Fusion/Defusion of Instincts

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Freud used the terms "fusion" and "defusion" (Mischung/Entmischung ), in the context of his second theory of the instincts, to account for the "mixing" and separation of the life instincts and the death instincts.

Throughout his work, Freud relied upon the notion of an instinctual dualism, on an opposition between two fundamental kinds of instinct, to explain the conflict inherent in mental life. In his first theory of the instincts, he contrasted sexual instincts on the one hand and self-preservative instincts (or ego-instincts) on the other. In his second theory, the life instinct, or Eros, stood opposed to the death instinct, and Freud emphasized that the antagonistic relationship between the two reflected their essential nature. The life instinct, for its part, was a force that strove to unify, and this included unifying the two fundamental instincts themselves; their intimate fusion came about through their simultaneous cathexis of the same object, which rendered them well-nigh indissoluble. At the same time, the death instinct, which promoted dissolution, worked to defuse them through a decathexis of the object, thus threatening the unity of the psyche itself.

These theses were first set forth in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), where Freud, postulating the self-destructive character of the death instinct, sought to show how a portion of its self-destructiveness was immediately neutralized by the life instinct, which eroticized it. In the first edition of the work, in introducing the notion of instinctual fusion, Freud cited Alfred Adler (p. 53n), who had indeed, many years earlier, argued that instinctual energy stemmed from "two originally separate instincts," the one sexual, the other aggressive, "which had subsequently intersected" (Adler, 1908). Freud would observe later, in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), that "The two fundamental principles of Empedocleslove and strifeare, both in name and function, the same as our two primal instincts" (p. 246).

With The Ego and the Id (1923b), the fusion and defusion of instincts became a feature of Freud's second topography (also known as the structural theory): defusion was now viewed as a function of the id and of the severity of the superego, while fusion was the task of the ego, both constitutionally and in its role as unifier of the three mental agencies. Instinctual defusion caused regression, and identification and sublimation themselves tended to bring about defusion. The clinical prototype of instinctual fusion was to be found in the action of sadism (which facilitated the turning of the death instinct toward the external world) and of masochism; its metapsychological prototype was primary erotogenic masochism. The physiological basis of this last, namely sympathetic sexual excitation, constituted the very foundation of the Freudian theory: "It may well be that nothing of considerable importance can occur in the organism without contributing some component to the excitation of the sexual instinct" (1905d, p. 205; 1924c, p. 163).

The fusion and defusion of the instincts (Triebmischung/Triebentmischung ) needs to be clearly distinguished from the processes known as binding and unbinding (Bindung/Entbindung ). Freud first used these last terms in connection with energy flows: the self-preservative instincts of the ego, he argued, tended to bind the free energy that flowed continuously from the sexual instincts; unbinding, therefore, was a discharge of free energy by the ego. In 1920, when Freud advanced the notion that union was the aim of the life instincts, he saw such union as dependent for its quality and its strength on this internal capacity of the ego's to bind self-preservative impulses to free sexual energy (Rosenberg, 1991). The best way to keep the distinction clear between the two above-described levels of instinctual interactionthe binding/unbinding processes internal to the ego and the fusion/defusion of the life and death instinctsis to confine the original economic reading to binding/unbinding. Variations in the quantitative factor may then be said to bring about a qualitative modification of the instinctual fusion, notably in "the advance from the earlier [genital] phase to the definitive genital one" (1923b, p. 42).

Attention to the variations of the binding/unbinding internal to the ego and the fusion/defusion of the life and death instincts has played a heuristic role in the understanding of psychosis (in the work of Melanie Klein, Piera Aulagnier, Benno Rosenberg, and others), of psychosomatic illness (for Pierre Marty), and of borderline conditions (in the "objectalizing/deobjectalizing function" described by André Green).

Jacques Lacan has criticized an approach that casts a positive light on instinctual binding and its agency, the ego, while condemning the fascinating and immobilizing aspects of the process. Jean Laplanche (1981) has for his part argued that sexuality should not be reduced to the unifying function of the life instinct lest it thereby be divested of its non-bound aspect, with its fundamentally destructive and even demoniacal features.

Josette Frappier

See also: Binding/unbinding of the instincts.


Adler, Alfred. (1908). Der Aggressionstrieb im Leben und in der Neurose. Fortschrift. Med., 26.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Laplanche, Jean. (1981). Problématiques IV. L'Inconscient et le Ça. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Rosenberg, Benno. (1991). Masochisme mortifère et masochisme gardien de la vie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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