|J E P - Number 10-11 - Winter-Fall 2000
The Body Machine and Feminine Subjectivity.
Silvia Vegetti Finzi
Keywords: body – identity – prosthesis – technology - autopoeiesis
Ever since philosophy abandoned the concept
of soul it has been difficult to define personal identity. For Freud identity had its roots in the body. But the body ego (considered as a system of drives) is captured in a
system of dialectics with the other subject. When the subjective body and the
objective body intercross, then the image of the body is produced, an image
that changes following the development of child sexuality and that individuals
model according to their own temperament and history. In communicational
relationships with others, the body expresses that for which adequate words
cannot be found. Freud calls hysterical symptoms “organ language”.
But in the technological age the physiological body extends and
strengthens itself with
accessories such as the telephone and actual prostheses, like pace-makers or
transplanted organs. Where then does Anzieu’s skin-Ego begin and where does it end? Cyberpunk
science-fiction saw in advance the intimate connection between man and machine,
as well as the production of androids, extracting from this hypothesis very
interesting consequences. Instead of condemning bio-technology, Donna Haraway
makes an effort to capture its aspects of emancipation and social utopia. Taken
in by the great net of global communication, personal identity risks becoming
dissipated into a thousand masks. What then does the unity of the subject
consist in? In imaginative, mythopoietic creativity, which alone can contrast
the depersonalization of globalization processes and the anonymity infused by
the presence of technology.
A myth crosses all
of Western culture, inexhaustibly proposing again and again its enigma. The reference to Theseus’s
fantastical ship in which he would return to Athens, substituting piece by
piece the worn-out planks, is a frequent recurrence in philosophical
works—for example, in the work of Michael Frede, wherein he re-evokes it
to comment on Aristotle. Let us propose, writes Frede, that all
the parts of a Greek ship (nothing more than an oversized boat) are
progressively replaced and that the worn-out planking is piled up on a
beach. Now, the scholar asks
himself, what constitutes the real ship?
That which conserves nothing of the original material yet reproduces its
form, or that which has been reduced to a pile of boards?
The answer which Frede attributes to Aristotle
can only be one: the real ship is that which continues to sail because the
substitution of the material components does not impugn on the identity,
guaranteed by the essential form, that is, the soul. For us moderns the spontaneous response would be another:
the real ship is the planking deposited on the beach because that is the body
of the ship, its history.
But if we abandon the supposed evidence of
things, we find ourselves faced with the enigma, never recomposed, of identity.
Starting with Locke’s Essay on the
Human Intellect of
1691, identity sets itself as a problem once the concept of the sole, individual
and universal soul is destroyed.
The problem, as Remo Bodei notes, assumes the form of the trauma and of
mourning: “what is left of me once my body is consumed by time and my
This reflection carries a high level of
emotionality because it confronts us with the unknown, “otherness”,
and death not as other with respect to the known, sameness, and living, but as
indissoluble reciprocal constitution.
Identity is corporeal
guarantees that I will nevertheless remain myself for the time, by now long, that
runs between birth and actual age?
What connects a new-born body weighing 6 pounds and measuring 30 inches
with an adult body such as that which identifies me right now before your very
eyes? Intuitively, I feel that I
have always inhabited the same body, that I “am my body”. Yet many clues undertake to undermine
this false evidence.
A few days ago an elderly relative of mine sent
me some photographs he had come across in the attic, showing me in my first
year of life. Faced with this
completely extraneous baby, the assurance that that image was me did not
succeed in overcoming a tenacious sense of non-belonging. Thus does discontinuity creep in,
defiling it, in a supposed continuity.
In that moment, I underwent an attribution of identity thanks to the
memory held by someone able to guarantee that that body is this body, that then and now, as far as
I’m concerned, coincide.
The possibilities at stake reveal the
convergence of two phases of identification: on the one hand, the subjective body, in me and for me, and
on the other, an objective body, which is dependent on the other’s
glance, on his attributions.
