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Chapter III: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (Norman O. Brown)
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Book by Norman O. Brown
Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History

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Unlike theorists who view culture or the symbolic order as a thing unto itself—separate from human beings—Peter Berger recognizes that the social order is an “ongoing human production” that exists only as a “product of human activity.”

The symbolic order confronts us as an “objective facticity,” external to us—persistent in its reality whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, Berger insists, however massive the symbolic order may appear to individuals, it is a “humanly produced, constructed objectivity.” More precisely, the social order is produced by man in the “course of his ongoing externalization.”

Once we realize that the symbolic order is produced by human beings, questions arise: How may we account for the nature and shape of specific ideas and institutions? Why do some ideas and institutions become stable, persistent elements of culture (while others do not)? Berger does not pose or attempt to answer these questions.

To understand the sources and meanings of institutions and ideologies, we enter the realm of psychology. As soon as we focus on human beings as creators and producers of society—not merely “subjects of the symbolic order”—an entire world of exploration opens up.

Building upon Freud’s theory of repression and the unconscious, Norman O. Brown’s Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History seeks to bring psychoanalysis to bear upon the study of culture and “external” reality.

Why should psychoanalysis be limited—confined to the clinical situation? What would it mean for psychoanalysis to analyze the entire human race—not just individuals? Brown provides a theoretical framework for bringing psychoanalysis into the world.

At the core of psychoanalytic therapy is the concept of transference. Put simply, transference is the process whereby the patient transfers his or her feelings and fantasies into (or onto) the analyst. Psychoanalytic process focuses on “analysis of transference.”

The transformation of psychoanalysis into a project to change culture, Brown says, is a “solution to the unsolved problem of the transference.” The transference was necessary because the unconscious can become conscious only if “transformed into an external perception.” The external perception has to be based on the “enactment of actual love (or hate).”

In more technical terms, Brown explains that the unconscious can become conscious only through “projection onto the external world.” Human culture, therefore, is a set of “projections of the repressed unconscious.” Like the transference, culture is created by the repetition compulsion and constantly produces “new editions of the infantile conflicts.” Like the transference, human culture exists in order to “project the infantile complexes into concrete reality, where they can be seen and mastered.”

What a powerful phrase “in order to” is! With this phrase, it is possible to overturn or overthrow repressive social theories that have dominated academia for so many years— theories that view the symbolic order as an objective reality functioning independent of human agency. This phrase conveys the idea that culture is created by human beings—and has a human purpose. Culture exists as the vehicle for mastering psychological complexes and conflicts.

Culture is not apart or separate from us. It belongs to us. We have created institutional forms, ideologies, etc.—as the expression of who we are. Berger states that the social order is produced by man in the “course of his ongoing externalization.” Brown shows a way to illuminate the precise nature and meanings of these externalizations. We pose the question: “Why?”

According to Brown, human culture is “one vast arena in which the logic of the transference works itself out.” The infantile fantasies that create the human neurosis cannot be directly apprehended or mastered, but their “derivatives in human culture can.” Thus, culture “does for all mankind what the transference phenomena were supposed to do for the individual.”

The real nature of the primal fantasies, Brown says, is revealed by the fact that they “cannot be remembered, but only re-enacted.” Fantasies “do not exist in memory or in the past,” but only as “hallucinations in the present.” The repressed unconscious can become conscious only by being “transformed into an external perception;” by being projected.

According to Freud, the mythological conception of the universe is only “psychology projected onto the outer world.” Not just mythology, Brown declares, but the “entirety of culture is a projection.” In the words of Spender: The world which we create—the world of slums and telegrams and newspapers—is a kind of “language of our inner wishes and thoughts.”

Once we recognize the limitations of talk from the couch, Brown says, it becomes plain that there is “nothing for psychoanalysis to psychoanalyze except these projections:” the world of slums and telegrams. Thus, psychoanalysis fulfills itself “only when it becomes historical and cultural analysis.”

It follows that consciousness of the repressed unconscious is “itself a cultural and historical product”—since the repressed unconscious can become conscious “only by being transformed into an external perception in the form of a cultural projection.”