Psychoanalysis and Sociology: From Freudo-Marxism to Freudo-Feminism

John O’Neill. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Reception Contexts

Universities continue to organize themselves around the division of faculties. This dictates the division of departments that in turn dictate the division of subjects which constitute their curricula. At the same time, universities are encouraged to espouse multidisciplinary research to which they respond precisely because their faculties and postgraduate students have long recognized the practice of mixed knowledge or blurred genres. The arts and sciences now borrow so freely from each other both on the level of theory and of method that the wall that once separated the two cultures is now more like an overstretched borderline crossed daily by sociologists, philosophers, literary and psychoanalytic theorists. Yet somehow these borderlines still serve to inspire cultural theorists to the celebration of transgression, law-breaking and dis-affiliation (O’Neill, 1995). Here, of course, cultural workers enjoy rights of renunciation, violation and transit not shared by other workers whose transfiguration is blocked or stalled in messianic time.

Our present enlightenment severely tests our previous enlightenment. It therefore strains sociology, which is a child of the Enlightenment. It thereby invites sociologists to turn to psychoanalysis like that elder child in their family whose wounded self-knowledge and painful submission to society may deepen their understanding. The psychoanalysis turn may well appear to involve a retreat from sociology’s determination to release us from pre-history, to let us out of the family, to unbind myth and emotion with knowledge and its freedoms. Hence, the wall between sociology and psychoanalysis. But it turns out that in its escape to freedom sociology may well have hurriedly packed its baggage with hasty notions of subjectivity, agency and law, of reason and imagination, of sexuality and of language. The result has been that in the past forty years or so sociologists have been obliged to return to the hermeneutical sciences, in particular to psychoanalysis. There are many shifts within the linguistic turn. In sociology’s case, the shifts are through ordinary language philosophy (Wittgenstein, 1958) to hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1975) to critical theory (Habermas, 1971) and to the linguistic return to Freud (Lacan, 1968), shifts that have restored the (un)conscious in reason’s project (Ricouer, 1974).

What had to be challenged for Freud’s sociological adaptation was his insistence upon universal knowledge of the human species and the primacy of internal over external factors in the determination of eventual behaviour. In ‘Totem and Taboo,’ the struggle between the integrating force of Eros and the destructive force of primary masochism is tipped by the severity of the super-ego against individual desire in favour of the authority of institutions. Human prematurity and helplessness mean that aggression towards objects and others is the latent source of the aggression we form against ourselves in the name of external authorities. Clearly, Freud’s position on the structure of the political unconscious is as hard on any Utopian movement as it is upon totalitarian regimes even though it may appear to offer no remedy on either score. The Freudian position is that political ideologies are projections divorced from their unconscious drives and defence mechanisms which prevents their recognition of their internal source of failure. As the creations of a ‘purified ego,’ political ideologies project conflict-free futures guaranteed by the expulsion of the evils located in the father or in the property system. From this perspective, illusion will always have a future but the future will never emerge from illusions.

Psychoanalytic theory entered the social sciences earlier in the United States than the United Kingdom (Bocock, 1976, 1983). It did so prematurely—the effect being realized only in the 1960s and as a carrier of student body-politics, whose failure repeated the earlier failure of prewar Marxism to realize love’s body. The second wave of psychoanalytic reception in both the US and the UK had to wait out the rise of ‘French Marx’ in the 1980s, which was itself a disciplinary response to failed revolution. Meantime, critical attention turned to the analysis of the constitutional bond between knowledge and power, to the madness and oppression in the heart of rationality. In the UK, the works of Laing (1969) and Cooper (1971) developed an existential anti-psychiatry (Sedgwick, 1982), compared to the work of Goffman (1961) and Szasz (1961) in the US and to the work of Foucault (1973) and Deleuze/Guattari (1977) in France. But it is from France that we inherit the ‘return to Freud,’ that is, a return to the classic texts of psychoanalysis, an effect that was then multiplied in literary, philosophical and sociological readings of Freudian psychoanalysis. These studies have inspired the politics of sexual and racial identity, driving the new industry of cultural studies that transgress conventional disciplinary boundaries. They have also contributed to the redefinition of the academic labour force and the larger culture of the university. Thus the ‘marriage’ between sociology and psychoanalysis which was produced by rethinking the failure of ‘the revolution’ has contributed to the implosion of ‘minoritarian’ movements in the past two decades.

Against this rather sweeping characterization of events that far exceeds the contextualization that I have imposed upon them, I shall now follow through ‘analytically,’ as Parsons would say, where sociology took on board what is needed from psychoanalysis to accomplish its own agenda. The Parsonian assumption of Freud is given here in some detail because it provides a benchmark for many of the assertions and denials in the later, post-oedipal readings developed in particular by feminist theorists. The rubrics I shall have to employ are beholden to the contexts generated by the interaction of sociology and psychoanalysis:

  • Socialization theory
  • Civilization theory
  • Post-oedipal theory

So it must be understood that these organizational rubrics merely gesture towards ‘encyclopaedism.’ This is because we now live in an age of broken knowledge and fragmented justice whose drive towards integrity and solidarity can take no giant step.