The two dimensions converge to constitute the
image of the body (Paul Schilder) whose unity is a structural and functional
datum, as the Gestaltpsychologie demonstrates. We perceive ourselves not as the sum of single parts but as
an organic whole whose form is already predisposed by an innate scheme that
pre-exists, and might resist, perceptive data—as when a person who has
lost a limb experiences a phantom limb which, paradoxically, s/he continues to feel, as though it still
constituted a part of his/her organism.
For instance, one might experience pain or itching in a foot not there
anymore. And yet, integration is not acquired once and for all: fragmentation,
expulsions and incorporations are always possible, for which becoming prevails
on the static form. For
psychoanalysis, the body is a libidinal surface, a force field, a screen of
imaginary projections, a detour of identification. It is a path which follows evolutionary phases according to
the transmigration of the libido in various corporeal zones. According to Freud, in fact, the libido
is concentrated first in the oral zone, linked to sucking, and successively
passes to the anal zone, later stabilizing the greater part of its energies in
the genital area, the seat of adult sexual functions. Since whatever happens in the body is recorded by the mind
through unconscious fantasies, the drive investments determine various
configurations of the corporeal image.
In the oral phase the oral cavity prevails, then that of the anus, and
finally, in the phallic period, the erogenous zones of the penis and clitoris,
fantastically analogous, to finish by differentiating, for the two sexes, into
the convex and concave complementarity of the penis and vagina.
With respect to the anatomical-physiological
maps however, there is always the possibility, at least in the imaginary, of
shifts, deformations and substitutions, as revealed by the perversions which
haunt a fantastical image of one’s own and others’ body to follow
the desire. For the fetishist, for
example, the foot takes the place of the penis which the female body lacks, and
which would otherwise be felt as anguishingly castrated. Furthermore, the body image varies
according to the mood and changes in conformity to the prevalence of affects
and emotions, to such a degree that psychosomatic symptoms can be discerned in many
cases, above all during child therapy, through self-portraits. Children being treated in hospital for
serious forms of headache without any corresponding organic cause often draw
themselves with enormous heads, expressing the psychic conflict through the
In a sense, the founding act of the
psychoanalytic cure resides in the expression with which Freud translates
hysteric symptoms into “body language”. Through symptoms, the body represents that which thought
cannot take in, but the opposite is also true: that the mind translates into
discourse, into shared language, the pictograms of the body.
This relation of reciprocity is expressed very
well by the titles of two famous books by the psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall, Theatres
of the Ego and Theatres
of the body, where
the metaphor of the theatre refers to an interactive, mobile and living
But why, we can now ask ourselves, does
psychoanalysis seek the truth of the body indeed not in the proof of its signs,
but in the Other scene, that of the unconscious?
Because the body, as Foucault teaches, is subjected to a regime of
powers—medical, juridical, pedagogical, religious—which objectify
it within multiple practices and discursive regimes which aim at knowing it in
order to render it more and more suitable to social exigencies. We are thus dealing with a system of
“know-hows” which are intrinsically transformative, technical. But a body built in this way in turn
interacts with the lived body and modifies it to its own image and likeness. It
is therefore impossible to find a “natural” body, since we have
always been inscribed in a cultural world, in a universe of language.
Different and various representations of the
body are to be found in different epochs, according to the various social and
cultural contexts and disciplines,
in relation to which the body as life, as energetic field, retires, forced to
that non-place which is the unconscious.
Whereas in the Middle Ages the body was
considered the prison of the soul, the main cause of its dejection (the sins of
the flesh), in late modern times it would seem that the contrary applies: the
body has been kidnapped by the mind. Today, following the success of
“word therapies”, we witness a true invasion of body cults: we want
to rediscover a condition of bodily spontaneity, fullness and bodily creativity
that had been cancelled out by the prevailing verbal codes, the dominating
logocentrism of post-industrial society.
But is a return to the origins, through procedures short-circuiting
language, possible? Could it not be just another way, probably the sliest, of
celebrating the eclipse of the body?
