Sociology Index


Narcissism, Ego, Id

Superego is a concept developed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) that describes one of three components of the individual personality or self. The personality consists of the id: the innate impulses and drives, the ego: the unique and individual self; and the superego: the internalized social norms or conscience. Much Freudian analytical theory is based on articulating the development of these aspects of self and their relationship.

In Psychoanalysis or Freudian theory: Superego is the part of the mind which internalizes parental and social prohibitions or ideals early in life and imposes them as a censor on the wishes of the ego; the agent of self-criticism.

The superego is the faculty that seeks to police what it deems unacceptable desires; it represents all moral restrictions and is the "advocate of a striving towards perfection."

The Superego and the Act: A lecture by Slavoj Zizek 

Excerpts: The more profit you have, the more you want, the more you drink Coke, the more you are thirsty, the more you obey the superego command, the more you are guilty. In all three cases, the logic of balanced exchange is disturbed in favor of an excessive logic of "the more you give the more you owe", or the "more you possess what you are longing for, the more you are missing and thus the greater your craving", or the consumerist version, "the more you buy the more you must spend".

This paradox is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it to Romeo, "the more I give, the more I have." This superego-paradox also allows us to throw new light onto the functioning of today’s art scene. Its basic feature is not only the much deplored commodification of the culture, but also the less noted, perhaps even more crucial opposite movement: the growing culturalization of the market economy itself.

Today, more and more, the cultural economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself, has not only to tolerate but to directly incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses of part of the system itself. The system feeds on them in order to reproduce itself. Perhaps this is one of the possible definitions of postmodern art as opposed to modern art. So what then is superego, what is this superego injunction which is replacing more and more the old symbolic law of prohibition?

Superego is the reversal of the permissive "You May!" into the prescriptive "You Must!", the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. We all know the formula of Kant's unconditional imperative: "Du canst, denn du sollst". You can do your duty, because you must do it. Superego turns this around into "You must, because you can." The New Age wisdom of recovering the spontaneity of your true self seems to offer a way out of this superego predicament. Is this attitude not secretly sustained by the superego imperative? You must do your duty of achieving full self–realization and self–fulfillment because you can. So what is superego? The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. The passage from traditional authoritarian power to modern totalitarianism can be precisely rendered through superego. Let’s say one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old-fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? "I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty." A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: "You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to." Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say "I have a choice, I will not do it." Your father will say "What did your grandmother ever do to you? How could you do this to her?" That’s superego. We have the opposite paradox of the pleasure itself whose pursuit turns into duty. In a permissive society, subjects experience the need to have a good time, to really enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and consequently feel guilty for failing to be happy. The concept of the superego designates precisely this mysterious overlapping in which the command to enjoy overlaps with the duty to enjoy yourself. Maybe we can in this way distinguish the totalitarian from the liberal–permissive superego. In both cases, the message is "You may enjoy, but because you may, you must". In both cases you pay a price for this permission.