Thursday, March 19, 2009

Addressing Gautham's Insight (or: A Critical Reading of Freud on Anxiety)

In the 1926 monograph "Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety" Freud returns to the haunting question of anxiety and makes many amendments to earlier formulations of his theory. [Chief among these amendments is the assertion, “Anxiety…produce[s] repression, not, as I formerly believed, repression which produce[s] anxiety.” (I/S/A, 35)] Though "inhibitions" and "symptoms" concern Freud as well, analysis of these phenomenon is in the service of better understanding the dynamics of anxiety. Reading of his frustrations over gaining a working grasp of the phenomenon, however, is surprising, as his conclusions seem to be implicit in his very first works on sexuality ("Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" [1905]). Nevertheless, Freud has worked-over the problem and here presents anxiety in terms that can be reconciled with his views of sexuality, the life and death drives, and the perversions of the super-ego. In a word, Freud claims anxiety is felt in situations that re-produce the trauma of birth, on the one hand, and the accumulation of tension on the other. Both concepts need unpacking.

The first is the more straight forward, and helps illuminate the dynamics of the latter. Birth, Freud argues, before it is anything else, strikes (literally) the baby as an assault of sensory data that it has no way of processing. Suddenly: light, sound, movement, and then the doctor’s smack on the back. The baby screams. The scream is a release: there is too much assaulting the body; this input must be expulsed: it is breathed out, with pain.

The second, the accumulation of tension, is first experienced by the infant when hungry, Freud claims. In this situation the growing pressure of hunger, of the demands of the body for nourishment, mount and mount until the infant cries out, overwhelmed by the stimulation associated with hunger. It is the build-up of tension the infant cannot bear, yet something significant occurs: after so many experiences of this tension, the infant “learns” (as it were) that the tension only occurs when the mother—the source of food, of alleviation of tension—is absent. Soon the infant does not cry over the build-up of tension, but over the loss or absence of his mother: the infant jumps ahead, anticipates, and preempts the moment of build-up of tension by preventing the cause of the build-up (I/S/A, 64).

(Crucially, this is how symptoms operate; a symptom is always already one degree removed from the anxiety which it “shields”.)

With this understanding of anxiety, Freud recasts the castration complex as the fear of the loss of being able to connect with the initial love object (the mother) and release (libidinal) tension (I/S/A, 65). Stripping the scene of Oedipal valence for a moment, it is clear that anxiety signals a moment of paralysis, where the actor cannot release the tensions that continue to swell in his psyche.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to strip the scene of its Oedipal valence: the castration complex is aroused precisely because the child dares imagine confrontation with the (Law of the) Father. Freud concludes, therefore, that those who suffer from pronounced anxiety also, in all likelihood, exhibit a (regressive) pregenital sexual organization, typically anal/sadistic.
One must be clear about the anal stage. In the 2nd of the Three Essays, Freud writes, “Children making use of the susceptibility of the erotogenic stimulation of the anal zone betray themselves by holding back their stool till its accumulation brings about violent muscular contractions and, as it passes through the anus, is able to produce powerful stimulation of the mucous membrane. In so doing it must no doubt cause not only painful but also highly pleasurable sensations.” (Three Essays, 52) Further, the anal phase is sadistic precisely because it in runs two oppositional currents: the active mastery over the bowels, and the passive pleasure felt by the anus through release.

Another dimension of the anal/sadistic phase emerges, however. Citing Lou Andreas-Salomé (friend and one-time beloved of Nietzsche), Freud writes that deriving pleasure from the anal is the first prohibition a child comes across. He continues, “This must be the first occasion on which the infant has a glimpse of an environment hostile to his instinctual impulses, on which he learns to separate his own entity from this alien one and on which he carries out the first ‘repression’ of his possibilities for pleasure. From that time on, what is ‘anal’ remains the symbol of everything to be repudiated and excluded from life.” (Three Essays, 53n1)

One must now raise the question, regarding the sadistic character of the anal phase, whether or not the aggressivity of the anal is inherent to the phase, or rather, if the aggressivity of the anal is developed as a result of the prohibition against the pleasures of the anal phase. For instance, Freud writes that the child under the sway of anal pleasure will refuse to pass stool when ordered, when “put on the pot,” preferring instead to enjoy the pleasures of passing an accumulation of stool later. This is an act of rebellion, of putting one’s pleasures before the demands of authority (figured here as the mother/father/nurse). Is the hostility of the anal phase not, rather, directed at those who would have this simply be a “function” and not a pleasure?

The question gains relevancy when the dimension of mastery is reintroduced into the narrative. On Freud’s account the boy regresses from a genital to an anal libidinal organization when confronted with the over-bearing power, authority and capacity for violence of the Father. The aggressive hostility the boy feels towards the father, mitigated with the ambivalent love he feels for the father as well, is directed not against the father—for fear of losing the contest—but against the self in the form of a neurosis. That is, the boy short-circuits resolution of the Oedipal conflict by erecting in the super-ego a persecutory “Father”—the anxious symptom that keeps at bay actual resolution of the Oedipal conflict, viz., confrontation with the Father.

