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Psychoanalytic Orthodoxy: The Problem of/with the Ego

For many critical theorists, the reactionary formulations that dominate public understandings of psychoanalysis are derived from its reception and development in North America (Frosh, 2010; Jacoby, 1975; Marcuse, 1955). The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) was formed in 1911 and, in opposition to Freud’s (1926) views on the selection of analysts, pursued between 1938 and 1987 a training agenda that excluded non-medical practitioners. As such, the practice of psychoanalysis was firmly embedded in psychiatry, and the medico-scientific respectability of this connection was opposed to the laxness of training statutes in the psychoanalytic institutions of other nations such as Britain and France. This approach fed into a golden age of psychoanalytic popularity in the United States as the APsaA rose to dominance on the global stage and reflected an image of its practice out across the world. Producing “training regimes that reward conformity and militate against creative and critical thinking” (Frosh, 2010, p. 14), however, created an aura of stiffness and conservatism within the APsaA, and treatment followed a similarly conformist trajectory. Curative ideals were founded on models of normative development that in its most influential iterations posited identity formation and ego integrity as their goal.

The central work of Erik Erikson (1950), for example, focuses on identity and posits a stage theory of development in which stability and unity of ego function are the ultimate achievements. Such a developmental aim coincides with social relationships that are ultimately adaptive, thus creating harmony and continuity between psychological health and appropriate social interaction and behaviour. In the clinic, similar ideals gave rise to ego psychology as the distinctively American face of psychoanalysis. A term coined by Heinz Hartmann in 1939, ego psychology is a theory and therapeutic technique that focuses on the organising functions of the ego as it develops autonomy. This understanding derives from Freud’s second model, where the psyche is divided into distinct agencies, and the ego “puts itself forward as the representative of the whole person” (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1988, p. 452). In this structure, the ego is seen as being subject to unreasonable demands from internal drives and the external environment and needs to protect itself.

As the child develops, its newly formed and vulnerable ego employs defence mechanisms to manage the various threats and tensions that assault it. As Anna Freud noted, in her 1936 text The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, these are invariably maladaptive in the infant and seek to protect through exclusion. Conflict thus returns as if from outside in unexpected and distressing ways. Successful development, which provides a model for psychotherapeutic practice, coincides with producing more adaptive responses that deal with conflicts directly in an increasingly autonomous ego, enlarged through progressive internalisation (i.e. representation) of instinctual and external forces. Mental health and psychopathology are conceived in terms of this adaptive function, with therapy identifying maladaptive defences that constrain the individual and building ego integrity more securely so that forces imposing negatively on the self can be mastered and thereby overcome. The ego becomes a centring structure that responds appropriately to and autonomously of social strictures and tames a drive life perceived to threaten both the self and the established social fabric. By focusing on the ego, ego psychology was assimilable to psychiatry and enjoyed a close correspondence with the general psychological revolution in twentieth-century America that made the individual its focus.

For a critical social psychology framework, there are considerable issues with this approach to psychoanalytic theory and technique. Writing at the high point of its popularity in the 1970s, Russell Jacoby rejects ego psychology as inherently reactionary because it ignores the impact of social forces in the constitution and positioning of the individual subject. This “social amnesia” in its theory produces a defensive individualism that repeats and feeds into the capitalist structure of North American society. In treatment, the innovation and critical reflexivity required for radical change (initially in, although not restricted to, the individual patient) is eschewed in favour of a clinical practice that measures cure in terms of how successfully the analy- sand identifies her ego with that of the analyst. The impact of social forces on the individual, particularly as these generate the oppressive conditions that frame the personal repressions and conflict so central to Freudian theory, is largely ignored. Influenced by Freud’s later works on civilisation and the mutual impact of social and psychical structures, the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse (1970) acknowledges how every internal barrier that generates repression was first an external obstacle knitted into the fabric of the historical process that constitutes a society. Before the individual can self- determine, they are determined by a network of historical and social relations that are then distilled in the psyche. Social oppression and psychical repression are intimately related in ways that eschew the simple formulations that a discrete and autonomous individual must accept the laws of social living, despite conflict with its instinctual demands. Instead, social and historical processes are traced into the heart of subjectivity to the extent that even the concept of the individual is constructed through specific ideologies. The autonomous self so celebrated in late-capitalist ideology is one such distillation of the historical process at the level of the individual.

