The Radical Implications of Unconscious Alterity and Its Roots in the Sexual
Laplanche returns to the meaning of Freud’s self-proclaimed Copernican revolution and its foundational gesture of decentring. He examines Copernicus’s radical displacement of the earth (and hence Man) from the centre of the universe as an unfinished revolution in which heliocentrism (that the earth spins around the sun) is one step in a repeated movement of eccentricity (i.e. does the sun itself spin around a centre which in turn spins around a centre and so on). What Laplanche clarifies is that the Copernican revolution is the continual refusal of any centring action (at least as a permanent fixture). Here, the construction of systematic description is not only essential to avoid the chaos of incomprehension but also necessarily incomplete. This point echoes Hurst’s argument as she considers deconstructionist responses to psychoanalysis. She highlights an irresolvable tension in the conceptual apparatus of Freud that vacillates between sense, in which a coherent economic system can be formulated, and something that points beyond and rubs against this, a remainder of the ineffable that points towards (continual) future elaboration. Freud’s concepts, therefore, draw on and vacillate between the fundamental aporia of an economic system of explanation and it aneconomic conditions of “unpredictability, chance, anomaly, irreconcilability, and conflict” (2008, p. 42). The aneconomic must continually be assimilated into the economic, but this is always unsuccessful, leaving a remainder of understanding that explains the restlessness of Freudian theory and the psychoanalytic legacy.
There is no greater example of the tension between economic and aneco- nomic moments in Freud’s work than in his introduction and continual reformulations of the concept of the unconscious. The idea, as Freud acknowledges, is not his own but has a long history in figures such as Plato, Goethe and Schopenhauer, recognising that humans are fundamentally self-deceptive and cover over troubling aspects of existence such as lust and aggression. In Freud’s early clinical work, he had direct experience of this resistance to knowing in hysterical patients. His famous formulation that “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences” (Breuer & Freud, 1897, p. 7) recognises how an aspect of experience can be refused conscious articulation because it is traumatic and yet is still retained in the psyche. In its non-acknowledgement, it continues to act on conscious life in the form of disruptive and symptomatic behaviour. Freud sought to systematise this basic description of the unconscious to remove its spiritual and metaphysical roots and use it to understand a number of disparate and inexplicable clinical phenomena. It is this systematisation of the unconscious that is Freud’s greatest contribution to the history of ideas as he sought ever more effective economic explanations. The danger of such a move, however, is that “the economic constitution of any closed or regulated system, in any domain, necessarily goes hand in hand with the suppression of the anecomonic or that which in relation to a system remains errant, disordered, resistant, aleatory, unexpected or nonsensical” (Hurst, 2008, p. 98). To order the unconscious in a closed economy presumes a centre which, by not considering the system as necessarily incomplete and open to reimaginings, potentially loses sight of what in it remains radical. Freud’s theory of the unconscious is at its most innovative and revolutionary where it reveals the “aporetic logic that makes it necessary to avoid a choice between economic and aneconomic” (ibid., p. 101). Characterising the unconscious in terms of “exemption from mutual contradiction, primary process (mobility of cathexes), timelessness and replacement of external by psychical reality’ (1915b, p. 187), Freud highlights the challenge of the unconscious to structures of proper and good sense. Laplanche extends this element of the illogical and draws on the notion of otherness inherent in the concept. This is an idea of the other that bears little resemblance to a second consciousness in a coherent dialogue but is instead a radical alterity that cannot be found, systematised or successfully accommodated in the contours of the self and that continually disturbs its presumed integrity.
It is against this radical otherness that the self is constructed and must be maintained. The unconscious is foremost a foreign body that opens onto nonself structures and yet, whose alien-ness suffers continual domestication. Just as the ego’s defensive functions seek to quell its disruptive action, theoretical efforts similarly attempt to contain its elusive action in forms that render it once and for all. Freud’s notion of the id in his second topography, for example, is borrowed from his contemporary Georg Groddeck but stripped of its intended sense to denote how we are “‘lived’ by unknown and uncontrollable forces” (Freud, 1923, p. 23). This sense of “it” (the more direct translation of das es) as an alien structure of demands to which the self must respond is lost, as Freud’s complex understanding of sexual life is forgotten in favour of a biological instinct that is included in the economy of the psyche. As Hurst recognises, Freud seems caught in a “residual metaphysical commitment” (2008, p. 134) that often prevents him from pushing the radical implications of his ideas or sees him return to ideas he had already overturned. It is the potential of his ideas on sexuality and how they underpin his original conception of the unconscious that is arguably where Freud is at his most radical and demonstrates the value of his insight for critical social psychology. Challenging instinctual models that fix the sexual aim in the reproduction of the species, Freud’s sexual theories resist the closing-in of the human being and remind us of our eroticised connection to other people as this generates subjectivity yet also, as Adam Phillips notes “makes us feel at odds with ourselves” (1995, p. 91). The security of social and psychological identity is always predicated on a renunciation of sexuality as a fluid and connective process, thus opposing self-knowledge to sexual pleasure and affection.
