Harold Walsby: Identification

“Identification,” we have seen, is involved in the process of assumption and arises, fundamentally, from the projection of one’s own independent identity, of one’s own inborn assumption of independence or self-determinism. But, although identification first appears in the primitive assumptive process, and has its origin therefore in the absolute assumption, it soon begins to differentiate itself, in the ideological development, as a distinct activity with a certain amount of independence of the assumptive process, and a special function of its own. Let us consider, for a moment, how this happens.

Earlier on, in our discussion of the conditioned reflex mechanism, we mentioned the “signs of appetite,” shown by the experimental dog when it was presented with an established conditioned stimulus. We also mentioned that a decerebrate dog gave no such signs of its feelings or emotions. It is evident from this that the cerebral hemispheres and the mechanism of the conditioned reflex play a great part in the existence and expression of emotions, particularly the higher and more complex emotions. How are we to interpret this display of feeling from the ideological viewpoint?

First of all, let us remember that, in the case of the experimental dog, the direct signs of appetite (e.g. watering of the mouth) are combined with obvious signs of pleasure (wagging of the tail and other motor reactions). Secondly, let us not forget that all these particular signs or reactions are dependent upon whether or not the animal is presented with certain internal stimuli representing the sensation of hunger. The animal that is replete with food will not give the usual response to the conditioned stimulus – in other words, the response will be inhibited.

All stimuli limit, we have said. But we have shown that not all stimuli limit equally and to the same degree, and that the overcoming of some limitations will take precedence over that of others, according to their relative intensity. Again, we have affirmed that all behaviour is resistance to limitation. But we have also shown that not all limitations will be resisted equally, and that the overcoming of some limitations will necessitate the inhibition of resistance to others. In the case of the hungry dog, the resistance to the internal limitation takes precedence over the resistance to the conditioned stimulus. But once this particular internal limitation is overcome and the animal is satiated with food, the resistance to the conditioned stimulus once more comes into operation. Other internal stimuli are now presented; the animal, replete with food, finds locomotion and other movements a burden. Energy which was available for the muscles of the limbs is now engaged with the activity of digestion. Resistance to this new internal limitation necessitates the inhibition of resistance to some other external conditioned stimulus – such, for example, as the sight of its kennel, to which the dog departs for rest, and the further overcoming of limitation.

Now, the overcoming of limitation, we saw, is the equivalent of the re-establishment or confirmation of the absolute assumption. This activity of overcoming limitation is also accompanied by the feeling of pleasure – which manifests itself in proportion to the intensity of the limiting stimulus that is being overcome. Thus, if the dog is very hungry it shows great pleasure at the sight of food; if less hungry then it shows correspondingly less pleasure; if not hungry it shows no sign of pleasure at all.

We have also seen, towards the end of the last chapter, that the reception of any sensory stimulus involves the incipient form of identification – as a consequence of the projection of its sensory reality or independent being. This applies also to all so-called neutral stimuli, that is to say, to all those stimuli which are resisted in the passive sense. In other words, besides the more or less generalised and partial inhibition of such stimuli, there exists in relation to them a generalised and incipient form of identification. In respect of these “neutral” stimuli, therefore, the nervous system is in a condition similar for that of muscles which are passive and “at rest.” Such muscles are actually in a state of slight partial contraction or “tone,” as it is called. From our new viewpoint, therefore, the process of establishing the conditioned reflex consists of gradually inhibiting this initial partial or “tonic” resistance in respect of the particular stimulus which, among the numerous neutral stimuli, implies the unconditioned stimulus. And this inhibition of resistance occurs upon assumption of the implication.

The previous generalised and incipient form of the identification then becomes concentrated and particularised in the now conditioned stimulus; the new stimulus becomes, via the assumption, the outward and visible sign of the overcoming of limitation – i.e. it becomes the necessary condition for the re-establishment of the absolute assumption. On the other hand, the concentration and strengthening of identification in the conditioned stimulus has the effect of increasing the generalised inhibition of the remaining neutral stimuli. So that over a period of time (during which, an intense stimulus necessitating active resistance – such as the internal stimulus of hunger – is repeatedly overcome in association with a sensory pattern – of food – representing the conditioned stimulus) there is built up, on the one side, an increasingly strong identification with the conditioned stimulus – and, on the other side, an increasing inhibition or passive resistance in respect of the neutral stimuli, which ultimately issues in the establishment of a negative identification with them.

The positive identification with the conditioned stimulus, as we have said, is based on the assumption of the conditioned stimulus implying the unconditioned stimulus. Similarly, the negative identification with the “neutral” stimuli is based on a complementary assumption: the negative assumption that these “neutral” stimuli do not imply the unconditioned stimulus. This negative identification with stimuli still leaves the incipient form of identification more or less intact, for this latter is not based upon the assumption of a relation between sensory stimuli, but upon the assumption of the sensory stimulus itself. Because of this fact we call the incipient form “sensory identification,” and the later form – based on the assumption of the relation of stimuli to the unconditioned stimulus – we call “abstract” or “emotional” identification. And “emotional identification” includes, as we have seen, “positive identification” and “negative identification.”

