Affect displacement

In classical Freudian analysis, affect displacement (Affektverschiebung) occurs when the energy with which a particular drive or desire is endowed with a view to its realization, is displaced to an alternative object (an alternative purposive schema) under the action of the censoring activity of the superego.

Freud mainly considers sexual or aggressive drives and their unconscious repression, which results in observed behavior which draws on the energy associated with the taboo object for purposes which sedate or partially realize the drive while avoiding the taboo content. For example, the unconscious desire to kill the father may be expressed in sadistic behavior towards others in the environment where such behavior is more tolerated by social norms. Nevertheless, the Freudian schema would seem to operate wherever, and for whatever reason, drive gratification is unavailable, including in cases where the rationale for repression is conscious or, at least, represented to the consciousness in some form. This need not cover only supposed social taboos, but also complex ethical nexuses of the subject which draw energy from a variety of sources, some being drive repression but others including compassion, collaborative behavior or perceived self-interest. In other words, I may decline to do things based on grounds which I can rationalize to myself as being ethical, and that rationalization may indeed not be entirely without merit: on occasion it may even be fully merited; it is still the case that drives will seek gratification and that the affect will be displaced onto a cognitive schema which is available to the mind and in some way superficially resembles the censored course of action. When a given situation arises repeatedly, habitual pathways are formed in the mind which automatically direct the energy towards the displacement object. In clinically observed contexts this may lead to what is qualified as obsessive-compulsive behavior but in reality such behavior is a matter of degree and characterizes all of us.

The Freudian schema is simple to understand and, together with its extensions as I have suggested, seems to shed light on much observed behavior. Nevertheless, from my perspective there is also something deeply unsatisfying about it, for it offers no account of the origin of drives or of their legitimate role in our lives, encouraging us to treat psychic material as suspect and failing to recognize that the good life is unlivable on the basis of reason alone. Freud seems to view most instinctive activity as at best catastrophically naïve and at worst as decidedly sinister. This is why repression is not only justified from the standpoint of the reality principle, but often, he would seem to suggest, wise and desirable. Although he is often credited with killing the philosophical concept of the self, it seems to me that he does no more than displace the Cartesian body/mind dichotomy into the mind itself; descriptively, primary processes overdetermine behavior, yet normatively he would rather they did not. All he seeks to do is moderate the worst excesses of a repression which remains imperative and inevitable.

This Hobbesian account of drive formation needs, it seems to me, to be unmasked and to be challenged, since it matches in no particular the knowledge of the human psyche we have from anthropology or experimental psychology, never mind any spiritual insights we may have into the question. In short, if drives are to be mistrusted then their repression is likely to be advantageous in many instances. What we see, however, is that we frequently repress drives which should be trusted (or which at least should be interpreted and prompt some kind of action) simply because of an irrational or at least cowardly fear of their consequences. That we do so is an obvious consequence of (and at the same time the generative precondition for) what Foucault called the social construction of subjectivity.

In repressing drives, often we lose touch with our inner voice. When what we do is habitually conditioned to the prompting we receive, we dissipate the energy which sought to guide our steps and render ourselves insensitive to basic callings of our heart. In this way, we frustrate not only desires which we are perhaps well advised to reconsider; we frustrate our whole life’s purpose. We may, in fact, be well aware that what we are doing is only a poor substitute for what we really want; we do it regardless and we are continually dissatisfied with ourselves, sometimes truly burdened with shame or self-hatred. When the prospect of drive fulfilment becomes more manifest and we continue to deny it to ourselves, this tension may become unbearable. These are moments of existential crisis and of decisions which will have ramifications for many lifetimes. It seems to me that, however scary it may be to move your life into alignment with your soul’s purpose, the alternative is, or should be, more scary still.

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