Postmodernism and the Loss of Mastery


Feminism, Post-Colonialism, and the Loss of Mastery Over the World Picture

In 1986 Postmodern painter Mark Tansey (1949-) produced a large orangish monochrome painting of a long white fallen column. Broken in three places and lying next to a flight of stairs, the pillar vaguely resembles the Vendôme Column toppled by Gustave Courbet and his Communard comrades. The figure that was once on the top could be read as Napoléon in classical dress but over all the fallen totem allegorically reads as the fall of Western civilization and given that the column is phallic, that collapse seems specifically male. In the distance, a razed city spreads out and in the foreground the maternal is on full display: a woman and her children play among the ruins. Tansey, a well-read son of art historians, titled the painting, Triumph Over Mastery.

Modernism thrived upon the grand récits, or master narratives of modernity, which were narratives of mastery, each one a telos of conquest and fundamental solidarity. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) expressed this confidence in “The Age of the World Picture,” a lecture given in 1938 under the title of “The Establishing by Metaphysics of the Modern World Picture.” For Heidegger, Being was “what is given to thinking to think.” As a teacher, Heidegger encouraged his readers and his audience in forceful language to think and to follow though through an evolutionary process of thinking. Humans relate to being through language, which is “the House of Being.” Following the metaphysical tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Heidegger placed the self-conscious human subject as dominating through evaluation and judging the world. The modern world describes the world as a picture and conjures up the transformation of the world as a representation. The “world picture” is “taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”

It is the essence of the modern age is that the world becomes a picture. Everything exists only through representation and the world exists only in and through the subject. This narrative is the conquest of the world as picture, which is a structured image, the creature of production. Modernism is characterized by two events, the transformation of the world as a picture and the person as a subject. However, the “world picture” is a delusion and humans who seek to dominate the world can never know themselves or encounters himself and remains alienated from Being. As Heidegger wrote,

Where the world becomes picture, what is, in its entirety, is juxtaposed as that for which man is prepared and which, correspondingly, he therefore intends to bring before himself and have before himself, and consequently intends in a decisive sense to set in place before himself. Hence world picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.” Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

It is human beings who create the world picture and place themselves “in the picture” they create for themselves.“The being of beings is sought and found in the representedness of beings,” Heidegger said. In contrast to the Greek world view or the Medieval world view, the modern world view or world picture puts humans in the center. As he continued,“Now for the first time is there anything like a position of man at all.”Because we have made the picture, we can place ourselves, position ourselves in the picture, where we wish. This ability to conflate Being with thinking and thus the will to power to create the world picture and to be in the picture–this is power indeed. To be able to create “the world as a picture” is mastery. Associated with Nazi thought (the epitome of mastery) and tainted forever by his association with Nazi ideology and damned by his treatment of his Jewish colleagues, Heidegger is a nearly irredeemable philosopher. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 in “A Master from Germany,” “Heidegger’s books will be read for centuries to come, but the smell of smoke from the crematories — the ”grave in the air” — will linger on their pages.”

Given that Heidegger was very important to the Postmodern thinkers in France, his continued presence in philosophy presents a problem. In his forward to the important 2009 book by Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, Tom Rockmore pointed out that the French scholars turned to Heidegger as an alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre and in the process successfully put his Nazi convictions aside and focused on a very narrow body of his writings. Rockmore stated that Faye’s book, originally published in France, was the first of force the intellectual community to deal with the extent to which, as Faye put it, “Heidegger devoted himself to putting philosophy at the service of legitimizing and diffusing the very bases of Nazism and Hitlerism.” Faye recovered neglected works by Heidegger, characterizing these writings as “..every bit as racist and virulently National Socialist as those of the official “philosophers” of Nazism..they surpass the others by the virulence of their Hitlerism, which no other “philosopher” of the regime has equaled.” To this day, the debate over what to do with Heidegger continues. The past has a way of surfacing at inconvenient times but Heidegger managed to live out the rest of his life relatively unscathed (unlike the Jewish scholars he allowed to be expelled from the university) and the expatriate Yale scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983) was not exposed as a writer for the Nazi cause until four years after his death.