Abstract or emotional identification is positive or negative according to whether it is based on a positive or negative assumption – i.e. according to whether the assumption on which it is founded affirms or denies a relation between stimuli. Since this type of assumption is, either way, concerned with the relations between sensory patterns or stimuli (patterns of patterns) we shall distinguish it from the mere assumption of sensory patterns in the same manner as we have distinguished between sensory stimuli (or sensory patterns) and abstract stimuli (or abstract patterns). Thus we have, also, sensory and abstract assumptions, of which the latter may be either positive or negative.

It will be noticed that our present conception of establishing a conditioned reflex is a considerable modification of the more usual one with which we started; it has become more akin to the conception of the process of discrimination which we briefly described on an earlier page. It may also be noticed that we have treated our subject only in relation to the conditioning of inborn reflexes which are concerned in the re-establishment of the absolute assumption and the emotion of pleasure. It will be clear upon consideration, however, that had we approached and pursued our subject in relation to the conditioning of those inborn reflexes which are concerned with the disestablishment of the absolute assumption and with the emotion of fear, we would have arrived at the present position though we traveled by a different route.

We can now envisage the environment of the individual as including a number of persons, animals, objects and ideas, with some of which he is positively identified – more or less strongly, as the case may be – and with others of which he is negatively identified – again, more or less strongly, as may be the particular case. These positive and negative identifications form a kind of series with two extremes which gradually merge towards the middle. In popular language, they form a sort of scale of likes and dislikes.

Emotional identification is, of course, familiar to psychoanalysis. But our conception of it differs somewhat from the psychoanalytic notion in being, as we believe, a more determinate conception, and in being considerably modified by our understanding of the process of assumption, from which identification is fundamentally derived.

Although psychoanalysis and all other branches and systems of psychology – in common with the rest of science and mental activities generally – are compelled continually to make assumptions and to base their whole superstructures upon an assumptive foundation, yet none of them make any provision at all for the actual part played in mental phenomena by the assumptive process. It is simply ignored. This is, perhaps, largely as it should be. For the study of the process of assumption and the recognition of its importance in mental life must necessarily remain the characteristic feature of a science of ideology and the intellect.

“Identification,” says Freud, in his Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, “is known to psychoanalysis as the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person. It plays a part in the early history of the Oedipus complex.” And again: “… identification is the original form of emotional tie with an object… ” He says, further: “We do not ourselves regard our analysis of identification as exhaustive… ”

We may now broadly define emotional identification (positive and negative) as the feeling of dependence – for the re-establishment of the absolute assumption – upon some person, act, thing, idea or some collection, class, or group of these. In the case of negative identification the feeling of dependence will be negative. That is to say, the object of negative identification is rejected and repudiated – i.e. it is renounced; for it constitutes a limitation upon the re-establishment of the absolute assumption, and a limitation, moreover, which is recognised as such – though not recognised, as we shall soon see, as a necessary limitation. The object of negative identification, therefore, must be overcome, must be banished, must come to grief, be destroyed – or otherwise be removed as a limitation upon the assumption of self determinism. Equally, then, negative identification is a feeling of independence and it would seem better separately to define it so. But since there is a positive identification with the removal of the limitation – and this is precisely what constitutes a negative identification – then we can see that there is still involved a dependence upon the person (or other object of the identification) even though it means dependence upon his death, absence, degradation, defeat, or, according to the nature of the limitation, some other mode of its removal. From the foregoing it will be clear that, other things being equal, the more permanent the limitation, the stronger the negative identification (and emotional repudiation). It is clear, too, that positive and negative identification are not mutually exclusive, but rather, mutually interpenetrative and complementary.

The function of emotional identification can now easily be discerned: it is that of “fixating” modes of thinking and behaving. Instinctive or inborn reflex behaviour is fixed by an inherited and permanent nervous structure which will always work in more or less the same way in a given situation. Hence, for unconditioned reflex activity, emotions are superfluous and unnecessary. But for behaviour of the more intentional type, that type which depends upon the conditioned reflex and the plastic changeable activities of the cerebral cortex, emotional identification fulfills a useful – and indeed, completely necessary – function. It serves to establish and fix the conditioned reflex. Unless, on the part of Pavlov’s dogs, there is a positive emotional identification with that stimulus which is the necessary condition for the presentation of the unconditioned stimulus, i.e. the giving of food – unless there is emotional identification with the assumption that a particular sensory pattern implies or signals food and the overcoming of the limiting internal stimulus of hunger – then, we suggest, no conditioned reflex can be established (or fixed) at all. This view of the basic function of emotion is further supported by the fact, mentioned above, that the animal which has had its cerebral hemispheres removed shows practically no sign of emotion.

Thus, like instinct and inborn reflex activity generally, the function and influence of emotional identification is of a conservative nature, making for the fixation of learnt behaviour and its underlying cognitive assumptions. Inspection of the human ideological field and a comparative study of ideologies serves but to confirm the conclusion that, in an ideology, the function of a system of emotional identifications is to fixate the main assumptive structure.

Continue reading The Domain of Ideologies by Harold Walsby (1947)
Part I Mass Groups and Intellectual Groups
Forward | The Paradox | The Political Groups | The Left Wing and IntellectualismThe Masses and Emotional Suggestibility | Fear of the Group | Political Collectivism | Political Individualism | The “Mass Rationality” Assumption
Part II Ideological Structure and Development
The Ideological FieldDefinition of Ideology | Cognitive Assumptions | The Process of Assumptions | The Absolute Assumption | Identification | Development and Repression | Conclusion | Bibliography | Index