan, but also the wealth of contemporary theorists who have contributed to psychoanalytic debates over the last century. Elliot begins to open up Freud to a wider cultural analysis in the latter part of this chapter, through the use of the theorists Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Both men have used Freudian psychoanalysis to some degree to form broader social theories. Reich's main thesis is that people repress their true selves in order to submit to the laws and conventions of culture. Marcuse critiques Freud for insisting on the permanent cultural necessity for psychological repression. He would appear to agree broadly with Reich, but argues that Freud's work contains the possibility for a more liberated self. Elliot abandons both of these theorists on the grounds that the era of sexual repression to which they refer has been replaced by a more liberal and experimentative sexual culture. One theorist who has taken this rapid social change into consideration is American historian Christopher Lasch, and it is to him that Elliot turns for a modern cultural critique with a Freudian twist. Lasch believes that Western culture produces narcissistic individuals, who seek out consumer substitutes to fill the emotional gap caused by the lack of caring and emotional relationships. While Lasch catapults Freudian psychoanalysis into postmodern culture, his use of that theory is somewhat misguided. As Elliot notes, narcissism is a necessary element in the construction of self and not, as Lasch would argue, a temporary shelter against emotional destitution. Having discarded yet another cultural theorist, Elliot turns finally, and briefly, to the writings of Lacanian cultural critic Slavoj �i?ek. Despite Elliot's sustained defence of Freud, he admits at the end of this chapter that, �i?ek's version of psychoanalysis recognizes -- in a way classical Freudianism never could -- that the identity of the self is framed upon a fundamental sense of psychic insufficiency, lack, absence, trauma" (75). Despite Elliot's apparent admiration for �i?ek, he does not dwell on his work, but unsurprisingly closes the chapter with an assertion of the indomitability of the Freud himself, stating that, "[i]t is precisely this threatening ambiguity, experienced in childhood, sexuality, dreams, desire and daily life, that Freud's theory of the unconscious recovers for a critical mapping of the self" (77).

<7> The charge that the psychoanalysis is a form of social control links psychoanalytic theory to the work of Michel Foucault, who addresses the restrictions and repressions that society impose upon the sexuality of the human subject. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault analyses prison as an example of a panopticon, in which the inmates exist in a state of permanent visibility. Our culture of permanent surveillance, which places a high premium on personal information, is one of "panopticism," where visibility is a possible means of social control. For Foucault, such power relations are not fixed. Rather, they are in a state of eternal flux, consisting of a series of submissions and resistances. Elliot attacks Foucault theories on the basis of their limited utility in analyzing culture in general. As he points out, the average individual's contact with institutional life is too little to have any great effect on their sense of self. However, Elliot does not acknowledge that although the objects of Foucault's analyses were limited, his theories have the potential to be applied quite broadly to postmodern society. One theorist included here who does recognize this potential is American historian Mark Poster, who claims that the expansion of communication networks has resulted in a "Superpanopticon" (99), which fragments and destablises the self.

<8> Foucault's "self," claims Elliot, is inescapably gendered. It is a self that is based upon male experience and identity, which leads Elliot into feminist theory in search of a more balanced theorization of selfhood. American feminist sociologist Nancy Chodorow is examined in relation to her criticisms of Freud's model of gender development. In opposition to Freud, Chodorow claims that "mothers relate to daughters in a fashion that they do not to sons" (108). Daughters are doubles or extensions of themselves whereas difference and otherness is projected onto sons. Elliot addresses the glaring faults in Chodorow's argument. Firstly, Chodorow ignores the issue of sexual identity, assuming pre-given gendered roles, and secondly, her rather crude reversal of Freud's emphasis on father to mother fails to provide a valid theory of sexual development. French theorist Julia Kristeva posits a more complex theory of motherhood. Concentrating on fantasies of motherhood rather than practices of motherhood, she believes that motherhood is associated with a repressed desire to recover the maternal body. In her famous essay "Stabat Mater," Kristeva divides the page in two, with the language of Christian theology on one side and a subjective, private account of motherhood on the other, thus emphasizing the split between ideal and actual maternity. While Elliot regards Kristeva as a useful corrective to Chodorow, he states that neither theory adequately connects maternal fantasy with real maternal reality. Linking feminism with queer theory under the umbrella of sexual identity, Elliot equates Judith Butler's performative self with the queer theory of Diana Fuss and Eve Sedgwick. "Much like Butler's notion of subversive performance, the slant towards transgression in queer theory is perhaps geared more towards fashion than the fine detail of concrete political transformation" (127). Fashionable as it may be, Elliot's own views on queer theory with its "relentless droning of sexual transgression" (127) are quite obvious. Indeed, his accusation that queer theory in its social science style articulates a "patriarchal longing for certitude, structure and order" (127) reveals an implicit sexism altogether equally as damaging as Chodorow's emphasis on motherhood. Surely certitude, structure and order are not still regarded as male virtues?

<9> Elliot's last main chapter considers the postmodern self. Drawing on the work of Richard Sennett, Sherry Turkle, Delueze and Guattari and Jean Baudrillard, the self is analyzed in relation to global capitalism and mass communications. Elliot critiques these theorists well, pointing out that the self does not exist solely in media saturation, but also in the context of ordinary relationships. In his conclusion however, Elliot does acknowledge the necessity for such social theorists in order to rectify the fundamental problems with a specifically Freudian theorization of self. Rooted in the psyche, Freud rarely alludes to a broader cultural function for his work. If one considers the advances on psychoanalytic theory made by Lacan however, Elliot's argument is considerably weakened. Lacan's theorization of the symbolic and imaginary orders has resulted in the application of his theories on many cultural levels. Elliot also critiques Freud for his emphasis on "the immutable force of sexual difference" (153). While the inherent patriarchy within Freud's work has been duly acknowledged by many critics, it is worth noting that "difference" and all the negative connotations that go along with it, is a label that has been anachronistically applied to Freud's conceptualization of sexual development according to Evans, who states that, "Freud speaks only of biological distinction between the sexes and Lacan of sexual position and the sexual relationship" (Evans 1996, 178), never difference. Elliot concludes by assessing the impact of the 21st century obsession with selfhood. No longer a question of social order or social structure, selfhood, Elliot argues, has been transplanted to the arena of cultural difference and has thus been politicized, resulting not in a "politicization of identity" (158) but a "privatisation of politics" (158). This wide-ranging book indeed chronicles the privatization of politics that that has been analyzed by the last century of social, literary, cultural and psychoanalytic theory. Elliot has been perhaps necessarily selective in the theorists he has chosen, offering a critique of notions of selfhood that spans many academic disciplines. As a tempting starter to the many and diverse theorizations of modern selfhood, Concepts of the Self serves its stated purpose. Those who await the main course however, may be left unsatisfied.

Works Cited

Elliot, Anthony, 2001. Concepts of the Self (Key Concepts). Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Evans, Dylan, 2003. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Lacan, Jacques (1949) "Le Stade du miroir comme formateur de la function du Je," in Jacques Lacan, Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, 93-100 ["The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I," trans. Alan Sheridan, in Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, London: Routledge, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques (1953-4) _Le Séminaire. Livre 1. Les écrits techniques de Freud, 1953-4, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, Paris: Seuil, 1975 [The Seminar. Book 1. Freud's Paper's on Technique. 1953-4, trans. John Forrester, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987].

Pound, Ezra, (1913), Ezra Pound , selected by Thomas Gunn. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.