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GROUP RELATIONS: AN INTRODUCTION
GUILT AND THE VENEER OF CIVILIZATION
by Robert M. Young
For Freud, as for many writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 'civilization' and 'culture' were synonyms. In Freud's theory of civilization guilt was the main means used to maintain civility among people. He felt that the customs and sanctions which led human beings to behave well constitute a thin veneer over our baser instincts, a veneer which was threatened by destructive and selfish impulses from moment to moment. My purpose in this essay is to explore the idea of culture, how it came to be and the nature of the threat. I trust that the relevance of this area of enquiry to recent developments in the wake of the removal of Soviet hegemony will be obvious. The revival of interest in psychoanalysis in places where it was, until very recently, banned or clandestine must mean that there is hope that a better understanding of the deeper layers, recesses and processes of the human mind may help us to do a better job in the new historical situation. Let me say, in advance of my argument, that if there are reasons for optimism, it is optimism of the most cautious kind. Even so, that is important to know, so that, as the song says, 'We won't be fooled again'.
The most capacious space within which we think about ourselves is called culture. Where is culture, and how did it come to be? What characterises it? It is a term one easily assumes one can define, but once you try to do it, it isn't so easy. I spent some time looking into definitions of culture. The Dictionary of the History of Ideas refers to 164 of them (Barnard, 1973, p. 614). I found a useful working description by Elvin Hatch in Adam and Jessica Kuper's The Social Science Encyclopedia. 'Culture is the way of life of a people. It consists of conventional patterns of thought and behaviour, including values, beliefs, rules of conduct, political organization, economic activity, and the like, which are passed on from one generation to the next by learning - and not by biological inheritance. The concept of culture is an idea of signal importance, for it provides a set of principles for explaining and understanding human behaviour. It is one of the distinguishing elements of modern social thought, and may be one of the most important achievements of modern social science, and in particular of anthropology' (Kuper, 1985, p. 178).
A number of important points are made in this article. First, that culture is learned and depends on being brought up within a framework - a cultural space. Second, 'A large component of culture is below the level of conscious awareness'. Third, 'Cultural patterns structure both thought and perception' (ibid.). In the past, cultures were often thought of in quite rationalistic ways as conscious creations. Similarly, there were more or less explicit rankings of cultures from the most primitive to (inevitably) ours.
Modern thinking about culture is, in some ways, consistent with psychoanalytic ideas, especially with respect to the limited and subordinate role of intellect: 'With the development of the modern culture concept the intellect itself came to be viewed differently: instead of being the guiding principle behind culture, it was now seen to be largely constituted by culture. It was now understood that people acquire the ideas, beliefs, values, and the like, of their society, and that these cultural features provide the basic materials by which they think and perceive' (p. 179).
In recent years the domain and the resonances of the concept of culture have grown apace, so much so that I'm beginning to feel that it is in danger of becoming a panacea. When I was a boy, 'culture' definitely referred to what rich people did - opera, symphony, art exhibitions. This idea of 'high culture' coexisted with the subject matter of the National Geographic magazine, 'primitive culture'. No one told me that films, fashion, jazz, dirty bop music and dancing and fashion were culture, so it was still possible to have fun with them.
Then, in the 1960s, I slowly became aware of the growth of an academic discipline called 'cultural studies', whose main promoters in Britain were Raymond Williams at Cambridge University and Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at a newly-created Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at The University of Birmingham. Hoggart had pioneered cultural studies with his The Uses of Literacy (1957), and in a remarkable series of books Williams set out a broad domain in the popular arts, in both historical and contemporary terms: Culture and Society 1780-1850 (1958), The Long Revolution (1961), Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), Culture (1981). He describes his own development in a series of interviews, Politics and Letters (1979; his cultural writings are discussed in Part II).
During and since the 1960s, research in cultural studies has burgeoned, so much so that it would be folly to try to list the main writings. The work of the Birmingham centre and its Working Papers in Cultural Studies led to a series of collections and monographs, a number of other centres (mostly in polytechnics) have grown up, and there is no end to it in Britain and North America. A convenient way to canvass this literature would be to work through the journal Theory, Culture & Society, but there are many other periodicals, with associated academic and publishing programmes (the presses of the universities of Indiana and Minnesota are particularly prolific). I edit one such quarterly, Science as Culture.
It is in this framework that the debate about the fragmentation of modern life is being conducted: the loss of coherence and the celebration of 'three minute culture' and architecture without rules - modernism versus postmodernism. See, for example, David Harvey's overview, The Condition of Postmodernity (1980) Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and the collections Postmodernism (Theory, Culture and Society, 1988) and Postmodernism: ICA Documents (Appignanesi, 1989). I list these writings to commend them to the reader, because I believe that psychoanalytic conceptions of culture are not rich enough and sorely need broadening and deepening, and an alliance with cultural studies promises to facilitate this process.
