Hiljaista Pohdintaa

Hiljaista Pohdintaa

keskiviikko 24. elokuuta 2011

Freud ja demokraattinen kulttuurivallankumous

Freudin teorioiden analyysi ja kritiikki partikularistis-yhteisöllisestä ja kristillisestä näkökulmasta.

From the discontinued site "The New Pantagruel: Hymns in the Whorehouse".

Psychological Man: Eros and Ambition in Democratic Desire
by Stephen L. Gardner

In early June 2006, ISI Books is publishing a reissue of Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic. This will mark the 40th anniversary of the book’s 1966 release. An introduction is included by E. Lasch-Quinn, and there are two critical essays to be included, one by Wilfred McClay, and the following essay by Steven Gardner.

    Although Freud denied the divine, he did not deny his own divine capacity—to theorize. Before theorizing was distinguished from theologizing, to theorize was considered a way of seeing God. Now it is considered merely a necessity, something men are compelled to do if they are to become god-like. –Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic

    This escape into a conceit of freedom, as if there were nothing sacred, poses a nice contrast with the fact that every great revealer, Freud included, must depend for his creative power on the concealing character of his vision, the blindly obedient eye of it. […] The final truth of Freud’s vision is in the one thing he will not see, except in delicately balanced distortions and at safe distances, hidden behind newly acceptable surrogates. –Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist


The figure of Freud is unavoidable for anyone who wishes to take Philip Rieff’s “sociology of culture” seriously. The principal object of this sociology is modern “therapeutic culture,” a moral universe bred by modern democracy and dedicated to the supposedly salvific power of personal freedom as an end in itself. Rieff arrived at the notion of the “therapeutic” through a critical understanding of Freud both profound and original. In Freud he detected a cultural revolution etched in the psychic economy of democratic man. Through the prism of his sociology, psychoanalysis discloses a “symbolic order” of religion inscribed in insoluble conflicts of the modern self. But it is a degraded order, religion having lost its medicinal properties in the public realm with the rise of democracy. Instead of curing the modern individual of inner conflicts by integrating him into a substantive community and lifting him above himself to a higher plane of being, it tormented him and made him sicker.

On Philip Rieff’s telling, Sigmund Freud is, in effect, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, a paradox not as absurd as it sounds. Freud is the theologian not of orthodox belief, needless to say, but of the primordial power of the sacred as it throws its shadow over a modern psyche that can neither accept it nor throw it off. The inescapable power of the sacred is disclosed paradoxically in its decline, in the traces it leaves in the modern psyche. In early exponents of therapeutic culture such as Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D. H. Lawrence, Rieff saw a recrudescence of the sacred that even Freud would be powerless to repress. Freud’s genius did not attempt to resolve definitively the contradictions of the modern psyche but merely to reconcile it to them. His schismatic disciples, though, wanted to invent therapeutic religions based on the redemptive power of “emancipated” desire. Rieff thus rescued the inventor of psychoanalysis from his epigones and therapeutic rivals as well as from his detractors—yet not, perhaps, from himself.

The purpose of this essay is twofold. The first is to describe the sociological type that Rieff introduced in his peerless Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) and made the leading idea of his critique of democratic culture in the present volume, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966). Rieff christens this type “Psychological Man” and contrasts it to other major types supplying Western civilization with its leitmotifs: Greco-Roman Political Man, Jewish and Medieval Religious Man, and early modern Economic Man, the predecessor and condition of Psychological Man. The latter is the lens through which Rieff magnifies and examines the cultural revolution brought on by democracy.

Second, its purpose is to probe the limits of Freud as a tacit sociologist of Psychological Man and to examine the elements of psychoanalysis that stop short of full disclosure. For Freud not only (implicitly) discerned Psychological Man as a new historical type; he was also Psychological Man himself and his advocate. In bringing Psychological Man to the highest pitch of analytic self-knowledge without actually transforming him, he also sanctioned his fictions and delusions, albeit not in the crude forms of the “therapeutics” who followed him. Psychoanalysis is as much about finding strategies to protect democratic myths from reality as it is about helping democratic man come to terms with that reality. It is a negotiated solution to the quixotic collisions between reality and imagination that beset the mentality of democratic man. Put another way, psychoanalysis does not so much overcome the native fictions of democratic man as refine them with such subtlety that their conflict with reality can be temporized, postponed, kept in suspense. The illusions of the “neurotic,” the type in which Freud diagnosed the characteristic crises of the modern self, have a very short life cycle; something more sophisticated, agile, and durable is called for. But it is still imaginary all the same. And so, I suggest, Freud justifies the constitutive myth of democratic man, the myth of his own freedom, spontaneity, individuality, and originality.

