Archives for posts with tag: The Law

What does ‘repression’ mean today?

According to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, repression is the Ego’s denial of the drives of the Id, which then remain latent in the unconscious. Sublimation, on the other hand, is the product of repression; it is what the Ego accomplishes in the act of repression – namely, culture. Here is Žižek’s description, from Metastases of Enjoyment:

In an alienated [i.e., modern] society, the domain of ‘culture’ is founded upon the violent exclusion (‘repression’) of man’s libidinal kernel which then assumes the form of a quasi-‘nature’: ‘second nature’ [i.e., the unconscious] is the petrified evidence of the price paid for ‘cultural progress’, the barbarity [i.e., exclusion/repression] inherent to ‘culture’ itself (11).

But because the key characteristic of both repression and sublimation is the Ego’s diverting its attention away from the immediate satisfaction of a drive, it is impossible to distinguish “in a theoretically relevant way between the repression of a drive and its sublimation” (11); the distinction is always arbitrary.

Žižek explains the consequences of this fact for psychoanalytic practice and hence for ideological critique:

[E]very sublimation (every psychic act that does not aim at the immediate satisfaction of a drive) is necessarily affected by the stigma of pathological, or at least pathogenic, repression. There is thus a radical and constitutive indecision which pertains to the fundamental intention of psychoanalytic theory and practice: it is split between the ‘liberating’ gesture of setting free repressed libidinal potential and the ‘resigned conservatism’ of accepting repression as the necessary price of the progress of civilization (12).

But because Freud thought that this ‘standard’ form of the Ego’s splitting by the Id and Superego – where the Superego (social pressure) condemns the Id (drives) – was an anthropological constant, he could not predict, says Žižek, the

paradoxical condition actualized in our century: that of the ‘repressive desublimation’, characteristic of ‘post-liberal’ societies in which ‘the triumphant archaic urges, the victory of the Id over the Ego, live in harmony with the triumph of the society over the individual’* (Metastases, 16; Žižek citing Adorno, “Zum Verhältnis,” p. 133).

That is, Žižek’s wager is that we live in a society in which Id and Superego coincide, breaking the traditional model of psychoanalytic theory:

In post-liberal societies […] the agency of social repression no longer acts in the guise of an internalized Law or Prohibition that requires renunciation and self-control; instead, it assumes the form of a hypnotic agency that imposes the attitude of ‘yielding to temptation’ – that is to say, its injunction amounts to a command: ‘Enjoy yourself!’. Such an idiotic enjoyment is dictated by the social environment which includes the Anglo-Saxon psychoanalyst whose main goal is to render the patient capable of ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ pleasures.

Society requires us to fall asleep, into a hypnotic trance, usually under the guise of just the opposite command: ‘The Nazi battle cry of “Germany awake,” hides its very opposite.’ Adorno interprets the formation of the ‘masses’ in the same sense of this ‘regression’ of the Ego towards automatic and compulsive behavior (Metastases, 17; Žižek citing Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 132).

The superego (culture, society) represses non-Id enjoyment; sublimation becomes repression: one is told that one must enjoy to one’s full capacity. Indeed, frequently there is the explicit injunction to directly express the (would-be) Id, to fully actualize one’s wildest fantasies and most urgent impulses, since the alternative would be a ‘repressive’ existence unacceptable to society.

I’ll end with one of Žižek’s anecdotes that illustrates the way this repression of non-enjoyment works. The following is from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

On the information sheet in a New York hotel, I recently read: ‘Dear guest! To guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200.’ The beauty of this formulation, taken literally, is that you are to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy your stay (58).

*A note on the accuracy of society’s self-conscious gesture of admitting its mission to “liberate” the subject from the superego: crucially, once the subject is “liberated” from repression, the Id (drives) are no longer unconscious… as such, they are no longer drives. Thus what society posits as the “liberated drives” are actually pseudo-natural human constructs; they are merely the sublimation of the actual drives, i.e., the unconscious, which can’t ever be put into social circulation but rather takes the form of the unarticulated “symptom” that the analyst (ideological critic) must uncover.


Conan struggles to make this speech. His feeling is obviously not bittersweet, but rather just sad; he really, really doesn’t want to leave, but thinks he should try to look on the ‘bright side.’

This form of optimism should be seen for what it is; it is not some ‘greater’ Cause that he chooses to believe in, but, rather, the obscene superego of social norms, weighing on his conscience, forcing him to feel a particular way about his situation.

(The parallels with workers going through massive layoffs should be obvious: we are told to think of being fired not as an affront to human dignity executed by huge corporations, but rather as a gift, a chance to develop a new skill, take up a new hobby, etc.).

What is meant by ‘superego’? In contrast to the ego-ideal (i.e., the Law, the explicitly stated, socially acknowledged ‘correct way’ of doing things), the superego is the unstated, a-legal or even illegal form of the law, the paradoxical supplement to the Law without which the Law could not operate, but which the Law ignores or even explicitly disavows.

Žižek explains this psychoanalytic notion in Metastases of Enjoyment:

Superego emerges where the Law […] fails; at this point of failure, the public Law is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment. Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers.

The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

[….’Code Red’] condones an act of transgression — illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier — yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group — it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable — in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of the community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life.

[Therefore] what ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific form of enjoyment).

….the opposition of symbolic Law and superego points towards the tension between ideological meaning and enjoyment: symbolic Law guarantees meaning, whereas superego provides enjoyment which serves as the unacknowledged support of meaning” (54-56).

So back to Conan: he appears to break with the norm by choosing the ‘nobler’ or more ‘classy’ way of signing off of the show, but this behavior is merely the necessary underside – obverse, inversion, supplement – of the symbolic, stated Law of “you can say whatever you want;” the point is that he can enjoy (along with the crowd) ‘rebelling’ against the established way of doing things, only because this rebellion itself is already taken into account by the Law.

This ‘classiness’ is nothing other than a violent social injunction to enjoy a situation that is fundamentally alienating for him, a situation in which he is ultimately given a forced choice – it may appear that he is choosing to look on the bright side, but this choice is already decided for him; he only chooses it because it is the only option that society will allow him – everyone would hate him if he didn’t do the ‘classy’ thing.

So what looks like an exception (his ‘class’) is actually the norm. When we call him noble or kind, we are only encouraging the same kind of malicious ideology to be perpetuated in the next person who has to sacrifice in front of the crowd. What are they sacrificing?

The void of free choice, the freedom to walk off the stage, to shout out in anger – think of the scene from Network, in which the newscaster begins to chant, “I want you to get mad… I want you to say ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

That is what Conan wants to do: he jokes that, “even if we have to do it in a 7-11 parking lot,” the show will go on – and then immediately says in an understated, regretful, and even desperate way “I really don’t want to do it in a 7-11 parking lot!”.

This last exclamation is the sad truth of the entire show. It is the cry for escape from the social demand. This understated voice is what opposes his self-deception at the hands of the superego. But over all this superego-induced self-deception, the injunction to enjoy despite the traumatic excess of the imposition of the Law, is accomplished, and Conan himself buys into it, immaturely accepting the superego underside of the Law, even claiming it as his own, ‘classy’ gesture.

*Note: obviously it’s a bit absurd to worry about Conan’s dismissal, since his ‘desperate’ situation isn’t desperate at all; however, because of Conan’s popularity, and the publicity of the show, I think it makes sense to use it as an example.