What is important about the concept of culture which is being developed and cultivated in cultural studies is that culture is seen as lived values or ways of life. This broadens and democratises culture and directs attention to subcultures, so that is embraces the culture of the home, neighbourhood, school, street corner, factory, disco, soap opera, pub, street market, prison, shopping mall, office, profession, seminar or study group, psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic training institution, country club, college, bingo parlour, transport cafe, cinema, industry, motor way shop and petrol station, singles bar, gay bar, swimming pool, ghetto, motorcycle gang, gym, yoga class, women's or men's group - wherever people congregate and act in ways associated with particular activities, values and social relations. Sensitive writers about these and other cultural settings have managed to evoke what is valued and expressed in particular groupings: their rituals, belief systems and the structures and dynamics of their social systems.
Some would say that there already is a well-developed alliance between cultural studies and psychoanalysis, particularly in the realm of film studies. I acknowledge this but regret that it has until recently drawn almost exclusively on a particular version of Lacanian psychoanalysis at the expense of other fruitful psychoanalytic writers, e.g., Winnicott, Klein and Bion. My point is a mixed one. Psychoanalysis needs cultural studies to help it overcome its narrow approach to culture, while cultural studies needs to broaden and deepen the uses it makes of psychoanalysis. If one looks at psychoanalytic theory and the literature, there is woefully little which touches on the broadened domain of culture which cultural studies has opened up. I think the reason for this lies in the narrowness of the classical Freudian model of culture.
Psychoanalytic writers have followed Freud in failing to make space for the diversity, the specificity and the historical development of various cultures or for the many intriguing cites in our culture mentioned above. The person whose writings about culture I have found most useful in this regard is Mary Douglas, whose short book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), cries out for integration with psychoanalytic ideas. She begins with the Biblical 'Abominations of Leviticus' and argues that the complex dietary prohibitions of the Hebrews had little or nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with separating themselves off from the gentiles by means of their complex rules about preparing and serving particular foods, while separating off and eschewing others. She interprets these rituals and taboos as part of the need to separate 'them' from 'us', the need for insiders and outsiders, boundaries to contain their tribe and keep it pure - free from taint by intermixture with gentiles. Conventions are established for this purpose, and much of what is declared natural is, after all, conventional. Her ringing aphorism is most illuminating: 'Dirt is matter out of place' - that the definition of clean versus dirty is conventional, rather than natural. (p. 48). What is shit to a person may be a meal to a fly. What is discarded as disgusting by one culture may be a delicacy to another, for example, a sheep's brain. The laws of nature, like those of society, are framed to sanction moral codes (p. 13). Culture, including ideas of nature, health, disease and human nature, consists of a system of symbolic codes, specific to a given culture and its unique history. 'Any culture is a series of related structures which comprise social forms, values, cosmology, the whole of knowledge and through which all experience is mediated' (p. 153).
This approach is available for integration with the claim on the part of psychoanalysis that all cultural phenomena have specific primitive meanings. The same can be said for aspects of the discussion of the history of the concept of culture in Williams' Keywords. He stresses the more resonant meanings: 'inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship' (p. 77). Culture is not just a collection of artefacts. The term is 'a noun of process' which refers to nurturing, husbanding and cultivation of the traditions of arts and crafts, in the same way that 'to culture' can refer to growing yoghurt or a crop. To culture something is to look after it and help it develop. These resonances of the term will come into their own when we examine the ideas of culture and of symbolism of Winnicott and Segal.
Williams also points out that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 'culture' was synonymous with 'civilization'. As I said at the beginning of my lecture, this was certainly true of Freud, who wrote, 'I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization' (S.E. 21, p. 4). His main cultural writings are to be found under the heading of civilization, most notably Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) but also including Totem and Taboo (1912-13), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Moses and Monotheism (1939) and various essays, e.g. 'The Question of a Weltanschauung' (1933). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) is not strictly about culture, but it is about social and political phenomena and thus relevant to an expanded conception of culture .
Before turning directly to Freud, I want to draw on another psychoanalytic writer's definition of culture and then to try to evoke what is uniquely human about cultural experience. Fairbairn says, 'cultural phenomena represent the symbolic and sublimated expression of repressed wishes of a primal character' (Fairbairn, 1952, p. 188). (I take up the concepts of symbolism and sublimation below.) He sees religion as the most important element in the development of culture, and it is certainly true that cultures characteristically associate their practices and artefacts with their beliefs and rituals around what they hold sacred. Fairbairn identifies two sources of the beliefs common to religion and culture. The first is the persistence of childhood attitudes toward parents and their displacement toward supernatural beings as a result of disappointment with the human parents - their failure to provide unlimited support. The second source is the persistence of Oedipal feelings and the need to obtain relief from the attendant guilt (pp. 188-89). On this account - and we will find it characteristic of Freud's notions - culture is less a celebration than a way of dealing with disappointment and unacceptable impulses by renunciation, sublimation and guilt.
What of the symbolic? The ability to experience symbols has been one of the main criteria for separating humans from other animals. It was thought for centuries that this demarcation was a firm dividing line - that animals were incapable of symbolic communication. I have no wish to review the history of this idea but should mention that it has proved difficult to find an unequivocal criterion for separating humans off from other animals: 'lower' animals have been taught true languages, just as they have been found to use tools, solve logical problems and break down innumerable barriers which humans have claimed separated them from human civility, such as it is.
