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Freuds Civilization and its Discontents: A Summary

Posted by Wes Alwan in PEL's Notes on September 9th, 2010

I thought Id begin sharing with our listeners the summaries of readings I make in preparation for each podcast. I actually make an outline of the text as I read it this tends to be quite long and then boil this down into a summary. I further distill the longer summary into a one-paragraph synopsis, and that to a logline, basically a one-sentence plot for the whole thing. We recently recorded our podcast for Freuds Civilization and its Discontents and will be posting that soon (theres always the editing lag time). My summary follows after the break.

Logline (A one-line plot summary)


The development of civilization requires curtailing aggression and sexuality in order to make communal bonding possible, but the resulting individual unhappiness and outbursts of extreme frustration-aggression between communities threatens to destroy civilization itself.

Short Summary
Civilization: technology, art, ideas, social regulation (III). And so civilization arises as the institutionalization of the imperatives of work and communal cooperation (aim-inhibited libido) at the expense of those of individual sexuality and aggression (IV-V). This trades fleeting intensity for secure and prolonged luke-warmness, and so leads to unhappiness, which depends on pleasure-seeking. There is a natural conflict between community and individual, work and love, death drive and Eros (VI). The repression of aggression creates guilt and bad-conscience in which the super-ego, as internalization of external authority, punishes the ego just for have wishes that are transgressive (VII). Ways to deal with not always being able to get what you want include science, or mastery, and art, or sublimation; as well as self-intoxication and selfdelusion, including religion, which is the worst way to cope insofar as it forecloses all others and merely adds the most ridiculous superego demands (love they neighbor) (II). In fact, it is an infantile regression to a longing for a father rather than a mere oceanic feeling of oneness with the world (I). The cultural super-ego is out of hand and seems to be the price of advancing civilization, yet the resulting frustration-aggression threatens to destroy civilization (VIII).

Chronological Short Summary


I. Religion is not sourced in oceanic feeling but in longing for the father (3-7). II. Religion is civilizations worst method of coping with the fact that you cant always get what you want, and forecloses other methods (7-12). III. Civilization has the function of transforming instinctual impulses into character traits via technology, art, ideas, and social regulation (12-18). IV. Civilization arises as the institutionalization of the imperatives of work and communal cooperation at the expense of those of individual sexuality (18-21). V. Restrictions on sexuality

and aggression are required to establish a community, which rests on aim-inhibited bonds (2226). VI. The conflict between community/sex & aggression is a conflict between selfdestructiveness for the sake of the community (death drive) and the aims of the individual Eros (libido, life drive, and pleasure principle) (26-29). VII (29-34). The prohibition on aggression internalizes it as the superego, which directs aggression unceasingly to the ego just for having the aggressive wishes. VIII. The cultural super-ego is out of hand and seems to be the price of advancing civilization, yet the resulting frustration-aggression threatens to destroy civilization (34-39).

Long Summary
I. Religion is not sourced in oceanic feeling but in longing for the father (3-7). A friend suggested to Freud that he had omitted talking about the oceanic feeling as the source of religious sentiments. Freud traces this feeling of oneness with the world to a regression to the infantile ego that has yet to individuate itself from the worldto a pure pleasure ego of limitless narcissism. (In mental life, earlier stages or probably always preserved next to later developments). But in fact, the oceanic feeling is not the primary source of religious feelings. Rather it is the infants helpless longing for the father (with oceanic feeling attending afterwards). II. Religion is civilizations worst method of coping with the fact that you cant always get what you want, and forecloses other methods (7-12). Hence religion is essentially infantile, and offers God a) watcher and compensator and b) complete explanation of the world. It falls among the third category of palliatives for inevitable human misery, which results from the fact that the pleasure principle dominates life but its plan can never be fully executed. Misery persists in the effects of aging, the dangers of the external world, and the vicissitudes of social life (Section III elaborates the social). These palliatives involve moderating expectations for happiness and using:

Action (on external world, science a narcissistically gratifying means to this end) Love focus on relations with others. Self-Love: Narcissistic independence from the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes (the following three categories recapitulate the current three): o Science (deflection, mastery of the external world) o Art (substitutive satisfaction, sublimation) Aesthetic attitude towards life Self-modification (again, recapitulation below) o Repression o Sublimation o Of sensory apparatus: intoxication. Illusions, fantasy. Enjoyment of art Delusion: reality is the enemy

Religion (delusion in cooperation with others). Attempts to obliterate every other item above. Swallows its parents.

Of the three major categories of seeking happiness, diversification is best. But religiona form of psychical infantilism and mass-delusionimposes the same path on everyone and devalues life.

III. Civilization has the function of transforming instinctual impulses into character traits via technology, art, ideas, and social regulation (12-18). Of the three causes of human miserypower of nature, physical feebleness, and human relationships, the third is the worst and yet seems like the one we should be able to do something about. Why havent we? Perhaps its the case that civilization is responsible for human misery. Traditional sources of hostility towards civilization itself include: the Christian rebellion against Rome, the discovery of the seeming happiness of primitive peoples, the discovery of the neuroses as effects of culture, and the failure of the sciences to live up to its promise of creating happiness. But what is civilization? It consists in

Extending the power to protect ourselves via technology (and tools themselves are like extensions of limbs. Useless beauty, order, cleanliness. Pre-eminence of higher mental activities and ideas: religion, philosophy, ideals. Regulation of social relationships: neighborly, sexual, familial, and patriotic. Right as power of community over individual.

