Civilization and the scope of subjectivity from Freud to Lacan (2002 essay UvA)


Civilization and the scope of subjectivity from Freud to Lacan


What is progress? After all and for all we know Copernicus, Darwin and Freud have respectively nailed our position (and thus our pride) in this immense universe to a speck of dust, a chance of a chance; by placing the location of the earth as rotation around the sun rather than the center of the universe, by evolution of the species and by the unconsciousness in the human subject. Does the fact that we are symbolic beings and that we can structurally and culturally organize for and of certain signs and their signifiers call for a possibility of progress in the face of eternal death or is there a divine will? What is the importance of where any kind of progress  registers? What progressive possibilities do different registers themselves hold? With Freud and Lacan we are called to investigate the uncanny aspects of the post industrial subject.

 Freud’s dynamic, topographical and economic distinctions of the properties of the mind could possibly be the result of the influences of the mechanists of his era, Darwinism and also Schopenhauer who could be thought to have become a system with the unconscious of Freud. Freud was disillusioned with progress as civilization. He writes on p.327 in Civilization and Its Discontents. “…the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through a heightened sense of guilt” Civilization and the libidinal development of the individual  appear to follow similar patterns of Character formation, sublimation and renunciation. Freud is particularly interested in the guilt involved in renunciation and it’s origins. The renunciation of instinct owing to  fear of aggression by the external authority is followed by the erection of an internal authority – renunciation of instinct owing to a fear of conscience. In Freud’s On Narcissism : An introduction the renunciation of instincts is a prerequisite for the establishment of ego and consciousness. In this text the erection of an internal authority is only hinted at. It is to take take full form as superego in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  The structure of the human mind which produces these agencies of ego and superego is also at their mercy. The origins of a sense of guilt are hidden away in a long forgotten past which drives the compulsion to repeat in the present. The subject most vulnerable from within is also the most distant from the origins of his conscience and its structure.

Lacan presents us with the workings of three orders that make the subject possible namely, the real, the imaginary, the symbolic. His development of Freudian concepts and his unwillingness to compromise on the pessimist edge of Freud brought him outside conventional psychoanalysis and into conflict with for example the school of Anna Freud, which asserts that a healthy ego is possible. Not following Freud but accompanying him through “On Narcissism: an introduction”, Lacan in his paper “On Narcissism” seeks to establish the mirror stage and the two registers of the imaginary and the symbolic. From procreation of species in Freud, Lacan in this paper arrives at procreation of types, that is to say images. Unlike Freud, Lacan does not find any possibility for the existence of an optimal sexual development such as heterosexual love, but ways of confronting the trauma of the Real. Hence the importance of the protection of the species through procreation becomes secondary to the  reproduction of the cultural context which allows for procreation. Lacan introduces a structure of language acquisition whereby children are admitted to the world of adults through  symbolic castration and intelligible communication is made possible. In symbolic castration an infant’s sense of dominating importance for the world of the mother is destroyed through the realization that the mother adheres to an external system and not only to the demands of the child. In the establishment of the symbolic order sexuality is a structural variable, so sexuality for the Lacanian subject is not in biology but in symbolic insertion, in the inscription of language into the flesh, whereas the Freudian subject follows or by perversion deviates from an optimal development.


  • External and Internal authority
 1.1     Theory of Instincts: Narcissism and the establishment of ego


Freud quotes Schiller as his starting point for his development of a theory of instincts and writes “hunger and love are what moves the world”(Civilization and it’s Discontents, p.308) Ego-love aims to preserve(i.e. satisfy hunger…) the individual subject and object-love aims to preserve the species(love). There is an antithesis between the ego instincts and the libidinal instincts of love directed toward objects. Libido is the life energy of the subject which is mostly sexual.

Advancing his inquiry Freud moves from repressed to repressing forces thus from object instincts to the ego. Through the introduction of the concept of narcissism it became clear that ego is the libido’s original home. Instead of making libido coincide with instinctual energy in general, like Jung, Freud stayed convinced that not all instincts were of the same kind.


1.2     Establishment of Super-ego
 1.2.1   Eros and Death

 In his Civilization and It’s Discontents, the pleasure principle, that is the aiming for pleasure and avoidance of unpleasure, aims at satisfaction which can never be fully possible. Referring to his work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle he writes further on “a portion of the instinct is diverted towards the external world …as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness… pressed into the service of Eros…destroying some other thing instead of destroying its own self.”(p.310) Hence “… the evolution of civilization [is] the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction as it works itself out in the human species.”(p.314) In this respect Freud is dismissive of the religious portrayal of the Devil as a separate agent (from the principles of economic discharge), as the best way out as an excuse for God. Freud quotes Goethe’s Mephistopheles where the Devil himself names his adversary as Eros (nature, power to regenerate) not God (holy, and good)(p.312). 