We know that our own body, the body we live, is
not a sanctuary secured away in an exclusive inwardness. It is ever in
relation, and sometimes in conflict, with the world: on the one hand I am my
body, I am always aware of it, I receive the messages it sends me on the other
hand, I consider it an external object and therefore I experience it as
something foreign to me. In this sense I am not my body because it has
alienated itself in the request for recognition I make to the other. The
surface of the water that reflected and duplicated Narcissus relentlessly
separates him from himself, to the extent that the attempt to be reunited with
an impossible unity turns out to be his death sentence.
In Freud’s model, the lived body is
defined as an energy system: the drives, endogenous forces not quieted by
escape behavior, force the mind to represent their needs, to keep up the
representation of their somatic sources, objectives and means alive until
satisfaction is attained.
In this way thought takes upon itself the
“task” of representing the body in an effort to satisfy primary
needs aimed mainly at survival. As I have stated, drives are partial,
contradictory, anarchical, but the mind organizes them, puts them into a
hierarchical order until it “builds” an image of the body which
goes to make up the fundamentals of identity, so much so that Freud speaks of a
corporeal Ego. “The Ego is primarily a corporal entity…”, he
The ego is originally derived from sensations coming from the body surface, so
we have a famous essay written by Brick entitled “The Function of the
Skin in Early Object Relations”
and one by Anzieu, “The Skin Ego”.
of the Skin Ego.
Ego is a complex
concept; it talks of an anatomical wrapping as the limit and barrier of contact
between the inside and the outside, between psyche and soma. But in Civilization and its
had already noticed that this is a technique that has immensely broadened the
power of the human race, its control over the world. “With the tools he
came into contact with”, Freud writes, “man improves his motor and
sense organs—or he shifts the boundaries of their actions. Today it is
possible to hear over the phone the voice of, say, a nephew who has moved to
New York, reach him on board of a ship to see him, write to him in real time
using the telegraph”.
Our motor organs offer us enormous forces that,
like the muscles, can be put to use in different ways; furthermore, glasses can
correct imperfections of sight, telescopes pry into immense spaces; the
microscope overcomes the limits of the retina, while the camera fixes transient
visual impressions, the gramophone auditory ones. In this way man has achieved
the omnipotence and omniscience he once ascribed to the gods. “Man has
become so to speak”, Freud points out, “a sort of prosthesis-god,
truly great when equipped with all his accessory organs; these, however, do not
form a single whole with him and occasionally give him trouble. We may take
comfort, nevertheless, this evolution will not cease in the year of our Lord
It hasn’t in fact ceased, and progress
has been able to change the corporal model and, as a consequence, to make the
identity limited by the skin-ego quite problematic.
Attacks to the identity of the body-ego come
from transplants, and the metaphor of Theseus’s ship is helpful in this
case. We can in fact ask
ourselves, pushing the issue to its extreme consequences: can a person who has
undergone skin, corneas, tongue, liver, kidney and hand transplants (all these
operations are currently possible) still be considered the same person?
We would immediately say yes, even though with
this way of thinking we risk falling into a spontaneous Aristotelianism,
unconsciously evoking the priority of the soul over the body. The organs received
by the transplant patient do in fact embody a history: they have elaborated
perceptions, they have been part of a body that lived through several
experiences, and they have participated in a complex system of relations. What
is inscribed in them, through a system of codification we know little about, is
the plot of time. I am not sure whether a heart, torn out from one chest and
put into another, bears no trace of the emotions that had made it at times beat
more slowly, at other times frenetically, because of fear, joy, pain or hope.
Passions always involve body and mind, this much we know, but we are unable to
go through with the consequences of this now shared conviction to the end.
In any case, the receiver does not remain
neutral: he receives within himself not a thing but a person. The same is true
for artificial insemination.
Nothing can prevent whoever receives biological material from humanizing
the event: to give a voice, a face and history to the donors, be they dead or
alive. Studies on the psychological experiences of transplant patients are
still scarce, but the difficulty of the task the mind needs to take upon
itself, one involving first of all personal identity, is already becoming clear12.
