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Freud and Culture

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In this book Eric Smadja explores the representations of society and culture that Freud developed in the course of his work. Distinct from contemporary sociological and anthropological conceptions, they led to his construction of a personal socio-anthropology that was virulently criticised by the social sciences. But what exactly is meant here by 'culture' and 'society'? Do we mean Freud's own Viennese society or Western, 'civilised' society in general? In addition, Freud was interested in historical and 'primitive' societies from the evolutionist perspective of the British anthropologists of his time. This book considers the interrelationship between these different societies and cultures, and raises many questions. What constitutes a culture? What are its essential traits, its functions, its relationships with society, with nature, and with other aspects of 'reality' or of the 'external world'? How did Freud construct the idea of culture? What roles does culture play in the development of the individual, in the construction and functioning of his or her psyche? This book offers some answers and presents the Freudian central notion of Kulturarbeit, which is constructed from a strictly Freudian perspective.

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Chapter One - Freud's Society

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In what society did Freud live and create psychoanalysis?

To answer this question, I take my inspiration from the Carl E. Schorske's remarkable book Fin-De-Siecle Vienna. Politics and Culture (Schorske, 1980).

Political aspects

In February–March of the year 1848, some years before Freud's birth, a first insurrectional, revolutionary wave was unleashed upon Europe, successively reaching France, Austria—with its neo-absolutist regime, essentially governed by Prince Metternich, Emperor Ferdinand I having been on the throne since 1835—Prussia, and, consequently, Vienna's satellite absolutist regimes in Italy and in Germany.

The Austrian Revolution was above all urban and grassroots, with liberal bourgeois and academic leadership. Czech and Hungarian “nations” rebelled as well. In an initial phase, the principal calls for reform came down to granting a constitution based on tax qualification and the recognition of fundamental freedoms. These liberal demands were coupled with national demands and demands for unity. Metternich's flight sanctioned the collapse of the absolutist and reactionary principles of the European States System of 1815. Emperor Ferdinand I was obliged to initiate work on a constitution. Then, after some months (May–August), a second wave of much more radical demands tried to impose the adoption of democratic and social reforms upon weak liberal regimes, and the national movements fell apart. Later, upon the announcement of measures taken against the young Magyar State, a fresh rebellion broke out in Vienna on 23 October, with the Viennese liberal democrats in solidarity with Hungarian revolutionaries. Incapable of ruling and discredited, Ferdinand I was obliged to abdicate on 2 December in favour of his nephew Francis Joseph, who initially re-established order in Austria by reinstating a repressive conservative regime.

 

Chapter Two - About Society, Groups, and Community

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We cannot discuss Freudian culture and society without situating them within their natural and metapsychological setting, reality and the external world, terms Freud frequently used that suggest ideas of social and cultural reality, but also sometimes nature or material reality, which is, as it happens, quite humanised. For him, it was therefore a matter of a different way of evoking this omnipresence and omnipotence that society and its culture—sources and places of “real external necessity”, of the “power of the present”, of constraints, exigencies, and “frustration of satisfaction”, but also of instinctual satisfaction and of actions aiming, in particular, at adaptations, modifications, even at control and at sought-after satisfaction—represent for all human beings from the very beginning of their existence, then throughout the course of their lives. Let me also point to some significant pairs of opposites (psychic reality–actual reality; reality–motility; reality–thought; reality–phantasy, for example) that Freud introduced in reference to reality and the external world and inform us about the diverse conflicting and dialectical psychic relationships every individual establishes with them.

 

Chapter Three - Freudian Culture

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Thoughts on the genealogy of Freudian Kultur

The German feminine noun die Kultur is derived from the Latin word cultura, which comes from the verb colere (colui, cultus), cultivate, work the soil, and by extension, to inhabit, care for.

