From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

The term 'agency denotes a part of the psychic apparatus that functions as a substructure governed by its own laws, but that is coordinated with the other parts.

In Freud's work this term first appeared in chapter VII of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), as a synonym or near-synonym for the term system, which he had been using for several years: "Accordingly, we will picture the mental apparatus as a compound instrument, to the components of which we will give the name of 'agencies' or (for the sake of greater clarity) 'systems."'[1] The term apparatus, used in a sense that never changed in Freud's work, explicitly gives the psyche a status comparable to that of the major organic systems (respiratory, circulatory, etc.).

An agency is thus a functional sub-whole, or, in modern terms, a substructure within an encompassing structure. This idea clearly came from Freud's extensive prior work in neurophysiology and then neurology. If Freud suggested in this text that the term system was "clearer," this is doubtless because it was more familiar to him. Indeed, he had been using it for years, particularly in "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), to evoke this type of functional groupings within the nervous system, whose workings he was trying to conceptualize at the time. He posited these systems as "producing" perception, consciousness, memory, and so forth. In the passage cited from The Interpretation of Dreams, he thus distinguished the agencies, or systems, of memory and perception (envisioned as being mutually exclusive), and censorship, but also the agencies that comprise his first topography: the unconscious, the preconscious, and consciousness (or perception-consciousness).

In Freud's writings from that point on, the terms agency and system remained close in meaning. However, system tended to be reserved for topographical distinctions, while agency was used more broadly to refer to an organization being considered from the topographic, dynamic, and economic viewpoints in combination. It is because they are considered in this way that the id, the ego, and the superego of the structural theory are referred to as agencies rather than as systems. Freud tended to posit the agencies as being exclusive: A single phenomenon cannot at the same time belong to the realm of the id and that of the ego, for example. By virtue of this very fact, when Freud at the end of his life came to see the opposition between conscious and unconscious as being simply a difference in "quality" of certain psychic processes—as described in "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" (1940a [1938])—those two terms were no longer considered as denoting agencies.

In the conceptual architecture of metapsychology, the term agency is therefore situated at a level that makes its definition somewhat uncertain. Béla Grunberger thus generated heated controversy when he proposed, in Narcissism: Psychoanalytic Essays (1971/1979), to consider narcissism as an agency having the same status as the id, the ego, and the superego. Similar controversies arose over the concept of the self as developed by Heinz Kohut, for example.

ROGER PERRON Bibliography

  • Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
  • ——. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.
  • ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

Lacan's use of the term instance goes well beyond Freud's 'InstanZ'. It represents, one might say, an exploitation of the linguistic possibilities of the French equivalent of Freud's German term. In the absence of any exact equivalent of Lacan's French term, one is thrown back to the term used by Freud's English translators, 'agency.' In Freud, the reference is most often to the three 'agencies' of the id, ego and superego.

In Lacan, one must bear in mind the idea of an 'acting upon', even 'insistence,' as in the title of the essay 'L'instance de la lettre.'

  1. pp. 536-537