The Future of the Unconscious

Mary Montaut

In one of his last works, Civilization and its Discontents (1929-31), Freud explored 
the consequences of a fundamental ambivalence in human nature towards both self 
and others. He traced the origin of this ambivalence to the workings of two 
fundamental ‘instincts’ or drives which he considered to operate both in the
 individual and in society at large, the erotic (Eros) which binds people together, 
and the aggressive (sometimes called the Death Instinct in this work) which acts 
contrariwise. It is certainly no longer accepted that the word ‘instinct’ is the proper 
description for these potent forces within the psyche and within society, but the
 effects which he describes in Civilization and its Discontents are surely no less 
apparent now than they were when he wrote.

His point is basically this:

“The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what 
extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their
 communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be
 that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have
 gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they
 would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know 
this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and 
their mood of anxiety…”

‘Civilization’, he contends, puts heavy demands on the individual to give up
 personal satisfaction or happiness in the interests of social order and conformity,
 and he cites as an example, the way young children are required to renounce their 
(primary) satisfaction and pleasure in ‘anal erotism’ and to become clean:

“The most remarkable example of such a process is found in the anal erotism of 
young human beings. Their original interest in the excretory function, its organs 
and products, is changed in the course of their growth into a group of traits which 
are familiar to us as parsimony, a sense of order and cleanliness…We cannot fail 
to be struck by the similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal
 development of the individual… It is impossible to overlook the extent to which 
civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct [drive], how much it
 presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some
 other means?) of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large 
field of social relationships between human beings…”

Renunciation like this produces a situation in which the denied desire is perhaps
 consigned to unconsiousness, and its energy then produces some ambivalences in
 the psychic or social fabric. Freud uses a wonderful example of this ambivalence 
in man’s relation to dogs: he notes that dogs are at once idealized as ‘Man’s best Friend’ and ‘faithful’ and reviled as ‘dirty’. In one of my favourite footnotes, Freud
 analyses this paradox to show that it arises from denial – since man stood on his 
hind legs, he hasn’t been able to smell the good ground smells or other folks’
 bottoms very much, whereas dogs do. Hence there is envy and desire completely 
unconsciously held towards our canine friends, and it shows in the ambivalence we 
maintain toward them. I suppose it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that in doggy 
society, sniffing these smells is a major social function; dogs, after all, have their
 pee-mail. But civilized man has raised himself above this level, and by his 
elevation has renounced that source of social cohesion and personal satisfaction.

Much more central to his argument is Freud’s analysis of the renunciation of sexual
 desire which is required of the individual to maintain social order:

“Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships
 on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and
 that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only 
prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of 
propagating the human race.

This, of course, is an extreme picture…. Civilized society has found itself obliged 
to pass over in silence many transgressions which, according to its own rescripts,
 it ought to have punished. But we must not err on the other side and assume that, 
because it does not achieve all its aims, such an attitude on the part of society is 
entirely innocuous. The sexual life of civilized man is notwithstanding severely
 impaired… One is probably justified in assuming that its importance as a source of 
feelings of happiness, and therefore in the fulfilment of our aim in life, has sensibly

The ‘severe impairment’ of sexual life is also likely to provide the ground for 
highly ambivalent attitudes, held both by the individual and by society in general,
 towards sexuality. The ‘passing over in silence’ of these anomalies is surely a
 familiar enough issue for us even now, seventy years later, to give some attention 
to what Freud is suggesting. He is in fact contending ‘that what we call our 
civilization is largely responsible for our misery.’ In the same way that an
 individual can become neurotic in response to the personal struggle he may have 
with the conflicted feelings and frustration he experiences in the face of heavy 
demands to renounce his desires, Freud suggests that society at large can also be
 made neurotic. The difficulty then would lie in diagnosing the neurosis – in the
 case of an individual, other individuals are taken as giving a benchmark for
 ‘normal’ or non-neurotic states; but by what criteria, he asks, can a neurotic society
 be diagnosed?

