SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



The “psyche” was a term borrowed from Plato who had used the term as designated the “soul,” but for Sigmund Freud, the psyche was composed of energies or basic instincts. These instincts are simple and powerful: life and death, Eros and thantos, libido and constancy.  Libido is blind energy (remember Schopenhauer) that needs to be properly directed.  Thantos is destructive and aggressive and seeks death.  They are governed by cathexis, or the urging forces, and anti-cathexis or the checking forces.  The instincts are constantly trying to assert themselves while the forces that attempt to frustrate them are referred to as inner inhibitions.  This constant frustration stands in the way of the pleasure principle and can be a useful and efficient operation of the reality principle, such as the delaying of gratification.  Frustration can get out of hand and the privation can be too great and the mind needs always to be in balance.

The opposing forces of the mind cause a conflict that need to be resolved.  The conscious mind is alert to danger and the ego understands that anxiety is a response to danger that is translated into a feeling of fear.  These fears can be quite real and very relevant.  Reality anxiety is a useful response to real danger in the real world.  On the hand, healthy anxieties can also become unhealthy.  Neurotic anxiety can be a fear of an uncontrollable urge and moral anxiety is the conscience in action, controlling these urges through feelings of guilt and shame.  Neurotic anxiety can become overdeveloped as a free-floating apprehension that becomes an irrational fear or a phobia.  The panic reaction is a sign the psyche is out of balance.  The source of the imbalance is located in the unconscious and it is the role of the psychoanalyst is to locate the cause of the effect or “symptom.”  Here at the point of the Symptom is where Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud come together.

The symptom as a social rather than a medical concept that was developed in Marxian theory and is linked to the psychological concept of “fetish.”  The fetish is a symptom, not so much of a specific desire, but the signifier of the structure of desire or of how desire is structured within the capitalist system that produces commodities for consumers.  For Freud, the symptom is psychotic and manifests itself in dreams. The unconscious mind processes all that the conscious mind has repressed and has then buried those forbidden desires in the unconscious mind and these repressions manifest themselves, in a twisted and symbolic fashion, through dreams. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, translated into English in 1913), 

The dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated, one by one, into the language of the dream-thoughts. It would of course, be incorrect to attempt to read these symbols in accordance with their values as pictures, instead of in accordance with their meaning as symbols. For instance, I have before me a picture – puzzle (rebus) – a house, upon whose roof there is a boat; then a single letter; then a running figure, whose head has been omitted, and so on. As a critic I might be tempted to judge this composition and its elements to be nonsensical. A boat is out of place on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run; the man, too, is larger than the house, and if the whole thing is meant to represent a landscape the single letters have no right in it, since they do not occur in nature. A correct judgment of the picture-puzzle is possible only if I make no such objections to the whole and its parts, and if, on the contrary, I take the trouble to replace each image by a syllable or word which it may represent by virtue of some allusion or relation. The words thus put together are no longer meaningless, but might constitute the most beautiful and pregnant aphorism.

“Dreams,” according to Freud, were the “Royal Road to the Unconscious.” The unconscious is also divided into two parts: the pre-conscious, consisting of experiences that can be called up at will, rather like the way one accesses long un-used files in a computer and the unconscious proper which is inaccessible to the conscious mind. The unconscious proper is a strong opposing force, located deep in the buried and repressed libido.  The unconscious hides and protects its secrets so well that these “secrets” are inaccessible and undiscoverable.  The secrets, or repressed material, will manifest themselves in the highly disguised forms of dreams.

For Freud, dreams are both manifest and latent. A manifest dream is the dream an individual remembers but the content seems strange and bizarre. The latent aspect of the dream can be compared to a photographic process: an individual is exposed to a traumatic event and this event is imprinted upon his mental landscape, like a latent image on a photographic plate. But what is “developed” is a metaphor which has coded the event/message into a series of images that must be decoded.

Dreams are disguised (coded) as visual and verbal metaphors but their latent content cannot simply be translated with the hope of revealing “secrets”.  The truth of the psychic suppression of “true” needs, as in the real meaning of the fetish, lies in the way the dream is structured.  This structure is the rebus, which works its way as a dream.  It is not the dream; it is not the fetish, but the “dream work”—the process that is significant.

For Freud, dreams are manifested in language, which are spoken by the person being analyzed and these words are metaphors and must be translated.  But this is not to imply that dreams are simply another language.  Dreams are, in fact, unrelated to normal communication and are emanations from that which has been pushed down into the “primary processes”.  The work of dreams or “dream-work” is significant is that it is divided into three operations.  There is the manifest dream content; there is the latent dream content and the unconscious desire that is attached to the dream.  Freud insisted on distinguishing between the manifest and the latent content of the dream and it is possible to think of unconscious (repressed) desire as the mechanism that mediates between that which is manifest (that which language can express) and that which is latent (that which takes on a particular form dictated by dream work.  As Freud said,

At bottom, dreams are nothing other than a particular form of thinking made possible by the condition of the state of sleep.  It is the dream-work which creates that form, and it alone is the essence of dreaming—the explanation of its particular nature.  The form is important, not the content; the work is significant not the subject matter which is submitted to the dream-work.  We see the same process in Marx.  It is not be pure chance that a commodity becomes a fetish.  The fetish, like the dream, is a symptom of the way in which a network of relations has functioned.  Social relations have functioned in such a way as to transfer abstract value to commodities and turning these commodities into fetishes.  The operation of transformation can take place because the commodity or product has become alienated from any conceivable maker and thus is free-floating, like anxiety, within a system that will and must pin it down and give it another meaning.

This other meaning is reified or objectified in the commodity or thing which has a psychological meaning imposed upon it.  Marx is aware of this operation, which means that the meaning that is imposed is already present in society and this meaning has acquired meaning already within a matrix of social relations.  Marx is baffled by the fetish as he is with other mechanisms of capitalism.  He seems to be also aware that something is amiss within his system of dialectical materialism, a psychoanalytic element that his system cannot take into account.  He reacts to this anarchic element by using words, such as “mystery” and “magic” and “mystification” over and over to describe what should be pragmatic and material effects of capitalism.  The fetish and the dream are symptoms of free-floating desire that has fixed itself upon objects already considered by society to be likely candidates for fetishization.  Structuralist philosophy will express these concepts in terms of linguistic theory.

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

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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