Primal Repression and autonomy

freudscouch2The concept of primal repression is central to the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and those who, to one degree of another, follow in Freud’s footsteps.  It might be thought that it is the concept of the Unconscious that defines Freud, or perhaps the notion of the Oedipus complex.  Both, however, depend upon the concept of primal repression.  It is primal repression that creates or produces the unconscious and which is the first step in the production of the type of self which Freud posits, a self that arises from the tension between sexual instincts and ego instincts.  Primal repression is where we begin.

In his essay ‘Die Verdarangung’ (Repression), Freud writes that “we have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious.  With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it.  This is due to the properties of unconscious processes…” (PFL 11:147).  The key notion here, the one that seems at first sight so innocuous, is this claim that the ‘representative’ of an instinct is ‘denied entrance’ to consciousness.  The mechanism by which this occurs, the ‘how’ of this denial, is the problem of primal repression.

Freud offers us a curious illustration of this process of denying entrance.  Primal repression consists in either expelling an idea from consciousness or blocking it from entering (PFL 11:152).  The difference between expelling and refusing access is illustrated through the use of the metaphor of an undesirable guest in his house.  I can either kick them out of my house after I have found them undesirable or refuse them entrance if I believe them to be troublesome.  In addition I will need to set up some sort of “permanent guard” (PFL 11:153,fn1).

The curiosity here is that the mechanism of expelling or refusing a guest clearly involves some sort of agent with the power to carry out these actions.  In crude terms this would imply that there was some sort of homunculus inside our heads that operated like a ‘father of the house’, an authority that stood aside from the various guests and judged and selected amongst them.  The question of how that authority actually operates, how it is they make their choices and have the authority to enforce them, is ignored.  The very fact we want to understand and explain is simply pushed back into the metaphoric story which appears so obvious but which covers over the lack of actual explanation of the process of primal repression itself.  To try and understand the apparatus that underlies primal repression it is necessary to broaden out the view of Freud, beginning with the basic framework of his model.

First, the peculiar notion of the ‘instinct’ in Freud should be addressed.  There is a notorious tension between translating the German word Freud uses (Trieb) as ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’.  Common usage, perhaps derived from a background of biological ideas, takes the notion of instinct to refer to something like established behavioural responses to environmental stimuli that are grounded in physiological conditions, with a common example being that of the salmon returning to spawning grounds.  Freud, however, has a curious way of posing the notion of instinct, one which is best thought of as a specific Freudian concept.  For Freud, instinct is produced at the borderline between the psychic and the somatic.  Instinct is the meeting place of the body and mind and in this sense we should note that only animals with minds have instincts.

Secondly, the ‘properties of unconscious processes’ that Freud refers to are “exemption from mutual contradiction, primary process (mobility of cathexis), timelessness, and replacement of external by psychical reality” (PFL11:191).  The unconscious, Freud claims, operates with different rules than the conscious.  The four core properties that are summarised here give the outline of the unconscious system, as distinct from the conscious.

The first property, exemption from mutual contradiction, arises from the claim that “in the Ucs. there are only contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength” (PFL 9;190)  The contents of the Ucs. are ‘wishful impulses’ and it is entirely possible to have two such impulses in existence which appear to completely contradict each other.  The existence of the wishful impulses is not constrained by mutual conceptual compatability, as in the case of beliefs.  Instead the wishful impulses are constrained only by the amount of cathexis.  Cathexis is itself the ‘degree of activity’ (PFL 11::151) of a particular wishful impulse.  Freud also speaks of “an idea or group of ideas which is cathected with a definite quota of psychical energy (libido or interest) coming from an instinct” (PFL 11:152).  Cathexis is, we might say, the strength of the instinct expressed in the idea.  The idea is not the instinct but its representative.

The second property, that of the ‘primary process’ or the ‘mobility of cathexis’ rests upon the distinction between the instinct and its representative.  Whilst instincts are the motor force of the Ucs. they exist in cathected forms – in other words, the instinct exists as an idea with an amount of energy or charge.  This is why Freud’s instincts are a borderline phenomena; the instinct is always and only an idea with a degree of energy.  Despite this, however, the energy that is attached to an idea is contingently connected and can slip from one idea to another.  The energy of the impulses is mobile (mobility of cathexis) and can move from one idea to another.  There are two basic forms of this movement, according to Freud: displacement and condensation.  In displacement the energy attached to idea A is taken over by idea B, in condensation the energy attached to idea B takes over the energy of idea A, C, D ….    The two terms appear to refer to the same process but from different perspectives, although they are not simply co-extensive.  Displacement can take place without condensation but condensation depends upon displacement. Condensation involves the displacement of two or more ideas and a synthesising complication, whereas displacement may simply be a change in representative.

