Even today, the importance or otherwise of Freud’s contribution to the history of thought in the West remains a deeply polarising subject. This division is most obvious in the differing receptions generally accorded to Freud from within the Anglo-American analytic tradition on one hand, and from the Continental tradition on the other. To better understand the reasons behind this schism, it is helpful to consider Freud’s position in relation to two near contemporaries, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin. In the Anglo-American tradition, Darwinian evolution was heralded as a properly scientific account of the driving forces animating all biological behaviour, and as such was pitched as a contrary and necessary corrective to the ‘non-scientific’ theories proposed first by Nietzsche and then by Freud, an antagonistic position that only becomes more intense over time, culminating today in the extreme hostility shown by neo-Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins.

It is ironic, therefore, that both Nietzsche and Freud do in fact attempt to think with and through Darwin’s evolutionary theses—ironic, but not surprising insofar as the critical dismissal of both thinkers is based not at all upon readings of their actual texts. As a result, the general perception of Freud in the UK and the US is of someone sexually obsessed almost to the point of absurdity. Entirely without basis, this vulgar misreading or, better, nonreading, serves in part to obscure just how many of Freud’s ideas permeate our thinking to this day. The Freudian unconscious, for example, is held in large part today as a self-evident, albeit paradoxical, truism, a simple fact beyond dispute for many who have both never read Freud and at the same time disagree with him violently. Similarly, many people today accept without question the notion of a psyche, while with equal ease dismissing that of the soul as absurd.

While many of Freud’s key concepts will doubtless be familiar to most, it is important to keep in mind that the oeuvre of Freud as a whole describes the flux and flow of a narrative process undergoing constant invention, evolution and revision in search of a coherent system of theoretical concepts that satisfies the demands of properly ‘scientific’ discourse. Moreover, in tracing the iteration and mutation of the Freudian notion of sexuality from earliest incarnation to final form, the importance of Freudian theory for the discourse of critical posthumanism is brought clearly to the fore. As we shall see, the contrary evolution of the Freudian drives as moving simultaneously towards the perfect quiescence of an organism untroubled by libidinal excitement and towards perfect nonbeing understood as the a priori disarray of organised and organic form ultimately leads to a repudiation of neo-Kantian humanism and to a debunking of the idea of an inherent drive towards perfection characteristic of traditional humanist and theological narratives alike.

The Sexual Instinct

To begin, it is essential for any reading of Freud to understand what is denoted by the concept of sexuality. From the very first, Freud explicitly and repeatedly states that a properly conceptual understanding of sexuality is one that must be enlarged far beyond the everyday connotation with the genital. Despite this, even today there remain many commentators who continue to ascribe to Freud a fixation upon the genital that, not without considerable irony, exists nowhere but in the heads of the commentators themselves.

While sexual instincts initially become known through analysis of the drive towards sexual reproduction, for Freud it is the completion of this analysis that constitutes the starting point of psychoanalysis as a discipline. In its initial incarnation, sexual drive refers simply to an undetermined force or push of an energetic charge, also known as cathexis. Notable even at this early stage, the drives function as translators between the somatic and the psychic. The drive, in other words, occupies an intermediary position between mind and body, re-presenting bodily charges as psychic charges and psychic charges as bodily charges.

Alongside this modified notion of the drive, Freud introduces the concept of the unconscious, which he describes as the ‘fundamental premise’ of psychoanalysis and which, prior to Freud’s intervention, designated only that which is temporarily latent within consciousness but is readily available for recall at any time. Displacing this domain of latent availability into what he calls the preconscious realm, Freud thereafter reworks the concept of the unconscious to rather designate that which is repressed from consciousness in a dynamic way. With this, the psychical domain ceases to be identical and thus synonymous with consciousness, the latter becoming only one quality of the psyche, and not necessarily even the most important one. Crucially, this serves to exteriorise the subject, remaking the inside of the inside the outside and thus decentring the liberal subject of will.

Just as the concept of the drive is initially obtained by way of the drive towards sexual reproduction, so too is the Freudian concept of the unconscious obtained initially by way of the pre-existing theory of repression, which Freud acknowledges as providing the ‘prototype’ of the unconscious. Moving beyond this prototype, Freud defines as repressed that which seeks discharge but which is blocked from finding release on the conscious or preconscious stages, a blockage that can cause neurosis or psychosis—destructive conditions that psychoanalysis seeks to resolve through novel techniques such as dream interpretation and free association. Such techniques are required because, while the repressed is blocked, this is not to say that its effects are not felt. Refused direct access to consciousness, the repressed can nonetheless enter into consciousness by way of derivative forms. If sufficiently displaced through distortion or by multiple intervening links, that which has been repressed is able to outwit the order of psychical censorship imposed upon it by entering into consciousness in a sufficiently disguised form. In turn, techniques of dream interpretation and free association seek to trick the repressed into revealing its distortions and derivative forms with a view to productively discharging the repressed into consciousness.

Such distortions and derivatives of unconscious drives are not limited to negative products of repression, however, but can also emerge into consciousness as sublimated forms. Sublimation, writes Freud, names the process whereby unconscious desire substitutes for itself an acceptable derivative form, exemplified by the translation of unconscious desire into works of art. In this way, sublimation acts counter to repression insofar as it offers a way out, another way of discharging unconscious impulses without having to resort to repression with its concomitant risk of neurosis or psychosis. 