For example, it seems that liver transplants
take on specific meanings and connotations in the subjects who undergo this
type of operation. The other’s organ modifies the receiving body,
inducing the mind too build a new personal identity. The operation involves a
complex elaboration of the violence related to both the symbolic meaning of the
organ, connected to strength, courage, daring, and to the actual circumstances,
nearly always a mortal accident, which made the removal of organs possible. Nor
is the donor’s personality to be neglected, usually a bold, foolhardy
young man, passing in a split second from the projection of his own future,
typical of youth, to the stillness of death.
The transplant gives a sickly body, an identity
made fragile by long illness, elements of vitality hard to harmonize or to
insert in an often diametrically different life history.
However these are very special cases, even if
in actual fact the symbolic effects of apparently symbolic practices are always
vaster, because they change everyone’s thoughts on the relations we have
with ourselves and with others.
Much more widespread are the deformations
induced upon the skin-ego by technological communication devices, real
“accessory organs”, to use Freud’s effective description of
them. Many carry a pacemaker
underneath the skin of their thorax; others benefit from cardiac valves or
other “spare parts” that I shall not list here. Yet they still feel
they are themselves.
Outside the bounds of the medical field too we
all now rely on technical aids, which are always becoming more and more
incorporated: the tape-recorder, the Sony walkman, the cell phone, the Sound
remote control, the interactive computer.
We all carry around prostheses of mouth-ear communicational exchange as
if they were wristwatches or handkerchiefs. But the majority of our technological extensions are
optical: video, modem, Internet, e-mail, scanner. We interact with these in a
transitional zone known as cyberspace, a meeting point between technology and
Enticing Net. 13
cyberpunk science fiction has already anticipated a human-computer connection
taking place via neuronal axes and a time when robots would no longer be the
automatons of “Metropolis” but rather the androids of
“Blade Runner”. Yet we still think of the biological as in
opposition to the technological. The U.S. Feminist movement led by Donna J.
Haraway, philosopher, animal rights biologist, socialist activist, Foucault and
Derrida scholar and author of the Cyborg Manifesto, provides us with a
particularly interesting outlook in this sense14.
On the cover of the Italian version of the book
we have an oil on canvas by Lynn Randolph that sums up the new cyborg identity.
We see a young woman, who looks rather like Joan Baez, typing onto a computer
keyboard connecting to her body via electronic circuits. Above her head an
albino tiger stands out, its paws coming down to embrace her round the
shoulders. The animal’s legs are made transparent by X-rays, while the
woman’s hands are phosphorescent and slightly palmate like those of ET,
expressions of a virtual corporeality. Fractals, mathematical formulae and
atomic orbits are being drawn onto the black background, while deserted worlds
lie before her. The uncanny mixture immediately brings across what the author
means by “new subjectivity”: a going further than the
nature-culture polarity, an identity made up of body-mind, animal-machine,
inside-outside, an ego-world where the two poles interact productively.
Being firmly rooted in materialist tradition,
Haraway believes that rethinking the subject means rethinking its corporeal
roots. However, the body is not biological data, but a technological device
built, as Foucault maintains, by the “bio-power” of society,
expression of its will to know and to control. Technology is not
“other” in respect to biology, but “it fulfils the biological
destiny of human beings in such an intimate way that the organic and technical
mutually complete each other and adapt to each other”.15 The
hybrid post-modern body makes up an illegitimate fusion between animal and
machine. These may appear as paradoxes, but, at a closer look, many young
people, and this will become more and more true as time goes by, spend the
entire day at home teleworking: ten hours a day stuck in front of a computer,
their eyes fixed on the screen, their fingers stretched out on the keyboard,
their bodies constricted on an ergonomic stool, on which they are immobilized
in a position of reverent genuflection. Thoughts bounce off the software onto
the mind, swiftly flowing, unstable and temporary until they enter memory and
from there transmigrate via a modem to another computer and the biosphere of
Internet. The single individual of the late modern age often has a pet at
his/her side, nearly always a cat, with which this volunteer hermit lives in
continuos symbiosis: the cat is her/his transitional object, and as such is a
representation of him/herself: the younger brothers she/he never had, the
far-away mother, the indifferent lover, the friends who were absent when he/she
needed them. At night, when costs are lower, these computing Ulysses become
navigators. Once again, Odyssey dominates the Cyborg Imaginary. Our single never leaves his house, yet
he can reach out to anywhere, find “travel companions”, lose them,
find them again, lose himself. All this where, when? That is not important.
