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

1954 – 1955

Chapter VI – Freud, Hegel and the machine

(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 opens the seminar announcing that he is going to be talking about the ‘compulsion to repeat’, Wiederholungszwang. His range here encompasses a two periods of Freud’s work, from the early Project for Scientific Psychology (as it is named in the Standard Edition), to Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Lacan uses this session to question the place of the pleasure principle in Freud’s work, where the idea comes from, and where it is left after 1920 with the publication by Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In their masterful work, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Laplanche and Pontalis ask the simple question: what is the pleasure principle? The difference in debate hinges on whether Freud is positing a principle of constancy – that there is a certain amount of energy which has to be kept at a minimum or at least constant level – or a principle by which the organism seeks to divest itself of excitation, the logical horizon of which could just as well be death, which would actually take us beyond the pleasure principle. How, for example, to decide one way or the other on the basis of the following extract from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

“The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli (the ‘Nirvana principle’, to borrow a term from Barbara Low) – a tendency which finds expression in the pleasure principle; and our recognition of that fact is one of our strongest reasons for believing in the existence of death instincts” (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE XVIII, p.55 – 56).

Lacan notices that “it is remarkable to see how, in the writings of an author like Hartmann, the three terms – principle of constancy, pleasure principle, Nirvana principle – are totally identified, as if… it were always the same thing he was talking about” (p.64). However, looking at the passage above from Beyond the Pleasure Principle there is a clear lack of theoretical refinement on Freud’s part. As Laplanche and Pontalis note, “Freud evidently looks upon “the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli” as manifestations of a single principle. Yet the trend of the internal energy in a system to fall to zero-point is scarcely comparable with the peculiar tendency of living organisms to maintain an equilibrium with their surroundings at a constant (and possibly very high) level” (Laplanche and Pontalis, p.343). Are not these three vicissitudes very different things that imply different conceptualisations of a governing principle of psychic life? Moreover, Freud seems to present “the effort to reduce, to keep constant, or to remove internal tension” as both an expression of, and a beyond of, the pleasure principle, which raises the question: what could Freud mean by a ‘beyond’ of the pleasure principle?

For Lacan the matter is simple. He approaches the problem by critiquing the analysts of his day who practice a psychotherapeutic psychoanalysis on a theoretical misapprehension that, Lacan believes, Freud writes Beyond the Pleasure Principle in order to correct: that the unconscious is simply the negative of the ego. As he sees it, such analysts believe that the unconscious and the primary processes are some how on the ‘underside’ of the ego and the secondary processes, and that therefore therapeutically,

“… it would be enough to work on one to work on the other at the same time. In working on the ego and resistance, one would by the same token get at the heart of the problem. Freud wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle precisely to explain that the matter can’t be left like that” (p.64).

This view represents a model of the mind as a kind of homeostasis – act on one part (the resistance) and you have a concomitant effect on the other (the unconscious). Analysis thereby becomes the analysis of resistance, pure and simple. The problem with this view is that it fails to answer what is a very basic, very naïve question: why doesn’t the repressed stay repressed? If there is a need for a permanent expenditure of energy to keep the repressed repressed, why does the expenditure always fail? Why is there, as Freud found, a tendency to repeat?

“Why does the repressed system manifest itself with such insistence, as I called it last time? If the nervous system is set to reach a position of equilibrium, why doesn’t it attain it? These matters, when put like that, are so obvious” (p.65).

Lacan’s learned interlocutors however have difficulties of a more fundamental kind.

Mannoni seeks clarification on what sense in which we should understand Freud’s discovery of a compulsion to repeat. Should we think of repetition as an attempt to make something that has failed succeed (for example, as a shell-shocked soldier will have recurring dreams that might attempt to master the trauma he was ill-prepared for on the battlefield); or should we think of it as an attempt to return to an original state of things (for example, the salmon swimming upstream to die)? Mannoni’s point is a good one, and although it is difficult to see how the second sense might be considered a repetition, Lacan takes the opportunity to pick up what Lacan diplomatically calls an “intermingling, interweaving [of] a restitutive tendency and a repetitive tendency” (p.65-66) in Freud’s handing of the concept of repetition (the German Wiederholungszwang). Whether or not Freud’s concept has a lack of theoretical clarity or whether he intended to maintain a level ambiguity is debatable.

