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Family, Community, Polis: The Freudian Structure of Feeling

 Originally Appeared in: New Literary History: Volume 23, Number 4 | Published: Autumn, 1992

Psychoanalysis shares with modern literature a penchant for discovering in the forms of personal suffering ciphers of a more general condition. When decked out metaphysically, these ciphers have become, variously, visions of the human condition or mythologies of violence and the sacred, or even allegories of language. I am a partisan of another alternative, where exemplary forms of personal suffering become ciphers of the social relationships in which we wittingly and unwittingly participate. I therefore look to psychoanalysis to contribute to the cultural interpretation of the modern forms of individuality, and to help disclose the norms and the pathologies that typically occur in the making of the socialized individual in our society.

Psychoanalysis has generally left its ties to social theory fragmented and largely covert. Moreover, it tends to invert the relation between cultural forms and specifically psychoanalytic concepts, believing the latter to be purely descriptive of the psychic mechanism and then deriving the cultural forms from them. Psychoanalysis also tends to eschew historical questions by casting the historical context of life-histories as merely contingent elements in a universal structure.

Nowhere are these intellectual habits more deeply ingrained than in the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex is also perhaps the most developed figure of exemplary suffering that psychoanalysis has produced. The reference to Greek tragedy, with its ritual reenactments of the actions of ancient royalty, can be misleading. For psychoanalysis tells a very modern and very bourgeois tale. Freud’s Oedipal theory was a search for the inner logic of the middle-class marriage, and vocation….

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