Recently, a colleague in psychology asked me why I still read Freud. It seems that Freud is looking a bit tired in clinical circles these days, having been surpassed many times over by better treatment techniques and better models of cognitive analysis. “The only people that still talk about Freud,” she went on, “are people in the humanities.”
This was, I thought, probably true — after all, I love talking about Freud! Freud is great; lots of talk of repression and incest and libidos and all that. Whether or not it’s true is, in some ways, quite beside the point.
Understanding psychoanalysis and redescription
Of course, Freud offers more than just the sex parts. Psychoanalysis offers a remarkably fertile and versatile interpretive framework — a kind of kaleidoscopic lens through which the everyday and the not-so-everyday can be reexamined, reevaluated, and reimagined. Whether you’re thinking about recurrent dreams, your strained relationship with your siblings, or why Hamlet seems perhaps a smidge weird about his mother, Freud promises explanations that almost always prove, at the very least, interesting. Making the deal even sweeter is the fact that Freud’s concepts have achieved cultural ubiquity — chances are, you haven’t read much of Freud’s 1899 study, The Interpretation of Dreams, but I bet you’re familiar enough with the concept of the Oedipus complex.
Freudianism is unusually suitable for what can be called acts of redescription, which go something like this. Take an ordinary, straightforward act — say, “the man sat, smoking a cigar” — and, with the help of a rudimentary understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis, you can assign an entirely different (and, usually, far more interesting) meaning to it. Sure, the man is smoking a cigar, but what he is also (or, perhaps, what he is really) doing is satisfying an oral fixation of such and such nature, and doing so via this joyously phallic utensil — in other words, now it’s a party.
The value of interpretative frameworks in the social sciences
Intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) life is brimming with these sorts of lenses — interpretive frameworks that allow the viewer to see behind, to recognize and understand the veiled forces that animate the surface world of everyday activity. Now, on the one hand, this is pretty much what the social sciences are about — the whole idea, from Adam Smith’s efforts to describe the operation of the invisible hand behind market activity to Karl Marx’s attempts to explain social and political ideology as a function of class conflict, is to place human activity within an objective and (hopefully) testable framework. If we want to understand human conduct in a systematic and scalable way, we can’t always rely on what people understand themselves to be doing — we must, to some extent, interpret their behavior under certain assumptions about what motivates their behavior.
On the other hand, however, some of these interpretive lenses go deeper than others. Freudianism, for one, sees into every nook and cranny — no secret desire, no nervous tic, no deeply felt passion can escape the psychoanalytic eye. Freudianism peeks into subjectivity itself, and remakes it at the same time. What you thought was just you was, in fact, very much not you! Behind your lived experience, an epic and endless battle is being waged by forces — ids and egos and superegos, death drives and sex drives — that are utterly beyond your control. For Freud, this force is, fundamentally, sex; for Marx, it’s class; for Foucault, it’s power. You might not like the analysis, but there’s no denying that, as tools of redescription, they’re quite powerful.
Powerful in appropriate contexts, anyway, and of course very useful. Particularly when we’re operating in, well, academic modes, these lenses can function nicely as method: if we want to think about George Eliot’s motivations, or the historical development of sexual morality, or why certain film genres emerge at certain times, we can apply these interpretive frameworks and churn out interesting results.
The limits of interpretative frameworks for any serious thinker
But, in other contexts, such acts of redescription are, for lack of a better word, very rude. If your child shows you his artwork, it is rude to tell him that it is almost comically bourgeois; if your lover turns to you and says, “You look beautiful tonight,” it is rude to say, “Yes, I tried to look as much like your mother as I could stand.” And, of course, it is rude to tell someone engaged in an attempt to have an earnest argument that their ideas are attributable to their class position or their privileged place within the relevant discourse.
These examples demonstrate rude behavior — and dangerous thinking — because, in attributing the thoughts and actions of others to the forces that operate behind their consciousness, you deny their agency. You suggest that what they say, what they make, what they find attractive: that these aren’t really theirs at all, that they are properties of forces surreptitious and impersonal.
But you, dear libertarian or classical liberal, you would never do such a thing. After all: Marx? Foucault? Freud? More like Sigmund Fraud, amiright? You love honest discussion, and you love the earnest exchange of ideas.
Well, I’m happy to hear it.
I’m happy to hear that I don’t have to worry about you redescribing the ideas of others as mere attempts to improve their standing with their in-group; I don’t have to worry about you dismissing your interlocutors as hapless victims of their own unacknowledged and unexamined bias; and I don’t have to worry about you labeling every idea you don’t agree with as mere virtue-signaling.
Or do I?