Freud: More boring than you’d think
So recently I have been on a bit of a Freudian spree. I decided to get back into it and learn more about some of his secondary theses. And the guy gets a lot of flack for supposedly being obsessed with sex.
And what I find amusing about it is how he’s really not, and as irony would have it, there is a kind of Freudianism to reading it into his works.
Yes, he uses a lot of sexually charged terms, including the word “sexual”, then you got oral fixation, anal retention, genital phase and a myriad of other sexual language and terminology, so I don’t entirely fault people for it.
BUT, what this ignores is the convention of his own time, and the scientific zeitgeist if you will. Truth is, to Freud, these were very dry and very clinical terms. And if you want to blame anyone for how his works are packed with them, then blame Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
Because with Darwin’s evolutionary theory we gained a big breakthrough in the way we understand nature, namely that life begins with proliferation. You have species of animals that are evolved to basically reproduce and then immediately die.
You got some species with one week lifespans, some species where the male is eaten by the female after reproduction simply to assure that the brood gets enough nutrients. Darwin kind of addressed the elephant in the room that had made biologists and scientists uncomfortable for such a long time: That life begins with sex.
And then you got Freud, who is struggling to figure out some way to understand very intangible and abstract ideas. It’s hard to materially define love, or hate, or anger or happiness. You cannot quite reduce these to hard and physical scientific elements of formulation. A doctor can take a blood test and look at chemical markers and determine with almost molecular accuracy what your blood composition is like, but a psychologist has no such tools.
They cannot look at your little strip of paper from the neurology machine and say “Oh it looks like you have anger deficiency, please take these pills.”
(Although psychiatrists sure like to pretend they can do that, often with very dangerous consequences, but that’s for another day…
EDIT: Nevermind, I decided to finish on a tangent.)
So Freud’s task was to somehow define these things into a somewhat practical and scientific framework, and that begins by looking at the defining forces not just of our species, but also that of organic life itself.
And turns out that at the core of it all, whether we are talking amoebic mitosis, or mammalian reproductive cycles, we do have a core driving force to replicate ourselves.
It’s kind of like a Cartesian principle, like “I think therefore I am.”, well, someone reproduced, and therefore you also are. You think therefore you have parents. We exist because someone made us exist. Prior to food, prior to water, prior to shelter, we must tick this particular box. So Freud figured that’s kind of the building blocks towards our natural instincts.
Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you did, or who your parents are, or where you were born, the process of natural selection meant that somehow, somewhere, someone decided to reproduce. That’s the one thing we are guaranteed to have in common.
And that’s why Freud’s work seems so obsessed with sex. It was also because his vocabulary was a little bit tilted towards inside baseball, he did not consider the ramifications of what his writing may sound like to the average person. But to be clear: No, he did not think eating an apple or scratching your back was sexual activities.
BUT, he did think that what makes those things somehow emotionally or psychologically rewarding stemmed from this strange pleasure mechanism in our minds which was ultimately the driving force for our reproductive behavior. So when he says “sexual” he means “psychologically rewarding.”
And he maintains that this mechanism is a little bit clumsy during our development, it’s something that fledges itself very much like we do. It fires off impulses and desires in all manner of strange directions in order to calibrate itself and function, and that’s basically why being a teenager is so horrendously awkward.
He just thinks it’s all kind of connected, because the only objective fact we have about our species is that we are set up to perform a series of actions in order to get to the point of reproducing.
And this is a flaw in positivist thinking. Because yes, technically speaking, it’s hard to argue with the guy. But not so technically speaking then, so what? Tomorrow we might prove more things. And in fact Freud’s teacher, Ferenczi, made that point.
You get a lot of smug pseudointellectuals proclaiming that Freud’s ideas are inconclusive to science as if Freud or psychoanalysists in general wasn’t aware of that. It’s an easy target for insecure people to say Freud has been discredited in this sense, as if we’re not in the exact same situation ourselves.
We don’t have the magic brain machine yet, we cannot read the little strip of paper. Freud tried to resolve this, and so did many other people, including Jung for that matter. But now we pretend we life in the post-Ferenczi era, that psychiatry reigns supreme. Freud’s ideas come off as a little bit gross and weird when you misunderstand his use of sexual terminology, but you’re going to tell me that the psychiatrists have the moral high ground?