A New Culture and a New Human Being

As embodied in Psychological Man and his Viennese exemplar, Rieff suggests that the modern revolution is above all a cultural revolution, more profound than any merely political or economic one. The engine of this revolution is the rise of democracy, which radically alters the nature of human relations and generates its own indigenous culture. Modern equality utterly transforms social relations, not just on the political or economic level on which human beings act representatively, as members of groups or as bearers of rights, but far more interestingly, in the realm of personal life. Human relations are at bottom always relations of individuals, and it is here that the democratic revolution has utterly transformed moral understandings sanctified by time immemorial—especially, needless to say, in the realm of relations between the sexes, and by the same token, within the sexes as well. By removing or crippling the old formalities and conventions of social life, democracy creates a culture in which individuals are supposedly free to relate to each other simply as such—as pure individuals or pure “natural” beings, as it were. This idea of nature evidently presupposes the total socialization of man, but in a way unlike any other society. Believing that they are children of Eden, these “emancipated” democrats act out the latest script written for them by popular culture.

This revolution is further registered in the emergence of a new kind of human being, a new “species” or configuration of the self, quickened by the rise of modern equality. In the political or anthropological context of Alexis de Tocqueville, we might call this democratic man. But what is his character, the formula of his soul, so far as this is a sociologically determinable and describable pattern? Rieff’s answer is Psychological Man, as most perceptively revealed by Freud. In what Rieff approvingly calls the “analytic attitude,” we gain a clear, if problematic, glimpse into the modern soul, what makes it tick, and its peculiar problems. Freud’s analysis, though not sufficient, is nonetheless indispensable.

The cultural revolution of democracy produces not just a new culture but a new kind of culture, which Rieff sometimes calls an anti-culture, along with a new kind of man. In this therapeutic culture, a new public comes into being, predicated on the private individual and his affairs and relations. Popular culture, sustained by modern media and the market, is the natural habitat of the post-Freudian Psychological Man. It thrives on the ascendancy of private life not just over, but in, the public domain. This new public, which has been emerging at least since the Enlightenment, is a decisive historical condition not just for Psychological Man, but even for the scientific ambitions of a Freud. Freud himself obviously became an icon in this new public. Indeed, by now he is passé.

The ease with which Freud has been absorbed into democratic culture suggests the sociological limits of psychoanalysis, especially its “libidinal theory of desire.” Freud, on Rieff’s reading, is a discerning archeologist of the subterranean shifts and mutations of culture and society. That is why it is plausible to base a sociology on him; he is already implicitly a sociologist. But Freud is not merely a tacit analyst of the democratic revolution in the modern soul. He is himself a product, reflection, and dedicated advocate of it (psychologically if not always politically). His work does not simply reveal this revolution for what it is; it also mirrors it, that is, reflects it in ways that conceal it. He does not merely debunk modern myths; he also reproduces them. This is not uncommon; the most radical of modern critics are often the most radical of modern mythologists: consider Marx, for example. In fact, Freud gives certain democratic myths a “scientific” form, all the better to sanctify them. He articulates the type of Psychological Man, but only from Psychological Man’s own point of view. And so he keeps his secrets even as he intimates them.

Freud offers an indispensable orientation to the psyche of modern man, but he is also a barrier to deciphering adequately the secret mechanisms of modern man’s passions. Ironically, this is not because they are buried in the unconscious depths of the body, as depth psychologists might like to think. Rather it is because they are so near at hand, on the surface, right beneath our noses. What obscures them are the mythemes of depth psychology itself, above all the idea of the somatic unconscious canonized in the libidinal theory of desire. In his book on Freud, Rieff shows that his somatic theory of desire is a “scientific” decantation of romanticism. But romanticism, I suggest, is the “natural religion” of democratic culture, its spontaneous mythology, which Freud baptizes in affording it one of its most sophisticated intellectual justifications and forms. The fundamental exigency of democratic culture is the claim to originality, individuality, or genius. In a world of equality, everyone must distinguish himself in order to count. These are constitutive dogmas of romanticism. Freud’s somatic theory of unconscious libido serves the romanticism of democratic culture in two ways: first, it ascribes this originality or individuality to virtually everyone, in the unconscious “poetry” of their desires; and second, as Mikkel Borsch-Jacobsen has shown (The Freudian Subject, 1988), it underwrites Freud’s own claim to genius.

