How does Freudian Theory help to explain social formation?

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Freudian Theory has been criticized by feminists for espousing a patriarchal social formation. The most vocal critique among Second Wave feminists is Betty Friedan, whose cornerstone work Feminine Mystique (published in 1963) took issue with Freudian psychoanalysts. She perceived Freudian Theory to comply with a subordinate role for women in and outside the household. The 1950s was a time when working-class and middle-class women were “suffering from suburban domesticity”. (Rorty, 2008, p.56) Second Wave feminists fought against this view of social formation. They found a natural ally in the cause of black Americans for their civil rights. Hence the 1960s witnessed a strong social movement along the twin axis of race and gender. In the beginning feminists were sceptical – if not antagonistic – to psychoanalysis. They marked it as spawning patriarchy and with it the earlier quiescence of women. But by 1973,

“women psychoanalysts, psychologists, and writers began to demonstrate that the women’s movement could benefit from the thought of Karen Horney, Helene Deutsch, and Melanie Klein, as well as from that of the younger women who were linking psychoanalytic ideas to hormonal, chromosomal, and embryological research, to psychological studies of traits and bisexuality, and so on. New avenues for investigation opened up into the genesis of femaleness, gender roles, and all sorts of cultural influences. Investigators expected to unravel the impact “culture” may have on “nature.”” (Kurzweil, 1995, p. 6)

Freudian understanding of social formation was complemented by the works of sociologists such as Julia Kristeva and Michel Foucault. Kristeva’s analysis of the process of abjection from the maternal inherent in social formation “supplements Freud’s thesis that the social is founded on the murder of the father and the incest taboo.” (Oliver & Trigo, 2003, p. xxxiii) Kristeva interpreted the incest taboo in terms of ‘abjection’ through which we try to ensure the division of culture and nature. This perspective is useful for not only extending Freudian Theory but also for cultural theorists. Kristeva concluded that the process of abjection is never finished. Instead, like all things repressed, it will manifest through other mental mechanisms. In what is a useful insight for feminist theorists, “although language and culture set up separations and order by repressing maternal authority, this repressed maternal authority returns, especially in literature and art, where imagination frees up unconscious fears and desires in a way similar to dream-work.” (Oliver & Trigo, 2003, p. xxxiii) Central to social formation, according to Kristeva, is collective identity formation and by extension individual identity formation. For Kristeva,

“abjection is coextensive in both individual identity and collective identity, which operate according to the same logic of abjection. Whereas an individual marks his difference from the maternal body through a process of abjection, society marks off its difference from animals through a process of abjection. In her analysis, however, the animal realm has been associated with the maternal, which ultimately represents the realm of nature from which human culture must separate to assert its humanity.” (Oliver & Trigo, 2003, p. xxxiii)

Freud’s conception of social formation is contested by those who place Freud outside the scientific tradition. The Freudian discursive formation is handicapped by the difficulty in associating with any established schools of thought. The conceptual novelty of Freudian Theory is too unfamiliar to be regarded a continuation or tradition. As a result, the idea of Freud as a humanist – as against a scientist – has taken currency. In this view, he is a discoverer of the ‘social formation of sexuality’. This discovery resonates with the time-tested formulations of Aristotle and Plato, whose conception of ‘eros and ethos’ finds congruence with Freud’s coining of ‘the id and the superego’. The dialectic, then and now, is between the opposing forces of desire and moral uprightness. The association of Freudian Theory with the wisdom of the Hellenistic Age has its benefits and costs. One major drawback is that it reduces Freud’s most unique and historically momentous discoveries through the suggested familiarity. (Shepherdson, 1999, p. 187)

Freud’s contribution to sociology is in forwarding an alternative to the traditional biomedical and socio-historical modes of analysis. At the core of the psychoanalytical model is the distinction between nature and culture. But specific features of Freudian Theory such as the unconscious, free association, repression, etc can be problematic as contemporary discussions of the body have brought to light. Under the psychoanalytic model, embodiment is understood to be remote with respect to conventional biological and historical approaches. In this respect, “the theoretical specificity of psychoanalysis is constantly effaced, and we are offered two contradictory images—biological essentialism and social construction—even though it is acknowledged that psychoanalysis is distinct from both.” (Shepherdson, 1999, p. 187)

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