Freud’s Homology: The Psychic Apparatus and the Organism [Presentation]

I presented this paper at the “New Materialisms and Economies of Excess” conference at Emory last September/October. A link to the PowerPoint that went along with it:


If one were to trace the genealogy of what is being called ‘new materialism,’ one would find, if only in terms of textual reference, figures like Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze preeminent – and, as we saw in the first day of presentations, the work of Georges Bataille has come into favor as well; and, later, thinkers such as Manuel DeLanda, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Rosi Braidotti, and Michel Serres would further shape the desire to rethink the relationship between nature and culture, form and matter. My purpose here today involves a relatively modest proposal: that, just as the works of Bataille and, as we saw this morning, Jacques Derrida are being mined for how we might think or, perhaps, rethink materialism and materiality, that we do so similarly with the work of Freud.

When Diana Coole and Samantha Frost characterize the new materialisms as provoking a reconfiguration of the relationship between the humanities and social sciences on the one side, and the natural sciences on the other, it strikes me as odd that this reevaluation of Freud’s work hasn’t taken place already – though I have my hypotheses. After all, Freud – who as a youth had a passion for marine biology and aspirations to be an oceanographer – published a dissertation [SLIDE] in 1878 on the large Reissner cells in the spinal chord of the fish Petromyzon, or the lamprey, in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Moving from this work in neuroanatomy as a medical student, we find Freud complaining, in an 1895 letter written to Wilhelm Fleiss, that he has been ‘positively devoured’ by a project he described as a ‘Psychology for Neurologists.’ This complaint was in reference to what I consider to be one of Freud’s stranger works, the Project for a Scientific Psychology; a project he would abandon soon after its completion and later criticize. And yet, despite Freud’s disavowal of the Project, one can find its traces in one of his most well known texts, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, published 25 years later in 1920. While his focus in this text is on the development of a theory of drives – in particular, the death drive – it was the Project that sought to understand the very structure of that psychic apparatus and the means by which it distributes, or fails to distribute, the excesses of those internal and external energies. Necessary to both projects is an engagement with the biological sciences and its basic unit of analysis, the organism. Indeed, while the Project is explicitly worked out in close proximity to neuroscience, Beyond the Pleasure Principle takes as its starting point G.T. Fechner’s understanding of the psycho-physical dimensions of stability and instability in his 1873 Some Ideas on the Creation and Evolution of Organisms; it engages with the work of 19th and 20th century evolutionary biologist August Weismann and his understanding of ‘living substance’; and, near the close of the essay, we see Freud flirting with the idea of applying psychoanalysis’ theory of the libido to the mutual relationship of cells.

In addition to his position at the intersections of the humanities, and the social and natural sciences, Freud’s use of ‘the organism’ is a further indication of his relevance to the new materialisms. Charles T. Wolfe has noted that the term ‘organism’ emerges in the late seventeenth-, early eighteenth-century in a debate between G.W. Leibniz and the chemist and physician G.E. Stahl. The term makes very few appearances throughout the nineteenth-century – though its correlates ‘organic organization’ and ‘organized bodies’ are abundant – until in the twentieth-century when the concept became of special interest to both philosophers and scientists alike. From its emergence in the debate between Leibniz and Stahl to its twentieth-century reinvigoration among biologists and vitalists, geneticists and phenomenologists, the concept of ‘the organism’ has lied at the intersections of philosophical and biological inquiry into the status of living beings (and, quickly, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze were all deeply concerned with ‘the problem of the organism’).

If I could state a very preliminary thesis, it would be this [SLIDE]: we would be mistaken to suggest that Freud’s use of ‘the organism’ is simply an analogy, a metaphor, or model rather than a sustained homology of the psychic apparatus. I use these terms, ‘analogy’ and ‘homology,’ in the sense in which they are used in the biological sciences: [SLIDE] the former denoting traits that are superficially similar, products of the convergent evolution of two distinct lineages exposed to similar environmental challenges and selective pressures, e.g. bird and bat wings; [SLIDE] the latter denoting the quality of having the same relation, relative position, or structure due to a common ancestor, but whose functions might be quite different – what is called divergent evolution e.g. the superclass tetrapods, which includes birds, bats, mice, and crocodiles. Why is this important? [SLIDE] Because the homological relationship between the psychic apparatus and the organism allows one to suggest that both are not genealogically distinct, but structurally immanent to one another; that Freud is after a more general logic, attempting to understand any system – whether psychic, physical, or otherwise – with a minimal degree of individuation. And if this is the case, then we find that we can ask of Freud the same questions we might ask of any philosopher around the question of organic formation: [SLIDE] what are its conditions of possibility? Its structures of relationality? Its duration? Is it dynamic? Open-ended? Co-implicated/-constituted/-emergent? Is Freud primarily concerned with substances or forces or both? What, in short, is its economy? Its topography? Such questions, as I think we have seen from the proceeding two days, are at the center of the emerging fields of new materialism.

