or: What does Freud mean ‘by projection of a surface onto a surface’?
[this is still a draft ...]
About 35 years ago I stumbled across an expression in reading Freud, which intuitively made a deep impression on me: “the ego is a projection of a surface onto a surface”. I have not forgotten about it, and it has been engraved in my mind since then, although I have never been able to locate it since then (if you can help me find the citation, I would be very grateful – actually I have now found a reference in Boadella, which I need to pursue – see bottom of doc!!).
I remember having a sense that here Freud was onto some deep, precious recognition. But my mind could not get its head around it at all. In those days it constituted a defeat if my mind could not understand something. But on this occasion, I gracefully admitted defeat: this thing was just beyond me. I just knew that a powerful, educated, disciplined mind had here formulated a stroke of genius. I cannot even be sure that I correctly remember the actual phrase, in its word-for-word detail, so in writing about it I am aware that I am pushing the boat out.
It has taken me about 25 years or more to get anywhere close, but over the last 10 years I think I have begun to understand it. And not only to understand it, but - in my ever humble way – to even improve on it, or so I fancy.
Freud was a child of his times, and a mental and psychological giant, but it is also true to say that in those heady fin-de-siecle days and the decades that followed, he - and those around him - were taking baby steps in their thinking about the phenomena of the psyche. They were severely hampered by thinking within, as well as struggling against, the dominant zeitgeist of their time. So much of their thought – the distinctions they made, the categories they formulated, leading right into their conceptualisations and models – much of this has stood the test of time and shaped the 20th century and its consciousness and thus human evolution, but it also led to all kinds of intellectual contortions and misleading complications, many of which are to some extent unnecessary.
Of course, they were trying to do justice to the complexity of the psyche, and so there is a level of reality where our models do need to match that intricate, quick-changing mercurial complexity. But the problem is not that the models are complicated – no, something much more vexing is going on: in trying to make sense of our perceptions of ourselves (and the human mind and psyche in general), our own internal conflicts and our ambivalent reactions towards the intensity of emotional and psychological experience – between the ever-present spectrum of pain and pleasure - enter our thought process and skew it. So it’s not surprising that our minds come up with ambivalent and confusing ideas – this is true for you and me, as well as great minds like Freud’s.
In pursuit of the noble adage "Know Thyself", and in directing our gaze towards our subjective experience, the conflictedness of that experience affects our capacity to see and to think. Therefore, as a consequence, our thoughts, ideas and models tend to reflect the conflicts that they are embedded in and arise from - rather than constituting any clear, let alone objective, perception or interpretation of the psychological facts.
In other words: our mental processes are parallel to our psychological reality. Fritz Perls was polemic about it in saying: all reasons are lies. But he was onto something: our thinking is not as clear and realistic and objective as it fancies itself. Our thought process is subtly influenced and subverted by the emotional agendas and avoidances which it fancies itself to be devoid of. Thinking is often born out of emotional defensiveness; or at the very least, it can acquire emotionally defensive functions. Our thoughts move in characterological grooves, on tracks which we take for granted and therefore don’t take into account and don’t factor in. Not one of our thoughts can be presumed to be free of such defensive functions – the defensiveness does not announce itself through the content of the thought. The thought itself – more likely than not – is valid and true, or at least has a truth content. The defensive function is visible only through the context and the emotional/psychological effect of the thought – the bodymind state that results from the thought; or the relational effects, both internal and external, that are precipitated by the thought.
The history of psychology and psychotherapy is full of models that are pervaded by - and are manifestations of - a fundamental emotional ambivalence: on the one hand, we want to, need to, are desperate to recognise and understand ourselves, right down into the depths of our psyche; to get some insight into those irrational forces beyond our awareness and control that drive our thoughts, feelings and behaviour - apparently like Greek gods, constantly and invisibly interfering in human destinies, but without human rhyme or reason. Such understanding can only flower when it is based on radical openness and acceptance: an agenda-free phenomenological enquiry into ‘what is’ – attending to ‘the body in the body’, ‘the feelings in the feelings’ – in the felicitous phrase of the Buddha’s sutra on mindfulness. Freud’s main focus was not ‘healing’ of the psyche, but a scientific version of ‘know thyself’ (a courageous enquiry not suited to the faint-hearted, weak-willed or woolly-minded which would then have anxiety-reducing and healing side-effects).
On the other hand, we're desperate to overcome those forces we are at the mercy of – to gain control over these irrational forces of the psyche and appropriate them and turn them to our ego’s advantage, and so edge closer to establishing a delusional stability and identity and maintaining an apparently secure, fixed and invulnerable self.
Our thinking and our models are therefore to a significant degree compelled by the impulse not to understand ourselves, deeply and truly, in a spirit of acceptance and surrender, but : to eradicate the pain, conquer the vulnerability, transcend the helplessness to overcome of vulnerability, our sense of feeling at the mercy of the irrational forces, emotional pain.