Socialization Theory

Parsons’ basically Durkheimian theory of culture necessarily sets aside Freud’s instinctualism or biologism in order to bring psychoanalysis into the liberal voluntarist paradigm of social interaction. For this reason, he vehemently rejected Wrong’s (1961) resurrection of the anti-social instincts and his ‘undialectical’ construct of the ‘oversocialized man.’ Parsons’ integrative bias overrides Freud’s view that ambivalence is the bottom character of our social relations and as such always leaves us open to the possibility of regression. The costs of sublimation and sacrifice on behalf of society are so high that Freud was pessimistic about our ability to sustain them. As we shall see, later theorists (Fromm, Marcuse, Brown) adopt various revisionist strategies on this issue. On the level of psycho-history, Freud’s concept of religion as an obsessional neurosis entirely separates him from Parsons’ liberal progressive conception of the reinforcements of religion and capitalism in the development of modern individualism. Here, too, Parsons’ conception of the liberal professions in the production of health, education and social management places them on a broader stage than Freud’s clinic (O’Neill, 1995)—not to mention Goffman (1961) and Foucault’s studies of the asylum (1973).

Yet Parsons read Freud very closely for his own analytic purpose. Parsons was especially attracted to Lecture XXXI of the New Introductory Lecture on Psychoanalysis (1933), where Freud takes up ‘The Dissection of the Psychical Personality.’ Here Freud re-enters the ‘physical underworld’ to revisit the forces that result in ego-splitting (the overlapping of self-observation, judgement and punishment) that we attribute to the rule of conscience. Freud’s phenomenon, however, is not Durkheim’s social concept of conscience but that roller-coaster ride of moral depression and elation experienced by the melancholic. Nor is the super-ego Kant’s heavenly lamp. It is a parental image through which the child becomes the severest judge of its fulfilment of the laws of perfection. Moreover, the super-ego cannot be located entirely on the level of ego-consciousness or of unconscious repression. Rather, both the ego and the superego are closer than not to the unconscious, or to the id. What is involved is a permeable psychic system whose subsystems ‘translate’ each other in the endless task of making more room for ego where there was once almost nothing but id (Freud, 1923). Human conduct is structured hierarchically so that inputs are symbolically represented on the levels of the id, ego and superego.

Parsons appropriates the Freudian psychic apparatus by opening it towards the sociopsychic and psychocultural systems:

How can the fundamental phenomenon of the internalization of moral norms be analyzed in such a way as to maximize the generality of implications of the formulation, both for the theory of personality and for the theory of the social system? (Parsons, 1964: 19-20)

In this device Parsons makes several analytical moves:

  • The relocation of the super-ego midway between the ego and the cultural system (with the id located on the level of the organism);
  • The inclusion of the super-ego in the ego which internalizes three components (cognitive, moral and expressive) of common culture which may be largely unconscious and subject to repression;
  • The self oriented cognitively and cathectively to a double environment of social and non-social objects within which: (a) only culture can be internal, (b) emotions are symbolically generalized systems, (c) only ego-alter relations can be mutual.

Parsons was extremely critical of Freud’s alleged separation between the personality system and its cultural environment. Because he neglected their mutual cultural conditioning, Freud was obliged to restrict the ego to a purely cognitive reading of its external environment and to assign all the work of collective identification to the super-ego. The result was to make the super-ego a more remote moral sensor of ego’s attachments than need be if their common culture were recognized. Freud’s limitation in this respect, Parsons argues, was due to his restricted concept of affective symbolism which he located between the ego and the id. In turn, Freud’s parental identification mechanism is too reductive to account for the cultural acquisition of the symbolically generalized system of emotions that integrate the personality system and the social system on the level of the family (Parsons and Bales, 1955).

The socialization process must be seen as a two-way process of the personality system by the social system (here the sociological concept of role is the key) and of the social system by the personality system (here the psychoanalytic theory of identification, object cathexis, internalization is the other key). Parsons argues that the Freudian key opens the levels of id, ego and super-ego to each other provided what drives the personality system is not the instincts but a social interaction that is already operative at the breast. Here infant and mother learn to interpret one another’s reactions and to generalize their pattern. Thus there already occurs an exchange between the endo-psychic and sociopsychic organization of the dyad that prefigures, so to speak, all later socialization on the levels of ego and super-ego. Social reproduction is already at work on the level of metabolism inasmuch as its bare material, physical and instinctual elements of feeding are the site and source of a hermeneutics through which mother and infant inaugurate a level of expectable, sanctionable conduct of care and feeding (O’Neill, 1992).

