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Civilization and its Discontents

The most powerful remarks regarding the use of toxic substances are found in Civilizations and its Discontents (1930) Freud argues that there is a state of dissatisfaction inherent to the state of culture.
He poses the question: What do human beings hope to find in life?

“They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavour has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. In its narrower sense the word ‘happiness’ only relates to the last.” (Freud, 1930, p. 4475)

Freud clearly states that our possibilities of happiness are restricted by our very constitution. We call “happiness” the feeling of satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree. We can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast. If a pleasurable situation is prolonged, “it only produces a feeling of mild contentment” (Ibid. p. 4475)
These remarks have very important implications. From Freud’s conceptualisations we can infer that the state of “complete happiness” is IMPOSSIBLE. This idea may exist as a residue from a primitive state on the structuration of the subject; an undifferentiated state” (1930, p.4468), when the ego and the world were not separate entities.
Freud (ibid., p. 4469) states that an adult ego-feeling is the result of a process which starts in a state of total undifferentiation. Primitively a subject and object cannot be distinguished. There are only “sources of excitation” flowing in upon him. These sources of excitation include his body organs, stimuli from the outside world, his mother’s breasts. At this mythic moment this organism has not been bathed in the river of language, this means that the chore of the future personality has not been yet constructed. The idea of an “outside” will appear as a result of the unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure. “A tendency arises to separate from the ego everything that can become a source of such unpleasure, to throw it outside and to create a pure pleasure-ego which is confronted by a strange and threatening ‘outside’” (Freud, 1930, p. 4467)
This means that in order to live our human lives we have to pay a price. This price is giving up the total satisfaction of the incestuous relationship.
This very operation is the cause of desire. The primitive object is lost forever. Hence, we will search for substitutes through the path of desire.
What Freud describes as “complete happiness” can be described in Lacanian terminology as “access to jouissance”. By definition access to jouissance is impossible. Prohibition to jouissance in the speakingbeing (4) is the price paid when entering the world of language. Freudian description of a mythical ego which includes the outside world can be thought of in terms of pure jouissance. Pure jouissance until the introduction of the signifier and the passage from a organism-body to an erogenous body.
The signifier creates a lack (a structural lack) and the subject is cut off from a primordial jouissance.
Jouissance must not be confused with “pleasure”, although according to Lacan “pleasure” is a form of jouissance “phallic jouissance”
Phallic jouissance is sexual jouissance, and therefore a possible pleasure. When human beings enter the world of language they have access to this form of regulated jouissance.
This language-regulated form of jouissance functions as a prohibition of the jouissance of incest as a result of the law of symbolic castration.
This form of jouissance is forbidden for the reason that access to this jouissance would be lethal for the subject. Access to the primordial object would mean a total fulfilment of desire and therefore, death.
It is clear that complete happiness is theoretically impossible; in the same way that jouissance is forbidden for the speakingbeing. Human beings do not easily accept this fact and they insist on considering this form of jouissance possible.
According to Freud we’re threatened with suffering from our own ageing body, and also from the external world and its forces of destruction. But the most painful source of suffering comes from our relations to other people (Freud, 1930 p.4475). Sources of pain are an inevitable part of living in civilisation. Freud describes the use of chemical substances as one of the different techniques to avoid pain:

The crudest, but also the most effective among these methods of influence is the chemical one - intoxication. I do not think that anyone completely understands its mechanism, but it is a fact that there are foreign substances which, when present in the blood or tissues, directly cause us pleasurable sensations. (Ibid., p. 4477)

This last quote is fundamental to understand the mechanism of toxicomania as it suggests that there is a difference between the act of intoxication and an addiction to a toxic substance. In addition, it indicates that chemical intoxication can act as a defence against the threatening force of pain. I will return to Freud’s ideas on pain in chapter 5.


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