“There is, as Lefebvre-Pontalis observed, an ambiguity in the use of the word Wiederholungszwang [compulsion to repeat]. There are two registers intermingling, interweaving, a restitutive tendency and a repetitive tendency, and between the two, I wouldn’t want to say that Freud’s thought vacillates, because there is no less vacillating thought than his, but one does have the feeling that his research retraces its steps. It is as if each time he goes too far in one direction, he stops to say – isn’t this simply the restitutive tendency? But at each turn he remarks that this isn’t enough, and that, after the restitutive tendency has manifested itself something is left over which at the level of individual psychology appears to be gratuitous, paradoxical, enigmatic and is genuinely repetitive” (p.65-66).

What does this left-over, gratuitous element that repeats imply for the way we conceptualise the pleasure principle? Laplanche and Pontalis contribute an interesting point here:

“The fact is that Freud only postulates the existence of principles or instinctual forces which transcend the pleasure principle on those occasions when he is opting for an interpretation of this principle tending to identify it with the principle of constancy. Whenever he is tempted, on the contrary, to conflate the pleasure principle with a principle of reduction of tension to zero (Nirvana principle), then there is no doubt in his mind that it has the fundamental character of a first principle (see especially ‘Death Instincts’)” (Laplanche and Pontalis, p.324).

In other words, does repetition point to a failure of the pleasure principle (the pleasure principle understood as a principle of constancy) – e.g., the soldier’s nightmares; or does it imply something that works in the opposite direction? A kind of anti-pleasure principle?

This is essentially Mannoni’s problem. As he puts it in his question to Lacan,

“I haven’t quite made out if that made him [Freud] return to the idea that there was a pure and simple restitution, or whether, on the contrary, he added to the pure and simple restitution, a compulsion” (p.66),

And Mannoni suggests that Freud “would have been better of calling it anti-instinct” (p.66)

This is a good suggestion, and the ‘death’ of the ‘death instinct’ or ‘death drive’ immediately leads us to assume that Freud is trying to articulate a  daemonic and destructive principle, something on the opposite side of life or a ‘life drive’. And indeed what we find in repetition is something which is the opposite of restitutive, something that does not seek equilibrium. But should we think of the ‘death’ in ‘death drive’ as corresponding to a biological tendency? In other words, should we look at these principles as having a biological underpinning? Freud appears clearly to have believed that they must. His remark in the paper that, “The dominating tendency of mental life, and perhaps of nervous life in general, is the effort to reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli” (SE XVIII, p.55 – 56) seem to bring us to an insoluble contradiction, articulated well by Bejarano in the seminar:

“He [Freud] seems to be saying that the life-preserving instincts lead to death, he says in effect that death is sought out by the preservative instincts. This seems to me as specious as saying, by transposition, that fire, that is to say heat, is cold. I can’t understand why he calls that death instinct” (p.67).

Lacan gives his fullest elaboration on the death drive and repetition a decade later in Seminar XI, placing them as two of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. In this seminar Lacan is simply looking at the development of Freud’s thought and specifically the implications of Beyond the Pleasure Principle on Freud’s metapsychology. However, Lacan offers us in Seminar XI a solution to Bejarano’s problem which it is worth touching on here. I have decided to quote in full a beautiful passage from the Slovenian Lacanian Slavoj Zizek’s book The Parallax View,  which expounds Lacan’s view:

“The Freudian death drive has nothing whatsoever to do with the craving for self-annihilation, for the return to the inorganic absence of any life-tension; it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying – a name for the ‘undead’ eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain. The paradox of the Freudian ‘death drive’ is therefore that it is Freud’s name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within psychoanalysis, for an uncanny excess of life, for an ‘undead’ urge which persists beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and corruption. The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never ‘just life’: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things” (Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View, 2006, London: MIT Press, p.61)

Even contemporary with this seminar, in the 1953 paper The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis we find Lacan presenting the death drive in the following terms:

“It is not, in fact, a perversion of instinct, but rather a desperate affirmation of life that is the purest form we can find of the death instinct” (Ecrits 320).