I don't often find myself thinking that human beings are very civil. We are a curious sort. We vacillate between idealising a state of nature as pastoral and seeing it as bestial. Somewhere between Rousseau's state of innocent nature and Social Darwinism's 'nature red in tooth and claw' we might find ourselves on our own terms, instead of trying to gain a definition of our humanity by writing pedigrees in our evolutionary past (Haraway, 1990, 1991; Young , 1992). It was once claimed that we were set off from lower forms by our intellect. But with the rise of cybernetics, computers and artificial intelligence, we seem to be falling back on our emotions and intuitions as that which makes us uniquely human - for better and worse
Whether or not we share it with other species, there is no doubt that the ability to symbolise is the entrance to human culture. Patients who experience things concretely are considered to be in a very primitive, regressed state (symbolic equation). So are people under stress in groups and institutions (psychotic anxieties).. Writers on symbolism stress the boundary between signs and symbols as central to art and to shared meanings. Indeed, the symbol's role in bearing meaning is what sets it off from mere signs or signals. Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1953-57) is predicated on this distinction, as is Suzanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key (1942), both of which have been found helpful by psychoanalysts attempting to understand the symbolic realm.
The most striking and moving account I have ever read of acquiring the ability to inhabit the symbolic domain as the sine qua non of humanity is the story of Helen Keller's entry into language. She had become deaf and blind as a result of an illness when she was nineteen months old and was utterly unmanageable. Her parents were at their wits' end, when they employed a partially blind tutor, Anne Sullivan (portrayed by Anne Bancroft in the film, 'The Miracle Worker'), who was determined to get through to the wild girl. She arrived three months before Helen's seventh birthday. I shall quote at length, both because of the text itself and because of what it shows about the connection between symbolism and civility.
'The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman [a famous blind woman and campaigner for the rights of the handicapped] had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while. Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l". I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly, I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed, I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup, and a few verbs like sit, stand, and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
'One day when I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r". Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water , but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment of tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
'We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away.
'I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow' (Keller, 1903, pp. 33-5). Hanna Segal comments on the connection between Helen's entry into the world of symbolic language and her ability to experience remorse or depressive feelings. (In doing so she presents the sequence of events in the wrong order, but it is the connection that is important: Segal, 1981, pp. 63-4.) This is of some relevance to the notions of culture which are wider than those of Freud, which I shall discuss below.
Their biographer continues, 'In Annie's letter to Mrs. Hopkins about the "miracle," she wrote: "She has learned that everything has a name and that the manual alphabet is the key to everything she wants to know... Helen got up this morning like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got into my bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy"' (Lash, 1981, pp. 57-8).
Having tried to convey the meaning of the symbolic realm, I now want to spell out Freud's ideas about culture. He says that 'civilization describes the whole sum of achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes - namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations' (S.E. 21, p. 89). He suggests that the first civilized act may have been refraining from urinating on a small fire and putting it out. He considers this great cultural conquest - the gift of fire - as a reward for the renunciation of the instinctual wish to control or destroy (p. 90. Lest this be thought a passing thought, he returns to it and expands the idea at S.E. 22, pp. 185-93). Another move toward civilization which involved basic bodily functions was the change in emphasis from the olfactory to the visual (S.E. 21, p. 99n).
At the heart of his theory of culture was the belief that there is an irreducible antagonism between the demands of instincts and the restrictions of civilization. But succumbing to those restrictions does not free humankind from distress, since Freud also believed that civilization was the cause of neurasthenia (S.E. 21, p. 60). Every aspect of civilization depends on sacrifice or renunciation of instinctual feelings (p. 95). Even the most rarefied aesthetic experience - the love of beauty - was derived from the inhibition of sexual feelings. (p. 83).
Instinctual renunciation provided energy through the mechanism of sublimation: 'Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological to play such an important part in civilized life' (p. 97). Putting the point bluntly, then, civilization is censorship (p. 136). He took a dim view of people: they are not nice. In consequence, civilization 'is perpetually threatened with disintegration' (p. 111).
The basis for all other acts of sublimation is the renunciation of rapacious sexual urges. The energy for cultural life is withdrawn from sexual life, which civilization tends perpetually to restrict (pp. 103-4). The foundation for all taboos and laws was the thwarting of the polymorphous sexuality of the primal patriarch. Overwhelming power is often accompanied by the urge to break sexual taboos. When people seek power, most settle for a modest amount and, on the whole, remain within the bounds of the conventions that set limits for our greedy and rapacious impulses. Indeed, middle class success is almost synonymous with respectability. But if one reads the biographies of very powerful men, sexual licence is a common theme - potentates and their harems, rich men and their mistresses (lots of them), young girls, starlets. I am thinking, for example, of Howard Hughes; Jack, Bobby, and Edward Kennedy and their father, Joseph (all reputed to be enthusiastic philanderers); H.L. Hunt (three simultaneous families); James Goldsmith (two or three, depending on which reports one credits); Mafiosi and their whores; the high-rollers of Texas savings and loan societies and their whores.
