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The Paradox of Enjoyment - Rob Weatherill

Psychoanalysis Ireland


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 » The Paradox of Enjoyment - Rob Weatherill

Paper presented at the Mental Health and the “Talking Cure” seminar organised by the College of Psychoanalysis on October 2nd 2010.
Enjoyment, or pleasure, is linked in the psychoanalytic model with the agency of the ID - the Latin for IT, which implies what is inhuman and impersonal in us. The Superego was what traditionally opposed and curtailed the ID in its one-dimensional pleasure seeking, causing us to feel guilty. But recent psychoanalytic theorising has focussed attention on a radical shift in superego functioning during what we call the post-modern. In short the superego while continuing to be a moralising agency causing guilt in us, now paradoxically commands us to enjoy!
The perverse superego injunction to enjoy, simply enjoy, opens us up to no “world” proper, no real possible world in a humanly conceivable sense. It refers instead to a generalised unnameable, un-locatable enjoyment that is at once everywhere and nowhere. It is a direct call to a de-sublimated pleasure, which is post-ideological (not linked to any system of meaning or values) and potentially limitless. It is quite impossible: a thousand places to visit before you die! Impossible. We are commanded to go right to the end in terms of enjoyment. Permitted pleasure becomes at once obligatory pleasure. Give in to temptation (it says on the way down to Tescos in the Merrion Centre). Pleasure at the level of the neurons and pleasure centres themselves with recreational drugs, media gadgets and screens that will stimulate the brain more or less directly. All our drives, from gender and sexual orientation to ethnic belonging, whether abled or disabled, are more and more often experienced by us, as matters of choice. Things, that only a short while ago seemed self-evident and natural (within a given culture) – how to parent, how to feed, educate and discipline a child, how to proceed in sexual seduction, how, what and when to eat, and in the correct amounts, how to relax and amuse oneself, how to relate to others and to old people – have now been ‘colonised’ by reflexivity – you have to choose – to use alcohol sensibly, not to drink and drive, to wear a condom, not to eat saturated fats, etc. Everything has to be re-thought and this will be aided by ongoing learning and education. It is no longer a question, for example, of not taking dangerous substances (because I your father say so), but instead it is a matter of education for drug usage, risk reduction and harm management. You Choose. Tony Geoghegan, director of the drugs services organisation Merchants Quay Ireland, responding in an article to incidents of severe illness induced by drug taking over one weekend last year, put the point precisely: 'The difference between life and death is knowing the score. While the facts are stark, all the evidence suggests that if people who continue to use drugs are aware of the risks and know how to respond when things go wrong, there is a lot they can do to reduce the risk of harm to themselves or their friends'. Drug taking is a given, therefore minimise the risks. So listen up: You are going to score, so know the score.
Young pre-teen girls exposed to hyper-sexualised media must be educated so as not to want, or to choose not to want to wear make-up, sexy clothes, to have sex too soon, get pregnant, etc. The new perverse superego never says No. Don’t do that! Don’t wear that! The nearest it gets to subtly steering your choice is to call certain things and behaviours: “inappropriate” – things that it is slightly better not to choose. But overall our enjoyment must not be affected or diminished.
Some version of the approximate Kantian universal moral formula used to be: You cannot because you should not. This has been inverted by the perverse superego into You must because you can. Take men with erectile dysfunction. In the old days, they couldn’t or shouldn’t do it, or could only do it with difficulty and occasionally. Now, with Viagra they have no excuse – They must because they can – all the time! Information – knowledge – choice. If you don’t choose the enjoyable option, you now feel unaccountably bad or inadequate.
In the past one could speak of the parental internalisations which occurred during adolescence as acting as a modifying influence on the more primitive and ruthless superego of early childhood. The provision of external support and control removed the need for the harsh counter-measures adopted by the ego when it was in a relatively helpless state. Contact with parents and other adults whose (normal) discipline and authority was looked up to and identified with had the effect of gradually mitigating strong and irrational unconscious and conscious guilt feelings. The child or adolescent’s sense of right and wrong was brought more into line with reality and the superego functioned as a conscience. The warfare between the superego and the Id became modified and reduced and the person was left relatively free to pursue a productive life. Of course there were always bad identifications, where parental pathology was internalised. In general, the more adult figures a child had to identify with the better for his mental health. So, in this respect, the break-up of the extended family, and more recently the nuclear family has been hugely detrimental.1
The imbalance created by the shift in values from self-restraint in favour of the command to be self-indulgent (the perverse superego) has led to the abandoning of the old superego and the uncovering of its infantile prototype. The loss of external support brought about by the collapse of parental authority has left children exposed and threatened from within. The old inhibiting superego has been replaced by a tyrannical new one. Paradoxically, increasing external freedom increases internal guilt and self-punishment, making it more difficult than ever for instinctual desires to find acceptable outlets.2