According to René Girard, the literary critic and anthropologist of religion, desire in the honorifically human sense is not determined either simply by the object of desire (as Plato thought) or by the subject of desire (as Freud thought), but by the relation of individuals who acquire desires by imitating each other’s passions. Desire is fundamentally “mimetic.” Borch-Jacobsen demonstrates that this notion of desire is present in Freud, too, running like a thread throughout his career, but it is marginalized, acknowledged in order to be denied, in favor of the libido theory. The mimetic character of desire is a constant companion of psychoanalysis, reflected in the concepts of identification, hypnosis, dreaming, and so on, but it is meant to be seen and not heard. The reasons for this, I suggest, do not lie in the empirical facts of desire (in the age of consumerism and advertising, mimesis is scarcely to be concealed) but in the cultural exigencies of democracy. All the same, it is testimony to the power of Freud’s mind that he intimates this “surface” even as he attempts to submerge it in the murk of the “depths.” Freud obscures the truth of human desire in such a way as to disclose it nonetheless. This is a second reason why he is indispensable to the sociology (or better, anthropology) of what may be called “democratic desire.”

Few today see much value in Freud. Who believes his scientific or therapeutic claims anymore? What new psychological discoveries have been made by psychoanalysis in the last forty or fifty years? His “science” has gone the way of Marx’s. Yet Freud comes into his own precisely when he ceases to be taken seriously as a scientist or doctor. He must be liberated from these settings before his real significance can be appreciated. It is when he is no longer studied or taught in psychology departments or as “medicine” that his psychological and anthropological revelations may disclose themselves—if not exactly in the way he intended. Philip Rieff appreciated the real significance of Freud because he was not a psychologist but a sociologist, and not just any sociologist, but one who understood both the religious nature of social order and its crystallization—or decomposition, as the case may be—in the psyche of the individual. The scientist’s loss is the sociologist’s gain. In Rieff’s sociology, there is an intimate link, of a sort that goes back to Plato, between outer order and the inmost structure of the psyche of the individual. This linkage may be designated the sacred; sacred order is psychic order. Social order, in other words, is grounded in religion or transcendental authority, but this principle is maintained only if it is realized in the structure of the individual, his character. And it is just this “law” that Rieff discerns in Freud in the way of a photographic negative; there he sees the residual though still potent traces of authority that remain in the mind of the individual, even as that authority loses its traditional status in the social world itself.

It is not always easy to distinguish Rieff from Freud, in part because Rieff explains the nuances of Freud’s thought so well. Yet though Rieff (rightly) makes Freud the key to the cultural revolution because of his tacit recognition of Psychological Man, Freud also poses an obstacle to a complete understanding of it. The analyst of unconscious desire may be the starting point of a sociology of cultural revolution, but unless we be all Freudians, he cannot be the end of it. The sober lucidity, the sheer power of intellect Rieff reveres in Freud’s “analytic attitude”—worth so much more than the pseudo-theological speculations of the “therapeutics”—is nonetheless deceptive. Is Psychological Man as transparent to the analyst as Freud would like to assume? Freud’s sober analytic restraint, abandoned by his “therapeutic” successors who tried to use psychoanalysis to reinvent religion, still harbors nevertheless a delusion. His muscular intellect is a subtler form of Prometheanism, a deification of the willful intellect, a cult of intelligence substituted for other therapeutic cults. If there is anything modernity teaches, though, it is the fallacy of the philosopher’s belief in the redemptive power of the mind. Psychological Man (the man, not the type) is a centaur, half man and half myth. He may like to imagine that in psychoanalysis and in its derivatives he has reached the summit of human self-knowledge. But he is still wrapped securely in democratic myths.

Philip Rieff as Sociologist of the Bourgeois Revolution

Almost half a century ago, Philip Rieff came to realize what by now is surely incontestable: That we were—and still are—and in the midst of a revolution, not political or economic as on the classic French or Marxian models, but cultural and psychological, and therefore all the more profound. The rise of democracy and equality, the loss of authority and hierarchical order that has defined the modern world, have produced not just a change in regime but a virtual transformation in human character. The “surface effects” of this revolution—though here surface and depth are difficult to distinguish—seem obvious. To name some of the most striking, these include: a corrosion of the distinction between public and private spheres; an “ethics” of entitlement and victimology; and a popular and consumer culture dedicated to explicit sexuality and to an equally obsessive cult of violence, as if they were twin paradigms of freedom. In general, this panoply reflects the emancipation of desire that accompanied the advance of equality; these phenomena are the contemporary issue of what we may call democratic desire.

The modern revolution reaches “all the way down,” or at least as far down as one can go to reconfigure human character without changing human nature or altering the human condition itself. The anthropological core of these “effects,” so to speak, is the appearance of a new human “species”—a social type whose passions are structured according to the same ultimate laws of human nature, yet unlike the citizen of any prior regime. Sigmund Freud, claimed Philip Rieff, was the presiding deity of the new type, its theoretical muse. It was in Freud the bourgeois “moralist”—not Marx, not Nietzsche, nor any other of the standard gurus of European radicalism—that Rieff detected the index of the most consequential revolution in history.

