360° Analysis

Freud’s Ego:The I Before the I


July 01, 2011 08:53 EDT

Interviewee: Samuel Weber, an American philosopher and outstanding thinker across the disciplines of literary theory, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. He is the Paul de Man Chair at the European Graduate School (EGS) and the Avalon Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University.

Interviewer: Benoît Wolff for Fair Observer

BW : What does Freud mean by ‘I’ : a body, a person, the psyche – or a bit of everything ?

SW: Freud doesn’t use the term “person” very much, so I will concentrate on the two other terms you mention. In both cases he breaks with the dominant tradition. Since Plato and Aristotle, and continuing in the Christian era, ‚body’ tends to be understood as a container – of a spirit, mind or soul. Since Nietzsche, however, bodies are construed not as containers but rather as surfaces. This not only involves the substitution of one metaphor for another, but also a basic sea change. To understand the body as a surface means to see it as determined from without, not just from within. The body thus construed is irreducibly heterogeneous, not homogeneous. For Freud the “hetero-” is “internal” as well as “external”. The composition and development of the psyche includes forces that originate outside of the individual and that in large part remain outside of its control. These heterogeneous forces and factors can be identified with the “it” (a.k.a. the “id”) and the “superego”. The “it” consists of drives that obey laws and patterns that are not specific to the individual – hence not purely “internal”. And the superego is the seat of tradition, as passed on by parental figures, and so is not purely internal either.

Because Freud considers the body to be a surface, he describes the “psyche” as an “apparatus”. Like a machine, it draws its source of movement and energy from without. The internalization of the outside takes the form of conflicts, in which different sub-organizations interact and interface without ever forming a harmonious unity. This is why he never speaks of “subject” but rather of a “psychic apparatus.” Finally, the literal etymology of the words is relevant for Freud, whether he thought of it or not. The root of “apparatus” is the Latin verb “ad-parare” – to prepare for something. Since the milieu and medium of the “psychic apparatus” is division and conflict, both internal and external, the organization as a whole struggles to be in a constant state of preparedness: for impulses that originate elsewhere and that it can respond to but never entirely control. 

BW: So the ‘I’ is both bodily surface and psyche – and mainly reactive. What kind of impulses does the ‘I’ react to?  Does it have the ability to become active on its own, to determine itself from within?

SW: First and foremost, your question presupposes a dichotomy between “active” and “reactive” or more properly, “passive” that does not hold for the kinds of phenomena Freud is investigating. A dream is neither active nor passive. It is not active because it’s not under the dreamer’s control. But it is not passive since it involves all kinds of mental operations that are anything but random according to Freud. Phenomena such as dreams, but also symptoms and in general the workings of the psyche, as Freud describes them, require a category that does not depend on the mutually exclusive opposition of “active“ and “passive“ – which in turn presupposes the notion of a sovereignty of self-consciousness that Freud is compelled to question and ultimately subvert. There is another term I would use, therefore, to characterize the kind of unconscious activity that is neither active nor passive as those terms are traditionally understood, and that is: response. A response is not the same as a reaction. It is not an “action” insofar as this supposes a self-conscious awareness of the goal of what one intends to do. But it is also not just a quasi-automatic reaction, that presupposes passivity before the action of another. To be responsive is to acknowledge that one can be involved in movements and processes that do not originate in our self-conscious intentions, but rather “respond” to heterogenous impulses coming from without. Such responsiveness does not negate the “consciousness”; instead, it implies liberation from a “self” that dictates its origin and end. A responsive consciousness would be alert to the ways in which it receives messages, menaces and challenges, and then processes them – rather than seeing its activity as emanating essentially from the demands of a unitary, coherent “self”. This, I believe, is what Freud intends in constructing his notion of an “I” (ego) that mediates between “id” and “superego,” between internal and external.

BW:  Could you provide a sketch of the nature of ego, id and superego and their interrelationship?

SW: Freud generally identifies the “id” with both the somatic and the libidinal drives. But these are not just somatic: they are conditioned by the history of the psyche, which also means the specific ways the ego and superego develop. 

The “superego“ (a.k.a. “Over-I“ and “Trans-I”) forms in the wake of what Freud calls “the downfall of the Oedipus Complex” or the “castration complex”.  Freud describes how the so-called “castration complex,” the belief that all beings are endowed with a phallus and that  sexual difference is equivalent to phallic deprivation, cannot be sustained over time. Based on the conviction that the relation of the self to all others, including those who are sexually different, should be based on the universality of the phallus — i.e. on the priority of the same over the different — this complex, which emotionally implies castration anxiety (i.e. the fear of the loss of the phallus) first takes the form of a visual experience, then is internalized and in the process transformed into an overriding organization, which transcends or oversees the I: namely, the „superego.“ This is the heir to the infantile desire for a perfect self-identity, which now takes the form of a conflictual relation to the superego. “Be like me: be yourself!” Double bind par excellence: Tyrannical and seductive. 

The “ego” mediates between two heterogeneous tendencies: an exhortative, restrictive superego and drives that only strive for a reduction in tension. The “ego” seeks to reconcile the demands for a coherent identity with the irreducible conflict of drives and superego. 

BW: Let’s explore the notion of self-consciousness. Is the “ego“ totally devoid of it, or does Freud only reject the idea of a self-conscious ego conceived as an ego thinking itself? 