In short, our ego is conflicted: our conscious efforts are pervaded and guided and compelled and underpinned by a fundamental ambivalence in relation to psychological reality. The ego is compelled to find its roots and connect to them, to pursue the cracks down to their roots, to root out its limitations, heal the splits, cover up the cracks, and ultimately to transcend the prison of itself - at the same time as being compelled to perpetuate its existence into immortality. That ambivalence underpins and underlies all of our Western thinking, and therefore hampers our grasp not only of our internal world, but - of course - reality altogether.
So what was that statement by Freud that had left that lasting impression on me?
When talking about the relationship between the Ego and the Id, he said something to the effect of: the ego is a projection of a surface onto a surface.
Taking into account that we are here at the beginning of the 20th century, in an age of imperialism before the First World War, with the vacuum that Nietzsche’s death of God had created still haunting the Western mind, and at the height of positivism and materialism, with science about to take over as the new God, Freud is very much thinking in terms of physics – models of material reality that were taken as understood.
Making sense of psychological process by taking recourse to supposedly equivalent physical processes, on the one hand using physics as metaphor, but thereby treating them as much more analogous than they are. The metaphors become concepts which in turn become frames – Freud’s topographical model reflecting assumptions of archaeology and geology. Sometimes those analogies were made explicit – like Freud’s vision that some day all psychology might be reduced to neurology. With the photographic camera holding sway as one of the brave new advances of modernity, he’s taking recourse to a process of projection: the Id as the driving force of psychological process, ever energetic, it is like a light source projecting its energy onto the mind as a receptive and passive screen; with the animal-Id driving and radiating its instinctiveness; and consciousness as the apprehension of that energy and the mental manifestation and image and thought translation of it.
So Freud implies that the surface of the Id is like the screen, onto which the film - moving images of the drives - are being projected. Remembering that Freud was deeply committed to neurology, and finding ways of rooting psychological process in the nervous system, he is trying to find a model for the mechanism by which basic unconscious physiological processes in the body are linked with and can manifest as psychological and mental and conscious processes and consciousness. He understands the body as a homeostatic system that goes through cycles of excitation, which arise in the Id, as instinctual processes. How do these unconscious, physiological processes become conscious? How does the human mind become aware of them?
Remembering also that at this point Freud is very much embedded in his topological model where the Id, the Ego and Superego are like geological layers - making therapy a bit like archaeology - it is easy to see why he thinks of the interface between the Id and the Ego as a surface: the forces within the Id are manifesting as arousal at that surface; this excitation is then available to be perceived by mental consciousness, and translated into images, thoughts and self-reflection. So whilst it is not difficult to see why Freud thinks of the Id as having a surface which the ego is watching, a bit like a film on a screen, what is more difficult to grasp is why he is speaking of the projection of that surface onto a surface. How does the second surface come in and what is it?
Here we come to an interesting point, where a whole paradigm clash manifests. On the one hand, Freud is deeply committed and embedded in the project of modernity, where mental observation is objective and thoughts are a direct objective reflection of what's out there. The Enlightenment, with its worshipping of reason, manifests in the belief (or we might say: the delusion), that the human mind has evolved to the point (with Western males at the pinnacle of that evolution, closest to a male God at the top of the pyramid), where they can see, think about, understand and ultimately control the movement of the universe. But whilst Freud cannot help being part of that compulsion and project, in everything he does he also undermines it. Along with Einstein and others, Freud is instrumental in puncturing the delusions of modernity and helping Western consciousness to its knees and to crumble (Freud's work effected a profound revolution in man's attitude towards, and comprehension of, his mental processes, constituting after Copernicus and Darwin, a third blow to man's self-esteem - See Stephen Jay Gould's “An Urchin in the Storm”, p. 214, for a development of Freud's "three great discontinuities”). Freud himself believed that his theories had struck but the latest blow against human vanity, the first being Copernican cosmology, which had displaced humankind from the centre of the astronomical universe, and the second, Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had removed it from the centre of the biological universe. By proposing that humans had evolved from animal species, Darwinism denied the biological uniqueness of humankind and asserted that human beings were but one of many species of animals. Just as Darwin destroyed the basic opposition between human and animal by placing human beings within a biological continuum, Freud similarly destroyed the traditional basic opposition between sanity and madness by locating normality on a continuum. (Anthropologists, as Levi-Straus then proposed, similarly replaced a traditional western opposition of civilized and primitive humanity with a conception of culture that places all social organisations upon or within continua).
