The concept of cathexis

I’ve long been drawn to psychoanalytical theory but I find it quite difficult. One of the problems is that these theorists rarely give examples beyond their case history, which tend to be opaque if you’re struggling with the underlying conceptual framework. The other is concepts tend to be used in different ways. I nonetheless routinely find myself drawn to questions which have a psychoanalytical component to them, one of which is how we come to be invested in projects. For a long time I tended to approach this through the lens of philosophical anthropology, particularly the notion of concern in post-Heideggerian philosophy. However underpinning that is the issue of how libidinal energy comes to be attached to mental objects; something I increasingly think of as the building blocks out of which reflective concerns are built.

This is why I’ve been exploring the concept of cathexis which I’ve always found elusive: the allocation of libidinal energy to an object. This is a useful definition of the concept, including detail of its etymology:

The term cathexis is used to describe an investment of libidinal energy in an object or an idea. Sentimental attachment to a keepsake, a family heirloom, or a photograph would be an example of cathexis. Patriotism and other impassioned identifications with groups and systems of belief are also forms of cathexis. The word is derived from the Greek verb “to occupy” and is a translation of the German word Besetzung, “occupation.” The image suggests that the libido is sent out to “seize” the external object, as an army would seize and occupy a city.

Freud distinguished between energy which is bound to an object and energy which is free floating:

On a number of occasions when Freud invoked the concept of bound cathectic energy to explain some phenomenon, he spoke of it in such a way as to indicate that he considered it highly important to his general theory. The concept recurs a number of times in his writings on general psychological theory, and has also been rather widely used by other analysts since him. Kris wrote (36, p. 424, n. 2): “The distinction between ‘bound’ or ‘quiescent’ psychical energy on the one hand and ‘free’ or ‘mobile’ psychical energy on the other is one of Freud’s most fundamental concepts,”

There are two things I’m keen to better understand here. Firstly, I’d like to understand the mediation of cathexis (something which the work of Christopher Bollas seems to touch on indirectly) in the sense of the social and technical factors which influence the choice of object and the investment of libidinal energy. For example how the photograph invoked in the definition above might come to take centre stage in the subject’s inner life (why this photo rather than others, as a mundane causal question) as well as how the process of it coming to assume this centrality influence the subsequent investment in it. I’ve often been struck by the fact my niece and nephew have undoubtedly had more photos taken of them by the time they are 9 and 6 then I have had taken off me in my life time. What influence does this glut of photography have on how we come to be invested in a particular photo? Secondly, I’d like to understand the nature of decathexis, the withdrawal of energy from an object. I understand the concept is central to Freud’s account of mourning and melancholia; the former involving the loss of an object and the eventual investment in other object, while the latter involves a subject being unable to say what has been lost leading to fragmentation and stasis. However I’m keen to understand more mundane modes of decathexis, including ones which can be deeply agentive, such as the self-project to overcome a compulsion. There’s a surprisingly good example of what I’m talking about on

To decathect means to detach yourself emotionally from a person or thing, especially one that you think you’re going to lose, such as a loved one who is dying. This is typically thought to be a coping mechanism to avoid or lessen the pain of losing a person or thing that you’re emotionally attached to.

Decathect is a formal term used in the context of psychology. It is the opposite of the verb cathect, which means to become emotionally invested in or attached to someone or something.

The process of decathecting is called decathexis.

Example: As my novel got rejected by publisher after publisher, I began to decathect from my dream of becoming a published author.

I wonder if experience of decathecting relates to contextual change. The more experience you have of moving between different contexts, the more likely it is that this has involved decathecting, whether this is deliberate or enforced by circumstances. In this sense we can immediately see how a psychic process can be linked to a sociological process because there are identifiable patterns in how frequently someone might go through a contextual change; this then opens up questions of how frequent experiences of decathecting are liable to generate particular character structures connected to particular social conditions. I began to go down this rabbit hole during my PhD (2008-2014) but backed away from it (largely because I got distracted by the sociology of asexuality) but there’s a lot here which is worth exploring.

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