Monday, November 12, 2012

psychoanalytic basics: the superego; guilt; topographical anxiety

Although my primary focus is on the ego ideal I believe it’s important to examine the superego both to contrast it to the ideal and get a sense for the cognitive development at a given stage. I’d like to begin my evaluation of Milrod’s interpretation by first looking at one of his clinical examples of superego guilt. Milrod gives the case of a married man who had an affair. He reported feelings of envy and lust regarding the actors he worked with as well as inferiority about his own appearance. He found a mature mistress who would understand that it was just a fling and his wife wouldn’t know, so it wouldn’t hurt anyone in his estimation. He felt elated by the experience but when he got home his wife wasn’t there and he was “thrust into morbid self-condemnation, and certain his wife had learned of his adventure” (ibid. 144). He called his wife’s friends and family in desperation and he went to the bedroom in tears to escape in sleep. However, he found his wife and child asleep in the bed “like angels”. Milrod writes that not finding his wife and imagining that she knew and had left him was a “punitive function of his superego indicating that he felt he deserved to be abandoned for his sin” and that his elation on the way home was “caused by denial of guilt feelings” (ibid., 144).

Turning to Freud, I believe Milrod’s example highlights one of many misinterpretations of the superego in his work. Freud is explicit about how the post-oedipal superego functions and Milrod seems to ignore his most sustained investigation of the superego in Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud writes:

To begin with, if we ask how a person comes to have a sense of guilt, we arrive at an answer which cannot be disputed: a person feels guilty (devout people would say ‘sinful’) when he has done something which he knows to be ‘bad’… we shall add that even when a person has not actually done the bad thing but has only recognized in himself an intention to do it, he may regard himself as guilty; and the question then arises of why the intention is regarded as equal to the deed. Both cases, however, presuppose that one had already recognized that what is bad is reprehensible, is something that must not be carried out (Civilization, p.124)

It seems strange that Milrod regards his patient as possessing guilt when he never brought up reservations about his affair before he had it- when it was just an intention. Furthermore, there is no discussion about coming clean to his wife afterwards. We all know people who do something wrong, and aren’t found out, but yet have to confess to their spouses or whoever they wrong in order to come clean. A full superego conscience means that someone will seeks to make amends for what they’ve done or face potential punishment or the bad consequences of his actions. What Milrod has described has much more in common with what Freud calls social anxiety:

This state of mind is called a ‘bad conscience’; but actually it does not deserve this name, for at this stage the sense of guilt is clearly only a fear of loss of love, ‘social’ anxiety. In small children it can never be anything else, but in many adults, too, it has only changed to the extent that the place of the father or the two parents is taken by the larger human community. Consequently, such people habitually allow themselves to do any bad thing which promises them enjoyment, so long as they are sure that the authority will not know anything about it or cannot blame them for it; they are afraid only of being found out  (ibid., p.124-5)
For Milrod’s patient to not have had any reservations before the deed, to not seek to come clean after, and for him to impute knowledge of the event to his wife though he was no doubt very careful to conceal things from her shows that he childlike overestimation or transference to her that would be expected in social anxiety. It is clear that he feared loss of love from her and, in contrast, Milrod has to claim several defenses before and after the fact to explain it as guilt. Moreover, it is ridiculous to think that the patient felt like he had to tell his wife and come clean with his conscience but that Milrod just left that part out.

Now that we have a concept of what guilt is, how the guilty person acts, and Milrod’s lack of sensitivity to these distinctions, I’d like to approach his general theoretical claim that the superego is suddenly formed after the Oedipus complex. It is true that Freud has several statements in which it appears that he claims that the superego doesn’t exist until after the Oedipus complex however, he has statements to the opposite effect and these suggest the former statements are hyperbolic and that they are made to stress the fact that many people lack guilt in the way just described. In Civilization Freud formulates this explicitly:

A great change takes place only when the authority is internalized through the establishment of a super-ego. The phenomena of conscience then reach a higher stage. Actually, it is not until now that we should speak of conscience or a sense of guilt… [However, in the footnote to this Freud writes:] [e]veryone of discernment will understand and take into account the fact that in this summary description we have sharply delimited events which in reality occur by gradual transitions, and that it is not merely a question of the existence of a super-ego but of its relative strength and sphere of influence (Civilization, p. 125)

Freud, in admitting that there are gradual transitions and that it is a question of relative strength and influence, reveals that he stresses the sphere of influence and strength of the post-oedipal conscience for didactic reasons. And, as we saw with Milrod’s case study, Freud’s efforts have been wasted on many of his interpreters. When I later turn to an assessment of Freud’s account of the superego I’ll examine more closely what pre-oedipal conscience might look like by following some of his remarks about remorse and the anal superego or ‘sphincter morality’.