All human beings, it is supposed, are psychological in some sense or other, but Rieff’s Psychological Man is an individual who is morally detached from communal order and rendered, at least in his own psyche, the free agent of his desires, the demigod of his eros and ambitions. Imagine a character who is neither outside nor above the social order (like a mystic or a monk) yet not at home within it, a social yet a-social individual, able neither to transcend society nor to identify with it. Here was an individual who was in the world, but not of it—but not for religious or philosophical reasons, not because he was a saint or a Socrates. Nor is Psychological Man necessarily a bohemian rebel, a romantic poet, or a social revolutionary. Rather, his relation to society is not negative so much as it is tepid, ambivalent, remote, unstable, potentially volatile, characterized by a possibly subdued but never eliminable sense of dis-ease, an inability to fully accept any strong authority, communal or otherwise. Such an individual is unable to find adequate satisfaction by immersing himself either in the common good or in the higher spiritual ambitions of traditional culture, in art, religion, and philosophy. He remains subject to the limits of nature and society, of course, but only as external forces or obstacles, alien powers that may be parried or negotiated, exploited or resisted, if never finally defeated. Yet the evisceration of religion and tradition and the weakening of communal bonds are registered with seismographic precision in his inner conflicts, the colliding vectors of his “psychology.” In the absence of a vital tradition, such an individual is left to fend for himself, morally and psychologically. Without the magnetism of communal integration, he is forced, as it were, to create himself, to become the author of his “personality.” This, however, is as much an index of defensiveness as it is of freedom. In previous social orders, the cultivation of self was devoted to something outside and higher than the self, whether political, religious, or intellectual. Then one could speak of “soul” or “spirit.” The modern world, however, creates an individual for whom the highest ideal is the “self” itself, the pervasive theme of which is nothing higher than freedom.

The therapeutic image of the modern individual as both victim of and rebel against his own conscience provided the basis for Rieff’s sociological type of modernity. The Psychological Man Rieff discerned in Freudian anthropology is essentially a contradiction. A creature of not finally satisfiable instincts, impulses, and desires, in endless tension with himself and society, he is tragically doomed. The creator of psychoanalysis set out to ease his condition, to make it bearable. Freud, as Rieff suggests, is thus a doctor of the damned. Theorized in the twilight zone between old and new orders, the vexed mixture of ancien régime and modern democracy typical of western Europe between 1789 and 1945, Freud’s psychology is a prophylactic effort to protect the modern self from the waning vestiges of a political-theological authority long since in decline but unable simply to vanish. That authority, Freud thought, might once have had the power to heal, but now it could only sicken. Freud set himself the task of extirpating its residual effects, not in society but in the individual—to liberate the individual in his private desires and ambitions from the shadow of the father (both earthly and heavenly). To kill the father—symbolically speaking—is for Freud the key to “mental health.” Freud is the true revolutionary of modernity; he deciphers the parricide in its dreams of revolution. If he rejects actual murder (as opposed to Marx and Nietzsche) in favor of a symbolic one, it is not because he is less revolutionary but because he is more so. It is the symbolism itself that must be killed, or at least rendered impotent in the mind of the individual, just as Zeus killed Chronos.

Rieff first presented Psychological Man as a guiding hypothesis for a still inchoate “sociology of culture.” It was an expressly experimental and exploratory idea. The revolution Rieff sought to describe, a description no one else had before attempted, was still partly underground. The signs were certainly available in Freud, Nietzsche, and some novelists and dramatists, but none had grasped this character as generative of his own culture, the “therapeutic.” Although in principle accomplished by mid-century, the implications of this revolution would unfold fully only in the decade of the sixties and after. As Freud well understood, the vestiges of authority and tradition die hard. First recorded in the Jazz Age by novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, these implications were evidently delayed by the Depression and the Second World War, if only briefly. To Freud, the outlines of Psychological Man had appeared at least as early as the first decade of the twentieth century in Vienna, itself a borderline world between the new and the old. Since then the revolution has only accelerated; no political barrier in the Western world has been proof against it.

The sixties were as much effect as cause; they registered deep cultural shifts well underway long before that particular denouement. These appear to be as unstoppable as what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “social power” of democracy. As Tocqueville profoundly understood, the collective force of “society” is unleashed, paradoxically, by the rise of individualism and a culture founded on choice. Social power—the anonymous and irresistible pressure of “society” over and against the individuals who make it up—results not from the suppression of liberty but from its emancipation. The collective product of individual freedom produces a “mechanism” beyond any human power to abrogate. It transcends the partisan divide of our political culture, both wings of which, each in their own unique libertarian ways, have contributed to its acceleration. This essentially antitraditional, anticonservative revolution of democratic modernity penetrates everywhere. Even conservatism has succumbed to it, as the rise of “neoconservatism” demonstrates.

