Freudian psychoanalysis is outdated yet it's still used to explain culture. Steven Connor argues that we must ditch reliance on 'the unconscious' as we try to understand our changing lives
Right now, departments of literature, film, gender and cultural studies are planning their teaching for next year. In many of the resulting introductory courses, psychoanalysis will feature prominently alongside feminism, queer theory, deconstruction and the rest of the Swiss army knife of interpretative techniques with which students are now kitted out. This enthusiasm for Freud's great theory will not be shared, however, in departments of psychology. Far fewer of these will allow psychoanalysis any significant role in their teaching.
I have never had analytic training, nor ever been in analysis. And I think I am as likely to enter holy orders as I am to pursue either option in the future. While I have no reason to doubt the value in certain circumstances of the different forms of what is nowadays called "psychotherapy", I have only intermittently felt the pull to believe in any of the systematic forms of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique.
I think that, when pressed on the matter of its credentials, many of those teaching psychoanalysis in English departments and elsewhere would probably not be prepared to accord it significantly greater scientific standing or therapeutic efficacy than astrology or aromatherapy. And yet I have rattled out these lectures and even turned in a few psychoanalytically inflected readings in my time (look, I was young, I needed the money). You will find similar episodes in the back catalogues of many writers and critics of culture.
But, far from expiring in this atmosphere of tepidly tolerant semi-respect, the culture of psychoanalysis is stronger than ever when it comes to the analysis of culture itself. In seminar rooms across the Anglo-American world, discussions of political and cultural relations shake down with alarming smoothness into the question of how states or groups are to confront, acknowledge and negotiate with "the Other". The brisk traffic in the concept of trauma, as applied not just to individuals but also to whole cultures - as in the notion of the trauma suffered by the US as the result of the World Trade Center attacks - is another example of the continuing authority of the psychoanalytic paradigm.
Or one could point to the remarkable continuing career of "hysteria". In my view, not only is there none in the world now, but there also never has been, not ever. This is not to say that none of the things that has been called hysteria was real. But it is to say that there never was a secret underlying cause for all these different pathologies and appearances, from flatulence and forgetfulness to full-blown paraplegia. Nowadays, you would be as taken aback to get a diagnosis of hysteria from your GP as to be told that you were possessed by Beelzebub. Yet the academic standing of hysteria, as a concept useful for discussing everything from anorexia to aesthetics, is undisturbed.
The profiles of cultural commentators who deploy psychoanalysis remain extremely high, whether one thinks of feminists such as Juliet Mitchell or Jacqueline Rose, theorists of the postcolonial condition such as Homi Bhabha, omnidirectional political opinionists such as Slavoj Žižek or pop ruminators on the modern soul such as Adam Phillips. Despite periodic denunciations of psychoanalysis, the authority accorded to it within popular culture itself also remains considerable. A couple of weeks ago Naomi Wolf could be heard declaring casually in the course of Channel 4's 100 Best Films evening that "society in transition always needs someone to act out its fears. Film is its therapy, its couch."
Psychoanalysis is sometimes called in to provide a punchline for commentaries that would otherwise fizzle away into the merest sez-me. Just the other day, Zoe Williams clinched a think-piece about the prominence of the buttocks in contemporary culture with a quotation from David Marriott, in which he skewered the alleged obsession with black bottoms as "extreme phallic fascination. Men want to penetrate women as if they were men...
That's a very simple narrative: that what people most want, they most disavow."
Why is psychoanalysis so indispensable for the analysis and understanding of culture? Perhaps one way to get at this is to ask the question the other way round. What is it about the idea of culture that seems to lend psychoanalysis its special role? As Terry Eagleton recently suggested, the idea of culture is one of the great unmolested orthodoxies of our time. We in the humanities may have ditched all the old big ideas like truth, human nature or the revolutionary destiny of the proletariat, but it is apparently not open to us to disbelieve in the shaping or determining power of culture. What do we mean by a culture, and why is this word so routinely preferred to the word "society", which almost totally dominated the field two decades ago?
To refer to an organised set of social habits, behaviours and relations as a "culture" is to see those habits, behaviours and relations as expressive rather than merely characteristic. Your culture is what you are rather than what you do. Most of us are still sceptical about the idea that the intricacy of the universe demands the existence of a creator, a "divine watchmaker" to bring order and reason to creation. But psychoanalysis encourages us to apply the same thinking when it comes to making sense of the intricacies of culture. Confronted with the evidence of culture, we think not "this must mean something", but rather, "something (some mind-like thing) must mean this".
If culture is expressive, then of what or of whom? In its concept of "the unconscious", psychoanalysis provides an answer to this. For this idea allows one to see actions and events that seem to be merely accidental, contingent or unwilled as having significance as the hidden underside of a consciousness. The defining move of psychoanalysis is not so much the discovery of the unconscious as the personalising and humanising of it - most of all by its trick of adding the definite article to the adjective: the unconscious.
If there were no such thing as unconscious actions and mental processes, I would not be able to hit a forehand or drive a car. But it is a huge leap from there to the idea that the sum total of everything of which I happen not to be aware, from the irritating way my hair sticks up at the back to the time of the last train to Weybridge, has a particular and defining shape, a shape that is not of me and yet somehow still mine precisely because I have repressed it. The difference between an individual and a culture is that an individual has conscious life without suspecting the existence of his unconscious life. With culture, as psychoanalytically construed, it is the other way round. Culture is brought into being by being made conscious of itself, through having its unconscious revealed and understood as such.
When Freud himself started to become interested in cultural questions from the 1920s onwards, he tended to characterise what he was doing as "mass psychology". Freud could conceive of nothing that lay in between "the individual" and "the mass". Mass psychology would either show the individual drawn back into the seething swamp of infantile instincts and gratifications that is the "mass mind", or in cases where the mass mind seems capable of something more, as in folksong and folklore, would see it beginning to exhibit the qualities of the individual mind.
Both psychoanalysts and Marxists now have a horror of this term "mass".
Perhaps this and the individualising of our contemporary mass existence both encourages and is encouraged by the propagation of psychoanalysis across so many areas of cultural analysis. The mass neither sucks us in nor bears darkly down on us. We have now moved into a phase in which we experience the collective not as an inchoate bog but as a fizzing mist of complex and changeable identifications and interactions. Our society is at once abstract and intimate, at once "out there" and in looming close-up. In what we could call an age of "extimacy", of ecstatic intimacy experienced at mediated arm's length, the anonymous is no longer impersonal.
Psychoanalysis may seem particularly adapted to responding to this new experience of collective life, in which, to adapt Dickens' Mrs Gradgrind, somebody must be feeling all this, but we cannot be sure it is us.
Psychoanalysis shows us what we take to be our own natures mirrored in the workings of culture, just as the sun gods and wood nymphs of other cultures once embodied human will and purpose at work in nature. Do we dread the condition of a soulless social life as we dread the prospect that we ourselves might be shown to be without a soul? The humanities traditionally see their job as safeguarding the realm of the human from the threat of the "machine", whether in the form of technology itself or the dehumanising machinery of society.
But this idea of the machine is hopelessly out of date. As our cultural lives become simultaneously more differentiated and more integrated, our best or better hope is not to seek more reassuring ways of seeing ourselves mirrored in our culture. Given a notion of machinery suitably enlarged by what science has learnt and could teach us, we would do better to try to understand the fluid mechanics of our social life than continue seeking to endow them with a mind of their own.
Steven Connor is professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck College, London. His The Book of Skin will be published by Reaktion later this year.