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The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Psychoanalysis in Critical Theory

Chapter 3 of The Dialectical Imagination takes up the role of Freud’s theories in Critical Theory. A major focus is the effort to integrate Freud and Marxian analysis: Freud was pessimistic about social change, which is, of course, the goal of Marxism. That’s a problem which seems pointless. If Freud’s ideas were valuable insights, and the Frankfurt School definitely thought they were, then his bourgeois sensibility and his conservatism are irrelevant.

The scholars of the Institute agreed that the proletariat had failed to carry out Marx’s prediction that it would be at the vanguard of the revolution that would lead to Socialism, the social ownership of the means of production. After Germany’s loss in WWI, conditions were ripe for such an effort. There was an uprising, but the Social Democrats, then the ruling party, crushed it with the aid of the Freikorps. Leading Marxist activists, including the brilliant Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered by the Freikorps, and Marxism as a revolutionary movement collapsed. That failure had a decisive effect on most of the leading intellectuals in Germany, almost all of whom were trained in Marxian thought, including the scholars of the Frankfurt School.

One reason for the failure of the proletariat to lead the revolution is that it did not identify itself as a social class, but as individuals with their own ideas and goals. The Frankfurt School saw Freud’s ideas as a way to understand the proletariat not as a class but as a collection of individuals. Freud’s personality types showed the way to understand the proletariat not as individuals, but as groups of individuals with similar characteristics. Each personality type had its own response to the economic conditions and to the social superstructure raised above the economic stratum.

One of the most important Freudians in the Frankfurt School was Erich Fromm. According to Martin Jay, one important contribution Fromm made to Critical Theory was the use of

//… psychoanalytic mechanisms as the mediating concepts between individual and society—for example, in talking about hostility to authority in terms of Oedipal resentment of the father.
P. 91.//

There are a number of examples of this in later chapters. Perhaps one of the strangest is this:

… Adorno made the point even clearer: “However little doubt there can be regarding the African elements in jazz, it is no less certain that everything unruly in it was from the very beginning integrated into a strict scheme, that its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochistic type described by analytic psychology.” P. 186.

The point of understanding the personality types and their responses to society was to strengthen individuals through properly designed educational and other programs. The Frankfurt School believed that human beings had an unlimited ability to make themselves better, more rational, more educated, and more moral. The experiences of childhood and repressive social forces could be overcome, and even genetic predispositions could be overcome to some degree.

The second main reason for introducing psychoanalysis into Critical Theory was the belief that Marxism ignored the importance of happiness as a motivating factor in people’s responses to social forces. The scholars believe that Marx was too fixated on the role of labor, and ignored the importance of pleasure.

I don’t know anything about psychology. I’ve read a couple of books by Freud and Jung but one seemed dated and the other seemed woo-woo. When I was in Law School I took a class in the Psych Department at Indiana University, of which my main memory is of a live pigeon-pecking demonstration in the entry hall; a lot of the professors seemed to be devotees of B.F. Skinner. So, that’s a caveat to the following thoughts.

The idea that we need mediating concepts between the individual and the societies individuals crreate seems sensible. Certainly we can’t hope to work our way from the individual to the society without such mediating concepts, at least not in a principled, reasoned, way.

But maybe that isn’t relevant any more. As we grow to understand the way our brains work, the way the meat functions, the way the leaky gray matter spreads hormones, neurotransmitters, and stuff, the easier it becomes to figure out ways to manipulate them directly, maybe as I discuss here and here.

Or maybe we don’t need mediating concepts in an era of big data. The claims made about Cambridge Analytica and the insights that data mining gives Target are examples of unmediated insights into individual action that open the door to direct manipulation of the individual for political or commercial purposes.

After all, mediating concepts like psychological categories were originally intended to help us understand ourselves as individuals participating in a society. They enable us to get past the barriers in our own minds to greater individuation, greater integration of the various parts of our selves into wholes, greater self-understanding. But that matters only to those who think we can make ourselves better human beings.

The people who manipulate us don’t want us to make ourselves better. They like us just like we are, and they don’t care if we as individuals become more racist, more misogynist, more authoritarian, or stupider than we already are. They take advantage of us, of our lack of self-understanding and our lack of integrated personalities, in ways we don’t notice and can’t defend against easily.

