Moments of the Self in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology: A Conversation with Vincent Crapanzano (1)


Over the past two decades, Vincent Crapanzano has, perhaps more than any other scholar, refocused attention within anthropology on its problematic relationship with psychoanalysis. Employing what he calls an agonistic approac— that is to say, interdisciplinary, but with a critical edge that looks to fathom each respective discipline’s theoretical shortcomings and methodological blind spots—Crapanzano has paid particular attention to how different cultures construct and articulate self-experience. In the conversation that follows, Crapanzano speaks of this defining research interest of his, emphasizing how the locus of selfhood and subjectivity is not everywhere oriented and determined in ways familiar to the West

Anthony Molino: In your introduction to Hermes’ Dilemma and Hamlet’s Desire, there’s a marvellous dream of yours which you cite. ‘All I can remember of it,’ you write, ‘was a voice saying, “the I of the now is not the I of the now”, and seeing the equation “I=I.” , This introduces for me the whole issue of what in Lacanian circles is termed the ‘split’ or ‘decentred’ subject. To what extent does your dream bespeak your own understanding of the self? And how does this, in turn, relate to contemporary understandings of the postmodern self in psychoanalysis and anthropology?

Vincent Crapanzano: I’ve always considered dreams a means of assessing where I am, even during fieldwork. More generally, however, I’ve been struck by the way in which our own particular epistemological or scientific bias has precluded the actual consideration of dreams as vehicles for ethnographic understanding. Obviously, dreams have been used, at least by some anthropologists, both in terms of monitoring personal emotional states in some sort of semi-analytic sense, as well as by analysts who happen to do fieldwork. But I am also thinking of the way dreams can serve as a kind of perceptual vehicle for alerting us to features of the society we’re studying which we may not perceive consciously. Wasn’t it Erich Fromm who pointed out that dreams can call attention to events that, given the dreamer’s particular utilitarian concerns at the time of their occurrence, might not have been consciously registered?
But, let me get to your question. This splitting of the ‘I’ is extremely important, and was very much a concern of mine when writing Hermes’ Dilemma. I was trying to put together a series of essays that did not form, in my view, a cohesive whole. You see, I was responding with anxiety to the value we place on cohesion (of self, text, outlook) that intellectually I found—and find—to be imprisoning and hardly universal. This was the immediate background of the dream, which must also be seen in terms of my long-standing personal and intellectual concern with the idea of a split self.
Already as an undergraduate I was fascinated by the split, the fragmented, the alien self. I was haunted by the idea of the double: Poe’s William Wilson, Nerval’s Aurélie. I was particularly interested in Sartre, whose affinities with Lacan, by the way, are stronger than anyone was or is willing to admit. They had both studied with Alexandre Kojeve and are concerned in their own ways with alienation and the processes by which we create and manipulate the Other … Anyhow, Sartre’s notion of objectification interested me; and with it, the idea of the self’s split into ‘I’ and ‘me’. At the time, alienation was all the rage. The way it was being discussed, in largely sociological terms, seemed to me to be rather pathetic attempts to avoid recognizing its inevitability. They were whining discourses of hope.
Lacan does not give us any illusions about the unity of self. He originally situated the primordial splitting of the self—his mirror phase—in a developmental process. Later, after the war, as he became more of a structuralist, his ‘mirror stage’ became a structural moment: a mythic event, not unlike Rousseau’s social contract. It was loosened, so to speak, from a modernist perspective, from stories we like to tell about growing up. But his theory never really lost its origin-tale quality. It tells us how we become alienated from ourselves as we become human. It’s less the alienation, the splitting, that interests me today than the way we tell it, the folly of trying to resolve it, of believing in unity and continuity, as somehow natural rather than as cultural artifices.
In retrospect, what I find striking about my dream is the way in which it grappled with the temporal dimension of selfhood and alienation. We are dealing not only with a kind of timeless alienation between me and mon semblable but also with an alienation, a split, that results from our temporal existence. There is always a moment, a difference, by and through which the ‘I-of-the-now’ and the ‘I-of-the-then’ are separated—how can I put it?—by an intervention. In one sense this intervention is simply that of an interlocutor, of someone or something other interfering. In another, it’s the pause – the heartbeat, the breath – that literally intervenes, comes between. And so the question is: when does the ‘I’ change? Without getting into issues of instantaneity, there has to be a kind of interference that punctuates time, that produces a gap in time: the difference between two ‘I’s’.
I once wrote a paper, “Riflessioni frammentarie sul corpo, il dolore, la memoria”—on the body, pain, and memory—in which I argue, with regard to the Lacanian notion of the mirror phase, that there is no necessary reason why the infant should see himself in the mirror. There’s no reason why the child should identify with the image in the mirror. It’s just a good story, a just-so story. Curiously Lacan, to my knowledge, does not see another consequence of his story: the role of contingency in the formation of the self, in the splitting. Imagine a baby crying: in the ordinary course of events, if the mother knows the baby is crying for her breast, or for a bottle, she responds (if even by denial) to the baby’s cry. But think of a mirror. For the infant, it suddenly appears and just as suddenly disappears. Can the child cry for a mirror? For his semblable? For his self? Will the mother, will anyone, understand? What happens to the semblable at this point? It is not only other but contingent, wilful perhaps. And what happens to the primordial self? Is it also contingent? Wilful? Compensatorily, always there? (My language is unsatisfactory.) I am reluctant to introduce a Kleinian notion of hallucination not only because there is scant evidence for the hallucination but also because it simplifies the situation. It may appease the analyst, who doesn’t have to wrestle with contingency. There is, in any case, something harrowing in this addition to Lacan’s tale.