Parsons’ baby is a social actor from the first day it steps onto the family stage. Henceforth, it will live for a love whose conditions it will be taught to win or lose:

I think it a legitimate interpretation of Freud to say that only when the need for love has been established as the paramount goal of the personality can a genuine ego be present. (Parsons, 1964: 90, emphasis in original)

Parsons nevertheless claims that Freud lost the generalizability in his discovery of infant eroticism by interpreting the identification process in terms of the infant’s desire to be the mother – with all its oedipal complications. Rather, what a child learns is to interact with the mother in terms of collectively defined roles through which family membership is reproduced. The infant is at first a dependent subject in relation to the mother whose point of view it will come to adopt as its own. Thus the child’s investment in the maternal object-choice is the vehicle of its internalization of the collective norms represented to it through the mother’s sanctioning of its progressive maturation. Upon this first level of maternal identification, the child can then build identifications with the family as a collective category as well, with its categories of sexual and generational identity. In this process, the mother becomes a lost-object in exchange for membership in the wider family. Once this is achieved, the super-ego is in place:

The super-ego, then, is primarily the normative pattern governing the behaviour of the different members in their different roles in the family as a system. (Parsons, 1964: 96)

Parsons also questioned the restricted symbolic significance of the father in Freud’s theory of socialization. The infant has to learn sex-role differentiation as a cultural categorization akin to age and status categorization. At the same time, the child must learn to differentiate instrumental-adaptive and expressive-integrative functions in relation to age and sex categorization. Here, Parsons argues, the incest taboo may be regarded as a cultural mechanism that shifts infant erotic dependency upon intrafamilial models to extrafamilial attachments to peers among whom the child is one of a kind, neither more nor less. By the same token, the parent figures are relativized as competitors among other extrafamilial authority figures just as the family culture yields primacy to school and workplace culture. In this developmental sequence the primacy of the oedipal father yields to authority orientation in the wider society where, of course, it may play a role in attitudes of conformity and rebellion (as we shall see in the following sections).

Civilization Theory

It was not until after the Second World War that America again read Freud. This time it was not so much to promote sociology’s narrow professional identity, but America itself. The question of America’s destiny seriously divided cultural theorists into optimists and pessimists. America had helped to save democracy from fascism as well as to put capitalism in first place and to leave communist/socialism a poor runner-up. In return for Marshall Aid to rebuild Europe, however, the United States imported many European scholars, from rocket scientists to critical Marxists and Freudians. For our story, the irony is that it was the Frankfurt School of critical theory that reintroduced Freud to America. It also imported a sophisticated form of Marxist philosophy of the social sciences and cultural analysis that underwrote the establishment of left academic in Anglo-America (Jay, 1973; Slater, 1977). The Frankfurt School had turned to psychoanalysis to examine the eclipse of the proletarian revolution by fascist and totalitarian state regimes in Europe. With some change, they made the same move to examine why American capitalism subordinated liberal democracy to a corporate agenda masked by an ideology of narcissistic individualism and aggression (Slater, 1970).

Marx and Freud are not, of course, an easy marriage. While it owes as much to the rethinking of psychoanalysis as of Marxism, the birth of ‘Freudo-Marxism’ introduced an unruly child into the house of theory. The heart of the matter is the temptation to reduce political revolution to sexual revolution (Chasseguet-Smirgel and Grunberger, 1986). This demand requires two other moves, that is, to treat the economy as the source of an historically produced scarcity and to treat the family as the corresponding source of sexual repression. One can then reverse Marxist-analysis with psychoanalysis: emancipate sexually from the (bourgeois) family and the result will be happiness underwritten by an economy of abundance. Only Marx and Freud are left with a frown on their faces! This does not bring them any closer. We are back to the civilization question (Tester, 1992) or the question of the nature of human nature—is it rooted in biology or is its biology révisable? Is human nature anti-social and unhappy in civilization or is socialized humanity and its sublimations proof that human nature is only second nature? We should now consider how these arguments took their course in the works of Marcuse (1955), Brown (1959) and Rieff (1959, 1966).

What was needed was the elaboration of an historical materialist psychology to move beyond weak notions of false consciousness among the masses and conspiratorial theories of elite ideology which worked together to ‘save’ Marxist revolutionary theory from its historical failures. In current terms, it was necessary to spell out the intervening mechanisms through which the economic substructure determines the cultural superstructure in capitalist society. The turn to Freud was a turn from both ‘vulgar Hegelian’ and ‘vulgar Marxist’ accounts of the civilization relations between economy, society and personality. This turn was taken in the publication by the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research of Studies in Authority and Family (Forschungsberichte …, 1936). It was Erich Fromm who made the initial moves, drawing upon Freud’s later cultural works (1920 onwards). These drew upon anthropology and social psychology to deal with the central issues of political authority, mass psychology and the role of the super-ego in the allegiance to cultural ideologies. In Freud’s essays on ‘Totem and Taboo’ (1912-13), ‘The Future of an Illusion’ (1927), ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ (1930), for example, it is clear that the psyche is socially and historically conditioned, even though Freud seriously overweighs the present and future with the burden of the past. This, of course, is why the very notion of any alliance between Marxism and psychoanalysis has always appeared a retrograde step bound to mire critical theory in Freud’s undialectical dualism of Eros and Thanatos (as Reich, 1945, and Marcuse, 1955, were to argue).

