The Formation of a Fluid Identity

In “Identity and Difference”, Kathryn Woodward summarises that identity is often the subject of conflicting points of view. Identities can be “seen as having some essential core”, but others might argue that identities can be “seen as contingent; that is, as the product of an interaction of different components, of political and cultural discourse and particular histories” (Woodward, 1997: 28). In the former viewpoint, an essential core at the centre of an identity could be representative of Freud and Lacan’s concepts of psychoanalysis. In the latter, the culture industry (or the media industry) is central to the non-essentialist characteristics which help define a fluid, non-fixed identity.

For any of the above arguments, it could be said that the modern culture industry has a direct bearing on the formation of a person’s identity in that the early psychological influences on a person’s identity (which form the essential core), are themselves inescapably subject to its influence, as we shall see.

The modern culture industry, which is formed out of a pre-existing ideology, is all-encompassing towards our society and the subjects within. Even before one is born, he or she is already a subject of such ideology. Althusser draws on Freud’s work to demonstrate this point when he says,

That an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born, is nevertheless the plain reality” (2000: 34).

At the same time, we have a social, political and philosophical argument posed by critical theorists from the Institute of Social Research (or the Frankfurt School), which suggests that the culture industry, in its attempt to adjust its grip on individuals by transferring its capitalist ideals to a consumerist culture, successfully maintains its dominance through the proliferation of mass produced identity. Since producers and consumers are all subject to the same essential and non-essential identity formation characteristics, this all seems paradoxical.

But with these points well established, it would not be far fetched to suggest that after the early years when a person has formed essentialist character traits (which seem fluid but only to some degree), there might be a higher degree of fluidity in further identity formation (or non-essential character traits) due to the social and political pressures portrayed in the self-serving culture industry. It would seem impossible to try to separate essential and non-essential arguments from actual identity formation, but on acknowledgement that they are irrevocably intertwined, and that each could be deemed a different stage in the forming of identity, a more detailed understanding on the forming of complex identities becomes attainable.

A study of Freud’s and Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories on identity formation would be a good place to start an investigation into how and why character and identity formation is a fluid process. Much of their work suggests that at different pivotal points in the early years of a person’s life, particular associations take place that bring about certain changes in their identity. These developments in the person’s identity help the person define his or her place within the family nucleus at first, then in society.


It is not an unfair proposition to suggest that psychoanalysis is one of the most significant modern approaches to the dynamic and complex nature of identity. Freud’s ideas are generally submitted as a precursor to any social or political study, but never more relevant than in a study of identity formation. This explains why leading theorists in the field of study, such as Woodward and Minsky, would form the basis of their arguments around such ideas.

In “Psychoanalysis and culture: contemporary states of mind”, Rosalind Minsky describes how we only begin to develop our identity when we have reached a certain level of autonomy:

We only begin to experience ourselves consciously as a part of wider culture, able to participate in the shared meanings in language and wider social relationships once we are able to separate from our merged state with the mother and cope relatively independently(1998: 7).

Freud’s model of the psyche is based on three agencies of the mind, the id, the Ego, and the Super Ego. The Id has a very active role in the first instances of a person’s life. As is explained in The Freud Encyclopaedia,

The id is present at birth, the ego and the superego develop only later.” (Erwin, 2002: 272).

Freud himself explains the id as our most basic instinctual nature which we are born with:

To the oldest of these physical provinces or agencies we give the name of id. It contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth, that is laid down in the constitution above all, therefore, the instincts, which originate from the somatic organisation and which find a first physical expression (in the id) in forms unknown to us(1940: 145).

And so in Freudian terminology, a fluid Identity formation, (which as Minsky pointed out) begins with the manifestation of the ego, the second of Freud’s three agencies of the psyche. The ego is opposed to the id in that it holds consciousness, as opposed to the unconscious.