Contrary to many contemporary historical accounts, the theory of the death instinct does not show us a Freud who throws up his hands in despair when he finds that his theory has failed, or when he encounters a contradiction in his own work. Nor is it a reflection of the pessimism of his old age. For Lacan, it has the status of a concept in its own right, and should be taken seriously as a response to clinical problems.

Lacan moves on to pose two more question: firstly, is psychoanalysis a humanism; and secondly, what is the difference between Freud’s thought and that of Hegel? In essence, the second question is used to approach an answer to the first, but before getting to Hegel, Lacan cannot help launching an attack on ego psychology and the assumptions brought in its wake.

Lacan’s opposition to ego psychology has been well-documented in his own work and in the work of secondary texts, so  here we do not need to do more than condense the remarks made in the context of this seminar: how can we rely on the ego as an ally in the treatment if it is from the ego that the analysand’s resistances spring? If the ‘autonomous ego’ constitutes a ‘conflict-free sphere’, how do we avoid the homunculus problem “that, somewhere in him [man], be it in the pineal gland or elsewhere, there’s a signalman, the little man within a man, who makes the apparatus tick” (p.68)? Psychoanalysis has fallen into this trap under ego psychology.

Moving to Hegel, Lacan interpret the former’s Absolute Knowledge (the culmination of the evolution of consciousness through the dialectic) as finding its embodiment in discourse, but creating a division in man that he calls “reciprocal alienation”, on the grounds that, “the reality, so to speak, of each human being is in the being of the other” (p.72). Applied to the slave-master dialectic then, we would be looking at a situation in which the master wishes he could enjoy all the things he believes the slave to enjoy, and the slave wishes he could enjoy all the things he believes the master is enjoying.

We will see how, by Freud’s time, this double-bind is eliminated, but first Lacan attempts to situate Freud in a historical context. Freud, Lacan says, was a physician in the sense that in his time “The physician has with respect to the body the attitude of the man who dismantles a machine” (p.73). By Freud’s time the body was considered as something separate from man, and its study, the way it is conceived by Freud’s time, is on the model of the machine. The first machine, in Descartes time, was a fairly primitive one: the clock. But by Hegel’s time the development of a new, much more sophisticated machine was on the horizon, which accuses Hegel of failing to see the importance of: the steam engine.

So how does Lacan reach the conclusion to his initial question, that psychoanalysis is not a humanism? Contra Hegel, with the development of the modern machine it is possible to think of man, and inter-human relations, not just in terms of the imaginary dual relationship of slave-master: the machine gives us a new model that we can employ to conceptualise how human beings operate. Lacan’s argument is that thanks to the model provided by the machine the unconscious, as Freud was able to theorise it, does not come from a tradition that takes man as the measure of all things. This is the world Hegel is living in, but by Freud’s time we can exchange this model for a newer one that technological progress has thrown up. Just as William Harvey was only able to think of the heart as a pump once the pump had been developed as a means of moving water, the gulf between what was conceptually possible for Hegel and what was conceptually possible for Freud is vast. As Lacan puts it, “It’s like talking about the contradiction between the Parthenon and hydroelectricity, they’ve got nothing to do with one another. Between Hegel and Freud, there’s the advent of the world of the machine” (p.74).

Moreover, the coming of the age of machines enables us to reconceptualise humans as homeostats; and Lacan says that this leads in turn to a reconceptualisation of biology, from its vitalist basis, to one in which the body is treated like a machine that can be operated on, worked, that performs functions better or worse, etc. this might be the kind of conception that Freud-the-physician begins with, but for Freud-the-psychoanalyst, according to Lacan,

“Freudian biology has nothing to do with biology. It is a matter of manipulating symbols with the aim of resolving energy questions, as the homeostatic reference indicates, thus enabling us to characterise as such not only the human being, but the functioning of its major apparatuses” (p.75, my italics).

It is in relation to energy questions, and not in relation to the biological measure of death, that life, the object of enquiry for biology, is seen by Freud. As Lacan puts it,

“Freud’s whole discussion revolves around that question, what, in terms of energy, is the psyche? This is where the originality of what in him is called biological thought resides. He wasn’t a biologist, any more than any of us are, but throughout his work he placed the accent on the energy function” (p.75)

Freud is unsatisfied with an explanation from the biological domain, so he employs what Lacan refers to as an ‘energy myth’; and it is in this myth that Lacan sees an implication that is revealed by the model of the homeostat that the machine gives to man:

“If we know how to reveal the meaning of this energy myth, we see the emergence of what was, from the start and without it being understood, implicit in the metaphor of the human body as a machine. Here we see the manifestation of a certain beyond of the inter-human reference, which is in all strictness a symbolic beyond” (p.75-76, my italics).

