Freud and the Freudtones

by CarlD

This is an underbrush clearing post.

I’m not sold on Freud.

This agnosticism is not entirely the product of ignorance. I’ve read the Introductory Lectures, Three Essays, and Origin & Development; Future of an Illusion; and Totem and Taboo. Civilization and Its Discontents was a formative moment in my development as a critical thinker, and I found some nice things to say about Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego in my dissertation. My field is modern European intellectual history, so, you know, Freud’s in there.

In grad school my advisor was David Luft, who was great to me and influential. Freud is important to David, whose work is on Musil, Weininger, Doderer, and eros in the Central European fin-de-siècle (in which he works to decenter Freud). David was a student of H. Stuart Hughes at Harvard before Hughes moved to UC San Diego so that he could teach with his wife Judith. Other notable Harvard Hughesites include Martin Jay, Dominick LaCapra and John Toews. By the time I got to UCSD Hughes was emeritus and sporadic, but I did TA for him, he took a generous interest in my work, and as far as I know mine was the last committee he sat on.

Along with Peter Gay, who wrote heaps and bunches about Freud, H. Stuart Hughes was perhaps the preeminent postwar American historian of modern European intellectual history. And maybe even more than Gay it seemed obvious to him that Freud was right about everything. Here’s how Hughes put it in Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, probably his most famous and influential book: “Obviously the towering figure of the era was Sigmund Freud.” Really? Just like that? This baffled me until I realized that for that generation of northeastern American brahmin intellectuals, Freud was indeed right about everything. Distant, judgmental fathers, castrating and/or vaporous mothers, anxious hypersexualization, the works. Last I checked, that history remains to be written. Anyway, this doesn’t describe my childhood (thanks Mom and Dad); but one way or another I’ve gotten a pretty fair exposure to Freud.

My familiarity with various strands of freudianism is more patchy. I’ve read almost no Jung, more Reich than most people (Mass Psychology of Fascism, not the orgone stuff), the usual Erikson, some Horney. Beauvoir, if she counts. Fanon. Nancy Chodorow’s Reproduction of Mothering was illuminating at a certain point in my feminist education and is still useful to trouble some of the more simplistic just-so stories about big bad patriarchy.

By the way, in North Oakland I lived for several years in an apartment across the street from Dr. Chodorow’s practice, which did not seem especially active.


If I’d seen Nancy Chodorow out my window, here’s what she might have looked like.

In an odd juxtaposition Green Day’s offices were a couple doors down, again with little actual sign of them. Yet I’m sure I was somehow enriched by these spectral proximities.


If I’d seen Green Day out my window, here’s what they might have said.

My encounter with Lacan, some of it favorable, is entirely vicarious; Irigaray ditto. I’ve only read snatches of Zizek, who I did see speak at a conference of desperate and adoring leftist academics a few years ago. (He was charming, droll and took a long, entertaining time to say very little. I was hooking up with Rachel at that conference and we laughed about him together, so there’ll always be a warm place in my heart.)

It’s not at all that I find nothing of value in Freud and the Freudtones. Quite the contrary, there’s all sorts of good stuff in there — the same way there’s all sorts of good stuff at a flea market, buried underneath heaping piles of junk. Sometimes when I’m in the right mood it gives me a lot of pleasure to pick through junk to find special treasures. In just this way I have over a thousand lps — great old rock, blues, jazz, folk, and some treasured junk like Stuffy and his Frozen Parachute Band and Jake and the Family Jewels — most of them culled from moldy stacked boxes full of Mantovani, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Don Ho, South Pacific soundtracks. (It’s thanks to a happy accident of that really awful vulgar orientalist popular taste that copies of Getz/Gilberto were so readily available.)

Although I actually enjoy the album I could happily go the rest of my life without ever seeing another copy of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights,” but here it is in all its gorgeous sexist glory:

Anyway, all of the stuff I find good in Freud and the Freudtones, especially the stuff about the formation of self in relation to others/the Other, I am able to find in other places (notably pragmatism/symbolic interactionism), unburdened with mold and Mantovani, fanciful speculative drives and cheesy circular defenses (‘denial’). It may well be that’s the very stuff that gives the Freuds their special rich, musty atmosphere for some people and I won’t try to deny that appeal! A sincere Jungian can atmosphere me under the table any day.

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2 Comments to “Freud and the Freudtones”

  1. blasphemy! : )

    i’m hardly an expert in freud either (you appear to have read more than i have), but one thing i like about psychoanalysis in general (that i don’t think you get with symbolic interactionists – as far as i know – or other Other-centred fields) is a focus on the importance of desire. it’s a very mysterious thing – desire – and i think psychoanalysis does some of the best work at describing (and arguably, explaining) the inherent contradictions involved in it.

    i’d also add that the developmental work is good too. other disciplines look at this too – particularly now that we widely recognize the importance of childhood development – but i think psychoanalysis provides one of the better looks at how the child phenomenologically experiences that process. most tend to take an external look at it.

    but ya, there’s a lot of junk to wade through to get some of these nuggets. that’s perhaps why i prefer secondary works focused on these specific issues, rather than the original psychoanalytic authors (my own personal blasphemy, i suppose).

  2. Ha! Yep, I’m a bad man. Got a cobra snake for a necktie.

    I’m happy to include each of your points in the freudoids’ good pile. The behaviorist branch of pragmatism certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of interiority, unless it’s the interior of a Skinner box… :p . I think Mead does better (and better than his followers the symbolic interactionists) but I’ll have to show that.

    As for desire, although psychoanalysis is the go-to for it I’m inclined to think that’s one of those places where the theory has gotten so junked up and bloated that it creates persuasion by the sheer weight of its gravitational field. I’m not sure I agree desire needs to be all that mysterious, although it certainly needs to be understood and can definitely be complicated by the networks of situation and interaction that feed it.

    Secondary works, now. Heavens. I guess if we’re going to write them someone has to read them…

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