Time and space, insofar as they are virtual, lend themselves to infinite
variations. Actions are reversible, consequences can be cancelled; one may
interrupt the sequence and pull out of the game at any time. For those who have
crossed into the mirror, who have entered the screen, external time no longer
exists. Death, when it comes, risks finding not finding anyone.
Equally evasive is the virtual identity of the
navigator: he can put himself forward as male or female, old or young, rich or
poor, fair-haired or dark-haired… everything is possible when there is no
body, our first and ultimate reality test. Ulysses’s new journey does not
have a final destination: Ithaca has disappeared into the void, Penelope
doesn’t live here anymore and the “mad flight” will never
meet Hercules’ Columns.
Donna Haraway incongruously maintains that her
Cyborg is a feminist subject fighting for a Socialist utopia. Yet mutants have not only one sex, but
two, three, one hundred, “n”, as many as fancy can conjure up.
Cyborg has no past, because soon procreation will take place exclusively using
biotechnology and genetic engineering. It is true that U-topia means “no
place”, but the toponymy of nowhere too has maintained up until now an
alternative relationship with the extant: with the so-called real world16.
However, if we are not able distinguish between reality and unreality, the
opposition between the world we live in and the one we would like to live in
fades away and becomes indistinct.
Within this framework, psychoanalysis
constitutes an accusation against, and an answer to, the discomfort of
civilization. To modern man, anguished by the evanescence of the body, the
fragmentation of the ego, the precariousness of human relations, the plurality
of roles, the abdication of the vertical, transcendent organization of the
world, Freud suggests recovering his own biography, because the strings of the
past prefigure the path to the future.
The patient who comes for analysis, Lacan says,
brings with him a symptom to solve. The symptom, of which he knows not the
cause, represents an enigma for him and forces him to face the most radical of
questions: “Who am I?”
To this the psychoanalyst has only one answer: “You are your
The narrating ego thus reunites around its
subjectivity the scattered pieces of modern identity.
But our history is only partially retrievable.
Differently from Oedipus Rex, guided in his investigation based on
circumstantial evidence by Apollo, who predicts the future, and by Tiresias,
who knows the past, we soon stumble on contradictions, blanks and
inconsistencies in our attempt at recollecting events. Nor will things get
easier in a world dominated by biotechnology, which brings into our lives, as
is already clear, more and more widespread elements of anonymity. How will
someone born in a bioengineering laboratory, out of the assemblage of
desegregated and recombined genetic materials, ever be able to reconstruct
his/her own genealogy? In one of his latest works, Freud already had a possible
Narrating Ego and the Mythopoietic Ego.
“Constructions of Analysis”, written two years before his death, in
1937, Freud suggests that, to fill the blanks in collective and individual
history, one should produce, in the intensive field of transference,
substitutive conjectures, fanciful elaboration, actual deliriums in some cases,
even if moderated by congruence and likelihood, in order to be able to recover
as far as possible the lost memories of a removed past.
Mythopoietic creation, subsidiary and marginal
for Freud, who still believed in the resources of anamnesis, takes shape as the
only possibility for post-humanism humankind to subjectivize itself, a
humankind without a past or a future, more and more under threat from
homogenization and from the muddle of the indistinct.
