Sigmund Freud died 80 years ago this week, and his 1923 study, The Ego and the Id, which introduced many of the foundational concepts of psychoanalysis, entered the public domain earlier this year. Freud’s ideas have long been absorbed by popular culture, but what role do they continue to play in the academy, in the clinical profession, and in everyday life? To answer those questions, this roundtable discussion—curated by Public Books and JSTOR Daily—asks scholars about the legacy of The Ego and the Id in the 21st century.
Pity the Poor Ego!
It would be hard to overestimate the significance of Freud’s The Ego and the Id for psychoanalytic theory and practice. This landmark essay has also enjoyed a robust extra-analytic life, giving the rest of us both a useful terminology and a readily apprehended model of the mind’s workings. The ego, id, and superego (the last two terms made their debut in The Ego and the Id) are now inescapably part of popular culture and learned discourse, political commentary and everyday talk.
Type “id ego superego” into a Google search box and you’re likely to be directed to sites offering to explain the terms “for dummies”—a measure of the terms’ ubiquity if not intelligibility. You might also come upon images of The Simpsons: Homer representing the id (motivated by pleasure, characterized by unbridled desire), Marge the ego (controlled, beholden to reality), and Lisa the superego (the family’s dour conscience), all of which need little explanation, so intuitively on target do they seem.
If you add “politics” to the search string, you’ll find sites advancing the argument that Donald Trump’s success is premised on his speaking to our collective id, our desires to be free of the punishing strictures of law and morality and to grab whatever we please—“a flailing tantrum of fleshly energy.” Barack Obama in this scheme occupies the position of benign superego: incorruptible, cautious, and given to moralizing, the embodiment of our highest ideas and values but, in the end, not much fun. You’ll also glean from Google that Trump’s ego is fragile and needy but also immense and raging, its state—small or large?—a dire threat to the nation’s stability and security.
In these examples, the ego is used in two distinct, though not wholly contradictory, ways. With The Simpsons, the ego appears as an agency that strives to mediate between the id and superego. When we speak of Trump’s fragile ego, the term is being used somewhat differently, to refer to the entirety of the self, or the whole person. When we say of someone that their ego is too big, we are criticizing their being and self-presentation, not their (presumably) weak superego.
The idea of the ego as agency is routinely considered more analytically rigorous and thus more “Freudian” than the ego-as-self, yet both interpretations of the ego are found not only in popular culture, but also—perhaps surprisingly—in Freud. Further, I would argue that the second of these Freudian conceptualizations, premised on feelings, is more consonant with a distinctively American construal of the self than are the abstractions of ego psychology. Understanding why this is so necessitates a look at the post-Freud history of the ego in America—in particular at the attempts of some psychoanalysts to clear up ambiguities in Freud’s texts, attempts that luckily for us met with only mixed success.
As Freud proposed in The Ego and the Id, three agencies of the mind jostle for supremacy: the ego strives for mastery over both id and superego, an ongoing and often fruitless task in the face of the id’s wild passions and demands for satisfaction, on the one hand, and the superego’s crushing, even authoritarian, demands for submission to its dictates, on the other. The work of psychoanalysis was “to strengthen the ego”; as Freud famously put it 10 years later, “where id was, there ego shall be.”
The Freudian ego sought to harmonize relations among the mind’s agencies. It had “important functions,” but when it came to their exercise it was weak, its position, in Freud’s words, “like that of a constitutional monarch, without whose sanction no law can be passed but who hesitates long before imposing his veto on any measure put forward by Parliament.” Elsewhere in the essay, the ego vis-à-vis the id was no monarch but a commoner, “a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse … obliged to guide it where it wants to go.” Submitting to the id, the ego-as-rider could at least retain the illusion of sovereignty. The superego would brook no similar fantasy in the erstwhile royal, instead establishing “an agency within him” to monitor his desires for aggression, “like a garrison in a conquered city.” Pity the poor ego!
It could be argued that the Viennese émigré psychoanalysts who took over the American analytic establishment in the postwar years did precisely that. They amplified this Freudian ego’s powers of mastery while downplaying its conflicts with the id and superego. They formulated a distinctively optimistic and melioristic school of analytic thought, “ego psychology,” in which the ego was ideally mature and autonomous, a smoothly operating agency of mind oriented toward adaptation with the external environment. More than a few commentators have argued that ego psychology’s celebration of compliance and de-emphasis of conflict fit perfectly with the demands of the postwar corporate state as well as with the prevailing stress on conformity and fitting in. Think here of William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man, published in 1956, or of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, from 1950, best sellers that were read as laments for a lost golden age of individualism and autonomy.
