Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents

[Readings] (02.13.09, 10:53 am)

Some time ago, I wrote a paper discussing this particular work of Freud’s, applying it to the simulation of fictional characters. The paper wasn’t very good, so I am not going to put it here, but it did have a few worthwhile ideas.

The crux of the matter is the treatment of the roles of pain and pleasure within a simulated world. Freud explains that these motivate human behavior according to the pleasure and reality principles, and these form a mechanic for accounting for human behavior. Freud is notable for borrowing terms from physics (forces and drives), and poses a somewhat kinematic model of how characters work. His approach to psychology is that of an engineer, studying and analyzing the pressures induced by these forces within the human psyche. Under this perspective, a careful reading of Freud would produce a fascinating model of behavior that could be simulated.

It is possible to imagine characters in a simulation game, such as The Sims, being controlled by the interplay of the pleasure and reality principles, and the conflicts between the ego, superego, and id. Instead of sliders that go down, representing the sims’ moods, the sliders would increase, indicating pent-up frustration. Such a simulation would involve the Sims struggling for happiness and pleasure, then suffering rebuke for their desires, then repressing them until the characters finally erupt in an orgy of sex and violence.

I do not think that this is the ideal approach to simulating characters, but it is a worthwhile perspective to examine.

Civilization and its Discontents aims to address the question of “what is the meaning of life?” The answer given by Freud is that people strive to become and remain happy. Life is fraught with pain and disappointment, making happiness and pleasure fleeting and ephemeral. Misery comes from both the natural world and also from civilization. The desire to be happy is what Freud calls the pleasure principle, and it is posed as being eternally at odds with the “plan of ‘creation’”.

The pleasure principle is an interesting element to bring into the scope of simulation. While the interplay and tradeoffs between pain and pleasure seem to resemble the elements of behaviorism, this level of focus is misleading. The important part about pleasure is not the behavior itself that surrounds the attainment of pleasure, but rather the bodily experience of pleasure (as well as pain). The lesson that seems to appear from this is that simulated agents must have virtual bodies that have some degree of corporeality. To be able to identify with a character, we must be able to imagine its experiences, and for it to have experiences, it must have some simulated body that is able to rejoice and suffer.

Freud gives three kinds of pain that are sufferable: Pain from our own bodies, pain from the world around us, and pain from our relations with others. The first is physical but transitory. It is the last category that is the most difficult, on an existential level: loss and sympathy, otherness, subjugation, and so on. The pursuit of pleasure will often lead to some form of pain, and it is through this that the pleasure principle is tempered. What emerges instead is the reality principle, which seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In order to minimize pain, there are deflections and avoidances. Deflections can be in laughter, to make light of pain; in substitutions, to replace a significant pain with a lesser one; or in intoxication, which seeks to dull misery. Avoidances are means for putting oneself at a distance from the source of pain. Avoidance of bodily suffering may be achieved through chemicals, avoidance of the external world may be “turning away from it”, and avoidance of pain from others can be done through isolation.

The interchange of pain and pleasure leads to a complex economy of the libido, where the values of pleasure and pain are traded off and exchanged.

The practical solution to negotiating pleasure and pain is to redirect one’s instinctual drives so that they would be satisfied by other kinds of pleasures, not just the bodily kind. The drives themselves never go away, but more socially acceptable (and less ultimately painful) pleasures are substituted for the baser ones. The role of civilization is to institutionalize these substitutions, and provide a means for limiting the degrees of pain that might be inflicted.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFreud, Sigmund
TitleCivilization and Its Discontents
Tagspsychology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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