Abstract—On close reading, Freud’s conception of id, ego and superego reveals itself to be founded on a colonialist metaphor in which the id is equated with similar qualities to those projected onto ‘the natives’ in the colonies of the time. Freud’s work necessarily participates in the ideology of empire. If we can however, step outside of this ideology, we can reread his work less as a true description of the internal psychic economy and more as a fascinating revelation of the process of colonization. In our current context of globalization, this issue is more relevant than ever before.
When I first read Freud’s metaphorical mapping of the psyche into regions called id, ego and superego, it made me uneasy. There seemed to be something sadly flawed about his apparent conception of the instinctual realm as profoundly base, dangerous and untrustworthy.
I was equally unable to approve of the ego as conceptualized by Freud: this arrogant horseman astride the id, using its energy to control the beast, “transforming the id’s will into action as though it were its own” (Freud 1923, p. 636). What made the ego so darned sure of itself? As for the superego, I hated the strident, self-righteous sound of it. But it was the id as described by Freud that gave me the most difficulty. I was concerned for the id. It seemed as though there was some projection going on, and that the id was getting the brunt of it.
However, I wanted to do my best to take Freud on his own terms, so I tried to fit my beliefs round his theory, by viewing the trinity of minds as a product of evolution, so that I could accord the now apparently inappropriate id a once-worthy role in the stone-age of our development, even while accepting that it now needed to be kept in check by the modern ego, obeying the superego’s rules of good conduct — rather like the mad wife in Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1943). But still it did not work. The victors always get to write the history books, and it was clear that the ego reigns supreme today. What though if the poor id were to tell its own story? Jean Rhys’s inspired retelling of the mad wife’s tale (Rhys, 1966) haunted me.
I became fascinated by the this question: where was the id’s story in Freud’s narrative? From a postmodern/narrative perspective, Freud’s metaphor seemed the specific product of a bourgeois old European world view. The difference between his conception of the id and my conception of the instinctual reminded me of the difference I have observed between French and American child-rearing: the French seeming to see children as small bundles of instinct who must be civilized into society, while the Americans seem to see them more as bundles of potential whose inner talents must be coaxed out by proper education. How, I thought, does one arise at one or the other of these conceptions? And what difference would it make to one’s life, in terms of one’s interaction with children, as well as with one’s own relation to childlike things such as pleasure and sensuality, which of them one chose? Wouldn’t one view the id differently, according to which of these one believed?
The concept of the child as child is a relatively new concept. Ashis Nandy (1983) explains how it arose in Europe in the seventeenth century, under the influence of the Protestant Ethic, when “it became the responsibility of the adult to ‘save’ the child from a state of unrepentant, reprobate sinfulness through proper socialization, and help the child grow towards a Calvinist ideal of adulthood and maturity” (p. 15). Prior to this period, the child was seen merely as a smaller adult.
At first glance, Freud seems to be merely following this model, dressing it up in science: the child has to be shaped, its id tamed, its ego developed, its superego filled up with moral introjects. But there is more to Freud’s metaphor than merely a description of the process for the taming and civilizing of the instincts. As he himself says, “If the ego were merely the part of the id modified by the influence of the perceptual system, the representative in the mind of the real external world, we should have a simple state of things to deal with. But there is a further complication” (Freud 1923, p. 637 - 638). Indeed there is, though it is not the one Freud goes on to explicate. For me the primary complication is Freud’s modernist conviction that we can identify a “real external world” and that we can represent it objectively in the mind. This presents me with the question: whose external reality is represented in Freud’s mind, when he is conceptualizing the mind?
As Louis Althusser has demonstrated (Eagleton, 1983), all works of science and culture are not only products of the economic context of their time, but they also shore it up, by contributing to an ideological superstructure that supports and simultaneously obscures the power relations inherent in that economic system. As I reflected on Freud’s metaphor, I realized that in order to understand the foundation for it, I had to look carefully at the political and social context within which he was writing. That meant not just Vienna, but the wider world in which Freud and his contemporaries moved and thought.
