Discover more from living together, somehow
Traversing Its Discontents
nine posts on subjective and social freedom, from Freud's Civilisation and Its Discontents
There is no significant work of social theory that has not had to reckon with Civilisation and Its Discontents, from Adorno to Zizek. There are so many reasons, substantive and circumstantial.
Above all, as Hobbes did for political theory, Freud has continued to set us dark counterfactuals by which we can measure any utopian wish to be free in ourselves and happy with one another, or return to the consolations of family, community, institutions, traditions. There is no treatise on human emancipation since that has read the work seriously and then managed to avoid or evade its claims and their implications.
In one sense this is because of the overall effect of the text, familiar to many who’ve encountered it, but which is quite hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t spent time with it. There’s something enigmatically inexhaustible about its claims, individually, in their syntax, and as a whole cumulatively greater greater than each part. You can keep returning to it, and I’ve kept reading it at different points in my life over the past fifteen years, and it keeps suggesting new and different perspectives and interpretations.
In part this is because the text so directly conveys the limpid wisdom of a lifetime’s worth of insight on God, religion, love, hate, destructiveness, repression and guilt, and moreover, it’s so much a book written by someone who has gone at everything half-baked and sentimental in their thought with a blowtorch, all in commitment to the truth of the knowledge of lived experience, personal and clinical. These are hard things to think and say, and they’re put with such directness and undeniability: this is a sharp little book that disabuses us of our big comforting illusions. Little wonder that Lacan was returning to the text in the late 50s, that Fromm, who claimed he had reckoned with it so many times, still returned to grapple with it in his 70s – or that I’m reaching for it now. Nearly a century on, it is still a contemporary text. Like Auden’s September 1939, it still deeply tells us who we are:
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
Civilisation also has enormous political implications, and these transcend left and right, and are deeply critical for both, each more than the other. For conservatives, Freud kicks the crutches from under the hobbling priest, with his organised religion and traditional values; for socialists, he points to the illusions animating the wishful desire to live together without exploitation and alienation.
There’s something of the Vienna of his time in all of this: like the unsparing satire of Karl Kraus or the literary works of Musil and Broch, who pushed to the limit of subjective expressibility from the wrenching destruction of their time, nobody escapes the steel trap of this thinking, nothing gets off lightly, everything is touched upon, nothing is left untouched.
This does not mean that Freud is correct or can be given the final word he does wish to have, but it does mean that what I want to express and develop here about freedom and living together somehow must go by way of his thought: if we’re to get to better ways of living well together, and the best we can hope for, we have to have a politics robust enough to withstand what Freud reminds us about ourselves and how we stubbornly and irrationally and passionately are with one another, beyond reason, beyond pleasure.
In order to give this some structure, I am going to give eight posts to the slim book, each one looking in some detail at each of the eight chapters, or movements, of the work. As this is a blog, I’ll continue to try and underwrite the posts a little: to try to let go, write quickly, and let it stay drafty, something shared just before I’m ready to let go of it. So as to give some order to my thoughts on the eight chapters, each one will return to the issue of human freedom, how we’re to live with ourselves and one another. I’m looking forward to thinking this aloud with you.