Seminar II - The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis

1954 – 1955

Chapter V - Homeostasis and Insistence

(All quotations refer to The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954 -1955, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli, with notes by John Forrester, WW Norton: 1991)

Lacan begins this session by criticising what he sees Freud’s reliance on “imagistic formulations”  to account for the processes of the psyche, such as consciousness, which he addresses in the preceding chapter. Leclaire, who has given a presentation the evening before, gets accused of making an idol out of the subject. Whilst at this point in his work Lacan has not fleshed out a theory of the subject as an effect of the displacement of the signifier, an ephiphenomenon of the signifying chain, he warns against viewing subjectivity as a substantive concept (for example as a consciousness transparent to itself). “When one speaks of subjectivity”, he says, “the problem is to not turn the subject into an entity” (p.53). At this point in Seminar II we find Lacan giving us a conception of the subject emptied out of all of his positive properties, only appearing with any substance when it is reified in the image of the other. Whereas we might usually believe our self-consciousness to be evidence of our subjectivity, which would help give us it some personification, Lacan in contrast boils down subjectivity to an alienating identification, as already theorised in his mirror stage paper. In the current text the argument is much the same,

“ The subject is no one. It is decomposed, in pieces. And it is jammed, sucked in by the image, the deceiving and realised image, of the other, or equally by its own specular image. That is where it finds its unity” (p.54).

To illustrate this, he returns to his bizarre and confusing apologue of the mechanical tortoises that he used at the end of the preceding chapter and reminds us that one is stuck on the movements of the other, so that there is a reciprocity of movement, a fixation, and a kind of circuit in their motility that results. This is all at the level of the imaginary as “the schema of their symbolic has not even been established” (p.54). Now, if we give these machines a rudimentary desire (for example, to renew their batteries) it is bound to end in disaster because such a desire is identical for both and they are bound to collide and knock each other of the course of their mutual desire. In short, their mutual desire can be said to be mutually exclusive. To regulate it, Lacan says that it would need some kind of symbolic intervention. This, he asks us to image, would take the form of a voice: “let us suppose that a loud voice – we can easily imagine that someone supervises their operation, the legislator – intervenes so as to regulate the ballet [between the machines]” (p.54). But when Leclaire accuses Lacan of displacing his idolification from the subject to this voice, Lacan appears to concede, or at least clarify, by admitting that “To say that it is the legislator’s voice would doubtless be an idolification… And shouldn’t we perhaps in the end recognise it, this voice, as the voice of no one” (p.55). So like the mechanical tortoises are introduced to flesh out his point that the subject is simply empty save its imaginary crutches, the voice that represents a regulation is also denied a subject. How then to make sense of his following assertion that the voice would have to come from the machine itself, because “it is necessary that in the combinatory each of the machines be able to count itself” (p.56).

Lacan believes that psychoanalysis shows us is that it is in the unconscious that what he carefully labels “the individual in his subjective function” (p.56) can take himself into account, to count himself or think of himself as one. Lacan gives an anecdote about a mistake a child makes when taking a test to assess his grammar. If the child mistakenly says I have three brothers, Paul, Ernest and me, how does it happen that he makes this mistake of counting himself as one of the three brothers? At what level does the child take himself into account? Lacan says that this mistake is not one at the level of consciousness; it is not because the child thinks of his own consciousness as transparent to itself. Indeed, Lacan implores us to “free our notion of consciousness of any mortgage as regards the subject’s apprehension of itself” (p.57). So if the subject does not apprehend himself in consciousness, what does consciousness do, what is its role? Lacan sees this as a crucial problem for Freud. He claims that,

“His [Freud's] speculation – see the Project and the Metapsychology – leads him to consider that there is a discursive necessity for holding the system of consciousness to be excluded from the dynamic of the systems of the psyche. The problem remains unresolved for him…. He evidently ends up in an impasse” (p.57).

Lacan’s view is that it is not in consciousness but in the unconscious that the subject takes account of himself, so it is here that the child’s grammatical mistake arises, not because the apparent transparency of his self-consciousness produces this illusion; all the phenomena of consciousness are in a different place, are “heterotopic” (p.57), to the unconscious.

