January 7, 2008

The Dominance of the Pleasure Principle

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Self indulgence, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:18 pm

Roger, at the always outstanding Limited Inc, has been posting for several months now on the theme of ‘Happiness Triumphant’ – he’s working towards a (presumably fucking long) essay on the genealogy of the modern idea of happiness. If I understand him right, Roger believes that the idea of happiness as the fundamental aim of life, and the meaning of ‘happiness’ that goes with this idea, is a relatively modern phenomenon. He thinks that our habit of locating our emotions on a linear scale – the habit evoked in our talk of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions – is the product of all kinds of contingent historical forces, and he’s attempting to excavate the origins of this inclination. (If you’re reading, Roger, please tear to pieces whatever I’m getting wrong. Everyone else, it’s worth checking out the posts themselves, which are unsummarisable and erudite and just well worth spending time with.) Above all, this talk of happiness is connected to the rise of capitalism: it’s not a coincidence that as capitalism starts to theorise itself we also see the emergence of utilitarianism; and economics remains bound to utilitarianism, despite the latter’s partial fall from philosophical grace. Personally, I find it hard to imagine a modern economics that doesn’t owe a profound debt to utilitarianism – though this may say more about my inadequate reading than anything else.

Anyway, Roger’s genealogical excavations are taking him way back into the half-forgotten corners of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature; stuff that I know basically fuck all about. And I find myself wondering, as I read, about the relation between happiness culture and one of the most powerful twentieth-century ways of understanding our mental processes: psychoanalysis. With apologies for trespassing on someone else’s project (leaving empty beer cans in the living room, cigarette burns on the carpet, and half-digested reading in the sink) I wanted to throw out a few thoughts on the relationship between psychoanalysis and the idea of happiness, or pleasure (which are, of course, by no means the same thing… but let’s leave that, unforgivably, aside) as the one and only aim of human life.

On the one hand psychoanalysis (by which I basically mean Freud, I’m afraid) is totally aligned with utilitarianism. Just as much as Bentham, or Mill, Freud sees the human mind as a mechanism for maximising pleasure. Arguably the most basic principle of psychoanalysis is the dominance of the pleasure principle – at least until we get to the watershed moment of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, and even that classic text does not straightforwardly reject this doctrine. One way to understand Freud’s project (probably not the best way, but one way) is as an attempt to appropriate for happiness culture even human behaviours that seem, at first glance, the most obvious counterexamples to the idea of pleasure-maximising individuals. So you think we maximise utility? What about masochists? What about depressives? Ah – well –they may not appear to maximise utility; but if we have a sufficiently complex and involuted theory of the emotions, even these self-destructive behaviours can be understood in terms of the dominance of the pleasure principle. The same could be said for rationality. So homo economicus is guided by reason? What about psychosis? What about hysteria? Well – these behaviours may not appear to be rational – but if we have a sufficiently resourceful theory of the mind’s production of meaning, even the most apparently crazy behaviour can be parsed in a similar way to the most reasoned, lucid communications. Even the unconscious functions like a language.

But of course there’s another side to Freud’s work. By seeing masochism, hysteria, obsession, and so on, as products of the same forces that generate even ‘normal’ mental functioning, Freud changes our understanding of normal mental functioning. The pathologies Freud analyses come to be seen as implicated in almost every element of mental life. Morality is analysed in terms of the conflict between the superego and the unconscious; but since the superego is a product of the very desires it represses, psychoanalysis makes it impossible to separate the rational mental functioning of the ethical individual from the irrational animal forces the individual suppresses and rejects. And this in turn is connected to one of the strangest and most productive difficulties in Freud. Having decided that pleasure-maximisation is the basic principle of our psychic life, Freud then gives such weight to apparent deviations from this pleasure-maximisation, that the deviations come to be inseparable from his understanding of pleasure-maximisation itself. This is why Freud starts developing doctrines like ‘primary masochism’ and the ‘death drive’. As Freud goes ever further into his speculative introspective studies, he asks the questions ‘what is pleasure?’, ‘what is it to maximise pleasure?’. And he finds that the maximisation of pleasure is guided by the very forces that appear to destroy pleasure. The supposed dominance of the pleasure principle comes to be the battleground for all the conflicting forces in Freud’s work. And the principle of pleasure-maximisation ends up looking very different from the utilitarian thesis it apparently resembles.

