Turning Around

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Turning around is a process that affects the vicissitudes of the instinct in terms of its affective expression (for example, love turning into hate), its aim (for example, active turning into passive), or its object (in particular, the shift from being directed toward another person to being turned back onto the self). These three types of processes are closely related.

Freud gave his essential description of this dynamic in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c). He defined four vicissitudes of the instincts: repression, sublimation, reversal into the opposite, and turning around upon the subject's own self.

Freud also used the term reversal in this article in a different sense involving the transformation of psychic "contents," that is, an idea, a representation, a dream image, a symptom, or the like, into its opposite. With regard to the instinct itself, or rather its expression as an affect, this dynamic "is found in the single instance of the tranformation of love into hate"(1915c, p. 127); moreover, these two affects can coexist, which is the definition of ambivalence. However, it is appropriate to nuance Freud's statement here, because reversal in the opposite direction, from hate into love, can also occur through reaction formation.

In the same article, Freud discusses two types of turning around onto the self: sadism turning into masochism and voyeurism turning into exhibitionism. The former involves the transformation of sadism (the pleasure of violence being directed toward another person) into masochism (the subject derives pleasure from violence being directed against himself or herself and solicits it from someone else). In this 1915 article, Freud posited sadism as being primary and masochism as being secondary, that is, resulting from turning around, which necessarily implies a reversal inversion of agent and object positions (the relationship in which the subject directs aggression against another person turns into one where the other person directs aggression against the subject) and a reversal inversion of the aim (the active aim, to direct aggression against the other, becomes passive, to be the object of the other's aggression). Previously, in "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b), Freud had upheld that at the beginning of life only the pleasure principle holds sway; the instinct knows only autoerotic satisfaction. During the narcissistic phase, the nascent ego, once it begins to distinguish between inside and outside, takes into itself from the outside that which is pleasurable and expels that which is painful, thus constituting itself as "purified pleasure-ego" (1915c, p. 136). As a result, "the external world, objects and what is hated are identical" (p. 136); the object is born in hatred. As we know, this was to become the basis for the theories of Melanie Klein. However, this thesis, which lacks clarity, seemed somewhat forced even to Freud himself. In "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924c), he reconsidered this trajectory and proposed to reverse it, by positing masochism as being primary and sadism as being secondarily produced through turning around and projection onto the external object. (These issues have been discussed, in particular, by Benno Rosenberg in Masochisme mortifère et Masochisme gardien de la vie (1991; Destructive masochism and masochism as preserver of life.)

Whatever the case may be, the dynamic of suppressing aggressive impulses and turning them against the self and a transformation with regard to the aim of the instinct, which changes from active to passive (the instinct itself, we must recall, is always active) is routinely encountered in clinical practice.

The same is true of the reversal of voyeurism into exhibitionism. Here Freud distinguished three "stages" corresponding to the successive modes of the search for pleasure: looking at the body of another person, looking at one's own body, and displaying one's body so that it will be looked at. Here again, the change from active aim to passive aim and turning around onto the self are closely linked, and the narcissistic phase plays an essential role in this developmental process.

In clinical terms "the turning round upon the subject's self and the transformation from activity to passivity converge or coincide"(1915c, p. 127). It nevertheless remains useful, on a theoretical level, to distinguish these modalities which is what André Green does, notably, in Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism (1983/2001) has proposed with the idea of "a double return."

To these two types of turning around analyzed by Freud (sadism-masochism and voyeurism-exhibitionism), it would be possible to add the opposition he defined during the same period between ego libido and object libido, or, in terms of cathexis, between the ego's cathexis of the object or of itself. This opposition, described in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), is within the context of the first theory of the instincts (opposition between the sexual instincts and the self-preservation or ego instincts). Freud later revisited this opposition in light of his topographical and economic theories of the 1920s, in particular within the framework of his thinking on the psychoses. However, throughout these successive versions, these same figures of turning around appear, with regard to affect (love-hate), the instinctual aim (active-passive), and the object (self-other).

Roger Perron

See also: Reversal.


Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth.

Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-26.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-40.

Green, André. (2001). Life narcissism, death narcissism (Andrew Weller, Trans.). London and New York: Free Association Books. (Original work published 1983)

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