Freud and Psychoanalysis



The Unconscious since Freud

The concept of “the unconscious” did not begin with Sigmund Freud who, between 1893 with his Studies on Hysteria and 1938 with his last work, almost single handedly invented and then developed the historical and cultural phenomenon known as psychoanalysis.  What is new with Freud is the way in which the concept of the unconscious came to be the focus for a range of influential and effective resources for treating problems of at once a clinical, a philosophical, and a cultural character.  The concept as it stands is hardly promising.  The prefix un-, meaning “not,” suggests a negative definition: without consciousness, not aware, not self-conscious.  Yet, as with many words that begin with this prefix, the word “unconscious” is very much more than a mere negation (compare it with, say, “unkind,” which generally means “cruel”).  But by saying this I still leave room for misunderstanding.  Since Freud the concept of “the unconscious” is often thought to denote a deep, albeit inaccessible level of “the psyche” in which reside impulses and memories that have been repressed.  This sense leaves open the possibility of treating the unconscious as if it were a cave, dark and inaccessible but a place nonetheless, full of fearful things.  Or less mythically perhaps, it is regarded as the dark end of a scale, the other end of which corresponds to the clear light of consciousness (back to the negative definition).  Neither of these interpretations is adequate to Freud’s use of the notion.  For him, the relationship between the unconscious and consciousness is the result of mental “work” that is characteristic of all psychic life, and neither of these concepts can be explained without reference to it.  What is new with Freud is the consistent attention that he gives to the processes that characterise psychic mechanisms.



Every aspect of psychic life for Freud is at least double.  For this reason psychoanalysis tends to focus on the borders, frontiers and fissures, the spaces of difference where relatively well bounded areas, such as the one hypothesised between conscious and unconscious psychic life, begin.  It is common to suppose that consciousness refers to the state in which we have thoughts and wishes, make decisions, form intentions, etc., whilst the unconscious remains (always necessarily) the province of the “unknown.”  But it is more accurate to see that, for Freud, thoughts, wishes and decisions become conscious by virtue of a tension between two unconscious agencies.  The first corresponds to the simplest notion of instinct, an essentially neurological drive, the purpose of which is to reduce what Freud calls unlust, in English, un-pleasure.  Unpleasure is caused by any form of excitation, whether internally produced (anger or hunger) or externally (noise or pain).  The impulse to reduce this unpleasure can therefore be thought of as the most basic instinct, simply, the drive for pleasure, or the pleasure principle.  The drive for pleasure is always a defence against stimulation and the aim is always to reduce it to as low a level as possible, ideally, altogether.  The second agency, which Freud would come to call the reality principle, is also a defence mechanism but this time the aim is to temper the force of the first one.  One can easily see that the desire for immediate gratification, not tempered by any kind of caution or principle of delay, might itself be extremely dangerous to a vulnerable organism.  The baby’s scream seems to be saying “I must eat and I must eat now.  But as the baby grows older and becomes a child, eventually an adult, the immediacy of the demand is tempered and the desire becomes less urgent.  In humans of course the desire--sometimes even in adults expressed with something like this infantile urgency--is always operative.  Adult life thus seems very often to be a series of detours, delays, or carefully constructed secondary roads back towards an initial desire for peace and tranquillity.  Once again the theory of these psychic forces seems grounded in a pattern, or structure, that corresponds roughly to the traditional distinction between the empirical (conscious awareness) and the transcendental, the structures that give meaning to our experience, however obscure those structures might be.  So the basic idea is by no means new.  It is at base another narrative of false or deceived consciousness.  The two agencies were later in Freud’s career given the titles id (the drive for pleasure) and super-ego (a sort of internalised moral law).  Between these two powerful forces, of course, lies the result of their engagement, that is, the ego, a kind of compromise formation that is the core in the basic pattern of the personality.  The ego serves both the desires of the id and the policing control of the super-ego, both of which must be thought of as forces of desire and as internalised components of an individual’s character.  The id, Freud thought, represents eternally desiring mankind, while the super-ego represents the interests of civilisation, carrying the laws that bond society and representing, in the first instance, the infant’s chief experience of loving authorities, the parents.  Language, culture, institutions of all kinds, are thus implicated in and internalised as a basic component of personality.  So the ego is the site of the compromise between unfulfilled desires on one hand (id) and social relations on the other (super-ego).     



