Freud posted the ego as a kind of mediator between the external world and the instincts of the individual. Ego psychology which began with Adler (but got second wind in postwar United States) posited an area in the ego free from conflict of the drives. The ego ceases to be a piggy in the middle between competing demands from the reality and the pleasure principle, between the external demands and the internal demands of the drives.
Normality is achieved when this conflict between inner and outer is defanged, and there is good nature, harmony between the two. The unconscious is kept in its box, under wraps, and pathology occurs when it break free and invades the sovereign reign of the ego. The Marxist critique of this revisionism, is that the Analysist’s couch as the accident and emergency department of capitalism, pathology is individualised. The failure of keeping the unconscious underwraps stems from the patients weak ego, not due to the intolerable effects of capitalistic society (one should have in mind the importance of family in the reproduction of labour in capitalism).Ego psychology, understanding of the ego as being relatively independent of the unconscious, saw it fit to introduce a new concept of the ‘self’, so as to account for the relative independence of the ego.
It is in this context that one should situate Lacan’s early contribution. Ego psychology, along with it’s notion of the relative independence of the ego, is put under the guillotine. Lacan’s cutting edge is Hegal’s dialectics. The touchstone attributed to early Lacan is his take on narcissism, the mirror stage, and for good reason as it is a tour de force of Hegelian dialectics.
One critique of Freud’s conception of childhood development, made by those from the object relations camp, is that the infant is initially considered to be a monad, with object relations coming at a later stage of development. The object relation camp believes that object relationships start earlier in the timeline. Freud would counter argue that object relations depend on a minimum level of ego development that isn’t achieved until later stage of development. Lacan intervenes in this debate by agreeing with the critique, object relations do start at the beginning, but he also agrees with Freud in thinking that the ego is something which is developed over time.
He squares the circle by positing that object relationships are not secondary – agreeing with Klein, but argues that object relations errs by assuming a level of ego development that goes unexplained. He therefore maintains along with Freud, the importance of primary narcissism. He marries the two positions through recourse to Hegel.
Lacan buys into primary narcissism, but dodges the critique of monadism by arguing that the unity of the infant, which is conferred by primary narcissism, is found outside of the infant in pre-Opedipal object relations. The unity of self is first discovered in an external mirror, but more broadly construed, in the care and recognition provided by the mother. Only then is this external source of unity is introjected. Primary narcissism is founded on a primary identification, in the form of an alienation (self as other).
This alienation of primary identity structures an aggression and rivalry with others, due to the form of primary identification being structured by an external dependency. Paranoia at this stage is ‘normal’, as the external dependency creates the conditions necessary for the confusion of self and other. Another consequence of this external dependency is that the relationship between self and other is not one of equivalence. The other, insofar as she founds primary narcissism, is privileged. The ego’s hidden history of external dependency means that we continue to find more perfect examples of ourselves, outside of ourself. Freud calls the examples of perfection that we find outside of ourselves as the the ideal-ego. Our failed attempts to introject this outer perfection lead to sedimentary layers of failed identifications. Lacan calls the form of these layers, ego-ideal, a concept he picks up from Freud but reworks according to dialectical geometry he inherent from Hegel. The desire to close this gap between ego-ideal and ideal- ego is what drives aggression, and Lacan, referring to it as a correlate of narcissism, calls it aggressivity.
This poor state of affairs lasts until a third point of reference intervenes, the transition to this third point of reference is underdeveloped in early Lacan. Initially this third point of reference must appear to the child as a rival, this is the Opedipus complex, and what previously was the source of primary identification, mother, becomes the object to be competed over. This jealous confrontation is the final end of aggressivity, and is resolved when the infant comes to identify with the father. What is lacking in early Lacan is an explanation as to what necessitates this concluding confrontation.
In terms of Lacan’s response to ego psychology, who posited the relative independence of the ego, Lacan uses Hegel to rework primary narcissism in order to highlight the relative dependency of the ego on an unconcious processes. Whereas for ego psychology pathology is a atavistic throwback, for Lacan, the succession of developmental stages retains the mark of conflict from previous stages. This is where Lacan’s Hegelian import is most evident, and his reliance on a philosophical understanding of sublimation comes at the cost of a psychoanalytical insight of the Opedipal complex. We will have to wait until middle Lacan in order to flesh out his reworking of the Opedipal complex.
What Lacan has achieved though his recourse to Hegel is a critique of ego psychology that mistakes process for result. This is what Lacan calls méssonnaissance, the strong ego whose independence from the unconscious actually testifies to its status as an unattainable ideal-ego.