The scholars who worked on studies of prejudice and the role of authority in the family and then defined the authoritarian personality type, believed, according to Martin Jay, “…that manipulation rather than free choice was the rule in modern society”. P. 238. Here, as in many other areas, they were able to articulate clearly what we can barely see today.

7 replies
  1. TarheelDem says:

    I had never grasped that a lot of the culture that was in the air in the 1960s was the elaboration of the Frankfurt School.  Erich Fromm’s <cite>The Art of Loving: an Inquiry into the Nature of Love</cite>, published in 1956, was still promoted in bookstores in 1967 and 1968.  Fromm’s <cite>Escape from Freedom (Fear of Freedom)</cite>, published in the US in 1941, identifies the defenses against the burden of freedom as authoritarianism, destructiveness, and conformity.  One of the characteristics of the zeitgeist of the 1960s was it being set over against authoritarianism, destructiveness, and conformity (even as it carried all of those within the rebellion that did occur).  At least in the most-hyped cultural events post-McCarthy’s suppression, that was it.

    The freedom that Fromm cites as that which is being escaped are those forced decisions and active responses that require unique thought and action tailored to the circumstances that yet has a lot of risk associated with it.

    Fromm should be compared and contrasted with Edward Bernays.

    Individuals are mediated with each other and with the abstraction “society” through networks of relationships with data, things, and people and through a huge number of complicated symbolic relationships.  The tightness or looseness of that network can be described in terms of freedom, but it can also be described in terms of the way norms constrain actions and relationships.  The invocation of “big data” seeks to become a norm that absolves researchers and operatives from sorting out articulatable and sequenceable (causal) relationships among data.  Those using it at the moment are likely deceived about their power.

    Regardless of what Cambridge Analytics thought they were delivering to Donald Trump’s campaign, what he got was a stirring up of enough bigots to be noticeable to the rest of society.  And what he promised to deliver was the survival of white political power (if your listen between the lines).

    What this incorporation of psychodynamics does is makes it very clear that this model is not in the Englightenment arena of rational persuasion and argument in the Spirit of Reason and in search of Truth.

    Which means for Marxism that pure instrumentalism in exploitation is too simple a social dynamic.  In this respect, look at the case of the individual Friedrich Engels, effectively a fortunate son in the textile industry.  How do those individual psychodynamics unfold in his case?  By and large, look who it was who tried and succeeded to make revolutions in the past two centuries.  Rarely the working class, although the ladder of mobility does allow later leaders of these societies to come from the working class.  Lincoln and Krushchev are two that have nothing other than that in common.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Fromm was associated with the Institute for Social Research from 1928 to 1938, and was a major conributor to some of its early empirical work, studies of authority in the family and among workers; most of that work used  data from Germany. Eventually his critiques of Freud were too much for the other members of the Frankfurt School, and he severed relationships in 1938. Many of his ideas can be seen in the later work of the Institute.

      Another scholar whose works were part of 60s counterculture was Herbert Marcuse. I haven’t discussed his work much, but it is crucial in a number of areas, and will show up later.


  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Psychology offers many insights into understanding human nature and behavior. But much of its funding has come from government, seeking primarily ways to control and utilize its populace for its own ends, typically of war, production and conformity. The latter is about quiescence, keeping a population docile until its resources were required.

    The dominance of uniformity and conformity in America of the nineteen fifties ought to come to mind, the CIA-funded psych experiments at McGill, and the role of psychologists in developing enhanced interrogation experiments. It’s also no accident that it was Freud’s son-in-law who first put psychology to use to make war, soap, cars and bacon more marketable for Madison Avenue and government.

    The point is that there is great pressure to utilize psychology for martial and commercial purposes. It often seems to dominate the use of psychology for therapeutic purposes.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The legendary abuse of intelligence testing, starting with attempts to ban immigration of “inferior” races, is another stellar example of the misuse of psychology.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Well, I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of uniformity and conformity today,  maybe as much as in the 50s. I think inside various social groups there is pretty much solid uniformity. We  find our social groups and we fit in by conforming to the norms of the group in behavior, opinions, dress, hair and make-up and pretty much a whole lot of other stuff.