subjectivize oneself means constructing an individual and/or collective
grammatical subject reinstating humans at the center of their history,
recognizing them as the leading actors of their own individual lives. At the
same time this means admitting that one is a subject, in the passive sense of
the word, subjected to limits and conditioning, recognizing oneself as finite
and mortal. Outside this process, in whatever way it may take place, only the
undifferentiated exists, along with the omnipotent, the indistinct of earliest
childhood, what contemporary analysts describe as the empty Ego and Tustin
calls “black holes” in her treatment of autistic nucleuses.17
At this point it would appear that the body, on
which we had based our earliest and most evident reality, our guarantee for
continuity in space and time, is lost. This is as if the body ego had left its
place to the narrating ego. But it is not as simple as that. This is because
the body itself has become the seat of mythopoietic production, the surface on
which to inscribe its determinations. This is especially true for women’s
bodies, as the syndrome called “anorexia” reveals.18
"The more the outline of my skeleton
became visible”, writes an anorexic, “the more it seemed that my
real ego was emerging, as from an amorphous block of stone progressively giving
birth to a beautiful sculpture”.
Anorexic transformation acts out a series of
rituals directed to finding again an identity overwhelmed by an endless amount
of widespread, indirect but pervasive and intrusive social impositions. A flood
of messages suggest to every woman how she should eat, move, dress, sleep, what
she should or should not desire, what should or should not make her happy.
Because the female body is the vehicle of most of these often contradictory
forms of conditioning (consider TV commercials, street posters, fashion,
photographic advertising), corporeal identity becomes a persecutor to
annihilate by emptying it out. At the same time, paradoxically, the anorexic
completes the Diktats of contemporary aesthetic and morals: not eating, going
to the gym, moving a lot, dressing and undressing, looking in the mirror,
weighing oneself, taking great care over the choice of food, reading cookery
books, talking about recipes, thinking above all about oneself and making the
body the empty temple of one’s own monotheism according the motto:
“You will have no other god outside the ego”.
But why does the anorexic pursue such a
counterfeited construction of corporeal identity, regardless of her suffering
and in spite of her putting her own life at risk? What impels her to raise such
solid, cold barriers against the world? There certainly is not a single answer
because each case concerns a specific life history. But if we take identity as
a way of managing relations between the inside and the outside, the ego and the
other, drive energy and social needs, we can deduce several considerations from
If the character armor, to use an expression of
Wilhelm Reich’s, that the anorexic puts up as a fence around her ego to
protect it is so strong, it means that the risk of desegregation is
The cyborg body forms a chimera (in biology the
organic assemblage of elements taken from different species) with a high level
of anguish. Contaminating the
vital with the artificial, bringing down the barriers between man and man, man
and animal, man and machine, cannot be something void of consequence. Futurist
vitalism is not enough to comfort us in the face of a future that is becoming
more and more threatening. We leave the survival of the human to thinking, to
its extraordinary symbolic and mythopoietic abilities. But who does thinking
belong to in the time of a globalization that is not only economic?
From their earliest age children who play with
their computers are confronted with a fluid, plastic, mobile, reversible,
impersonal reality. If one surfs the Net, one immediately notices that the
virtual world is now wider than the real world and that no one controls data
banks and archives, which feed on themselves and make up a Library of Babel
that contains everything and therefore nothing. Faced with the danger of being
broken up, dispersed, of making everything meaningless in the muddle of general
confusion, the psychic apparatus protects itself in a merely defensive
Identity becomes like being crucified to
oneself, as with piercing, when a nail transfixes the tongue, a ring runs
through the nose or penetrates the navel, deep cuts engrave the skin, burn
marks scar it. Tattoos permanently
trace on the skin the mysterious engraves of an unknown identity that affirms
itself not in the meaning or sense of one’s life but merely in a mark.
Flesh, blood, pain are conjured up in an aseptic, frigid, anaesthetized and
mechanized society, as an appeal for a life with no adjectives.
It is the weaker subjects in society, young
people, women, who first devise forms of defense, ways of reacting. This
unveils new problems relevant to identity, i.e. the humanity of humans.