The fantasy of women as slaves finds its way into the cinema.In the film 'Prime Cut' (1972), orphan girls were hand-reared from childhood to meet the needs of the men who bought them at puberty at auction (on display in a barn, nude in the hay), to be kept drugged and used as sexual slaves, until Gene Hackman attacks the villains and saves Cissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall.
In 'Raise the Red Lantern', a rich Chinese man has four concubines. Each has a house in his compound. He decides which one to spend the night with, decorative red lanterns are hung in her boudoir, and she receives special treatment, such as foot massage and the right to set the menu for the next day. He is all-powerful in his household and enforces system- said to be traditional in his family - in which the women are played off against one another by virtue of the social structure, with baleful results - the execution of one for infidelity, while another takes refuge in madness, whereupon a new wife is bought and introduced into the intrigues of the household.
In my opinion the clearest filmic expression of this basic psychoanalytic truth is Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay, 'Chinatown' (l975), in which the threading of a highly symbolic labyrinth leads to the perverse, thantic heart of capitalism - that with enough power one can with impunity break the incest taboo. In the last scene the detective, Jack Nicholson, is finally led away by sympathetic friends at the moment he discovers that he cannot prevent the patriarch, John Huston, from having his way - which fuses incest with proprietarial rights.
The old man had been the lover of his own daughter, Faye Dunaway, who dies pointlessly in spite of all of Nicholson's efforts to find out what was going on and prevent disaster. Huston gains custody of the progeny of the incestuous affair, his daughter/granddaughter, Diane Ladd, because the corrupt and uncomprehending authorities will defer to the man who is so rich and powerful. He has surreptitiously gained control over all the life-giving sources of water for the entire area surrounding the world's most opulent metropolis, Los Angeles, in particular, the San Fernando and Owens Valleys, and thereby controls what became a veritable Eden of truck farming, much of which he has bought up by using the names of innocent, trusting elderly pensioners. The psychoanalytic symbolism of water, of the relations between generations and of the dangers inherent in seeking to decipher the mysteries of the primal scene are evident throughout the film. Much of the story is based on historical truth. (See Dunne, 1982 and Kahrl, 1982).
At the moment of discovery, Dunaway says to the bewildered detective, who is slapping her in frustrated anger between her utterances, 'She's my daughter.' 'She's my sister.' 'My sister.' 'My daughter.' 'She's my sister and my daughter. My father and I... Understand? Or is it too tough for you?' Nicholson looks shocked: 'He raped you?' She shakes her head. Later, at the moment of disaster, as the mother is shot to death by a misguided poilceman while attempting to get away with the innocent child, and the sister/daughter is taken away by the triumphant patriarch, Nicholson's friends lead him away, saying, 'Forget it Jake; it's Chinatown', which I take to mean that the relations between sexuality and power are impenetrable, inscrutable to ordinary men. This scenario is reprised in a sequel, 'The Two Jakes', with another labyrinthine plot, in which keeping the secret of the (now grown-up) sister-daughter is interwoven with murder and struggles over real estate, concealing a vast fortune in oil and gas rights. This time Nicholson succeeds in protecting the girl and remains her protector without taking advantage of her.
The incest taboo is the foundation stone of civilization; all other taboos and laws were derived from this restraint (S. E. 21, p. 100). 'Incest is anti-social and civilization consists of a progressive renunciation of it' (p. 60). Consists. The primal horde's restraint of the father was the basis of the totemic system, and this restriction is perpetually at risk and in need of reinforcement (pp. 100-01). This has become increasingly obvious as a consequence of the growing exposure of the incidence of child sexual abuse.
The act of murdering the rapacious father gave rise, not only to totemism and thereby to civilization but also to the basis of the Oedipus complex and the experience of guilt: 'We cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together' (p. 131).
People are innately aggressive. 'Man is a wolf to other men' and hence must be tamed by institutions (Gay, 1988, p. 541). The constitutional inclination to aggression is the greatest hindrance or impediment to civilization (S.E. 21, pp. 129, 142). It is in this context that the great opposition between love and destructiveness is offered as the space within which civilization occurs. 'Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind... But man's aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and all against each, opposes this programme of civilization' (p. 122). The aggressive instinct is derivative of the death instinct. 'The history of civilization is the struggle between Eros and Death. It is what all life essentially consists of' (ibid.).
This is a dour doctrine: life consists of - is - a struggle between love and destructiveness. Civilization consists of renunciation. He says elsewhere that 'love and necessity are the parents of civilization' (p. 101). We live our lives in a space between the two great meta-instincts, and the main forces at work are rapacious sexual and destructive instincts, guilt, renunciation and sublimation. Those who thought Melanie Klein's renderings of the Death instinct too pessimistic did not read their Civilization and Its Discontents. She says that the interaction of the life and death instincts governs all of life (Klein, 1988, p. 245).
