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  • Analogy, Terminable and Interminable
  • Jan Mieszkowski (bio)

Few twentieth-century discourses have shaped the humanities and social sciences like psychoanalysis. The work of Sigmund Freud and his inheritors has been a driving force behind countless efforts to rethink the most fundamental questions of subjectivity, history, and politics. This enduring influence is readily evident in contemporary gender studies, film theory, and media studies--to list only the most obvious examples. Perhaps even more uniquely, the authority of psychoanalysis has crossed all methodological and ideological lines, impacting Anglo-American analytic as much as Continental philosophy, empirical anthropological research as well as semiotics and formalist hermeneutics. Freud himself sets the stage for these developments. Throughout his oeuvre, he routinely moves between observations about the dynamics organizing a singular psyche and broader reflections on cultural experience, considering art, literature, and religion as well as the nature of charismatic leaders, mass movements, and the possibilities for world peace. At the same time, it is in the midst of his strongest assertions of parallels between individual and sociopolitical systems that Freud betrays the most profound doubts about the explanatory reach of his work. Paradoxically, the status of psychoanalysis as a "master discourse," its seeming ability to model everything under the sun, may be the product of the profound skepticism it directs toward its own mastery.

Near the close of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud asks whether his account of "the integration of a separate individual into a human group" provides a basis for understanding the "creation of a unified group out of many individuals" (21: 140).[1] Given the "similarity between the means employed and the resultant phenomena," he writes, one can in this instance speak of "the same process applied to different kinds of objects" (140). In explaining the analogous development of the singular human psyche and civilization in general, Freud describes a cultural superego that resembles the individual superego in origin and function. Both formations establish ideal demands that lead to the creation of a conscience, and at times, they appear almost completely interdependent, as if one could not exist without the other. If the two differ, Freud suggests, it is only in that the injunctions of the cultural superego tend to be more legible than those of individual ones, whose commands largely remain unconscious and can thus be difficult to discern. In other words, even if one's primary goal is to study the singular psyche rather than its social counterpart, focusing on the latter may still be the best means of understanding the former.

On the basis of these remarks, it would be a gross understatement to say that the development of the singular psyche is "mirrored by" or "reflected in" a larger communal field. Taking their cue from Freud's characterization of these substantive parallels between individual psychological processes and social ones, several generations of cultural critics have felt licensed, if not required, to pass judgment on the mental welfare of entire societies. As Freud canonically formulates it:

If the development of civilization has such a far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization--possibly the whole of mankind--have become "neurotic"?

(21: 144)

The elaboration of "a pathology of cultural communities," as Freud also terms it, has become a sine qua non of much contemporary research, even in disciplines in which the word "psychoanalysis" is rarely uttered. From anthropologists to art historians, from poetry critics to urban economists, scholars routinely pursue a host of different diagnoses of the psycho-logics of mass formations, implicitly and explicitly analogizing individual dynamics with groups ranging from reading or consuming publics to the populations of nations or continents.

Given the authority that Freud's views on this topic have acquired, it is important to consider whether his claim that "the development of civilization" is "comparable to the normal maturation of the individual" is entirely compatible with his other views about social experience (21: 97-98). As is well known, a central concept in his later work--and a topic of considerable controversy for...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-14
Open Access
No
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