Jacoby sees how “ego psychology grinds down the cutting edge of psychoanalysis” (1975, p. 41), separating the psyche from its relational and contextual milieu in a way that is more palatable for the individualist market place in North America. This criticism against US psychoanalytic orthodoxy is echoed by a number of psychoanalytic schools in mostly European and South American contexts. It is the force of this response which reminds us of the critical edge that psychoanalysis still fosters in its classical Freudian guise and its key reimagining in the works of Melanie Klein and the object-relations theorists in Britain, the work of Jacques Lacan and the innovative post-Lacanian generation in France and the varied developments and combinations of these approaches in the rest of the world. There is a sense in these related positions that ego psychology is somehow a misreading of Freud that sanitises his key insights and seeks to resolve an irresolvable foundational conflict with notions of selfhood that return to a unified subjectivity he had already undermined. Whilst ego psychology is a limited reading of psychoanalysis that removes its potentially radical spirit, it does, however, represent a very distinct trend within Freud’s corpus that cannot be ignored and opens up profound questions for the possibility of conceptualising that which fundamentally resists comprehension; these questions will be explored in due course.

Ego psychology derives from Freud’s mature reflections following his text The Ego and the Id (1923) and the construction of his second topography. Here, the first topography which opposes the unconscious to the preconscious-conscious as different levels of representation in a dynamic system is supplanted by distinct and localisable psychical agencies. In the first topography, Freud understands the psyche as a closed system around which drive energy flows and that functions according to the primary process (or pleasure principle). The uninterrupted flow of a manageable quantity of energy maintains homeostasis which can be interrupted when pressure is allowed to build up at various points. Pressure generates discomfort which is inherently pleasurable when released. In his 1915a texts Repression and The Unconscious, Freud clarifies the relationship between the body (soma) and the psyche as that of the instincts and their representatives. The instincts are not a direct component of the psyche, and are in themselves unknowable, but their force is imprinted on the psyche through the ideas they attach to in the course of an individual’s development. Freud speaks of Vorstellungsreprasentanz (the ideational representatives) to denote this transfer from the functioning of the body to that of the psyche. Different levels of consciousness are determined by the quality of representation and how these allow drive energy attached to be expressed and hence discharged. As the expressions of instincts that are unbounded by moral pressures, the ideational representatives are subject to censorship as the developing self undergoes necessary reality testing. This process removes the possibility of conscious articulation from certain representatives as these are deemed personally or socially transgressive. This censorship of psychical material and its crystallisation into various unspeakable complexes is what Freud describes as repression and in his first topography, denotes the formation and contents of the unconscious. Pressure from the unconscious persists unabated, and its satisfaction must be sought through partial means in the form of compromises. Modelled on his theory of dreams, the transfer from repressed content to its disguised expression accounts for a whole range of largely disruptive psychical phenomena including, most significantly, the symptoms manifest in neurotics.

