Interrogating the Social Unconscious

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

The idea of the ‘unconscious’ is undoubtedly at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking.  Unconscious conflict, unconscious desire, unconscious mind, unconscious fantasy, unconscious thought – just to name a few derivatives of the term that can be found in Freud, Klein, Winnicott and other influential psychoanalytic thinkers. Most of these terms refer to the individual psyche, alluding to the existence of ideas that are ‘hidden’ from conscious knowledge but that nonetheless have force and motion (Frosh, 2012). What one barely hears is the term social unconscious.  As a person interested in both psychoanalysis and social theory, I was quite excited to hear about the study afternoon that wore the title “Interrogating the Social Unconscious “. The workshop was held on 25 October 2013 and was part of a series of events around the same topic organised by the Sociology, Psychoanalysis and Psychosocial Study Group, together with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research. (If you, have missed the first event, like me, you can listen to the podcast).

So, what is the social unconscious ? And if there is the social unconscious does it mean that it is opposed to the individual unconscious? I was hoping to get some answers from the two eminent speakers that were invited to the workshop: Earl Hopper, a psychoanalyst and group analyst and Christopher Scanlon, a consultant psychotherapist and group analyst. To my disappointment, the two speakers had no intentions to provide us with ready-made answers. Instead, we were formed into small groups and got to discuss the concept ourselves. This, of course, was the idea behind the workshop. It gave us participants the chance to get our teeth into questioning, discussing and critiquing the readings we were given a few weeks prior to the event. Topics discussed in my seminar group centred on the question of how categories of the social such as class, culture and ethnicity might inform the unconscious, and most importantly to me as a training psychotherapist, why the social was often bracketed out in psychoanalytic training.

The question that has most intrigued me was concerned with the extent to which the concept of the social unconscious was developed as a rhetorical response to psychoanalysis. Weinberg (2007, p. 309) writes: “The idea of the social unconscious assumes that some specific hidden myths and motives guide the behaviour of a certain society or culture. It also assumes that a large group or society might use some shared defences. In the same manner that unconscious forces drive an individual without knowing it, a group, an organization or the entire society can act upon unconscious forces too”. I find this working definition of the social unconscious quite helpful as it shows the complexity of the unconscious mind. What I don’t like about it is the binary opposition it assumes between the social and the individual. The term ‘social unconscious’ suggests that there is an individual unconscious that is freed from societal, historical and cultural dynamics. I would agree with Dalal (2001, p. 554) who asserts that ‘the unconscious is constituted by the social at every level’. Earl Hopper’s (2001, p.10) definition sheds a different light onto the term: “The concept of the Social Unconscious refers to the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware. Unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not ‘known’), and if perceived not acknowledged (‘denied’), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (‘given’), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity.” What Hopper makes clear is that the social unconscious does not merely refer to the social aspects of individual unconscious. It is also not the same as the superego, or the Lacanian symbolic order. It is about shared fantasies, repressed memories, traumas and anxieties of a given group. Indeed, Earl Hopper made an insightful comment that afternoon on the fact that many participants were late to the study seminar so that we had to start 15 minutes later than planned. He asked what it was in the group’s social unconscious that had led many of its members come late. Was it the fact that the event, unlike the previous one, required a ticket? Or that the participants were made to work in groups themselves rather than being lectured? These questions give me an idea on what the term ‘social unconscious’ seeks to capture. The answers to the questions remain difficult though – but we might find out in the next event of this series!


Dalal, F. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: A Post-Foulkesian Perspective’, Group Analysis 34(4): 539–55.

Frosh, S. (2012). A brief Introduction of Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Hopper, E. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: Theoretical Considerations’, Group Analysis 34(1): 9–27.

Weinberg, H. (2007). So what is this social unconscious anyway? Group Analysis, 40(3), 307-322.

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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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Jokes, Laughter and Literature

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

One of the first books I owned was Allan Ahlberg’s Ha Ha Bonk joke book. A collection of mostly bad puns and word play. As a child, I used to bring terror on holiday in joke book form, by forcing family members to relive my favourite jokes until they pleaded for mercy – a kind of verbal waterboarding. The title of the book is a promise that the jokes will make you laugh so hard that your head will fall off, which is a rash promise given quite how subjective jokes are. Standard fare is “What happened to the man who stole a calendar? He got twelve months.” Ha ha. Bonk.

But, as Adam Smyth (Birkbeck lecturer in Renaissance Literature) explained at Jokes, Laughter and Literature (part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week) joke books and their popularity or otherwise are nothing new. In 1600, twelve years after his death, Tarlton’s Jests was published as a collection of the jokes of Richard Tarlton. He was a renowned clown and actor of the day, who is said to have been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and whose witticisms and songs were extremely popular at the time. Unfortunately, his humour may not have found favour with William Shakespeare. An original draft of Hamlet has the Prince warning Yorick of the perils of overacting clowns, performing jokes that the audience already knows. Tarlton had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre group for whom Shakespeare wrote much of his work, and Yorick is said to be based on him.

Lecturer in Modern Literature Kate McLoughlin went on to talk us through the three main theories in philosophy for why people find jokes funny. Perhaps Shakespeare is indulging in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of superiority, which is that generally we laugh at other people’s misfortune. In Tarlton’s case, he’d just died, and misfortune doesn’t get much more misfortunate than that. But misfortune in itself surely can’t be enough. I went to an open mic night at a comedy club recently, where the floor was open to anyone brave enough to give five minutes of their best jokes. I’m in awe of anyone who has the courage to stand in front of a room full of strangers asserting that they’re funny enough for you to want to pay to hear their jokes, but the results were mixed; for some, the loudest response to their one-liners was the sound of dreams being ruthlessly crushed. Those who didn’t raise a laugh were misfortunate; but sadly weren’t funny.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant’s Incongruity Theory has it that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations, with the best punch lines being unpredictable. It would be interesting to find out how Kant thought his theory stacked up against an episode of My Family, but by the time the sitcom was written Kant had died a couple hundred years ago, as indeed had some of the jokes. But neither does the theory explain why catchphrase comedy is, or at least has been, so popular – where knowing exactly what a character is going to say, and the anticipation of it, is from where much of the audience derives humour. Sigmund Freud’s theory of what humans find funny is the relief theory, that we funnel energy from sexual repression or pent-up emotion; as a ritual to ward off tension. It’s certainly true that laughter can release tension, but is that the same as saying that jokes are what causes relief?

American journalist HL Menken said that “a philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there”. I’m no more qualified to say what makes people laugh than a giraffe is to breakdance. Perhaps it’s easier to say what’s absolutely not funny. To return to the comedy club, it’s relatively easy to define what’s not funny. A full two years after its creation, one of the aspiring comedians opened their set with a line about how the iPad sounds like it’s a feminine product.

Ha ha indeed. But definitely no bonk.

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I-D: The Boundaries of Identity: The multiple identities of multilingualism

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Tonight’s lecture was the second in the series of lectures being organised by the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy around the theme of identity.

Dr Derek Hook was the first speaker and he started by saying that “Identity is one of the most over-used and under-defined terms in social theory”.  He then introduced the audience to the concept of identification. This he described as the psychological process of assimilating an aspect or attribute of the other, and in the process being transformed wholly or partially.

Identification is not the same as identity. Identification is the outcome of the failure of identity, as defined as “the sameness of a person or thing at all times”. A person is always partially a reflection or copy of something else, having assimilated aspects of others.

Dr Hook said that as social subjects we are always entangled with others and never fully differentiable from those around us. Sometimes we are over inclusive when setting the boundaries of who we identify with, and at other times we tend to be over exclusive.

Freud identified three forms of identification. The first was the primitive form (or father-as-ideal). In this form the object wants to become the father. It is a loving form of identification, yet underscored by ambivalence as there is an implication that the child wants to replace the father, which introduces an element of competitiveness.

The second form of identification discussed by Freud is regressive identification. This form relates to a lost or failed love. The object wants something or someone, but can’t have them, so instead becomes like them, by assimilating their traits.

The third form is hysterical identification. In this case the process is driven by a desire to occupy a place, not to become another person. There is no emotional attachment to the person whose trait is being assimilated, and in fact there could be active antipathy towards that person. It is only the place occupied by them which is being sought.

In the second part of the lecture, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele gave several clear examples of how people who are multilingual can create different identities for themselves in different languages.

The first example was of an American student called Alice. In the USA she distanced herself from classmates, and felt that she could not change her identity as defined by her class and social status. When she went to France, she used the opportunity to recreate herself, regularly organising parties in her dorm room, and creating an identity as an intellectual who was able to hold her own in philosophical discussions with her French friends, using “big long French words”.

A Finnish multilingual was able to pinpoint very specific personality traits which manifested themselves when he spoke different languages. Although in this case the multilingual was able to identify different traits coming to the fore when he spoke different languages, sometimes this is a more subtle difference. An interesting experiment with Spanish-English bilinguals showed that when asked to rank themselves on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) the same participants gave different results, depending on which language they were asked in.

Another fascinating study with Greek-English bilinguals, told participants a story about Andy, or Andreas, depending on the language that the story was told in. Andy/Andreas had been neglecting his girlfriend and elderly mother because of pressures at work. The participants in the study were much more likely to be tolerant of Andy’s behaviour than of Andreas’s, showing that not only were they language switching, they were also switching between cultural frameworks.

Professor Dewaele ended by saying that multilingualism has been shown to have a positive effect on open-mindedness, cultural empathy and social initiative, and that he wishes that more governments would recognise the benefits that multilingualism can bring.

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