I will have more to say about this in the next section, but for now I want to finish off my examination of Milrod’s interpretation. It is clear that he wants to grant the ego self-observation in order to claim that when the superego is formed after the Oedipus complex that a new relation of autonomy exists that is fundamentally different from the ego’s self-observation. In other words, Milrod wants to keep alive a sense of agency and freedom in what he calls the moral and ethical content of the post-oedipal ego ideal. However, in contrast to Milrod’s view that the post-oedipal ego ideal is both beyond identification and not dependent on external objects is an important passage in ‘The Ego and the Id’ that he neglects to mention in any of his work. Freud writes:

It is easy to show that the ego ideal answers to everything that is expected of the higher nature of man. As a substitute for a longing for the father, it contains the germ from which all religions have evolved. The self-judgement which declares that the ego falls short of its ideal produces the religious sense of humility to which the believer appeals in his longing. As a child grows up, the role of father is carried on by teachers and others in authority; their injunctions and prohibitions remain powerful in the ego ideal and continue, in the form of conscience, to exercise the moral censorship. The tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performances of the ego is experienced as a sense of guilt. Social feelings rest on identifications with other people, on the basis of having the same ego ideal.
Religion, morality, and a social sense—the chief elements in the higher side of man—were originally one and the same thing. According to the hypothesis which I put forward in Totem and Taboo they were acquired phylogenetically out of the father-complex: religion and moral restraint through the process of mastering the Oedipus complex itself, and social feeling through the necessity for overcoming the rivalry that then remained between the members of the younger generation. (The Ego and The Id, p.37, emphasis mine).

 Although Milrod in ‘The Ego Ideal’ notes Freud’s claim that homosexual impulses play a role in the formation of the ego ideal in ‘On Narcissism’ he doesn’t mention the father complex. He also doesn’t address the direct statement “ the role of father is carried on by teachers and others in authority; their injunctions and prohibitions remain powerful in the ego ideal and continue, in the form of conscience, to exercise the moral censorship”. This, of course, contradicts his claim that the post-oedipal ego ideal is beyond identification and not dependent on external objects. Furthermore, the extra step of the father complex that removes the formation of the ego ideal and puts it on an instinctual basis (the renunciation of homosexual impulses towards the father) distances the ego ideal from the Oedipal event in which Milrod can imagine that the soul suddenly flies into the body and with it a sense of freedom[1].  To be fair, even though Milrod neglects to provide his readers with Freud’s whole picture he does acknowledge that

admired love objects other than parents may be the source of elements that are internalized into the superego. Society's standards, to the degree that they are known, will also participate (Freud, 1914). The steady detachment of superego functions and substructures from the original objects leads to the autonomy of superego functions, both from objects and from the drives (The Superego, p.140).

The problem with this view is that Milrod seems to imply that identification can only occur with someone in relation to their job or hobby (his wished for self image) but that when it comes to following the injunctions and prohibitions of father-substitutes the identifications are only the source of elements. The implication is that the child will choose what is moral wholly on his own, and parental views and society’s standards can participate but also, if they are not known, won’t participate in his ‘superego identifications’. When I try to understand Milrod’s view here the picture that comes to mind is that of a contemporary bourgeois consumer who is deciding if he will buy a yoga membership and get into eastern religion, or if he feels closer to something more pagan, or if he’d prefer a traditional Christian church. However, clearly Chrisitianity was the only game in town for long stretches of time in Western society and it would have been the only tradition, and it seems absurd to imagine a child who wouldn’t have heard of it. But, Milrod is right in one sense. Freud’s post-oedipal superego guilt conscience is independent of both societal and parental standards, although he is wrong to think that child chooses it in any way. The discrepancy is that Milrod has mixed up post oedipal superego with the superego of later latency.

The superego conscience that is formed in the father complex Freud compares to the categorical imperative[2]. This conscience isn’t determined by traditions or what the child decides himself, but by the ‘golden rule’ of considering how what one does to others would feel like if done to oneself[3]. Also, the ego ideal injunctions and prohibitions in the father complex isn’t about specific religious values, but the general attitude towards religion and social feelings developed with others and can more accurately be seen as an ideal to be a ‘grownup’. This should become clearer when I explore it in the next section in post-Freudian thought, but for now I will  point to what we see today as secular values in being a good voting, tax-paying, parent to one’s children that are treated as normative. The group identities of nation, race, and class won’t become known to the child until later on in latency, and the father complex ego ideal of wanting to be a ‘grownup’ just provides the foundation for which latency development can continue from.

