Why I’m A Freudian, and What That Means
Several times over the past months I have found myself promoting, and then having to defend, a sort of Freudian interpretation of a piece of art or architecture, or a film, or someone’s behavior. I, unhappily, have friends who are thoughtful, critical thinkers, and who won’t just take my thoughts as gospel truth. This is where the need for a defense comes in. Since that’s not something I can do swiftly in a conversation, I thought I’d write something here on why I am happy to call myself a Freudian in some ways, and what exactly it means to me to be a Freudian (or perhaps pseudo-Freudian).
A lot of what Freud wrote was bizarre, and some of it now seems obviously false. Because of this, the rest is often expected to harbor some sort of insanity that hasn’t yet been discovered. Better to just leave the whole mess behind and proceed along the lines of the empirical, scientific psychology of the late 20th century. This is what I perceive to be the general attitude toward Freud, at least on the part of those who have more than a light, unstudied interest in psychology.
I don’t have much more than a light, unstudied interest in psychology, so what I say here should probably be taken with an ocean full of salt. I do, however, have a pretty strong and studied interest in science (which psychology is generally taken to be an instance of), and in philosophical questions about what science is, and how it ought to proceed. I also have a positive interest in psychoanalytic theory. I think there’s some real value to be found in it. And, since Freudian (and other forms of) psychoanalysis is generally dismissed on the grounds that it is totally unscientific, perhaps only a bucket of salt is necessary.
So let’s grant from the outset that a lot of what Freud said seems crazy. But let’s not grant that that means everything he thought was bunk. Newton, after all, believed in numerology and ghosts. He also gave us differential calculus and classical mechanics. So, you know, show some respect. Thinking some crazy things doesn’t require that you think only crazy things – and I think it happens to be the case that Freud, alongside some very disturbing and odd beliefs, had some real insights into the workings of the mind. I want, here, to explain some of what I think are Freud’s genuine insights, and give something of a defense of their plausibility. This ‘position’ or view that I will be defending I will call a ‘semi-Freudianism’. I’m not a Freud scholar, and I’m not particularly concerned to give the most sensitive reading of Freud. Instead, I’m simply trying to explain a view that I think at least stems from Freud’s thought. Whether or not it’s actually the best interpretation of Freud’s writing is not my concern.
Everyone has at least heard of Freud’s three-part division of the self (or psyche, or consciousness, or mind, or whatever) into the Id, Ego, and Super-ego, and this is usually the first (or only) bit of Freud’s thought that anyone learns. This is a problematic starting point for understanding Freud, however, because it invites a slew of objections by modern psychologists, objections that potentially misunderstand, or are anachronistic to, Freud’s intentions. For instance, modern psychologists often charge that the locus of Freud’s division in the self is unclear. Is the division a neurological one (is the Id one part of the brain, the Ego another, and the Super-Ego yet another), phenomenological one (a division only in our experience of ourselves), a functionalist one (is the Id the brain doing one sort of thing, the Ego another, etc.), or something else?
These questions presuppose a certain sort of study of the mind – the sort of study conducted by modern, analytic psychology. This sort of approach is foreign to Freudianism (since it arose and flourished prior to the advent of analytic psychology), and so in some ways demands that Freudianism answer to questions it never set out to address. This is not necessarily unfair, but it is always best to understand a position on its own terms before asking it to answer to some foreign set of questions.
The best starting point from which to approach my semi-Freudian view is not the three-divisioned-self, but Freud’s notion of a slip. This is a pretty well-known concept. Occasionally, the tongue slips and we say something we didn’t intend to. Freud thinks that when this happens, what has slipped through our lips isn’t just some random utterance from nowhere, but is something that genuinely came from inside us, and therefore reveals something about us. Freudian slips happen when we’re playing an intentional role, when were intentionally plotting what we say and do in order to have an intended effect. This is what we’re doing most of the time when we interact publicly with others. We often smile when we’re wanting to scream, or roll our eyes. We keep up the appearance of calm confidence when we really want to kiss or slap the other person. A slip occurs when we accidentally drop the facade, break character, and reveal a thought or feeling that lies behind the act we’re performing. A Freudian slip is when what’s really going on inside us unintentionally breaks through the thin film of our controlled outer appearance. A Freudian slip is where you accidentally say what you mean, instead of what you meant to say.
It seems to me pretty undeniable that things like this happen. We often fail to perfectly put up the appearance we want others to perceive, and in that moment we accidentally let a bit of the truth slip through. For a famous example (which I’m stealing from Zizek), take the Speaker of the House who, tired after a long session of debates prior to a formal meeting, opened a Parliament meeting by saying “I hereby declare this session adjourned [instead of open].” It’s clear that his real desire that the long day be over has slipped through his teeth while he was trying to keep up the role of interested, hard-working and eager politician.
So, we can probably all agree: sometimes things slip out. And for things to slip out, they have to slip out of, or through, something. That is, when we slip up and let something out, it’s because we’re holding it in. We’re concealing it within us, and covering it over with something else – some sort of constructed way of behaving that we’re putting on. This constructed behavior, this less-than-perfectly-open or genuine way of behaving is the product of the feeling we have that we’re expected to act, feel, and appear in a certain way by others around us. There is, to cast things in slight metaphor, a voice in our head telling us what we’re expected to seem like to others. This is why when someone asks how we’re doing, and we’re actually thinking about killing our boss and moving to Mexico, we nevertheless say that we’re doing fine. We sense that we are expected to feel and be a certain way – and this way we’re expected to behave and feel is very often in direct contradiction to how we actually feel and want to behave.
