Updated: Mar 21, 2022
All this study in psychotherapy is humdinging fantastic.
I don’t remember being so completely absorbed in anything since I discovered Buddhism 10 years ago when I couldn’t stop reading and gravitating to that subject in my mind.
The study of how we come to be is endlessly fascinating to me.
How a lump of cells and blood is launched in to an environment that constantly tunes and develops that lump’s way of responding to the world. Everything I read naturally applies to me as a human – because everything I read is about how I might have become the way I am.
Among the million and one interesting things that have struck me in the last month or so is the idea of Freud and society. Sue Gerhardt‘s brilliant book pointed it out to me but other people have suggested it along the way.
Freud (like Marx) was writing at the apogee of the Industrial Revolution. People across Europe were being turned into appendages of machines, working long hours at looms and mills, forbidden to talk to one another, forbidden to emote. The rationalist view of the world had come to a cruel pinnacle. Emotions were messy – they got in the way of productivity.
Freud came along in the 1890s and started to suggest that actually our emotions were much more central to the project of society than society had cared to accept. In fact our primitive desires, our drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain, were the motive force of almost all our social actions. Nonetheless, Freud still thought that free-flowing emotions were a menace to society – at best they should sublimated into art or poetry or some such social lubricant.
Freud’s (revolutionary) exploration of the emotions was picked up by capitalism (especially in the USA in the first half of the 20th century) and seen in just this way: how can we solve those pesky emotions and convert them into something culturally useful and, most importantly, stop them being something that gets in the way of efficient production.
It was only in the last half of the 20th century that capitalism saw a new angle.
If desire was the motor of life – and drove every human being from cradle to grave – then why not cultivate desire like crazy – but make sure it’s desire for cars, clothes, films, lifestyles and my little ponies? Suddenly Freud was not a bandaid for annoyingly neurotic workers but instead the inspiration for a zillion ad campaigns.
But actually Freud was wrong. Our drives are not satisfied willy-nilly. It’s not like our libido is a massive body of water that dams up if blocked and overwhelmingly seeks for release. Libido is not like electicity. What we desire is linked to a specific object.
Psychotherpists like Winnicot, Bowlby, Sullivan and Erikson all realised that we have drives to connect – not simply drives to eat or drink or ejaculate. It matters very much who we love.
And what does this mean for us in the 21st century driven wild by a million billboards telling us where to direct our desires?
It leaves us frustrated. If our drives were blind and didn’t care where they discharged then a Big Mac or a prostitute or a shiney new car would be just fine to satisfy our desires. It wouldn’t matter how we discharged only that we did.
But if, as research shows, that we have a drive to connect to satisfying objects (the mother, the milk-laden breast, the emotionally attuned caregiver) then attaching to all these hollow substitutes will drive us crazy.
We’re constantly being goaded into phoney satisfactions because Freud didn’t follow through. He was beginning to move towards the idea of object-attached drives when he died but his followers clung to the pure drive theory for a long time. Long enough for Madison Avenue to pick it up to sell jeans.
“Your desires must be satisfied – so why not satisfy them with some white underwear (with Marky Mark inside, just to sex up the carrot)?,” the ad men say. But 50 years of that is now wearing thin. If desire for meaningful nourishment is consistently thwarted, eventually the human being starves to death.