Psychoanalysis and Cultural Theory essay

There is a translation issue to be dealt with when we think of culture in these terms: the German word ‘Kultur’ can mean either ‘high culture’ or ‘civilization’ generally. Freud scorned the differentiation, but it is worth bearing in mind that the meaning of culture in german is not a straightforward translation into English, and that Freud’s use of it at the time would have been loaded by the weight of these two meanings (translations tend to use civilization as a noun, and cultural as the adjective).

In Freud’s meta-psychological schema culture is an expression of the struggle to overcome dilemmas, which are either instinctual, or a clash between instinctual drives and civilization. There is usually a conflictual schema being employed to look at warring currents. Freud’s methods of looking at dreams, etc. can also be applied to texts and other cultural products: a surface with conflicting mental currents (manifest), with censored issues beneath the surface (latent).

Culture or the artwork is a symptom of our attempt to escape nature and natural ties in the form of specific human desires; this clash of nature and culture is an overriding concern in the Freudian narrative of the gradual civilization of our natural impulses. The modern individual is the product of that dialectic, and it is the tension caused by that dialectic that emerge in symptomatic form in dreams, psychological syptoms and various cultural forms.

So there are nineteenth century inheritances in this schemea; for example the Emlightenment idea of the heroic culture controlling nature (see the slogan ‘Where Id was, there shall Ego be”). Ego over Id come up clearly on the side of civilization, control, and this is also an Enlightenment inheritance.
Another important distinction is the paralllel between ontogeny and phylogeny.

Ontogeny is the evolution of the individual consciousness or subject, through childooh to adulthood. Phylogeny describes the evolution of the species. Our individual development fro childhood is seen as recapitulating the development of civilizaiton. (This has roots in Victorian embryology studies) The pre-socialised infant struggles to catch up with society – and this involves the sacrifice of the individual’s instinctual payload.

Freud judges psychological symptoms by their relationship to the adult ability to lewave immature childhood behaviour behind. Neuroses have been seen as the failure to mature. Pathological behaviour generally is seen as a failure to mature – what is normal for the child is not normal for the adult. Pathological symptoms can be seen as an exaggeration of normality (see Adorno: “only exaggerations are true”). Art and Literature can be seen as expressions of these exaggerations. Hamlet and Oedipus Rex have classically been seen as the expression of this process.

Another way of interpreting art taken from dream analysis is the theory of wish-fulfillment. This posits the repression of a wish which is then expressed, at least partially, in the drama of the art (again, see Oedipus Rex). The hungry person will dream of food…. but there is a more complex way of looking at this, when the wish is taboo, and has to be censored by the dream and is expressed in a different form. The standard mode of analysis of dreams is to see wishes pushing for a fantasised fulfillment, and then a mental censorship against that expression, which in turn leads to a coding of the dream, in symbolic form. Hence there is a need fo analysis, which decodes.

A frequent form of analysis is to see these expressions as cathartic. Again, the theatre is a good example, but can also be posited as a reason for the consumption of art anyway. In this sense, catharsis is a normative idea: art acts as a substitute for behaviour we have to repress. The substitution prevents an explosion caused by this repression. An example would be the libido as repressed sexual energy – which can be channelled into other expressions. Freud’s ideas were led by those of Plato, (whose account of passion involvers the idea of sublimation) and by Aristotle’s ideas of catharsis. The spectacle of the arena, and the role of tragedy and comedy are, for Aristotle, an outlet for repressed instincts.

This theorising has led to a culturally conservative right wing version, which sees a conformist leaning in the theory: culture as substitute gratification which mean that we remain within the norms; and a left wing version, based on a Marxist interpretation which holds that art is the opium of the people. The Frankfurt School was influenced by the idea that, far from challenging the world, popular art performed a substitutive role in socity: allowing the controlled expression of otherwise repressed desires.

The clinical work on catharsis is based on Freud’s early work on hysteria, which uses a hydraulic model of dammed-up energies requiring release. A primary trauma early in life, involving the repression of various instinctual energies, which are still present, eating away at the subject becuase the trauma has not been discharged. Psychoanalytic theory can tap into these energies and allow discharge of trauma. Although Freud moved away from these theories, he hung onto the idea of catharsis.

There are several theories which can be applied to art, and which can also be used in sociology, history, etc:
1. Oedipus theory
Incest and murder, involving rebellion against father or authority figure (God/society)
2. The struggle to be separate from the mother/nature
Examines original fusion of the foetus and the mother; who are not as object and subject. The foetus experiences no gap between its needs and gratification. Life is downhill from the womb. We need to find ways of meeting needs (this is associated symbolically with the fall from Eden, etc). Depending on their leaning, left or right thinkers see this as either motivational or regressional.
3. Wish fulfillment

Play as an activity is a return to the play (and eroticism) of childhood. The drama or the artwork collects together psychological concerns and impulses of the artist which have been repressed as the adult moves away from the childhood permissiveness of play, and can therefore be used in analysis. There is a psychological entity producing artworks, and this can be analysed – but the analysis has to take into account the society/context in which the artwork is produced.

Often in the analysis of the psycho-drama of artworks, particularly in literature, the protagonist is seen as being representative of the ego. An example is the Frankfurt School’s interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey which sees the narrative as one describning the development of the hero from a nascent primitive state to a civilised one, and therefore as a netaphor for the development of modern man. Odysseus overcomes temptation, deities, natural forces. He controls his pleasure-seeking crew, and overcomes the primitive temptation of erotic encounter with woman (nature/mother figure). Eventually the crew fail to defer gratification and are lost, whereas the hero returns at the end of the journay – an archetype of hero as ego.

Despite its innocence, childhood also has a darker side: sibling rivalry, aggression and jealousy towards the parents. Frued’s instinctual schema involves the distinction between Eros and Thanatos: Love and Death. There is a subtle negative regression towards death and violence, and this is where Freud starts his analysis of the figure of the ‘anti-hero’. We identify with the anti-hero because they express aggression and other emotions which we do not allow ourselves to express.

If there is a tendency in adulthood to recapitulate childhood struggles, then there is the phylogenetic version of that; the repetition of the struggles of the human race to emerge from its primate ancestry. This involves a link between Oedipal complex and various dramas in our primevel ancestral groups. This revolves around pseudo-anthropological analysis of group dynamics, related to our primate origins.

It should be remembered that there is also a chronological aspect to psychoanalysis, which deals with past, present and future as it looks at how we progress/mature in phases.

It should also be borne in mind that symbols are not necessarily transpersonal: otherwise this lead to a crude, mechanical interpretation based on the assumption of fixed meanings for any given symbol. There is a value in fee association in psychoanalysis: the analysis of personal symbols, which has an artistic expression oin the free-association writing of Woolf, and in surrealist art. Proust’s ‘madeleine’ is another example of the action of a personal symbol, which has profound meaning in the context of the narrator’s psych-drama.

Much analysis of this kind is based on exposing meanings which are deeper than surface level. There are ideas here about surface and depth which have been playfully inverted by postmodern discourse, which has attached significance to the surface, and moved away from an idea that tru menaing is found beneath it. This playful turn, although an inversion, is nonetheless in dialogue with Freud.

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