Issue #02 May 2017

Freud on The Subject/Object Division

Bernard Réquichot — “Châsse de papiers” (1961)

(Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, 2003, p.116)

When one reads statements like the above, it becomes difficult not to approach Freud as a philosopher, sketching out a complex theory of subjecthood to rival that of Descartes, Kant or Heidegger. The problem with the application of this title of “philosopher” is Freud’s own reticence towards being seen as “philosophical”. Psychology in its infancy was beset on all sides by criticisms, philosophers being among its most vocal critics (see, for example, Sartre’s dismissal of unconscious repression in Being & Nothingness). Freud was ever careful to keep within the bounds of those aspects of his practice where he could boast of some small results. However, where Freud speaks of his meta-psychology (as with the quote above) one can sense palpably his desire for his theories to have bearing on philosophical and metaphysical questions. The philosophical reader, therefore, has to piece together the “wider theory” by examining the extended implications of the fragments of the meta-psychology. One is rewarded, thereupon, with a remarkably shocking, novel, and far reaching phenomenological theory that informs Freud’s clinical work, as well as his more well known notions of the Oedipus complex, repression, sublimation, and so on.

In this article we are going to follow through such extended implications, developing a philosophical model of the Subject, based on a few key Freudian concepts and clues: the originary, biological identity of self and world, the multi-modal “complex”, projection, and development of the ego as process of surface differentiation pointed to in the quote above. Our main trajectory is the question “how does the ego arise?”, and our destination, admittedly, is merely the answer to this simple question. We won’t touch on repression, personhood, the unconscious, Freudian slips or Oedipus (perhaps another time) because our focus is on a particularly ingenious solution Freud gives for the existence of the subject/object divide that precedes any question of there being persons, an unconscious, a motive to repress and so on, in the first place. It’s our conjecture that this novel approach could make tractable issues surrounding consciousness, qualia, the objectivity of objects, and so on and so forth.


Before we begin we should clear up some of Freud’s terms and their translations, to make what is at stake more clear.

Most significantly are the words “ego” and “id”. In Freud’s original German these words had no technical air to them. They were merely “Ich” (“I”) and “Es” (“it”). The curious term “id” and archaic “ego” cover up how their difference is a play of pronouns. So, for example, when we ask where does the “ego” come from, we should substitute the closer translation of “where does the I come from?”. When Freud says the ego comes from the id (a thesis we will explore at length), this is to say, the I comes from the It. This casts the mystery in a new light: it is not that some curious object of psychological study (ego) emerges from yet another curious object of psychological study (id), but rather how a first-person emerges from a third-person, or how subjectivity arises from objectivity, or how the statement:

It is reading, it is raining.


I am reading, it is raining.

Imagine a collection of the corpus of all written statements, and from it extract every statement that has as its subject the pronoun “it”, or a noun or pronoun for which “it” can be substituted. One will find an endless series of descriptions of processes and situations and objects and places and qualitative and quantitative judgments about all of these. This collection of statements will also describe the entirety of the “objective” universe, insofar as we know it. We will have no people as agents, no perspectives, but we will have history (World War II and the moon landing, for example). This is merely a game we are playing, and shouldn’t be taken as indicating anything too profound, but, from this step, we can ask “where do statements that have “I” as their subject fit in? What is their difference to all of these “it” statements?” This is getting closer to what Freud is talking about when he demarcates the ego from the id.

The question can thus be put in slightly different words: “Why do “I”s arise at all? Why isn’t there just an endless universe of “It”s interacting?” The resonance with the hard problem of consciousness, and philosophical zombies, then becomes obvious.

Flux — Genesis

“The new-born child does not at first separate his ego from an outside world that is the source of the feelings flowing towards him.” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 2002, p.6)

Imagine an undifferentiated flux. All things given together and at once in fragmentary form. This is It. Cells dividing, photons colliding, nerves firing, airborne particles permeating, a digestive system absorbing and expelling, here a pain, there a warmth, there a mass of undulating pressure born on air particles causing an ear drum to undulate in time. Thwoomp-tick-Szsz. In this flux there are perceptions, but they are not perceptions of something by someone. There are memories, but they are nobody’s memories, and are not differentiated from perceptions. There are needs, but they are nobody’s needs, and they are not differentiated from perceptions and memories. There are movements, but they are nobody’s movements, and they are not differentiated from perceptions and memories and needs, and so on and so forth.

