Of Agencies, Egos, Gods and Dogs

Charlot Maulbec

August 11, 2016


Decisions made in translating Freud’s writings into English have always provoked controversy.  No more so than with the key terminology of the “structural model” of the psyche, das Es, das Ich, and das Über-Ich, rendered respectively by Strachey as the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego.  Critics have long argued that Strachey’s choices obscure the common-sense, phenomenological flavor of Freud’s choices in favor of a deliberately difficult, “scientific” jargon.

Translations, of course, have effects, whether they are “right” or “wrong.”  The transmission of classical Freudian doctrine was largely handled by the English Standard Edition.   Strachey’s own words have become an undeniable actuality.  Mediations are creations, and translations are always transpositions: they at once filter, restrict, and enable new possibilities and combinations in new semantic fields.  They are passwords to new distributions of sense of sensibility.

One effect of Strachey’s choices has certainly been “reification”: the tendency to harden objects and processes into something more rigid and solid, the tendency to subsume a movement under a label, to take as a primary given what is a momentary result, to exchange the person for the death mask.  Reification has itself been reified as a main object of critique.  Often it is assumed that critique is always the patient work of dissolving nature into culture.  But reification is a cultural technique, not a curse or sin.  It is by nature ambivalent.

In this specific case, the sacrifice of a more experience-oriented or spontaneous language to describe subjectivity (I, the It, the Over-me) for a more alienated or scientific terminology (Id, Ego, Super-ego) has value in at least two senses, the former more innocent (and therefore more suspect) than the latter.  The first is a rather classical claim: the distance opened by such reified language is necessary for the kind of observation necessary for knowledge-oriented or scientific practices.  Freud’s model of the psyche would never have had such an influence were it only a clever registration of subjective experience.  It models agencies in dynamic interaction, a structure that allows for descriptions of causes beyond their effects, interactions governed by logics that are often alien to common-sense thought and experience, as well as for the study of psychic configurations as they lock up or change both within an individual life-course and on a larger historic scale.  Consider that when Freud wanted to grant his readers a more “intuitive” image of the complex logic of the agencies in The Ego and the Id, he did not as it were “return” to the subjective language from which the terminology arose, but rather presented a further transposition through metaphors concerning horses and riders, parliamentary politics, and other situations.

The second, and less innocent value of the reified or alienated terminology of the Standard Edition is a function of the relation between society and the subject.  Detached terminology marks a determined resiliency to not submit to the false seductions of friendly, intersubjective, experiential language in a society that objectively alienates and reifies the people that are submitted to it.  In capitalist societies, subjective experience, like anything else, is only of value if it can somehow be accommodated within a commodity form or an exchange relation.   Reification is the truth of our experience as lack of experience. Freud derives his status as a “classical bourgeois” thinker from maintaining a singular attention to detail and complexity in the subject of the unconscious, while at the same time crafting a theory from frankly monstrous metaphors borrowed from the sciences of control, power and domination:  thermodynamics, hydraulics and political economy.  It is no coincidence that the clamor for more “subjective” language and the vogue of therapeutic culture arises in conjunction with a decline of general critical social consciousness, a process that Russel Jacoby called in an eponymous book “Social Amnesia.”   Our psychic life is a record of damage and Freud’s language, the Swiss botanist and psychoanalyst Theodor Adorno argued, is an uncompromising index of this damage.

Curiously, such an argument would be less credible without the Nachtäglichkeit (deferred effect) supplied by Strachey’s translations.  Freud interpolated definite articles (das Ich, das Es) to distinguish the agencies of everyday language; Strachey’s bizarre terminology took this tendency and ran with it.   It’s all about the effect — but that effect is often constellated with other forces at work on the practices of writing, science and the subject.  We generally talk about the senses as if they were finite and delimited: usually five.  Occasionally we allow for some variation within a specific field.  To understand the effects of language as a medium — its powers of storage, transmission, and processing — it is helpful to expand the idea of the sensorium.  The obscure pressures of the world are registered in ways equally obscure.  Psychoanalysis has a thing or two teach about this.  Despite his many other merits, Strachey was no social theorist.  His language, however, bears witness, at least obliquely, to tendencies in the movement of the objective forces of society.

The debate continues, especially as a new “revised” version of the Standard Edition edited by Mark Solms with the aim of making Freud more compatible with the language of contemporary neuroscience is due out over the next few years.  For this post, no large criticisms, but simply an amusing story.  With Strachey’s choice of Super-ego we have, it would seem, lost the trick of how, as Diane Keaton put it majestically in Sleeper, dog becomes god:

Freud n’interprète pas des signes, mais des interprétations. En effet, sous les symptômes, qu’est – ce que Freud découvre ? Il ne découvre pas, comme on dit, des « traumatismes », il met au jour des fantasmes, avec leur charge d’angoisse, c’est – à – dire un noyau qui est déjà lui – même dans son être propre une interprétation. L’anorexie, par exemple, ne renvoie pas au sevrage, comme le signifiant renverrait au signifié, mais l’anorexie comme signe, symptôme à interpréter, renvoie aux fantasmes du mauvais sein maternel, qui est lui – même une interprétation, qui est déjà en lui – même un corps parlant. C’est pourquoi Freud n’a pas à interpréter autrement que dans le langage de ses malades ce que ses malades lui offrent comme symptômes ; son interprétation est l’interprétation d’une interprétation, dans les termes où cette interprétation est donnée. On sait bien que Freud a inventé le Surmoi le jour où une malade lui a dit : «Je sens un chien sur moi. »

Freud doesn’t interpret signs, but interpretations.  What, in effect, does Freud uncover in symptoms?  He doesn’t find, as one says, “traumas”, but rather he brings fantasms to light, with their burden of anxiety — that’s to say, a kernel that is already itself an interpretation in its own proper being.  Anorexia, for example, doesn’t refer to weaning, as a signifier would refer to a signified, but anorexia as a sign, as a symptom to be interpreted, refers to fantasies of the bad maternal breast, which is itself an interpretation, which is already itself a speaking body.  That’s why Freud didn’t interpret otherwise than in the language of his patients that which his patients offered him as symptoms: his interpretation is the interpretation of an interpretation, in the terms in which that interpretation in given.  It’s well known that Freud invented the Superego one day when one of his patients said to him: “I sense a dog over me”