Until now young people’s protest had
taken the form of rebellion, but to take place rebellion needs for there to be
connections to cut, norms to infringe, solid identities to demolish, whereas it
is not possible to rebel against the undifferentiated. Nothing therefore
remains except the possibility of an individual, lonely initiation, which has
one’s own body as the only horizon. If we compare these metropolitan
rituals with the tribal rites of passage described by anthropologists, we
notice that what is missing is the communitarian horizon: social participation,
the reference to tradition, the developmental meaning of the trauma leading
from childhood to maturity, from being marginal to belonging.19
In Western history, which is taken as beginning
with the Greeks, there is no room for rituals contemplating violation of the
body, injury or physical pain as something redemptive. Practices detrimental to
somatic integrity have only made their appearance recently, perhaps in
imitation of far-away cultures, introduced with immigration, mass tourism and
the media. They are certainly one of the many effects of world homology, but
this does not excuse us from analyzing their function.
New Identity Constructs
function, in my opinion, leads us back to new constructs on identity. Identity
has always been, as I stated in my premise, a process of mediation, bargaining,
re-balancing between inwardness and exposure, the ego and the other, received
attributions (country, religion, class, group, family, role) and pushes towards
self-realization, individual achievement.
In this sense the great historical projects,
political utopias, have up to now represented a powerful vector for aggregation
and individualization. Within these, take the Socialist Movement for example,
the heavy industrialization of early capitalism adopted a human form. Relations
induced by production methods changed drastically in the labor movement, to
become social practices and cultural production. The working class was able to
consider itself as representing a project valid for all, as capable of changing
the world. And even if that utopia
never came into being, the man-machine relationship on the Taylor assemblage
line, so effectively illustrated by Chaplin in Modern Times, resolved itself, for good or for
bad, in favor of human beings.
In the same way we must try to understand what
social relationships are implied by current production processes, mainly
related to computer technology nowadays, and to think of how to work out forms
of internal resistance to the technological system, so as to open up individual
and collective creative spaces.
We often witness the devaluation of individual
and collective identities, considered a conservative, inopportune re-emergence
of the past, in favor of a panegyric in honor of “non-identity.20
If this is true for ethnic, religious and
regional claims, for selfish, self-centered particularism, we cannot evade
making projects for new forms of identity, necessary to oppose the
globalization of the world, the affirmation of single thought.
While subjectivity feeds on historical
narration, identity is made up of a mythopoietic process that has never once
and for all come to completion. In the former the symbolic prevails. Both in
different ways represent forms of resistance to the powers that be, to the
dynamics of assimilation. On this subject Foucault writes: “The 19th
century saw the struggle against exploitation coming into the foreground. Today
the struggle against forms of subjugation, against the submission to
subjectivity is becoming more and more important.”21
I think that this
is a process that mainly involves women. Insofar as they are hysterics, they
have always denounced social unease, the oppression of sexuality, of fancy, of
desire. They have always been a discordant voice from the magnificent destiny
of scientific progress. Any ideological mechanism has become in them an
unwitting grain of sand. The female body has never entirely given itself up to
Furthermore, women are those who feel
technological intrusion the most—for example in the way pregnancy and
childbirth have been medicalized, in the introduction of methods of artificial
fecundating, genetic engineering and aesthetic surgery. As well, female work prevails in the
most highly computerized activities, those that, as we have seen, dilute
personal identity in the sea of endless communication.
far as corporeal identity is concerned, I lay my hopes on our ability to
remember how we were, to feel how we are, to imagine how we could be, in our
sensitivity, emotions, passion as an extreme form of feeling.22
Traditional identity has dissolved, now a new
one must be built, one that should be adaptable, multiple, tolerant, hospitable
towards the foreigner and open to the new.23
But we cannot forget that what persists in us is the desire for,
possibly a nostalgia of, an identity that is auto-centered and self-sufficient,
autarchic, static, peacefully natural and organic, closed inside itself, with
no confrontations or clashes, that identity that Freud calls “primary
This structural conflict sets nature against
culture, the inside against the outside, the body against the psyche, the
unconscious against the conscious, parole (speech) against langage (language). There is no doubt that this puts
the breaks on the construction of the new, of the utopian. It is not, however,
only a negative element, an obstacle to be removed, because it does in any case
set up an antagonistic tension in respect to social anonymity, to the imposition
of an identical identity for all, to the constitution of a single personality
The homogenizing process, which sees us as
accomplices and victims, tends towards a totally void form of identity, which
Wislawa Szymborska ironically compares to an onion.