We know the infant, and its tiny body, its needs, its cries. But does it know any of these things? Most probably not; it is a purely reflexive system in the beginning. This goes to this, goes to this, goes to this. A pain becomes a scream, a shaking object becomes a sound, a warmth becomes a dulling of colors that is sleep, a dog becomes a movement, disappears, becomes a fear, reappears, becomes a plant, becomes an itch, becomes a bark, becomes a memory of a light, becomes a face. In this endless concatenation of beings there is no initial order, no necessary coordination between the registers of sense, and no necessary coordination between these registers of sense and the whole gamut of “goings-on” within the organism, heartbeats and odors alike. There is, therefore, in all this reflexivity, no distinction between subject and object. The apparatus/system of the organism is fully and indistinguishably integrated into the field of its immediate environment. That it perceives is just another capability or fact of the system, and is equivalent to saying that ice perceives heat insofar as it “reacts” (exhibits state changes) to it, which is to not say much at all.

The Complex

But, here, the concept of an object begins to form through the contractions of repetitions. The perception of the shaking object and the perception of the rattling sound share a synchrony. They always happen together. The hunger, the scream and the presence of the mother link up in the same way. That is to say the flux begins to arrange itself. One simple arrangement would be the connection of a sound perception with a visual perception — two areas of the brain synchronizing: an “object” thus is born.

Pancreas Supervisor — “Blank Flag” (2012)

The key philosophical point to keep in mind is that the idea of an object is always something above and beyond what is given in perception alone, and is what coordinates disparate perceptions together in the first place. An object is always an inference. Whether the capacity for making this inference is hard wired from the outset or developed gradually from habit through repetition is a question for neurologists, or for a dialogue between Kant and Hume.

The infant’s hunger pains, vibrating vocal cords, the sound of the scream, and the presence of the mother, can become entangled into a single object/complex just as easily as the rattle’s color and sound: what need is there, in the beginning, to recognize that the scream and the food of the mother belong to two separate bodies? They are always given together initially. It hungers, it screams, it comes, it feeds, it goes, it sleeps.

Keep in mind we are not yet at an “ego”, a subject, there is merely a flux, that appears to hang together in certain ways (sounds and sights and actions and sensations linking, for example) forming into complexes. The mind at this phase is merely a reflexive apparatus, that knows nothing of the self as self, and therefore nothing of the world as world, it just is the world (It). Accordingly, the infant at this stage is purely omnipotent and narcissistic (in the technical sense). All before it is it; there are no “others”.

We will emphasize here that what gets included within a particular complex is always up for revision. The food of Pavlov’s dogs had added to it the resonate sound of a bell, just as delicious to them eventually as the aroma.

Traditionally, concerning Pavlov, we would say that one object has been associated with the other, however the genius of the Freud lies in precisely his dealing with complexes as primary. No object given in perception is free of this “association”, conceptual implication or some affective dimension. The most persistent of these associations would be the coordination of the different registers of sense, fundamental to our sense of reality (imagine a sound and perception “falling out of sync” and the sense of dizzyness that would accompany this) The “object” is first and foremost a multi-modal complex. The move is the phenomenologist’s one: putting aside the question of the metaphysical import of the object and beginning with how the object appears, what would be called its “representation”. On this level the object appears as a diverse complex of different things: a shoe can be an object of erotic interest, and a horse falling down the site of an interminable dread. From this vantage, as we work back to the object, we are given a new view: the object as stable, objective, sensory representation emerges from the complex. The “objective” view of the object, its “primary qualities”, is a special rather than originary case. The genius of this move is that it does not presuppose the “objectivity” of objects in the genesis of the object. In this way the move is strictly correlative to Heidegger’s placing as fundamental the “readiness-to-hand”.

“The opposition between subjective and objective does not exist from the start” (The Unconscious, 2005, p.91).

It’s important at this stage to return to our problematic: how does an I emerge from an It? It seems that we are saying now the opposite, that the It (stable objects) emerge from the I (psychic flux) via the medium of complexes formed through repetition. We should tread carefully here. There is no “I” yet, we are still in the domain of the It (mindless, perspectiveless processes). It is a property of this It that a part of it remembers (thus allowing repetitions as repetitions), it is also a property of this It that certain fragments hang together in what we have termed complexes formed by this very repetition. This field is homogeneous, and has not yet divided itself into subjective and objective dimensions. Accordingly, it does not really behoove us to think of the flux as purely objective, or subjective. The memory and the repetition are of the order of water dripping onto a stone, creating an indentation. Though the path of actual water is determined by past water (as the indentation gets bigger it captures more water, thus gets bigger again) we don’t need to posit anything like subjective memory in the stone or water, even though the system composed of the stone and the path of the water is developing a tendency owing to past stages of their interrelation. Memory in the It as flux is just this developing tendency, an indentation that as it deepens from being repetitively traversed, is only traversed more and more, and it’s these “well-worn” traversals that form complexes.