Already we are describing some change in the formation of identity in a person, from a very early age. This is corroborated by French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan with his notion of “the imaginary order”, which also encompasses what he called the “Mirror Stage”. From this mirror stage, the infant (between the ages of six and eighteen months) usually comes to form the “I”, and from there on, through recognition and associations, the “ideal I” comes into being. This ‘ideal I’ takes form on par with the formation of Freud’s second agency of the psyche, the ego:

But the important point is that this form situates the agency of the ego, prior to its social determination, in a fictional direction that will forever remain irreducible for any single individual or, rather, that will only asymptotically approach the subject’s becoming, no matter how successful the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve, as I, his discordance with his own reality” (Lacan 1966: 76).

With an ego now in full flow, consciousness evolving, and a sense of I, the infant embarks on a journey of discovery, and through these early experiences, learns and adjusts his/her position within a social infrastructure to which all must adhere to. At this point, the identity becomes more fluid and less fixed than at any previous stage. The mother and subsequent separation from thereafter, a new identification with the father figure, language, sexuality, and the raw world around us (social and physical), all come into play.

Minsky goes on to explain that “crucially, it is our separation from the mother which allows us to enter into our humanity through our entry into the symbolic realm of language” (1998: 7). This struggle to fill the void left by a separation from this maternal blanket is an identity forming process, and the void itself, a space to fill with one’s own continuously evolving identity. This transference of assimilating from the mother to ‘other culture’ is the never-ending process of identity formation, and how we internalise who we are. Furthermore, to emphasise just how fluid character formation really is from a psychoanalytical point of view, and how the process is in fact continuous throughout the subject’s existence, Minsky further draws on Freud and Lacan’s work when she states,

Freud and Lacan insist that despite our efforts to find substitutes, nothing can ever entirely fill the space left by the loss of our mother from who we took our first identity. We are left with an unfillable gap between what we are and what we want to be, that is perfect and unified in a state of fused bliss with our mother forever” (1998: 7).

But psychoanalysis is not the only approach used to determine just how fluid character formation is, and how identities are in a process of becoming. A study of the culture industry as carried out by the Institute of Social Research, also yields a valuable insight into how identities evolve.

The Culture Industry

We have seen that psychoanalytical concepts provide a strong theoretical framework on how identities come to be formed, particularly in the early stages of a subject’s life. But it is at that crucial point when social forces come into play, just after the mirror stage has occurred and the ego begins to form, that applying a study of cultural forces in a bid to fully understand the process becomes most relevant. That is not to say that they are not a ‘second-generation’ influencing factor through the child’s parents’ identities, but that it is through the child’s direct interaction with social and cultural forces that the most significant changes take place.

An outlook on the culture industry as given by leading theorists emanating from the Frankfurt school, instil a bleak overview of how post-modern societies exert influence over their subjects within. But as negative as it may seem in that a ruling ideology self-servingly purports a status quo that enslaves the new consumerist social class that is the upper middle class (or the American white collar workers), it still allows for a fluid identity in its subjects, continuously modifying itself to maintain its position of dominance, albeit in a unison chorus of submissive individuals.

Max Horkheimer, one of the Frankfurt school’s great philosophers and sociologists, is damning in his analysis of the culture industry. In the book “Dialectic of enlightenment”, in which he is a co-author along with Theodor Adorno (another noted writer from the Frankfurt school), he explains that the culture industry imposes its dominance on its subjects through the dilution of art, repetition, and commodification.

A lowering of expectations brings about a capacity for pre-determined fulfilment, and thus, a sense of “the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry” in the subject. The overall objective is made very clear:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again” (Horkheimer, 1997: 137).

And just how this is conducive to an evolving identity becomes clear when he goes on to say,

Nevertheless, it has become increasingly difficult to keep people in this condition. The rate at which they are reduced to stupidity must not fall behind the rate at which their intelligence is increasing(Horkheimer, 1997: 145).

And so the culture industry re-assesses its parameters to excite a fluid identity, in a bid to keep the masses consuming its products (albeit within the margins of its proliferation). Its only interest in people is in reducing mankind to either customers or employees, and it will continuously modify its production (and the message contained within), to this aim.