Contrary to Marx, this revolution is deeper than politics and economics; it operates on the level of culture, in Rieff’s terms the “symbolic order” of “interdicts” and “remissions,” the prohibitions and permissions that intimately structure the self-image of human beings, their inner and outer lives. And in any case, this cultural transformation is the very “bourgeois revolution” Marx feared and despised—and to which he thought, absurdly, the fiction of the Proletarian Revolution was an antidote. As Rieff points out, Psychological Man presupposes his immediate predecessor, Economic Man, and is his historical consequence. And as Rieff also suggests, Marx and his Communist progeny were a perverse sort of “conservative” reaction against this bourgeois revolution.

The establishment of liberal economics and constitutional regimes is not the culmination of this revolution but the premise of its complete unfolding. Consumerism radicalizes democracy by contagiously insinuating certain ideas, including the legitimacy of desire and the fallacy of limits. The bourgeois or democratic revolution is not merely the product of a Nietzschean elite of creative “supermen” or “advanced” artists or intellectuals. It is a revolution of mores, one driven by the power of democracy itself, especially as this operates through the “empowerment” of the market and popular culture. The avant-garde, so-called, merely rides its crest. Imagining that it is revolting against mass democracy, it supplies it with cultural proto-types that are quickly integrated into its economy, thereby rendering them dull and routine. A measure of the power of this process may be gauged by the degree to which Marx and Nietzsche have long since been adopted in the academy as conventional icons of democratic ideology.

Psychological Man is an anthropological reflex of the rise of democracy or equality; it fleshes out Alexis de Tocqueville’s distinction between selfishness and democratic individualism. The former is a universal human trait that every social order serves to temper, while the latter is a withdrawal of the individual from his fellow citizens, a retreat into himself and the privacy typical of modern society, where the weakening of social bonds and the rise of competitive equality leaves the individual more or less exposed. Whereas all prior orders served to draw the individual out of himself, the democratic order gives him reasons to retreat into a moral and psychic defensiveness. But the inwardness into which he withdraws is not that of traditional contemplation. Psychological Man is man conscious of himself as a creature of “psychology,” in which forces of nature and society vie for supremacy over a tortured “self” in a battle that can never be finally resolved. Freudian man is thus a potentially volatile mix of natural instincts and social contaminations (or of unconscious forces welling up out of the libidinal deep of the body), and symbolisms and structures derived from outer life. The modern “self” in question is by definition borderline, because it belongs (that is, feels it belongs) neither wholly within nor without society. Yet the part of Psychological Man’s self that cannot be satisfied or absorbed in “the world” has no higher being to which to appeal, as in traditional religion or philosophy. For him, the desiring “self” itself becomes an object of desire, the aim of ambition. The function of psychoanalysis or of virtually any other mode of therapeutic psychology is to “emancipate” the self of desire, to free it from or reconcile it to whatever obstructions, inner or outer, it must contend with. The premise of modern psychology is the cult of desire.

For this new type, psychology would replace ontology or theology, and therapy would replace community, hitherto the most potent psychic medicines in Western culture. Emancipated by modern technology, commerce, law, and consumerism from integral community, the modern individual found himself abandoned to contradictory passions and impulses and alienated from the remnants of a cultural order that, nonetheless, he could not do without. He thus entered into the twilight zone of modernity, the realm of ambivalences and ambiguities that ensue when every fixed point of reference is dissolved into the sheer interplay of individuals in a culture that can no longer sustain its origins. Freud appeared as his savior and advocate, the inventor of a technique of survival not physical but psychical. He promised to teach the modern individual how to desire in a world where all desires were equal and arbitrary, void of any intrinsic order, but not necessarily equally permissible or socially estimable. Here was a human type where interiority and its dilemmas were not a mark of the spiritual or transcendent but exactly of their absence, at best of their fading images—where interiority and the sense of alienation from the outer reflect the social fact of “negative community.”

It is this massive cultural revolution that Rieff’s sociological exegesis of Freud brought into view. The outer world of consumerism and popular culture belies inwardly the world of an individual who is the captive of desires he can neither entirely abandon nor ever truly satisfy. The modern world makes a virtue of this fate and turns it to profitable advantage. In Freud, this individual acquires his first true advocate–not a savior, exactly, but someone who will defend the legitimacy of his condition, his “right” to desire, founded evidently in its inescapable necessity, its tragic fatality. He becomes the sympathetic object of a “science” and a therapy whose aim is to help him negotiate his “self,” the “subject” of desires surrounded by a world of greater or lesser obstacles within which he must sink or swim.