The radical nature of sexuality, which also removes it from a simple instinctual register, lies in the prematurity of human birth which places the helpless infant in a relation of absolute dependence on another person. Freud ascribes the primary care role to the mother who not only meets the child’s needs but also elicits pleasure and affords satisfaction. For Freud, the first relation is erotic through and through as the mother “not only nourishes it but also looks after it and thus arouses in it a number of other physical sensations, pleasurable and unpleasurable” (Freud, 1938 , p. 188). Theorising a dynamic of physical and sensate relations between child and mother, Freud controversially introduces a theory of infantile sexuality which implicates another person in the eroticisation of the child’s body. Caught in this relational dynamic, human sexuality is no longer understood as a pre-programmed biological function but instead characterised as “a whole range of excitations and activities ... which procure a pleasure that cannot be adequately explained in terms of the satisfaction of a basic physiological need” (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1988, p. 418).
Freud uses the German word Trieb to distinguish the human sexual impulse from Instinkt, the hereditary characteristics of a species (this distinction is not clearly and consistently translated into English). Trieb (best rendered as “drive”) is the demand of the child’s body, firstly on maternal care and, through the progressive internalisation of this relation as the self forms, on the psyche. A concept at the limit of the psyche and soma, Trieb attaches to psychical representatives providing a motive for human life but is in itself unknowable. Irreducible to the body, it is first experienced by the infant as unfocused and non-specific pressures demanding satisfaction. Freud theorises the fragmented quality of drives at this early infantile stage and designates these as “polymorphously perverse” (1905, p. 191) because their function resembles those of the perversions in later adult life. As maternal care focuses the child’s attention on different physiological and social processes such as feeding, potty-training and the separation from dependency, “his care affords him an unending source of sexual excitation and satisfaction from his erogenous zones” (ibid., p. 223), meaning that different aspects of the child’s body become eroticised, creating associated component instincts. All the developmental milestones that produce the sexual and socialised adult enter an economy of pleasure and unpleasure which is modelled on sensual sucking at the breast.
Intimately tied to the possibility of human subjectivity and active at all points as its motivation, sexuality also introduces alterity by placing the relation with another person at the core of being. Laplanche identifies two key aspects to this notion of otherness that offer radical possibilities for rethinking notions of the psychological and the social. The first of these is a notion of asymmetry; that the other precedes who we are, and despite the best efforts at ego integrity, it imposes its might and threat unabated. This intrusion of the other into the structures of the self is troubling and frequently evoked with the language of trauma as its necessary but unwanted demand shakes us to the foundations. The second aspect is its enigma, its fundamental unknow- ability that cannot be comfortably brought within the comprehension of an assimilating ego. This is alterity without form; the pre-linguistic sexuality that characterises early relationships and which, through our latter repressions, constitutes the economy of the unconscious and its aneconomic foundation. As Laplanche states, Freud accorded primacy to sexuality because it “opens directly onto the question of the other, and in the case of the child, onto the adult other in his or her alien-ness” (1999, p. 64). As the prototype for the encounter with asymmetry and enigma, the eroticised first relation is traced as inassimilable infantile experience, defining the unconscious in its radical alterity.
Freud’s notion of the sexual eroticises the individual from the outset and compromises the concept of stable identity that underpins liberal humanist ideology. Sexuality is dangerous and a challenge to reactionary social structures and the psychological stability this underpins. Civilisation requires not only the control of sexual forces but also the occultation of erotic life in the process of repression. The tenuous and permeable boundaries of early infant experience are covered over and divested of their enigmatic sexual content as the ego increasingly steps out as an autonomous subject. As a consequence of the civilising demand, psychoanalysis has also effected a “progressive shrinking of the field of sexuality” (Green, 2005, p. 82) in its own theorising. The constraints on sexuality in the direction of civilised living are echoed in clinical and developmental theories that advocate the same or simply divest it of its alterity, just as Freud did in his return to the biological instinct. What is lost most fundamentally in this neglect of the sexual is a connection to the other that is more foundational than the self. The subject faces alterity from the outset of existence and must somehow construct itself against and in spite of this. Of course, what was once other can be accommodated within the structures of the developing ego, but this is never once and for all, as Freud’s radical notion of the unconscious attests. Conceptions of otherness in psychoanalysis are various as theorists have wrestled differently with the implications of a self constructed in the intermediary space between the instinctual body, intimate relationships and the socio-symbolic structures that frame these. Each of these aspects has been the focus of different psychoanalytic approaches for theorising the alterity at the heart of subjectivity.