Once again, guilt is the means civilization employs to inhibit aggressiveness. The aggression is turned from external authority to internal prohibition and makes up the stern conscience or superego (S.E. 21, p. 123). Freud sees 'the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization' and claims 'that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through heightening of the sense of guilt'. He calls this 'the final conclusion of our investigation', thus making vivid the juxtaposition of civilization and discontent in his title (p. 134). Peter Gay comments, 'Social institutions are many things for Freud, but above all they are dams against murder, rape, and incest' (Gay, 1988, p.547).
I want to make a number of observations about Freud's theory of culture or civilization. First and foremost, is mightily pessimistic and becomes the more so the more carefully one studies it. Peter Gay says, 'Freud's theory of civilization... views life in society as an imposed compromise and hence an essentially insoluble predicament' (p. 547). But, however hard Freud's view is, I must warn the reader that Wilfred Bion's ideas on groups and institutions are even more so (Bion, 1961). My own view is that neither Freud nor Bion is unduly pessimistic, but even if they were, it is extremely important to know not only that the veneer of civilization is thin but just how thin it is, lest we fall through it by dancing with too much gay abandon.
Putting this point another way, much of the libertarian optimism in the United States and Europe in the 1960s was based on the - essentially Reichian - belief that underneath our repressed selves lay a wonderfully Edenic innocence waiting to burst forth if we could only free ourselves from the confines of authoritarian society. But what did burst forth was the contents of Pandora's Box and a lot of bad behaviour which was aptly criticised as 'the tyranny of structurelessness'. So I've arrived at a point where I'm quite happy to respect the need for boundaries and institutions, though they should be no more repressive than necessary. Care must be taken to distinguish authoritarianism, which is as in need of remove as ever (and rather more so in some societies) from legitimate containment, which is a precious resource, without which we are lost.
The space which Freud gives us for culture is not only fraught and precarious; it is not truly social. That is, his theory is based on a swingeing reductionism. There are no mediations between the inner world and the social and cultural worlds.
We have seen that the elimination of the primal father is the precondition and the source of energy for all of culture and that the Oedipus complex was the beginning of religion, morality, society and art (Gay, 1988, pp. 330, 332). He also argues that the development of civilization 'parallels the development of the individual and employs the same methods' (S.E. 21, p. 144). The same dynamic sources account for individual behaviour and social phenomena (Gay, 1988, p. 312). For example, all of science grows from the child's search for the truth about the differences between the sexes and the mysteries of conception and birth (p. 314).
Freud said of The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, 'I recognized ever more clearly that the events of human history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development, and the precipitates of primeval experience (as whose representative religion pushes to the fore) are only the reflection of the dynamic conflicts among ego, id, and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual the same events repeated on a wider stage' (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 547). His biographer concludes, 'He could not have stated the essential unity of his thought any more forcefully' (ibid.).
There is no place in Freud's thinking for what the social scientists call 'the autonomy of the social'. There is not even relative autonomy. This is one reason why, when psychoanalysis is applied to other cultures, the result is so often wooden. The same can often be said of psychoanalytic renderings in literature, painting, cinema, etc. Its use involves very basic, universal, explanatory factors which too often miss out the sensuous particularity of individual characters, nuances of plot or of light and shadow. It is rather like explaining the items in a chemist's shop by speaking only in terms of the fundamental particles of physics and chemistry - atoms electrons, neutrons and protons - rather than referring to more phenomenal items like talcum powder, sun creme, athlete's foot medicine, condoms and perfume. There are objects, events and relationships in the everyday world which are entitled to their own level of discourse, and psychoanalysis needs to enrich its conceptual language to take account of them and - hopefully - to illuminate them.
The strictly Freudian model is not enough, but it is extremely hard to specify what should be added. I am at present of two minds. I have felt for a long time that more was needed to help make sense of groups, institutions, historical events and other dynamics above the level of the family. I still think this and am engaged with others in trying to develop psychoanalytic ideas which are useful in 'the public sphere'. For example, I think that the concept of 'second nature' helps to bring unconscious phenomena into better contact with history. Second nature is deeply sedimented socialisation, but it is not biology, not genetically inherited. It is profoundly refractory but acquired in experience. It becomes a political project to analyse second nature and set about changing it (see Young, 1988).
Herbert Marcuse and other people of, or influenced by, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory have thought carefully about the articulation between the unconscious and historicity. It could be argued that much of the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm (at least in the 1930s) was addressed to the boundary between nature and culture and the question of second nature. They were concerned, as was Herbert Marcuse more extensively, with 'the psychological obstacles in the path of meaningful social change' (Jay, 1973, p. 107), and Horkheimer was perfectly clear about the debt of the work of the Institute for Social Research to Freud: 'His thought is one of the foundation stones without which our own philosophy would not be what it is' (ibid., p. 102). Marcuse's Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), was an attempt to examine the assumptions of Civilization and Its Discontents from the perspective of neo-Marxist ideas about human nature as a relatively social phenomenon, an ensemble of social relations. In this and other key writings - most notably One Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society (1964); An Essay on Liberation (1969); Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Utopia (1970) - he provides a critique of psychology and social science which is, in my view, of unparalleled range and subtlety among the writers of the second half of the century, with respect to the problems of the human spirit in modern society.