The fundamental law of Psychological Man is the law of temporization, to keep things going, in the absence of any definitive, authoritative ends. The problem for Psychological Man is not, finally, that of the satisfaction of desire, because he is conditioned in advance by the knowledge that desire is inherently unsatisfiable, at least in any definitive, classical, or teleological sense. His problem, rather, is how to keep desiring in the face of that knowledge. His aim is how to postpone the inevitable, the end of desire. His greatest fear is Pascalian boredom, the helpless feeling of not being able to desire, the loss of the power of distraction. The individual who is to survive in the modern world must become the “genius” of himself, the artist of his desires as the vital source of his being. In crafting a “scientific” advocacy for this individual, Freud wanted to help him become his own advocate, the negotiator of his desires, mediating between his eros and the demands of society. In Freud, Psychological Man came of age; in Freud, he found his classic exemplar, his ethical model, his theorist, and his doctor.

Bourgeois Revolution as Cultural Revolution

A political revolution changes the outward institutions of society and relations of individuals so far as they are identified by estate, function, or social position. It alters individual relations by changing the relations of the groups to which they belong, such as social classes. But it is not the group as such that lives, as if it had a conscious mind of its own; it is individuals. A cultural revolution transforms relations between individuals as such because it transforms the ways in which human beings see themselves and each other in the core of their being. 1789 and 1917—the French and the Bolshevik revolutions—loom so large in the political and social discourse of the West that they have served to obscure this fact, superficially pressing everything into a political or economic mold. They have largely defined what the word revolution means in social history and politics. And they conform to the political notion of revolution implicit, for example, in Anglo-Saxon liberalism. But not all political revolutions effect cultural revolutions—indeed, they may be reactions to cultural revolution, attempts to forestall it. Modernity has unfolded with such velocity in the last century that it has provoked profound revolts against its unnerving acceleration, often under the rubric of a final revolution—a revolution to end all revolutions, such as that of Marx. “All that is solid melts in the air,” Marx famously complained about the bourgeois revolution; it created an intolerable sense of vertigo, like Hegel’s topsy-turvy world.

On the other hand, not all cultural revolutions are political revolutions, because human character and the “idiom” of personal relations may be transformed deeply without fundamentally altering larger institutional frameworks. Because of its bias toward universals, philosophy seems able only to see society in terms of its (deliberative and lawful) political institutions. It usually sees individuals as exemplars of types, rarely in relation to other individuals. Except in extraordinary figures like Plato, as much a religious thinker as philosopher, cultural revolution has never been fully appreciated by philosophers as a sociological category more basic than politics. Thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville must not be confused with philosophers; when it comes to history, society, and politics, they are deeper than philosophers. Cultural revolution—that is, transformation of the very symbols in which human beings understand themselves—effects a wholesale transformation of life on the level of interpersonal relations where the human character is most intimately formed. More often than not, revolutions on this order of existence are registered only by novelists and dramatists, those who put the intellectual microscope to personal relations as such.

But that is not all. The peculiar character of the modern revolution is that it aims to emancipate interpersonal relations themselves—and individuals—from the rule of forms and institutions, to create a world in which, as Marx says in The German Ideology, individuals can relate to each other simply “as such,” without the interference of “distorting” social forms such as classes or states. In all previous orders, which are hierarchical, relations of individuals “as such” are usually confined to members of the same caste; society is divided into distinct orders. Thus, Marx says that in hierarchical orders—“class-divided” societies—the individual is a predicate of his own class, which is the true subject. This, it is assumed, is a violation of his true nature, of his freedom. The traditional mind itself might tell us—if only it could speak—that social conventions rest in part upon the intuitive fear that, envy and jealousy being intrinsic aspects of the human condition, a world in which individual relations are not ordered by a higher authority will inevitably disintegrate into violent rivalry and social conflict. Nevertheless, in the modern world there comes into being a culture, occupying an ever larger part of social life, in which individuals “as such” are invited to enter into relations, without the mediating role of traditional customs and conventions, whose authority is broadly identified with the past and regarded as supernatural. To borrow Richard Sennett’s phrase (The Fall of Public Man, 1976), this is alleged to be a “culture of intimacy,” in which individuals are “emancipated” from tradition and therefore able, for the first time since Paradise, to enter into supposedly direct, genuinely free relations with one another.

Just what sort of intimacy these “direct” relations produce, however, is registered in the pathologies of popular culture. Intimacy without form or the structure of “neutral” conventions that imply “roles” are usually volatile and unpredictable. At the very least, they tend to be unreliable and rarely durable, with a strong proclivity for violence and sudden reversals of the kind typical of “borderline” personalities (which are characterized by unstable oscillations between attraction and repulsion). In fact, a world of direct relations could be peaceful and stable only on the assumption, absurd on the face of it, that human beings are not essentially imitative. For if, as René Girard has argued, human beings are essentially “mimetic,” acquiring their passions and desires, like their language, from reciprocal association and imitation, they are as likely to become rivals and enemies as friends in a world of “direct” association. For then they come to desire the same things or become morbidly fixated on each other as competing models of “freedom.”

