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Primary identification

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"Whatever the character's later capacity for resisting the influences of abandoned object-cathexes may turn out to be, the effects of the first identifications made in earliest childhood will be general and lasting. This leads us back to the origin of the ego ideal; for behind it there lies hidden an individual's first and most important identification, his identification with the father in his own personal prehistory. This is apparently not in the first instance the consequence or outcome of an object-cathexis; it is a direct and immediate identification and takes place earlier than any object-cathexis. But the object-choices belonging to the first sexual period and relating to the father and mother seem normally to find their outcome in an identification of this kind, and would thus reinforce the primary one (primäre Identifizierung)." (Freud, Sigmund, 1923b, p. 31). It is rare in Freud, and consequently worthy of special attention, to read in the third chapter of The Ego and the Id, the solemnity with which he writes of "an individual's first and most important identification" (die erste und bedeutsamste Identifizierung des Individuums [GW, XIII, p. 259]). This identification is situated in a mythical era, outside of time, a source of the ego ideal; it is called as such here to demonstrate that "be like" comes first, before the interdiction of the superego: "not to be like your father." The father is what is implied here, even if Freud added in a note at the bottom of the page: "Perhaps it would be safer to say 'with the parents'; for before a child has arrived at definite knowledge of the difference between the sexes, the lack of a penis, it does not distinguish in value between its father and its mother" (Freud, 1923b, p. 31n). These quotations underscore how deeply Freud's work is marked by the notion of "Proton Psuedos," from the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895], p. 352ff), which notion is a precursor to the concept of "deferred action." Father, mother, or parents are equivalent in the logic of the system of this identification, for which the qualification "ontological" might be suitable. One day, two or three years after the crucial moment of identification—it does not matter exactly when-the perception of the anatomical difference must confirm a posteriori that the only one who matters in this identification is the bearer of the penis, father or phallic mother (whose image, it should not be forgotten, is reassuring, before becoming frightening), as an avatar of the father. Eventual identifications with the father and mother as such, that is to say differentiated, will surface later only to "reinforce the primary one" (primäre Identifizierung zu verstärken). Interestingly, no "primary identification" appears in the translation nor the index of the Standard Edition. James Strachey limits himself to speaking of "first and most important identification," then, at the end of the paragraph, "[it] would thus reinforce the primary one" (1923b, p. 31). It might be wondered to what extent this omission contributed to the international use and dissemination of this expression with a meaning contrary to its Freudian conception by many authors whose sources were English-language texts. In effect there have been many discussions of primary identification, which, from Edith Jacobson (1954) up to the current time, has generally been defined as the first phase of the union with the mother, in a still undifferentiated environment (Winnicott, Donald W., 1956); others have even thought of it as the "primal form of affective attachment to an object before an object relation" (Meissner, William W., 1970). León Grinberg (1976) interpreted it as a very archaic object relation of symbiosis, preceding the differentiation of the Self from the object—an idea which was developed further by Joseph Sandler (1960), who described a state of fusion/confusion between the Self and the not-Self. René Spitz (1957) used the term "primary identification" to signify the undifferentiated stage and the "acrobatics of identification"; the latter includes "identification with gestural language" (Bertha Bornstein), in which imitation is preeminent—as well as "reciprocal identification," describing the mirror situation between mother and child. It is evident that the notion of the "father," so essential in all of the theory and practice of Freud, has been dropped from the concept of primary identification, the theoretical development of which has been especially pursued in the English-language literature, as is clear in the work of R. Horacio Etchegoyen (1985) on the first of the definitions of identification given by Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c): "Identification is the earliest and original form of an emotional tie" (p. 107). Yet authors generally neglect to mention that the first lines of Chapter VII, "Identification," developed the above formula, to specify that the father is at its core, where is founded "personal prehistory," in the wake of the murdered father of the primal horde. Many misunderstandings, consequently, between European and English, American, or South American schools are rooted in different readings of Freud, and the notion of "primary identification" is a particularly significant example of this.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
  2. ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
  3. ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.