Fromm argued that the drives (instincts) are not what determine human history. Indeed, there would be no ‘history,’ that is, no development of humanity without the mediation of institutions which socialize individuals to cathect behaviour that is normative and thereby regular for given constellations of economy, polity and society. The periodization of these institutional contexts is the work of Marxist materialist history. This is not our concern in any detail except to note that historical ‘laws’ require what J.S. Mill calls ‘middle principles’ (Logic, BK VI) to connect with individual conduct. It is tempting to assign this work to the agency of religion, law and the police. But the analytic issue is how these forces of law and order achieve their purpose through behaviour that is more orderly than not. Why don’t individuals withdraw their labour, play truant, abandon themselves to pleasure and perversion? How do they tolerate inequality, racism and genderism? Fromm’s answer is that order is not achieved through ‘vulgar Freudian’ notions of repression and sublimation imposed on the drives by the collusion of the super-ego with the death instinct. Order is achieved through a libidinal adaptation to economic necessity translated through the family’s class position, occupation and income. Fromm, following Reich (1945), shifted Freud’s emphasis from the intrafamilial dynamics that shape individual fates to the broader structure of economic relations to which families must respond, thereby instituting a largely unconscious environment of possible and impossible conducts (character structure).

The analytic innovation here is the search for a concept of the sociological unconscious which is formed under the pressure of class position and expressed in attitudes towards authority, rebellion and ritualistic conformity in a wider range of cultural and personal behaviour (Richards, 1984). Fromm (1942, 1956, 1984) was concerned with the social contradiction between the ideological sovereignty of the individual and the psychosocial fact of individual impotence and its wide political consequences. The compensatory ‘busyness’ in everyone from the entrepreneur to the housewife and data-driven researcher—and even the psychoanalyst—is the mark of their alienation from productive humanity. Fromm may even have argued that this impotence underlies critical theory’s own inability to connect theory and praxis. Its resolution to live with the ‘non-identity thesis,’ that is, the divorce between empirical and transcendental history, remains the mark of intellectual impotence and its own surrender to repressive tolerance. In this regard, Fromm’s early work (1937, 1970) on the administrative techniques of the German state, and school system and penal systems as a disciplinary regime that reinforces petty-bourgeois hegemony and mass submission (O’Brien, 1976), is well ahead of later work by Gramsci and Foucault. Fromm also anticipated the criticism that the Freudian analyst-patient relationship abstains from reflection on the bourgeois character structure of repression and tolerance.

Prior to entering the Marcuse/Brown readings of Freud, it may be useful to insert Rieff’s reading of the question to what extent successful psychoanalysis requires adjustment to or rejection of the civilizing process. Unlike Habermas (1971), Rieff separates psychotherapy from any overall emancipatory drive since this only reintroduces an illusion of salvation and community. ‘Psychological man’ operates on the basis of self-knowledge and world-knowledge, combining the strengths of a scientist and an entrepreneur in acting upon himself. Because he understands his internal dissatisfactions, he can steer through the obstacles set by civilization. For Rieff, Freud is a cultural hero. But not for long; a few years later he found that the psychologization of psychoanalysis had the upper hand:

Where the family and nation once stood, or Church and Party, there will be hospital and theatre too, the normative institutions of the next culture. Trained to be incapable of sustaining sectarian satisfaction, psychological man cannot be susceptible to sectarian control. Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago when ‘I believe,’ the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ‘one feels,’ the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psychotherapist will be his secular spiritual guide. (Rieff, 1966: 24-5)

The full sense of this observation would involve an extended analysis of arguments regarding the symbiosis between the politics of intimacy, the sexualization of economic life, and the mystification of the bases of social control and power in advanced capitalist society.

In fact this becomes the focus of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979), whose thesis is his concern with the displacement of the socialization functions of the bourgeois family onto professional, bureaucratic and state agencies. These agencies foster the narcissistic culture generated in the reduced families whose main function is consumption (aided by TV viewing) rather than production. The narcissistic personality is the perfect expression of the weakened family vis-à-vis the state and economy which recruit only privatized consumers. Thus Lasch argued that the schools, juvenile courts, health and welfare services, advertising and the media all function to erode the authority of the family. The result is that the family is increasingly a place where narcissistic individuals learn to compete with one another in the consumption of services and goods—emotional, political and economic—but with a diminished capacity for the competence required in their production. Yet, when Lasch himself looked for a counterculture to narcissism, the best he himself could do was to locate it in the hard school of the very rich, realistic about privilege and victimization, busy in the pursuit of studies, music lessons, ballet, tennis and parties ‘through which the propertied rich acquire discipline, courage, persistence, and self-possession’ (Lasch, 1979: 371).