But there is another dimension to this. The pure individual, the natural man, the direct relation without formalities—all this seems (barring grace) only possible within the imaginary universe of popular culture. It is in that world, the aesthetic realm of “culture,” the new public created by democracy on the basis of mass media, that individuals appear simply “as such.” For this to be conceivable, evidently, human beings either would have to be assimilated to the world of popular culture—the realm of disembodied images and “representations” kept in circulation by the media and the market—or else popular culture would have to pervade everyday life with its self-images. The natural man of democracy is a conceit of modern media, an aesthetic myth that resides in the utopia of television and the movies. It is here that democracy creates a public culture based on the private individual and his affairs, free persons detached from any other responsibilities in life.

There is no doubt that this conception of personal relations lies at the heart of the cultural revolution that, as Rieff, Sennett, and others have shown from different points of view, has been underway at least since the eighteenth century and definitively triumphed after the Second World War. Rieff discerned the most radical effects of this revolution in the rise of “therapeutic culture,” one defined by its calculated lack of spiritual ambition in any traditional sense, religious, philosophical, political, or artistic. This therapeutic culture, note, is essentially post-Freudian. Freud could only make sense in a world in which the predicates of the passing world were being progressively annulled. He operated in a “Victorian” context in which traditional moral strictures (of which he largely approved) still operated, even though their spiritual rationale had been eviscerated; it was a world in which inner “emancipation” could be coupled with outer “repression”—a world where, in other words, the society had outpaced the culture. Yet Freudian Man achieves full citizenship in the post-Victorian World, where instead of having simply to adjust himself to an inherited culture or the vestiges of an old regime, he becomes creative of culture itself, a new sort of culture predicated on his inner emancipation. Without intending this result, Rieff shows, Freud’s therapeutic aims lent the new culture “scientific” legitimacy and moral inspiration. In the post-Freudian therapeutic culture, Psychological Man no longer hides himself in the analyst’s cabinet, but steps forth out of the private world and becomes creative of a new “culture” in its own right, a democratic, popular culture that revolves around the creative “geniuses” of various democratic selves. The dream as the wish-fulfillment of desire becomes the principle of a whole culture.

Freudian Libido as Democratic Desire

Freud presents us with the drama of a mythical collision of the mysterious deep of desire with the external world, tragically played out on the surface of the body, in consciousness, the ego. Instead of attempting to refute the libidinal theory of desire, it might be more pertinent to conclude by showing its democratic necessity—to show, that is, that it satisfies the exigencies of modern culture.

Freud did not merely analyze Psychological Man; he was also Psychological Man himself, and, as Rieff himself might well say, Freud’s revelation of Psychological Man is partly also a concealment—both of himself and his object. They can scarcely be separated. Freud reveals Psychological Man, but from Psychological Man’s own point of view. He tempers his self-image with the sobriety of analysis, but only in order to reinforce it. He teaches Psychological Man to live within his psychic means, all the better to preserve his self-image and protect his self-esteem. What is most likely to disturb this negotiated balance is the proud man’s contumely. The central faith of Psychological Man, a man who has rejected all other faiths, is the belief in his own freedom. In a world predicated on radical equality, he is compelled to maintain his own individuality, his power to be the master of himself. The idea of “uniqueness” is a defense-mechanism of democratic man, a main prop of the cultural revolution of democracy. And it underwrites the “therapeutic” ideal. Freud’s anthropology and especially his understanding of unconscious libido reflects the ideological bias of modern democracy; it gives it scientific expression and so confers on it the aspect of religious dogma, revealed truth. The Freudian theory of desire serves to legitimate the “freedom” of democratic desire, its fantasies of originality, spontaneity, or autonomy.

Psychological Man gives rise to a social order composed of individuals who no longer see themselves in terms of social order (in the strong sense of overarching communal purpose or authority), but who nevertheless cannot disentangle themselves from it. For such a human being, man is essentially a creature of “desire,” where desire can only be satisfied in or through some element of society—other human beings—yet where desire itself is felt to “express” the individual. Psychological Man believes in the spontaneity of his desire, has faith that it originates (or ought to originate) from deep within himself. Desire, for him, is social in object yet subjective in origin. That, at least, is how he wishes to see the matter. He rejects the classical view of Aristotle that there is a natural order of desire, that there are “ends in themselves” embedded in the very nature of human passion, which could be educated to perceive them. He rejects Plato’s notion that desire is determined by the nature of its object, real or apparent. For him, it is not objects that give birth to desire, but desire that invests objects with their value. However social it may be, however obstructed or deflected, Psychological Man clings to his desire as to his quintessence; his desire is his “true” self, the passion that constitutes his being. Freud may temper this view of the self in constant erotic tension with society with the sobriety of a libidinal economist, but he does not overcome its romanticism. Rather, he translates romantic imagination into the “scientific” objectivity of the “analytic” attitude. The body, not the mind, is now the principle of individuation, and the unconscious is a reservoir of instinct that the individual holds in reserve against the incursions of social order. Freud’s libidinal theory of desire—the notion that desires well up from the hidden recesses of the body and invest conscious life with meanings and values of their own—is a tribute to the romantic theory of spontaneity, the refusal of the modern individual to see himself as a creature of a society that nevertheless supplies him with the sole horizon of his being.

