The Subject through Processes: How World-Making Determines the Self
The self is a complex subject, and based on the number of movies about finding oneself, the number of books on how to improve oneself, and the number of people who take Self, Culture, and Society as a class, it is clearly a subject people care about. But when it comes to understanding the self, where do we start? Or better yet, what will help us to further our current understanding of the self? One way that we can think about the self is how it develops, and what processes influence the development of the adult self. In this article, what I hope to accomplish is use Freudian social theory to give you a better understanding of how world-making processes have determining effects on the self.
The three main ideas I will talk about are how Freud’s model of the mind develops, what Freud talks about as processes that shape the development of adult sexuality, and what leads to neurotic behavior.
THE MODEL OF THE MIND
First things first, what kind of mind we are dealing with? What sort of self are we working with?
The parts of Freud’s model of the mind that we are going to focus on are the ego and the libido. The ego and the libido, at first, are in agreement with each other and obey the pleasure principle, i.e. “mental activity is directed towards achieving pleasure and avoiding unpleasure” (443). However, over time, the ego undergoes an education process that leads it to abandon the pleasure principle and instead obey the reality principle, which “seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though pleasure is postponed and diminished” (444). Thus, we have an ego that follows reality’s rules and moral guidelines.
The libido, on the other hand, does not go under this process of development. It will always have the goal of obtaining pleasure. What can happen with the libido, however, is that it will develop fixations. Sometimes the libido might fixate itself upon a particular object that will serve as an important source of pleasure throughout a person’s life. Freud says that “It is often impossible to say what it is that enabled this impression to exercise such an intense attraction on the libido” (433), but the “adhesiveness” of the libido is a determining factor in the development of fixations. Sometimes a patient can describe a specific moment where they knew about a fixation, but it is not necessarily the case that the moment they knew is the moment the fixation developed. Nonetheless, the libido will sometimes develop a specific preference on how pleasure is to be obtained. The libido always wants pleasure, but the methods of obtaining pleasure are dependent upon the historical determining factors for each person.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF ADULT SEXUALITY
We know that at infancy, the ego and the libido both follow the pleasure principle, but how do we get to the rational, adult self? For this, we can consider Freud’s theory on sexual development. For Freud, the socialization/education process is what turns the baby mind into the adult mind, and it is based on sexuality. Infantile sexuality is when the ego and the libido are still on the same page, as this is before education, and this is also before the libido can be described as having a fixation. As Freud says, “children are without what makes sexuality into the reproductive function” (392), so infantile sexuality is naturally perverse and based on organ pleasure. Infantile sexuality is unorganized, and the libido obtains organ pleasure in many ways such as eating and using the bathroom. The ‘normal’ development of that results in the focus of sexual pleasure for reproduction does not develop until later, and the socialization/education process has the goal of trying to restrict organ pleasure as such.
The socialization/education process is considered to happen in stages, but what happens in each stage is a restriction of certain forms of infantile organ pleasure. For instance, we have potty training. Freud says of the purpose of this sort of education that “An infant must not produce his excreta at whatever moment he chooses, but when other people decide that he shall. In order to induce him to forgo these sources of pleasure, he is told that everything that has to do with these functions is improper and must be kept secret” (390). The socialization/education process develops an ego that conforms to social norms, and in turn, this ego comes into conflict with the libido, which does not undergo the education process and continues to obey the pleasure principle. In adult sexuality, the result of this ego libido conflict can have various consequences.
THE DETERMINATION OF NEUROTIC BEHAVIOR
Adult sexuality can be defined by organization, as in it has an object and an aim. In ‘normal’ adult sexuality, infantile sexuality is necessarily repressed, and the tyrannical object is the genitals with the aim being reproduction. However, different things can happen during development that may lead to perversion or neurosis. We have already heard about how the libido can experience a fixation, but as Freud says, “We are now faced with by the important consideration of how the ego behaves if its libido leaves a strong fixation behind at some point in its (the libido’s) development” (437). What happens with a fixation is the maintenance of infantile sexuality, which means the preservation of perverse sexuality, also known as regression. If the ego accepts this form of sexuality, then it is called a perversion. This is the case with people whose object is not the genitals and thus the aim cannot be reproduction. However, education can create conflicts between the libido and the ego. What Freud says about education is that “it may achieve too much–that it may encourage an excess of sexual repression, with damaging results, and the fact that it may send the child out into life without any defence against the onrush of sexual demands that is to be looked for at puberty” (454). Too much education can lead to the provocation of the ego’s defense and the repression of libidinal impulses.
While the libidinal impulses are repressed, they do not go away. According to Freud, “The libido is, as it were, cut off and must try to escape in some direction where, in accordance with the requirements of the pleasure principle, it can find a discharge for its cathexis of energy” (447). Freud provides an ‘economic view’ of mental processes, and so the libidinal energy must express itself somehow. It is the process of expression of libidinal desires repressed by the ego that determines the neurotic symptoms. So long as the energy is in the mind, it is not disappearing, and it is necessarily expressed through other means that represent a compromise between the libido and the ego. Hence, a sore leg can be a substitute for a repressed sexual life, or a vase can represent virginity.
Here is a good example of where Freudian theory might help us to understand how world-making processes determine the adult self.
This is the episode of The Fairly Odd Parents where Timmy has gone back in time and caused his dad to lost a race in his childhood as well as never marry Timmy’s mom. In order to get to this version of Timmy’s dad’s adult self, there are a series of processes that take place. First, during his formative young years, Timmy’s dad experiences the trauma of losing a race that hopefully would have earned him the attention of Timmy’s mom. The libido has clearly developed a fixation on trophies because of this experience. Next, we see that Timmy’s dad has undergone a strict education process going through dictator school that has drastically affected his ego, causing him to repress his libidinal desires instead of handle them properly. Thus, we see the development of neurotic behavior in Timmy’s dad. The events of Timmy’s dad’s life have caused neurotic symptoms related to his traumatic experience.
Understanding the development of libido and the ego is important to understanding the way the self forms. The self is a historical self. It is dynamic and it is shaped by the experiences of the person. To have a self is to live and experience, and so understanding the way processes in the world determine the self is crucial to understanding the self.