SW: I’m not sure that Freud ever clearly distinguishes between consciousness and self-consciousness. To be sure, like everyone else, he employs the distinction, but he doesn’t really clarify where each is employed. For example, what he calls “the unconscious” is closely associated with “repression,” which involves the exclusion of “representations“ (Vorstellungen in Freud’s original text) from “consciousness” – I would say rather, from “self-consciousness”, but Freud does not.  What Freud calls “repression” operates in a manner that strangely resembles conscious behavior. Above all, it seems to be fully determined by what philosophers have called “intentionality” (i.e. the direction of a consciousness towards an object, note by the editorial staff). Repression, in short, has to “know” what it wants to exclude from consciousness: it doesn’t just operate blindly. It therefore deserves to be included in “conscious thought”. In short, the “unconscious” is not simply the opposite of consciousness, not its absence, but a particular kind of consciousness, directed at an object. The difference from self-consciousness is that the intentional object of unconscious consciousness is non-unifiable: it is split into an object that is rejected and the object by means of which it is rejected, or rather, replaced. The object of the unconscious is thus a relationship of mutual exclusivity – but also of mutual interdependence. This is why it is structurally incompatible with what is called self-consciousness, whose objects must utlimately be unified and self-identical. Nevertheless, the unconscious that represses involves cognition, insofar as it has to “know” what it wants to exclude and insofar as its choice of a replacement is also deliberate (but not voluntary). This is why I think one has to distinguish between what Freud always insisted was the “mystery” of “consciousness,” on the one hand, and “self-consciousness” on the other. The real dividing line is the “self,” not consciousness. The Self can have different meanings, but its dominant one, at least since the 18th century, is that of someone or something staying the same over time and space. But this in turn raises the question of what it means to stay the same. The fact that this is a problem is registered in ordinary English through the expression “selfsame,” which would be entirely redundant and unnecessary if “self” and “same” were simply equivalent. 

BW: A conscious unconscious, an ego that is also id and superego  – Freud seemed to be fond of paradoxes. This makes the ego hard to grasp, and Freud’s own structural model of the psyche is quite deceptive: It suggests separated ‘psychic regions’, without fixed boundaries between them. What other theories have been suggested after Freud? And do you personally think that the psyche can successfully be theorized about?

SW: That fact that distinctions are not “clear-cut” does not necessarily invalidate them. It definetly refuses the desire some of us have to put a lid on questions and problems by receiving answers that seem to put them to rest, or in their proper place, once and for all. What Freud on the other hand attempts to think is the interrelationship of sub-organizations that are interdependent and yet also in conflict. It is this relation of conflictual interdependence that is perhaps most challenging to think – and this for the simple or not so simple reason that it requires incessant effort. You do not arrive at a clear-cut concept that enables you to take it easy, to “move forward” – a much favored expression today, and not just in politics or economics – without looking back. This also changes the notion of “theory” – in response to your question of whether “the psyche can successfully be theorized about.” 

I think the word “about” can be illuminating if we take it seriously, i.e. literally. We usually expect of thought that it “hit the mark” and this is also how we usually use the word “about”. But “about” more literally means “about and around”: it precisely involves what you rightly call a “region” rather than a defined and self-contained “object”. If one is trying to think of a series of interconnected “regions” that move in different directions without fixed borders, then “success” will involve a different relationship than that usually identified with “theory” qua contemplation. The real challenge of psychoanalysis and the tradition of thought to which it is related – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger, Derrida et al. – is to rethink thinking without the crutch of a safe, secure and stable distance separating subject from object. This is why most interesting theories of the “I“ involve some sort of process of “identification” with the other – i.e. taking the place of the other — , as with Jacques Lacan following Freud, but also Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein— and surely many others with which I am less familiar. Rethinking the “I” raises the challenge of rethinking individuation and differentiation in ways that are precisely not clear-cut because they aren‘t based on an original, constitutive self-identity.

BW : In your opinion, does our psyche ‘work’ the way Freud depicted it ? What are the weak spots in his theory ?

SW: In my experience — which is not that of a therapist, but of someone working with texts and who tries to be attentive to contemporary political and cultural developments — the “psyche” does indeed “work” largely as Freud depicted it. Which means however that the notion here of “work” is changed. The psyche works, but it is not the work of a self-conscious, self-controlled ego or subject. What is uncannily distinctive in Freud’s approach is his revelation that human behavior can be systematic and deliberate while remaining involuntary and inaccessible to self-conscious control. Dreams are a good example: they are purposive, not at all simply arbitrary, highly intricate and intimate, and yet generally not at all products of our self-conscious will. This is not because of their specific objects per se, but because what they articulate is highly contradictory and conflictual, and therefore incompatible with the demands for consistency and coherence of our self-consciousness. And yet that same self-consciousness depends on these contradictions. The Unconscious thinks and knows, but that thinking and knowledge cannot be assimilated by our self-consciousness. This non-assimilable dimension of human behavior and “thinking” constitutes both the strength of psychoanalysis and its limitation — but not its “weakness”. All thought is finite and so is Freud’s. It must be rethought, reconsidered, elaborated.  

The main place where I think Freud’s work demands and requires further thought concerns the relationship of anxiety to desire. To rethink anxiety would also underscore how a certain form of self-identity, articulated in the ambiguous-ambivalent sub-system of the „I“/ego, frames psychoanalytic concepts and discourse. This is not the „I“ of an autonomous subject, but rather that which marks the heteronomy and heterogeneity of the self. In strictly Freudian terms, this heterogeneity demands that we take seriously the implications of Freud’s later discovery that anxiety — the reaction of the „I“ to danger — is the condition of repression and not, as he had previously argued, the reverse. If anxiety is the condition of repression, however, this means that the „I“ — which is the “site” of anxiety – must be construed as existing in some form prior to the development of the individual psyche. This opens psychoanalysis to a perspective that is more broadly historical, cultural and social. What and how is this “I before the I“ constituted, where does it come from and where is it striving to go? How does it impact the formation of individual „I’s“? Freud’s unfinished thinking places us squarely before these questions.


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