The onion is something else.
Within us the unknown, a wilderness
How coherent the onion is
The onion, fine:
Translated from the Italian by Gianmaria Senia
 This paper is a revised version of a speech held at
the conference “The Faces of Identity” at San Servolo, Venice,
March 20, 1999.
 References to Theseus’
mythical ship can be found in: Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume up to the
contemporaries Blumenberg, Neurath and Quine. Michael Frede, Essays in Ancient Philosophy (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
3 Joyce McDougall, Théâtres
du Je (Paris: Gallimard, 1982); Theaters of the Body (London: Free
Association Books, 1989).
Mariani, ed., Attraversare Foucault (Milan: Unicopli, 1997).
On this subject see: Mario Galzigna, “La fabbrica del
corpo”, aut aut, n.167-168, September-December 1978, and
“L'organismo vivente e il suo ambiente. Nascita di un rapporto” in Rivista
critica di storia della filosofia, n. 2, 1979. See also the series of texts in
the series "Il corpo e l'Anima" , edited by Mario Galzigna and
Alessandro Fontana, published by Marsilio, Venice.
Cf. Armando B.
Ferrari, L'eclisse del corpo. Una ipotesi psicoanalitica (Rome: Borla,
Freud, The Ego
and the Id, SE, XIX, p. 26.
“La funzione della pelle nelle prime relazioni oggettuali” in Rivista di
Psicoanalisi, XXX, 3, pp. 341-355.
Didier Anzieu, L'Io
pelle ( 1974) (Rome: Borla, 1987).
 Freud, SE, XXI, p. 90
 Ibidem, p. 92.
SilviaVegetti Finzi, ed., Storia delle passioni (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1995).
Finzi, ed., Storia delle passioni, op.cit.
12 Barbara Capirossi,
Gianpiero Rupolo, “Il fegato
nuovo. Analisi del testo di un incontro di pazienti trapiantati”, in Ricerche sui
gruppi, n. 6, June 1997, pp. 25-39.
13 Pier Aldo Rovatti,
“Materiali 1”, in aut aut 289-29O, January-April 1999,
14 Donna J. Haraway, Manifesto
Feltrinelli, 1995). See also: Rosy Braidotti, madri, mostri e macchine, Anna Maria
Crispino, editor (Rome: manifesto
15 Haraway, op.cit., p.18-19.
16 On this subject
see Silvia Vegetti Finzi, Volere un figlio. La nuova maternità tra
natura e scienza (Milano: Mondadori, 1997).
17 ArmandoB.Ferrari, L'eclissi
del corpo. Una ipotesi psicoanalitica (Rome: Borla, 1992). Francis Tustin, Autistic States in
Children (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).
18 Among the latest
writings, see: Francesca Molfino, Claudia Zanardi, eds, Sintomi Corpo
Femminilità (Bologna: Clueb, 1999).
Remotti, Contro l'identità (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1997).
20 See Giampaolo Lai,
Disidentità (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1988) and Francesco Remotti, op.
21 Michel Foucault,
“Perchè studiare il potere: la questione del soggetto” in aut aut, 2O5, January-February
1985, p. 6. See also: Pier Aldo Rovatti, ed., Effetto Foucault (Milan:
Moravia, “Esistenza e
passione” in Silvia Vegetti Finzi, ed., Storia della
passioni, op.cit. See also: A.B.Ferrari, L'eclisse del corpo (Rome: Borla,
23 On this subject
see: “Retoriche dell'alterità” in aut aut, n.252,
24 On this subject
see: Morris N. Eagle, “Il concetto di narcisismo in Freud e il suo
rapporto con la Psicologia del Sè e con la teoria delle relazioni
oggettuali” in Quaderni. Associazione di Studi Psicoanalitici, year II, n. 6,
December 1992, pp.5- 23