One of the problems of Postmodernism, diehard Modernists claim, is its relativism. If one follows the tenets of intertextuality, “the death of the author” then the writer must be divorced from his or her work and thereby has no moral responsibility for the contents. Heidegger was merely reflecting his own time; de Man was merely surviving during the occupation of Belgium. If it is impossible to “master” language, then this distancing from morality or ethics is an Adamic Fall from Grace. Therefore Postmodernism mourns this loss of mastery and reflects back on its reign with nostalgia. The “mastery” alluded to in Tansey’s painting and in the numerous writings on the fall of Modernism breaks, as did the column of Tansey, at numerous fracture points. The “fall” of the column of mastery was linked to the disillusionment over the failure of the humanist promise of the Enlightenment as exemplified by the stain of Nazism in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The drive towards the desired “end” regardless of the means during the Second World War fractured the moral core of the West. On one hand, the ethnics of ending a destructive war and putting an end to dangerous enemies was not in doubt but the way in which that end came about, whether the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden or the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, provoked a moral quandary. In addition, over time, there was a slow realization that the “greatest generation,” whether in America or France or England, had fought a war for democracy and equality but were not willing to countenance racial or gender equality after the war in their own nation. Nor were any of these Euro-American powers willing to forego their respective empires without a struggle.

By the 1960s, there was the loss of control over the master narrative, the story that explained the world, which will be discussed in another post. Once the metanarrative could no longer be mastered, Postmodernism lost authority, and as the result of a multiplicity of cultural events, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests against the Viet Nam War, the Stonewall uprising, the Women’s Movement, to name a few, there was a decline in the belief system that “liberty and justice” was for “all.” In Europe, the Empire was coming home, forcing European nations to deal with the consequences of their “civilizing” projects and the transnational hybridity that provoked a diaspora and the post-colonial condition. Once the singular voice of the master narrative or the will to power of the dominant group is fractured from the univocal to the polyvocal, the Other began to emerge as an actor. In his seminal essay on women as the “Other,” Craig Owens (1950-1990) quoted Paul Ricour (1913-2005), who wrote in 1962 that “When we discover that there are several cultures instead of just one and consequently at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly, be it illusionary or real, we are threatened with the destruction of our own discovery. Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, that we ourselves are an “other”among others.”

Ricour’s “we” was presumably in 1962 white males. In returning briefly to Heidegger’s world picture, one can assume that women were not part of the picture, because as has so often been pointed out by philosophers, women were outside of representation. Rooted in nature or in the pre-linguistic semiotic, women were pictured only in terms of the male symbolic. Michèle Montrelay’s 1978 essay, “Inquiry into Femininity” (Recherches sur la Féminité) coined the term “the ruin of representation. In many ways this essay should be considered a deconstruction of Freudian/Lacanian theory as it related to representation or the entry of the child into the symbolic. She exposed a contradiction lying at the heart of the theory in her recounting of the Oedipal complex. The inescapable fate of Oedipus lay in his inappropriate desire for his mother and the repression of this desire for the mother is the mechanism that brings about the entry into language: the symbolic. Representation, the symbolic substitution, is a creature not only of desire but also of the fear of castration, but as Montrelay pointed out, women have no stake in this game. Being the object of desire, they do not desire and do not have to be repressed; having no penis they do not have to fear castration and hence are not psychically wounded.

The sexuality of women remains, as Montrelay pointed out, “outside” of repression and “the stake of castration is displaced,” meaning that feminine sexuality is “outside of the economy of representation.” “Locating herself as maternal body (as well as phallus),” Montrelay wrote, “..woman cannot repress, ‘lose’ so to speak, the original stake of representation. As in the Greek tragedy, she finds herself threatened by ruin. However, in the principle of such a threat, different processes are at work. For Oedipus, the restitution of the stake occurred by chance or from the Gods. This restitution occurred despite an interdiction. For woman, on the contrary, nothing is forbidden. There are no enunciations, no laws that prohibit the recuperation of the stake. This is because for woman, the real that imposes itself and takes the place of repression and desire, is the real of the body proper.” Therefore the woman, described as the “Dark Continent,” have no stake in the game of representation and her presence serves to break down discourse and ruin representation.