Among the professed achievements of the mid-century ego psychologists was clearing up Freud’s productive ambiguity around the term’s meanings; ego would henceforth refer to the agency’s regulatory and adaptive functions, not to the person or the self. Consider that the doyen of ego psychology, Heinz Hartmann, gently chided Freud for sometimes using “the term ego in more than one sense, and not always in the sense in which it was best defined.”
Ego psychologists’ American hegemony was premised on their claim to being Freud’s most loyal heirs; The Ego and the Id ranked high among their school’s foundational texts. Freud’s text, however, supports a conceptualization of the ego not only as an agency of mind (their reading) but also as an experienced sense of self. In it, Freud had intriguingly referred to the ego as “first and foremost a body-ego,” explaining that it “is ultimately derived from bodily sensations.”
Ignored by the ego psychologists, Freud’s statement was taken up in the 1920s and 1930s by, among others, the Viennese analyst Paul Federn, who coined the term “ego feeling” to capture his contention that the ego was best construed as referring to our subjective experience of ourselves, our sense of existing as a person or self. He argued that the ego should be conceived of in terms of experience, not conceptualized as a mental abstraction. Ego feeling, he explained in 1928, was “the sensation, constantly present, of one’s own person—the ego’s perception of itself.” Federn was a phenomenologist, implicitly critiquing Freud and his heirs for favoring systematizing over felt experience while at the same time fashioning himself a follower, not an independent thinker. Marginalization has been the price of his fealty, as he and his insights have been largely overlooked in the analytic canon.
When we talk of the American ego, we are more likely than not speaking Federn-ese. Federn appreciated the evanescence of moods and the complexity of our self-experiences. Talk of our “inner resources” and equanimity, of the necessity of egoism and its compatibility with altruism, of commonplace fantasies of “love, greatness, and ambition” runs through his writings. Even the analytic session is likely focused more manifestly on the “goals of self-preservation, of enrichment, of self-assertion, of social achievements for others, of gaining friends and adherents, up to the phantasy of leadership and discipleship” than on ensuring the ego’s supremacy over the id and superego.
The Ego and the Id supports such a reading of the ego as experiencing self, the individual possessed of knowledge of her bodily and mental “selfsameness and continuity in time.” Federn’s “ego feeling” is also compatible with 1950s vernacular invocations of the “real self” as well as with the sense of identity that Erik Erikson defined in terms of the feelings individuals have of themselves as living, experiencing persons, the authentic self that would become the holy grail for so many Americans in the 1960s and beyond. Erikson, also an ego psychologist but banished from the mainstream of analysis for his focus on the experiential dimension of the self, would capture this same sensibility under the rubric of identity. His delineation of the term identity to refer to a subjective sense of self, taken up overnight within and beyond psychoanalysis, arguably did more to ensure the survival of the discipline in the United States than did the all the labors of Freud’s most dutiful followers.
Thus, while Google may give us images (including cartoons) of a precisely divvied-up Freudian mind, it is the holistic ego-as-self that is as much the subject of most of our everyday therapeutic, analytically inflected talk. This ego-as-self is less readily represented pictorially than its integrated counterpart but nonetheless central to our ways of conveying our experience of ourselves and of others. It is as authentically psychoanalytic as its linguistic double, neither a corruption of Freud’s intentions nor an import from the gauzy reaches of humanistic psychology. When we invoke Trump’s outsized and easily bruised ego, for example, we are calling on this dimension of the term, referring to his sense of self—at once inflated and fragile. Federn has been forgotten, but his feelings-centered analytic sensibility lives on. It may be all the more relevant today, when, as many have observed, our feelings are no longer sequestered from reason and objectivity but, instead, instrumentally mobilized as the coin of the populist realm.
The Sunken Place: Race, Racism, and Freud
In a tense scene from the 2017 film Get Out, Missy (Catherine Keener) finds her daughter’s boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), sneaking a cigarette outside and invites him into the sitting room, which also functions as a home office for her therapy clients. Chris, a black photographer, has just met his white girlfriend, Rose’s, liberal family, including her mother, Missy, for the first time. As the two sit across from one another, Missy asks Chris about his childhood, her spoon repeatedly striking the inside of a teacup, and Chris, eyes watering uncontrollably, begins to sink deep into the “sunken place.” As his present surroundings shift out of view, he flails and falls through a large black void, before eventually waking in his own bed, uncertain as to what’s taken place. The therapy office setting is worth noting, for while what follows this early hypnosis scene is a horror-comedy about racism, psychoanalytic ideas of the unconscious help illuminate race relations in the film and beyond.