The Project and Beyond the Pleasure Principle

So, moving on to the Project and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud opens the Project, with the following: [SLIDE]

The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction. Two principle ideas are involved: (1) What distinguishes activity from rest is to be regarded as Q, subject to the general laws of motion. (2) The neuorones [sic.] are to be taken as material particles. (PSP 295)

The image of the psychic apparatus initiated in the Project borrows from the work of German anatomist Wilhelm Gottfried, who explained the organization of the central nervous system as a composition of discrete individual cells, i.e. neurons. From this, Freud began to construct an understanding of the psychic apparatus as an interlocking system of permeable, impermeable, and perceptual neurons – ϕ, ψ, and ω, respectively.

[SLIDE] And here, I will provide a key for these symbols given in the text with the promise that I shall go into more depth about each (also, just to note, there are others, equally as whacky – but these are the ones I’ll be covering for now).

Freud’s goal was to understand how this psychic apparatus, ϕψω for short, concentrated, facilitated, and/or distributed external (Q) and internal (Qή) excitations, or energies. ϕ, ψ, and ω are, on Freud’s account, the “material particles” responsible for such organizations and deployments of energy (295).

[SLIDE] Q is understood as being of the cosmic order, “the origin of all major quantities of energy, since…it consists of powerful masses which are in violent motion and which transmit their motion” (304). [SLIDE] Qή, on the other hand, is of the intercellular order, a result of the complexity of the interiority of the organism wherein “the nervous system receives stimuli from the somatic element itself – endogenous stimuli – which have equally to be discharged. These have their origin in the cells of the body and give rise to the major needs: hunger, respiration, sexuality…they only cease subject to particular conditions, which must be realized in the external world…[when] the individual is being subjected to conditions which may be described as the exigencies of life” (297, emphasis in the original). Q, Freud argues, first comes into contact with the nerve-ending apparatus, i.e. the sense organs in the most general sense, and is “broken up by them into quotients” (313). If Q remains below a certain threshold of intensity, it does not register within the psychic apparatus, or, “no effective quotient comes into being” (313). [SLIDE] Any quotient of Q that does register reaches ϕ. Because of the magnitude of energy to which it is exposed, Freud speculates that ϕ is permeable and therefore capable of quickly discharging Q across the entire surface of the system. [SLIDE] ψ, on the other hand, is responsible for Qή and, because it is only exposed to endogenous stimuli of the intercellular order, Freud argues that these neurons are impermeable, that is, loaded with resistance, and holding back Qή. [SLIDE] ϕ and ψ, Freud writes, have “merely indirect connection” (305-306) through “endogenous paths of conduction,” (320) but their simultaneous presence helps Freud to develop his understanding of the psychic apparatus’ capacity for retention, i.e. memory, and reception, i.e. perception (308).

However, the system of perceptual neurons, ω, is a bit of a puzzle for Freud. [SLIDE] Clearly, he suggests, it is not exposed to Q. But neither is it capable of receiving Qή. [SLIDE] Instead, he argues, the ω system of perceptual neurons appropriates “the period of [ψ’s] excitation and…this state of their being affected by period while they are filled with the minimum of Qή is the fundamental basis of consciousness” (310). [SLIDE] For our purposes, what is most important to draw from this is that (1) Freud gives us a model for thinking about how both internal and external excitations are distributed through a field with which they are in contact, and (2) the distinction between internal and external, ϕ and ψ, is not absolute; they are, after all, connected through endogenous paths of conduction. This connection is most apparent in cases of pain [SLIDE], irruptions “of excessively large Qs into ϕ and ψ, that is, of Qs which are of a still higher order than the ϕ stimuli” (307). In the context of this conference, we might say that pain, for Freud, is the excessive-energetic overloading of the economy of the psychic apparatus, a breakdown in the systems of permeable, impermeable, and perceptual neurons to effectively distribute and facilitate the internal and external energies with which they come into contact.

