Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture

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In this way, her work speaks to many issues emerging from my reading of Freud.


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If the present work is successful in its endeavors it will be difficult if not impossible henceforth to read Freud on religion and culture according to previously standard assumptions. One important manifestation of these tensions appears in the early attempts to establish a definitive explanatory model for neurotic disturbances. As he pursues these concerns, Freud reflects on the representational dimensions of human experience, as well as on disruptions in subjective experience and development.

Permutations of these themes representational forms, trauma, subjective formation appear repeatedly in his writings on religion and culture. The initial psychoanalytic approach to neuroses evinces a basically causalmechanistic view of the problem. Fortunately, however, they are nevertheless not real as often as seemed at first to be shown by the findings of analysis. However, the experientially based traumatic events posited by the original seduction theory are not necessary factors in the etiology of the neuroses.

Often, however, Freud seems to dismiss the veracity of accounts of actual seduction. These issues have informed a great deal of ongoing controversy in psychotherapeutic circles. Essentially, the prestige of psycho-analytic theory served to create a psychotherapeutic bias against actual accounts of seduction and traumas based on abuse.

More recently, there has been a backlash against the predominant psychoanalytic tendency to treat memories of real events as fantasies. This is constituted by an interweaving of memory and experience with narrative and symbolization. Freud undertakes a partial transition to a modified theory where psychodynamic processes are as significant as external events. This broader application serves to increase the significance of the category.

What lie behind the sense of guilt of neurotics are always psychical realities and never factual ones.

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These themes resurface, following the First World War, in the analyses of traumatic experience in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In that work Freud takes his point of departure from the repetition compulsion ensuing from severe trauma. Many lines of thought emerge from these reflections. The latter has provided an example of the function of symbolizing in attempting to integrate and master negative experience such as absence and loss. The first, as we have seen, involves the complexification of the nature of psychical experience related to traumatizing events.

The second concerns traumatic aspects of human existence, with specific reference to the maturation process. With these formulations, the Freudian model accommodates and responds to a spectrum of varying degrees of psychical health. This is related to personal experience and suffering, the ability or inability to function in everyday social life, and other individually variable phenomena.

However, psycho-analysis partially breaks down the barrier between normal and pathological, insofar as all human beings experience some degree of traumatization related to developmental exigencies.

These developmental exigencies account for repressions, fixations, regressions, and so forth. Rather than invoking disruptive events that may happen, the Oedipal model seeks to articulate structures of interrelational development. These, to be sure, necessarily include contingent and variable individual relations, vicissitudes, and conflicts. Again, abusive traumatic events occur all too frequently and are highly pertinent to analysis—Freud never denied this.

Freud has supplemented a simpler causal model with a more intricate and overdetermined set of developmental interactions that accentuate individual variability and psychical creativity.

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This attidude appears in numerous assertions concerning the primary and originary status of sexuality, libido, id, and unconscious wishes and desires. I will not address the issue of the extent to which this anti-idealism holds up in its strictest form. However, it does compel Freud—scrupulous inquirer that he was—to find non-idealist explanations for the coming into being of ideal and symbolic structures in culture.

These ideal forms represent standards of quality and value that counteract, to some varying degree, the motivational force of more immediate inclinations and needs. They include ethical, intellectual, and creative capacities for representation and symbolization, and they involve functions associated with each of the psychical agencies: id, ego, and super-ego.

Introduction to psychology: Sigmund Freud

In both Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism Freud formulates explicit theories that account for the coming into being of religion, culture, and morality in specific contexts. Specifically, these forces and dynamic structures are seen as analogous to those discerned in the Oedipus complex. Freud appears to undertake a reductive conquest, replacing the mystery and complexity of ideal cultural structures with a closed-system explanation governed by instinctual conflicts. It is necessarily incomplete, in that it postulates a dependency of individual development on interpersonal relations and, ultimately, on extant cultural forms.

This open-endedness sustains conceptual flexibility, stimulates the ongoing modification of psychoanalytic theory, and offers insight into creative relational processes. Yet it tended to be seen by Freud as posing the danger of infinite explanatory regress, and hence as a problem to be resolved.