The surface of the second surface he is talking about is the intuition that the mind is not an objective perceiver and reflector – not simply an accurate and reliable mirror - of what is ‘out there’ (or ‘in here’). Freud's key insight is that the supposedly rational mind is at the mercy of unconscious feelings and thoughts, and driven and directed by them all the more, the more it fancies itself above it. Already in his early theorising, Freud consequently does justice to this in his own thinking. He never fully succumbs to the promises and delusions of the Western mind. In himself or in others, he has a healthy, fundamental suspicion of every thought, including his own. In this regard, he is the father of post-modernity. He does not think of the mind as a single, perceiving point, like a mirror or an accurate radio receiver. No, he thinks of the mind as a surface: yes, as a screen, on which the unconscious conflicts are being played out; but as a screen which is affected by what it reflects, a screen that morphs under pressure of what it perceives and portrays.
He does not think of the mind as outside of the bodymind process, he does not succumb to an idea of the mind as the Archimedean lever which from its outside, dissociated, separated vantage point can leverage the whole of reality according to its whim. No, he thinks of the mind as a receptive surface, subject to the pressures of what it is perceiving, and therefore inexorably connected with it, and responsive as well as reactive to it.
On a deep level we can say that Freud has an intuition that transcends the subject/object split (this is not to deny the many aspects in which Freud is caught in perpetuating that very split). There is a long tradition of people trying to make up their minds as to whether Freud belongs in the first or second camp. The crux and the genius of Freud is that he, of course, simultaneously belongs into both camps, being deeply conflicted, but beginning to notice, attend to and formulate the conflict he experiences and recognises himself as caught in. The paradigm clash runs right through him, but his genius is that he is beginning to cotton onto it, recognise it, inhabit it reflectively.
On the one hand, he is the ultimate perpetrator of modernity; on the other hand he is the beginning of the end of it, its undoing and deconstruction.
Freud's formulation of the relationship between the Id and the Ego, as a projection of a surface onto a surface, manifests this paradigm clash in a nutshell. He formulates, and his formulations are circumscribed by, a way of thinking in terms of projectors and screens that is very much trapped in the subject object/split; and in terms of the relationship between physiology, nervous system and the soma on the one hand and the mind, consciousness and psyche on the other, in the body/mind split. But what he's formulating at the same time is an intuition not exactly of their mutuality, but their intricate interconnectedness. He is speaking, thinking and formulating it from within the dissociated disembodied mind that is beginning to intuit its own limitations and turning towards the embodied roots of its own disembodiment.
In the language and formulations that have evolved in my mind over the last 15 years, having the benefit of complexity theory and 20 years of living with the idea of parallel process, I prefer to formulate Freud’s idea through the notion of the ‘fractal self’.
The idea of the fractal self combines integral thinking with parallel process. It draws on Wilber’s integral theory, especially as it applies to the body/mind and subject/object split, but goes beyond it in a significant way: by drawing on the idea of parallel process, we can make much more precise and meaningful statements about how the different levels and layers which integral theory describes in evolutionary terms, are actually related and linked in the complexity of the human bodymind. We can make much more useful statements both about the pathologies and contortions of the human bodymind, as well as about the paradoxical and often self-defeating process towards integration and wholeness. For a description and mapping of the overall spiritual individuation process, Wilber’s distinction of the various layers and states and lines may be sufficient, and integral theory does a good job of it (probably the best we have currently available, when we include its interested critics and detractors).
However, the more we get into the nitty-gritty of the individual human and how they are trapped in self-replicating contortions, the more we get down to the complexities of the individual subjective human psyche, as therapists do, the more we need an experience-near understanding of these vicissitudes. We then need to understand the detail of how the various layers of body and mind are linked and how patterns conspire to maintain the status quo within characterological fixations. How are old wounds and traumas embodied, carried from the past into the present into the future and – most importantly – just how do they replicate themselves? How come the mind is helpless, even when having understood the origins and manifestations of a characterological pattern, to actually change that pattern? Why is the mind helpless to change those patterns? Why is understanding usually not enough?
Many, if not most, modes and modalities of therapy are still built upon the mind as the supposed agent of change. Most talking therapies inherit the legacy of the 19th century, and that half of Freud's work which was caught in modernity. Many, if not most, modes and models of therapy are not suspicious enough of their own thinking, concepts and theories, both in general as well is in the nitty-gritty of a particular client-therapist relationship. We need to understand more the other half of Freud, who did recognise the mind as a parallel process, as the reflection of a surface onto a surface.
The more we can recognise, and more importantly, surrender to parallel process, the more the notion of enactment, being caught in patterns, whether we have any awareness or understanding of them or not, becomes significant. The notion of enactment, as parallel process like infinite dominoes replicating a pattern, regardless of the mind’s understanding or interference, is much closer to the reality of our vulnerability and susceptibility to these patterns.
Lifestreams: An Introduction to Biosynthesis books.google.com/books?isbn=0710211457 David Boadella - 1987 - Psychology This enables us to comprehend Freud's statement that the ego is a projection of a surface onto a surface.5 Not only is the ego a function of the cortex, the outer ...