  • Dynamic, topographical and economic distinctions

  Freud was different from his mechanist contemporaries in his dynamic conception of  mind rather then an all rational and static one. Two years after his graduation from the university of Vienna in 1881 Freud worked under Theodor Meynert, the leading brain anatomist and neuropathologist of his time. There in the Psychiatric Clinic, he got introduced to the new correlations between ideas and neurological processes . His topographical distinction came with his Interpretation of Dreams and his discovery of the preconscious and the unconscious. And in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the economic distinction uncovers the death instinct through the principle of constancy. Although pleasure principle appears to drive the purpose of life for human beings Freud further identifies the death instinct as inseparable from Eros.    

Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle chp1 is arguing on the principle of constancy asserting a fundamental inclination of the mental apparatus for keeping the level of excitation low. Hence Freud came to realize the vulnerability of the human subject from within Every organism in a sense dies of internal reasons of structural decomposition.

  • The evolution of the human brain

  In Freud’s tongue this is the internalization and condensation of the perceptive and receptive cells. Since “the protection against the stimuli is more important than the reception of the stimuli”{BPPchp4}the outer layer of living organisms would be baked through from the overburdening impact of the external world; specializing and condensing for extending functions as the receptive(to discover the direction and nature of external stimuli) and commander(i.e. regulatory functions). Freud talks about the principle of constancy asserting a fundamental inclination of the mental apparatus for keeping the level of excitation low. Freud’s argument considered along its Darwinian lines, human evolution  is not understood as a bettering but as an adaptation of organic life due to modification of external stimuli. So there is no instinct for perfection, although Freud finds dynamic conditions for its existence he thinks the economic condition ( for the sluggish non-perverted, non-neurotic normal man) does not exist bpp5.  One is inevitably inclined to consider the impossibility of progress in this path since desire cannot be satisfied .Although Freud steers clear from a dogmatic approach, his version of adaptation of organic life involves an oversimplified desire for the procreation of species.

2        The origins of the sense of guilt

Civilization and the libidinal development of the individual  appear to follow similar patterns of Character formation, sublimation and renunciation. For example, although order and cleanliness are important requirements (characters) for civilization their vital necessity is not immediately apparent, they are the result of a series of displacements through time. Likewise in the development of the individual through a process in anal eroticism a group of traits are intensified and the anal character is formed. Sublimation of the individuals instincts by displacing the conditions for their satisfaction, also appears as a feature of cultural developments. Finally cultural frustration in social relationships resonates squarely with the apriori demand of civilization for the renunciation of the powerful instincts of the individual. Hence Freud is clear with his “intention to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through a heightened sense of guilt”p.327

2.1 Totem and Taboo at the origins of Superego

 Freud is particularly interested in the guilt involved in renunciation and it’s origins. Remorse which presupposes conscience implies the readiness to feel guilt before the deed took place. This proves difficult to uncover the origin of conscience and the origin of the sense of guilt. Excluding a sense of guilt due to remorse, the origins of sense of guilt and hence remorse appears in another work by Freud, Totem and Taboo where he identifies a primal myth; death of the primal father at the hands of his sons who strongly love(he is the provider and rule of law) and hate him(he possesses all the woman). Once satisfied the aggression due to hatred leaves its place to remorse due to love.  By identification with the father the super-ego is set up with the powers of the dead father, like a punishment for the sons aggression, and with restrictions (ie. a taboo such as exogamy) to prevent a repetition of the deed. As time and generation passes no sons ever get free from guilt on the contrary since the aggressiveness against the father was inevitably repeated so was the sense of guilt; repeated, reinforced and carried over to the superego. Therefore civilization appears to  push people to unite through an ever increasing reinforcement of a sense of guilt.

Renunciation of instinctual satisfactions due to the fear of authority and as well as renunciation pressing for punishment due to the fear of superego form the origins of the sense of guilt. Super-ego thus appears as “…a continuation of the severity of the external authority, to which it has succeeded and which it has partly replaced.”(p.320) Through the Reality principle, the immediate aims are sublimated to reach a compromise between the ego-instincts(for the preservation of the individual) and object-instincts(for the preservation of the species-Eros).