Here the inherent “bisexuality”—or active/passive constitution—of the psyche is played out: the sadistic super-ego is created by the masochistic ego to deflect confrontation with the (Law of the) Father. A reaction-formation occurs.

The question thus becomes: does the reaction-formation occasion an “unhappy conscience” for the boy who enjoys the anal phase, taunted by his Father into competition for the mother? Is it possible to envision the Oedipus conflict, in this case, as the drama of an unwilling abandonment not of the mother, but of anal pleasure? Is the relationship between the anal-sadistic son and the Father one of hostility because the Father enforces genital normalcy on the son?

Recall, anal pleasure occurs in opposition to the demands of authority, and is primarily an autoerotic relationship of mastery. The anal-sadistic phase is farthest removed from the body of the mother: pleasure is not dependent on her presence, her breast, her comfort. To engage in the Oedipal conflict is to, essentially, abandon the pleasures of the anal—of mastery, of self-control and self-induced pleasure (that does not reproduce or mimic the pleasures of the oral), which is a confrontation with anxiety (understood as helplessness in the face of building tension) that enjoys stimulation and its pains and pleasures, and (politically) the pleasure of rebellion.

That is, we might understand the sadistic hostility of the anal phase to be directed against the body of the maternal precisely because it entails re-subordination to her—recall now how for Freud, in a phallocentric moment, equates anxiety to the castration complex as it betokens a loss of possibility of reconnecting with the mother—and against the father for inducing the boy to participate in an economy of (genital) dependence.

But how does anxiety factor into this narrative, critical of Freud’s teleology as it is? One hypothesis may be that anxiety is more acute amongst those colored by a paranoiac, obsessional neurosis—that is, characterized by the anal-sadistic—because the drama of the Oedipal is played-out by an “alien entity”—the genitally organized ego—which must be continuously provoked, stimulated, surveilled, reprimanded, and persuaded into existence by a persecutory Paternal super-ego (viz., the Law of the Father). The persecutory (Paternal) super-ego thus emerges to enforce normal sexuality.

Anxiety would be most acute in the anal-sadistic, then, if the very pleasures of the phase—mastery, self-control, pain and pleasure, rebellion—are suborned to the demands of heteronormativity, internalized by a reaction-formation that institutes the Father as imposing dependency on the one hand, and the threat of castration on the other. That is, if the autonomy of the anal phase is prohibited, then it is necessary that the son be provided situations in which dependency is very closely scripted; that is, where courtship develops “naturally.” –At the mercy of genital dependency, the Law of the Father, the son—qua alien entity—can only ever follow the Law.

This is crucial: for the son who is not in the (regressive?) anal phase, aggressivity, dominance is the power of the Phallus the Father bequeaths the son. For this boy, privilege is not abuse, it is a right. For the son characterized by the anal phase, however, aggression against another is foreign, as it is mastery over one’s one body—and the pleasures and pains of that mastery—that arouse sexual satisfaction. Further, as Freud writes in the 2nd Essay, the passed stool is seen by the infant as inherently oneself—born of oneself, as it were—and it is presented as a gift to others (Three Essays, 52). That is, far from initially hostile, the anal phase is defined by an ethos of giving of oneself to the Other—as compared with the cannibalistic oral stage and the dominating phallic stage.

Under the weight of the (alien) genital libidinal organization—that is, constrained by the moral demands of heteronormativity—the gift of self that initially defines the anal stage is transformed into the demand/desire to elicit a gift of self from the other. Here anxiety may emerge, and can be thus understood: in the moment of intimate relationality, the anal-sadistic wishes to exert mastery, and the primary object over which mastery is exerted is the self, only in this drama mastery is to be exerted over the Other—a scene the boy does not know how to play. The sadist knows how to attenuate the accumulation of tension—this is his pleasure; it is the genitally organized libido that cannot stand the deferral of pleasure: it is the “alien entity,” enforced by the internalized Paternal super-ego, that cannot sustain and find pleasure in tension.

It is a mistake then, not only on Freud’s count, but of those sadists who seek sexual satisfaction in the humiliation and maltreatment of the sexual object, to see sadism as primarily a practice of violence—physical or psychical. The sadist, rather, directs hostility against adversaries—those who propound heteronormativity, the phallic, genital libidinal organization—and not the love object. The sadist, rather, wishes to make his self-mastery a gift for the Other. The anal-sadistic libido, that is, is Greek: “The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize the object. The ancients glorified the instinct itself…; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object.” (Three Essays, 15n1) In other words, the anal-sadistic enjoys the activity of arousal, of erotic tension, whereas moderns are defined by a loathing of desire itself and seek only satisfaction in the object of desire. Modernity is defined by phallogocentrism, and the orgasm.

Freud claims the Oedipal conflict is destroyed in the paranoiac, obsessional neurosis through the reactive formation of the (Paternal) persecutory super-ego. This, however, is only half-true. The Oedipal drama, as it were, is simply displaced, transferred from the external, infantile world of the familial home to the internal, post-pubescent psychic world. The persistence of anxiety—accepting Freud is correct in that it replays the trauma of birth filtered or interpreted through the infantile experience of the Oedipal threat of castration—confirms that the Oedipal conflict is not resolved, and by no means destroyed. Anxiety emerges at the frontiers of the prohibition of the pleasures of the anal-phase, where the pleasure of self-control is sundered to the super-ego’s demands for (genital) dependency.

Thus, anxiety emerges in those situations where a “role” is absent, where the means of release of cathetic tension is not forthcoming. The anal impulse to exert mastery—to release tension in the form of a gift of self or transmute tension into pleasure—is prohibited by the super-ego, which renders the ego helpless to the building tension. This also occurs in situations where multiple, distinct roles are brought into play and overlap: to satisfy one is to deny the other, and vise versa, while maintaining all roles in tension is barred the ego by the super-ego. The super-ego’s demand for (genital) dependence renders the ego passive: it does not desire to aggressively assert itself, but it is denied actively offering itself; its pleasures are, as it were, contingent on the prompts offered by the Other(s) welcoming domination, aggressivity.

(A note about genital, phallic aggressivity: following Freud’s assertion that the psyche is composed of both active and passive characteristics it is safe to assert that the heteronormative aggression of the phallic phase is restricted by a passivity that takes the form of acquiescence on the part of the sexual object. As with Kierkegaard’s seducer, what is ultimately desired from the sexual object is the willingness to submit—absent the recognition of that desire heteronormative aggressivity is frustrated. What marks the difference between genital aggressivity and anal aggressivity is the former should be understood as claiming a gift of self—phallic privilege—whereas the latter asserts itself as the gift of self.)

Another factor must be introduced: initially the passed stool is understood by the infant as an extension of his own body, and is presented to his loved ones as such. This present(ation of self) is met with disgust by the recipients, who in turn arouse shame in the boy for his “dirty” or “naughty” behavior. Thus, the boy is taught that to share himself, his body, is dirty, shameful. Further, he is taught that the “yield” of his pleasures are to be kept hidden—that what is pleasurable for him is itself disgusting and shameful. In this regard the disembodiment the status of the phallus affords is quite comforting to the genitally organized libido—it does not confront shame or disgust, as it barely confronts the body at all.

Anxiety specific to the anal-sadistic phase should be understood not as the confrontation with overwhelming, increasing tension, but rather with the inability to address oneself to this tension in a manner that yields pleasure; the prohibition against a bodily address, or gift of self; and an internal conflict between the alien entity of the genital libido and the desire for anal pleasures.

It is clear, then, how in an effort to excise the anxiety produced by this internal Oedipal conflict the anal-sadistic ego addresses its desire for mastery not over itself any longer, but over-against the body of the Other—a desire, ultimately, to manage libidinal tension displaced onto an Other, who is addressed with hostility for simply provoking or initiating a scene that arouses the anxiety resultant of this internal drama. The pathological sadist blends genital aggressivity with anal mastery, and what is lost is the gift-of-self: it is no longer requested, nor is it offered.

When imagining how the anxiety of those characterized by the anal-phase of libidinal organization can be overcome one returns to three factors that determine the success of the coup d’père. First, the internal Oedipal conflict must be recognized as being what it is; the super-ego must be forced into an account of its prohibitions, confronted—though this confrontation risks psychic castration understood now as loss of moral compass. Second, the somacentrism of the anal must be recovered; the body must be resurrected, and prohibitions of shame and disgust undone. Third, the capacity to assert self-control in the face of tension must be seen not as aggressivity but rather as the definitive characteristic of the “sovereign individual…who has his own independent, protracted will and the right to make promises—and in him a proud consciousness, quivering in every muscle, of what has at length been achieved and become flesh in him, a consciousness of his own power and freedom, a sensation of mankind come to completion” (Nietzsche).

Crucially, the anal-sadistic ego has no difficulty creating a theatre of life when he is in a small group, or when he is alone with his sexual object. The anxiety emerges when he confronts the world hostile to his self-mastery, when his artistic capacity to invent a space for himself and those he is with is threatened by the demands of the heteronormative economy of genital libido organization. Here, in this tardis, the ego does not know where to direct its aggressivity: against the world, or against its love object for being of this heteronormative world, and perhaps demanding the same. Either way, the conflict rages, and the ego wishes not to show hostility of any sort. Still, neither can it make of itself a gift.

What is called for, therefore, is not psychoanalysis per se, but rather political action, informed no doubt, by a psychoanalytic reading of community. The farce of a space defined by a cultural or racial identity is that it presumes a pristine purity from outside cultural influences, viz., heteronormative. What would a community organized around the anal, not the phallic look like? Indeed, it would look very much like the Greek polis—the only historical example available of a society structured around askesis, or bodily and psychic self-control.
This thought-train, however, demands more rigor than I can offer at present.

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