The guys who spent a century depriving the mentally ill of human rights, conducted harrowing human experimentation, who would beat, torture and mutilate people with horrific treatment methods up to and including lobotomy, who would put people on sedative regiments that would make them lose decades of their lives to drug induced lethargy and misery?
Who to this day propagates the idea that good and evil are just myths, and that in reality bad behavior is just a product of neurological or mental deficits… yeah okay Mengele, do go on.
“Oh yeah but they never said the word “anal” while they did it so I guess that’s fair enough if you think about it.”
NO, quit proving Freud’s point with your disjointed sense of priorities.
So Freud’s theories I think are a little bit merciful in this sense. They are meant to redeem a socially awkward species of our internal anxieties and conflicts and weird intrusive thoughts, they are meant to encourage us to be more honest with ourselves in order to find the truth that we might not dare to tell ourselves.
And of course it was contemporary, and of course he was wrong about many things, all good scientists are. But he wasn’t on the wrong side of history. He was on the side of Darwin, on the side of evolutionary biology. He was on the side that contested Malthus and the Fabianists and the Nazis and all the other idiots in the world who thinks you can put humanity under a microscope and ascribe to it some kind of hierarchy.
And just like how Freud has lived on in psychology, so has Malthus lived on in psychiatry. Psychiatry is just philosophers playing doctor, they pretend to be something they’re not, and if they had bothered to listen to Freud, then they would know that the most dangerous lies, the most wicked and evil lies that truly makes us into criminals, are those we tell ourselves.
You can dress it up with your white coats and your calipers, you can pretend as if you’re not just drugging up and mutilating some innocent misguided person, you can act as if philosophy ended on that fateful day in Vienna when they started strapping women to tables and zapping them with car batteries like they were Muslims with an expired passport, but the truth remains the same.
And it is indeed the truth that redeems the psyche the best. That guides our capacity to heal those ailments which cannot be medically defined in some concrete sense. Because the truth urges compassion, and understanding and even empathy. Psychiatrists think that if you do not understand something, then it must be corrected until it makes sense in some misguided notion of false nature.
But a psychologist, a proper philosophical psychologist, knows that we are all enveloped in our nature. That every human is fundamentally isomorphic. We have within us a being that, at times, is not within a correct circumstance. Psychiatrists look upon the wretched of the earth and say “How do we make them live according to their wretchedness?”, but a philosopher asks “Why are they wretched?”
There is no pill that can make a homeless schizophrenic into a functional homeless schizophrenic. Or treatment method that can magically conjure away abuses, or traumas, or pathology. Rather, we reach an awkward contradiction in our social order. Because Freud stumbled onto a very dangerous idea.
He believed that fundamentally speaking, we are debased animals. We are inherently dehumanised. And he is right. We are born into ignorance, fear, misery and confusion. We are born into a frustrated circumstance of vulnerability, stupidity and even selfishness.
Not because we are evil, not because we are flawed, but because we are ignorant of anything but ourselves. In fact we’re ignorant about ourselves too, since we only exist in relation to our nature and those within such a nature.
But Freud’s fundamental point is that society, social orders, civilisation, is what shapes us into good and decent and dignified beings. That we have within us an inherent and unsurpassable urge to escape from our status as feckless and impulsive animals.
And that is precisely why most psychological problems demand a change of circumstance. Why abused people need to be removed from abusive households. Why homeless people need homes. Why poor people need resources. Psychiatry tries to maintain the charades of how class and society and capitalism are scientifically adhered to notions, but they’re not. The just world theory is dead.
Not just dying, but dead. From the mystical reaches of reactionary theosophy in feudalism, all the way to the amalgamation of the holocaust. Time and again there have been men of lesser nature who have attempted to purport that the powers which govern the world are just and it’s the people who are flawed, and every single time we see the opposite. We see injustice reveal itself in new and profound levels.
So give Freud a fair chance. Don’t believe in everything he says. But at least study him in good faith, because there is a lot of valuable things to understand. And it’s better to be weird than it is to be cruel, and he’s got that going for him.