Desire is the mark of individuality. Freudian analysis sanctifies this premise and nowhere surpasses it. Freud’s critique of desire rests on the ultimate dogma of desire itself. The libidinal theory, and Freud’s theories of the unconscious, of instinct, and of the role of the body, are stratagems by which to protect desire from the damning insinuations of modern society. Modern society humiliates the individual by incessantly exposing the social derivations of his desires; psychoanalysis protects him from this revelation by placing nature in the individual unconscious, pushing it beneath the surface of social interaction and protecting it from the incursions of society. It saves the originality of desire, the last vestige of romantic “genius” in the world of modern democracy and ultimately of consumerism. Yet if there is anything that the mocking transparency of modern society shows, it is just how shallow this unconscious libidinal reservoir is. Modern society seems dedicated to the revelation of just how completely social we are. Were it not for the infectious influences of society, it would be hard to explain the pathologies of desire, for example their propensity for intensification beyond all limits. Is infinity a sign of instinct, as Freud might have us believe? Then animals must be true romantics. The infinity of desire, the aggressive destruction of limits, is a hallmark of romantic eros, not a natural aspect of libido; it is a product of social amplification, the competitive rivalries and vain comparisons of human beings. It is difficult to imagine that the balloon of consumerism could be kept aloft by libidinal desire alone.

Freud has a power of discernment in his depiction of human relations that sometimes matches that of the higher novelists. He sees the rivalries, deceptions, fatuities, and soap-opera qualities of relations—the envies, jealousies, and love-and-hate triangles strewn throughout the psychic lives of modern individuals. No one can describe better than Freud the absurdity of the obsessions and fixations of the neurotic. No one has intimated so well the hidden links between the two great forms of desire, eros and ambition. Even so, Freud reveals the tragicomedy of modern relations only within the limits imposed by its spontaneous myths, without seeing how it is just these myths that consign them to tragicomedy. The elemental myth of modern democracy is that of a “metaphysical” freedom—the notion that the individual must be the autonomous author of his own passion as of his true self, the source of his own being, if not biologically at least morally and psychically. This myth of freedom is the constitutive conceit of democratic culture. It is not to be confused with ordinary liberty or responsibility. Modern man is afflicted with a craving to see himself as the origin of his own being. As Freud remarked, the neurotic wants to be his own father—that is, the father himself. Freud’s theory of desire is calculated to preserve this illusion by abandoning all the others, the secondary or tertiary fantasies, the crudely neurotic ones, that must be strategically surrendered so as to preserve this, the mother-lode of democratic myths, the crux of modern “self-esteem.” I must at all costs be able to believe in my own originality.

If Freud insists upon the primacy of sexual passion in the economy of psychic life and human relations, it is because this confirms the Romantic and democratic myth of freedom, the spontaneity of the individual. If he folds ambition (social desire) back into eros (erotic desire), it is not because the empirical evidence supports this (it doesn’t and couldn’t), but because romanticism demands it. Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it. It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his “individuality.” The body must be the true “subject” of desire, because the individual must be the author of his own desire. This is why Freud must concoct his strange metaphysics of the “unconscious,” the hidden self, the reservoirs of desire buried in the body’s recesses. This is an invention calculated to protect the individual from the shocks of social life, the assault upon his pretense of freedom made by modern democracy, which incessantly humiliates him with the revelation of his social and imitative nature.

The psychoanalytic strategy, however, suggests the independence if not the priority of ambition, since it belies the social determination of desire—its subjection to the comparisons and competitive rivalries of equality. Ironically, as Borsch-Jacobsen has shown, Freud’s theory of eros was more a reflection of Freud’s ambition than of his eros. But then, eros itself may be a peculiar component of modern ambition; in a public culture dominated by erstwhile private life, eros itself may become an ambition, a career path. Philip Rieff brilliantly distinguished the analytic from the therapeutic bent of Freud’s remarkable intellect. And he saw that the prophetic aspirations of the therapeutic theorists who followed him diluted or drained Freud’s insights into the insoluble conflicts of the modern psyche. In the end, though, even the lucidity and intellectual self-reliance of Freud’s “analytic attitude” reflect a resigned admission that modern desire is a lost cause, yet still cannot be abandoned. It is, for the psychoanalyst, all there is.

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