So, how do we get from this flux+complex state, to a clear subjective/objective divide, which is to say, how do objects and subjects as we know them arise? We will jump now, to the end of the process and work back to the middle, taking as our starting point a discussion of how the complex is not merely a preparatory phase for the rise of the object and subject, but persists in its role of being the ground of the objects before us.

The name of the process whereby the separation into objective and subjective dimensions within this flux begins is termed by Freud projection.

Pancreas Supervisor — “I’m a Collage” (2012)

Our standard view of objects is brought about through a process whereby we take some perceptions and project them “outwards”. The perceptions themselves don’t move, obviously, it is just that we take them as being self-evidently “out there”, external to us. So, this process of “projection” can also be thought of as a labeling or attribution of certain mental events to a hypothetical external world beyond them.

Close your eyes, the world disappears, open them again, it returns. This is a simple demonstration of the simple fact that the entire world as we experience it, in all of its colors and forms, is “in our heads”. Those forms and colors are easily removable with a gesture of the eyelids. Therefore, in our normal everyday dealing with the world, we are taking these perceptions in our heads and “projecting” them, which is to say, we take them as a part of the public, external world. The act of projection marks visual perceptions, as well as tactile, aural and olfactory, etc, perceptions as being “those things in our heads that should be taken as not being in our heads”, as those things in our heads that immediately pertain to the outside world.

Accordingly, it is not merely the perceptions that “pertain to the outside world” that are thereby projected, as this is circular (projection creates the category of perceptions that “pertain to the outside world”), but rather other things can be “projected” as well:

“Internal perceptions of emotional and intellectual processes can be projected outwards in the same way as sense perceptions; they are thus employed for building up the external world” (Totem and Taboo, 1950, p.81)

There is no absurdity here. A memory rests in the branches of a tree just as well as the perceived greenness of a leaf. A sense of self-reproach can lie coiled within the garish color of a frivolous purchase. They are all mental events, and their division is the product of a pseudo-theoretical and pragmatic distinction that is, in a way, always up for revision.

The distinction is purely pragmatic in the sense that the only reason it is made is that we have discovered, at some stage or another, that we needn’t climb the tree to pursue the memory further, needn’t eat the leaves, and defacing the frivolous purchase with a black marker won’t silence the sense of self-reproach. However, we can “transubstantiate” or “exorcise” the sense of self-reproach by finding a “redeemable” use for the frivolously purchased object: a gift, a door stop. This act of placing the object somewhere (in the hands of another, by the door, etc), being able to banish the ill feeling it gives us, Freud thinks is the origins of belief in sorcery (see Totem & Taboo). In this way, when we manipulate objects to make ourselves feel better (cleaning a room, for example) we are all taking part in a long tradition of sorcery…

Another way of looking at projection would be to say that those mental events that are of import to action are “projected”, but those discovered through repetition to be ambivalent to action are “introjected” (as in “not projected”). All of this needs to be worked out at one stage or another (and there are multiple stable solutions): what elements or points within a complex have bearing on or to action, and which are ambivalent to it? A certain redness can be abolished by the closing of the eyes or the turning of the head. In fact, nearly all “rednesses”, time and time again, seem conditional, in their presence, on the movements of the eye lids or the contraction/extension of the neck or waist muscles. Insofar as “rednesses” share this direct affinity with these movements, then they are projected.

“We learn how to distinguish between the internal, which belongs to the ego, and the external, which comes from the world outside, through deliberate control of our sensory activity and appropriate muscular action” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 2002, p.6).

“-in the effectiveness of (the developing organism’s) muscle activity (is) a foothold in distinguishing an ‘outside’ from an ‘inside’” (The Unconscious, 2005, p.15).

Stop. When there is a redness, that redness is taken as being of something seen. What does this mean? The assumption that there is something in front of and outside of me that is red. Where did I learn that red should be thought of as something in front of and outside of me, where did that come from? Because its presence or absence can be modulated by a particular set of muscle movements (in my neck, eyelids, and waist) directly.

