Mar 2008

Freud 101 — the topography

“The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”. That’s an idea that may well feature prominently in my thesis. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of April 2nd to finalise the title. Right now I’m essentially researching three different thesis topics, which is fascinating and all, but not too efficient. Mind you, I’ve whittled that down from about six. The most recent to fall by the wayside was the idea of writing on Freud’s notion of compulsive repetition, via an analysis of the films of Takeshi Kitano. Sadly, I realised that despite my familiarity with his films, I’m not nearly familiar enough with Japanese culture to really do justice to the subject (though it’s definitely a paper I’d love to read).

But “the modern free market as a manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”? What the hell does that mean, right? Oh, and what’s the pleasure principle again?

Well, last question first I guess; a few paragraphs on Freud’s second topography wouldn’t go amiss.

The ego and the id

During Freud’s early work, he used a theoretical model of the mind / psyche now known as ‘the first topography’. This divided the psyche into three parts / processes; the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. However, he later revised this significantly into the second topography. There are still three parts / processes but now they are the id, the ego, and the super-ego*.

The ego is a conflation of the conscious and the preconscious of the first topography. By and large, it’s that part of the mind that we are aware of (though there are elements of the ego of which we are unconscious, confusingly enough). And it’s more than just awareness; the ego, for most of us, is where we locate our identity.

The id relates, more or less, to the unconscious of the first topography. It’s the part of the human psyche that contains the thoughts and memories of which we are currently unaware (including, though not limited to, those which are the subject of repression). Perhaps more importantly, to psychoanalytic theory at least, the id; the unconscious mind; is also home to a cauldron of desires and drives which motivate us as much as, if not more than, those desires and drives of which we are conscious.

In Freudian theory, the ego and the id are generally in conflict. The id is governed by “the pleasure principle” which is regularly misunderstood as being an instinct to seek out pleasure. In fact, Freud pointed out that the drive behind the pleasure principle is at least as much about the desire to avoid “unpleasure”. It’s what drives us to seek food when we are hungry. The ego, on the other hand, is governed by “the reality principle”. This is, in simple terms, an awareness of the appropriate way to interact with the external world.

So, for example, a hungry person who passes a market-stall containing fresh bread will be driven, by the pleasure principle, to consume it and so escape the hunger. The primary biological / unconscious / id imperative is a simple “eat that bread”. An infant in this position will consequently reach out and grab the bread (Freud believed that the ego, and therefore the reality principle, is acquired through development, while the id is innate). Someone who has developed a relatively normal ego, adequately governed by the reality principle, will — on the other hand — understand that the appropriate behaviour is to first buy the bread and then eat it. This is why, in Freudian terms, the primary tool deployed by the reality principle to keep the pleasure principle in check, is known as “postponement”.

The super-ego

Often seen as the poor cousin in Freud’s topography, the super-ego is usually of less interest to Freudians. Probably because they already have their hands full dealing with the id. All the same, it’s a fascinating part of his work and plays a pretty important role in my mapping of Freud’s topography onto groups rather than individuals. I’ve written before that “the super-ego is where culture lives”. I still believe that to be a true statement (albeit at the poetic end of truth), but it’s a very incomplete picture. I wrote it when discussing culture, not the super-ego.

Indeed, because parts of it are conscious and parts unconscious, the Freudian super-ego can be a little hard to pin down. Rycroft writes that the super-ego is that part of the psyche “where self-observation, self-criticism and other reflective activities develop” (guilt is a big weapon in the arsenal of the super-ego). Meanwhile, according to the bible, “Super-ego is the product of an internalisation of, and identification with, parent and parental authority, including prohibitions and values associated with that authority. Insofar as parental authority reflects the broader social context, the super-ego can be seen as the indirect product of the internalisation of society’s demands and values”.