For my present purpose, however, it is not appropriate to provide an exposition of his overall argument. I want to confine myself to an outline of those of his ideas which span psychoanalysis and historicity. In particular, he has offered a set of concepts which have two components. The first is universal in human nature, while the second is historically relative. At times he appears to say that the first is also historically relative on a much longer time scale, but this is left unresolved in his work. Unlike many who drew on Freud for ideas in the social realm, Marcuse sought to give due weight to the death instinct, the destructive side of human nature.
At the first level, we have, for example, the reality principle, much as Freud would have it: the renunciation of the unbridled search for pleasure in order to adapt to the realities of life. But Marcuse adds another component, which changes over time and is the result of particular historical formations and contingencies. He calls this the 'performance principle', a degree of requirement for productivity in education and at work which would change, for example, when the factory system replaced home labour or automation replaced earlier versions of the assembly line. In a more just and egalitarian society, in which competition for scarce resources was greatly reduced or eliminated, the performance aspect would be radically diminished, perhaps to the vanishing point. As things stand, however, the powers that be seek to call the necessity to bow to the requirements of super-exploitation 'realistic'. Marcuse wants to grant the need for realism but to retain the right to envisage a better society, without allowing a sense of immutable inevitability to the present one.
A second example is concerned with repression, the basic mechanism with respect to the unconscious. Marcuse points out that the degree of repression is dramatically increased in certain societies, producing a requirement for 'surplus repression', which is historically relative. This was an important preoccupation of the Frankfurt School, since they were attempting to understand the psycho-social phenomena of Fascism in Europe, from which they went into exile, and of extreme conformism in America, to which they went for refuge and where Marcuse remained until his death in 1979. Powerful forces of authoritarianism and conformity were at work in both societies, though enforced by different sanctions. Moreover, Marcuse was a pioneer among leftists in mounting a critique of orthodox communism. His Soviet Marxism (1958) was, along with Eros and Civilization and One Dimensional Man, a key text for the student radicals and 'New Left' of the 1960s (especially on the Continent and in America), who wished to revive the ideals of communism without having to embrace or defend Stalinism or even, in many cases, Leninism.
Marcuse was not, however, an advocate of the sort of 'let her rip' libertarianism which many associated with that movement. He makes a point about sublimation and desublimation which was wise and cautionary and applied especially to the so-called 'sexual revolution' of that period. There was greater scope for promiscuity, nudity and soft pornography. But these forms of derepression were alienated, ersatz and therefore, whatever their surface features, fundamentally repressive. For this he coined the inelegant but accurate term 'repressive desublimation' whereby enforced, authoritarian sublimation was removed and permission was given for alternative satisfactions which were, nevertheless, repressive at a deeper level. The same critique was applied to many dimensions of the 'consumer society'. Forms of comfort and leisure were being offered which diverted people's gaze from the absence of fundamental forms of freedom and self-expression: the society of the spectacle, the club and the lawn, all of which sought to convert 'revolt into style'.
This same way of thinking led him to argue that in an age of extreme conformity and social authoritarianism, the traditional roles of the father and the family as sources and loci of the culturing of values could be diminished so much that we would have to rethink aspects of traditional Freudianism with respect to family dynamics. For example, one of his Five Lectures was entitled 'The Obsolescence of the Freudian Concept of Man', in which he argued that 'the classical psychoanalytic model, in which the father and the father-dominated family was the agent of mental socialisation, is being invalidated by society's direct management of the nascent ego through the mass media, school and sport teams, gangs, etc.' (1970, p. 47). And, finally, he argued that at an even deeper level, 'the biologically given' is an elastic concept for human beings. He felt that all human needs have an historical character. They 'lie beyond the animal world. They are historically determined and are historically mutable (1970, pp. 62, 63, 65). Going further, he suggests in some places that the instinctual nature of humankind is malleable (1969, p. 21; cf. on this equivocal point pp. 16, 17, 51, 63, 88 , 91 and my discussion in Young, 1973, pp. 257-9 and, more generally, Jacoby, 1981; Jay,1973 1984; Young, 1988).
Throughout his writings on psychoanalysis and society, Marcuse was attempting to remove Freud's ideas from the realm of universal humankind , biological reductionism and pessimistic, conservative inevitability and put them at the disposal of those who wish to change human nature and society. At the same time, he was pointing out the politics in psychoanalytic concepts. He attempted 'to show the social and political content in basic psychoanalytic concepts... The psychoanalytic categories do not have to be "related" to social and political conditions - they are themselves social and political categories. Psychoanalysis could become an effective social and political instrument, positive as well as negative, in an administrative as well as critical function, because Freud had discovered the mechanisms of social and political control in the depth dimension of instinctual drives and satisfactions' (1970, p. 44). I believe that there is much still to be learned from reflecting on his attempts to tease apart and challenge the levels of mutability and refractoriness in psychoanalytic concepts.
