Saturday, April 21, 2007

Reckoning with Ferenczi

Freud’s pessimistic view of human commitment to reality is developed by Sandor Ferenczi, psychoanalysis’ virtuoso on this topic. In “Stages in the Development of the Sense of Reality” (1913) and “The Problem of Acceptance of Unpleasant Ideas—Advances in Knowledge of the Sense of Reality” (1926), Ferenczi shows just how long the infantile illusion of omnipotence may hold out. In “Stages,” Ferenczi posits a subtly graded sequence of rationalizations that softens the impact of the baby’s expanding world. Passing from assumed self-sufficiency in the womb to making “increasingly specialized signals” (“Stages,” 225), Ferenczi proposes, the infant believes that its magical words and gestures show a special gift for seducing the sympathetic circle of adults that Ferenczi calls “the entourage” (“Stages,” 230). “The child can still appear to itself as omnipotent,” he suggests, by imagining that its omnipotence simply “depends on more and more ‘conditions’” (“Stages,” 225, 224). The “almost incurable megalomania of mankind” interprets the endless accumulation of evidence against omnipotence as an increasingly elaborate framework for it (“Stages,” 231). Even reality testing doesn't necessarily help. Ferenczi reasons that if reality testing can be used to discover reality, “there is nothing to prevent its being placed at the disposal of the repression” either (“Stages,” 235). Evidence of reality can be used to minimize contact with reality.

Ferenczi updates his theory of reality thirteen years later, upon the appearance of Freud’s “Negation.” Freud had argued that “negation of reality,” in Ferenczi’s words, is “a transition-phase between ignoring and accepting reality.” So Ferenczi now proposes that the child achieves a sense of reality through an operation of double negation. Only now does he begin to give content to “acceptance.” In the impressive speculation that follows, he weaves loving, hating, identification, and ambivalence into a utilitarian account of the functions of the sense of reality. Throughout, Ferenczi’s reality principle remains anchored in his pleasure principle, never anything other than a particularly ferocious supplement. He insists that the reality principle is not disinterested. As patients who accept painful realizations require the “consolation” of “transference-love,” “in a similar fashion we must suspect the presence of a compensation even in the very first appearance of an acceptance of something unpleasant; indeed in no other way can we conceive of its originating in the mind, for this moves always in the direction of least resistance, i.e. according to the pleasure-principle” (“Acceptance,” 369). Or, again, “it is only when we take into consideration the fact of compensation and avoidance of a still greater ‘pain,’ that we are able in any way to understand the possibility of an affirmation of ‘pain’ without being compelled to renounce the universal validity of the search for pleasure as the fundamental psychical trend” (“Acceptance,” 369). The last clause suggests that Ferenczi a priori rules out “renounc[ing] the universal validity of the search for pleasure,” although one would think that in searching for the point at which unpleasant ideas are accepted, he would be trying to do precisely that. In the absence of a strong example of an accepted idea not assimilable to pleasure, he implies, no one affirms pain—only “pain,” as his quotation marks suggest, that is, pain relativized by greater pain. “Since . . . a quota of Eros, i.e. of love, is necessary” for the recognition of wishes that will never be fulfilled, “and since this addition is inconceivable without introjection, i.e. identification, we are forced to say that recognition of the surrounding world is actually a partial realization of the Christian imperative ‘Love your enemies’” (“Acceptance,” 374). To cast our lot with the reality principle, we must turn our fundamental objection to reality into love for reality or reality testing. None of this contradicts Ferenczi’s insistence that it is still difficult to understand how we can accept unpleasant ideas at all:

We must not disguise from ourselves that all these considerations still furnish no satisfactory explanation of the fact that, both in organic and in psychical adaptation to the real environment, portions of the hostile outer world are, with the assistance of Eros, reckoned as part of the ego, and, on the other hand, loved portions of the ego itself are given up. Possibly here we may have recourse to the more or less psychological explanation that even the actual renunciation of a pleasure and the recognition of something unpleasant are always only “provisional,” as it were; it is obedience under protest, so to speak, with the mental reservation of a restitutio in integrum. This may hold good in very many cases; there is evidence for it in the capacity for regression to modes of reaction that have long since been surmounted and are even archaic—a capacity that is preserved potentially and in special circumstances brought into operation. What looks like adaptation would thus be only an attitude of interminable waiting and hoping for the return of the “good old times,” differing fundamentally, therefore, only in degree from the behavior of the rotiferae which remain dried up for years waiting for moisture. We must not forget, however, that there is also such a thing as a real and irreparable loss of organs and portions of organs, and that in the psychical realm also complete renunciation without any compensation exists. Such optimistic explanations, therefore, really do not help us. (“Acceptance” 376)

Ferenczi’s quandary is not explaining how the reality principle works, but explaining how anyone can subjectively accept its workings. He struggles with the difference between treating the reality principle as an instinct—to live, something about us must notice that we’re not omnipotent, even if we keep this notice as disguised as possible—and understanding whether the psychical apparatus takes up or identifies with its sense of reality. Ferenczi’s ambivalence appears in his prose: “we must not disguise from ourselves” the unsatisfactory nature of our own clarification. Delving in the name of self-knowledge into this theoretical dissatisfaction, Ferenczi launches into a reverie whose theme, “mental reservation,” names a way of not knowing one’s limits. He recalls himself from this parenthesis, in turn, by reinvoking as sheer fact what still lacks explanation: “complete renunciation without any compensation exists.” Ferenczi’s digression ultimately stresses that the ego’s renunciations in the name of reality are themselves real, even to the point of being really self-destructive. By surrendering the option of pretended adaptation favored by the “optimistic” rotifer, Ferenczi disagrees with Freud’s suggestion in “Two Principles of Mental Functioning” that “actually . . . the reality principle implies no deposing of the pleasure principle.” It does. But we don’t accept it! Because of their very seriousness,the ego’s renunciations are so hard for Ferenczi to conceive that he rejects them as acts. If they are real and really without compensation, they cannot be mostly conscious. That's how Ferenczi continues the paragraph above:

Such optimistic explanations, therefore, really do not help us; we must have recourse to the Freudian doctrine of instinct, which shows that there are cases in which the destruction-instinct turns against the subject’s own person . . . . The remarkable thing about this self-destruction is that here (in adaptation, in the recognition of the surrounding world, in the forming of objective judgments) destruction does in actual fact become the ‘cause of being.’ A partial destruction of the ego is tolerated,but only for the purpose of constructing out of what remains an ego capable of still greater resistance . . . . When the tendency to set aside the surrounding world by means of repression or denial is given up, we begin to reckon with it, i.e. to recognize it as a fact. A further advance in the art of reckoning is, in my opinion, the development of the power to choose between two objects that occasion either more or less unpleasantness, or to choose between two modes of action that can result in either more or less unpleasantness. The whole process of thinking would then be such a work of reckoning—to a large extent unconscious, and interposed between the sensory apparatus and motility. In this process, as in modern reckoning-machines, it is practically the result alone that comes into conscious view, while the memory-traces which which the actual work has been performed remain concealed, i.e.unconscious. (“Acceptance” 377-378)

So Ferenczi subcontracts the “actual work” of renunciation to largely unconscious computation. We can be aware of the results of the process and also of its ultimate purpose—to “become the ‘cause of being.’” We can be aware in these ways without having to be awake for the whole agonizing operation of selecting and destroying parts of our own egos. Ferenczi thinks the system “modern,” and it is, for it treats quality as quantity at the point of emergence, and understands that judgment of maximal complexity —especially maximal complexity— implies no imperative to “consciousness” in the classical sense. Recognition of a fact’s reality can exist as a mere back-formation of reckoning with it.

Image: rotifera

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