The term mastery has several meanings in psychoanalysis. The first relates to the anal stage in infantile sexual development, as Sigmund Freud described it in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). During this period in the structuring of the personality, the child is becoming better able to exercise muscular control over fecal contents and finds pleasure in the actions of retention and defecation. In "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d) Freud described three characteristics of the anal stage: order, economy, and obstinacy. All three are marked by mastery, and they result from the sublimation of anal erotism.
It must be noted that anal erotism and mastery of its concomitant excitation are articulated with the loss of an object that is an integral part of the body. The function of mastery thus has to do with the excitation produced in the anal zone at the very moment of defecation and the possible perception of a part of the body that becomes detached from the whole. Anal erotism is commonly associated with sadism and aggressivity: Mastery over an object can be understood as the psychic correspondent to control of the sphincter. Some types of depression can be linked to feelings of powerlessness resulting from an inability to exercise complete control over the inevitable separation from the object. The symbolic equivalency between feces, gifts, and money demonstrated by Freud makes it possible to see, throughout this chain, the importance of phenomena of mastery in gifts, indebtedness, and exchanges.
On the level of fantasy, an expression of mastery is found in fantasmatic scenarios constructed around beating or being beaten, typified by "A Child Is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions" (1919e). The analysis of this fantasy proposed by Freud reveals an unconscious wish to be beaten by the father and refers to the satisfaction—initially maschochistic and secondarily sadistic—of this fantasmatic constellation. The fantasy suggests an appeal to a cruel superego that ensures mastery over the ego yet simultaneously procures enjoyment (jouissance) for it. The terms master and mistress in the erotic tradition foregrounded by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch represent mastery's perverse dimension.
It is worthwhile to establish a conceptual distinction between mastery and dominance. Mastery is more specifically aimed at excitation, whereas in Freudian theory, dominance has the status of an instinct that specifically involves an object or part-object.
Following Roger Dorey in "La relation d'emprise" (1981; The dominance relationship), it can be said that mastery involves and presupposes a relative recognition of alterity as well as a certain renunciation of the object. But this notional differentiation, while essential, is not easy to establish in clinical practice, since fantasies of seduction and beatings express in paradoxical ways the effects of both dominance and mastery. It is thus appropriate to consider the specific allocation, for each individual, of the processes of dominance aimed at conservation of the object and the processes of mastery of excitation that make it possible to maintain new cathexes and identifications. And indeed, it is the perennial nature of the identificatory project that attests to the efficacy of mastery: It is constitutive of the nature of identification, which is always being reshaped into new formations while maintaining the narcissistic quest for domination, although this quest is hidden.
The assurance of mastery involves the ego itself in its relation to the world: Integrating the requirements of the ego ideal, it makes the ego's identificatory project a process that is simultaneously continuous and differentiated. The ego ideal serves as a relay between the subject and his or her community, which serves as a symbolic model in terms of the taboos against murder and incest. The community exerts a mastery to which the subject is submitted, and which the subject must appropriate to signify their membership in the human community.
Finally, it is appropriate to situate the notion of mastery at the very heart of analytic technique. The rules of free association and free-floating attention are fundamental and paradoxical from the point of view of mastery. They indicate a pathway that, at first view, entails letting go of conscious mastery in order to make possible the resurgence of the primary processes that enable unconscious formations to pass into the preconscious. They are also rules of a type of mastery that is specific to the psychoanalytic process, on the part of both analyst and analysand, allowing unconscious representations and affects to be elicited. The issue of mastery in relation to the analyst's counter-transference is essential here in order to limit counter-transferential projection, seduction, or even abuse, so that the analysand can be heard in their authentic relationship to their own unconscious truth.
The term mastery has several meanings in psychoanalysis. The first relates to the anal stage in infantile sexual development, as Sigmund Freud described it in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). During this period in the structuring of the personality, the child is becoming better able to exercise muscular control over fecal contents and finds pleasure in the actions of retention and defecation. In "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d) Freud described three characteristics of the anal stage:...
instinct for mastery
The expression instinct for mastery refers to an instinct whose aim is the appropriation of the object. For Sigmund Freud, this is a nonsexual form of instinct that can be blended with the sexual instincts. The introduction of this concept within the evolution of Freudian theory is representative of an early stage of the concept of the dualism of the instincts.