In the wake of Marcuse's and others' neo-Marxist writings, Victor Wolfenstein has set out to lay new groundwork for the relations between psychoanalysis and Marxism (forthcoming). He offers a thoroughgoing analysis of the dynamics of the socio-economic and historical, on the one hand, and the intrapsychic, on the other. The project of interrogating psychoanalysis with social and ideological questions, stoutly resisting reductionism and developing ideas adequate to a truly social and historical level of explanation, remains essential to my sense of mental space and cautious, moderate hope for enhancing human freedom.
But while much of what I have written in these last pages is exemplary of the project of a social level of psychoanalytic thinking, it is a detour from my main purpose. I said I was of two minds. I have come simultaneously to hold the other point of view. I do so reluctantly and remain full of suspicion. Even so, as a result of my own analysis, clinical work and ongoing reflection, I have come to feel that there is more to be learned by looking even deeper into the unconscious, where we may perhaps find socially illuminating forces beyond and even below reductionism, as it were. Psychoanalysis has much to teach us about the social on its own terrain, without succumbing to reductionism. By this I do not mean to imply that social, political, economic and ideological explanations are not also required in order fully to understand human nature and society..
I turn first to Winnicott. The foregoing exposition of Freud's theory of culture notwithstanding, Winnicott argued that 'Freud did not have a place in his topography of the mind for the experience of things cultural. He gave new value to inner psychic reality, and from this came a new value for things that are actual and truly external. Freud used the word "sublimation" to point the way to a place where cultural experience is meaningful, but perhaps he did not get so far as to tell us where in the mind cultural experience is' (Winnicott, 1971, p. 112).
Winnicott seeks to rectify this omission with his concept of transitional phenomena. He says, 'I have used the term cultural experience as an extension of the idea of transitional phenomena and of play without being certain that I can define the word "culture". The accent needed is on experience. In using the word culture I am thinking of the inherited tradition. I am thinking of something that is in the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere to put what we find' (p. 116). The place he offers is 'located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment' (p. 118). It 'is at the interplay between there being nothing but me and there being objects and phenomena outside omnipotent control' (ibid.).
The notion of transitional phenomena is a generalisation of his concept of the transitional object, which he regards as 'both the child's first use of a symbol and its first experience of play' (p. 113). It is the first experience of a 'not-me' and fills the space of separateness between the mother and baby when the mother goes away for periods. It is neither subjective nor objective but partakes of both. It is both a deprivation of the mother and a symbol of union between mother and baby (pp. 115, 119). Typical examples are an infant's blanket (think of Linus' security blanket in the cartoon strip, 'Peanuts' - Schulz, 1959); it may be a piece of cloth or a teddy bear, the most famous example of which is the one Christopher Robin drags behind him in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926).
According to Winnicott, if the baby has no such controlled abandonment by the mother and recourse to transitional objects, it has no chance to use objects creatively, and there is no ability to play, no basis for cultural experience, no link with cultural inheritance and no basis for contributing to culture. This is his notion of a severely deprived child, unable to trust that the mother will return and therefore unable to risk playing, imagining or creating (p. 119). He calls the world of transitional objects, transitional phenomena and culture a 'third world' - neither inner reality nor the external world but transitional between them, a potential space that can partake of both and be filled with all the wonders of fun, art, religion, science and creativity (pp. 120-21).
Winnicott is, therefore, providing an analysis of the origins, the basic elements and the primitive psychological meaning of cultural phenomena, all of which, in his opinion, grow from the original experience of a transitional object and retain links with the function of that object. The whole atmosphere of his notion of cultural space is positive and uplifting. What is awful is what happens if the controlled abandonment by the maternal figure does not occur at an appropriate rate. If it is too fast, there is no trust. If it is too slow, there is insufficient self-reliance and independence. But the tone of his writing about culture is far from the bitter struggle which is common to Freudian and most Kleinian cultural theory. This is not surprising, since Winnicott was unwilling to attach the significance to destructive, thantic or death wishes that Freud and Klein did (Winnicott, 1965, pp. 177, 178). His is an altogether more optimistic world view, not devoid of destructiveness and hate, but he does not make them half of human nature.
Winnicott grants that failure satisfactorily to make this developmental change to object relations in the transitional space can lead, in certain case, to 'a hypertrophy of intellectual processes related to a potential schizophrenic breakdown' (Winnicott, 1975, p. 225). He also granted the importance of reparation and listed it as Klein's most important contribution, which he ranked with Freud's concept of the Oedipus complex: 'the human individual cannot accept the destructive and aggressive ideas in his or her own nature without experience of reparation, and it is for this reason that the continued presence of the love object is necessary at this stage since only in this way is there opportunity for reparation' (Winnicott, 1965, p. 176).
I have stressed Winnicott's acknowledgement of the importance of reparation, which is central to Klein's notion of mental well-being, which she inelegantly dubbed 'the depressive position', in order to make clear that though he grants much to her ideas in this area, he did not place these ideas at the centre of his explanation of cultural experience. Klein and Hanna Segal did. In a context that refers to the work of all artists, Segal says, 'all creation is really a re-creation of a once-loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self. It is when the world within us is destroyed, when it is dead and loveless, when our loved ones are in fragments, and we ourselves in helpless despair - it is then that we must recreate our world anew, reassemble the pieces, infuse life into dead fragments, re-create life' (Segal, 1981, p. 190). In a postscript to this essay, 'A Psychoanalytic Approach to Aesthetics' (written almost thirty years later), she reiterates her main thesis 'that the essence of the aesthetic creation is a resolution of the central depressive situation and that the main factor in the aesthetic experience is the identification with this process' (p. 204). On this view, culture is a reparative process, mending a rent caused by the inner world's own destructive impulses. It is an attempt to move from the persecution and fragmentation of 'the paranoid-schizoid position' to the depressive position, by means of reparation.