The third property, of timelessness, refers to the lack of any temporal directionality governing the unconscious, the idea that an ordering in time is an aspect of conscious ideas but inapplicable to the unconscious.  Whilst this notion of timelessness is fascinating, it is the final property that is of more direct interest at the moment.  The crux of this property is the emphasis on the autonomy of the domain of the psychic, driven not by rational considerations but instead by an economics of pleasure and pain.  The processes of the unconscious precede conscious ‘thinking’ and are ‘primary processes’ which are governed by the ‘pleasure-unpleasure’ principle, “or more shortly the pleasure principle” (PFL 11:36).  Repression arises from the regulation of wishes and desires that cause unpleasure.

This model of the unconscious poses it as prior to the conscious.  In ‘Two principles of mental functioning’, for example, Freud clearly poses a developmental relation between the unconscious and the conscious, the latter arising from the introduction of a ‘reality principle’ alongside the ‘pleasure principle’.  This reality principle arises from the failure of the hallucinatory wishes of the unconscious and the need to acknowledge rather than simply repress unpleasure.  The reality principle arises from the failure of the pleasure principle to adequately regulate the organism within external reality (PFL 11:37).  As Freud develops his ideas, however, he grapples with numerous problems of internal coherence and empirical observation.  His system changes, eventually resulting in the more familiar notions of Ego, Id and Super-Ego.  Central to this development is what is meant by ‘the unconscious’.  From an earlier position in which the unconscious in some sense preceded the conscious Freud arrives at a position in which ‘consciousness’ increasingly loses any real meaning.  The whole of psychic life becomes nothing more than the play of drives, the conscious surface as much a result of these drives as the unconscious dynamics.  From a position in which the unconscious is granted autonomy we reach a position in which the conscious life loses autonomy.  Ideas are emptied of autonomy in the face of the drives of the instincts.

The colonisation of our understanding of the conscious life of thought by the unconscious drives is deeply problematic for reason because it can be taken to be a denial of the rational autonomy of ideas and of thinking as a processing of those ideas.  Instead of an honest thinker behind the thought we now find a hidden series of forces that constitute the truth of the idea.  Psychoanalysis over-writes the model of the human rational agent with a new practice grounded in a fundamentally metaphysical production.  Its power arises not from the absolute accuracy of the metaphysics of the unconscious but from its efficacy in social manipulation.  Yet the efficacy is quite specific and is not located in psychoanalytic therapy, the efficacy of which is debatable.  The real strength of ‘Freudianism’ rests not in ‘the talking cure’ but in the power of propaganda and the efficiency of sales techniques, it rests in the capacity to change the group mind not the individual psyche.

Two fundamentals arise from Freud, from his metaphysics of the mind.  The first is the way in which ideas and instincts are conjoined in a contingent connection that can be manipulated.  The second is the efficacy of a practice that engages with these Instincts within a social rather than an individual situation.  The conjoined effect of these two facts is to render society manipulable.  It is possible to change the minds of the people even if it is difficult to change the mind of a person.  If it is possible to disconnect and reconnect instincts and drives then different ideas can be inserted into the minds of the people, in a form of reprogramming.  If this process operates at the level of the group rather than the individual then this has the potential to disarm subjective autonomy by overwhelming it with group minds.  If we can reprogramme the people then individual resistance can become irrelevant by virtue of being pathologised.  Resistance to the social group mind becomes, in this scenario, a form of illness rather than opportunity.

If psychoanalysis is simply wrong then the problem is one of explaining its efficacy in the realm of public relations, propaganda and social manipulation.  It is important here not to mistake efficacy with control.  The claim is not that the group mind can be completely controlled but simply that the use of techniques that are derived from and dependent on the Freudian metaphysic can be effective in limited and specific ways, specifically in terms of selling products or ideas, installing them into the group psyche.  Given a limited set of goals (sell product X, promote idea Y) and a wide ranging input into the social imagination, it is possible to remove resistances and attach desires to new products posing as ideas.   On the other hand, if psychoanalysis is right, then the prospects for a rational enlightened socius are greatly weakened when the techniques of social manipulation are not acknowledged.  Autonomy is outflanked by desire.

This poses the problem as a struggle, a kind of war, between autonomy and desire.  The refusal to acknowledge the role of desire leaves any purported agent vulnerable to its workings. (“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”.)  If an understanding of agency begins with the assumption that there are a set of drives at work in the establishment of the value and weight of ideas, then it is possible to move beyond the naive position of an honest thinker.  If agency involves distrust of agency, distrust of why a particular thought arises, distrust of the immediate reactions to news stories, distrust of ‘gut reactions’, then might this not open a way to avoid the outflanking of autonomy by desires?  Might some degree of distrust of the self not constitute the ground of the autonomy of the self?

It should only take a moment’s reflection to realise that there is something quite peculiar involved here.  What, for example, is doing the distrust?  Or perhaps, who distrusts whom?  There is some odd doubling of the self that is not obviously a possible let alone a viable strategy.  In addition, is there not a desire for autonomy?  If that is the case and the agent is being being persuaded to distrust the desires that underlie ideas, might this not apply to the very desire for autonomy and agency itself?

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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