The superego in its form of providing topographical anxiety related to the superego, as opposed to the categorical imperative that derives its strength from castration signal anxiety, finds its content in tradition. “But the same figures who continue to operate in the super-ego as the agency we know as conscience” Freud writes [i]t is from there… their power, behind which lie hidden all the influences of the past and of tradition” (Economic Problem, p. 167). He goes on to call the influences of tradition “a representative of the real external world as well and thus also becomes a model for the endeavours of the ego(ibid., p.167). Even after tradition supplies content for the superego’s topographical anxiety, by identification that may now go beyond the parents and come from a societal father (a teacher or someone invested with authority in society), the individual, if he actually develops this far, isn’t free to pick and choose his ethics and morality. In Group Psychology Freud points out the wisdom of religion for having festivals:  

It is quite conceivable that the separation of the ego ideal from the ego cannot be borne for long either, and has to be temporarily undone. In all renunciations and limitations imposed upon the ego a periodical infringement of the prohibition is the rule; this indeed is shown by the institution of festivals, which in origin are nothing less nor more than excesses provided by law and which owe their cheerful character to the release which they bring. The Saturnalia of the Romans and our modern carnival agree in this essential feature with the festivals of primitive people, which usually end in debaucheries of every kind and the transgression of what are at other times the most sacred commandments (Group Psychology, p.131).

Freud’s suggestion is that the religion itself (embodied in its institutions and leaders) must undo the prohibition and that it is “temporarily undone” and thus comparable to group psychology in which a lynch mob takes over one’s conscience prohibitions on destructive acts temporarily. If the individual is not preoedipal, perverse, or a psycho-neurotic who hasn’t developed past the father complex, and therefore develops to the point of identifying with an ethical tradition prohibitions against sex, for example, can hold fast in the superego. Again, I don’t think that the child is evaluating the different ethical systems and thinks “I’ll choose the one that tells me I’ll go blind for masturbating because the other religion doesn’t allow me to drink soda”. Clearly, parents or teachers pass on the prohibitions of a tradition to the children and Milrod’s post-oedipal autonomy would need some good concrete examples to save it.

With the difference between conscience as categorical imperative and conscience based upon specific traditions in mind, I’d like to stress that Freud indicates this separation himself in some places “[T]he sense of guilt,” Freud writes, “is at bottom nothing else but a topographical variety of anxiety; in its later phases it coincides completely with fear of the super-ego.” (Civilization, p.135, emphasis mine). He attaches signal anxiety to birth, oral, anal, and phallic stages and clearly says that fear of the superego is in latency (Inhibitions, p. 142). It seems utterly strange to me that the castration signal anxiety that was just encountered at the Oedipal phase is instantly followed by superego anxiety. Again, instead I understand that the castration anxiety is transferred over to the categorical imperative in the father complex and is part of the phallic phase although it sets the foundation for latency. Then “in its later phases,” in latency, the superego becomes heir to the content of religious traditions. This is a crucial distinction and leads to important ideas like Marcuse’s basic vs. surplus repression in which different historical moral systems may instill a sex-positive or sex-negative latency superego conscience.

There is no doubt that the conscience in which intentions can be the cause of guilt shows a tremendous growth of self-consciousness. However, just because this operation is ‘for consciousness’ doesn’t mean that there is a fundamental change in how our motivational/self-esteem system functions. This idea, taken along with the ego ideal beginning in early childhood with a primary identification with the father shows that Freud is looking at the superego as an organizing principle of development and a motivational/self-esteem system all the way along. If one looks closely at his texts, Freud uses the Oedipus complex as an example because it is the most clear to him but he mentions that there are identifications the precede it that follow the same form[4].

