Turning Around Upon the Subject's Own Self

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The notion of turning around upon the subject's own self refers to the process that substitutes the subject's own self in place of the external object of an instinct. This term appeared in Sigmund Freud's writings in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), where it is discussed as one of the four vicissitudes of the instincts: repression, sublimation, reversal into the opposite, or "turning round upon the subject's own self" (p. 126). Freud described this latter process as being closely linked to reversal into the opposite and used the study of two clinical models to understand its effects: sadism-masochism and voyeurism-exhibitionism.

In sadism there is a manifestation of aggression toward another person, who is treated as an object. If the object of the instinct becomes the subject's own self, the initial instinctual aim simultaneously changes from active to passive, because the sadism is then directed against the subject. Turning against the self is demonstrably at work even though the subject has not yet subjugated himself to another person. Obsessional neurosis is representative of this intermediary stage, which Freud described as self-punitive rather than masochistic. A final stage consists in the search for another person to play the active role that the subject renounces, thereby submitting to masochistic control. One can see how, over the entire trajectory from sadism to masochism, turning around upon the subject's own self occurs alongside the transformation of activity into passivity, in this inversion of roles between the person who exercises sadism and the person subjected to it.

Another pair of opposites, voyeurism-exhibitionism, provides a clear example of the same mechanisms. The three successive stages played out in the previous example can be found again here. Thus, there is initially "looking" as an activity that the subject directs against an unknown object, followed by the subject's submission to a turning around of the scopic drive onto a part of his or her own body. Finally, the introduction of a third element allows the subject to become the object of another person's gaze.

Freud emphasized that these operations as a whole do not exhaust all the energy of the instinct and that once again, the psyche prefers to work upon small quantities of energy. Moreover, it seems that the three stages previously described as unfolding in a linear fashion are in fact all present in varying degrees and that they develop in conjunction with one another.

Anna Freud included turning against the self in the list of defense mechanisms enlisted by the ego in its struggle against guilt-inducing instinctual impulses. In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936), she cited this process as one of the most primitive ones, "as old as the conflict between the instinctual impulses and whatever obstacle may be erected against them." However, she revised her attempt to chronologically situate this defense mechanism, as well as others, for lack of confirmation during her clinical work. Thus, in terms of the mechanism in question, she acknowledged the rarity, in very young children, of true masochistic manifestations resulting from a turning around of the instinct back onto the self.

In the psychoanalytic literature, this notion is at the crossroads of numerous avenues of thought. Freud, for example, let it be understood that the manifestation of the instinctual vicissitude described here depended on the subject's narcissistic organization.


See also: Drive/instinct; Identification with the aggressor; "Instincts and their Vicissitudes"; Reversal into the opposite; Self-hatred; Turning around. Bibliography

   * Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth; New York: International Universities Press.