In his writings on aesthetic appreciation Donald Meltzer adopts a more positive tone, bordering on the mystical, and stresses the satisfying intimate 'fit' of the result. He refers to 'the essence of aesthetic appreciation through symbolic congruence: the "fitting" of the individual mind to the aesthetic object, in such a way that boundaries merge and yet the independent integrity of both partners in the drama - internal and external world - is affirmed and radiates significance... At the heart of aesthetic appreciation lies the problem of holding, recognising, the feel of the dream which is evoked between the dreamer and the aesthetic object (whatever form this may take). This is a diaphanous cloud of unknowing, which seems composed nevertheless of solid elements with shape and texture, awaiting capture into a symbolic correspondence' (Meltzer and Williams, 1988, pp. 178, 179). Meltzer is exceptional among Kleinians in positing an ecstatic dimension to the aesthetic experience, a return to the Edenic bliss of the first experience of the mother's beauty.
I have canvassed a small number of psychoanalytic positions on cultural space. For Freud it is perpetually endangered, always operating on energy borrowed from the most rapacious and destructive impulses, inhabiting a force field between erotic and death-dealing impulses. For Winnicott it is rather more benign, conceived as a transitional world with rather a lot of potentially benign space. With Segal we return to the fraught world of destructive feelings, with culture as an effort to make amends for our attacks on the mother's body. Meltzer, if I understand him, returns us to the Edenic bliss of perfect congruence between inner and outer - not a sublimation or reparation but a recurrent return to bliss.
None of these, it seems to me, provides a genuinely social cultural space. None transcends the reductionism of the intrapsychic which characterised Freud's account. Is this forevermore to characterise psychoanalytic accounts of culture? As I said above, this continues to concern me, but so does the hope of finding more if we probe deeper into the unconscious, and that is what I shall do in tomorrow's lecture on 'Psychotic Anxieties in Groups and Institutions'.
In closing, I want to spend a moment on the image of a veneer. I chose it to emphasize the delicacy, vulnerability and beauty of the more moral, generous and creative dimensions of human nature. A veneer is usually thin, made of a precious material, applied to cover a baser, less presentable one to make it more attractive. A typical example is a thin layer of a precious wood, glued on top of a coarser one. It is easily damaged and needs maintenance, usually cleaning and polishing. We use cloths, mats and other items to prevent it being burned, stained, or scratched. A moment's carelessness can seriously damage it. Characterising human decency as a veneer implies that I see it as an imposed surface phenomenon. This is in contrast to conceptions of human nature which see decency as basic and unpleasantness as resulting from repression. Wilhelm Reich took this view. Winnicott did not go this far, but he certainly rejected Klein's idea that destructiveness was as strong as erotic impulses at the basis of our most primitive natures. I incline to see Winnicott's notion of culture as transitional as a helpful characterization of our positive natures, while I go with Klein's approach to our nasty side.
When I think of what invasions do to cultural monuments, for example, what the Muslims did to Classical and Christian buildings and frescoes in Greece and Spain, in particular, gouging every face, because it was a graven image, I am acutely aware of the thinness of the veneer of civilization and the impulse to efface it. The same can be said of how conquering armies treat the women and children of a despised enemy: rape and murder. This year we are commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus' trip to America. This so-called 'discovery' from the point of view of Europe was a catastrophe for those whose home it already was. Twelve million perished in the first four decades of European conquest, and this was followed by the decimation of the indigenous peoples - the so-called 'American Indians' of a whole continent over subsequent centuries, as well as the enslavement and transportation of Africans, two hundred million of whom are estimated to have died in the Atlantic slave trade (Carew, 1988, p. 38).
All of this was done in the name of civilization and progress and in the name of bringing Christianity to heathens, just as many of the conflicts in today's world are conducted in the name of religious and cultural values. Guilt and sublimation seem to me to be inadequate means for maintaining human civility, when the conscience is so vulnerable to suspension under the leadership of a charismatic person or a nominally noble cause intermixed with rationalisation and greed.
This analysis leaves me not very hopeful for the relations among the regional and cultural groups which are proliferating in the world today. It is for this reason that I have found myself turning to even more primitive mechanisms to see what it is in our natures that makes us so feeble as moral beings and so liable to despise, denigrate, hate and harm others. I now believe that the answers may lie in the most primitive mechanisms of all - the first ones the baby adopts and which Melanie Klein described at 'the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein 1946, in Klein, 1988, p. 8). As I said above, this is my topic for tomorrow..
(Place of publication is London unless otherwise indicated.)
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM