The Cultural Relevance of Psychoanalysis: a Lecture by Professor David Bell

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

Sigmund Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents between the two World Wars in 1929. Here, he posed questions such as why we are unhappy or why we act so destructively against others and often against our best interests. Surely, these were questions that came to mind in the aftermath of a devastating war that had cost so many lives and in anticipation of another human catastrophe that was beginning to show long before 1933. One can debate whether Freud delivers satisfactory answers to these questions in his book. But perhaps this says more about the world we live in than about Freud.

Professor David Bell, Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the British Psychoanalytic Society and Visiting Professorial Fellow in both the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR) and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH), gave a highly stimulating lecture on some of the issues tackled by Freud. As he explained, the premise that Freud’s thoughts are based on is that people seek happiness, or at least, try to diminish unhappiness. However, this proves rather difficult as civilization necessitates the repression of the fundamental drives: sexuality and aggression. It is the latter that is at the core of Civilization and Its Discontents. For Freud, men have to inhibit natural aggression in order to form groups that guarantee survival. In order to live in a functioning society we have to supress this part of our nature. Humankind exchanges happiness for security, Freud writes. What happens though is that the aggression suppressed takes up residence  in the superego, where it is turned towards the self and so becomes a source of internal persecution . David Bell further pointed out, here drawing on Freud’s work on group psychology, that in order for the group to survive the individuals in the group  have to suppress the natural aggression/hatred they feel towards others in the group. However this aggression does not disappear but  is channelled externally, that is towards hated ‘others ‘ who are not part of the group  So far, so Freud.

Karl Marx, as David Bell argues, offers, somewhat surprisingly, a similar explanation for human unhappiness. Marx bases his argument on political (and not libidinal) economy when he states that the achievements of the capitalist mode of production have their price: they lead to human misery and alienation.

But how does this all relate to aggression and the Freudian death drive? The second part of David Bell’s lecture was dedicated to the hegemony of the free market and its consequences for the subjects who live under it. David Bell argued here that the logics of the market capture the very registers of the death drive: capitalism attempts to destroy  all forms of non-capitalist forms of life and brings a numbing of sensibility and thought. An interesting two-fold distinction that Professor Bell made  between what he called manifest and latent violence was helpful. Based on Slavoj Zizek’s notions of ’objective’ versus ‘subjective’ violence, Bell explained that it is often the manifest aggression that is in our consciousness. (He illustrated this with a series of newspaper covers that show a student kicking in a window during a protest). The underlying violence leading to that act (e.g. the inequality and poverty the market creates), however, tends to remain unseen and unthought-of. A psychiatrist by profession, Professor Bell drew attention to the violence that neo-liberal agendas do to the national healthcare system. Here, patients turn into “clients”, “service users”, and in the very near future very likely into “customers”. The danger here is that “customers” cannot claim a right to health care. Even psychoanalytic practice itself, so Prof Bell, is in danger of being contaminated by the market form, for example when it does away with some of its key tenets to ‘satisfy’ the customer-patient.

But does capitalism really swallow up everything? One person from the audience challenged this assumption by stressing political activism as well as other everyday life practices that are at the edges of capitalism. David Bell made clear that he does not think that the market has hegemonized all spheres of human life. There is hope to be found, precisely in resistance and alternative ways of relating to others. The discussion went on for another hour and generated many insightful critical thoughts. I am sure that many of the participants will come to Prof David Bell’s last lecture in this series on 12 June at Birkbeck to take up and continue the debate.


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