Lefebvre-Pontalis interjects, dubious about all of this. He claims that the consciousness transparent to itself that Lacan claims he is getting rid of is actually nevertheless still there – in the example discussed in the previous chapter men have to recognise the picture the camera takes in their absence as the image of a mountain in a lake (see above), and a part of us has to accept that the random numbers we generate when asked to free associate one them have a significance for our lives (this is another anecdote Lacan provides when arguing that it is in the unconscious that we take ourselves into account). Lefebvre-Pontalis’ point is to ask whether it is not consciousness that performs this function?

Lacan’s response is that rather than wanting to destroy consciousness – he says in the previous chapter that the idea of consciousness has no use (p.49) – what he is really interested in is the ego. This relates to consciousness because,

“The notion of the ego today draws its self-evidential character from a certain prestige given to consciousness in so far as it is a unique, individual, irreducible experience. The intuition of the ego retains, in so far as it is centred on the experience of consciousness, a captivating character, which one must rid oneself of in order to accede to our conception of the subject” (p.58).

So the question that interests Lacan is: how should we conceptualise the relationship between the ego and the unconscious? Should we think of the unconscious as simply a negation of the ego – everything that has been found too uncomfortable by the ego is rejected from consciousness and becomes unconscious through repression? Are the two systems complementary, so that the ego is a kind of ‘yes’ to material and the unconscious represents a kind of ‘no’? This is exactly the kind of characterisation that Lacan claims to find in an article written by Sandor Rado in 1939, Developments in the Psychoanalytic Conception and Treatment of the Neuroses, which he cites here in order to critique.

For Rado, the same principle that regulates a homeostasis in the organism regulates, at a higher level, the functioning of the psychical system. This is for him a principle of riddance: the ego ‘rids’ itself of what is disagreeable just as the motor reflex ‘rids’ itself of painful stimuli. Thus, the same stimulus-response mechanism that we are familiar with from Freud’s principle of inertia can serve to characterise the relationship between the ego and the unconscious.

Lacan’s view is that, with the introduction of the second topography hailed by Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud’s work admits of no such interpretation. For Lacan, what Freud shows us starting with this paper is that “not only is there an absolute dissymmetry between the subject of the unconscious and the organisation of the ego, but also a radical difference” (p.59). From Beyond the Pleasure Principle onwards, Freud’s theorisation does not permit any explanation that views the ego as an agency that rejects what is unpleasant or unacceptable to it, thereby becoming unconscious. Indeed, as we already know from Freud’s work up until this point, the primary processes  that govern the unconscious (condensation, displacement) work entirely differently to the secondary processes that govern the conscious and preconscious systems. An obvious consequence of this would be that the unconscious cannot be identified simply as that which has been repressed by the ego.

But Lacan goes deeper into this problematic of the relation between the unconscious and the ego. In Freud’s metapsychology we have two principles operating: the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Pleasure is held as the dominant principle, whilst the reality principle is always ultimately in the service of the pleasure principle (Lacan tells us at the end of his Baltimore lecture in 1966 that the pleasure principle can be understood simply a principle of unpleasure, insofar as it is unpleasure that is avoided more than pleasure being sought). The psyche – that is, everything that happens in psychical reality – is as it were caught in between these two principles. Freud believes that this psychical reality must operate in a way that is analogous to physical reality in that there are exchanges of energy which have a certain force and accumulate and discharge. This is a psycho-physicist explanation that Freud gets from Fechner.

So psychical reality tends to a position of what Freud calls inertia and Lacan labels homeostasis. There is a point of equilibrium in psychical reality that regulates the flow of energy and, importantly, this is the rule for both systems: the ego and the unconscious. Now, as Lacan articulates it, with Beyond the Pleasure Principle a problem is discovered in this system, and it is a problem that makes the characterisation of the relation between the unconscious and the ego as a relationship of plus and minus, of acceptable material and unacceptable material, like that implied by Rado’s concept of ‘riddance’, an impossible position to maintain. As Lacan summarises the problem,

“Is it simply that what is pleasure in the one [the ego] is unpleasure in the other [the unconscious], and vice versa? If the two systems were the inverse of one another, one should be able to arrive at a general law of equilibrium, and on that account, there would be an analysis of the ego which would be the analysis of the unconscious inside out. That, put in a theoretical way, is the problem I put to you earlier” (p.60).

