ACCORDING TO FREUD, the very act of entering into civilized society entails the repression of various archaic, primitive desires. As explained in Module I, each person's psychosexual development includes the surpassing of previous "love-objects" or "object-cathexes" that are tied to earlier sexual phases (the oral phase, the anal-sadistic phase, etc.); however, even well-adjusted individuals still betray the insistent force of those earlier desires through dreams, literature, or "Freudian slips"; hence the term, "return of the repressed." In less well-adjusted individuals, who remain fixated on earlier libido objects or who are driven to abnormal reaction-formations or substitute-formations, two possibilities exist: 1) perversion, in which case the individual completely accepts and pursues his or her desire for alternative sexual objects and situations (sodomists, sado-masochists, etc.); or 2) neurosis, in which case the same prohibited desires may still be functioning but some repression is forcing the "repudiated libidinal trends" to get "their way by certain roundabout paths, though not, it is true, without taking the objection into account by submitting to some distortions and mitigations" (Introductory Lectures 16.350). Rejected libidinal longings can thus manifest themselves as any number of symptoms. (See the next module on neuroses.)

In other words, for Freud repression is a normal part of human development; indeed, the analysis of dreams, literature, jokes, and "Freudian slips" illustrates the ways that our secret desires continue to find outlet in perfectly well-adjusted individuals. However, when we are faced with obstacles to satisfaction of our libido's cathexis, when we experience traumatic events, or when we remain fixated on earlier phases of our development, the conflict between the libido and the ego (or between the ego and the superego) can lead to alternative sexual discharges.

The source of our sexual discharges is the libido, which seeks to cathect (or place a charge on) first one's one bodily parts (eg. the lips and mouth in the oral phase) and then external objects (eg. the breast and then the mother in the oral phase). Freud terms this "object-libido." The libido can also get caught up in the ego, which leads to narcissism. A normal part of psychosexual development (see Module 1) is the overcoming of early childhood narcissism (the belief, for example, that everything revolves around one's own desires).

Both healthy dreams and unhealthy symptoms follow a similar logic when confronted with repression. Let's take dreams as our first example. Freud calls the dream we remember upon waking the "manifest dream"; according to Freud, the manifest dream is already a reaction-formation or substitute-formation that hides what he calls the "latent dream-thoughts." Repression, which Freud sometimes calls the "dream-censor" in his discussion of dreams, is continually re-working the latent dream-thoughts, which are then forced to assume toned-down, distorted or even unrecognizable forms. Freud calls this translation of latent dream-thoughts into the manifest dream the "dream work." The two main ways that repression re-works the primitive impulses of the latent dream-thoughts is by way of condensation (1) or displacement (2).

1) In condensation, multiple dream-thoughts are combined and amalgamated into a single element of the manifest dream; according to Freud, every situation in a dream seems to be put together out of two or more impressions or experiences. One need only think about how people and places tend to meld into composite figures in our dreams.

2) In displacement, the affect (emotions) associated with threatening impulses are transferred elsewhere (displaced), so that, for example, apparently trivial elements in the manifest dream seem to cause extraordinary distress while "what was the essence of the dream-thoughts finds only passing and indistinct representation in the dream" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.21). For Freud, "Displacement is the principle means used in the dream-distortion to which the dream-thoughts must submit under the influence of the censorship" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.21).

Some of these condensations and displacements become so ingrained in the id (the reservoir of inherited human knowledge) that they take on the quality of rigid symbols, which have similar meanings for all humans, according to Freud. These are multiple and various—and can be found elaborated in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. As one example among many, Freud writes that "in a woman's dreams [a cloak] stood for a man" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.24). Such symbols also find expression in literature, religion, and mythology, so, for example, Freud writes how in the ancient marriage ceremony of the Bedouins, the bridegroom covers the bride in a special cloak called an 'aba' and at the same time states the following ritual words: "Henceforth none save I shall cover thee!" ("New Introductory Lectures" 22.24). The job of dream interpretation is to translate the manifest dream back into its constituent, if buried, dream-thoughts.

The interpretation of symptoms follows a similar path; the goal is to determine the repressed sexual desires or traumatic events that are causing the abnormal behavior to occur. As with the dream-work, psychological symptoms are often condensations or displacements (caused by repression) of deeper, unconscious impulses or buried memories.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Freud: On Repression." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.







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