AM: Is there a way in which you see these concerns being brought to bear on contemporary anthropology, and especially ethnography?

VC: There have been enormous changes in anthropology over the last 35-40 years. We’ve moved away from the assumption of homogeneous societies, in which there are a series of role players—stock characters—who reflect a pervasive personality type or national character. There used to be a very strong push to homogenize ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ societies. Clearly, though, this view, however ideologically compelling it may have been, could not be sustained. We have become disenchanted with this notion of the homogeneous society in which everyone behaves true to part and personality. It may have generated a neat vision of those other, simpler societies -one that not only appealed to our social aesthetics but also to our longing, our romantic longing, for that sort of society, that Gemeinschaft, we never knew and could never know. It served implicitly as a basis for the criticism of the messy, heterogeneous society in which we live. We have still to work through the implications of this fantasmatic basis for social criticism. It will not be a pretty picture, I suspect.
What is interesting about this picture of society—of stock characters, of basic or model personality, of national character—was the sense of continuity it proclaimed, the ease of habituation to a particular structure it took for granted, the determinism it assumed. The self wasn’t much in question. Nor human freedom. Nor freedom’s relationship to the self. Look at George Herbert Mead, who exemplifies this tradition: what I see as his behaviourist dialectic of self-formation moves inexorably toward a frozen, determinate, conforming and conformist self through generalizing the other. What other? Mead doesn’t even appreciate the pathetic, indeed the tragic, dimension of the fatal process he lays out.
Anthropology at the time was engaged by questions of continuity and processes of socialization that were assumed to create prêt-à-porter selves. Those selves could of course be alienated from their surroundings, but such alienations were aberrant or historically contingent: the result of colonialism or other capitalist exploitations. Easy Marxism. But what about the sense of interior alienation? This dimension of human experience was either denied the primitive or understood in terms of pathology. It was easier that way. Think of Roheim or Devereux. Spirit possession and shamanism were troubling because they suggested some sort of inner alienation or splitting. Of course, they were taken to be exceptional.
Today, there is certainly more interest in differing articulations of the self, but some of these articulations—sociocentric selves, dividuated selves—are really not that different from the generalizations made by the culture and personality people. I believe most Americans, despite their new-age play with them, find these possibilities terrifying.
Sometimes I think the notion of self (like that of culture) should be abandoned, or at least accepted for what it is: a native category. I would prefer if we took the self as a moment in an ongoing dialogue, exchange, or conversation—a moment in which it is rhetorically, politically, constituted and reified. We might then recognize the way in which our theories of the self—our psychologies—support certain of these constituting moments and manoeuvres. They are, as such, implicated in the plays of power that constitute the self.
As I’ve said, there are a number of anthropologists who have been questioning modes of selfhood. Think of the work done by Robert Levy (1973) in Tahiti, John Kirkpatrick () in the Marquesas, Marilyn Strathern (1988) in New Guinea, to name a few with very different theoretical points of view. They mark a change in anthropology. But I don’t think they have gone far enough. I have to admit that it’s difficult, for me at least, in even my most radical moods, to engage empathetically rather than intellectually with other articulations of the self. For example, I can think of a transient notion, or quality, of self, which is determined at certain junctures, within certain complicated exchanges, and treated as though it has a perduring character and then suddenly, dramatically, under new circumstances perhaps, it changes into another ‘self’ of a very different quality and assumption. I can imagine that neither the subject nor those about him or her would be troubled by these changes (as we are, the observers at least, in cases of multiple personality). However, when it comes to an empathetic appreciation of such a condition, I am at a loss. I simply cannot experience it, its possibility, even in meditation. Perhaps it’s my weakness, my incapacity. I don’t know.
I do know it’s nearly impossible, if not downright impossible, to represent such moments, such processes, in our language. They are outside its ‘psychology’. And what of the pragmatics and the politics of—the power plays in—‘self’-constituting exchanges? What we’ve done is to take too seriously those static moments of selfhood. We’ve fallen, if you will, for the label, for the name. We have conceptually (if not empathetically) to recognize the self as a moment, as an assumption, that serves a very complicated kind of political and moral function. I’m not saying that there isn’t a self, or that a self can’t exist otherwise, in a non-reified fashion. What I am saying, and what seems to me much more interesting, are the ways in which selfhood is constituted and deconstituted over periods of time.

