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The Writings of Professor Robert M. Young

Mental Space

by Robert M. Young

 

 

| Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Bibliography |

Chapter Two

CULTURAL SPACE

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 take thought 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 (Wiener, 1968-74, vol. 1. 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 organisation, 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' (Hatch, 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 (wait for it ) 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 bids fair to become a universal solvent. The trouble with a universal solvent is that everything dissolves in it, so things end up undifferentiated, and nothing can be contained, since any potential vessel gets dissolved, too. 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, - 'primitive culture'. No one told me that movies, jazz, dirty bop 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 proponents in Britain were Raymond Williams at Cambridge and Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at a newly-created Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. Hoggart had pioneered cultural studies with his The Uses of Literacy (1957), and a number of volumes by 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; see also Dworkin and Roman, 1993).

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 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, and as I write this book I find myself being consulted about a proposed series of collections and books under the rubric Politics and Culture. A collection of papers written for an international conference, Cultural Studies, provides a useful overview of the discipline in the early 1990s (Grossberg et al., 1992; see also During, 1993).

It is in this framework that the debate about the fragmentation of modern life is being conducted: the loss of intellectual, moral and aesthetic coherence and the celebration of 'three minute culture' and architecture without rules of stylistic coherence - modernism versus postmodernism. See, for example, the monograph by David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (1980), a collection by Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), and two surveys: Postmodernism (Theory, Culture & Society, 1988) and Postmodernism: ICA Documents (Appignanesi, 1989). I list these writings to commend them to the reader. I do so, because I believe that psychoanalytic conceptions of culture 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 it 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, motorway 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. This broadened sense of culture will come in handy in my concluding chapter.

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 until recently it has drawn almost exclusively on a particular version of Lacanian psychoanalysis at the expense approaches influences by other writers, e.g., Winnicott, Klein and Bion. Even so, there have been some attempts to juxtapose these debates in broader terms, but only a beginning has been made (see Finlay, 1989; Young, 1989a; Frosh, 1991). 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 sites 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 - against the received view - 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 eschewing others and maintaining firm boundaries between certain types of food. She interprets these rituals and taboos as part of the need to separate 'them' from 'us', the need for insiders and outsiders, for boundaries, for gaining identity through difference. 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' (p. 48). Definitions of things and the values placed on them are matters of convention, of social location. The laws of nature 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). By 'all experience' she means putatively objective knowledge, as well; this includes science (Douglas, 1975, pp. 210-48).

Mary Douglas' 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 itself in Raymond 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. The nurturing resonances of the term bring it to the heart of the primitive processes considered by psychoanalysis and 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'. This was certainly true of Freud, who wrote, 'I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization' (1927, p. 6). 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, pp. 158-82). 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 means of renunciation, sublimation and guilt, along with reparation.

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 here (see Young, 1967) 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 (Taylor, 1964).

I don't often find myself thinking we are all that 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 (Young, 1985; Haraway, 1989). 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.

Whether or not we share it with other species, there is no doubt that the ability to symbolise is generally considered to be the entrance to human culture. Patients who experience things concretely and equate the symbol with the thing are considered to be in a very primitive, regressed state. As we shall see in my concluding chapter, so are people under stress in groups and institutions. Writers on symbolism emphasise the boundary between signs and symbols as central to art and to shared meanings. Indeed, the role of the symbol 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: signs indicate, while symbols mean.

The most striking and moving account I have ever read of the ability to inhabit the symbolic domain as the sine qua non of humanity is the story of Helen Keller's entry into language. As she tells it in The Story of My Life (Keller, 1903), 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, Annie Sullivan (movingly 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 I find the text so affecting 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 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 realised 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 gets the sequence of events backward, 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 by means of Helen Keller's extraordinary experience to convey the meaning of the symbolic realm, which is itself the realm of meaning, 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' (Freud, 1930, p. 89). He suggests that the first civilized act may have been refraining from pissing 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 dismissed as a passing thought, he returns to it and expands the idea at Freud, 1932, pp. 185-87). Another move toward civilization which involved basic bodily functions was the change in emphasis from the olfactory to the visual (Freud, 1930, 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 (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, the channelling of sexual energy into more socially acceptable activities: '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 disinhibition of 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 - mistresses (lots of them), young girls, starlets. I am thinking, for example, of Howard Hughes; Jack, Bobby, and Edward Kennedy and their father, Joseph; H. L.. Hunt (3 simultaneous families); James Goldsmith (two); Mafiosi and their whores; the high-rolling swindlers of Texas savings and loan associations and their whores (O'Shea, 1991); East European dictators and Chairman Mao, who had young women served up to them like bunches of grapes. In the film 'Prime Cut' (1972), orphan girls were hand-reared from childhood to puberty to meet the needs of the men who bought them 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 my opinion the clearest filmic expression of this basic psychoanalytic truth is 'Chinatown' (l975), for which Robert Towne wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay to which the director, Roman Polanski, added additional perverse piquancy. Its genre is the 1940s detective thriller, in which the threading of a highly symbolic labyrinth leads to the perverse 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 incestuous way.

