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Psychoanalysis: an Inward Turn, a Social Paradox

Psychoanalysis has endlessly changed the way we perceive the world. It has deeply transformed our way of thinking, our ethos, and our perception of what it means to be. Created during the first years of the 20th century, this theory played a central role in the 1920s, in the development of psychological theories in the 1950s, in the emancipation of gay communities and the growth of feminist movements in the 1970s, and many other historical and social events. Understanding the cultural context that took place during Freud, Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, is important to identify how psychoanalysis impacted humanity throughout generations. Even so, a small overview of the theory allows us to grasp the effect it has on modern society and the symptoms we most often observe in our culture today.

This theory is considered the last Copernican revolution, a paradigm shift that changed human behavior and society as we understand it. Before Freud, the human mind had not been profoundly studied. Psychiatry was based on curing mental disorders that were considered an illness of the reasoning process in the brain (Rush, 1962). However, the fundamental idea of psychoanalysis, the idea of the unconscious, was a wide-ranging turn regarding mental health. It is well known that the concept of the unconscious existed way before Freud introduced it in 1899 in one of his most famous essays: The Interpretation of Dreams. Philosophers, romantic poets, and medieval alchemists had already expanded on the concept of the unknown. The idea that there was something more than the simple ego, a cosmic force or the possibility of transcending reality through spiritual methods, can be appreciated in works from previous centuries. Nonetheless, it was psychoanalysis that pinned an analytical point of view of the self, the ego, and what is beyond. The theory established the phenomenon of the intimate, the deepest part of the being (Sanchez, 2005).

freud, painting, desk
Figure 1: Sigmund Freud at his desk by Max Pollock, 1914

A century later, psychoanalysis sets us up with a paradox that is key to the way we manage life in personal, social, and political means. There are two historical changes that lead society to new interrogations about our selfs. The Enlightenment era (1685-1815), known as the age of reason and progress, brought transformations at a cultural, ideological, and political level, in which the rebellion against former traditions and authoritarian regimes promoted a new kind of social order. On the other hand, it was also a product of many controversial ideas and principles. Judgment and critical thinking took the reins of philosophy during this period, encouraging new answers toward a reality that was based on European absolutism. This generated a great social change, where individuals overpassed two industrial revolutions that gave birth to capitalism and a new form of society, the society of consumption. The big question of our identities took power after this, creating an inward turn, a more introspective and personal view of what it means to be someone (Zaretsky, 2004).

The Process of Defamiliarization

Unlike the First Industrial Revolution, which was still framed by the Victorian ideas of classical liberalism, the Second Industrial Revolution arose along with the growth of mass production and the breakdown of the idea of "self-control". Previously, the family existed as an order of social productivity. The concept of a personal life was not implemented, which meant that the identification of an individual was closely linked to his family lineage. The Second Industrial Revolution ushers in what American philosopher Eli Zaretsky (2001) proposes as a process of defamiliarization; where individuals move from knowing each other by family name to anonymity. The working and socioeconomic life changes, and society moves from life in the countryside towards the city, shedding family dependence and promoting the search for individuality. This phenomenon opens the way to personal life, to the proposal of an unknown intimacy, and to privacy, which then motivates the encounter with oneself.

photography, woman, city
Figure 2: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978

Psychoanalysis was born during this historical process, consolidating the individuality of the being. Freud formulates a theory that gives expression to these new possibilities of autonomy, authenticity, and a sense of freedom that emerged and transformed social life. The term of a personal unconscious was new and it rose along with the process of defamiliarization. This opened new personal experiences in the daily life of the individual. Private and public life became two different entities that constantly grew more apart. The sense of a private life for the modern man and woman was a great accomplishment, yet brought many counterparts as well (Zaretsky, 2004).

The Second Industrial Revolution created a much more autonomic society, which began to benefit from higher education, science, capitalism, mass production, consumerism and leisure life. The individual changed, and consequently, so did the family and the community. This process of defamiliarization remarked the changes that had been taking place in the previous century. It opened the street to new thoughts and positions about the role of women in society, new purposes emerged and so the feminist movement began. On the other hand, homosexual identities became much more public and in need of freedom. Forms of expression, art, and personal and sexual experimentation, all became essential to modern society. At the same time, the role played by men was also brought into question. This new vision of life, where work takes a back seat and personal life is prioritized, gives rise to new aspects about gender roles and their nuances. This made people turn to psychoanalysis, to confirm this "promise of autonomy", a "freedom" of decision, in search of self-discovery.

