Sigmund Freud: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur [Civilization and its Discontents] (1552 words)

  • Scott Brewster (University of Lincoln)

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First English publication in a translation by Joan Riviere by the Hogarth Press and Institute of Pscyho-Analsis, London, and Cape and Smith, NewYork, in 1930.

In an often pessimistic reflection on the conflict between instinctual demands and the restrictions of civilization, Freud discusses the origins of religious feeling, the frustrated desires that underlie social structures, the “economic” costs of renouncing pleasure and the existence of an aggressive instinct entirely independent of the sexual and self-preservational instincts. As with all his work on culture, he postulates a similarity between the libidinal development of the individual and the development of social formations. The process of civilization mirrors the maturation of the individual, with early sources of satisfaction relinquished in the face of familial and communal regulation.

The first section attempts to account for the so-called “oceanic feeling”, a sensation of eternity or of “something limitless, unbounded” that is associated with religious belief. This state gives the individual a “feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole”. Freud speculates that this feeling derives from the primary narcissism of infancy, where the child cannot distinguish between internal and external sensations: only later does the ego learn to differentiate itself from the world outside, and even in mature life pathological conditions can disturb the boundaries between the ego and the external word. Adult ego-feeling is “only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive – indeed, an all-embracing – feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it.” Freud takes this as a prime example of mental preservation, in which original memory-traces survive alongside their later derivations: “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish – that everything is somehow preserved such that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light”. The mental preservation of the past (with the analyst excavating the buried layers of the patient\'s psychic history), the interweaving of early and later phases of development, and the modification or sublimation of primordial instincts are central not only to Freud\'s psychopathological theories, but also to his ideas about culture and religion.

He uses the analogy of Rome\'s architectural history to illustrate the sedimentation of memories and impressions in the mind; the modern city is superimposed on the ruins of ancient buildings, with the past thus preserved in the present. The psyche too has “a long and copious past […] in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one”. Thus the oceanic feeling “might seek something like the restoration of limitless narcissism”, and a religious attitude may be traceable back to a feeling of infantile helplessness. The sensation of “oneness with the universe” resembles “a first attempt at religious consolation”, another way of “disclaiming the danger which the ego recognises as threatening it from the external world”.

The second and third sections consider the ways in which civilization regulates and restrains the workings of the pleasure principle, the ultimate purpose of life. Human beings seek happiness, but the pursuit of satisfaction is at constant loggerheads with the world, which threatens us with suffering from three directions: the inevitable decay of the body, the destructiveness of the external world, and our relations to others. Freud cites a range of defences against suffering: intoxication, strictly controlling one\'s instinctual life, deriving satisfaction from psychical and intellectual achievement, religious faith (dismissed as “psychical infantilism” and “mass-delusion”), aesthetic appreciation, love and neurosis. Section III considers whether “what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery”. Freud argues that civilization is defined not only by technological progress and the taming of nature but also by cleanliness, order, aesthetic sensibility, intellectual activity and the formation of social bonds, where the power of the individual is replaced by the power of a community. Thus each individual must sacrifice or sublimate a degree of instinctual satisfaction to the “cultural claims of the group”. These characteristics lead Freud to draw comparisons between the process of civilization and individual libidinal development: both are founded on the renunciation of instinct.

The final five sections speculate on the origin of civilization, and how the loss of instinctual satisfaction can be “compensated for economically”. In its early totemic phase, communal life was based on the “compulsion to work” and “the power of love”, and the first laws were founded upon the model of familial relations. Governed by taboo-observances, including the prohibition of incestuous desires (“the most drastic mutilation which man\'s erotic life has in all time experienced”), totemic culture restricted the individual\'s sexual life or inhibited its aims. Modern civilization redirects libidinal energy towards “cultural aims”, and imposes a normative model of heterosexual and monogamous genital love, notwithstanding the “dissimilarities […] in the sexual constitution of human beings”. Yet civilization must obey the “laws of economic necessity”, and may “pass over in silence” certain private sexual transgressions, or the substitute satisfactions created by neurotics in their symptoms, that act as a release valve for thwarted desire. Thus civilization develops through the inhibition of individual instinctual aims.

The final sections consider how civilization “aims at binding the members of the community together in a libidinal way”, channelling frustrated desires into altruism, ethical bonds and communal identifications. Despite its restrictions upon sexuality, however, civilized society is constantly threatened with disintegration in the face of aggression and violence. Thus far Freud has discussed the regulation of the pleasure principle as the foundation of civilization; now he hypothesises an aggressive instinct which exists independently of the sexual and self-preservational instincts. He had first outlined this aggressive instinct in his work on sadism and masochism in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1907) and had then elaborated the concept when postulating the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Freud contends that the “inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition” that “constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization”. The evolution of civilization becomes a titanic struggle between Eros and Death.

Freud concludes his study by examining how civilization inhibits this innate destructiveness, once again turning to the model of individual psychic development. The individual\'s aggressiveness is introjected or internalized, directed back towards the ego. A portion of the ego takes over this aggression, forming it into the superego, or conscience. This agency can then punish the ego with the severity similar to that which the ego harbours towards others. The tension between ego and superego is what we term a sense of guilt. Thus civilization disarms the individual\'s threatening aggressiveness by setting up the superego as an internal censor, constantly policing forbidden or repressed wishes. The sense of guilt has two origins: one arises from the fear of external authority, and the other emanates from fear of the superego. Both involve the renunciation of instinct, but the superego demands punishment. The fear of external authority originally threatened external unhappiness, but the superego now ensures “permanent internal unhappiness”. Freud refines this model of conscience by situating it within the Oedipal schema, whereby conscience arises through a suppression of aggression towards the object/ father as the original source of instinctual frustration; the severity of the superego does not necessarily represent the severity of this external authority, but rather one\'s own aggressiveness to it. The common factor in each case is that aggressiveness has been “displaced inwards”.

Freud then proposes that the sense of guilt is rooted in the killing of the Primal Father, the ramifications of which he first examined in Totem and Taboo (1912-3). The remorse that follows the murder of the father by his sons derives from “the primordial ambivalence of feeling” towards him. The father\'s killing has satisfied their aggressive instinct, but the love instinct generates remorse for the deed: the superego acquires the father\'s original power, thereby “punishing” the sons for their crime and creating restrictions against parricide and incest that will prevent any repetition of the act. At a subsequent stage of development, guilt could be produced not only by “an act of violence that is actually carried out [...] but also by one that is merely intended”. Guilt “is the expression of the conflict due to ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death.” Such conditions will pertain as long as society is based on the family unit and its Oedipal tensions. Freud applies this understanding of guilt more generally to the process of repression; when instincts are repressed, their libidinal elements turn into symptoms, and their aggressive components into a sense of guilt.

Freud posits the idea of a “cultural superego” whose genesis and functions resemble those of the individual superego. Just as the individual superego can be too severe in its restrictions on instinctual life, so the cultural superego imposes often impossible ethical demands on the individual, resulting in neurosis and unhappiness. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties of diagnosing “communal neurosis”, Freud speculates on the future possibility of embarking on a cultural “pathology”. With an oblique allusion to rising international tensions in the 1930s, the “fateful question” for Freud is whether human beings will “succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.”

Brewster, Scott. "Das Unbehagen in der Kultur". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 01 November 2002
[, accessed 27 February 2017.]

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  1. Psychoanalysis

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