Back to the infant: perhaps the mother doesn’t arrive, severing the previously concrete connection between hunger, screaming, and food. The hunger seems persistent, uniform, impervious to the modulations of action, whereas the mother and the food appear punctuated; the scream that seemed to unite them is only more or less effective. When the scream fails to bring about its well worn result, the impossibility of the satisfaction of desire cleaves the complex in two. The scream and the hunger are other than the mother and food which is other to them. This otherness of the presence of the mother, the sensations and perceptions associated with the presence, become “projected”.

The flux begins to divide itself.

This division at once posits:

  1. The external world as category to which certain perceptions will be attributed (thereby taking the name “perception” as opposed to “sensation”, “feeling”, or “thought”), the things that eyelids and neck muscle contractions have some effect over.
  2. The internal world to which memories, sensations, feelings, and thoughts will be henceforth attributed, the things no muscular contraction can enlarge, diminish, or shift.
  3. The ego, that represents this very division. The division is purely immanent to the mind, half of it being called external and thereby projected, the other half being called internal thereby introjected, with the ego then being the “window”, screen, or surface between the one and the other.

The Ego

Why is the ego the name for the division? The division represents that line within the mind separating the objective from the purely subjective, the “to be projected” from “to be introjected”. Once something is introjected and something is projected the previously uniform surface is split along a border. This border is me, and I then need an “I” to refer to this distinction, “Oh, is it? I thought it was…”

This is to say that the Ego, in its beginning, is nothing more substantial than the formation of the category of mineness. The “I”, as opposed to the “it”, refers to, acknowledges, and reinforces, the very fact that in the elementary experience of the world there is a division that refers the organism to a difference. Sometimes this division, and thus the I-ness of the I, is blurry, not regarded, at other times it is clear, distinct and immutable. The shift from the former to latter is financed by an intensification of both self-consciousness, and the objectivity of the object.

“The ego is above all a corporeal entity; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, 2003, p.117).

Again, in order to avoid circularity we cannot say there is something “worldly” about those contents that are projected, and something personal about those contents that are introjected, because these two (the personal and world) are created in the same moment by a mere topographic division of a previously homogeneous field. How do we know this field is homogeneous? Because our regarding of one half of a complex that falls on this or that side of the divide, (the regarding of an object as purely objective object, for example) is a special case requiring a certain learned, educated effort, a certain scientific method. Our day to day experience (as well as the countless pathological cases examined by Freud) reveals to us a deep affinity between all things termed internal and external, which we only separate out by a particular act of effort; the myriad of cognitive biases as things to be counteracted points us to this as well. The beauty or ugliness of a face is always there in the face, even if we admit that said beauty is not there on the face at all, but within the eyes of us beholders; the illusion is obstinate.

We may want to say that “internal” and “external” contents may become related to each other by association, but are separate to begin with. However, it is unclear how assuming the subject/object divide back into the beginning is helping us think anything: the back of my hand is not “associated with” the palm of my hand in the sense that they are two discrete yet related objects. It is better to say that the back of my hand and the palm are associated via a certain movement in my wrist that allows one or the other to appear but never both. However, better still is to say that the back of my hand, the palm of my hand and the movement of the wrist, form a complex, which then allows us to speak of the parts being associated. This is all to say that we should be careful of what we are implying when we say that A is associated with B, and the ontological ordering we give to these terms.

· · ·

However, this division, by being purely mental, is not rendered completely arbitrary. It follows a pragmatic logic that aids us in negotiating the world. By setting up the notion of flux, complex and projection, we have merely arranged the dominoes. Something more is needed to push this arrangement such that complexes break down, and projection can thereby happen in the first place. Without this push, there would be no need to divide the psychic apparatus into the internal/external to begin with.

Truthfully, this was a never an issue for Freud. Our curious path through the topic has described the structures and capabilities of the psychic apparatus, but we have yet to “charge” the system, to get things whirring and buzzing and moving. Freud begins from the perspective of charge (what he calls cathexis). All of these distinctions we have made have been occurring on a positively charged flux.

What does it mean to say that the flux is “charged”, and thus the complexes “conduct”, and so on? It means to say that none of this machinery we have been discussing is given dispassionately, no part of it is coolly ambivalent to any other part. The flux, its complexes, and the ego that forms as division is saturated in desire.