But the negative consumerist picture presented to us by Horkheimer, as founded as it may be, could just be the inevitable consequence of a society in a state of development. Media theorist John B. Thompson does not negate the fact that mediated ideology, a multiplicity of media products, and a dependency on such products can have a profound negative impact on the forming of identity, but he does suggest that traditions can never be totally eradicated, and that a saturation of media texts from global sources have come to enrich the development of identity:

The process of self formation became more reflexive and open-ended, in the sense that individuals fell back on their own resources and on symbolic materials transmitted through the media to form coherent identities for themselves” (1995: 180).

Whichever argument one tends to favour, whether it’s the bleak outlook reflected in Horkheimer and Adorno’s work, or the more inclusive approach that Thompson suggests, there still remains a culture industry that is conducive to a fluid, unfixed forming of identity. In the former argument, identities are fluid but mass produced, i.e. ‘individual subjects’ evolve as individuals on a par with each other, within a global consumerist society, and as suggested by the culture industry. In the latter, an evolving society is enriched by the proliferation of culture products, whilst still holding traditions and values at heart.   


We have come to see how both psychoanalysis and a social study of the culture industry can be valid approaches when discussing identity formation, and how they show that identities are not just fixed essences, but rather a fluid process of development. It becomes clear though, how psychoanalysis is a better tool for analysing the formation of the individual during the early stages of one’s life, and how a study of the culture industry becomes more relevant as the individual enters the “symbolic realm”. There is of course, a wide margin of truth, and as in the consumption of media products, a certain suspension of disbelief is required, since it would be practically impossible to put any theory to the test in an all encompassing fashion.   

But as a matter of theoretical probability, these arguments are widely accepted. The Frankfurt school train of thought could be deemed more relevant to a study of the culture industry, and how they come to form fluid identities. Many of its key theorists were studying social development and publishing their findings during a time when media product proliferation was coming in to its own, in the technological new wave of post-modernism that ensued after World War Two. Perhaps even more relevant, would be the contributions by present-day theorists such as Thompson, whose study of the media is completely up-to-date with current times.

Irrespective of how dated the concept of psychoanalysis is (in that the culture industry was never as outreaching as it is today, and that the consumerist ethos had not yet fully developed, when Freud established the practice), it is still a vital piece of the puzzle. Not only is it undoubtedly intertwined with the culture industry in that producers of culture products, as well as consumers, have all been subject to the psychological identity forming forces that it depicts, and that they inevitably become apparent in the products that such individuals produce and consume, but also that the theorists that study the culture industry, and whose arguments come to the fore even in this essay, are themselves subject to these psychological forces. This is something that will most likely never change in that, for the most part, we all share the same experiences as an infant, and they come to be a big part of what it is to be human.

It is due to the above reasons, that for a more complete understanding of the now-established fluid, non-fixed identity forming process, we need to consider both a psychoanalytical approach to the individual, as well as a study of social and cultural theories within a society.

Christian Gadd (2453 words).

Semester 3 (September – December 2014) : Media, Identity and Difference.


Althusser, Louis, (2000) “Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects” from “Identity: a reader”, London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Woodward, Kathryn, (1997) “Identity and Difference”, London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Minsky, Rosalind, (1998) “Psychoanalysis and Culture: contemporary states of mind”, Oxford: Rutgers University Press / Polity Press.

Erwin, Edward, (2002) “The Freud Encyclopaedia”, New York: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund, (1940) “An Outline of Psychoanalysis”, London: The Hogarth Press.

Lacan, Jacques, (1966) “Ecrits”, (2006) tr. Fink, Bruce, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Horkheimer, Max, (1997) “The Culture Industry: enlightenment as mass deception”, from Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max, “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, London: Verso.

Thompson, John, B., (1995) “Media and Modernity, a social theory of the media”, Cambridge: Polity Press.

About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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