Ambivalence-The Psychological, Ontological, And Sociological Origins

This is the first chapter of my non-fiction short story entitled: Having Fun With Being What Is Not While Not Being What Is. I think it will be around 15 chapters, short chapters, all relating to the title of the story. Actually, it’s the best part of my MA thesis that I wrote back in the ‘90’s; I say best part because what I’m saying stays pretty much on theme and applies really well to the cultural milieu of the present day–And so reads my introduction on Booksie where I am also posting this post. Because I believe the introduction to these next posts are important (at least some of them), I’ll be adding them to my posts here on Blogger.

The Human Animal’s Symbolic Expression Allows For Greater Autonomy

Freud Turned The Concept Of Ambivalence Into The Basis Of His Life’s Work
Chapter One

Freud (1939) turned the concept of ambivalence into the basis for his life’s work. Freud recognized, in his analysis of neurosis, that character traits frequently can be analyzed into combinations or fusions of opposite tendencies. According to Freud (1960: 68), “there is no neurosis without conflict between contradictory and opposed wishes,” whereby “one side of the personality stands for certain wishes, and the other stands for opposed wishes.”

In Freud’s analysis of taboo, ambivalence takes center stage as the affect encountered when there is a strong desire to violate a norm, that is, by definition, a prohibited action. Freud identified the concept of the unconscious mind, at least in part, as the receptacle for these repressed ambivalences.

Perhaps the most well known of the psychoanalytic principles and consequently the one that has generated the most ambivalence, is found in Freud’s Oedipal crisis. The commonly held belief (Oedipal complex) that a son both hates and loves his father, wanting to be close to the father while at the same time wanting to be rid of him, is one of the main themes in psychoanalytic literature.

In a like manner, ambivalence underlies Freud’s death instinct. The simultaneous attractive and repulsive forces of the binding force (Eros) and the destructive force (the death wish) became conceptualized and prioritized in Freudian theory, and, as such, became the cornerstone in the framing of psychoanalytic theory. According to Thom (1983: 104):

“The death instinct, deflected outward by the muscular apparatus, manifests itself in aggression, conflict, strife, hate. Eros, whose task is to build up, join together, make ever greater unities–creator of culture, of civilization–must embezzle instinctual energy from the death instincts, curbing and sublimating aggression. It thereby burdens mankind with an ever increasing sense of guilt, based on destructive impulses and fantasies which are proscribed and prohibited at every turn.”

In order to insure one’s own psychological health, the most productive attitude is one in which the death instinct is directed outward. But, this attitude (with its attendant behaviors) is exactly what the socializing (civilizing) process attempts to block. Freud, with his death instinct, reached into the depths of the psyche and discovered, once again, ambivalence.

Before moving to a discussion of sociological ambivalence, I want to turn attention to ambivalence, as understood by both Angyal (1941) and Thom (1984), as an ontologically primary experience. Angyal’s psychology may be thought of as giving a positive definition to the attractive (binding) and repulsive (destructive) forces of what Freud takes to be Eros and the death instinct.

Acts of aggression, conflict, strife, and hate, although they may be destructive, are, nevertheless, acts of self-determination, that is, acts of qualified self-expression. Life, according to Angyal’s psychological perspective (1941: 48), is a form-giving process, teleologically oriented around ever more expressive forms of self-determination. According to Angyal, “…(it) is an autonomous dynamic event which takes place between the organism and the environment.” In this sense, organisms strive to expand autonomy, but they also move in the opposite direction towards homonomy, or the need to be in harmony with those forces that impinge upon the organism. The tendency toward increased self-determination gets expressed in terms of libidinal, aggressive, and adjudicating behaviors while the movement towards homonomy requires cooperative behavior for group-oriented relationships to work, that is, the binding force that forges ever greater unities.

Again, according to Angyal, “…the human animal is differentiated from other animals by its capacity for symbolic expression and this symbolic expression allows for greater autonomy.” Although a person’ s motivations and self concept may extend into areas which are not directly apprehended by her/his symbolic consciousness, that is, the unconscious mind, it is the symbolic part of the biological subject that “…tends to establish its own autonomous government…The symbolic self becomes a state within a state.” (Angyal, 1941: 118)

[Footnote. It is in the consequential physical acts of the biological self (which, for Freud, are preformed in the service of self-preservation) where Freud locates his death instinct. Freud states: “It really seems as though it is necessary for us to destroy some other thing or person in order to guard against the impulsion to self-destruction. A sad disclosure indeed for the moralist!” (Thom, 1983: 94)]

It is then, the symbolic self, working in unison with the biological self, which, in the first instance, engages in the differentiating movement toward more autonomy as it assimilates randomness (from the environment) and transforms it into order (meaningful and useful information), while, in the second instance, the symbolic self moves toward homonomy when it seeks to share and participate in family, social groups, and a meaningful world order–Umwelt in the Goffman sense of the word. The unfolding of this process is, of course, limited by outside influences and the nature of the organism, and, accordingly, resistance is always a part of this process.

[Footnote. According to Goffman (1971), a person’s Umwelt is “a core of (accomplished) normalcy with which individuals and groups surround themselves.”]

When the death instinct is understood in terms of the autonomous determination of both the biological subject and a person’s psychological activity–the symbolization involved in perception, imagination, thinking, and emotion, then the death instinct as such, may be thought of as the symbolic self working in unison with the biological self to transcend the heteronomous forces (blind happenings) of the physical and social environment. Physically acting out aggressive and violent behavior, and, the act of evaluating the desire to act violently, are expressions of autonomous self-determination, and, accordingly, represent the determination of autonomy over “an ever increasing realm of events” (Angyal, 1941: 48). In other words, a person’s self-determination occurs at the expense of a person’s homonomy (the need to be in harmony with those forces that impinge upon the organism), while, perpetuating homonomy, prohibits the active expression of self-determination. Ambivalence is the inevitable outcome of a person’s desire to both engage self-determination and secure homonomy; one comes at the expense of the other.


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