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Introduction: Narcissism, Melancholia and the Subject of Community

  • Barry Sheils
  • Julie Walsh
Chapter
Part of the Studies in the Psychosocial book series (STIP)

Abstract

Sigmund Freud’s twin papers, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ (1914) and ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917 [1915]), take as their formative concern the difficulty of setting apart the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ worlds, and of preserving a stable image of a boundaried self. Whilst it is true that the term narcissism especially has come to be deployed in ways that seem foreign to the complexities of Freud’s 1914 paper (by its reduction to a personality disorder or its use as a broad-brush cultural diagnosis), we suggest in this introductory chapter that neither narcissism nor melancholia can be thought about today without expressing some debt to Freudian metapsychology. However, whereas Freud was most evidently concerned to describe the structure of ego-formation, subsequent commentators have preferred to emphasize the cultural and normative dimensions of these terms. Accordingly, we consider the respective discursive histories of narcissism and melancholia and find that although they have been put to work in very different ways they remain grounded by a shared concern with mechanisms of relation and identification. Indeed, this shared concern is the basis upon which they’ve been most productively reanimated in recent years: the rise of melancholia as a critical aid to the study of cultural displacement and dispossession, and the determined redemption of narcissism from its pejorative characterization as fundamentally anti-social.

We argue that what is most noteworthy in this post-Freudian literature is the increasing relevance of metapsychology to social and political theory. The language of psychoanalysis, extrapolated from the clinic, permits a detailed examination of the boundaries which construct and challenge the terms of social solidarity. Specifically, this takes place though careful reading of the complex practices of (dis)identification at the heart of ego-formation (at both individual and group levels), and the associated mechanisms of defence, for example: introjection, incorporation, projective-identification, and splitting. By recognising the complexity of how communities get made, and connecting this with recent literature on counter publics and the commons, we demonstrate that Freud’s frameworks of narcissism and melancholia remain essential for any contemporary understanding of political association.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barry Sheils
    • 1
  • Julie Walsh
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of English StudiesDurham UniversityDurhamUK
  2. 2.University of EssexColchesterUK

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