Europe in Freud’s time considered itself the pinnacle of human achievement. But its economic and cultural prosperity had a dark underbelly—literally. As Edward Said points out, “By 1914...Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions and commonwealths” (Said, 1993, p. 8). Dominion over these other territories ensured the prosperity of the West. I decided to examine the id/ego/superego metaphor in the light of the colonialist enterprise on which the ‘civilized world’ depended when Freud was writing.
The Colonial Enterprise
The ego colonizes the id. It progressively takes over the id’s territory in order to use the id’s energy for its own ends, just as Europe took over the territories of Africa, Asia and the Americas in order to extract resources for its own prosperity. So far so good. But now another question arises: whose prosperity exactly? Or in other words, who is the ego working for?
Most of the people in Europe even in Freud’s time still lived in peasant or working class squalor. The aristocracy had largely been de-potentiated as a political force, and the bourgeoisie held sway. The colonies were a firmly bourgeois enterprise, a middle class mission, just as the ego is surely a bourgeois concept in the extreme: the heroic conqueror, in control of himself and everything around him, committed to worldly success (Hillman, 1975). (By contrast the aristocrat lives in a decadent, id-like state with no drive to conquer anything.)
However, the ego is only a conquering hero to the extent that it itself has previously been colonized by the superego, introjecting the values of church, state, forefathers. Freud (1923) writes:
...the differentiation of the superego from the ego is no matter of chance; it represents the most important characteristics of the development both of the individual and of the species; indeed, by giving permanent expression to the influence of the parents it perpetuates the existence of the factors to which it owes its origin (p. 642)
In other words, the superego is the mechanism by which the norms and rules of the culture are passed from generation to generation, via the parents’ moral strictures. It is the mechanism by which all of us are colonized.
This interior colonization — of the ego by the superego — prepares the ego for its imperial task of subduing and then directing the previously ‘undirected’ or ‘misdirected’ energies of the id. As I considered this, it seemed to me that this was a perfect rendering of the imperial imperative: the young middle class men of the empire are educated to the values of the state, and when sufficiently prepared, and transformed into perfect tools of the fatherland, they are sent out into the colonies, to subdue the natives and extract the resources of the colony, which can then be used to the ends of the empire.
The Native as Child, the Child as Id, the Id as Native
In a perfectly circular set of arguments, the theory of the child which arose in early colonial times, in which the child is presented as virgin territory requiring civilization, was used to justify the colonial mission, as native peoples were likened to children who need a parent to raise them to proper adulthood. Then Freud creates a metaphor of child development which reflects the colonial enterprise.
My aim in deconstructing the colonial basis to his ego/id/superego metaphor is not to discredit Freud, but to show how these sets of metaphors interact, both justifying each other and justifying an economic and political system, in a perfect circularity. Until we step outside both sets of metaphors, it is hard to see just where the projection starts: only by stepping outside the paradigm can we arrive at a position where the native is not a child, the child is not an id, and the id is not a native.
But more importantly than that, only when we abandon the colonial paradigm can we see that the native is in fact not the ‘native’ as represented by the colonialist, and that the id may not be the ‘id’ as represented by Freud. These terms derive from colonialism, and their meanings have been projected onto the holders of that meaning, such that an indigenous person becomes a ‘native’, with all of the connotations of that term, while the instinctual, pleasure-seeking part of us becomes an ‘id’, with all the meanings attached to that term by the society in which Freud was thinking.
The Internalization of the Colony
Based on my own upbringing in the last British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, and on observations of my white South African ex-inlaws, I have long thought that a colonial upbringing imposes a radical schism on any white child at the moment of entry into puberty. It is this schism that allows and indeed creates the cruelty with which the natives are oppressed within the colonial system.
Prior to puberty, race in a colony is an unmarked category, with little significance. Post-puberty however, race is The Primary Signifier. Prior to puberty a child is likely to be reared by native servants, and is generally allowed to play with native children. He or she often speaks the native tongue, and has access to native places and occupations. However, when the child reaches puberty he or she is required to enter adulthood, which simultaneously requires entry into race. In order to enter the white race, the child is required to reject those aspects of itself that were contextually linked to the indigenous world: play, sensuality, innocent friendship with people of color, and so on. These are then projected onto the natives, who are seen as childish, innocent of the reality of the world, instinctive, etc. They are also seen, as all forbidden things are, as dangerous, and seductive (note that these qualities are also associated with the id, which is characterized as being ruled by the pleasure principle).