The instinct for mastery first appears in Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), where it is initially included in the evocation of a Bemächtigungsapparat, or apparatus for mastery, and later under its direct name of Bemächtigungstreib. There are seventeen occurrences in Freud's work from 1905 to 1933.
This instinct has a central place in the "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" in that Freud places it in the service of the satisfaction of hunger and sexual needs and posits that sadism derives from it. The elements of the apparatus for mastery must be deduced from Freud's text; these include the sense of touch, the muscular apparatus, and the sensory organs in general. "The activity is put into operation by the instinct for mastery through the agency of the somatic musculature" (p. 198), he writes. The muscles of the body thus appear as the agent of mastery; the hand, whose movements involve the sense of touch and the musculature working in tandem, is thus an essential organ of the apparatus for mastery.
Freud clearly indicates the role of the instinct for mastery as it serves the sexual needs: "A certain amount of touching is indispensable (at all events among human beings) before the normal sexual aim can be attained" (p. 156). Moreover, in connection with masturbation: "The preference for the hand which is shown by boys is already evidence of the important contribution which the instinct for mastery is destined to make to masculine sexual activity" (p. 188).
He links the instinct for mastery and its derivatives—cruelty, the pleasure of looking, and the pleasure of showing—to bodily functions "that appear in a sense independently of erotogenic zones" (p. 192) or even in the case of cruelty "independently of the sexual activities that are attached to erotogenetic zones" (p. 193). He further links the instinct for mastery to the "instinct for knowledge," which "cannot be counted among the elementary instinctual components, nor can it be classed as belonging exclusively to sexuality. Its activity corresponds on the one hand to a sublimated manner of obtaining mastery, while on the other hand it makes use of the energy of scopophilia" (p. 194).
The link between the instinct for mastery and cruelty is explained in a way that prefigures the notion of instinctual blends: "The sexuality of most male human beings contains an element of aggressiveness—a drive to subjugate; the biological significance of it seems to lie in the need for overcoming the resistance of the sexual object by means other than the process of wooing. Thus sadism would correspond to an aggressive component which has become independent and exaggerated and, by displacement, has usurped the leading position" (pp. 157-158).
The instinct for mastery thus begins to change in its status in Freud's work; it starts to appear more as an intermediary concept between the sexual and the non-sexual than as a conceptual pole that can be opposed to the sexual. In his subsequent search for a dualism that is more clearly grounded in biology, Freud relegates the instinct for mastery to the background, preferring to focus instead on the notion of self-preservation instincts as the polar opposite of the sexual instincts ("Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis" [1909d]). The instinct for mastery nevertheless retains a place in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), but finally, from about 1920, in the dualism that pits the life instincts against the death instincts, the instinct for mastery is viewed as merely a derivative of the latter.
Long neglected by theorists, the instinct for mastery returned to prominence in psychoanalytic thought only with the publication of Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis's article on it in their Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1967). Roger Dorey (1981) discusses it in the context of the "mastery relationship"; Jean Bergeret uses the Freudian concept of the instinct for mastery as his point of departure in his development of the notion of "fundamental violence"; Jean Gillibert (1982) describes it as the "drive's drive" behind destruction, the result of "madness for mastery"; and Paul Denis (1992) proposes to reconsider the theory of the drives beginning with the hypothesis that the drives themselves, in their constituent organization, bring together a "formative component of mastery" and a "formative component of satisfaction," whose economic weight can vary and whose dissociation can be observed.
- Knowledge or research, instinct for
- Libidinal development
- Lost object
- Pleasure in thinking
- Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
- Denis, Paul. (1992). Emprise et théorie des pulsions. Revue française de psychanalyse, 56 (5),1295-1421.
- Dorey, Roger. (1981). La relation d'emprise. Nouvelle Revue de psychanalyse, 24, 117-140.
- Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 135-243.
- ——. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 155-318.
- ——. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
- Anal-sadistic stage
- Civilization (Kultur)
- Conscious processes
- Eroticism, anal
- Face-to-face situation
- Judgment of condemnation
- Manic defenses
- Mastery, instinct for
- Mirror stage
- Protective shield, breaking through the
- Symbolization, process of
- Dorey, Roger. (1981). La relation d'emprise. Nouvelle Revue de psychanalyse, 24, 117-140. (Reprinted in Le Désir de savoir, Paris: Denoël, 1988.)
- Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
- ——. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.
- ——. (1919e). A child is being beaten: A contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.