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This was the question of the origins of conscience and morality. At the time he was writing Totem and Taboo the problem of culture was becoming increasingly important to Freud. Cultural concerns were not just tangential to a theory rooted in individual psychology, but were beginning to be seen as intrinsic to the dynamics of subjective maturation. Individual psychological development was increasingly understood as inseparable from interpersonal and cultural existence, including abstract forms such as language and ethics.

These issues were of particular significance to the problem of the egoideal and would take on increased importance as its successor, the super-ego, became more fully formulated. Even prior to the postulation of the super-ego, however, the internalization of symbolic cultural resources it represents was becoming an increasingly significant aspect of psychoanalytic theory.

In a psychoanalytic approach to individual development the crucial points of contact between subjectivity, interpersonal relations, and acculturation are condensed into the framework of Oedipal dynamics. This configuration contains various levels, and functions accordingly in a thoroughly overdetermined manner.

My eventual concern will be to analyze Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism as key texts reflecting on the intersections of desire and culture. The Oedipus complex symbolically condenses a model in which individual psycho-sexual development is inherently dependent on interactions with cultural representatives.

However, this transposition to the cultural sphere is not without difficulties; and this is a point that can be used to emphasize the non-literal dimensions of the Oedipus complex. Its figurative and symbolic qualities become more prominent as the persuasiveness of its literal, explanatory logic diminishes. The Oedipus complex is clearly subject to multiple levels of interpretation. Moreover, the Oedipus complex is overextended and overdetermined apart from its application to cultural forms.

The spectrum of meaning compacted into Oedipal dynamics ranges from the highly particular and concrete to the more general and abstract.

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Alex Woloch

That is, at one end of the spectrum the analyses focus on specific relations to individual parental figures, shaped variously by factors such as the gender of the developing subject, the attitudes of the parental figures or guardians, and the degree and nature of their presence or absence. This forms the more particularized, interpersonal level of analysis. Here the analyses still relate to the developing individual but focus on a more generalized dynamic of desire and conflict. This dynamic is related to the internalization of cultural structures and authority in the formation of the super-ego.

These processes are founded on the interpersonal level but concern broader cultural and social dimensions of subjective development. At this level what is universal is the necessity of some form of acculturation, including immersion in a linguistically shaped world governed by codes of conduct. The specific constructs of language, moral codes, as well as the nature and degree of individual internalization, are open to innumerable variations.

Rather, my focus is the other end of the spectrum, where a dialectics of desire interfaces with problems of acculturation.

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Furthermore, Freud often tends to transfer the Oedipal configuration from the individual to the cultural realm, as if it were complete on the individual level and as if the cultural level were a separate but parallel domain. In this form the Oedipus complex serves a crucial explanatory function in the analogical thinking of Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and, to a lesser extent, The Future of an Illusion.

What also emerges in these analyses, however, is a disruption of the closed-system view and the analogical method that accompanies it. That is, in the cultural writings the end of the Oedipal spectrum revealing the individual-cultural interdependency occurring within symbolic systems becomes increasingly prominent. Jung; and it must be said that his resistance is not entirely unwarranted. Jung, for example, turns from the interpersonal dynamics of the Freudian model almost entirely, interpreting mythic and literary images as expressions of an innate archetypal order.

It expressly posits a sui generis spiritual dimension, as against manifest Freudian reductions of religion and culture to sexuality. With this type of approach Jung begins to navigate the territory of symbolically mediated inner transformation.

Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture

Because of its emphasis on unchanging psychical structures the archetype an sich , the Jungian model retreats from issues related to the interplay of psychology and culture. Winnicott, and, in a different way, Julia Kristeva. That is, when contingently variable features are raised to the status of universality we are confronted with an apparent necessity of the misogynistic reading of female anatomy in terms of essential lack and castration, the postulation of penis envy, a literal threat of castration directed at male subjects, and other dubious hypotheses.

However, Freud himself continually indicates symbolic dimensions of the Oedipus complex that counteract the literalism, biologism, and determinism of many of his formulations. This takes us beyond the literal, gender-specific level of analysis and mitigates some of the problems in the accounts of female sexuality.

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This matter is developed shortly after the above footnote. This is important even beyond its disruption of gender stereotypes. It points to the function of the parental figures in a relational dynamic that is not sexual and gender-specific in any limited or obvious sense.


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