Whatever Freud’s views on utopianism, his reflections on the high cost of ‘civilization’ permitted a second wave of Marxo-Freudianism in Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) and Norman O. Brown’s great renunciation of the spirit of Protestantism and capitalism in Life Against Death (1959) and Love’s Body (1966). Both books, despite Marcuse’s rejection of Brown’s utopianism and Brown’s dismissal of Marcuse’s inability to get libidinal, became cult texts of the 1960s. The core issue between them—as between Freud and Reich—is over the concept of sublimation or the connection between culture and (infant) sexuality in the sacrifice of pleasure and the realization of society. The ‘post-Freudian’ solution is to drop the infantile psychic apparatus by historicizing the patriarchal family character to release full genitality, the body without organs (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977), the libidinal economy of jouissance (Lyotard, 1993) and (be)coming woman (Jardine, 1985). The danger in these moves is that they fall into the denunciation of institutions and authority in the name of fictionality and desire. Moreover, the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere guarantees that cultural politics will make headway in academia and the media. Thus particular cultural strategies like (de)constructionism and minoritarianism serve to redistribute symbolic capitals yet not necessarily alter the inequality that governs cultural capitalism (an issue to which we return in the final section of this chapter).

In Life Against Death Norman O. Brown attacked capitalism at its very foundations, that is, its excremental vision, its noxious composition of denunciation and denial of the body’s gifts unless congealed in the fetishes of property, money and jewellery. Capitalism is therefore a neurosis built out of self-hatred. Its hold upon us deepens once it combines with the anal virtues of orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy prized in the Protestant ethic. Brown pursues the dead body of Protestant capitalism as the proper equivalent of Freud’s death instinct which otherwise confounds social progress. He also traces the same life-denying impulses in the domination of science and technology, raising the question of what a life-affirmative or ‘non-morbid’ science would look like. Brown also looked at archaic economies that were not governed either by overproduction or scarcity. He questioned the Freudian principle of sublimation as a misreading of historical economies of non-enjoyment which conquered the archaic economies of the gift and social solidarity.

The economy of repressive sublimation and anality rests upon the death instinct, Brown argues, because we are unable to die. This is rooted in the infant’s refusal to be separated from the mother-body and in the prolonged fetalization of human beings. It is the source of our combined morbidity and possessiveness. It is also the origin of our search for self-creation, of our quest for parthenogenesis, hermaphroditism and androgyny and of the current mythology of possessive sexual identities which in effect espouse death-in-life by fleeing from death:

Science and civilization combine to articulate the core of the human neurosis, man’s incapacity to live in the body, which is also his incapacity to die. (Brown, 1959: 303)

Curiously enough, there is a more profound historical analysis of capitalism in Brown than in Marcuse, to whose historicization of psychoanalysis we now turn. This is because Marcuse was preoccupied with a critique of the conservative consequences of liberalism (rather than fascism) in late capitalism. Mention must also be made of Marcuse’s rehabilitation of the revolutionary philosophy of Hegel (Marcuse, 1960), if we are to understand his strategy of saving Freud for a revolutionary reading. Marcuse – like Horkheimer and Adorno—was therefore not entirely critical of the bourgeois family inasmuch as it was the site of the struggle between patriarchalism and radical invidualism. However, by the time of One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse had abandoned the argument that the family was a critical site of emancipation. The corporate agenda now bypasses the family through direct media manipulation of individuals and the individualization of male, female and child labour driven by compulsive desires.

Marcuse adopted two analytical strategies in order to make his argument that psychological concepts are political concepts. The first was to historicize the psychic costs of civilization by placing them wholly on the side of the reality principle, that is, the social organization of an economy of scarcity, rather than on the side of the pleasure principle regarded as an innately anti-social and unsatisfiable drive. This move generated the second argument that repression is always surplus-regression created by the political failure to open up the liberal freedoms that would flow from an economy of abundance. Marcuse rescued the revolutionary principle of the pleasure principle, not only by arguing for a Utopian future but by grounding it in a cognitive function of preserving the past critical memory of happiness as a standard for political change:

If memory moves into the centre of psychoanalysis as a decisive mode of cognition, this is far more than a therapeutic device; the therapeutic role of memory derives from the truth value of memory. Its truth value lies in the specific function of memory to preserve promises and potentialities which are betrayed and even outlawed by the mature, civilized individual, but which had once been fulfilled in his dim past and which are never entirely forgotten. The reality principle restrains the cognitive function of memory—its commitment to the past experience of happiness which spurns the desire for its conscious recreation. The psychoanalytic liberation of memory explodes the rationality of the repressed individual. As cognitive gives way to recognition, the forbidden images and impulses of childhood begin to tell the truth that reason denies. Regression assumes a progressive function. The rediscovered past yields critical standards which are tabooed by the present. Moreover, the restoration of memory is accompanied by the restoration of the cognitive content of phantasy. Psychoanalytic theory removes these mental faculties from the noncommittal sphere of daydreaming and fiction and recaptures their strict truths. The weight of these discoveries must eventually shatter the framework in which they were made and confined. The liberation of the past does not end in its reconciliation with the present. Against the self-imposed restraint of the discoverer, the orientation on the past tends toward an orientation on the future. The recherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation. (Marcuse, 1955: 18, emphasis in original)

In this way Marcus released Freud’s deadlock between Eros and Thanatos. He denied there is any social organization of the death instinct, although he conceded that aggression is a necessary byproduct of repression. In late capitalism social domination bypasses the patrarichal family. Domination becomes the work of the anonymous corporate administration of individualized desires that supply the content of happiness without creativity of the pleasure principle.

