Psychoanalysis and the Social Order

As I’m preparing my conference presentation which I’ve briefly discussed here, I’ve been reading some early papers by Freud. I especially enjoyed “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” (1908). I found Freud’s observations very prescient and provocative. In this paper he discusses how society’s regressive attitude about sexuality contributed to the high rates of neurosis in both men and women. Freud is critical of the value society placed on abstinence, believing that the amount of energy it required was certain to deplete the individual’s capacity to fully exert himself in other arenas. He argues that men who are abstinent before marriage ultimately do a disservice to themselves and their future wives because it renders them weakling who have irreparably damaged their libido. Freud goes on to claim that women are often promised that marriage will finally satisfy their sexual desires, when, in reality, it will certainly prove to be disappointing and unsatisfying. Freud criticizes those doctors who encouraged “nervous” women to get married, because Freud noted that “the cure for nervous illness arising from marriage would be marital unfaithfulness”. Due to societal repression of their sexual instincts (along with great moralistic coercion), women are forced to find “seek refuge in neurosis” and remain in their hapless marriages. Interesting stuff.

What intrigued me about this paper was that Freud raises larger questions about society and condemns cherished institutions and norms given that they are responsible for individual pathology. Eric Fromm also discussed how society can often have socially patterned defects and that adaptation to a pathological society should not be seen as healthy. Fromm argued quite persuasively that adaptation and conformity to the social order might be a sign of individual pathology. Surprisingly, social adaptation has been upheld as healthy in many psychoanalytic camps as the gold standard for “mental health” especially in the United States (think of Hartmann’s fixation on adaptation and Sullivan’s emphasis on consensual validation). Also, in my clinical experience, I’ve found that many clinicians are liable to label non-normative beliefs and skepticism of major institutions (e.g. marriage) as defenses rather than adult convictions.

Lacan likewise detested these analysts who upheld adaptation and conformity as the aim of psychoanalysis. Of course, for us clinicians in the trenches, things are not always so simple. Psychoanalytic clinicians also uphold neutrality (not taking side in the patient’s conflicts) and abstain from suggestion. Kernberg has written about how analytic neutrality has often served as a mask to obscure the analyst’s prejudices and ideology. My paper will move in the direction of stressing how Lacan’s understanding of the unconscious and desire necessarily require an analysis of the social order.

I think that the rules have to change radically when working with individuals who are suffering from psychosis but that’s another conversation. I’ve never really had much sympathy with the anti-psychiatry movement…

8 thoughts on “Psychoanalysis and the Social Order

  1. Also, if anybody read that post where I defended Freud from the evangelicals, maybe I did underestimate Freud’s radicality and his hatred of puritanical views of sexuality. Don’t tell them that he also claimed we are all born bisexual and that he believed homosexuality was normal…

  2. The one case study that I have read in over 30 years of this subject is Francoise Dolto’s Dominique: Study of An Adolescent Boy. Dolto was also Lacan’s analyst and he said she was the clinician of his theory. I pass this on to you.

  3. Lacan famously said that the unconscious was structured like a language. Note “like” – not “by.” He was saying that there is a clear link between the unconscious and the social world, and because of the commonality they both share (language) they are paradigmatic (to one extent or another) of each other. My personal sense is that there is an obvious connection between the unconscious of the human subject and the external, social world in which they live, and this can be seen in a whole range of cultural practices and creative forms. And yes, I can say more about that, but I didn’t want to clog up your replies so I’ll save it for now. Let me know if you want me to explain myself and I will.

  4. Alison, this is basically the move I am making in my talk/paper. I’d welcome more commentary. It’s also important to note that some psychoanalytic thinkers have a quasi-biologistic view of the unconscious that is a cauldron of seething excitations and repressed impulses that are universally valid while some psychoanalytic thinkers have altogether rejected the dynamic unconscious or significantly diminished its importance.

  5. I would suggest you read Francoise Dolto’s Dominique: An Adolescent Boy which you will have to get 2nd hand. It is a case study. Dolto gives the family history then in each session she briefs you on what has gone on in the family before starting with the session. It is completely in transcript. No interpretation of how the session is perceived by her. It is all in the language between the the boy and Dolto. It is the most profound and marvelous case study I ever read and it will change you as a clinician. Dolto was Lacan’s equal partner and he has said that she was the clinician who put his theory into practice. Dolto was also Lacan’s analyst.

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