The force of Freud

November 27, 1998

Is psychoanalysis finished? No, says Anthony Elliott

No modern thinker has affected our views on identity and sexuality as forcefully as Sigmund Freud. Yet, according to some critics, especially in the United States, Freud is finished. When Time ran the question "Is Freud Dead?" in 1993, the verdict was a resounding "Yes".

People argued that, as a psychoanalyst, Freud botched many of his clinical cases, and failed to prove the value of psychoanalytic treatment. Freud's talking cure has been declared obsolete by many, partly owing to advances in pharmacology. Drug treatment rather than therapy is now the preferred line of attack for mental distress. End of story - or so some would like to think.

It is now almost 70 years since Freud published his seminal book, Civilisation and its Discontents. In it he argued that people's repression of violent aggression, and the guilt that engenders, is the fundamental problem of modern societies.

Freud understood society as a kind of trade-off: self-expression is limited in the name of social order. Yet even to speak of social order sounds somewhat quaint today against a backdrop of global economic uncertainty and multiculturalism. In the current political climate, self-expression and the freedom of the individual reign supreme.

So where does this leave Freudian theory and its cultural legacy? Ever since Freud first went public with his ideas about sexual repression and the unconscious, the scientific status and therapeutic gains of psychoanalysis have been sharply contested. But recent Freud-bashing has gone much further: some critics now argue that psychoanalysis neglects issues of sexual abuse.

Fifty years after his death and despite the ongoing debate about the scientific status of psychoanalysis, we remain culturally fascinated by Freud.

One reason for this is simply that Freud was a great thinker. His work embodies and points beyond the contradictions of his time. In examining the deep fantasies of the self, Freud demonstrated that a world of secrets, doubts and fictions lurks within our individual and social lives. In introducing the notion of repression, Freud identified the hidden identities that imbue people's lives with a sense of fear or shame.

Freud's doctrine of repressed desire enabled a new cultural emphasis on sexuality, the body, feeling and emotion. The affirmative politics of the countercultural movements - from Norman O. Brown to Herbert Marcuse, as well as various strands of identity politics - have drawn on Freud.

Yet the broader point is that Freud's ideas pervade our intellectual life and culture, from Woody Allen's Annie Hall to Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say it, from Paul Ricoeur's Freud and Philosophy to Jacques Derrida's The Post Card. Freudian psychoanalysis is doctrine and dogma of our age. It influences everyday understanding about ourselves, other people, and our world.

Most people have only the patchiest knowledge of the actual content of Freud's theories. Yet his ideas infiltrate and shape our daily lives and cultural interactions. Repression, projection, fantasy, repetition: these are terms that many people use to grapple with the more mysterious aspects of human relationships. Freud's legacy is as much about the fantasies that we have invested in him as it is about the value and accuracy of his own work.

Despite the fluctuating fortunes of psychoanalysis, Freud's impact has perhaps never been as far-reaching. There is a strong engagement with Freud in social and political theory, literary and cultural studies; in the work of philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Richard Rorty, and in the work of feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. Even the terminology of postmodernism reflects a Freudian debt.

There can be little doubt that the motivating force for this turn to Freud is part political. In a century that has seen totalitarianism, Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the prospect of a nuclear winter, intellectuals have demanded a language able to grapple with culture's unleashing of its unprecedented powers of destruction.

Freud has provided that conceptual vocabulary. Far from being finished I am confident that Freud will continue to have a huge influence on future generations of academics.

Anthony Elliott is a research fellow in political science, University of Melbourne, Australia and author of Freud 2000, published by Polity Press.

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