To resist what he calls ‘the corporealization of the super-ego,’ Marcuse argued that phantasy serves a positive historical task of preserving the collective aspiration for happiness and security, preserved in the cultural myths of Orpheus and Narcissus rather than the productivist myth of Prometheus, which prolongs the conflict between man and nature. Against Freud, Marcuse reads Narcissus as a figure of subjective and world harmonization and non-repressive sublimation exercised in art, play and contemplation as truly human aspirations, and the basis for an alternative reality principle (see Alford, 1988 for critical discussion). So far from encouraging narcissism in any vulgar sense, Marcuse in fact drew upon the mythological and aesthetic tradition of Narcissus and Orpheus pitted against the tradition of Prometheus:

The Orphic and Narcissistic experience of the world negates that which sustains the world of the performance principle. The opposition between man and nature, subject and object, is overcome. Being is experienced as gratification, which unites man and nature so that the fulfillment of man is at the same time the fulfillment, without voilence, of nature … This liberation is the work of Eros. The song of Orpheus breaks the pétrification, moves the forests and the rocks—but moves them to partake in joy. (Marcuse, 1955: 150-1)

It is in terms of this aesthetic myth that Marcuse then adapted Freud’s theory of primary narcissism, which he interpreted not as a neurotic symptom but as a constitutive element in the construction of reality and of a mature, creative ego with the potential for transforming the world in accordance with a new science of nature:

The striking paradox that narcissism, usually understood as egotistic withdrawal from reality, here is connected with oneness with the universe, reveals the new depth of the conception: beyond all immature autoeroticism, narcissism denotes a fundamental relatedness to reality which may generate a comprehensive existential order. (Marcuse, 1955: 27)

In France the Marxist turn to Freud had to get past the official line of the Communist Party on psychoanalysis as a bourgeois subjectifying ideology. It has also to skirt Sartre’s (1957) existentialist critique of the positivist bias of psychoanalytic explanation. Yet Sartre, especially through Laing and Cooper in the UK, was also the source of an anti-psychiatric movement, which picked up with Foucault (1973). In the course of events, psychoanalysis provided arguments for the anti-psychiatry movement but then fell foul of it as an establishment ideology of familized order and capitalist repression (Turkle, 1981). The principle work here is Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1977), in which Deleuze and Guattari excoriate oedipalism in the name of the schizoanalytic meltdown of Freudocapitalism.

Desire must be released from the ‘Daddy-Mommy-Me’ nucleus of capitalist society where desire is constitutionally castrated, where it is always less than itself, always ready to be sacrificed to smaller and more sensible pleasures. Whereas Freud struggled to re-oedipalize the ‘bodies-without-organs’ he had discovered in his case histories, especially of Little Hans (1909), Wolf Man (1918) and Schreber (1911), Deleuze and Guattari unleash them as the schizoid exemplars of post-capitalist desire;

There is no such thing as the social production of reality on the one hand, and a desiring-production that is mere fantasy on the other. The only connections that could be established between these two productions would be secondary ones of introjection and projection, as though all social practices had their precise counterpart in introjected or internal mental practices, or as though mental practices were projected upon social systems, without either of the two sets of practices ever having any real or concrete effect upon the other. As long as we are content to establish a perfect parallel between money, gold, capital, and the capitalist triangle on the one hand, and the libido, the anus, the phallus, and the family triangle on the other, we are engaging in an enjoyable pastime, but the mechanisms of money remain totally unaffected by the anal projections of those who manipulate money. The Marx-Freud parallelism between the two remains utterly sterile and insignificant as long as it is expressed in terms that make them introjections or projections of each other without ceasing to be utterly alien to each other, as in the famous equation money = shit. The truth of the matter is that social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself under determinate conditions. We maintain that the social field is immediately invested by desire, that it is the historically determined product of desire, and that libido has no need of any mediation or sublimation, any psychic operation, any transformation, in order to invade and invest the productive forces and the relations of production. There is only desire and the social, and nothing else. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977: 28-9, emphasis in original)

Schizoanalysis merely reiterates the aftereffect of capitalism’s desperate attempt to simultaneously dam and to unbind unlimited desire, its invention of non-hierarchical bodies in endless states of agitation, flow, copulation and consumption.