In the film, the “sunken place” refers to a fugue state that subdues the black characters so that (spoiler alert) the brains of the highest white bidder can be transplanted into their bodies. While this large black void is the product of director Jordan Peele’s imagination, the “sunken place” has culturally come to signify a pernicious aspect of racialization; namely, the nonwhite overidentification with whiteness. Recent memes make this connection clear. In one, Kanye West, who not too long ago argued that President Trump was on “a hero’s journey,” appears in the armchair from Get Outwearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, tears streaming down his face. In another, the actress Stacey Dash, who ran for Congress as a Republican from California, stares blankly out of a window.
Freud’s The Ego and the Id, however, gives us another way to understand the “sunken place.” Writing in 1923,Freud presents a comprehensive map of the psyche as a space where the ego, superego, and id form a dynamic structure that reacts to and is formed by multiple varieties of the unconscious. The superego, Freud argues, acts as a sort of “normative” check on behavior, while the id is libidinal energy and purely hedonistic. The ego, what is consciously enacted, balances these two different modes of the unconscious in order to function.
The Freudian model helps us to understand how racialization, the process of understanding oneself through the prism of racial categories, occurs at the level of the unconscious. When viewed in the context of psychoanalysis, the “sunken place” is what happens when the superego’s attachment to whiteness runs amok; when Chris’s eyes tear up and he involuntarily scratches the armchair, he is enacting bodily resistance that is connected to the id. What’s more, Freud’s structure also allows us to extend this understanding of race beyond the individual, toward thinking about why the “sunken place” can be seen as a metonym for race relations in the United States writ large.
Race itself was largely underdiscussed in Freud’s works. In one of his most explicit engagements with racial difference, 1930’s Civilization and its Discontents, he mostlyconfined his theorizations of racial difference to thinking about the atavistic and primitive. Following Freud, other analysts in the early 20th century tended to ignore underlying racial dynamics at work in their theories. For example, if patients discussed the ethnicity or race of a caretaker or other recurring figure in their lives, analysts tended not to explore these topics further. As a rich body of contemporary critical work on psychoanalysis has explored, this inattention to race created an assumption of universal normativity that was, in fact, attached to whiteness.
While psychoanalysis has historically ignored or mishandled discussions of race, Freud’s The Ego and the Id introduces concepts that are useful in thinking through race relations on both an individual and a national level. His tripartite division of the psyche can help show us how race itself functions as a “metalanguage,” to use Evelyn Higginbotham’s phrase, one that structures the unconscious and the possibilities for the emergence of the ego. In Get Out, “the sunken place” is the stage for a battle between a white-identified superego, which is induced through brain transplantation or hypnosis, and a black-identified id. Outside of the parameters of science fiction, however, this racialized inner struggle offers insight into theorizations of assimilation and racialization more broadly.
Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander describes assimilation, a process of adapting to a form of (implicitly white) normativity, as an attempt to incorporate difference through erasure even while insisting on some inassimilable (racialized) residue. Alexander writes, “Assimilation is possible to the degree that socialization channels exist that can provide ‘civilizing’ or ‘purifying’ processes—through interaction, education, or mass mediated representation—that allow persons to be separated from their primordial qualities. It is not the qualities themselves that are purified or accepted but the persons who formerly, and often still privately, bear them.” The tensions between these performances of white normativity—“civilization”—and the particular “qualities” that comprise the minority subject that Alexander names are akin to the perpetual struggle Freud describes between the superego, id, and ego.
Drawing on psychoanalysis, recent theorists such as David Eng and Anne Anlin Cheng have emphasized the melancholia that accompanies assimilation—Chris’s involuntary tears in the “sunken place” and the instances of staring out the window, going on evening runs, and the flash-induced screams of the other black characters who have received white-brain implants perhaps being among the most extreme forms. Cheng argues that having to assimilate to a white culture produces melancholy at both the unattainability of whiteness for black and brown subjects and at the repression of racial otherness necessary to sustain white dominance. Cheng’s description of the “inarticulable loss that comes to inform the individual’s sense of his or her own subjectivity” helps explain why the conditions of white normativity can be particularly psychologically harmful for nonwhite subjects.
While Freud’s concepts are useful for understanding the psychological burden of racialization for nonwhite subjects under conditions of white normativity, scholars have also explored how Freud’s concepts of the ego, id, and superego can be used to theorize what it means to frame whiteness as a form of national consciousness. Describing the sadistic impulses of Jim Crow, theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued that the ego of the United States is masochistic. In imagining the psychic structure of the country as a whole, he saw a clash between the nation’s aggressive id—which was attempting to dominate black people—and its superego—which felt guilt at the overt racism of a supposedly “democratic” country.
Fanon argued that the United States’ desires to punish black people (manifesting in virulent antiblack violence) were swiftly “followed by a guilt complex because of the sanction against such behavior by the democratic culture of the country in question.” Fanon exposed the hypocrisy inherent in holding anti-racist ideals while allowing racist violence to flourish. The country’s national masochism, he argued, meant that the United States could not recognize its own forms of white aggression; instead, the country embraced a stance of passivity and victimization in relation to nonwhites disavowing their own overt violence. Or, in Freud’s language, the country submerged the id in favor of an idealization of the superego.
We see this dynamic, too, in Get Out, where the white characters fetishize black physicality and talent as somehow inherent to their race, while strenuously denying any charges of racism. In the film, the white characters who wish to inhabit black bodies understand themselves primarily as victims of aging and other processes of debilitation, a logic that allows them to use their alleged affection for blackness to cloak their aggressive, dominative tendencies. Before Chris and Rose meet her parents, Rose tells him that they would have voted for Obama for a third term, a statement repeated in a later scene, by her father (Bradley Whitford), when he notices Chris watching the black domestic workers on the property: “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could. Best president in my lifetime. Hands down.” In such a statement, we can see ways that the masochistic white ego Fanon spoke about remains an accurate reflection of national debates about political correctness, what counts as racism, and the question of reparations.
As Get Out helps dramatize, we can use the legacy of Freud’s parsing of the unconscious to identify the tensions at work within individuals struggling to assimilate to a perceived idea of white normativity. But we can also use psychoanalytic concepts to understand how certain ideas of race have created a white national consciousness, which, in the United States and elsewhere, is in crisis. At this broader scale, we can begin to see how the national superego has sutured normativity to a pernicious idea of whiteness, one that manifests psychological, but also physical, aggression against nonwhite subjects.
For, while the presumption that whiteness is the “normal” and dominant culture situates it in the position of the superego for individuals who are attempting to assimilate, this assumption of superiority is actually an anxious position, haunted by racial others and constantly threatened by the possibility of destabilization. For many, this has led to difficulty reckoning with white culture’s violent tendencies, and to an insistence on its innocence. Working more with these Freudian dynamics might help us think more carefully about both strategies of resistance and survival for nonwhite subjects and what fuller contours of white accountability could look like.
The Superego or the Id
To properly understand The Ego and the Id,we should mentally retitle it The Superego. The two terms most frequently invoked from Freud’s 1923 text are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ego and the id. We have easily integrated them into our thinking and use them freely in everyday speech. The third term of the structural model—the superego—receives far less attention. This is evident, for instance, in the pop psychoanalysis surrounding Donald Trump. Some diagnose him as a narcissist, someone in love with his own ego. Others say that he represents the American id, because he lacks the self-control that inhibits most people. According to these views, he has either too much ego or too much id. Never one to be self-critical, Trump’s problem doesn’t appear to be an excess of superego. If the superego comes into play at all in diagnosing him, one would say that the problem is his lack of a proper superego.
In the popular reception of Freud’s thought, the discovery of the id typically represents his most significant contribution to an understanding of how we act. The id marks the point at which individuals lack control over what they do. The impulses of the id drive us to act in ways that are unacceptable to the rest of society. And yet, the concept of the id nonetheless serves a comforting function, in that it enables us to associate our most disturbing actions with biological impulses for which we have no responsibility. For this reason, we have to look beyond the id if we want to see how Freud most unsettles our self-understanding.
Freud’s introduction of the superego, in contrast, represents the most radical moment of The Ego and the Id, because it challenges all traditional conceptions of morality. Typically, our sense of the collective good restrains the amorality of our individual desires: we might want to crash our car into the driver who has just cut us off, but our conscience prevents us from disrupting our collective ability to coexist as drivers on the road. Historically, the reception of Freud’s work has considered the superego as this voice of moral conscience, but Freud theorizes that there are amoral roots to this moral voice. According to Freud, the superego does not represent the collective good, but manifests the individual desires of the id, which run counter to the collective good.
With the discovery of the concept of the superego, Freud reshapes how we think of ourselves as moral actors. If Freud is right that the superego “reaches deep down into the id,” then all our purportedly moral impulses have their roots in libidinal enjoyment. When we upbraid ourselves for a wayward desire for a married coworker, this moral reproof doesn’t dissipate the enjoyment of this desire but multiplies it. The more that we experience a desire as transgressive, the more ardently we feel it. In this way, the superego enables us to enjoy our desire while consciously believing that we are restraining it.
The concept of the superego reveals that the traditional picture of morality hides a fundamental amorality, which is why the response to The Ego and the Id has scrupulously avoided it. When we translate radical ideas like the superego into our common understanding, we reveal our assumed beliefs and values. In such a translation, the more distortion a concept suffers, the more it must represent a challenge to our ordinary way of thinking. This is the case with the popular emphasis on the ego and the id relative to the superego. What has been lost is the most radical discovery within this text.
Our failure to recognize how Freud theorizes the superego leaves us unable to contend with the moral crises that confront us today. We can see the catastrophic consequences in our contemporary relationship to the environment, for example. As our guilt about plastic in the oceans, carbon emissions, and other horrors increases, it augments our enjoyment of plastic and carbon rather than detracting from it. Using plastic ceases to be just a convenience and becomes a transgression, which gives us something to enjoy where otherwise we would just have something to use.
Enjoyment always involves a relationship to a limit. But in these cases, enjoyment derives from transgression, the sense of going beyond a limit. Our conscious feeling of guilt about transgression corresponds to an unconscious enjoyment that the superego augments. The more that environmental warnings take the form of directions from the superego, the more they create guilt without changing the basic situation. Far from limiting the enjoyment of our destructive desires, morality becomes, in Freud’s way of thinking, a privileged ground for expressing it, albeit in a disguised form. It turns out that what we think of as morality has nothing at all to do with morality.
The superego produces a sense of transgression and thereby supercharges our desire, turning morality into a way of enjoying ourselves. Picking up Freud’s discovery 50 years later, Jacques Lacan announces, “Nothing forces anyone to enjoy (jouir) except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance—Enjoy!” All of our seemingly moral impulses and the pangs of conscience that follow are modes of obeying this imperative.
In this light, we might reevaluate the diagnosis of Donald Trump. If he seems unable to restrain himself and appears constantly preoccupied with finding enjoyment, this suggests that the problem is neither too much ego nor too much id. We should instead hazard the “wild psychoanalytic” interpretation that Trump suffers from too much superego. His preoccupation with enjoying himself—and never enjoying himself enough to find satisfaction—reflects the predominance of the superego in his psyche, making clear that the superego has nothing to do with actual morality, and everything with wanton immorality.
When we understand morality as a disguised form of enjoyment, this does not free us from morality. Instead, the discovery of the superego and its imperative to enjoy demands a new way of conceiving morality. Rather than being the vehicle of morality, the superego is a great threat to any moral action, because it allows us to believe that we are acting morally while we are actually finding a circuitous path to our own enjoyment. Contrary to the popular reading of the superego, authentic moral action requires a rejection of the superego’s imperatives, not obedience to them.
Morality freed from the superego would no longer involve guilt. It would focus on redefining our relationship to law. Rather than seeing law as an external constraint imposed on us by society, we would see it as the form that our own self-limitation takes. This would entail a change in how we relate to the law. If the law is our self-limitation rather than an external limit, we lose the possibility of enjoyment associated with transgression. One can transgress a law but not one’s own self-limitation.
In terms of the contemporary environmental crisis, we would conceive of a constraint on the use of plastic as the only way to enjoy using plastic, not as a restriction on this enjoyment. The limit on use would become our own form of enjoyment because the limit would be our own, not something imposed on us. The superego enjoins us to reject any limit by always pushing our enjoyment further. Identifying the law as our self-limitation provides a way of breaking with the logic of the superego and its fundamentally immoral form of morality.
Given what he chose as the title for the book—The Ego and the Id—it is clear that even Freud himself did not properly identify what was most radical in his discovery. He omitted the superego from the title at the expense of the ego and the id, even though his recognition of the superego and its role in the psyche represents the key insight from the book. In this sense, Freud paved the way for the popular misapprehension that followed.
What is missed or ignored by society often reveals what most unsettles it. Our commonly held beliefs and values might try to mute the disturbance caused by radical ideas like the superego, but they don’t eliminate their influence completely. By focusing on what Freud himself omits, we can uncover the insight in his work most able to help us think beyond the confines of traditional morality. The path of a genuine morality must travel beyond the superego.