Freud began as a neurologist in the nineteenth century.  An early insight was gained while observing the work of a French neurologist Charcot, who was experimenting with hypnotherapy as a means of curing hysteria.  Under hypnosis the hysteric would have her symptoms removed through the suggestion of the doctor.  Symptoms of hysteria were then, as they had been for thousands of years, associated with the female (the word “hysteria” comes from the ancient Greek hysteron which means uterus, or womb).  Though hysteria has no traceable physical or biological cause, depending on historical context a cause would always have been found among the repertoire of ills associated with the feminine (everything from lack of children to witchcraft).  In the nineteenth century the standard prejudice about women’s weak physical disposition--so fragile, always getting ill--would regularly be drafted in.  Symptoms included various forms of paralysis, speech disorders, nervous tics and muteness as well as obsessions and phobias.  Even the inability to get up in the morning, a kind of chronic lethargy, would be regarded as hysterical.  What Freud noticed during the hypnotherapy sessions was that the patients exhibited two quite distinct types of behaviour.  The first type of behaviour was socially sanctioned--the patients were polite and comported themselves more or less as middle class women in the nineteenth century would have been expected to, ignoring the unfortunate symptoms.  But Freud saw that this second kind of behaviour, if it was not ignored, precisely resembled a kind of alternative, anti-social communication He saw that with the hysterical symptom, “the body joins in the conversation.” He came eventually to important conclusions.  The first was that there is a kind of censoring force in psychic life that represses the instinctual drives.  Repression is the word he used for the way a particular kind of wish or desire has been found unacceptable and thus pushed away from consciousness, to be buried unconsciously.  The thought, for instance, “I am sexually attracted to my best friend’s lover,” might be censored or otherwise disguised, for being morally unacceptable--all without my knowing.  Often, however, the repression is not completely successful, so the repressed wish returns in some alternative form (the return of the repressed), as a hysterical symptom.  Some specific symptoms particularly emphasise the anti-social aspects of the repressed wish, as the victim is compelled to snore loudly, fart, stick out the tongue or otherwise make rude noises and gestures.  Another thing that Freud discovered early on was that hysteria is not confined to women.  Everyone is more or less hysterical.    With its special repertoire of conventions and social prejudice, the nineteenth century seems to have been particularly hard on women whose wishes may have been impossibly compromised by social expectation.  But one of the first great rows that Freud provoked concerned the discovery of male hysterics.  Freud began with the hypnotherapy treatment but soon gave it up, as he found that stress free conversation was more effective--hence psychoanalysis becomes known as “the talking cure.”  But he discovered early on that the most secure route to the discovery and interpretation of the processes of the unconscious could be made by way of dreams, a kind of symptom that nobody fails to produce.




In The Interpretation of Dreams he points out that there is no scientific method in existence that can help in the analysis of dreams.  For the scientist, dreams are not mental acts but purely somatic, physical processes.  Freud thus leaves the scientific view to one side and, as so often, looks for clues in the popular views about dreams.  In popular accounts, dreams are either symbols of a hidden content or they are coded, with each image standing for a fixed meaning.  As a result, there are two different methods of interpreting dreams among the popular accounts.  Either they are regarded as symbolic, such that the whole content of a dream is replaced by another more intelligible but analogous content, or they are regarded as a form of code.  With the decoding method each sign or image in the dream is translated according to a pre-established dream dictionary.  In the decoding method, for instance, if a dream features the images of a letter and a funeral, the dream-dictionary might translate the letter as a sign for “trouble” and the funeral as a sign for “marriage.”  The dream can then be interpreted as a warning against a possible imminent marriage.  There are problems for each method, however.  In the first case the dream is normally full of unintelligible and contradictory aspects, which must thus go without interpretation.  And in the second case there is no way to be sure that the fixed code or key is right for each element.  To solve the problems, Freud puts the two methods together.  The decoding method can supplement the symbolic method because it can interpret individual fragments.  The dream is considered as a special type of symptom (common to all of us) which can be interpreted with help from word-associations during a psychoanalytic session.




Freud’s description of how he prepares his patient for dream analysis once again shows the relation of the critical or judgmental side of the psyche to social relations.  What is crucial is that there must be a suspension of the “critical” faculties, what he calls “a relaxation of the gates of reason.”   The rational, judging, organising side of the personality is given a rest so that the pleasure-seeking side of the personality can come up with associations that the rational side would not normally have sanctioned.


The interpretation then follows these three steps:


*        The dream is cut up into pieces and the series of associations belonging to each piece can be considered as “background thoughts.”

*        The elements making up the background thoughts to each piece of the dream can be related to each other under the assumption that the meaning of the dream is of a composite character.

*        Like decoding, the details can be interpreted; like symbolism, a dream can be regarded as a distorted version of a coherent psychic formation of unconscious thoughts.


In this way Freud was able to show that ideas which once would have been regarded as involuntary--just popping into your head as if from nowhere--can in fact be regarded as voluntary but from an agency of the psyche that is literally not conscious.  His findings also lead him to a famous conclusion: “a dream is the secret fulfilment of a wish that has been repressed.”  Freud suggests that there are two psychic agencies (Currents or systems) at work.  “One of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream-wish and, by use of that censorship, forcibly brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish.”  The dream represents a series of limitations, distortions, defences and disguises, which are the consequence of a repression on the agency of wish creation, that is, on desire, the force of the drive for pleasure.  They are like two forces.  One creates wishes; the other represses them.  The compromise between these two forces is typified by our contradictory dreamscapes.










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