The theoretical rapprochement between French Freud and French Marx was the work of Louis Althusser, who developed scientific, that is, structuralist and anti-humanist, accounts of Marx, Freud and Lacan. The common ground was found in the concept of ideology, which Althusser identified with the a-historical unconscious Zizek, 1989). Thus history has no subject-centre except through ‘inter-pellation,’ or being called up by an ideological apparatus in which any subject (mis)recognizes itself as the subject of social practices and rituals:

We observe that the structure of all ideology, interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of a Unique and Absolute Subject, is speculary, i.e., a mirror-structure, and doubly speculary: this mirror duplication is constitutive of ideology and ensures its functioning. Which means that all ideology is centred, that the Absolute Subject occupies the unique place of the Centre, and interpellates around it the infinity of individuals into subjects in a double mirror-connexion such that it subjects the subjects to the Subject, while giving them in the Subject in which each subject can contemplate its own image (present and future) the guarantee that this really concerns them and Him, and that since everything takes place in the Family (the Holy Family: the Family is in essence Holy), ‘God will recognize his own in it,’ i.e., those who have recognized God, and have recognized themselves in Him, will be saved.

Let me summarize what we have discovered about ideology in general.

The duplicate mirror-structure of ideology ensures simultaneously:

  • The interpellation of ‘individuals’ as subjects;
  • Their subjection to the Subject;
  • The mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, the subjects’ recognition of each other, and finally the Subject’s recognition of himself;
  • The absolute guarantee that everything really is so, and that on condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right: Amen—‘So be it.’

Result: caught in this quadruple system of interpellation as subjects, of subjection to the Subject, of universal recognition and of absolute guarantee, the subjects ‘work,’ they ‘work by themselves’ in the vast majority of cases, with the exception of the ‘bad subjects’ who on occasion provoke the intervention of one of the detachments of the (repressive) State apparatus. (Althusser, 1971: 168-9)

Althusser’s hybridization of Marxism and psychoanalysis brings us full circle. This time the individual is over-socialized through an ideological mirror of subjectivity in which the individual sees subjection as how things are. We have lost the rebelliousness of the unconscious and surrendered transgressive desire to normalcy in the name of the state cultural apparatus. The insight of psychoanalysis is the blindness of sociology.


Here we will treat the main arguments in the reception/rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis that have played a role in the articulation of feminism as a particular strategy within the larger history of women’s movements (Lovell, 1996; Mitchell, 1974). It need hardly be said that women experience inferiority, aggression and exploitation. Their sexual lives prior to and within marriage are largely controlled by patriarchal ideologies which in turn have dominated their economic and political lives (Ortner, 1974; Rubin, 1975). The specific exploitation of women has been a blind spot even in Marxist thought and has again necessitated a turn to Freud in order to rethink woman’s sexuality, the sociopsychic costs of reproduction and the need to redefine heterosexual relations. It was necessary to historicize the second-sex ideology of woman’s otherness (de Beauvoir, 1961; Rich, 1978; Wittig, 1973), the feminine mystique (Friedman, 1963) that confined women to Victorian hysteria, to patriarchalism (Eistenstein, 1981; Figes, 1970) and, above all, to psychic and social castration (Greer, 1971). Feminist scholarship (Greene and Kahn, 1985) is now so vast and so well-received that it is impossible to summarize without losing the nuances of early Anglo-American feminism and of Franco-feminism fuelled by Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction and semiotics (Marks and de Courtivron, 1980). The result has been to reconstruct patriarchal ideas of the feminine (Pateman, 1988), of mothering, household and child care in ways that encourage women to assume social and political agency in their own right/write.

The feminist fascination with Lacan has to be one of the most difficult relationships to understand—it is perhaps the enigma of the woman’s movement (Benjamin, 1988; Cixous and Clement, 1986; Flax, 1990; Gallop, 1982; Irigaray, 1985; Kofman, 1985; Ragland-Sullivan, 1987). Since all the versions cannot be satisfactorily explored, we must try to set out an analytic core in Lacan. Taken with the earlier accounts of Parsons and Althusser, this excursus may help the reader to estimate the balance of the feminist ‘return to Freud.’ Lacan re-read Freud and was in turn read into philosophy, psychoanalysis, anti-psychiatry, women’s studies and so on, only to be rejected by critics of his own residual Freudianism! Lacan’s departure was to revise Freudian psychologism just as Althusser rejected Marx’s humanism and once again reconnected Marxism and psychoanalysis. Analytically, then, Lacan’s contribution to sociology was to reject the search for influences or determinisms between individual behaviour and social institutions. Society is never beyond the individual because it dwells in the language each of us speaks and thereby appropriates subjectivity/objectivity, masculine/feminine etc. Society does not erase a state of nature with its imposition of Law. The categories of kinship and partriarchy are invoked in the oedipal family to shift the pre-oedipal infant from the imaginary order of maternal fusion to the symbolic order of social difference. For Lacan individualism is an illusion that originates in the (maternal) mirror and thereafter constitutes the subject as an endless question for its own return. This is the modus operandi of the subject of slavery and seduction, of the patient and student subject, of the consumer and political subject, in short of innumerable capital bodies that are the objects of psychoanalytically based culture criticism.