So what is the problem? What is revealed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that forces us to reject this homeostatic view of psychical reality and makes a conception like Rado’s so impossible to sustain?

The answer, simply put, is repetition: the compulsion to repeat as a characteristic of the system of the unconscious. Lacan here prefers the notion of insistence to that of repetition due to the neurological connotations the French automatisme de repetition has. Insistence implies something being striven for, irrespective of other claims or intentions. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud gives examples of such repetitions or insistences, the most celebrated being that of the shell-shocked First World War soldier who relives his trauma in his dreams. Why would he do this if dreams obey, even if in a roundabout way, the pleasure principle, and if psychical life tends to a position of homeostasis, restitution or equilibrium? Freud does not overstate the importance of this example but Lacan believes that although “among the different exceptions he mentions, none seems  to him quite sufficient to put the principle into question. But the exceptions taken as a whole, seem to him to converge” (p.62). If the unconscious has an insistence that manifests itself as pathological repetition, then,

“This system has something disturbing about it. It is dissymmetrical. It doesn’t quite fit. Something in it eludes the system of equations and the evidence borrowed from the forms of thought of the register of energetics as they were introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century” (p.61).

Lacan’s account for the psycho-physical principle that Freud works lies in the scientific orthodoxy of his day, motivation but technological and mechanical innovations that obeyed such principles. Freud could not have based a metapsychological theory on energetics unless the principles of such a theory had found an application in the time that he was living – for example, with the invention of the steam train with the Industrial Revolution: forces, pressures, hydraulics, movements of energy are at work here. But with the recognition of the importance of unconscious repetition or insistence psychoanalytic theory outstrips this model. Summarising, Lacan writes,

“It is the principle of homeostasis which obliges Freud to inscribe all his deductions in terms of investment, charge, discharge, energy relations between different systems. However, he realises that something doesn’t work in all this. That’s what Beyond the Pleasure Principle is all about, no more no less” (p.61).

Clinically, the transference is traditionally cited as the exemplary case of repetition in analysis, but Lacan reminds us that this is “only a particular case of a far more diffuse reproduction” (p.63), lest we think that this is a unique character of transference rather than the unconscious itself. If we are truly at an impasse, where to take the theory? “Does it [repetition, insistence] occur because of something unruly, or does it obey a different, more fundamental principle?” (p.63). We might read this latter alternative as pointing to the death drive, which indeed was the formulation Freud settled on in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, albeit retaining the dualism that had characterised his previous metapsychology. For Lacan however, when he comes to discuss the death drive in Seminar XI, this dualism is rejected, four drives are identified and linked to object a in its four respective guises, and all drives are characterised as death drives.

Ultimately therefore, it is the drive that goes beyond the pleasure principle. If we end by delving briefly into a passage from Seminar XI we find Lacan reminding us of Freud’s insistence that the drive can be satisfied even if it does not achieve its aim… yet for Freud its aim is always pleasure! Isn’t this a paradox, or even a contradiction in the theory? Lacan believes that what Freud’s writings on this point reveal is that when we go beyond the pleasure principle we find a strange kind of satisfaction that absolutely cannot be theorised in terms of the regulation of energy, accumulation and discharge, or homeostasis. It carries on insisting regardless, producing repetition in the process. The same clinical problems that led Freud to suspect that his theory of psychical inertia would have to be modified are described by Lacan in this passage:

“It is clear that those with whom we deal, the patients, are not satisfied, as one says, with what they are. And yet, we know that everything they are, everything they experience, even their symptoms, involves satisfaction. They satisfy something that no doubt runs counter to that with which they might be satisfied, or rather, perhaps, they give satisfaction to something” (Lacan, Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Karnac: 2004,  p.166).

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