Sexual Difference : Joan Copjec

Lest misunderstandings or questions remain regarding this impassable limit and the one that is constituted by it, I will to return to Freud once again in order to track the way he proceeds to disabuse a colleague of his mistaken notion of “oneness.” The colleague, and friend, is Romain Rolland, who has written in defense of an “oceanic feeling,” a “feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the world as a whole.”14 Civilization and its Discontents begins with Freud’s quarrel with this notion. In a first step, Freud disputes Rolland’s ascription of this idea to feeling, insisting that it strikes him, rather, as being “of the nature of an intellectual perception.” The notion of oceanic oneness, Freud asserts, strikes us instead as an abstraction inasmuch as it carries, like all abstractions, no conviction.

Much as Kant disqualifies respect for the moral law as a “higher (non-pathological) feeling,” dismissing it as a mere “analogue” of feeling, so Freud disqualifies “oceanic oneness” from the realm of feeling, even though – he admits — the idea of oneness may be accompanied by some “feeling-tone.”15 Rolland’s abstract idea fails to necessitate the existence of anything; it has no reality in the empirical world. Freud in short views “oceanic feeling” as a generality, an abstract universal, and as such rules it out.

This dismissal – which appears to be a straightforward nominalist rejection – does not, however, end the discussion, but leads to the articulation of another option in which the outline of a realist position is visible. After expressing near revulsion at the idea of an “oceanic feeling,” Freud reverses course by returning to his own theory to find how his friend’s mistaken idea might have arisen. That is, there is something about One that Freud cannot dismiss and it is this he tries next to salvage. His begins by admitting that while we often think of ourselves as “autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else,” his own theory of the ego shows why complete separation of ourselves from the world is not possible. His argument comes straight from The Ego and the Id: the ego is attached or semi-attached to the id and it is for this reason, he tells us, that “we cannot fall out of the world.” It is the relation of the ego to the id – not the relation of the ego to external objects – on which Freud stakes his psychoanalytic claim that no individual can mark herself off distinctly from everything else.

The ego, however, acts as a kind of façade blocking evidence of its relation to the id, which remains for the most part hidden, an “unconscious mental entity.” An event is necessary – Freud chooses the event of love to illustrate his point – for the relation to become manifest. A quick reading would lose the point, so let us proceed carefully. While the ego “seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation” with the outside world, “at the height of being in love the boundary between the ego and the object threatens to melt away.” Freud describes an experience of fusion that is not to be trusted, since it goes against “all the evidence of [the] senses.”

The implication is that Rolland’s idea of “oceanic feeling” arises from a similar disregard for the senses. Focused entirely on the relation of the individual (or the ego, in psychoanalytic terms) to outside objects, Rolland blinds himself to the relation between the ego and the id, which relation is ultimately responsible for the way we draw the boundaries between ourselves and the external world. By attending to the ego-id relation, we arrive at a different understanding of what happens in love; no longer an illusory phenomenon of fusion, of a “melting of boundaries,” love now becomes visible as a real encounter. Rather than an experience of a “melting of boundaries,” love is an encounter with an absolute limit. Ego is brought to its limit because it encounters no some unknown that it can come to know or grasp in a next step, but something unknowable, ungraspable. This “swells the tide of libido,” or awakens ego to its passive relation to id; that is to say: a splitting occurs in which the subject becomes alien to herself, displaced or expropriated from herself.

If we bear in mind that Freud is not merely rejecting the “oceanic feeling” of Rolland’s account, but attempting to salvage something from it, some “one” that would be suitable to psychoanalytic thought, then we are able to see that this expropriation is precisely the way in which one is constituted, albeit as paradoxical, as “superior to unity.”16 How could the heterogeneous instances, ego and the id, ever constitute a unity, ever be anything other than separate? In love, this separation is not abolished but altered; it becomes proximity, an affecting nearness by which ego feels amplified: more than one with itself because capable of being other than itself. For, through this intimate relation, ego loses its rigidity and is able to redraw the boundaries between itself and the external world. There where ego experiences its intimate passivity toward id, there it remakes its relation to others.

14. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents in The Standard Edition (vol. 21), 64-66; all references to this work are from these first 3 pages.

15. I borrow from Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Kant’s Third Critique, which seems a propos in ways I cannot begin to detail here; Kant’s Critical Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1984), 46.

16. Christian Jambet coins this perfectly suitable phrase in, “The Paradoxical One,” trans. Michael Stanish in Umbr(a) 2009, special issue on “Islam and Psychoanalysis”; Jambet’s essay does not deal with the Lacanian notion of the “some One,” but with an idea in Ismaili philosophy.

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