AM: Do you then see psychoanalysis as a privileged hermeneutic or epistemological tool that can help decipher or map out those constitutive moments?

VC: Yes, when it doesn’t con itself. If we had a way, as outsiders not involved in the process, to observe the entire course of an analysis, I’m sure we’d discover a whole series of dynamics and events to which both the analyst and the patient were blinded. We’d come to appreciate the role of theory in both structuring the process and in creating in different ways, for the analyst and the patient, a means to disengage from the immediacy of their relationship. Theory provides a perceptual frame. I’m hesitant to talk about Freudian, Lacanian, or any metapsychological theory about the nature of analysis, because they are too embedded in the process itself.
So, yes, of course, psychoanalysis can and does explore these constitutive moments. We do have to ask, however, what the underlying assumptions about the nature of the self that are being enacted in the clinical hour are. They may well be different than those postulated by theory. Psychoanalysts in this country in, say, the 1950s assumed, as did their patients, a sense of self that was singular and continuous. Disturbances to that sense of self were seen as pathological, and warranted some kind of rectification or remediation so that the patient could become whole, that is, have a whole, healthy, integrated self. To this end, then, interventions and interpretations were made in light of and according to these governing assumptions. I’m not sure they are the same today, though, no doubt, there is a longing for them. Personally, I think there are other, more interesting possible directions for psychoanalysis, which do not privilege the singular self and which recognize it as a kind of artifice. They might radically problematize the nature of being human, recognizing its tragic and comic dimensions, which were ignored in much earlier theorizing. Maybe I’m being a bit of an aesthete, but I prefer the recognition of these tragic and comic dimensions to their denial.

AM: Along these lines, then, what do you see as the intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics by which we come to recognize that otherness, or even our own otherness?

VC: That’s a difficult question because the very notion of the split between the intrapsychic and the interpersonal involves an odd set of assumptions. Imagine the question being posed in a society where much of what we articulate as ‘intrapsychic’ would be articulated in terms of demons or spirits. Let’s refuse, for sake of argument, to assume that these ‘spirits’ are projections, and accept them as real, as real as the table or chair in front of us. In these circumstances your question would not make sense. What we call ‘intrapsychic’ would be somewhere else, on another ‘stage’, so to speak: a demonic or spirit stage. But, for us at least, it would be external, involving a kind of ‘interpersonal relationship’ between self and demon. When you look at some of the descriptions of the relations among id, ego and superego in the Freudian typography, they sound very interpersonal: e.g., the ‘domestication’ of the superego, the ‘struggle’ between id and ego. What you have is a whole ‘sociology’ of the intrapsychic. So it’s very difficult to talk about the distinction between intrapsychic and interpersonal. You have to recognize that the ‘location’ of agencies and functions is culturally and historically specific. The agencies and functions may be universal, but their location need not be.
Of course, we tend to universalize our particular understanding of self, other, or experience. ‘You are human, therefore, you are, in a way, like me …’ I’m hesitant then to answer your question in the terms in which you pose it.
But if we were to accept the distinction between intrapsychic and interpersonal – one assumed by our sciences, by our political, pedagogical and therapeutic projects – we should look at the figurative, the metaphorical, processes within and between these two different domains. Their respective dynamics are mutually reflective: interpersonal relations are metaphorized onto the intrapsychic, just as intrapsychic relations are metaphorized, if not onto the interpersonal (though I believe they are), then onto the group. We speak of group behaviour in intrapsychic terms: of group projections, for instance.
Your question makes sense within a shared frame. The risk, however, is that the frame and its presuppositions about the nature of reality go unquestioned.

