Notes on Civilization and its Discontents

Notes on Civilization and its Discontents - 1 Notes on...

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1 Notes on Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents I. Background A. The text was written in 1929 and published in 1930. The First World War was a defining experience for Freud and his contemporaries. WWI was the first technologically advanced war, with the use of tanks, poison gas, etc. Death became anonymous in the trenches; mass killing took place for the first time in this war. This experience generated a new sense of pessimism about the human being and human nature. Freud represents a profoundly pessimistic point of view in this treatise. He transfers the intra-psychic conflict (between ego and id; pleasure principle and reality principle; unconscious and conscious mind; etc.) that he had analyzed in his psychoanalytical writings over to the domain of human civilization. Civilization itself comes to be defined as a space of conflict , or as an extension into the cultural community of the tensions that stigmatize the individual psyche. In this sense Freud shares in a general cultural pessimism, or anti-modernism, a kind of skepticism about the accomplishments of civilization, that is typical of this period. B. In 1927 Freud published The Future of an Illusion , in which he criticized organized religion and religiosity in general as a mass delusion, a compensatory escape from the realities of existence. This text sets the stage for Civilization insofar as it marks a first extension of a psychoanalytic problematic into the general sphere of shared culture. Freud also begins Civilization by countering an objection to Future of an Illusion made by his friend, the French writer and critic Romain Rolland. Rolland agrees with Freud about the illusory nature of religion, but he maintains that humans share a common feeling of innate religiosity. Rolland calls this an “oceanic” feeling in which the individual feels bonded with the entire world and the whole human race. It is a sense of oneness, boundlessness, limitlessness. Freud acknowledges the existence of this “oceanic” feeling, but for him it does not suggest an innate religiosity. Instead, he attempts to explain this feeling by turning to psychoanalytic experience. Boundlessness, oneness, a sense of union with the entire world, Freud identifies with infantile narcissism . This is the stage which, according to Freud, all infants go through immediately after birth until about the second or third year of life. In this stage, the child is pure ego and does not yet distinguish between the subjective self and an objective outside world. This state of absolute (infantile) narcissism, in which the ego subsumes the world in its entirety, is not broken until the infant realizes that it cannot satisfy its own demands—it recognizes its reliance on others and an objective world on the basis of lack or the experience of dissatisfaction. The world emerges as an “other,” as a negative experience for the child: as the impossibility of satisfaction, a disruption
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2 of the demand for pleasure, as a
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This note was uploaded on 04/13/2008 for the course ENG 201 taught by Professor Recny during the Spring '08 term at SUNY Buffalo.

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Notes on Civilization and its Discontents - 1 Notes on...

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