Figure 3: The joy of life by Henri Matisse, 1906

Zaretsky (2004) mentions the following, "Freudian introspection aspired to foster the individual's capacity to live an authentically personal life, but ended up contributing to consolidate a society of consumerism". This restlessness of the self and the emergence of different possibilities, in conjunction with a culture of mass production, makes way for the individual to increasingly seek psychological attention. A sense of emancipation sprouted, and with it, the culture of consumerism and capitalism is solidified. This unleashed a series of fantasies and ideologies of the endless, the possible, the unlimited, and in a paradoxical turn, gave birth to cultural symptoms such as depression, addiction, and other forms of discontent.

Consumerism is based on an idea of instant time, the immediate, not necessarily governed by progress but by the enjoyment of the moment. It speaks to us of a circular time, which is not bound towards progression nor regression. Paradoxically, the industrious community that emerged prior to the Second Industrial Revolution with intentions of progress led us, in some ways, to what seems like the opposite: a regression. We could even go so far as to say that it has led us to stagnation. The same thing that led to the restlessness of being, has led us to stillness and with it, to discontent. In his book Politics and Society, sociologist Marinas (2002) says the following:

“This mandate of enjoyment, the spreading idea of the omnipotence of achievements the god with prosthesis Freud calls the human being of this moment, in a perfect metaphorical expression, as we shall see transcends the economic and shows itself in powerful personal and social symptoms because it touches all dimensions of identity, starting with gender.” (p. 57)


The infinite possibilities of being, the proposal of the unlimited, promotes the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, and therefore, of susceptibility. The culture of consumerism encourages a false enjoyment under the idea that it is possible to satisfy desire completely, and contradictorily, it sells the disposable. As consumers, we allow ourselves to be consumed precisely by what we pretend to consume, to the point where the object becomes basically irrelevant. Buying products implies an act where there is a subject (a person) and an object (the product); consuming is the exchange between the need ––the desire–– of the subject and the utility of the object. Marketing and advertising are in charge of playing with this relationship, of forming the object as desirable for the subject in terms of what it represents; representations that are constructed by society itself. The object transcends to a condition of object-symbol and today, in postmodernity, we go from consuming objects to consuming "symbols"; images. (Marinas, 2001) Are we seeking, then, to identify ourselves with the objects of consumption?

From this, we could infer that today's society is based on objects, materials, as well as in an incessant search for who we are. Under these forms of distress, which result from the identity crisis that the subject has encountered throughout history, society has focused on "having" rather than on "being". Images predominate in today's culture, and psychoanalysis now finds itself faced with the challenge of new symptoms and discontent. Consumerism was established a century ago, and today we can still perceive how this social behavior has affected directly through generations. Attitudes, enjoyment, relationships, political views and ideologies. Could it be that a great deal of what society is going through today lies upon the issue of social identification? We are still looking for answers to questions that arose more than a hundred years ago, we are still looking for that sense of familiarity in a world reigned by ideas of autonomy. Undoubtedly, psychoanalysis has transformed society, and it seems society itself has made psychoanalysis an indispensable field.

Bibliographical References

Rush, B. (1962) Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, New York, Hafner.

Marinas, J. (2001) La Fábula del Bazar: Orígenes de la cultura del consumo. Madrid, Spain.

Marinas, J. (2002) Política y Sociedad, Vol 39 Núm. 1. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.

Sánchez, A., Sánchez, P., (2005) El psicoanálisis ¿Qué tipo de ciencia es? Rev. Asoc. Esp. Neuropsiq. no.96 Madrid

Zaretsky, E. (1978) Familia y vida personal en la sociedad capitalista [trad. del inglés de C. Novoa] Barcelona, Anagrama.

Zaretsky, E. (2004) Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis. Madrid, Spain.

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1 commentaire

12 juin 2023

a society with lost identity! yup!!

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Gabriella Yanes

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