Quota of Affect

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Affects are modes of expressing impulses, manifesting internal states of psychic life based on the two primitive polarities of pleasure and unpleasure, which play an essential role in the totality of mental functioning, especially in the defensive organization of the ego. The concept of affect can be found in the earliest examples of Freud's psychoanalytic writings (1895d [1893-95]), where it is used to explain hysterical symptoms as a quantity of energy that cannot be discharged and, as a result, remains attached to memory. Therapy involves a recovery of this memory. Language, which is equivalent to the act, enables abreaction and the discharge of affect.

Originally, affect was considered by Freud to be a variable amount of excitation, a quantum of affect closely associated with memory traces. André Green (1973) elucidated the concept when he spoke of the ideational representative of the impulse and its affective-representative. The idea of affect is also very close to the concept of libidinal energy; whenever the libido is repressed, it can be transformed into anxiety (the first Freudian theory of anxiety). This is perhaps the best-known example of affect.

In 1915 Freud wrote, "For this other element of the psychical representative the term quota of affect has been generally adopted. It corresponds to the instinct in so far as the latter has become detached from the idea and finds expression, proportionate to its quantity, in processes which are sensed as affects" (1915d, p. 152). Here, Freud seems to postulate that repression most deeply weighs upon the ideational representatives, which become unconscious, while affects are not found in the unconscious. They are excluded from consciousness through repression.

This vision of affects as charges capable of undergoing conversion (conversion hysteria), displacement (obsessional neurosis), transformation (anxiety neurosis), and being manifested through internal discharges that produce changes in the body of the individual, was substantially modified in Freud's second theory of anxiety (1926d [1925]). Here, the ego becomes the seat of affects, especially anxiety. Anxiety automatically arises whenever the ego of the nursing child is overwhelmed by an instinctual excitation that it is unable to discharge on its own; gradually, the newborn realizes that the mother will help to dissipate this experience of danger. Subsequently, the ego experiences the loss of the mother as an alarm signaling the arrival of these dangers (signal anxiety). In this same work, Freud also describes other affects, such as psychic pain and sadness. Later, following the Metapsychological Papers, he emphasizes the importance of unconscious feelings of guilt that are part of the affects residing in the ego. These are complex affects that are made manifest through fantasies, such as those mentioned concerning the loss of the mother, in which "ideational representations" and affects are closely intertwined.

Melanie Klein (1948/1952) adhered to, and further developed, the Freudian concept of affects. Starting from annihilation anxiety, a primitive affect she conceived as the ego's reaction to the internal threat caused by the death impulse, more complex affects associated with paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions came into being: persecution anxieties and anxieties of depression, sadness, and guilt. Anxieties, therefore, become organized as a modality of fantasies that serve as prototypes of possible interactions of the ego with objects according to basic polarities: pleasure-unpleasure or annihilation experience-security experience. These help organize and determine the ego's relations with objects through mobilization of the various defense mechanisms that structure the mental life of the individual.

Francisco Palacio Espasa

See also: Anxiety; Cathexis; Complex; Defense; Ego; Emotion; Excitation; I; Ideational representative; Inhibition, Symptoms, and Anxiety ; Instinctual impulse; Instinctual representative; Memory; Music and psychoanalysis; Psychic representative; Quantitative/qualitative; Representation of affect; Repression; Splitting; Suppression; Symptom; Turning around.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 77-175.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Green, André. (1973). Le discourse vivant: La conception psychanalytique de l'affect. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Klein, Melanie. (1952). Concerning the theory of anxiety and guilt. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs, and J. Riviere (Eds.), Developments in psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1948)