Reading the book "Art and Psychoanalysis" by Maria Walsh on modern art criticism and philosophy, I encountered the words "heteropathic identification" and "idiopathic identification". Do they mean something like "external identification" and "internal identification" respectively?

Paragraph from the book:

Film theorist Kaja Silverman, writing about Isaac Julien’s film Looking for Langston, 1989, a black and white, fantasy-like recreation of high-society gay men during the Harlem Renaissance, discusses how the cinematographic lighting illuminates its protagonists in such a way as to generate an alternative mode of narcissistic identification, what she calls heteropathic identification and which operates by means of a kinetic shift towards bodies that are different from one’s own imaginary schema. This is opposed to idiopathic identification, which cannibalises the other so that the other fits into and is subjected to that imaginary schema. The former models the visual register on movement and shape, and thereby has the potential to generate alternative positions and subjects, whereas the latter becomes fixated on a static image of objectification which judges the other as either a successful or failed mirror reflection of the self. McQueen’s work could be seen as operating in the former register of heteropathic identification, a mode of address which is crucial to counter the fetishism of the scopic realm and to the continuance of addressing political issues in a current context where, as Jean Fisher says, ‘cultural marginality [is] no longer a problem of invisibility but one of excess visibility in terms of a reading of cultural difference that is too easily marketable.’


The essence of identification — of identifying with another person (in life or art) — is finding a sense of 'likeness' between the self and the other. This is common knowledge. Less commonly understood is the fact that this act of identifying has a sort of direction, meaning that either:

  • one moves the self to the position of the other, saying in effect: "I am like the other"


  • one moves the other to the position of the self, saying in effect: "The other is like me"

The first is heteropathic (literally other-suffering) identification: the second is idiopathic (literally self-suffering) identification.

This may seem like a subtle and picky distinction, but when we are dealing with alienated groups it has important psychological ramifications. When we identify with an alienated other through idiopathic identification, we assume that the other shares our basic worldview — the things that cause us problems, the things that motivate us, the things we worry about in the night — and so when the other acts differently from us we see it as a perversion of our own worldview. We can condemn that difference (rendering the other as a true pervert), or we can fetishize that difference (applauding the other for being bold about his perversion), but we cannot identify with the difference itself.

On the other hand, when we identify with an alienated other through heteropathic identification, we put ourselves within their worldview. When the other acts differently than us we do not see it as a perversion — because we are seeing it from within their worldview, in which it is not a perversion — and we develop a new understanding of the behavior of people like ourselves as they relate to the other we are now identifying with. Heteropathic identification opens a window of indirect self-reflection: we can see ourselves in the behavior of people like ourselves as seen from the worldview of someone unlike ourselves.

  • Thank you Ted. It was very useful.
    – user127733
    Mar 18 '20 at 5:51

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