This set of expectations that we feel obliged to meet is something like Freud’s Super-Ego. It’s the set of external demands that we feel from the moment we become socially aware, and which eventually takes up residence in our own heads as a voice demanding we constantly keep up a certain appearance, meet a certain set of expectations for the world. This is where Freud’s notion of suppression comes in. We’re told (by the world, and then by ourselves) not to be ourselves, not to let everything hang out. We’re told to hold it back, keep it in, cover it over, and dress it up to look ‘right’. The Super-Ego is the voice in our head telling us to suppress ourselves in order to look right.
What is it exactly that we’re suppressing though? Its the set of basic desires and urges that form the natural core of all human beings. At the core of us is a set of desires and urges that can’t be eliminated or purged from our hearts, no matter how hard we try. We need to feel real, to connect with others, to push outward from ourselves into freedom. We need to eat, to touch, to taste, to love, to act. This pile of urges burns inside us and fuels all the basic human behaviors: the urge to devour food, to have sex, to defend ourselves, to reach out. This is something like Freud’s Id. The Id is that basic, ineliminable spark of human drives that lives inside us.
This lands us in a tough spot, says Freud. We find ourselves caught between this set of primal urges that sits burning in the heart of each of us (the Id), and the voice that demands we keep up a neat and packaged appearance (the Super-Ego). This conscious self that feels caught between the two is Freud’s Ego. It’s what you identify as ‘me’. You are a conscious being, constantly having to manage the polarized battle between your inner urges and desires and your sense of what is expected and demanded of you. You manage this by trying to constantly tame or suppress the primal fires, hiding them under a constructed identity you put on so that you can be accepted as a part of the functioning outside world.
This brings us to the heart of my semi-Freudian view. The heart is found in Freud’s insistence that the natural, primal self cannot be fully suppressed. It’s too powerful, too real, to be smothered and extinguished by an artificial shell. And so it smolders underneath the shell like magma in the heart of the earth, always pushing upward, needling cracks in the crust, trying to push through to the surface to release the building pressure. A Freudian slip is when a thin crack reaches up to the surface and a tongue of fire leaps out for a moment before the crack is sealed. A slip is when the reality inside us peeks through the shell of our constructed appearance.
Because the primal core is incapable of being fully suppressed, there is only a few options. One can have a consistent outlet for the pressing reality of the inner self. A volcano that can erupt when the cloistered pressure becomes great. It could be one’s sex life, one’s relationship to food, a life as a closet serial killer. Having this ‘release valve’ allows one to function fairly consistently in a world of artificial expectations, but vacillating between the two can become deeply disorienting to the point that one becomes confused as to which is the suppressed self, and which is the suppressing self. The faster the pendulum swings between the two, the more liable it is to fly off its hinges.
The other option is to constantly try to suppress the inner fire. Plug the cracks as quickly as possible, and keep everything underground. This is the route most take, and the consequence is that the inner pressure to express our suppressed desires and feelings becomes so great that it starts to drip out of any little pore available to it. When the big holes are plugged, it starts to sneak out of any and every little crack it finds – anytime we let our guard down and fail to keep up the show.
This is why Freud (and I) tend to read apparently ‘normal’ acts as revealing something suppressed. In a culture that tell us interest in sex, or sexual organs, is unacceptable, monuments that look uncannily like penises raise suspicion that our suppressed interest in sexuality has found a sneaky way to peek through and express itself. One’s interest in acts that involve throbbing erections is something one is required to suppress, to hide, to pretend it’s not there. But these acts are often on the mind, and if no opportunity to express that interest makes itself available, it may perhaps express itself a bit when one drops his guard during the creative process of designing a monument or a building.
Thus, it seems clear to me why very the very strict, sexually-repressed Islamic cultures – cultures where no part of a woman’s skin can be exposed for fear that it will awaken the sexual urge – have such obviously sexual (phallic and yonic) architecture, and why cultures that don’t see sexual organs and acts as taboo (i.e., in need of repressing) have almost no phallic architecture.
This is not a Freudian slip in the normal sense. It’s not an inadvertent single moment where something peeks through and is then corrected or covered up, but rather is a process whereby our repressed urges and thoughts continually trickle through and push culture and art in the direction of revealing what we’re having to constantly hide. Let’s call it the Freudian seep. I think that it is legitimate to see humans in these Freudian terms: as beings who have suppressed urges, interests, thoughts, and desires, which are constantly fighting the suppressive pressures, finding any way they can to express themselves. And I think seeing humans in this way can help us to understand just why we do many of the things we do.
These are the general contours of my semi-Freudianism, and I offer no defense of it other than what I take to be its general intuitive plausibility. We repress a lot. The pressure builds. It comes out in whatever way it can. And sometimes that means it comes out in our architecture, our art, our designed objects, etc. And sometimes we can pick up on that and reasonably identify an instance where some desire or urge that is normally hidden has seeped through and expressed itself in a sneaky way. This is what I mean when I call myself a Freudian. I see the world of human actions partially in these terms, and I think it’s often very reasonable to do so.
As I said, I’ve given something far short of a rigorous defense of Freud. And I haven’t even attempted to elucidate the many Freudian readings of popular culture and human behavior that I think are genuinely insightful. I have only, as I said, outlined the general contours of what it means to me to be a Freduian. I didn’t intend to do more, and so this leaves plenty of room to dissent or question the viability what I’ve said. So, if you do dissent, I won’t be hurt. But, in that case, I think you will often be required to give a very different sort of reading of the world – one that, oddly, can’t find anything perverse in images like this.