One of the social breakdowns of Postmodernism is the realization that the Other has never had a stake in the game or a place in the world picture and those who are not include or who are excluded will not have the “mastery” of the tools of the master. The response of Postmodern theory to the recognition of the Other was one of passive aggression: to turn Otherness into theory to further silence the others under the discourse of the master who retained the power to represent, all the while critiquing representation. The late Craig Owens in The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism noted that “The absence of discussions of sexual difference in writings about postmodernism, as well as the fact that few women have engaged in the modernism postmodernism debate, suggest that postmodernism may be another masculine invention engineered to exclude women.” Owens was writing in the wake of the realization that, contrary to Heidegger, language has no power to shape the world and the consciousness has no power to shape the subject. But he was also writing, in 1983, in the midst of a social revolution that had resulted in the rise of the Other, including women and gays and lesbians, who were very much involved in the protest against the government’s neglect of the epidemic of AIDS, voices that would have been silenced.

As a gay man interested in the Other, Owens was not alone. Along with many feminist writers, he was joined in his critique of the patriarchy which was extended to the exclusion and othering of people of color. A year after the publication of his essay which noted that the Postmodern male artists–think Julian Schanbel, were reduced to simulating “mastery,” a New York exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art unwittingly presented another example of a nostalgic longing for a Eurocentric mastery long extinct, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” Curated by an aging William Rubin (1927-2006) and the rising star Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), the show was blasted by one of the dissident generation of critics, Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013), in “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” He attacked the entire premise of the show which was that Western artists used art from “primitive” cultures to nourish itself, acting from a position of imperialism and exploitation. But the Museum of Modern Art undercut the power of the other and the extent to which the response of the Western artists was disruptive by making the strange familiar, thus mischaracterizing the violence of the “primitive,” decontextualized into vitrines and masking the exploitation of European colonialism. As McEvilley wrote referring to

“the exorcising of the primitive works themselves, which isolated from one another in the virtrines and under the great lights, seem tame and harmless. The blood is wiped off them. The darkness of the unconscious has fled. Their power which is threatening and untamed when it is present, is far way…if the primate works are not seen in their full primitiveness, then any primitive feeling in Modernist allusions to them is bleached out also..the show is about classical Modernism.”

Although today, it is easy to criticize McEvilley for writing in such Eurocentric language, he was quite correct in pointing out that the attempt to “master” the “primitive” was based on a discourse of dominance under the auspices of “affinity” which kept “information at a minimum,” relieving the non-Western objects of their own empowering context, thus bringing each object under Western control. As he wrote, “The sacrifice of the wholeness of things to the cult of pure form is a dangerous habit of our culture..The need to coopt difference into one’s own dream of order, in which one reigns supreme, is a tragic failing. Only fear of the Other forces one to deny its Otherness..I am motivated by the feeling that something important is at issue here, something deeply, even tragically wrong..In depressing starkness, “Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflated to coopt such cultures and their objects to itself.”

Published in Artforum magazine in the fall of 1984, this article engendered a series of angry replies from Rubin and Varnedoe and became a clarion call for a new generation of art critics and art historians who would fall into the category of Postmodernism, if only because McEvilley had rejected connoisseurship as the basis for an art exhibition. Whether or not the dominant male painters, who staged a vigorous comeback after a decade of feminist art, understood that their (male) social mastery was lost, they were aware that the only way to lay claim to the exhausted tradition of Western painting was to either parody the history of Modernism, like Mark Tansey, or manifest what Craig Owens called “symptoms.” As he stated,

Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent in cultural activity today–nowhere more so than in the visual arts..contemporary artists are able to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs;since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor–violent, “impassioned” brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal–and disavowal always pertains to a loss..of virility, masculinity, potency.

To women and people of color, still kept outside of the art world during the 1980s, it seemed that merely simulating mastery was sufficient to maintain mastery. It would take another generation and another century to find out the consequences of not giving half the sky a stake in the game of culture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


As the heir to early Modernist philosophy, Jacques Lacan sampled, in a pre-Postmodern fashion, a complex of philosophical ideas on how humans come into Being and how humans become socialized. Using combinations of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan “returned” to Sigmund Freud and reconsidered his canonical works from the oblique vantage point of language. Freudian philosophy was one of the last pure Enlightenment manifestations of self-actualization. But Lacan can be contrasted to Freud in respect to human autonomy, for Lacan denies autonomy and mastery and refutes the unity of consciousness and of the unconscious. The disunity or the splitting apart of the human subject happens through language. If, as Lacan insisted, language produces a Real which does not have any corresponding “reality,” then question is, when does the subject become alienated from him or herself and under what circumstances? According to Lacan, the structural foundation of speech emerges in what he called “the Function of the Mirror Stage.” Lacan delivered early version of this theory in 1936 and 1946 and the final and definitive version was published in 1966 in Écrits. By 1949 “stade du miroir” had become canonical to Lacan’s system, establishing a centrality to vision or to the specular that is reminiscent to the importance of the “gaze” in the work of his former teacher, Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1874-1932). The central role given to an act of seeing parallels Freud’s theory of the Oedipal complex, in which the male child “sees” that his mother does not possess the prized penis and is traumatized with fear that he, like his mother, will be castrated by his father. Vision or the ability to see oneself in a mirror is equally central to Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage.

Although it is possible that for Sigmund Freud the glimpsing of nude adults by impressionable children might have been possible—during his childhood, his family lived in one room—these acts of seeing whether in the flesh or in the mirror are best understood as allegorical. The development of a realization of the difference between the “inner world” and the “outer world” would be a better way to understand the Mirror Stage, as Lacan stated,

The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality – or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.

Under questioning of other philosophers who expressed concern over taking the idea of a “mirror” too literally, Lacan later shifted from “the mirror” to “mirroring behavior.” That said, Lacan based the idea of the Mirror Stage upon a number of pre-existing discourses (some of which involved an actual mirror) investigating the question of how one distinguishes between the self and the other and comes into consciousness or a full realization of the Self. The Mirror Stage, a term Lacan borrowed from Henri Wollen who in turn referred to the findings of Charles Darwin, occurs between six and eighteen months. Prior to that time, the infant has assumed a unified body image of itself to be found in the mother. Enjoying the jouissance of fusion, the infant assumes a Totality until the “infans” becomes the subject. The presence of the “mirror” implies narcissism or self-identification, which is self love and the beginning of ego. But ego more properly evolves out of the counter to narcissism which is Aggresssivity or the confrontational image of the other. The First Narcissism is called the Mirror Stage in which the subject begins to project its “ideal ego” (ichideal) or future ego, while the Second Narcissism gives the human subject its ego (“moi”) or sense of self within the Symbolic.

The primacy he ascribes to vision is reasserted when Lacan points out that the child who is born prematurely—relative to an animal—and is thus dependent upon adults. In his or her immobile state, the human child “looks out” and sees others moving about, walking and running, and is able (unlike an animal) project him or herself forward in time—anticipates. The dependency upon adults, the fusion between child and adult, is allegorized as “Mother.” The concept of “mother” as literal is as problematic as the concept of “mirror” and yet Lacan’s contemporaries did not point out that many children were raised by women who were family members and or servants and that the “mother” was but one of many adults. However, the mother/adult is the being from whom the child, now self-aware, must separate herself from. The separation is fraught with anxiety. The “I” is an imaginary recognition so that the “I” is essentially performative. The child is separated from a unifying image or the Mirror and finds integration only in the Symbolic field, the field of language. The Mirror Stage leads to the formation of a separate individual now separated (socialized) from the primary caregiver. This double splitting of the child from the mother and the child from its image or from others produces the I and the ideal ego which in turn produce the Imaginary and the ego ideal or the Other, the “autre Symbolic.”


The “whole” identity is sought in symbolic objects that symbolize the aim of desire, or objects petit a. Desire is aimed at the very lack it supports: the desire for something else. Metaphor and metonymy are related to knowledge and desire. The Metaphor (condensation or combination) is a typography of the unconscious, which is formed from the primal repression and is founded in the “emergence of signification.” Because the subject and knowledge are always barred from each other, the unconscious speaks through the Symptom or the Metaphor. Metonymy (substitution), on the other hand, represents Desire or another signifier always out of reach. What is the object of desire? Lacan had to rethink Freud’s Oedipal complex in ways that reconfigured the “family romance” and transformed this “romance” through language. However, with both philosophers, the journey towards differentiation is horrifying, full of violence, and completely androcentric. Women or the Mother, defined by Lack and inadequacy, is that which must be repudiated, left behind. It is the Oedipal realization or recognition that the child must break away that makes the subject capable of seeing itself in a formal or structural relation to others: “I and Thou.” To tell this tale of trauma, Lacan set up an (Marxist) Economy of Gain and Loss, and Exchange.

This familial analogy to economics occurs within the family structure: Mother, Father and Child. The child becomes aware of the Phallus, the first pure signifier, which establishes the position of the Father in the psychic structure of the child. If the Oedipal complex is the process or evolution of the substitution of the father for the mother, or the separation of the child from the mother, then the Name-of-the-Father symbolizes (the) prohibition (of the Mother). The Mother, the original object of Desire, is forbidden by the Law of the Father. The Mother, according to Lacan, was always conceived of by the child as “lacking” or needing him. In desiring her, the child imagines himself as the object of her desire to fulfill her essential lack. If the child feels fused with or at one with the Mother, then logically she is what he needs and he is what she lacks: Mother and child complete one another. Sadly, the Oedipal complex has a terminus: the child must experience Loss (of the Mother) in order to Gain admission into the order of language. The Exchange of Loss and Gain results in selfhood or socialization which is enforced by castration, the threat hanging over the (male) child who must always renounce the Mother who now characterized by her unredeemable Lack will always remain the child’s original and primal and unobtainable object of Desire. The separation of the child from the mother results in individuation. The child has perceived of himself as the phallus to the mother, but the Father will not permit this relationship and moves to separate the child of its mother and the mother from the child or phallic object.

As Joël Dor points out in his well-known Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: the Unconscious Structured Like a Language, the father forbids and frustrates and deprives the child. The object of frustration is the penis–the mother does not have one, the little girl does not have one, and from the child’s perspective, the mother’s lack of a penis is frustrating. Frustration can never be assuaged. The child is deprived by the intervening father who is now understood as representing “the law.” The castration complex results when the child realizes that he is not and cannot be the phallic object of the mother’s desire. Not only does he have to give up the Mother but he also must consider the Law or the Name-of-the-Father. The Oedipal complex wanes when the child grasps the concept of the symbolic—the phallus is symbolic, the Law is symbolic, the Name-of-the-Father is symbolic. The passage from the Mirror Stage through the Oedipus complex is the primal repression which results in a Loss, but there is a Gain due to a new sense of a separate and unified body realized through the image of the Other in the Mirror. The result of the sacrifice (of the mother, of fusion with her) is the ability to communicate as a human being through language which is the symbolic power to manipulate reality.

Human beings who must appease and/or augment the desire for totalizing images must communicate in their highly mediated fashion through a metonymic chain of signifiers that substitutions and displacements. The child becomes a speaking subject (the human being is submitted to language). Language and Sexuality, then, are fused through the symbolic Castration, which is a mediation, or a substitution, of desire (for the mother) through a metaphor which mediates the Law. The child is now a human subject who must submit to word play—you are being (played) spoken. The child must incorporate language on two levels. First, language is symbolic, it is a substitute for something than can never be known: the real. Second, language is not only a substitute it also symbolizes and is therefore an activity of double symbolization. The Oedipal stage is allegorical of a child’s passage into adulthood through socialization as he is initiated into language. Lacan makes it clear that grasping the symbolic logic of language is an arduous task that must be enforced by Order or the Phallus. As with Freud’s penis, Lacan’s phallus should not be taken literally. Being male, the philosophers selected this anatomical appendage to be the signifier of social order, which manifests itself through language. As a metaphor (the Phallus is the Social), the Phallus is central to Lacan and is central to the formation of the Symbolic. The Phallus is a parental metaphor, the symbol for authority. The Name-of-the-Father is also a metaphor, signifying paternity and that which comes between the mother and child, separating this unity. The child must accept that the mother does not have the father’s authority or Phallus.

The child experiences a double loss: the loss of the Phallus and the loss of the Mother. This loss is Castration, which ushers in an unavoidable acceptance of alienation into language and submission to the ultimate authority of Law. Law resides in the Place of the Name-of-the-Father and Desire resides in the place of the M/Other, producing a conflict between Desire and Law. “Desire” indicates a fundamental Lack and this lack is language or the process of speaking language, which produces a gap between saying and meaning. Lacan retold Freud’s account of a game his nephew played when his mother was not in the room, the “fort-da” game which is built on a Lack, a Loss and want of Being (the Mother). By saying “fort” (here) (pulling a ball to himself) and then “da” (there) (pushing the ball away), symbolizing “here” (mother was here) and “there” (mother is not here), the child makes the absence of the mother present or understandable to himself through symbolization. The child has made an important discovery: one can create a Symbolic mediation to express and explain the actual event. This fantasy of here and there covers the loss of the mother and the desire for her return is externalized through language. Because it is built upon a loss or a lack that goes back to the original loss or lack, the separation from the mother, Desire is never fully satisfied.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Sigmund Freud, Part Three

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



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.

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