The ‘energy myth’ gives us a “conception of the nervous system according to which it always tends to return to a point of equilibrium” (p.76), an idea that Freud inherits from the psycho-physical parallelism of Fechner. Using this model,

“Freud tried to build a theory of the functioning of the nervous system, by showing that the brain operates as a buffer-organ between man and reality, as a homeostat organ. And he then comes up against, he stumbles on, the dream. He realises that the brain is a dream machine” (p.76).

Lacan is not referring here to the period in Freud’s work where he writes Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This is instead the point in the mid-1890s where Freud, as it is commonly characterised, abandons neuroanatomy in favour of psychology. But Lacan says this is not really a correct characterisation. We can perhaps understand why by looking closer at Lacan’s choice of the term ‘dream machine’ here. What he believes Freud’s work of this period reveals is that the ‘dream work’, as Freud calls it in The Interpretation of Dreams, operates like a machine: it churns away on the raw material of the impressions and latent content of the previous day and produces, according to certain operations (the primary processes), something new – the manifest content of the dream we remember when we wake up. For Lacan, this raw material that the dream work works on is the stuff of language in its pure materiality – the signifier, the letter. In much the same way as a machine can be set to run and produce something automatically, without human intervention, so the dream is produced on a completely ‘different stage’ to the one in which we usually locate human beings.

This is why psychoanalysis is not a humanism. On a simple level, the machine allows us to conceptualise the body as separate from man, as something that we are able to study and work on independently of his existence; how we conceive the nervous system is founded on the principle of homeostatic energetics, and therefore man is no longer the measure of all things. But Lacan goes further than this: the machine is a model that allows us to understand the productions of the unconscious. We might even half-jokingly assert that the human being is only there to alibi the dream as a product of the unconscious.

The problem for Lacan was that Freud did not see this discovery of the unconscious and its formations for what it was – a machinic process – and so carries on using the ‘energy myth’ with which to explain it. However, we should at least pause here to make an important point about Freud’s thought: that nothing in the way the primary processes work in the productions of the unconscious (dreams, slips, jokes, symptoms) necessitates a theory based on energetics. If we jettison the theoretical baggage of energetics and homeostasis from Freud’s work it can be replaced by another (for example, Lacan’s implied ontology) without threatening the coherence of psychoanalysis as a whole. What Freud’s thought implies to Lacan is a conception of the psyche on the basis of  symbolic operations on the raw material of the signifier; Freud however expresses it, in the Project of 1895 and The Interpretation of Dreams in terms of energetics.

To conclude by returning to the questions around the pleasure principle with which we started, the effect of the theory of repetition, of Wiederholungszwang on the theory of psychoanalysis is to shake things up once more. Freud is forced to re-examine and re-think the theory that he has founded on an “energy myth”, and this drags into question all the associated notions of the pleasure principle, the principal of psychical inertia, and homeostasis. Lacan shows how this is a theory which emerges at a particular historical moment, a  moment that Lacan believes enables us to separate Freud’s thought from Hegel’s: “In Freud something is talked about, which isn’t talked about in Hegel, namely energy” (p.74). In fact, perhaps a better title than the one this chapter is given in the published edition would be, ‘Hegel – the machine – Freud’, as Lacan is making a point about the historical place of these three and, more precisely, the change in the way that man is conceptualised – “Between Hegel and Freud, there’s the advent of the world of the machine” (p.74).

The rise of the machine post-Hegel but pre-Freud, with the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution, allows for a different conception of man, which Freud bases on an ‘energy myth’. At first, he grafts this Fechnerian energy model onto a metapsychology to describe what he sees when the unconscious is at work, producing the dream, jokes, symptoms and slips. But when this theory breaks down with Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the consequence of the re-thinking of the very basis of his theories is a ‘beyond’ of the pleasure principle, namely, the death drive.

By Owen Hewitson,

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