I’m aware that the super-ego sounds a bit like the reality principle. But they are quite distinct, one being a regulatory function of the ego based upon both an awareness of the immediate environment and circumstances as well as an understanding of consequences and appropriate behaviour. The super-ego is — in part — where that “appropriate behaviour” is stored within our psyche. The reality principle is guided both by the ego and the super-ego with the goal of modifying the pleasure principle so that it doesn’t get us into trouble.

Applying this to groups

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are problems with trying to scale up Freud’s topography as a tool to analyse groups, organisations or cultures. But at the same time, there can be merit in doing so. Gregory Bateson is my main guide in this territory, and he has explained why this approach is both legitimate and useful. In Morale and National Character (1942), Bateson demonstrates that the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups are subject to analysis, contrast and comparison so that something we could rightfully consider “national character” begins to emerge. It’s worth pointing out that this analysis can be applied not merely to nations, but to any large group that adheres to a specific set of cultural norms.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to pause and provide examples of what I mean by “the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups”. Bateson’s essay is comparing the national character of Germany and England and does so by examining the culturally determined relationships that exist between (for example) men and women, parents and children, upper-class and lower-class, and so on. The essay is not an exhaustive case-study, and is largely about promoting the (at the time heretical) idea that western cultures and civilisations are just as open to anthropological and psycho- analysis as are the “primitive” cultures of Bali and Papua New Guinea where he did revolutionary work. Along the way, however, he convincingly demonstrates how pronounced character traits can emerge within large groups of people due to specific commonalities in their individual development, which are themselves culturally determined by, and specific to, those groups.

So when Bateson’s work is read in the context of Hostadter and Dennett’s theories about “mind” emerging from organised complexity, and even Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, it doesn’t seem illegitimate to suggest that large groups can indeed by “psychoanalysed” (to use the term in it’s most broad sense) despite the apparent lack of an identifiable “psyche”.

The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle

So let’s return to the original theme, and answer the first of those questions: “The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”… what the hell does that mean?

Well, a part of my hypothesis is the idea that there now exists a global civilisation that transcends national borders** but which can be defined largely by American cultural and economic influence. I’m not suggesting that this civilisation originated in America, merely that those cultural norms which have historically been embraced and promoted by American society, help define it. And thanks to US (and US-influenced) mass-media as well as global movements like feminism, the equal rights initiatives and multiculturalism, we have entered a period where the developmental experiences of American, Irish, British, German, Greek or Australian individuals are becoming far less distinct, opening the way for a collective analysis.

As part of that analysis, it is my suggestion that… you guessed it… the modern free market is a manifestation of our collective pleasure principle. It represents the demands (quite literally) of the collective. When those demands are repugnant or unreasonable then the market gets modified and restricted by laws (the passing of such laws being an example of our collective reality principle at work).

To take an unambiguous example, upon which I suspect we can all agree that a level of market intervention is required; much to our dismay, there exists a demand for — and market in — child pornography. Leaving aside the abstractions of “simulated child pornography” (as clearly there is a demand specifically for the non-simulated variety), we have passed laws making the sale or possession of such material illegal. This is noteworthy, because we have done so despite already having laws that outlaw its production. As a culture, we have understood that the market for this material is in itself problematic. We work, therefore, not merely at outlawing supply but also at attempting to curtail demand.

The basic analogy

An individual who allows their behaviour to be guided by an unregulated pleasure principle is likely to be both destructive to himself and his immediate environment (along with anyone who shares that environment with them). It is clear that we, as a civilisation, are capable of regulating our demands of the world. We possess the tools to do so. I would suggest, however, that we are guilty of significantly under-using those tools, and that the almost-unregulated demand for natural resources is resulting in behaviour both destructive to ourselves and to our immediate environment.

* It’s an interesting historical note that Freud did not use those words, and they are in our common lexicon thanks to his translators. In the original German, the id, ego and super-ego are the es, ich and über-ich, or literally, the it, I and over-I. It was his translators who decided to latinise them.

** This isn’t to suggest that individual nations do not still retain a national character, though I believe that an increasing homogenity is making them less prominent.

Posted in: Opinion