Let us briefly look more closely at what is meant by the “archaic superego” (Klein) which is the forerunner of the mature adult superego. Firstly, it must not be understood as a moral agency. It does oppose instinct but in an entirely irrational way. It operates on the principle of the talion, using aggression to oppose aggression. Melanie Klein added a new property to the Freudian unconscious: Lex Talionis. The ruthlessness of the infant in procuring its needs is matched by the ruthlessness of the superego response. Freud saw the severity in his work on melancholia and obsessional neurosis.
How is it that the superego develops such extraordinary harshness and severity towards the ego? If we turn to melancholia first, we find that the excessively strong superego which has obtained a hold upon consciousness rages against the ego with merciless violence, as if it had taken possession of the whole of the sadism available in the person concerned. Following our view of sadism we should say that the destructive component had entrenched itself in the superego and turned against the ego. What is now holding sway in the superego is a pure culture of the death instinct.
In obsessional neurosis the instinct of destruction has been set free and it seeks to destroy the object. The superego behaves as if the ego were responsible for this by the seriousness with which it chastises these destructive intentions. (Freud 1923, p.53).
Melanie Klein in her work with young children greatly increased our understanding of the early formation of the superego. She points out that the early superego is ‘immeasurably harsher and more cruel than that of the older child or adult and that it literally crushed down the feeble Ego of the small child. In the small child we come across a superego of the most incredible and phantastic proportions’ (Klein, 1933 pp. 248, 249). The younger the child the more severe is the superego. ‘We get to look upon the child's fear of being devoured, or cut-up, or torn to pieces, or its terror of being surrounded and pursued by menacing figures’. (ibid p249)
Klein's analyses of children pointed-up the importance of aggression in early development. When aggression is at its height they never tire of, ‘tearing and cutting-up, breaking and wetting and burning all sorts of things like paper, matches, boxes, small toys, all of which represent (unconsciously) parents, brothers, sisters and bodies and breasts, and this rage for destruction alternates with attacks of anxiety and guilt’. (ibid p. 255) These frustrated and destructive rages within the child cause him great anxiety, ‘for he perceives his anxiety arising from his aggressive instincts as fear of an external object [person], both because he had made that object their outward goal, and because he has projected them onto it, so that they seem to be initiated against himself from that quarter’. (ibid p. 250) He cannot own up to his rage; instead he will create terrifying images of his parents who are now felt to rage against him. This is a desperate attempt at control by turning sadism against the self.
In the archaic superego, we clearly do not have a conscience. Instead we have a brutal instrument of self-punishment which is as impulsive and dangerous as the drives of the Id that it is trying to control. This is part of our early development. It remains mostly unconscious and we only become aware of it during nightmares, certain drug states, during horror movies, paranoid states as well as depressive ones. But with the loss of the more mature and benign superego and suitable identification figures, children are increasingly exposed to this frightening internal world with extreme mental distress.
Finally, psychoanalytically, there are at least two routes to suicide which are relevant to our analysis of the superego:
Killing the self will kill-off at last the tormenting archaic superego which causes such mental pain, anguish and extreme self-hate. The suicidal fantasy fosters the notion that the act will also protect others from one’s lethal pathological rage which arises from the ID and SUPEREGO in extreme conflict.
With reflexivization, however, suicide becomes an existential act, now increasingly normalised by media exposure and de-stigmatisation. Suicide, at one time seen as something rare and abnormal, now becomes a pure decision, a pure choice – IT’S MY LIFE. If life MUST be always enjoyable according to the logic of the perverse superego, then if it is not, just end it. Choice.
References and notes.
. S.E. 19: 1-66.
Klein, M. (1933) 'The early development of the conscience in the child', in
Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1946-63. The Writing of Melanie Klein, vol 3 Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
This kind of statement is often called nostalgic, conservative, harking back to the myth of a golden age, and so on. As Alan Rowan said (during the discussion), there never was a golden age, times have moved on and the old days are never coming back. It is the end of all grand narratives, no more father, no more systems of meaning, no more superego, it’s over, it’s gone! Get used to it! Indeed, there can be no question about this. But we should, nevertheless, be greatly concerned. There can be no doubt, as child psychotherapists and teachers will acknowledge privately, children are suffering in real terms, more and more and at younger and younger ages. Adults too are presenting with symptoms connected to the archaic superego – panic attacks, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm and so on. Are we happy for our own children and loved ones to suffer in this way.
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