Pleasure and its negotiated deferral

It is on the basis of his account of the dynamic unconscious that Freud develops the initial concept of the ego insofar as it presumes the existence of a buffer of sorts that is able to control and organise the relation between the external world and the instinctual urges of the unconscious. From the outset, however, the concept of the ego faces the very same problem already encountered by Freud in his earlier tripartite division of the psyche: namely, that just as the psyche cannot be identical with consciousness, nor can the ego be identical with consciousness insofar as its controlling relation must function constantly, including while we are asleep. Hence, it follows too that consciousness is merely one part or aspect of the ego and, while this role of the ego as go-between will lose much of its distinctiveness over time, it nonetheless represents a crucial development in Freud’s thinking.

In concert with the development of the ego, Freud further enlarges the concept of the drive by subsuming its impulse to the great reservoir of undetermined energy that he names the libido. This in turn results in a further subdivision of the ego into either the object-ego or the narcissistic-ego, depending on whether this libidinal energy or cathexis is directed outward toward an object or inward toward the self. The child, suggests Freud, is originally an entirely narcissistic animal; only later is some of that libidinal energy invested in the narcissistic, directed outward onto an external love object.

While many of the fundamental concepts of Freud’s final theory are now already in place, there are two more that still need to be taken into account if we are to fully understand the radicality of Freud’s challenge to traditional humanist orthodoxy: the pleasure principle and the reality principle. First of all, the pleasure principle is something of a misnomer as it is better understood as an unpleasure principle. According to Freud, pleasure and unpleasure describe a quantity of excitement or cathexis present in the psyche at any given moment, with pleasure defined somewhat paradoxically as the quantifiable decrease over time of cathectic excitement in contrast to unpleasure as its quantifiable increase. Crucially, what matters to the intensity of either is not the overall quantity but rather the degree of its increase or decrease over a shorter time as possible. The pleasure principle is thus the mechanism of the psyche that seeks relief from unpleasure as generated by contradictory impulses of the libido in the hope of attaining a permanent oasis of calm devoid of all libidinal excitement.

In seeking to withdraw from all cathexis, however, the pleasure principle poses a very clear threat to the maintenance of the organism as a living entity. In response, the reality principle names the psychical mechanism that evolves out of the libido in service to the ego’s drive for self-preservation. Put simply, the reality principle negotiates between the demands of the external world and that of the pleasure principle with the aim of maintaining a workable balance between the drive for self-preservation and the drive for absolute quietude. It achieves this by deferring gratification of libidinal desires, negotiating the abandonment of certain immediate possibilities along with the temporary toleration of unpleasure in the present as a step toward ultimate satisfaction in the future.

Finally, death after and before life

By the time of the helpfully titled Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud is finally able to formulate what he argues are the two fundamental drives that permeate every level of existence: Eros, the life drive, and Thanatos, the death drive. After working with traumatised soldiers returning home from the war, Freud is forced to account for the seemingly inexplicable compulsion whereby the same traumatic experiences are recalled over and over and without any attempt to reduce the intensity of libidinal excitement accompanying each recollection. Crucially, this iteration of trauma runs entirely contrary to an attempt to manage and eventually master past trauma through a process of desensitization understood as the pleasurable reduction of cathexis, leading Freud to view its functioning as independent of the pleasure principle altogether.

The consequences of this are profound, with Freud arguing that, given the compulsion to repeat can only be the mark of the unconscious repressed, much of the ego must therefore also be unconscious, and from which arises resistance to psychoanalytic treatment. Here, Freud abandons his topographical understanding of the psychical apparatus as split between unconscious, preconscious and conscious, replacing it with the now familiar schema of Ego, Ego Ideal and Id, with the Ego Ideal taking over the role previously assigned to the reality principle. Having reached this point, Freud offers a final definition of the concept of the drive as the urge to return to an earlier state of being that external influences have since forced the organism, as an organism, to abandon. So, what are these abandoned ‘earlier states’ to whose return life and death, Eros and Thanatos, drive ceaselessly toward? The life drive, as we know, seeks to return to a state of absolute quietude prior to the libidinal excitement definitive of all living beings. But what is the earlier state to which the death drive urges us return? Simply put, Thanatos names the ceaseless desire to return to an even earlier earlier state of being, one not merely prior to the advent of life in the form of libidinal excitement but rather to a state of being prior even to its articulation as an organised being. Death, in other words, drives toward the inorganic, toward nonbeing, toward the complete and utter disarray of composition itself.

In this way, Eros and Thanatos do battle, with Thanatos seeking to achieve its aim as quickly as possible while Eros seeks instead to constantly jerk back the death drive to an earlier stage of being of the organism and deferring death in the process of prolonging the journey. With this, the importance of Freudian theory to the project of critical posthumanism is clear. Rather than driving forward, the drives of life and death are both inherently conservative, and thus what begins with sexual reproduction leads in the end to a refutation of neo-Kantian humanism and a complete rejection of the idea of an inherent drive towards perfection otherwise necessary for the founding of an instinctual humanist or vitalist tēlos, culminating in the rejection of all theological narratives that lay claim to a Divine Plan or to an omniscient maker at work behind the darkling veil of everyday existence.

As a final curio, insofar as the most intense possible pleasure is for Freud the extinction of the most intense possible libidinal excitement, it thus follows that the greatest possible pleasure a living organism can experience is that of the most rapid possible extinction of that life. At the very least, this takes us far beyond any thought of Freud as comically obsessed with the minutiae of sexual activity.


Suggestions for further reading:

Freud, Sigmund, ‘Repression’ and ‘The Unconscious,’ both in Volume XIV of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 146–158 and 159–204.

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Ego and the Id’ and Other Works, Volume XIX of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works,. trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. Volume XXI of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001).

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing., in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 246–291.

Malabou, Catherine, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).