AM: To return, then, to your own statement: ‘the notion of the self requires not simply the awareness of a contrasting world, but recognition to speak awkwardly of one’s own otherness in that world.’ To the extent that an ethnographer can attempt, albeit awkwardly, to assume the place of the other, how can one fathom that ‘Other’ coming to grips with her own otherness—if not from within a framework that posits a self, or a distinction between the intrapsychic and interpersonal?

VC: It’s a dilemma. Even Lacan stumbles here. He demystifies the self, yes, but peeling away layer after layer of illusions of selfhood, he ends up with the sujet as a kind of empty, primordial beginning. I don’t think we can avoid some such notion. It’s so embedded in our language. Ironically Lacan’s demystification of the self/subject/sujet is like a mystic’s exercise. I simply think we can go back and back and back and postulate any number of ‘entities’ until finally we arrive at an empty one that paradoxically refers—indexes perhaps—an emptiness from which an individuum issues. Whether another language is capable of articulating these processes differently, without a primordial sense of an individuum, I don’t know. That’s really the question, isn’t it?
We seem compelled to articulate the self around a notion of origin, of origination … It’s amazing that the individuum can become so possessive, so literally central, that the world itself ends up being centred on it. Of course, you really don’t begin at the beginning; you begin in the middle. And at that point, in medias res, there is already a kind of psyche, some sort of individual or subject that is acknowledged.
We write origin tales that get us up to this point, as Lacan and Freud do. But they are origin tales. Like all stories, they offer no final explanation. No doubt they ground certain understandings. But, despite themselves, they leave open the question: ‘Where do we begin?’ Any beginning is going to be arbitrary and privilege a moment. This does not mean that the privileged moment is the foundational moment. It’s simply the moment to begin. That’s the best way I can answer your question. It’s not satisfactory. It’s contradictory.
When I use the word ‘possession’, for instance, I use it in a way in which it can be and has been metaphorized: for example, incorporation, introjection, etc. These notions point to the amoebic quality of possession: what’s ‘outside’ somehow gets inside, including one’s own otherness. How this relates to spirit possession depends on a linguistic pun which, though possible in English, French and Italian, is impossible in German, Arabic, and a lot of other languages.
Still, with regard to the drama being enacted by the possessing spirit, and to the specific process of its incorporation, let’s accept it for a moment as being external, as coming from the ‘outside’. Let’s agree to invent a psychology in which the spirit is not a projection of the psyche that is then internalized, but something external that wants to intrude. This is truly a drama. The tension between being incorporated, or possessed, and resisting incorporation, resisting possession, is extremely powerful -from the perspectives of both the subject and the possessing spirit. The move is not unidirectional. I mean, the possessing spirits, insofar as they’re conceived as existent, have a kind of autonomy and resistance of their own.

AM: So that in a way the subject surrenders or concedes her own capacity for possession to the possessing spirit. ..