I think this transition to puberty can be harder on male children, since colonial women retain some access to certain aspects of childhood (not least through their association with children) and thus to the indigenous world and those aspects of themselves which are linked to it. Males however must take on the role of actively running the colony. In order to do this they must internalize the superego values of empire, elide self with ego and reject those aspects of themselves which are linked to the pleasure principle and to the indigenous world.
Indeed, the more they are attracted to these aspects of themselves and the world they live in, the harsher the split must be, in order for them to succeed as white males in the colony. Freud (1923) describes this beautifully:
The superego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the superego over the ego later on... (p. 642)
I am reading Freud’s “Oedipus complex” here as a longing not for the mother herself, so much as for the opposite polarity to the rule of the Father/empire. In other words, for the softness, pleasure, play, innocence and happiness which are projected onto the indigenous world onto in a colonial system.
As I reread Freud in this light, reflecting on the process by which the colony becomes internalized, his id/ego/superego metaphor seems less a simple parallel of the colonialist imperative (as applied to the external, economic world) and more a precise picture of the internal colonization process. It precisely describes what happens within the psyche of people brought up within a colony—including both whites and natives.
For as I reread Freud’s description of the formation of the id/ego/superego trinity, I note that the ego does not in fact impose itself upon the id from outside, but rather arises out of the id — just as in an established colony, the bulk of new administrators were no longer shipped in, but developed from within, by a process of inculcating white values in the natives.
According to Freud, the newly detached ego struggles with the rest of the id, attempting to impose itself as a new love-object to the id, and to encourage it to give up its “erotic object cathexes” in favor of more rarified identifications which can later be more easily sublimated in service of great works. In other words, it wants the id to start behaving in a way the powers that be (the superego) will approve of. This process corresponds incredibly closely to Frantz Fanon’s (1967) impassioned description of the education of the colonized native of the Caribbean, who is gradually lured by his colonial education away from an authentic identity, into an alienated, pseudo-white identity:
The black schoolboy in the Antilles...identifies with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to the savages—an all white truth. There is identification—that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man’s attitude...Little by little one can observe in the young Antillean the formation and crystallization of an attitude and a way of thinking that are essentially white (p. 147).
The native has been colonized by the ‘white man’, and henceforth will serve the empire, which has as it were, got under his skin — just as the id is recuperated by the ego, in service of the superego.
For it is clear from Freud (1923) that the ego is merely a go-between, itself colonized by the superego, just as the colonized native-become-overseer is a tool of the empire for control of the indigenous population, rather than an autonomous man. Of course the power relationship and the exploitation is generally masked by a vocabulary of philanthropy in the colonial texts. In the following passage from Freud, note the colonial metaphors:
As a frontier-creature, the ego tries to mediate between the world and the id, to make the id pliable to the world... It is not only a helper to the id, it is also a submissive slave who courts his master’s love. Whenever possible it tries to remain on good terms with the id...In its position midway between the id and reality, it only too often yields to the temptation to become sycophantic, opportunist and lying (p. 656).
Compare this with Frantz Fanon (1967), describing the same thing in the colony:
The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. In the French army, and particularly in the Senegalese regiments, the black officers serve first of all as interpreters. They are used to convey the master’s orders to their fellows, and they too enjoy a certain position of honor (p. 18-19).
Influenced by the superego (aka a colonial education), the ego (colonized person) is horrified by itself as id (native), and suppresses its instincts in an attempt to become more like the master (white, and so-called ‘civilized’). In a horrible positive feedback loop of repression the superego becomes stronger as the ego reacts against its own id-desires. (This has come to be known as ‘identification with the aggressor’.)
Once one becomes aware of the colonial nature of the metaphor, it is easy to read Freud’s passages in this light. This is because id qualities such as the pleasure principle, laziness, sexuality, savagery, and inability to control the instincts are continually projected onto the native people in a colony, as Edward Said (1993) observes. So Freud’s passages — not through any racism of Freud’s own, but through the racism of the colonialist world in which he is situated, and which I believe his writings unconsciously reflect — read equally well as descriptions of the colonization process. Take the following passage, for example:
...the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavors to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id. For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to instinct. The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions (Freud, 1923, p. 635 - 636).