While Freud is attacked today for the centrality of the phallus and the father in his account of development, analysts would do better not to apologize for it or defend it as curious but true hallmark of the Oedipus complex. Rather they should see that primary identification and the formation of the ego ideal based upon the father in the individual’s personal prehistory is to see the father as an organizing principle. There are single mothers who raise children, who aren’t psychotic or neurotic and therefore the actual father, or a being with a penis, isn’t necessary. The father is necessary as a negative quality or as the not-mother.  For example, in the fort-da game Freud claims that it is ‘instinctual renunciation’ of the relationship with the mother that grants the ‘great cultural achievement’ of setting up the binary relation of ‘here’ and ‘gone’ in relation to objects and things[5]. Similarly, the claims that perfection, another cultural trait identified with the father and with the ego ideal, is first created by instinctual renunciation as a negative quality[6]. This suggests all developmental phases consist of an instinctual renunciations of id object selection of the mother, the creation of not-mother images of perfection, and that perfection being taken over by the father imago which is then internalized after triangular conflict with him and signal anxiety. Again, post-oedipal internalization, because of development of cognition, just happens to have more content that can become conscious. However, this doesn’t mean that prohibition of certain impulses towards others can’t exist before the Oedipal internalization and result in a bad conscience if they are acted upon. Freud refers to this form of conscience as giving rise to remorse[7][8].

[1] The ego psychologist Hans Loewald gives a better sense for what Milrod tries to hide behind words like autonomy, and no dependence on external objects. He writes “the submission to the castration threat [is] the decisive step in the establishment of the ego as based on the reality principle” (Ego and Reality, p. 12). However, it is clear that moving from individual self-absorption in concern about one’s own success or love, the move is to that of having an interest in being seen as mature and responsible and being concerned with traditions and institutions (church, political parties, (etc.). It isn’t that the individual suddenly becomes a rational being, it’s that the individual is born into social reality. I’ll discuss this in more detail when I examine the phallic stage in its entirety.  
[2] Only in this way was it possible for the Oedipus complex to be surmounted. The super-ego retained essential features of the introjected persons—their strength, their severity, their inclination to supervise and to punish. As I have said elsewhere, it is easily conceivable that, thanks to the defusion of instinct which occurs along with this introduction into the ego, the severity was increased. The super-ego—the conscience at work in the ego—may then become harsh, cruel and inexorable against the ego which is in its charge. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is thus the direct heir of the Oedipus complex (Economic Problem, p.167, emphasis mine).
[3] Freud gives an example of how the punishment meted out by the categorical imperative follows the same procedure of judging the self representation by how the object representation is treated (and now vice versa).

Let us disentangle identification as it occurs in the structure of a neurotic symptom from its rather complicated connections. Supposing that a little girl (and we will keep to her for the present) develops the same painful symptom as her mother—for instance, the same tormenting cough. This may come about in various ways. The identificationmay come from the Oedipus complex; in that case it signifies a hostile desire on the girl's part to take her mother's place, and the symptom expresses her object-love towards her father, and brings about a realization, under the influence of a sense of guilt, of her desire to take her mother's place: ‘You wanted to be your mother, and now you are—anyhow so far as your sufferings are concerned.’ This is the complete mechanism of the structure of a hysterical symptom  (group psychology, p. 106)

[4] The super-ego arises, as we know, from an identification with the father taken as a model. Every such identification is in the nature of a desexualization or even of a sublimation. (The Ego and the Id, p. 54, emphasis mine).
[5] The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child's great cultural achievement—the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting. He compensated himself for this, as it were, by himself staging the disappearance and return of the objects within his reach (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p.15).
[6] It may be difficult, too, for many of us, to abandon the belief that there is an instinct towards perfection at work in human beings, which has brought them to their present high level of intellectual achievement and ethical sublimation and which may be expected to watch over their development into supermen. I have no faith, however, in the existence of any such internal instinct and I cannot see how this benevolent illusion is to be preserved. The present development of human beings requires, as it seems to me, no different explanation from that of animals. What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of the instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilization. The repressed instinct never ceases to strive for complete satisfaction, which would consist in the repetition of a primary experience of satisfaction. No substitutive or reactive formations and no sublimations will suffice to remove the repressed instinct's persisting tension; and it is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving factor which will permit of no halting at any position attained, but, in the poet's words, [‘Presses ever forward unsubdued.’]. The backward path that leads to complete satisfaction is as a rule obstructed by the resistances which maintain the repressions. So there is no alternative but to advance in the direction in which growth is still free—though with no prospect of bringing the process to a conclusion or of being able to reach the goal (Freud, BPP, p. 42).
[7] Remorse is a general term for the ego's reaction in a case of sense of guilt. It contains, in little altered form, the sensory material of the anxiety which is operating behind the sense of guilt; it is itself a punishment and can include the need for punishment. Thus remorse, too, can be older than conscience [qua guilt regarding intentions] (Civilization, p. 136, emphasis mine).
[8] Alex Holder in ‘Preoedipal Contributions to the Formation of the Superego’ holds a similar view that “to restrict the [superego’s] contents to the aftermath of the killing of the primal father is to take too narrow a view” of the superego (p. 255).

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