The old man and his daughter, Faye Dunaway, had been lovers and had a daughter. The mother 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 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 and sprawling 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 bought up by using the names of innocent, trusting elderly pensioners. The psychoanalytic symbolism of water and rapacious power, of the relations between generations and of the dangers inherent in voyeuristically seeking to decipher the mysteries of the primal scene are evident throughout the film. Much of the story is based on historical truth involving one of the greatest engineering feats and one of the most audaciously corrupt land-grabbing and profiteering projects in history (See Dunne, 1982; Caughey, 1977, pp. 222-35, which includes a contemporary account entitled 'The Rape of Owens Valley'; Kahrl, 1982). Jack Nicholson lives on a road named after the key figure in the true history, Mulholland Drive. William Mulholland - Hollis Mulray in the film - was the architect of the vast scheme for diverting water to the San Fernando Valley and to Los Angeles. He is also famous for a terse speech at the ceremony when the aqueduct was turned over to the city. It symbolised the rapaciousness of those who profited from the corrupt land deals: 'There it is. Take it' (quoted in Caughey, p. 235). The author of the screenplay spent a number of years studying the history of this scandal.

At the moment of discovery, Dunaway says to the bewildered detective, who is slapping her 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 asks, 'He raped you?' She shakes her head, and he begins to comprehend the polymorphous perversity at the heart of the mystery of the family and of capitalism. At the moment of disaster, as the mother dies and the sister/daughter is taken away by the triumphant patriarch, Nicholson's friends lead him away, saying, 'Forget it Jake; it's Chinatown' - inscrutable, impenetrable; there is nothing you can do to put things right. Prior to this tragic denouement, we have been told at various points in the film that his boyish epistemophilia had got him into trouble in Chinatown before. Someone had been hurt whom he had tried to protect, and his philosophy had become one of doing 'as little as possible', in fear of doing more harm. But his curiosity and Oedipal sarcasm always got the better of him - so much so that he during a large portion of the film he wears a bandage on his nose as a result of its being cut with a switchblade, because he was too nosy. Always ready with a quip, he responds to one crook's question about what happened to his nose by saying, 'Your wife crossed her legs'. Sex, curiosity, patriarchy, power, corruption, incest and tragedy are the strands which make up the tangle he unravels.

The incest taboo is the foundation stone of civilization; all other taboos and laws were derived from this restraint (Freud, 1930, 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 initially implausible claim has become increasingly credible, partly as a consequence of the growing exposure of the incidence of child sexual abuse and partly as the theme of 'Oedipus Rex' and 'Hamlet' have been seen as fundamental to the motivations and symbolism of civilization, for example, in Otto Rank's classical study of The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend. (1912; see also Jones, 1949; Rudnytsky, 1987; Young, 1993-94)

According to Freud, 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' (Freud, 1930, p. 131).

People are innately aggressive. 'Man is a wolf to other men' and hence must be tamed by institutions (p. 111; Gay, 1988, p. 546). The constitutional inclination to aggression is the greatest hindrance or impediment to civilization (Freud, 1930, pp. 129, 142). It is in this context that the space within which civilization occurs is described as bounded by the great opposition between love and destructiveness. '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 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, 1958, 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 (Freud, 1930, 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, it 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 you that when we come to Bion's ideas on groups and institutions in chapters seven and eight we will find them even more so. My own reluctant conclusion 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 of 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 repressive confines of authoritarian society. But what did burst forth when attempts were made to remove repression was the contents of Pandora's Box and a lot of bad behaviour which was aptly criticised as 'the tyranny of structurelessness' (Freeman, 1970). So I've arrived at a point where I'm quite happy to respect the need for boundaries and institutions, though they should not be more repressive than necessary. Care must be taken to distinguish authoritarianism, which it is as important as ever to oppose (and rather more so in some societies), from legitimate containment, which provides a precious framework for living, 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). Freud also argues that the development of civilization 'parallels the development of the individual and employs the same methods' (Freud, 1930, 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 recognised 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, 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', that is, for social causes operating at a different level from the psychological and deriving from genuinely social forces, even though they are mediated through the individual psyche. 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 of aspects of our own culture - 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 damned 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 inherited genetically. It is profoundly refractory but acquired in experience. It becomes a political project to analyse second nature and set about changing it (Young, 1988a). I shall sketch here some exemplary contributions to this project.

