Thursday, March 19, 2009

Towards an Agonistic Homosexual Community: A Reading of Freud's "The Ego and the Id"

In the 1923 monograph "The Ego and the Id" Freud recapitulates a number of his findings first articulated in "The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905) and "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920). In "The Ego and the Id" we find a more mature Freud, a less biologically/anatomically determined Freud; that is, a Freud willing to play with himself (pun intended). Now there are very definitive limitations to Freud's theories of sexuality, and I don't mean here to posture as an an advocate for Freud. Rather, with the queer/feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin, I'm concerned in what follows to take-up the provocative, often disconcerting assertions Freud makes, to interrogate their logic, and to--along the way--highlight the insights Freud offers to aid our shared task of theorizing community.

I signaled "The Ego and the Id" as my starting point, and that's where I now turn. In chapter IV, "Two Classes of Instincts" Freud devotes himself to explicating (and problematizing) the two opposing instincts: sexual instincts, or Eros, and the death-drive. Eros conserves life, represses the death-drive, brings about order and cohesion in the ego, and is--in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"--responsible for the founding, maintenance, and increased development of civilization (a thesis that reemerges in "Civilization and Its Discontents"). The death-drive, by comparison, desires a return to that peaceful state prior to the invasive assaults of sensory data from the outside world; that is, death. (Lacan will develop this notion into his theory of "jouissance".) Freud then goes on to argue that it is quite rare to ever see either of these instincts in pure form. Rather, most often, it is the case that the two are "fused, blended, and alloyed with each other." (E/Id, 38) Freud's classic example of the death-drive in "fused" form is sadism.

As in the "Three Essays" Freud again identifies the "anal stage" of infantile sexual development with sadism. Shortly there after, Freud writes:
"In persecutory paranoia the patient fends off an excessively strong homosexual attachment to some particular person in a special way; and as a result this person whom he loved most becomes a persecutor, against whom the patient directs an often dangerous aggressiveness....
"In the case of the origin of homosexuality, and of desexualized social feelings as well, analytic investigation has only recently taught us to recognize that violent feelings of rivalry are present which lead to aggressive inclinations, and that it is only after these have been surmounted that the formerly hated object becomes the loved one or gives rise to identification." (E/Id, 41-42)
Freud then immediately adds to this that the "hostile rivalry leading to homosexuality [and at this point we have to add, with Freud: "and which sustains homosexual desire"] has no prospect of satisfaction; consequently--for economic reasons, that is--it is replaced by a loving attitude for which there is more prospect of satisfaction--that is, possibility of discharge." (E/Id, 42)

Now, let's unpack these dense passages: Freud links paranoia with homosexuality--the one I love is the one who I fear abuses me, slanders me, is out to kill me (or infect me). Love, then, is transformed into "dangerous aggression." Restated in Freudian terms proper, the erotic identification of the homosexual is to a persecutor, and this becomes the ego-ideal--or super-ego--I strive to emulate. Freud then immediately reformulates homosexual desire as a hostile rivalry. Of course, this (homosexual) hostile rivalry is the same as that among siblings, and--as Freud stresses in "Totem and Taboo"--the citizens of a newly founded state, tribe, or civilization vis a vis the founding father(s). (Here Freud borrows freely from Nietzsche's account of the origins of religion in the 2nd Essay of the "Genealogy of Morals," whereby debt to founding-fathers becomes "divinized," as do the founders, into something godly.)

That is, homosexuals have not gotten over the Oedipus complex, and the ego-ideal of the father is that of the persecutor; our relationships, one-night-stands, and friendships re-enact a hostile (sadistic) desire to fuck, be fucked-by, or both depending, the powerful father figure. This circuit of sadistic desire, Freud says, has "no prospect of satisfaction." --Each compulsive repetition of our reaction to a paranoid fear of our persecuting father fails to allow us to be done with the Oedipal drama.

Before we recoil from this reading of our particular neurosis, let's accentuate, and amplify, the brief aside Freud makes to his non-homosexual readers, namely: the same feeling of hostile rivalry that characterizes the homosexual _also_ captures the dynamics of "desexualized social feeling." Desexualized social feeling _is_ what first binds a community (E/Id, 34). In "Totem and Taboo" the story reads: Because I cannot vent my violent hostility onto my father/founder I direct it against my brother and sisters/fellow community-members. But this risks exile or death, so to remain within the community I identify with the father/founder (as do my peers), and we thereby co-exist.

Now, viewed from a certain perspective Freud's linkage of homosexual erotics and "social feeling" suggests, for us, the success of homosexual love relationships and the possibility of community are analogous phenomenon; perhaps movement towards one catalyzes movement towards the other? Restated, Freud here is suggesting that community writ large shares with homosexual desire the same obstacle: hostile rivalry, which threatens dissolution and violence. To my eyes this suggests that homosexuals are in a distinctly privileged position from which to theorize community: we know the obstacles that stymie the cultivation of community in quite intimate terms. It also suggests that we find ourselves in the unique position of being potential exemplars for our "straight" peers.

But, before we rush to become peaceniks, to "surmount" feelings of rivalry, let's look at a community defined by rivalry, competition, contest: ancient Greece. Nietzsche writes in the essay "Homer's Contest" that Greece was defined by "agonism"--friendly rivalry, competition, and contest. We know of the Olympic games as an example of this friendly rivalry, and we learn from Plato's "Symposium" that every year there was a city-wide competition to see who was the best playwright. This spirit of playful competition fueled innovation in the arts, science, politics, and philosophy. Greece, too, was--as the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigarary contends--"hom/me/osexual"--love was only "pure" when between men, which reinforces the idea that ancient Greece promises an archetype for theorizing homosexual community.

In varied forms we see this agonistic spirit still alive in contemporary gay culture. Allow a single example to illuminate my meaning: Roscoe's annual drag-queen contest embodies the artistry, courage, glamour, and glory of performing before one's peers and winning recognition. This is a truly community-building event, even if not on the scale of the festival of Dionysus. And spectatorship, too, participates in this spirit: we judge, yes, but with the recognition that we ourselves cannot compete. Restated, we respect ourselves enough to form aesthetic judgments, while also respecting the performers for their daring. The point is, in this venue we can, and should, speak our minds, but we needn't be hostile or sadistic.

Of course, the spectacle of a drag show has its limits when it comes to serving as a paradigm of community understood as playful rivalry or agonism. Nevertheless, and again, in Freudian terms, the practice of performing or watching a performance cultivates a pluralization of ego-ideals. Importantly, one of these potentially cultivated ego-ideals is oneself: to be able to judge without withdrawing respect for the subject of judgment; to "criticize" without persecuting. In this way, perhaps, the Oedipal drama can be re-staged, creating the space and possibility for "an affectionate object-choice which has taken the place of the aggressive, hostile attitude." (E/Id, 34)

By way of conclusion I would suggest that it is precisely through these institutional practices of playful, agonistic rivalry that a culture of engaging one another without hostility will emerge. Freud is quite clear (and certain) that hostile aggressiveness--sadism, essentially--is a drive towards death, and to the extent that the environment in which we move is characterized by this violence, paranoia is not pathological or neurotic but rather a rational comportment towards ones peers. If community is our desire--the ability to live with and love others--then our task must be primarily aimed at creating the possibility to live with oneself, to displace or dislodge persecutory ego-ideals and supplant them with exemplars of play.

Of course, "I" cannot learn to live or love without "you"--come: let's play this out...

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