3        Freud’s Papers on Technique and the Lacan’s interpretation
 3.1     On narcissism

Lacan in On narcissism in Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, states that one of the most important questions in analytic theory is to know what is the connection between the bonds of transference and the characteristics of the love relation. He intends “to leave intact the empirical totality of the notion of transference, all the while remarking that it is plurivalent and that it acts in several registers at a time in the symbolic, the imaginary and the real. These are not three fields.”( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.112-113) The source of therapeutic efficacy is a debated issue and Lacan is at odds with the Anglo Saxon, ego psychology which works with parasitical super-ego.

For Lacan, Freud recognizes the difference in structure of withdrawal from reality in neurosis and in psychosis. In the neurotics refusal to recognize there is a function and hence no problem in naming as imaginary. In the first instance imaginary refers to the subjects relation to its former identifications and in the second place it refers to the relation of the subject with the real. In psychosis however nothing of the sort is to be found, for “if he loses the realization of the real, he doesn’t find any imaginary substitute.”( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.116) But what is the psychotic invested to start off with as he reconstructs his world? “…the answer is words…the category of the symbolic.”( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.117)

3.2     The two narcissism’s   

To map out the structure of psychoses within the framework of the general theory of libido Freud postulates a condition of narcissism at a primitive stage, not accessible to psychoanalysis, in which the ego drives and libidinal drives are indistinguishable. Freud backed up his theory of the libido with Weissmann’s theory of germ-plasm. Lacan however finds the trigger for this gigantic sexual mechanism not in any sexual partner but in an image. The sexual instincts are crystallized and unleashed in an imaginary relation. Furthermore the libidinal drive is centered on the function of the imaginary. In the imaginary he two narcissism’s take the positions of the relation between constitution of reality and relation with the form of the body. First, there is a narcissism connected with the corporal image making up the unity of the subject including the imaginary source of symbolism.

In animals whatever is good for the perpetuation of a type of species is good for its individual members, for man however the other has a captivating value. “…the second narcissism, is identification with the other, which under normal circumstances, enables man to locate precisely his imaginary and libidinal relation to the world in general. That is what enables him to see in its place and to structure, as a function of this place and of his world, his being”( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.125)

3.3     Ego-ideal and ideal ego

 The animal makes a real object coincide with the image within him and the coincidence of the image with a real object strengthens it, gives it substance, embodiment. At this moment behavior is released, such that the subject will be guided towards its object, with the image as go-between.( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.138) In man the manifestations of the sexual function, the image, is of lack of adaptation, where we come upon a game of hide and seek between the image and its normal object. But what is the ‘normal’ object of the image isn’t it simply a series of cultural approximations or a natural process? “What is the point?” writes Lacan, “-if not to see what the function of the other, of the human other, is, in the adequation of the imaginary and the real”( Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.139)

The virtual subject is there where we first saw our ego, outside us in the human form. “The  human being only sees his form materialized, whole, the mirage of himself, outside himself.” (Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, p.140) Thus formation of our ideal-ego allows for our entry into the mirror phase.  Lacan postulating that the voice of the other governs the inclination of the plane mirror goes on to argue the regulation of the imaginary depends on something which is located in a transcendent fashion.; on the symbolic connection between human beings. The symbolic relation defines the position of the subject as seeing and also determines the degree of perfection, of completeness, of approximation of the imaginary. It is this very representation which allows for Lacan to draw a distinction between the ideal-ego and the ego-ideal. To find my position within the imaginary structuration, one finds a guide on the level of the symbolic plane beyond the imaginary.


From Freud to Lacan only the structure in which subjectivity is attained appears to change and not the scope of subjectivity. Although with a new (improved?) structure new kinds of registers (such as the imaginary and the symbolic) which form the subject are identified. These new registers in turn can provide for different methods of treatment as well as a better understanding of the symbolic mind. Lacan appears to have achieved a universal theory of subjectivity for all symbolic beings by reasoning the structure of registers, which are independent of the corporality of the individual, without resorting to an optimal development of sexuality or the myth of the primordial father like Freud.

 The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis: Desire of the Other

Lecturer: Drs. Angela Grooten


 Freud. Civilisation and its Discontents (1930)

Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) 

Totem and Taboo (1913)

Lacan. Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953 – 1954, On narcissism IX, The two narcissisms X, 

Ego-ideal and ideal ego XI, Zeitlich-Entwicklungsgeschichte XII

Lacan. Ecrits: A Selection. ONE – The mirror stage as formative of the function of the

I.(1977) THREE – The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis.(1991). SIX – On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis.(1977).