SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)
REIFICATION AND FETISH
The only access the psychoanalyst has to his or her patient is the words of that patient who undergoes the “talking cure.” Sigmund Freud believed in simply listening to and interpreting the structure of the language used by his clients and was engaged in what we would call linguistic forensics. The meaning of cultural objects, from the most private of dreams to the most public of commodities can be understood only within a network of relations that are structured in a very particular fashion. For Freud, the structure is universal and the relations among the words (or things) are dependent upon the cultural network. In other words, his dreamers and patients in Vienna might have different dream symbols than those in London but the structure of the minds that produced the dreams was as universal as the traumas that were the root cause of anxiety and neurosis.
One of the most important revelations of the theories of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud is the way in which the mechanisms of the human mind work to substitute that which is desired but not permitted with a substitute—a speech act or an object or an action. The result is a kind of deflection, the desire is redirected and can be reified. In other words, anxiety or neurosis or trauma can be projected onto an inanimate object. For example, through the processes of exchange, a work of art can be altered from an object to a reified desire. Marx described this process of reification (fetishization) in these terms:
…we get a fetish form of capital, and the conception of fetish capital…It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction – which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form. For vulgar political economy, which seeks to represent capital as an independent source of value, of value creation, this form is naturally a veritable find. a form in which the source of profit is no longer discernible, and in which the result of the capitalist process of production – divorced from the process – acquires an independent existence.
The Unconscious is a buried city, like Rome, made of strata of anxieties and traumas, causing the “Rome neurosis,” which must be uncovered by the analyst/archaeologist. Internal conflicts between the opposing libidinal forces or basic human instincts and social controls of these impulses cause human unhappiness or neurosis. Civilization was created but at a price, built on painful “substitute-formations.” We cannot have what we want; we cannot do what we want; we cannot say what we want: our deepest needs must be sublimated and something more socially accepted must be substituted.
Freud’s early training was in Paris with the great doctor Jean-Martin Charcot who studied “hysteria” or acting out among female patients. He was also familiar with the symptoms revealed by traumatized victims of the Great War. The individuals observed by Freud showed the mind’s power to protect itself and to reveal itself and he sought the deepest layers buried beneath the more powerful mechanisms of repression. Suppressed traumas, which cause “hysteria,” or blocked discharges, or distorted and disguised expression of the original trauma are somewhere in the back of the mind. Hidden in the unconscious mind is a memory or trace of the traumatic and scarring experiences that are so painful that the conscious mind will not allow them to surface. But surface they do, but in unexpected and highly coded ways, usually not recognized as expressions of repressed pain.
According to Freud, the result of these unexpressed traumas are redirected and rerouted eruptions called “symptoms” that show up uncontrollably as jokes, “slips” of the tongue, expressed outwardly as language through mechanisms such as “denying the truth” or Verneinung. A cruel joke is not funny; it is a form of verbal assault. A slip of the tongue reveals the true content of the mind. To use the word “not,” as in, “I don’t mean to hurt you…” is to deny the truth: “I really want to hurt you” in order to suppress (badly) the true intent of the speaker. Freud called these psychic slips “parapraxes.”
Other means of the discharge or display of symptoms would include dreams, the actual process of production and transformation of the buried traces of the trauma into a rebus. Dream-work can produce dreams and free-association can produce conversational clues that lead the subject through the “talking cure” conducted by the analyst. In the process of investigating the structure of the symptoms, the sources of the trauma is uncovered in what Freud called the “return of the repressed.” This “return” is not always either healthy or redemptive, much less enabled by a reputable psychoanalyst.
Most people are merely caught up in helpless repetition, a ritual reenactment of the trauma that becomes a compulsion. The actual trauma is never visible but is apparent in its structure of repetition or return. The symptoms of the trauma can be witnessed as a trace. The memory is reenacted as “fixation”, “condensation”, displacement”, distortion”, “disguise”, identification” and “projection”—all Freudian symptoms of the original repression. The original repression, according to Freud, is sexual and he explained this primal trauma as the Oedipal Complex.
The sexual instinct is powerful psychic energy and is a force of nature that must be controlled in order for society to function appropriately. The connection between the mind and body is the original trauma, the separation of the child from its original object of desire, the mother. The result of this separation or splitting is a complex, called “Oedipal” for the male and “Electra” for the female. The trauma is a necessary condition for socialization but entry into human society comes at a high price: a lifetime of pain due to the repression of desire until maturity is reached through the resolution of the Oedipal complex.
In opening the dyadic relationship or what Freud called “The Family Romance,” with the mother to include the father, the subject is subjected to the law of the patriarchy or the superego that will ruthlessly punish incest or any other violation of taboos or laws. What began as a natural love and desire for the mother is socialized and banned and the resulting pain and shame imprinted onto the young body is repressed into the unconscious, which will not allow this trauma to be expressed. The result of this primal repression is the dream, which is an expression of forbidden desire. The child understood the fear better than s/he understood the desire and for the rest of her life, desire will be tainted with fear and shame, rendering normal human interaction redolent with unnamable anxieties and needs. The original desire will never be met.
These unfilled desires will play themselves out for the rest of the human being’s life in dreams. But even here, there is no freedom of expression for censorship is always at work. These powerfully charged memories would not be expressed, as they are infantile sexual wishes that can be satisfied only by dream-work. These forbidden dream-thoughts are latent content of dreams that are made into dream-stories through dream-work. These infantile desires are remembered through mechanisms such as condensation that is composite figures or structures that manifests itself as correspondence. Another mechanism is displacement; as elements are replaced through a chain of associations for disguise that surface as dream images. This representability is a rebus or picture puzzle or ideogram that organizes the dream into a comprehensive narrative.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud would be among the last of the philosophers to be concerned with the interaction of philosophy with society. In contrast to earlier philosophers who were concerned with politics, Nietzsche and Freud were primarily observers and interpreters of their own times. They were more concerned with how human beings could survive and function within their society than in intervening and changing the world, like Marx. In many ways, the two can be read in tandem: Nietzsche who sketched out the psychology of modern society and Freud who proceeded to diagnose that culture. Even though both were men of their times, their works became newly relevant to a new generation, called Postmodernists.
Nietzsche would become, like Duchamp, a posthumous “Father of Postmodernism.” As Nietzsche once said, “I want to be right not for today or tomorrow but for the millennia”. There are those who would argue that Nietzsche has succeeded. Nietzsche argued for the primal force of the Will to Power over the “grand narratives” of Hegel and Marx, and although his ideas were similar to his precursors in that there is always the assumption of an “engine” that drives the system, where that engine is Nothingness or Desire or Power or Will, he became the point of departure for the Postmodernists. The appeal of Nietzsche is his radical extension of Enlightenment skepticism and doubt into existential nihilism. A new generation of skeptics would pick up where Nietzsche left off and apply the concept of ambiguity to the foundation of human knowledge: language.
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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.