Two forms of Freudian explanation. On the one hand, derivation of psychic symptoms – self-generated forms of unpleasure – from a basic drive to pleasure. On the other hand, discovery of these ‘symptoms’ at the root and base of our psychic lives, including the drive to pleasure itself.

All this is just so much deconstructionist boilerplate, I guess. But I still find it interesting. And though I’ve read my Freud, I haven’t read nearly enough of the literature of and around psychoanalysis to talk about this stuff properly. Still, as Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis tell us in ‘The Language of Psychoanalysis’, Freud’s equivocations about the nature of the pleasure principle are bound up with the ‘economic’ form of psychoanalytic explanation. And this ‘economic’ perspective on the life of the mind is obviously of interest if we want to consider the relation between psychoanalysis and economics.

Roger’s posts on happiness culture have focussed quite a bit on the metaphors we use to understand our minds – the way in which the new technology of electricity, for example, or Newton’s idea that any physical body is fundamentally vibratory, influenced the language and concepts of psychology. And a little while ago, towards the end of this infinite thread, Le Colonel Chabert was complaining about the way in which the language of economics became pervasive among the Theory crowd in the 80s. “For a while ‘economies’ was one of those hot words in American deconstructions. Everything was an ‘economy’ or had an ‘economy’. It’s quite startling to read diacritics or CI from 86 and 87, how many times that word is used, often almost senselessly, and its very obviously coinciding with the character of the reaganite propaganda.”

I’ve been puzzled for a long time by this use of ‘economies’, even, or especially, in writers I admire; I’d love to see an account of the metaphor’s vicissitudes. But part of it clearly goes back to Freud, and the way in which he sees the mind in terms of the circulation of libido – which can be invested, and expended, and saved from expenditure by means of ‘economising’ strategies. Of course this metaphor depends on one particular model of the economy – the ‘circular flow’ model of first year undergraduate textbooks. And this in turn connects, no doubt, to the metaphor of the economy as body that the early economists developed in the wake of Harvey‘s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The conceptual/metaphorical situation is, as always, extraordinarily tangled (and obviously much more complicated than I’m suggesting here): economics bases its account of the movement of goods and money on a very naïve theory of mind, which sees pleasure-maximisation as the be-all and end-all of human motivation; then psychoanalysis complicates this theory of mind, by internalising an idea of circulation derived, in part, from economics. And of course both these intellectual systems are related in complex ways to the different scientific languages of biology and physics. I don’t have an eighth of the erudition needed to even try to understand these transformations.

Anyway, in ‘The Language of Psychoanalysis’ Laplanche and Pontalis describe an ambiguity in Freud’s account of the pleasure principle. Freud sees the mind in terms of the circulation of psychic energy. But it is unclear “whether what Freud calls the pleasure principle implies the maintenance of energy at a constant level or a radical reduction of tensions to the minimum level.” At times Freud sees the ‘principle of constancy’ as more or less synonymous with the pleasure principle. But at other times Freud associates the principle of constancy with the reality principle – and identifies the pleasure principle with the mind’s attempt to evacuate all psychic or libidinal energy, thereby achieving a null state or zero point. This is why, in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, Freud posits a ‘Nirvana Principle’ or ‘Death Drive’ – and why the death drive is apparently identical to the pleasure principle, in that work and elsewhere. This is what leads Laplanche to conclude, at the end of his ‘Life and Death in Psychoanalysis’, that “the death drive is the very soul, the constitutive principle, of libidinal circulation.”

Which takes us a long way from the ostensible subject of this post. But I find all this stuff fascinating – in particular, the role that death, or the death drive, comes to play in Freud’s analysis of pleasure. I’ve already written, briefly, about the way in which death seems to play no role in orthodox economics’ theory of mind. In Freud, as I say, I think we find, to a certain extent, an elaboration and deepening of mainstream utilitarianism. But Freud’s attempt to incorporate even the extremes of psychic distress into a hedonistic theory of mind ends up doing serious violence to the idea of hedonism. And this is in part, I think, because Freud takes seriously the role that death can play in the utilitarian calculus.