If for “id” we read ‘native’, and for “ego”, ‘white man’, the passage reads like an extract from the writings of any banal colonial apologist:
...the white man seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the native and his tendencies, and endeavors to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the native. For the white man, perception plays the part which in the native falls to instinct. The white man represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the natives, who contain the passions.
Who is Responsible?
Let me make it very plain at this point that I am not accusing Freud of being a colonial apologist. Nor am I even suggesting that he had any specific mission, either conscious or unconscious, to support the enterprise of empire. In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said (1993) investigates how:
The processes of imperialism occurred beyond the level of economic laws and political decisions, and — by predisposition, by the authority of recognizable cultural formations, by continuing consolidation within education, literature, and the visceral and musical arts — were manifested at another very significant level, that of the national culture, which we have tended to sanitize as a realm of unchanging intellectual monuments, free from worldly affiliations (p. 12).
Said goes on to say :
“I do not believe that authors are mechanically determined by ideology, class, or economic history, but authors are, I also believe, very much in the history of their societies, shaping and shaped by that history and their social experience in different measure... The great cultural archive, I argue, is where the intellectual and aesthetic investments in overseas dominion are made.” (p. xxii)
Michel Foucault (1975) has shown us how knowledge is never neutral, but is always constructed according to the needs of those in power. Furthermore he shows that power “cannot be localized in a particular type of institution or state apparatus” (p. 26). In fact, power is distributed throughout a society, and is negotiated continually in all discourse and in all relationships.
Freud’s work necessarily takes part in the process described by Foucault and Said, whereby areas of culture ostensibly neutral vis à vis economics and politics actually underpin, justify and occlude the investments and maneouvers carried out in those arenas. His metaphor is both the result of a colonial backdrop to European life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and a means of its normalization and justification. As Said (1993) underlines, “In the great, humane ideas and values promulgated by mainstream European culture, we have precisely that ‘mould of ideas and conditioned reflexes’ ... into which the whole business of empire later flowed” (p. 82).
So what would happen if we were to step out of the colonialist paradigm—an action which would have been impossible for Freud, given that such a pervasive paradigm was invisible by virtue of its hegemony? This brings me back to the question with which I began this essay: “What if the id were to tell its own story?”
If I am to credibly hypothesize that Freud’s conception of the id/ego/superego is driven by a colonial metaphor, as a result of the economic context within which it was produced, then I should be able to show that in a different economic context, such conceptualizations are different. In other words, if Freud’s id is colonized, then what would the un-colonized id look like? If my argument is to stand, then I should be able to find some evidence that the un-colonized id has a dignity and a purpose of its own.
The Decolonized Id
By the time Jung begins to formulate his theories of the mind’s topology, the area of the psyche that Freud describes as the id, repository of instinctual passions, has already evolved. The central area of mystery in Jung’s therapy is not the id, but the shadow — a far more dynamic and sophisticated concept, in which the contents are intrinsically neutral, becoming negative only by virtue of our rejection of them. Indeed, Jung points out that the shadow becomes darker the more we strive for lightness — one might almost say whiteness (Jung, 1951). As Fanon (1967) points out, “It is the racist who creates his inferior” (p. 93).
Let me once again state clearly: the difference between Jung and Freud in this respect is nothing personal. I am interested less in their individual prejudices than in the way the differences in their conceptualizations of our internal economy can be seen to reflect the change in the external economy in which their writing is being produced. By the time Jung is getting into his stride, the economic base of the world has changed. Specifically, de-colonization has started. By 1945, the world saw the emergence of almost a hundred new decolonized post-colonial states (Said, 1993). Jung’s writing reflects this: the ‘primitive’ is still seen as less than the ‘civilized’, however, it is now seen not as a realm of unmitigated instinct dangerously in need of control, but rather as a store of rich ur-cultural elements with a value of their own.