The unconscious other, for example, can be inscribed in the drive, as Freud increasingly contended, when pressure from the body erupts into consciousness as uncontained anxiety, or when mediated as a symptom or a dream, combines reassuring repetitions of behaviour with a disturbing unfamiliarity. For the object-relations theorists, in contrast, alterity is traced in the relation to the object and not to the id. The alterity of the external object is precipitated in the psyche through a representational process to become the inner world. Here, as Green elaborates, the object is a ““property of the ego ... to ward of the strangeness of the object” but at the same time has a “part that is irreducible to any form of appropriation by the ego which calls for the recognition of difference and alterity” (p. 117). Linguistic theories of psychoanalysis such as Lacan’s add to the theory of the object by extending the notion of individual representation from the realm of the image and the personal relation to a consideration of what Green refers to as “the cultural tradition and its productions laid down as a ‘treasure of the signifier’” (2005, p. 105). The alterity of the object and the drives it arouses as if from another place are mediated by a structure of representation which is also not our own. We encounter language as an external force, the alterity of our social world, whose insistence that we engage in its community constructs our symbolic existence but always as inadequate. The alterity of language carves out the unconscious as it constructs the unspoken (Lacan designates this the real which also describes the preverbal drives) and the unspeakable (the prohibited connection to and desired satisfaction of those drives as prescribed by socio-symbolic existence) aspects of subjectivity as an internal other, an alterity even more radical because it also compromises the inner-outer boundaries. Wherever the alterity inscribed in the subject is located by successive psychoanalytic theories, attempts to render the form and operation of the unconscious always prove inadequate. Theory here reflects the individual faced with a message or demand from the other which, in its asymmetry and enigma, calls for codes and deciphering that are never sufficient, leaving something out “something untranslatable which becomes the unconscious, the internal other” (Laplanche, 1999, p. 101).
Despite the persistent attempts to sanitise psychoanalytic insight of its most radical aspects in the pursuit of institutional stability and respectability, Freud’s original discovery of the unconscious and its foundations in sexual life provides a continually renewed opening towards alterity. This radical awareness of the causal nature of otherness in both personal and social life challenges typical accusations that psychoanalysis neglects the impact on the subject of social and historical forces. Psychoanalysis provides a structure for explaining ego development and its necessary role in assuring a sense of personal and social stability. For Freud, however, it is conflict that characterises the human being, and this is largely generated as the civilising environment demands some renunciation of the instinctual body. Theoretical attempts which ignore this invariably repress the most radical psychoanalytic insights and produce reactionary accounts of subjectivity and instrumental therapeutic efforts that leave the sense of a critical project far behind.
As Benvenuto acknowledges, however, psychoanalysis provides a “revolutionary paradigm of a new type of knowledge and practice” (2009, p. 20), at the heart of which a radical notion of the unconscious connects to social critique. As something alien at our core, the unconscious constitutes the psyche as a hybrid space in which the separation of inner and outer realms is never complete and notions of ego mastery are continually undermined. Selfhood is constructed between often incommensurable social and personal realms and as such has a provisional character that also opens it up to potential transformation. Psychoanalysis can and must theorise this just as it posits various reasons why it too often does not happen.
Psychoanalytic theory is poised over a fundamental non-knowledge in its object, the unconscious. The provocative and unique theses that psychoanalysis offers for the range of human experiences and behaviours always rub against a primary uncertainty. Whilst its conceptual tools revolutionised the understanding of psychopathology, psychotherapy, selfhood and social processes, perhaps the most valuable contribution of psychoanalysis is its legacy of equivocal formulation that produces “a way of describing both the limits of what we can know and the areas of our lives in which knowing, and the idea of expertise, may be inappropriate” (Phillips, p. 17). Whilst psychoanalysis enables us to theorise subjectivity in terms of the intersection of bodily drives, social demands, object representations and the symbolic systems that organise them, the concept of the unconscious does not afford us any certainty in locating its parameters or a stable point of inquiry. Analysing how specific forces acting in and on the subject can be brought into contact with each other ties psychoanalysis to critical traditions within social and psychological theory as “the criss-crossing of bodily and symbolic networks ... create points of coherence that fade away and re-form” (Frosh, p. 120). The intersection- ality of various human realms in the production and understanding of the human being necessitates a conceptual frame that is itself dynamic and critical of its own ability to centre authoritative commentary.