Which returns us again to that Keynesian aphorism: “in the long run, we’re all dead”. Laplanche and Pontalis tell us that the difference between Freud’s initial view of the pleasure principle, and that of ‘traditional hedonistic doctrines’, was Freud’s emphasis on the immediacy of the maximisation of pleasure. The unconscious knows no time; it is only the influence of the reality principle that allows us to plan, save, ‘invest’; our most basic psychic selves want it all, now. But the movement between short term or immediate satisfaction and deferred gratification is a highly complicated one. And it is in this gap between the short and the long term – or the long short term – that much of Freud’s explanations for ‘irrationality’ reside. Similarly, economics’ insistence on the dominance of rational decision making rests in part, I think, on its refusal to take account of the fundamental identity of its short- and long-term perspectives; or – to put it in another, Keynesian, way – its refusal to accept the fact that there is no such thing as an economic long term, in the strict sense.

This, I think, is why Keynes, among the great economists, has the clearest, most intuitive grasp of the ‘animal spirits’ that drive the movements of our economy. And those animal spirits are connected to the animal part of our psychic lives that Freud spent so much time investigating. Of course Freud believes – rightly – that all our psychology is ultimately animal in this sense; this is what links Freud to Darwin. And, to make a final dubious leap of reasoning, this in turn connects the irrationality of ‘animal spirits’ to our mortality. The religious outlook upon which, I believe, much economics depends, continues to manifest itself in that ‘rational yet hedonistic’ theory of mind; this combination – rational yet hedonistic – only really makes sense if it is applied to an immortal soul.

Not sure any of this has much connection to happiness culture (or that it makes a whole lot of sense…). But I thought I’d throw it out there. Lack of knowledge; doubtful logic; all the usual apologies and caveats. Corrections, criticisms, suggestions, attacks as always welcome. Stay well, folks.


  1. Praxis, thanks for the comments about the happiness project. It is a fucking long essay – it is ending up as a book length essay, and I don’t think I’m going to go much past the 1920s, as I have it planned out at present.

    Freud presents a huge set of themes that – I think I can show – have been put into play by the critics of the happiness culture, who I’m tracking. I’ll just go into one part of what you wrote, when you pose the question in terms of the rationality of economic man and how it comports with Freud’s diagnostic take on the psyche. Those are excellent guides to Freud, I think. Let’s see, how to put this simply: when we have a self that is maximizing pleasure, it is presumbably pleasure to come. Economics doesn’t tell you how to enjoy your cup of coffee, or your car, or you sex life, more thoroughly. And in fact, as it abstracts, pleasure simply names an additive function. More pleasure simply equals more.

    At this point, one wonders how globally true this is of rationality. If rationality is somehow attached to human beings, one can ask whether it might not be rational to have less – in fact, whether the most banal probe of everyday life wouldn’t find a host of instances like this. What, then, would it mean to inculcate a social attitude that would simply blind us to these instances?

    This, I think, is where psychoanalysis comes in. I would say, off the top of my head, that the failure of psychoanalysis as a therapy comes from the failure to disengage with this social attitude, and its success as a critique comes from understanding the dynamic of that attitude – rightly understanding it as a form of collective neurosis.

    All of which might sound way way too simplistic. But it is a start, perhaps? For if we retain this psychoanalytically critical position, we might explain two things about contemporary selves in developed countries – the extraordinary narcissism combined with the extraordinary vulnerability to determinants outside the self – the industry of identifications that operates within consumerism, and the desire to identify which seems so puzzling. At first glance, narcissism would seem to match better with self-reliance, but in fact it goes much better with consumerist conformism.

    Ah, but enough. Anyway, nice post!

    Comment by roger — January 16, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment, interesting stuff. As usual, I don’t know enough to begin to respond usefully. But… narcissism is (to state the very obvious) another one of those psychoanalytic categories that has a double aspect – at once a specific attribute of a specific type of person, and a form of mental functioning that seems to have no outer bound. Which takes us to Derrida, there is not narcissism and non-narcissism, only more or less open and hospitable narcissisms, etc. I guess (?) you’re suggesting that this attitude – the idea that narcissism can be seen as encompassing all mental life – is a product of modern consumer societies. Which sounds (to my ignorant ears) convincing. I’m intrigued by what you say about self-reliance and conformism. And also – now that you’ve pointed it out (and now that I’ve got narcissism on the brain), I wonder whether narcissism could be said to complete the trio of homo economicus’s attributes: rational, pleasure-maximising and self-interested. Psychoanalysis would then endorse and critique all three: narcissism as human nature versus narcissism as psychological flaw.

    Anyway, good stuff. I should read some Hazlitt.

    Comment by praxisblog — January 18, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

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