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 Herbert Marcuse was 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 to Freud of the work of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research: 'His thought is one of the foundation stones without which our own philosophy would not be what it is' (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 (1969a) and 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. (For example, 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.) I want to confine myself to an outline of those of his ideas which span psychoanalysis and historicity. In particular, Marcuse has offered a set of concepts which have two components (Marcuse, 1955, ch. 2). 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.

At the first level, we have, for example, the reality principle, much as Freud would have it. 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 measure of the 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 convince us that the necessity to bow to the requirements of super-exploitation is '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. In the existing order of things, how hard people work is the result of a social and economic system which he abhors. The norms of production are determined by the profit motive. In a different system (not the ones which were until recently in operation in Eastern Europe, which he also abhorred), there could be much less alienated labour - less requirement to meet quotas, to perform on demand.

A second example of Marcuse's concepts which have both a universal and a historical component is concerned with repression, a basic mechanism with respect to the unconscious. He points out that the degree of repression is dramatically increased in certain societies, producing a requirement for 'surplus repression', which - like the performance principle - 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, who wished to revive the ideals of an unsullied vision 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' left 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 de-repression were alienated, ersatz and therefore, whatever their surface allure, fundamentally repressive. For this he coined the inelegant but accurate term 'repressive desublimation', to designate an historically relative, alienated sexual libertinism. The same critique was applied to many dimensions of political life and the 'consumer society'. He wrote a very influential essay on the ways in which nominally liberal political tolerance could, in fact, act as 'repressive tolerance' (Marcuse, 1969). With the vast growth of consumer goods and services, forms of comfort and leisure were being offered which diverted people's gaze from the absence of fundamental forms of freedom, fulfilment and self-expression: the society of the spectacle, the club and the lawn, ever more bizarre forms of dress and sexual licence - 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 nurturing 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).

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 (1969a, 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, 1988a).

Throughout his writings on psychoanalysis and society, Marcuse was attempting to remove Freud's ideas from the realm of universal humankind, to bring them inside history andput them at the disposal of those who wish to change human nature and society as they are found inside history, in particular societies and circumstances. 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 (to whose work on racism I shall return in chapter five) has set out to lay new groundwork for the relations between psychoanalysis and Marxism (Wolfenstein, 1993). 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.

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 (p. 35) 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. In the remainder of this book I pursue this path while bracketing the more obviously social one.

I turn first to Donald Winnicott, whose writings on the primitive elements of culture strike me as among the most interesting in the psychoanalytic literature. 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'. I shall have much more to say about this in chapter six, but I want to offer a brief exposition here in the context of other psychoanalytic theories of culture. Winnicott 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 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' - Schultz, 1959); it may be a piece of cloth or a teddy bear, the most famous example of which is Winnie the Pooh (Milne, 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 (Winnicott, 1971, 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).

The whole atmosphere of Winnicott's 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 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 what Klein called 'the depressive position' (wherein we relate to whole objects and can bear the mixture of good and bad in lovedones - see below, p. 86) and of reparation and listed the depressive position 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 the depressive position and reparation, which are central to Klein's notion of mental well-being, 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 primitive self's own destructive impulses in the inner world. It is an attempt to move from the persecution and fragmentation of 'the paranoid-schizoid position' (see below, p. 86) 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 Harris Williams, 1988, pp. 178, 179). Meltzer is exceptional among Kleinians in positing an ecstatic dimension to the aesthetic experience, a return to the bliss of the Garden of Eden of the first experience of the mother's beauty. (I shall be saying more about Meltzer's ideas about mental space in chapter three.)

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 playful and creative space. With Segal we return to the fraught world of destructive feelings, with culture as an effort to make amends for our phantasy attacks on the mother's body. Meltzer, if I understand him, returns us to the bliss of Eden - 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.


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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