And around the same time, we find
arising the concept of ‘organismic self regulation’ (Perls,
Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). Suddenly the instincts are seen
not as enemy to the civilized person, but as a reliable guide to life
which only becomes misleading and dangerous when deregulated due to
colonization by bad education! We are suddenly encouraged not to
control our passions but to make friends with our id, which is
subsequently relabeled rather tellingly in popular culture as the
‘inner child’. Can this be coincidence? By this time people in the
ex-colonies were reclaiming the value of their own culture,
re-inventing traditions (almost) lost under colonial rule, and calling
into question the hegemony of the West. The most basic assumptions of
the colonialist paradigm were being called into question, turned on
their heads and rejected.
So is that the end of it? Has Freud become irrelevant in a New World of post-colonial equality?
Is Freud History?
The short answer is no. The prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, in which Perls was advising people to trust in their instincts and live naturally, was followed by harsher realities. As economies contracted again life hardened, weeding out the flower people and substituting the hard-nosed realities of corporate life. On the international scene, the initial joy and hope of de-colonization was followed by the nasty realities of globalization as the West re-established control over the Third World, not politically, but economically.
After the business-obsessed eighties, and the tough recession-shadowed nineties, we are now at the dawn of a new century, and the economics—both domestically and internationally—are tougher than ever. In this brand new day, the world’s three richest people—all of whom are American—are worth as much as the world’s 43 poorest countries. At the same time, most of the world’s population — most of whom live in the ex-colonies, live on less than $2 per day (Walker, 2002). And even in the apparently affluent West, the divide between rich and poor is growing. Most of us struggle to make ends meet, save money for contingencies and put something aside for retirement. In this context, can anyone afford to be driven by an instinctual pleasure principle, however holistic?
I would argue that colonization is back, big-time, both on a world scale and domestically — and with it a mistrust of what I believe Perls rightly characterized as a healthy guide to living life. After all, as asked by Hillman and Ventura (1992), in a sick society, what good is it to be healthy? Once again we are required to consider our instinct a mere id — in the German language the contempt is even clearer, as the id translates as ‘it’, showing that within this nomenclature there is no I/Thou respect for the instinctual side of ourselves (Buber, 1937). In these times we are required to cultivate a heroic ego — this in Hillman’s critical sense of the word as meaning un-empathetic, competitive, success-driven, borderline megalomaniac — that will battle for our survival in a world where the Father reigns more supremely than ever. Many of us also battle with an oppressive superego, or we pay for therapy in order to recover from one. Success, or even survival, requires an ability to straddle superego values that we struggle not to adopt, while our ego rides our id into the ground to make money.
At the end of the day we — just like the nineteenth century Viennese, although perhaps without the same levels of guilt — un-harness the poor id and flog it to new excesses in service of what we call pleasure. Thus entry into this society that we call adult still requires a repression of the instinctual, body-centred aspects of ourselves much like the one I have described in my discussion of the colonies. Far from all becoming equally un-colonized, we have all become equally colonized, for the rampantly ‘heroic’ Western paradigm seems to have implanted itself globally, despite some desperate though marginalized protest from those cast by the powers that be and by their media as dangerous and violent — id-like, perhaps?
Until this paradigm shifts, and until the Western heroic ego loses its hegemony, I fear that Freud’s metaphor of the id/ego/superego will remain the truest description of our universal colonization that has yet been written.
Bronte, C. (1943). Jane Eyre. New York: Random.
Buber, M. (1937). I and thou. Edinburgh: Clark.
Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory. University of Minnesota Press.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish. New York, NY: Random.
Freud, S. (1989). The ego and the id. In P. Gay (ed.), The Freud reader. New York: Norton.
Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York: Harper & Row.
Hillman, J., & Ventura, M. (1992). We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse. New York: HarperCollins.
Jung, C. G. (1971). Aion: Researches into the phenomenology of the self. In J. Campbell (ed.), The portable Jung. New York: Viking.
Nandy, A. (1983). The intimate enemy: Loss and recovery of self under colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Perls, F., Hefferline R. F., & Goodman P. (1951). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality. New York: Dell.
Rhys, J. (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. London: World.
Said, E. (1993). Culture and imperialism. New York: Knopf.
Walker, A. (2002). Talk given at California Institute for Integral Studies, San Francisco.
Correspondence—830 Palo Alto Avenue, Palo Alto CA 94301, U.S.A.