He examines in particular the demand society makes on its members to ‘love thy 

“The existence of the inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves 
and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour… in consequence of this primary hostility of human beings,
 civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work 
in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than 
reasonable interests….. the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself (is) a
 commandment that really is justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly
 counter to the original nature of man.

I feel it is interesting that Freud almost seems to be verging on irony in this passage 
- as if the ambivalence of what he is describing is barely containable without some 
kind of slippage. The suspicion that it is precisely because the demand is so 
impossible to fulfill that it is ‘justified’ in the social sphere enables Freud to link it
 with the cognate formation structure which he posits for individual feelings of 

“What means does civilization employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which 
opposes it, to make it harmless, to get rid of it, perhaps? … This we can study in 
the history of the development of the individual. What happens in him to render 
his desire for aggression innocuous? Something very remarkable which we should 
never have guessed and which is nevertheless quite obvious. His aggressiveness is
 introjected, internalized; it is in point of fact, sent back to where it came from …
and now in the form of ‘conscience’ is ready to put into action against the ego the 
same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other,
 extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego (conscience) and 
the ego… is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for
 punishment. Civilization therefore obtains mastery over the individual’s
 dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up
 an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.”

And having reached so far, he quickly comes to the troubling question of the work 
of psychotherapy – that it must often take a stance opposing the harshness of the 
conscience and the sense of guilt, and at the same time, ironically, to enable the 
individual again to function more harmoniously in society, which imposed the
 impossible demands and frustrations on him in the first place.

“We are very often obliged, for therapeutic purposes, to oppose the super-ego, and
 we endeavour to lower its demands… Exactly the same objections can be made
 against the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It too, does not trouble itself
 enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. … It assumes
 that a man’s ego is psychologically capable of anything that is requred of it, that
 his ego has unlimited mastery over his id. This is a mistake; and even in what are
 known as ‘normal’ people, the id cannot be controlled beyond certain limits.”

It is clear enough that the basis for Freud’s gloomy forecast for the future of
 civilization is his belief in the ‘unconscious’, both as a personal and as a social 
feature. I think it would be true to say that, although the nature and contents of the
 ‘unconscious’ are still confusing and unclear, therapists on the whole do not doubt 
that it exists. Nor do they generally doubt that many of the ambivalences and conflicts of both individual people and of society arise from the ‘unconscious’
 processes which continually accompany conscious life. In the work they do, they 
are often perturbed at the violent eruptions into consciousness and the News of
 unspeakable but nonetheless familiar human acts of violence and violation, and 
they work to integrate these aspects of humanity into less destructive forms. They 
seem never to doubt that it is their duty to serve civilization in this way. And this
 is what makes me wonder, betimes, whether the old man didn’t have a point.

In one of his famous lectures in Paris in the late 1960s, Lacan said:

“Most of you will have some idea of what I mean when I say – the unconscious is
 structured like a language. This statement refers to a field that is much more 
accessible to us today than at the time of Freud….”

[Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 1973]

I believe that in comparing the structure of ‘the unconscious’ to that of a language, 
Lacan was probably referring to the linguistic concept of the bi-polar nature of
 language (as in Saussure and Jacobson). If so, perhaps he also was implying that 
such a structure must manage to live with ambivalence, precisely because the two
 poles between which it exists are structurally in active tension and
 contradistinction with each other. And, if so again, then this would certainly not be
at odds with the Freudian structure of ‘drives’ which are similarly opposed. Even 
though it is no longer tenable to regard these polar opposites as ‘instincts’ in 
themselves, their function in this kind of structure is also surely not unlike that of 
the current terms, ‘constitutional’, ‘genetic’ or ‘neurological’ which are seen as
 operating in tandem with ‘environmental’ factors. In short, it seems to me that the 
process and structure which Freud described still inhabits our thinking both about 
individual psyches and about society, and I suggest it would be worth returning to
 Civilization and Its Discontents as a particularly helpful historical document to 
review our position in psychotherapy now, as the Freudian twentieth century comes 
to its close.

Quotations come from Joan Riviere’s translation of Civilization and its Discontents
on Vol. 12 of the Penguin Freud Library