While the tension between psychoanalysis and feminism has been enormously creative, its source should not be overlooked. The feminist appropriation of psychoanalysis involved a political volte face. Jacqueline Rose puts the nub of the issue:

The difficulty is to pull psychoanalysis … towards a recognition of the fully social constitute of identity and norms, and then back again to that point of tension between ego and unconscious where they are endlessly re-modeled and endlessly break. (Rose, 1986: 7)

To the extent that post-oedipal feminism abandons the pre-oedipal matrix, its anti-patriarchal politics of women’s sexuality overlooks the pre-oedipal limits set by the unconscious to identity and plurality claims around sexual difference, patriarchal ideology and aggression as purely social constructs. Thus feminist legal theorists (Bower, 1991) have taken conflicting positions on the question of motherhood and the maternal in public life. In turn, the challenges of combining working and mothering, reproductive control, especially abortion practice, and affirmative action directed by women’s identity politics has also led to considerable theoretical work by legal feminists (Cornell, 1991; Mackinnon, 1983), and even to a maternal jurisprudence (West, 1988).

It may be useful here to insert Kristeva’s attempt to move beyond the alternatives represented by liberal feminism (equal access to symbolic capital) and radical feminism (deconstruction of symbolic capital) in the name of difference. Kristeva opens up a metaphysical deconstruction of the masculine/feminine dichotomy (Kristeva, 1981). In positive terms, Kristeva embraces marginality, subversion and dissidence grounded in the pre-oedipal mother-body and its semiotic transcendence of gender division. However, other feminists have not aligned with this position since, like Chodorow (1978), they start from the position that motherhood merely reproduces patriarchalism and commits daughters to an ideology of care and rearing from which they must be emancipated to become women. They have been even more reluctant to take on Kristeva’s re-appropriation of religion and the trinitarian semiotics of maternal divinity (Crownfield, 1992).

Any remarks on the range of women’s theorizing have to be qualified by conceding the problem of generalizing upon specific grounds and strategies of advancement that women have adopted in government, social policy, health, childcare, education and the workplace. Obviously, women have made major gains in redefining the institutions that affect their lives. Here the task is to estimate what has been the role of women’s appropriation of psychoanalysis in their expanded socioeconomic and political lives. In the first place, women have broadened the distinction between ‘pure knowledge’ and ‘political knowledge’ (Haraway, 1991; Jardine, 1985) inasmuch as the realities they challenge prove to have been gendered constructions that privilege male interest. They have also broadened the male narrative that governed modernity, either to soften it with its own female side (Silverman, 1992) or to set out an open-ended female socio-narrative of becoming-woman (gynesis). More recently, Judith Butler (1993) has suggested that gay/lesbians adopt the strategy of appropriating the designation of ‘queer,’ to extricate it from its normative stigma as pathological practice and to reassign its performative power through self-naming. A similar strategy has appealed to gays, lesbians, blacks and those with disabilities seeking to deconstruct and re-assign their place in a democratic society. Yet it cannot be presumed that there is no remainder of self-assigned difference within these groups. It remains a difficult matter to gauge the effectiveness of political theatre based upon ‘acting up’ underprivileged identities. The political tolerance (which includes funding) of its margins is at least as much a sign of the power of a social system as of its potential transformation.

In fairness, it must be noted that the work of deconstructing male/female dichotomies has engaged male theorists as much as female theorists. In the US the work of Stoller (1968) and of Money and Ehrhardt (1972) on the biological and cultural factors in sexual differentiation was path breaking. Once the door to social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Goffman, 1961) opened, a great deal of the programme was set for later gender and race studies. Women have demystified their self-concept, empowered themselves in the field of symbolic capital and implemented organizational forms of practical action whose development will be in their own hands. What is at stake are new formulations of politics, ethics and aesthetics, at one level, and new relations of authority, care and democracy in the lifeworld that will shift the intergenerational burdens of women.

The shift from early capitalist gendered economies (contemporaneous with traditional economies) to late capitalist economic sexism (Illich, 1982) has not altered the contradiction between increased exploitation of women and their new freedom in the market place (O’Neill, 1991). Here the current reconfiguration of the welfare state is of enormous consequence for women and children in single parent households, for working women and elder women (O’Neill, 1994). It is important to remember that it is easier for academic women to make inroads on the canon, figurability and the erotic imagination, in short, to re-write and re-read ‘woman,’ than it is for women outside of academia to achieve such voice.


Sociology cannot ignore its basic assumptions about human nature. All the same, sociologists do not wish to trade upon religious, philosophical and psychological conceptions of human nature. This is because sociologists suspect that any theory of human nature is a covert theory of social and political order. It turns out that all social thinkers have to make some fundamental decision on what we may call the Hobbesian problem of order (Carveth, 1984; O’Neill, 1972), that is, how far is human nature sociable, or other-regarding? We are divided between egoists and altruists; we are split between the parties of order and dis(order), between Eros and Thanatos. No theory is adequate that ignores the complexity of the relations between reason and the passions, or the costs of socialization and sublimation. No social theory can entirely separate history and structure without inviting deconstruction and revision. Thus sociology and psychoanalysis remain uneasy yet necessary partners.