Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Ego & The Id & Caesar & Me (Part 1)

In 1923 Sigmund Freud formalized his theory of the dynamics of the self. Forty-one years later we find much of the book illustrated in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone. 

In the opening chapter of Sigmund Freud's 1923 text, Das Ich und das Es, we find a statement that prefigures contemporary theories of consciousness.
"...psycho-analysis cannot situate the essence of the psychical in consciousness, but is obliged to regard consciousness as a quality of the psychical, which may be present in addition to other qualities or may be absent."
What Freud is reiterating in this opening paragraph is the idea that consciousness is a mental process that precedes any talk of reality as such. This statement, which Freud calls "the first shibboleth of psycho-analysis," is at the center of contemporary neuroscientific theories of consciousness. The shibboleth that Freud speak of in 1923 is the questioning of the assumptions of objectivity itself; a question that leads to an unraveling of the Enlightenment assumption of a subject perceiving an object.

Freud continues,
"To most people who have been educated in philosophy the idea of anything psychical which is not also conscious is so inconceivable that it seems to them absurd and refutable simply by logic. I believe this is not only because they have never studied the relevant phenomenon of hypnosis and dreams, which--quite apart from pathological manifestations--necessitate this view." (Pg. 3)
What we find here is a critique that applies directly to any theory of mind that assumes objective reality outside of our conscious experience. We see a direct attack of objective theory which suggests that a world is independent of the mind's production of consciousness. This is central to the psychodynamic proposition of the structure of the self, which Freud fully develops for the first time in this text. It is also a critique of much of the research that continues to be taught in the social sciences, namely that objectivity is somehow parsable from subjectivity; the endeavor of positivistic empiricism. The proof of Freud's thesis is shown by examples from the dream life and hypnosis, which constitute a psychical production of reality. Cognitive neuroscience calls this  top-down processing.

In the English translation (The Ego and the Id, 1925) we find a model that allows us to consider conscious experience of not only the world and others, but also of ourselves. But we must keep in mind that this theory is one which proposes that reality is a participatory act of the mind, one that is also found in the later writing of Wilhelm Wundt through his concept of voluntaristic apperception.

Freud proposes four systems that interact dynamically to produce the phenomenon of the self. These four entities are all aspects of the psyche as a whole and interact dynamically (psycho-dynamic). We experience these four systems (the external world, the ego, the id, and the super-ego) as a unity, what we call our self.

The 1964 Twilight Zone episode, Caesar and Me provides us with an illustration of much of what is proposed by Freud in  The Ego and the Id. Written by Adele T. Strassfield, Caesar and Me would be the only episode of The Twilight Zone to be written by a woman.

 Caesar and Me is the story of a ne'er-do-well ventriloquist named Jonathan West (Jackie Cooper) who is arrested after turning to a life of crime. The story unfolds as West's ventriloquist dummy, Caesar, comes to life and talks West into committing crimes. At the end of the drama we find Caesar talking a young girl named Susan (Morgan Brittany) into murdering her aunt.

Ostensibly we have the paranormal story of a ventriloquist's doll coming to life and convincing his owner to commit self-destructive crimes. However, if we consider the characters and the story in the context of Freud's Ego and the Id, we find a working illustration of the dynamics of the soul.

There are four characters, each playing a unique role in the drama: West (the ventriloquist), Caesar (the dummy), Susan (the niece of the West's landlady), and Mrs. Cudahy (West's landlady). Each of these characters correspond to one of the four systems that Freud describes. We are told the story from West's point of view, we experience reality, as West does, as something outside of himself. However, if we view the drama as West's projection, that is, as each character embodying an aspect of West's psyche, we come to see that the episode is a meta-psychology of West himself. In other words, each player of the drama is a part of West, a part which is projected into a conscious awareness of reality.

Let us consider the four systems in this way. In West we find illustrated Freud's concept of Ego (Ich). Caesar is the manifestation of id (das Es). Susan embodies super-ego (Über-Ich, also called the ego ideal). Finally, Mrs. Cudahy, along with the police, and the nightclub owners, serve as West's perceptual conscious, that is, the external world that functions on the reality principle.

I Consciousness and What is Unconscious
In the opening scene we find Jonathan West selling a family heirloom watch at a Goldstein's pawn shop. Goldstein assures a defeated West that "things will get better". As West is leaving the shop, Goldstein motions to West's ventriloquist case, offering him $25 for his dummy. "Oh no," responds West, "No thank you, no. He is not for sale."

In this opening scene it is established that West and Caesar are inseparable. Closer even than the memory of West's own grandfather (represented by his watch) West views Caesar as part of himself, something that is "not for sale".

This exchange illustrates at least two things from the first chapter of The Ego and the Id. Firstly, we understand that ego and id are fused, that the id is more valuable to the ego than any material object or family tie. Secondly, we are shown an act of repression in service of the id. West transfers his family history from conscious to unconscious in the act of pawning his grandfather's watch. We are told that this repression is not permanent, that he will have thirty days to get his watch back. What we find here is the ego repressing something from conscious awareness (West's hands) to the unconscious (his watch disappears into his well-guarded unconscious--the shop keeper's storeroom).

Freud illustrates that through repression the ego transfers awareness from conscious to unconscious. We must remember that this is not something that exists outside of the psyche, conscious and unconscious are systematic states produced by the psyche. This is illustrated by the fact that we are at once watching the story of Jonathan West's psyche from the eyes of Jonathan West. In this way, the episode is a kind of meta-cognition of the experience of the self. Freud tells us:
"There is a coherent organization of mental processes; and we call this his ego. It is to this ego that consciousness is attached; the ego controls the approaches to motility--that is, to the discharge of excitations into the external world; it is the mental agency which supervises all its own constituent processes, and which goes to sleep at night, though even then it exercises the censorship on dreams. From this ego proceed the repressions, too, by means of which it is sought to exclude certain trends in the mind not merely from consciousness but also from other forms of effectiveness and activity." (Pg. 8)
 What we see here is that the ego (the "I") is the manager of all aspects of the psyche. It serves as perceptual conscious of the world and others, and the realistic pressures of those objects (functions on the reality principle), but is also partially unconscious. That is to say, the ego is somewhat hidden from itself. In Freud's words:

"We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed--that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious." (Pg. 9)
Freud goes on to say that the neurosis arises from a conflict between the coherent ego and the aspect of itself that it has repressed. We find here that the act of West repressing his conscious memory of his family might be at the root of the psychic drama that is about to unfold. We must note here that Freud clearly states that the ego is partly unconscious.