VC: One could describe it that way. Think, for example, of Schreber’s memoirs: not Freud’s case, but the judge’s actual memoirs ( ). There you see Schreber’s struggle with the rays as they struggle to take possession of him. Sometimes he wants to expel them. Sometimes he’s attracted to them. Sometimes they want to enter him. Sometimes they don’t. They don’t want to lose their autonomy. The struggle is continual, in both directions.
We find a similar struggle in other domains: in communicating, for example. At one level I’m confronted with the resistance of the other’s, my interlocutor’s, words; and at the same time I want to absorb those words, even as I want to resist them and convert them. All this at the same time. …
Here, with respect to possession, you see the lure of various psychoanalytic metaphors, like incorporation, which refer particularly to oral or cannibalistic qualities. They suggest a kind of primordiality. Still, referring back to our earlier reflections on origins, I would not be willing to give what they metaphorized any necessary priority: not without taking into consideration everything they, as metaphors, connote. Surely, there does seem to be a developmental process that humans go through. Clearly, the infant is not the same as the adult. Clearly, there are phenomena we observe, phenomena that we are constantly trying to interpret with resonant metaphors and narratives. But you have to be careful not to naturalize these metaphors and tales. And yet I’m afraid a lot of psychoanalysts attempt such naturalizations, supporting them by some sort of research project. And it’s not just psychoanalysis that does this; it’s also developmental psychology, and many other disciplines.

AM: I sense that what you’re suggesting, on one level, is that while anthropology has on several occasions dipped into the treasure chest of psychoanalysis, rarely has psychoanalysis borrowed from anthropology…

VC: Exactly.

AM: And if there is one thing lacking within psychoanalysis, it’s the capacity for self-reflexivity on which so much of anthropology is grounded…

VC: Exactly. For me, what’s exciting about anthropology is not the elaboration of some sort of scientific understanding of culture or society but the exploration of the limits of understanding. It’s a sort of post-Kantian project: a critique of knowledge that’s grounded, paradoxically perhaps, in empirical reality. It’s an exercise that goes back to Descartes and Montesquieu, among others, who used the ideas of the voyager, of an ‘elsewhere’, as vehicles for critical reflection, for postulating the possibility of otherness. In anthropology, however, it’s not a fantasmatic other who engages us, but people who, in clear and dramatic ways, do seem to be different. Of course they too are given a fantasmatic dimension.
On this score, as anthropologists, we all have stories of how we became interested in the field, of our first encounter, perhaps, with the exotic. Mine, I think, illustrates my point. When I graduated from Harvard, my grandmother gave me money with which to travel to Mexico. I went to the Yucatan, where I met a young Mayan, a guide who’d trained in Mexico City. Though I neither wanted nor could have afforded a guide, the man and I became acquainted one night, as we sat and talked on the hotel veranda. It was very dark, so dark we could hardly see each other’s faces. I’d asked him some questions about the Mayans, and about himself, questions which he then asked me. The conversation went on until, at one point, with the greatest of ease, he asked, ‘Where are you going to die?’ Startled, I said I didn’t know, a reply which startled him. How could I not know? Finally, I managed to ask him where he was going to die, and he calmly told me. It was a kind of foreknowledge he had, which went unquestioned, but astounded me.
What does it mean, really, to know the place of one’s death?
I was moved and intrigued by our exchange. It was, for me, an encounter with the exotic. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that I may well have been making an assumption about death in my attempt at understanding, which my friend didn’t share with me. He may not have meant what I meant by ‘death’. It didn’t occur to me until later that night that maybe, just maybe, he might not have been referring to his physical death, but to a spiritual one. This thought, then, set up a whole train of speculations, which I never got a chance to confirm, as I was leaving the next morning and didn’t see him again. Looking back, I’m not sure I could have questioned him anyway. But it was that exchange that got me started on this intellectual project of mine. It was then that I was real1y confronted with the limits and the artifice of my own understanding.


Freud, S. (1911), SE, 12

Kirkpatrick, J. (1988) The Marquesan Notion of Person (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Research Press)

Levy, R. (1973) Tahitians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Molino, A. & Ware, Ch. (2001), eds., Where Id Was: Challenging Normalization in Psychoanalysis (London: Continuum, 2001; Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001)

Strathern, M. (1988) The Gender of the Gifi (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)


1) This conversation was originally published in Where Id Was: Challenging Normalization in Psychoanalysis, edited by Anthony Molino and Christine Ware (Molino & Ware 2001). It is here reprinted courtesy of Continuum.

2) Crapanzano refers here to Freud’s ‘Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia’, a case study of his contemporary Dr Daniel Paul Schreber, derived from the latter’s 1903 autobiography Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. See Freud (1911).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis