Freud, the unconscious, and social control

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by Gabriel Hartley


Freud divided the mind into the conscious mind (or the EGO) and the unconscious mind. The latter was then further divided into the ID (or instincts and drive) and the SUPEREGO (or conscience/maternal drive). In this theory, the unconscious refers to the mental processes of which individuals make themselves unaware. Freud proposed a vertical and hierarchical architecture of human consciousness: the conscious mind, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind—each lying beneath the other. He believed that significant psychic events take place “below the surface” in the unconscious mind, like hidden messages from the unconscious. He interpreted such events as having both symbolic and actual significance.

In psychoanalytic terms, the unconscious does not include all that is not conscious, but rather what is actively REPRESSED from conscious thought or what a person is averse to knowing consciously. Freud viewed the unconscious as a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or DESIRES, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. However, the contents did not necessarily have to be solely negative. In the psychoanalytic view, the unconscious is a force that can only be recognized by its effects—it expresses itself in the SYMPTOM. In a sense, this view places the conscious self as an adversary to its unconscious, warring to keep the unconscious hidden. Unconscious thoughts are not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but are supposed to be capable of being “tapped” and “interpreted” by special methods and techniques such as meditation, free association (a method largely introduced by Freud), dream analysis, and verbal slips (commonly known as a Freudian slip), examined and conducted during psychoanalysis. Seeing as these unconscious thoughts are normally CRYPTIC, psychoanalysts are considered experts in interpreting their messages. [end of Wikipedia section]

The first aspect of Freud’s notion of human consciousness that we need to grasp is that he sees consciousness as a process of development. We are not born with something we might see as fully-formed consciousness or awareness but, instead, we develop our consciousness through a process of growth. We grow into consciousness.

Unlike many assumptions regarding growth, however, Freud sees human psychic growth not as a process of integration or a gathering of facts or experiences which, added together, lead to knowledge or identity but rather as a process of disintegration or fragmentation.
I believe that it is crucial, then, to see Freud’s discussion of the unfolding of distinct stages of psychic development as a series of traumatic separations, cuts, or alienations.
This means that our human conscious and unconscious development involves a passage from a state of indistinct generality—we see no differences or dividing lines separating our “selves” from the universe in which we are immersed—to highly distinguished and, in fact, fragmented states of being and consciousness. In other words, as we mature psychologically, we pass from a unified state of immersion to conflicting states of separation.
Life breaks us down into consciousness—while leaving in its wake a vast reservoir of unconscious realities in which our conscious selves find themselves floating.

All of the ways of imagining the stages of integration and disintegration for Freud center on human sexuality. Our primary way of coming to identify as selves in society is through sexual interaction, which encompasses far more than what we usually identify as sexual activity.

Sexuality in this enlarged sense involves all of our social mergings and separations, comings and goings, identifications and confusions. In short, sexuality is the glue that holds psychic life together in both individual and social terms. All social interactions are at base sexually driven. We will return to this point in our discussion of the DRIVES.
For Freud, the key period in life for the development of human sexuality is childhood. Our childhood experiences in sexuality shape us for life.

According to Freud, infants come into the world in a condition of POLYMORPHOUS PERVERSITY, which in the extreme means that the child’s entire body functions as one large EROGENOUS ZONE—that part of the body in which the erotic drive is condensed and which allows for the child’s sexual interaction with his or her environment. We come into the world, in other worlds, capable of engaging all of self and other in sexual enjoyment.

But socialization involves the gradual reduction of erogenous zones to smaller and more greatly-restricted bodily locations.
Freud breaks down his analysis of human sexual development into a series of STAGES—especially the ORAL, ANAL, and PHALLIC—which I am suggesting are best seen as scenes of traumatic separation.

In one of his last books, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud responds to what certain philosophers and theologians call the OCEANIC FEELING that often characterizes our sense of spiritual oneness in the universe. Freud counters that such a feeling likely results from the sense of oneness, safety, and comfort we likely felt in our mother’s womb, “that first abode, in which he was safe and felt so content, for which he probably yearns ever after” (38). Earlier in his book The Interpretation of Dreams Freud wrote, "Moreover, the act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety." Thus birth could be seen as the first traumatic separation that we experience on the way to the adult psyche.


The first primary post-natal stage of psychic separation and trauma would be the ORAL STAGE, which comes about as a result of weaning from the breast.

This primary connection of the child with the mother through nursing at the breast dominates the child’s early sense of connection with the world in this new environment outside the womb. Our entire pleasure apparatus is organized around our oral connection to the maternal world that sustains us. In other words, our primary EROGENOUS ZONE is the mouth. When we lose this primary connection, we seek a host of oral alternatives to the mother’s breast.

The infant who is neglected (insufficiently fed) or who is over-protected (over-fed) in the course of being nursed, might become an orally-fixated person. Said oral-stage fixation might have two effects: (i) the neglected child might become a psychologically dependent adult continually seeking the oral stimulation denied in infancy, thereby becoming a manipulative person in fulfilling his or her needs, rather than maturing to independence; (ii) the over-protected child might resist maturation and return to dependence upon others in fulfilling his or her needs. Theoretically, oral-stage fixations are manifested as garrulousness, smoking, continual oral stimulus (eating, chewing objects), and alcoholism. Psychologically, the symptoms include a sarcastic, oral sadistic personality, nail biting, oral sexual practices (fellatio, cunnilingus, analingus, irrumatio), et cetera. [end of Wikipedia section]


The second classical stage in Freud’s story of pyscho-sexual development is the ANAL STAGE. As children become more aware of their ability to control their bowels, they tend to gain a new sense of self-control.

The child develops a strong sense of pleasure in being able to hold in his shit and then feel the great rush that accompanies releasing it. Holding in and letting go both become elements of the pleasures associated with the transformation of the anus into an erogenous zone. In time we are expected to relinquish this bodily site of enjoyment just as we had to give up the mother’s breast earlier.
In addition, they often view their defecations as superb works of art that they wish to share with their mother and other family members. “Look at my great poop, Mom! I want you to celebrate it!”
With potty-training, however, the child is forced to relinquish this particular form of sexual excitement and expression—to hold it in until there is a socially-acceptable moment to let it out.

The negative reactions from their parents, such as early or harsh toilet training, can lead the child to become an anal-retentive personality. If the parents tried forcing the child to learn to control their bowel movements, the child may react by deliberately holding back in rebellion. They will form into an adult who hates mess, is obsessively tidy, punctual, and respectful to authority. These adults can sometimes be stubborn and be very careful over their money. [end of Wikipedia section]


The third primary stage of separation in Freud’s schema of pycho-sexual development is the PHALLIC STAGE. Now that the infant’s erogenous zones have been restricted from the entire body (polymorphous perversity) to the mouth and then the anus, the child is about to undergo yet another reduction to the phallic zone. Now all sexual expression for the child takes place through the penis.

One controversial aspect of Freud’s theory of sexuality is that even at this point in sexual development, boys and girls undergo the same experiences. The main difference is that at a certain age children discover that girls somehow have lost their penises. How boys and girls in general resolve the trauma surrounding this discovery, however, will determine them as gendered sexual beings in heteronormative society.
The girl will tend to long for her missing penis and envy the boy his own penis—PENIS ENVY—while the boy will fear losing his penis just as the girl has. For boys and girls, this new awareness will lead to the OEDIPUS COMPLEX, and this in turn will determine how well “adjusted” the child becomes in society.

Throughout the stages we have been discussing so far, the child’s primary “sex partner” has been the MOTHER. Boys and girls each fantasize about penetrating the mother with their penises as the fulfillment of their phallic desire.

But along the way each child becomes aware of a competitor for the mother—the FATHER. And the father is a formidable opponent. So while fantasizing about having sex with their mothers, the children also fantasize about killing off their fathers just as Oedipus had done in Greek legend.
But the tension rises as the child begins to realize that his or her own penis cannot compete with or co-exist with the father’s and that the father will react by castrating the child. This results in CASTRATION ANXIETY, a fear that normally is so overwhelming that the child eventually accepts the father’s dominant role in relation to the mother. Now the child must seek his or her own appropriate sex partner outside of the mother-child erotic bond.
This psychic resolution to the Oedipus Complex lays the ground for development of normative genital sexuality in which males have sex with females while everyone SUBLIMATES their lingering archaic sexual fantasies into socially-acceptable forms of NEUROTIC activity such as careers, art, and religion. Those who are not so successful then end up in PSYCHOTIC fantasies that keep them from entering into “normal” psychic life.

One form that “normal” adult sexuality takes is the ability to channel sexual energies into nonsexual arenas. Much of our adult life, in fact, is taken up with a range of symbolic substitutes for our original archaic sexual desires.


If we now return to our earlier discussions of IDEOLOGY and HEGEMONY, we can see how Freud theory of sexuality provides us with a way of analyzing the role that erotic investment or CATHEXIS plays in social control.

Earlier we had looked at Patricia Hill Collins’s discussion of the way that all systems of power harness the erotic. She was talking about just such a process of libidinal cathexis.
Through erotic investment, a social symbol such as the Confederate flag becomes charged with sexual energy. This erotic investment lends the symbol a charge and a power that go beyond the consciously expressed notions of what lies behind the symbol.




Now watch Happiness Machines, the segment of The Century of the Self documentary devoted to Philip Bernays, Freud’s American nephew who used psychoanalysis as a framework for social control.

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