These characteristics turn instinctual dispositions into character traits, as in anality, suggesting its development has parallels to psycho-sexual history. How did civilization arise and what are these parallels? IV. Civilization arises as the institutionalization of the imperatives of work and communal cooperation at the expense of those of individual sexuality (18-21). Civilization arises out of institutionalizing the following solutions to suffering:

Work/Cooperation/Community, with a source in the first imposition of the power of the community over the individual (the band of brothers killing the father and institutionalizing restrictions on power in general via taboos, eventually laws/rights). Love, with a source sustained rather than period visual sexual attraction (upright posture).

Work and love, civilization and family, come into conflict, competing for libido, with women as representatives of the latter. Love loses the battle: because of the volatility and pain of individual sexual relationships, a focus on love works as a solution to misery only if it is universalized and de-sexualized (with love the neighbor as its ultimate form). Hence civilization imposes harsh limits on sexual life (and its representatives, women). These limits are unenforceable and lead to hypocrisy and the impairment of sexual life. However, sexuality may be inherently conflicted in its bisexuality and admixture with sadism, aggression, and repulsion (a side-effect of upright postures elevation of visual over olfactory cues).

V. Restrictions on sexuality and aggression are required to establish a community, which rests on aim-inhibited bonds (22-26). Establishing a community requires group bonding and identification via aim-inhibited libido (friendship), and so requires restrictions on sexual feelings. Neurotics are those who cannot cope with these restrictions. It also requires restrictions on hostility, with the commandment to love thy neighbor the most extreme formulation. While acting on hostility can be legally restricted, there is no way to do away with the natural inclination to regressionincluding by communism and free love. Further, aggression towards outsiders is important to intra-group bonding. These restrictions on sex and aggression allow us to trade fleeting and precarious intensity for prolonged and secure but milder feelings. The insipidness of Americans takes this to an extreme. VI. The conflict between community/sex & aggression is a conflict between selfdestructiveness for the sake of the community (death drive) and the aims of the individual Eros (libido, life drive, pleasure principle) (26-29). What is the psychological function of aggression? The phenomenon of life rests on two drives:

Life/Eros: one instinct is libidinal (whether directed narcissistically at the ego as a function of self-preservation, or outward toward external objects). Death: the other is self-destructive.

Aggression is the fusion of these in a way that turns the death-drives self-destructiveness toward external objects in order to protect the ego. So outward directed libido carries the death drive and inward-directed libido replaces itsfelt as a narcissistic pleasure in feelings of omnipotence, will to power. When this is aim-inhibited, it is healthy aggression. Hence there are the following parallel conflicts governing the evolution of civilization:

Communal vs. sexual bonds Civilization vs. family Work vs. love Communal order vs. aggression Culture vs. sex and outward aggression, death drive vs. Eros Inwardly turned aggression vs. outward aggression, death instinct vs. Eros Personal happiness vs. union with others (VIII)

VII (29-34). The prohibition on aggression internalizes it as the superego, which directs aggression unceasingly to the ego just for having those aggressive wishes. Civilization blocks the fusing of death drive to libido in outward aggression. This is accomplished at the level of the family via threat of loss of love during dependence, creating an un-moralized guilt/conscience that functions only when monitored. This authority and threat is then internalized as the super-ego, which directs aggression toward the ego as guilt and bad conscience. This aggression is un-ceasing because the mere thought rather than act is seen as bad (no hiding from external authority). Because the prohibited wish never ceases, the desire for

punishment and unhappiness never cease. Aggressionincluding aggression toward the frustrating objects, which cant be attackedis then turned back inward, taken up by the ego to increase the severity of its repressions. The more love to be lost, the harsher the super-ego. The phylogenetic source of guilt is in the remorse at the father-killing act of civilization, which then persists as guilt over ambivalence (Oedipus complex, love vs. hate of parent). VIII. The cultural super-ego is out of hand and seems to be the price of advancing civilization, yet the resulting frustration-aggression threatens to destroy civilization (34-39). Increasing guilt is the price of advancing civilization. Its conscious in obsessional neurosis and unconscious in other neuroses. Religion promises redemption from guilt. The more frustration, the more repressed aggression, the more guilt. Neurotic symptoms fulfill two functions at once substitute satisfaction repressed wish and punishment for it. The community develops a superego with origins in impressions left behind by great leaders with overwhelming force of mind, mocked and maltreated in their own time [Freuds revenge]. Cultural demands (ethics) are like superego demands, and superego more obvious at cultural than at individual level (often unconscious). Reproaches to superego: Too little account of happiness of the ego, insufficient account of resistances to obeying them. At the cultural level, the absurdity of love they neighbor (22, 23, 38). Property relations more relevant (if avoid utopianism). Hard to say if to be civilized is to be neurotic, or if cultural development can master aggression and self-destruction. By: Wes Alwan