It is not a mere simple fact that the infant’s hunger pains, the screaming, the presence of the mother, and the food are repeatedly given together, but, rather, that this particular complex is charged with all of the force that the infant as biological apparatus can muster. The failure of the complex at the hinge of “the scream” is not a curious speculative fact, but an absolute disaster on the level of the developing organism. An overflowing of anxiety and fear. The scream intensifies with this rising anxious force, as though if only the force of the scream could be great enough, the mother could be grasped and drawn closer by the pure sound energy alone, restoring the complex, and the loop of positively charged desire that circulates it. But the mother doesn’t come.

For Freud, the development of the Ego is financed by these repeated frustrations of desire whereby an assumed complex (incorporating both sensory properties, actions of the subject, feelings, etc etc, all charged by desire) is split.

Imagine the toddler, on the counter above their head is a fresh cake. They see and smell it. Had it been sitting right in front of them they wouldn’t have thought at all before plunging their hands into it and gorging happily. However, here the moment of gorging has been cut short. By what? The hands aren’t working, they reach but don’t arrive at the cake above. The distance between the finger tips and the edge of the plate contains all of the impossibility in universe. Desire rages fruitlessly within the psychic apparatus at the perception of the cake and at the pushing of the arms up. The inability to unite these two components, the inability to create a loop of desire between this perception and this movement, gives birth to geometrical distance itself as the distance between the control of the body and perception. If the cake was in reach there would be no sense of space at that moment, only taste of cake. In fact, if it was in reach there’d be no strong sense of subject or object, only taste of cake.

“The outside world is divided up into a pleasurable part, which (the ego) incorporates into itself, and the rest, which is alien to it. It also separates off a part of its own self, which it projects into the outside world and perceives as hostile” (The Unconscious, 2005, p.27).

Now we have the means to give the precise formula for projection: where desire fails, that which within the flux is counter to desire, that which coldly and mysteriously resists being taken up in a smoothly functioning, charged complex, that which hostilely objects, takes the name “object”, is “projected”. Our previous formulation, of projection as that which action can have some bearing on, develops secondarily from this precise formulation. Why? Because it’s always at a redness, a square thing, a cake shaped thing, a smell, a sound, and an attempted coordination of the movements of the body where desire fails. The space between my hand and the thing, the relative power of my shoulders pushing into the felt resistance of the heavy object, the tiny thread that refuses, despite how subtle I make the movements of my fingers, to go through the minuscule eye of the sewing needle, is always where desire rages against a limit it cannot master, cannot overcome, at the snapped edges of a complex. If the cake is within reach, I literally take it into myself, and if it isn’t, that space that frustrates the desire, causing tension and frustration, is projected out, rejected, and begins to exist for itself.

It’s this “pure” distance (the “distance” that gives rise to the idea of distance as such) between the two sides of a broken complex, with desire (or more accurately, drive (Trieb)) circling but unable to close, which is the “objectivity of the object”. And, furthermore, the smallest conceivable distance from that, on the ragged edge of the broken complex, is the “subjectivity of the subject”. A mere surface differentiation, the difference between projection and introjection only.

Leaving behind the infant, as we grow older, as our perception becomes keener, our movements more skilled, we master and overcome the “object” more and more, but we never reattain the naive omnipotence of the infant as a flux that saw and felt no difference between a hunger, a scream, a mother, a food, a fullness, a nap. Only in our fantasies of telekinesis, and teleportation can we flirt with the idea. And that we also dream of telepathy points us to the next stage of Ego development that Freud thought followed on the heels of all this in the development of the child. That is the development of the super-ego (the Über-Ich), through an additional process, identification, whereby the subject and object of the newly formed subject-object divide is again divided into subject-other-object-other. Furthermore, the subject/object division, once made, begins to coagulate, the way a pylon in the ocean begins to be covered in myriad sea-life until it is unrecognizable, not because it is made of iron or steel, but merely because it is a surface.

But, that is all a topic for another time…

John C. Brady is a perennial student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.


May 2017


Freud on The Subject/Object Division

by John C. Brady

Anomalisa, or The Effort of Recognition

by Timofei Gerber

Enframing, Inhabitation, Skateboarding

by Justin Richards

Individualism from a Hegelian Perspective

by Cheong Cheng Wen

Bergson with “Deleuze’s Grounding Heuristic”

an extended discussion by John C. Brady