      In fact, I wonder how much individuality is left to us, or how we can even know if we are authentic. We need work to live, and we have been taught its importance as a way of self-actualization. Consumption is a major part of the reason we work, and is a crucial part of the economy. We acquire stuff, and at least some of it is meant to signal our membership in our social groups. So we spend the money we work our asses off to demonstrate our conformity.

      How do we find our authentic selves?


  3. Rugger9 says:

    It always hinges on what is determined to be “better”, as well as the willingness to change for that definition of “better”.  That’s why the communication and information control problem (90% of the outlets owned by 5 companies, mostly under the thumb of RWNJs needs to be addressed.  BTW, it was Bill Clinton that signed in the changes that permitted this consolidation.

  4. peacerme says:

    One day we may find a direct cause and effect relationship between power and control (an authoritarian paradigm) and ALL mental illness. There are at least two fundamental characteristics of mental illness. An individual’s breach from a shared (invariant shared truths among humans) reality. And an inability to adequately regulate emotion. Power and control (sequalae) may not be the only cause, but power and control, creates a separation from self. (Follow the leader or you will die, be tortured, be abandoned by your tribe).

    This fear, requires that an individual stops attending to self (personal experience and emotions). It requires, for safety sake and self protection, that an individual learns to be mindful, not of their own experience or emotion, but of the authoritarian’s emotions and perceptions of reality. (Notice how much news is about how Trump feels). The more fear and anxiety, the more attendance to the authoritarian. In this process, the individual, literally divorces (on a continuum commiserate with intensity) the self. This breach with self begins a process that literally creates distortions in the perception of truth because truth, validity, are no longer connected to personal experience, but to a perceived reality outside of the self. ( the perception of the authoritarian) This leads people to be easily manipulated. The focus becomes the emotions of others instead of focusing on the inner experience of self. This is similar to listening with someone else’s ears or seeing with someone else’s eyes. Distortions easily replace the shared truths of humanity.  Instead based on the sole perceptions of the authoritarian, the authoritarian becomes the creator of truth.  The authoritarian paradigm is perpetuated in this cycle. Religions become the authoritarian. Gods become the authoritarian, parents become the authoritarian.

    If an individual has decreased or stopped attending to self, that individual, will not be capable of minding emotion and regulating them. Only by attending to and accepting our emotional reactions can we regulate them. We can’t learn to regulate them if we are attending to the emotions of someone else. If we attend to the emotions of someone else, we will be drawn in to the desire and need to control the behavior and feelings of others. In this way, we internalize the power and control paradigm. We may compulsively attend to the emotions of others. This in turn leads to the desire to control others to regulate the self. This theoretically could create a culture of people who can be manipulated by a leader who uses fear, and shame. Its no longer my sense of reality that counts. It’s becomes instead the authoritarians perspective that matters. My safety no longer depends on MY perception, but instead on the perception of the person capable of exerting power/pain, punishment, shame and abandonment on me.

    The more trauma, violence, power and control exerted on a group, the more internalized the paradigm. This structure parallels addiction. The addict and the codependent. The key mechanism in power and control is the invalidation of the individual. Invalidation is an invariant ingredient in violence. I can only hurt someone if I have determined that the individual to be harmed is not valid. In the moment of violence we have decided whether true or not that another life, another’s emotional pain, is not valid or relevant. In the act of compulsion and addiction, an individual is in a schismogenic loop of behavior that is self invalidating, which has at the core the main symptom of a breach with truth (denial) and an inability to regulate emotion without use of the compulsion (especially fear and shame). The behavior creates shame because it is destructive. It is perpetuated because of denial, and the endless fuel of shame. It’s destroying me but I will do it anyway because it makes me feel better.  Addiction at its core, is the inability to regulate emotion and truth.

    In this way power and control creates mental illness and addiction and compulsions. If human beings cannot attend to and regulate emotions they will look to outside sources to regulate instead of regulating them from the inside.  This is the machine that perpetuates all mental illness. And mental illness is the canary in the coal mine that tells us how far we are veering from truth. (and for some, God)

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