Ideal Ego, Ego Ideal, Superego, Law of Desire — Slavoj Žižek

Although Freud uses three distinct terms for the agency that pushes the subject to act ethically—he speaks of the ideal ego (Idealich), ego ideal (Ich-Ideal), and superego [Überich]—as a rule he conflated the three (he often uses the expression Ichideal oder Idealich (ego ideal or ideal ego), and the title of chapter III of The Ego and the Id) is “The Ego and Superego (Ego Ideal).” Lacan, however, introduces a precise distinction between these three terms: the “ideal ego” stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me); the ego ideal is the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and pushes me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize; and the superego is this same agency in its vengeful, sadistic, punishing aspect. The underlying structuring principle of these tree terms is clearly Lacan’s triad Imaginary—Symbolic—Real: the ideal ego is imaginary, what Lacan calls the “small other,” the idealized double image of my ego; the ego ideal is symbolic, the point of my symbolic identification, the point in the big Other from which I observe (and judge) myself; the superego is real, the cruel and insatiable agency which bombards me with impossible demands and which mocks my failed attempts to meet them, the agency in the eyes of which I am all the more guilty, the more I try to suppress my “sinful” strivings and live up to its exigencies.

What follows from these precise distinctions is that, for Lacan, the superego “has nothing to do with moral conscience as far as its most obligatory demands are concerned.” (Seminar 7) The superego is, on the contrary, the anti-ethical agency, the stigmatization of our ethical betrayal. So which one of the other two is the proper ethical agency? Should we—as some American psychoanalysts propose—set up the “good” (rational-moderate, caring) ego ideal against the “bad” (irrational-excessive, cruel, anxiety-provoking) superego, trying to lead the patient to get rid of the “bad” superego and follow the “good” ego ideal? Lacan opposes this easy way out—for him, the only proper agency is the fourth one, missing from Freud’s tripartite list, the one sometimes referred to by Lacan as “the law of desire,” the agency which tells you to act in conformity with your desire. The gap between this “law of desire” and the ego ideal (the network of social-symbolic norms and ideals that the subject internalizes in the course of her education) is crucial here. For Lacan, the ego ideal, this seemingly benevolent agency which leads us to moral growth and maturity, forces us to betray the “law of desire” by adopting the “reasonable” demands of the existing socio-symbolic order. The superego, with its excessive feeling of guilt, is merely the necessary obverse of the ego ideal: it exerts its unbearable pressure upon us on behalf of our betrayal of the “law of desire.” In short, for Lacan, the guilt we experience under the superego’s pressure is not illusory but actual—“the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire,” and the superego’s pressure demonstrates that we effectively are guilty of betraying our desire.

Slavoj Žižek 2008 In Defense of Lost Causes

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