What is the source of Kultur in Freud, and how did he use it? To answer that question, I must clarify some points:

The German notion of Kultur

According to Norbert Elias (Elias, 1939), the German notion Kultur is to be understood in terms of its conflicting relationship with that of Zivilization, which is connected with the historical conflict between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. It was the creation of German intellectuals belonging to the moyenne bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century, in opposition to the court society influenced by the French aristocracy and its civilisation, dominant in European courts, but it was also as part of a search for characteristics and values of “German national” identity that was inherent in the difficulties of political and territorial unification. Kultur essentially designates religious, artistic, and intellectual “achievements”, thus tending to establish a fairly clear dividing line with the social, economic, and political deeds typifying groups and national differences.

 

Chapter Four - Ideas and Criticisms of Sociologists and Anthropologists

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In the first part of this chapter, I shall discuss the principal representatives of sociology and anthropology among Freud's contemporaries, the majority of them, unfortunately, not well known, even not known at all, by him, something that led him to develop original, personal socio-anthropological ideas based on his psychoanalytical theoretical corpus and taking neurosis and dreams as a model. In the second part, I shall explore certain themes and issues Freud dealt with, which, along with certain sociologists and anthropologists, I shall criticise. Among these themes and issues figure his portrayal of the relationships between the individual and society, his evolutionary thought, symbolism, the idea of group mind. Finally, I shall question his inattention to language, another major social institution.

The sociologist and anthropologist Roger Bastide (Bastide, 1950) proposed identifying two parts in Freud's work: a social psychology, which is confused with individual psychology, and a psychoanalytical sociology based on instincts, Eros and instincts of destruction, the vicissitudes of their modes of fusion-defusion but also on the transformations of Eros. Freud's psychoanalytical sociology does not take into account the work done in sociology in his time, such as that of the founding fathers, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. So, his work constitutes a personal reflection on social matters.

 

Chapter Five - The Freudian Notion of Kulturarbeit

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Thoughts about the genealogy and the problems involved in the translation of Kulturarbeit

Kulturarbeit is a word composed of Kultur and Arbeit. It raises many different kinds of questions for us.

Regarding its structure, which reflects certain linguistic characteristics of the German language

The German language can, in fact, combine, put together, several words to form a single word. Very often the combination of words serves to fine-tune the original words.

What are the principles of composition underlying Kulturarbeit?

It is the conjunction of two “genuine” nouns. Somewhat in the manner of an adjective, the first noun, Kultur (culture or civilisation, the determiner) qualifies the second noun Arbeit (work, determined as the principal term). Nevertheless, Jean Laplanche, the scientific director of the German to French translation of Freud's complete works (Freud, 2010), considers that, depending on the terms under consideration, the notion of “qualifying” has its limitations and the terminology must respond to a twofold concern to detect in a precise way the relation or, more often, relations existing between the two terms, but also to opt for a translation that preserves the polysemy and sometimes ambiguousness involved in linking them (Laplanche, 1989, p. 59). Thus, depending on the case, he might choose the adjectival form (cultural work or cultural activity) or the definite form (work of civilisation), for example. However, in most cases Laplanche's translation team chose the adjectival form (cultural work), without ever opting for the definite form.

 

By way of Conclusion

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Having come to the end of my exploratory investigation of Freudian depictions of society and culture, both of these notions often being used interchangeably, what might I say about it?

In the first place, society and culture prove to be omnipresent and omnipotent for us, both in psychoanalysis and in Freud's life's work, in particular through “reality” and the “external world”, terms belonging to metapsychological language, on the basis of which the ego is differentiated from the id of every individual and, correlatively, the substitution of the reality principle for the pleasure principle effected what Freud considered to be a “psychic revolution” leading to the transformation of the pleasure-ego into a reality-ego. These expressions principally designate socio-cultural reality and less frequently nature or material reality. Society and culture are the sources and places of “external real necessity”, of the “power of the present”, of constraints, demands, and “failure to provide satisfaction”, but also of drive satisfaction and of actions, particularly aiming at adaptations, modifications, even mastery and sought-after satisfaction. From that point on, they will compel each person to engage in ongoing psychic work throughout his or her entire life.

 

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