What Freud is here calling “cases of pain” is similar in structure to what he will call, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trauma. As Freud borrowed from Gottfried in the Project, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as I mentioned in the introduction, begins with G.T. Fechner’s 1873 work Some Ideas on the Creation and Evolution of Organisms. It is in this iteration twenty-five yeas later that we see the psychic apparatus become homologous with an image of ‘the organism.’ [SLIDE] “Let us picture,” Freud writes, “a living organism in its most simplified possible form as an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation” (BPP 26). [SLIDE] The surface of the organism, turned towards the external world, will “from its very situation be differentiated and serve as an organ for receiving stimuli” (26), the very protective shield on which this “fragment of living substance suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies” (27) depends. [SLIDE] Through its hardening, its transformation from organic to inorganic matter, by its death this outer layer saves all subsequent layers from a similar fate so that, Freud concludes, “Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli” (27).

Where the Project used the conceptual tools of a 19th century model of neuroscience, BPP, with its vesicles, cortical layers, and membranes, makes use of an intensive biology grounded in turn-of-the-century research in embryology to understand the psychic apparatus. This time around, however, the event of irruption of excessively large external stimuli, i.e. Qs in the Project, is formulated as the event of trauma. Freud writes, [SLIDE] “We describe as ‘traumatic’ any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield. It seems to me that the concept of trauma necessarily implies a connection of this kind with a breach in an otherwise efficacious barrier against stimuli” (BPP 29). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud gives an image of ‘the organism’ whose ultimate satisfaction would be its disaggregation and return to the undifferentiated quiescence of the inorganic world. In an echo of 18th and 19th century natural historians like the Comte de Buffon, Xavier Bichat, and Jean-Baptiste Lamark, [SLIDE] the organism is only its postponement, its being-toward-death, in its wish “to die only in its own fashion” (38).

Again, Freud’s model for the psychic apparatus is, throughout his work, economic. It consists in and deals with the circulation and distribution of quantifiable energy, i.e. energy that is capable of increase, decrease, and equivalence. As such, it is possible to suggest that Freud’s work details the structures, not so much of a particular thing called the psychic apparatus located in the brain, but of any system or territory capable of maintaining a degree of coherence or individuation. Most importantly, we might follow Niklas Luhman in his 1984 Social Systems when he writes, that self-referential closure, what I am calling individuation, “does not contradict the system’s openness to the environment. Instead, in the self-referential mode of operation, closure is a form of broadening possible environmental contacts; closure increases, by constituting elements more capable of being determined, the complexity of the environment that is possible for the system” (Social Systems 37). The organism and/or ‘the organized body’ is here not so much a biological substance per se, but a site through which structures of relation, force, and matter can be articulated and unfolded. It is a field, not of the given, but, as Deleuze writes in Difference and Repetition, “a prior field within being [which] conditions at once the determinations of species of forms, the determination of parts, and their individual variations” (38).


In concluding, I hope I’ve made it at least somewhat clear that Freud’s interest in ‘the organism,’ his position at the intersection of the humanities and the social and natural sciences, and his constant engagement with and contribution to theorizations of materialism and materiality, make his work prime for new materialist minings for the potential of his work. But I also want to conclude with two important interventions that I think an engagement with Freud would make to this emerging field.

[SLIDE] First, some of the most persistent tropes of neo-materialist discourse and politics are ‘interrelation,’ ‘interconnection,’ and ‘complexity’ – Freud, as I have only briefly shown, attempts to think about these thematics, but does so in such a way that considers both (1) their ‘concrete’ mechanics, i.e. the mechanisms of relation, connection, and complexity (the Project is most painstaking in this regard) as well as (2) the quality of those inter -relations and -connections, qualifying the, at times, optimistic and romantic jouissance associated with these terms in new materialist writing.

[SLIDE] Second, I stated that I had my hypotheses about why Freud’s work has not been reevaluated in light of new materialism, despite what I see as obvious reasons to do so. A, by now, sedimented convention of many new materialist texts is a nod to the work of what they broadly construe as ‘constructivist modes of critique,’ with the caveat that such work, in its focus on deconstructing and making explicit the nonidentity of representation and the object of representation, remains incomplete for having not theorized the productive resistance of the object itself to representation. Freud’s work, especially as it has been read through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis, has I think been taken as part of this incomplete project, or, perhaps worse, as a project worth abandoning altogether. And, in reaction to this, the so-called ‘constructivists’ respond with equal condemnation. Freud’s interests, not only in the interiority of psychic life, but in the psycho-somatic dynamics of individuated systems in general might prove, in the end, to be an effective mediator between these various camps.

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