The inadequacies of this model were revealed in the clinic as Freud encountered cases that did not neatly fit his understanding of neurosis. These nonneurotic cases, as Andre Green describes them, (2005) included disorders of the personality (e.g. narcissism), self-distortions (e.g. melancholia) and numerous borderline phenomena (straddling both neurotic and psychotic experiences) which all somehow implicated the development and operation of the ego. This required a new understanding of the psyche with a focus on the ego as a centring structure of the self and the way this is constructed in relation to processes of investment (love) and identification with significant others. The ego mediates between instinctual demands, the demands of reality and a further demand from the parental and social expectations that we internalise as we enter a civilised community. Instincts, along with repressed material, are now placed in a new conceptual agency termed the id (das es), whilst the agency that judges and criticises the self according to the standards of the internalised parents is denoted the superego. The ego develops out of the id as a surface “which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world” (Freud, 1923, p. 25). Constituted as the perception system represents and affords a basic reflection upon pleasure-seeking activities, it is formed of various precipitates as it mediates and represents its relationships with significant objects in the world “transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own” (ibid., p. 25) and directing instincts to more acceptable ends. Development of the ego as a discrete psychical entity requires it to be loved and invested by the id as though it were an object, which leads Freud to postulate his key concept of narcissism in a text of the same name from 1914. Not simply the vanity and self-obsession of certain adult pathologies, narcissism becomes a necessary stage in psychical development that allows the tenuous self-boundaries of the infant to be shored up before opening out onto object love.

Freud’s focus on the ego and the narcissism necessary for its construction is a defining aspect of the transition from first to second topographies and shifts the theoretical emphasis from conflict to defence. The ego psychologists exploit Freud’s description of ego formation and transform it into a prescription for ideal therapeutic outcome and an imperative for late-capitalist living. In its theorisation of narcissism as a fundamental stage in psychical development, psychoanalysis “indirectly favoured narcissism’s cultural primacy,” giving way to a “troubling cult of one’s own psyche” (Benvenuto & Molino, 2009, p. 18) where the pains and frustrations of conflict are no longer engaged with as a fundamental instability in the subject but are defended against with the ultimate goal of their resolution and removal.

This ego-centring and its celebration of narcissistic individualism is clearly at odds with critical social psychology. For many psychoanalysts, it is also a tempering of Freud’s revolutionary insight that, as Green (2005) argues, is a feature of his second topography in particular. The centring on the ego already noted is pre-empted by a corollary centring of the psyche on the id in which the unconscious is often reduced to instinctual processes explicable in a biological register. As Jacoby (1975) notes, the Freud of the later period seems caught between a psychology of the ego that is in danger of reverting to pre-Freudian notions of the humanist self and an id psychology that strays closely to biological essentialism. An original decentring of human subjectivity often succumbs to a counter-tendency that re-centres the individual according to new psychical agencies. This creates a psychoanalytic project that not only fits more readily into an institutional mould but is also its greatest betrayal. The ego and id psychologies that Freud vacillates between are two sides of an inward turn that tempers the radical edge of the psychoanalytic revolution by ignoring the social, relational and contextual factors that produce and yet put in question the sanctity of the individual. Laplanche sees this reactionary centring action as almost inevitable, as ego integrity and its corollary notion of biological instinct covers over harsh realities of psychological fragmentation to justify unquestioned appeals to greater social and psychological cohesion. With such politically problematic and fundamentally deceptive tendencies, he highlights the necessity of returning to what is most radical in Freud’s work, especially the notion of unconscious and its intimate links with sexuality, to present a counter-trend to these commonsense formulations. He notes a “domestication of the unconscious” (1999, p. 67) that is effective both at the level of the developing individual and, through what he terms theoreticogenesis, at the level of the theory that describes this. Freud’s work falls into this pattern almost from the outset as he attempts to systematise the unconscious and establish its economic principles. His first model of repression, for example, postulates the existence of unknown content in the structure of the self, but for the most part (until he considers the thesis of primal repression), these contents were once experiential traces whose ability to be expressed has simply been removed by censorship. Locked away in the depths of the psyche, they are still tangible and can make logical (hence economic) connections to restore them to comprehension. Like Freud’s recourse to biological instincts, the centring on ego structures is simply replaced by a centre that is hidden from view in the unconscious. Laplanche uncovers this fundamental “going astray” (fourvoiement) in all the major post-Freudian schools, even those that demonstrate radical openings such as the Kleinians and Lacanians.

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