Partial Drive

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When Freud spoke of "a drive," he was always referring to a partial drive. The first definition of this term is found in the first of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality at the opening of section five, "Component [Drives] and Erotogenic Zones": "By [a drive] is provisionally to be understood the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a 'stimulus,' which is set up by single excitations coming from without. The concept of [drive] is thus one of those lying on the frontier between the mental and the psychical. The simplest and likeliest assumption as to the nature of [drives] would seem be that in itself [a drive] is without quality, and, so far as mental life is concerned, is only to be regarded as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work. What distinguishes the [drives] from one another and endows them with specific qualities is their relation to their somatic sources and to their aims. The source of [a drive] is a process of excitation occurring in an organ and the immediate aim of the [drive] lies in the removal of this organic stimulus" (1905d, p. 168).

Freud quickly conceived of the role of the sexual drive and the libido in the etiology of the neuroses, but the discovery of infantile sexuality took much longer. According to the "seduction theory," the effects of sexuality in the infant were extrinsic and contingent. Freud abandoned this theory when he discovered fantasy and the Oedipus complex during his self-analysis. In its place, there appeared a general infantile sexuality that gives rise to fantasies, neurotic symptoms, perverse acts, and delusions. According to his letters to Fliess, this work was accomplished between September 21 and November 14, 1897. The anal and oral regions and "perhaps the whole surface of the body as well" are sexual zones that in infancy "instigate something that is analogous to the later release of sexuality" (1950a [1892-99], p. 269). These zones persist in perversion, but usually fall under "normal repression."

Fueled by both clinical observation and Freud's own self-analysis, the elaboration of infantile sexuality is found throughout The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The analysis of Dora's cough (1905e [1901]), reveals a fantasy of sucking the penis. The morphogenesis of the fantasy is simple: the mouth is the "primary erogenous zone"; created by the act of nursing, it survives in the act of kissing. "So we see that this excessively repulsive and perverted phantasy of sucking at a penis has the most innocent origin. It is a new version of what may be described as a prehistoric impression of sucking at the mother's or nurse's breastan impression which has usually been revived by contact with children who are being nursed. In most cases, a cow's udder has aptly played the part of an image intermediate between a nipple and a penis" (1905e [1901], p. 52). Stating that "Psychoneuroses are, so to speak, the negative of perversions" (p. 50), Freud sketched out the thesis that he would establish in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). "You will have no doubt heard . . . that in psychoanalysis the concept of what is sexual has been unduly extended in order to support the theses of the sexual causation of the neuroses and the sexual meaning of symptoms. . . . We have only extended the concept of sexuality far enough to be able to comprise the sexual life of perverts and children. We have, that is to say, given it back its true compass" (1916-17a, p. 319).

The synthesis of these concepts began in 1905. So-called normal adult sexuality, neuroses, and perversions all show the sexual drive to be aberrant if reproduction is its aim. But these aberrations are effaced if the innate germs of sexuality go through a complex morphogenesis in infancy and then succumb to repression, which creates amnesias and an ignorance comparable to those found in neurosis. These germs of sexuality develop along with the physiological needs and functions, the points on the body that interface with the external world each creating their own organ pleasure. Thus the partial drives find their source, their aim, and their object, "the thing in regard to which the [drive] is able to achieve its aim. It is what is most variable about [a drive]" (1915c, p. 122). If a drive finds its object in the subject's own body, it is described as autoerotic. Sadomasochism and mastery involve oral, anal, urethral, and muscular erotism. Voyeurism and exhibitionism involve the eyes. As for the skin, the "erotogenic zone par excellence" (1905d, p. 169), it involves the genitals, among other regions. Meanwhile, the infant is "polymorphously perverse."

From this point on, Freud worked continuously on the theory of the partial drives and their vicissitudes. He elucidated the transformations that the primitive impulses of the drive undergo on account of their entanglement in language in terms of the development of the ego, education, and culture. He described psychoanalysis as "biological psychology: "[W]e are studying the psychical accompaniments of biological processes" (1933a [1932], pp. 95-96).

Diligently following up his clinical work, Freud devoted himself in 1931 to analyzing the myth of Prometheus: a story of the urethral drive, or rather of how humankind's control over fire, acquired by repressing the wish to urinate on it, led to legends (1932a).

In the unconscious, the impulses of the drivethe primary energy and material of mental processesappear as both ideational representative and quota of affect. These impulses have both active and passive aims that make them susceptible to ambivalence. Several impulses can share the same vicissitude, and the satisfaction of one can replace that of another. These transpositions of drives give rise to unconscious concepts such as feces-infant-penis. And the ego's defenses alter the ways in which impulses are expressed. Reversal into the opposite, turning around upon oneself, repression, regression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, inhibition as to aim, and sublimation all testify to the malleability of drives. Moreover, infantile development goes through the stages of pregenital libidinal organization, which involve the choice of an object and the primacy of the partial drives: oral, anal-sadistic, and then phallic. These stages converge in the formation of character and can provoke regressions. Also, it is worth noting that all fantasy scenarios include the satisfaction of a drive.

The notion of the partial drive has given rise to more elaborations than criticism. For example, Karl Abraham, Sándor Ferenczi, and Lou Andreas-Salomé all added to the theory, as did the development of child analysis.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Autoeroticism/alloeroticism; Breast, good/bad object; Character; Drive; Eroticism, anal; Exhibitionism; Libidinal development; Object (a ); Organ pleasure; Organization; Pleasure in thinking; Scoptophilia/scopophilia; Sexuality; Skin; Stage.


Freud, Sigmund. (1950a [1892-99]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 177-280.

. (1905e [1901]). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. SE, 7: 1-122.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1916-17a). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16: 15-463.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-245.

Lacan, Jacques. (1978). The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1964)