With the notion of the unconscious signalling a formative alterity and insufficiency at the heart of subjectivity, the idea of human completeness that is available to absolute description disappears. As a clinical practice, the imperative to integrate ego functions or adapt these to prevailing social structures is increasingly inadequate as a developmental aim or curative ideal. The stable and adaptable structures that ego psychologists make the pinnacle of successful individuation are unrealistic and maintained only within a reactionary social environment where self-knowledge is also a mechanism of forgetting. A radical psychoanalytic practice would eschew such ethically contentious premises and re-establish conflict and alterity as the basis of selfhood. As Phillips contends, the aim of psychoanalysis is less to make people intelligible to themselves than “to tolerate and enjoy the impossibility of such knowing” (p. 101). Psychoanalysis is a way of making strange our taken-for-granted assumptions and the patterns of reaction, interaction and behaviour that repeat themselves as seemingly fixed characteristics. Unpicking and unsettling these ego formations confronts the individual with the limitations of identity and the restrictions it places on freedom. Psychoanalysis returns the subject in therapy to the unstable grounds of subjectivity where, far from fostering the collapse of selfhood, the tension between ego integrity and unconscious other should be persistently exposed to entice curiosity and experimentation with a more fluid (although certainly not unrestricted) appreciation of human existence. As Freud recognised from the outset, the aim of psychoanalysis is not to remove conflict but allow us to live it more keenly, recognising it as a motor- force of existence and its transformation, as much as a cause of unhappiness.
Although its institutions are often criticised for excessive dogma in clinical technique, Freud always held that psychoanalytic theory should be ready to adapt to what it encounters in therapy. This imperative to imagine, challenge and rethink, however, is not so easily translated into other domains of inquiry. The attempt of psychoanalysts across the twentieth century to impose an interpretative frame on related disciplines is one that is beset with problems, as Shoshana Felman (1982) famously notes in relation to literary interpretation. Psychoanalysis persistently fails to appreciate the specificity of new objects of research from diverse fields and simply imposes its schemas on what it analyses to find its own truths. Processes within the object of interpretation that are intrinsic to its function and which exceed the psychoanalytic frame are reduced to its concepts. Frosh (2010) reiterates this point with regard to the psychoanalytic examination of social processes that could provide the basis for critical social psychology. He discusses the problems of psychoanalysis functioning as a colonising discourse that exerts mastery over related disciplines through the extension of unmodified concepts. Drawing on Felman’s notion of implication (which opposes blank application), to which the title of this chapter alludes, Frosh reiterates Freud’s insight that psychoanalysis must itself be transformed as it enters into new domains and less familiar encounters.
The unconscious already implicates social and relational processes in the self that resist the appropriations of consciousness and of theory. The exploration of these must be at the heart of critical social psychology, and for this, psychoanalysis provides a theoretical vocabulary and a set of tools. As a theory of subjectivity, it also places the individual back in a perpetual dynamic with social forces that extend to intimate relations, the historical and ideological contexts that frame these and the symbolic systems that provide mediation. Each of these aspects is played out in the individual and different critical psychologies explore the various intersecting levels that impact on and constitute the human subject. From radical family therapies to Marxist and discursive analyses of subjectivity, each facet has its critical representative. Unearthing the bio-socio-sexual substratum of the individual, the critical investigator is faced with the destabilised knowledge of the unconscious that underpins the necessarily protean concepts of psychoanalysis. The alterity inscribed in this exemplary psychoanalytic object is transformed as it crosses disciplinary boundaries, leaving the problematisation of these in its wake. No longer the expert discourses that its institutional forms mistakenly believe, the most radical aspects of psychoanalysis shake the very grounds on which related discourses stand, providing critical social psychology with the spirit of Freudian subversion that provokes breaks in commonsense and notions of authoritative truth. Extending this radical function into critical social psychology, psychoanalysis has itself changed in the interaction as it reminded of and forced to engage once more what Jacques Derrida describes as “the idea of a ‘subject’ installing, progressively, laboriously, always imperfectly, the stabilised—that is, non-natural, essentially and always unstable—condition of his or her autonomy: against the inexhaustible and invincible background of a heteronomy” (2004, p. 176). Its challenge, if it is to remain radical and relevant, is to map this strange and shifting “subject” in a discourse that recognises its own destabilised foundations and yet provides a hope of revolution that, like its Copernican prototype, opens questions and a process that cannot rest and whose interminable promise of transformation (psychological, social, theoretical) is still to be felt.