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  • Conflict and Sociability in Hegel, Freud, and their Followers: Tzvetan Todorov’s “Living Alone Together”
  • Daniel Burston (bio)

The scope and vicissitudes of human sociability and our need for recognition are themes very close to my heart. However, Tzvetan Todorov’s paper “Living Alone Together” provokes so many trains of thought along these lines that I am almost at a loss to know where to begin. Psychoanalysis, both past and present, is so rich with corroborating testimony and parallel formulations one could invoke in light of Todorov’s ideas that in order to furnish some cogent commentary, one has to be extremely selective. Accordingly, I will focus on only some of the analytic theorists whose work anticipates or supplements his before coming to some of my own criticisms.

The concept of sociability in Freud is a confused and confusing one. In the opening passages of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud noted that in any individual’s mental life others are always involved, whether as models, helpers, or adversaries of various kinds, implying that the fabric of fantasy, and the most intimate interstices of our psyche, are in some sense already social. 1 Furthermore, his characterization of the superego as an internalization of early “object relationships” suggests that conscience, in its core, is a social phenomenon as well. 2

Nevertheless, the bulk of Freud’s work describes the psyche structurally as a (more or less) monadic system of interlocking systems (for example, the id, ego, and superego), or dynamically, as an ensemble of reciprocally inhibiting or facilitating energic impulsions, or drives, that strive for periodic relief from surplus tension—the so-called “economics of the libido.” In these structural and dynamic models of the mind, sociability is not a primary datum, but a derivative phenomenon, based on the secondary transformation of libidinal drives, for example, sublimation, which is rooted, in turn, in the exigencies of drive satis-faction as the organism struggles to adapt to its surrounding. 3

Despite its somewhat secondary nature, however, this derivative sociability acquires great significance, because the sexual and self-preservative instincts—which originally constellated all instinctual conflicts, but [End Page 73] later comprise Eros in its various manifestations—operate, presumably, as a constant brake upon and antidote to the destructive promptings of the death instinct. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud echoes Hobbes, and grimly intones “Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of human history and experience, has the courage to dispute this assertion?” 4

In view of the preceding then, it is not surprising that Freud’s earlier remarks on sociability and the ineluctably social character of fantasy got lost sight of by the majority of his followers. At the end of the day, reading him backwards, so to speak, one gets the distinct impression that for Freud, at any rate, the instinctual endowment of human beings is so strongly loaded in an antisocial direction that sociability, instead of being primary or basic, is an artifact of culture and civilization. Were it not for the urgent demands of the drives, and the constraints imposed by society on their expression, Freud implied, humans would be essentially a-social, that is, lacking interest in other people altogether.

The Freudian view did not go unchallenged in the analytic world, however. It was first criticized by Left-wing theorists like Otto Gross, a communitarian anarchist, 5 Wilhelm Reich, an erstwhile Communist, 6 and Erich Fromm, a life-long socialist, 7 all of whom, significantly, were expelled from Freud’s circle and/or the International Psychoanalytic Association in due course. (Gross was purged in 1909, Reich in 1933, and Fromm in 1947.)

Though they differed in their political agendas, Gross, Reich, and Fromm were in broad agreement that human beings are prosocial beings, first and foremost, and that the sadistic, predatory, and perverse “instincts” Freud attributed to humanity were deformations of human character brought on by faulty or excessive socialization. They were also severe critics of patriarchy, and of Freud’s patriarchal worldview, and embraced selectively modified versions of the matriarchal theories of J. J. Bachofen, Lewis Henry Morgan, Friedrich Engels, and Robert Briffault.

Significantly, one of the merits of Todorov’s work is...

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