Thursday, April 19, 2007

Obvious Discontent

Freud opens the sixth section of Civilization and Its Discontents with a peculiar confession: “In none of my previous works have I had so strong a feeling as now that what I am describing is common knowledge and that I am using up paper and ink and, in due course, the compositor’s and printer’s work and material in order to expound things which are, in fact, self-evident [ “Ich habe bei keiner Arbeit so stark die Empfindung gehabt wie diesmal, daß ich allgemein Bekanntes darstelle, Papier und Tinte, in weiterer Folge Setzerarbeit und Druckerschwärze aufbiete, um eigentlich substverständliche Dinge zu erzählen].” What is Freud expounding? Both the fact and the cause of Freudian discontent [Unbehagen] might be seen as obvious enough to go without saying. Although the various anthropological phases of Unbehagen and the particular psychic organizations that engage it—on which Freud has expended the speculative labor of the book—may be controversial, it takes little argument to demonstrate the persistence of Unbehagen. Nor the simple structural fault it exposes: since satisfaction entails the appeasement of aggressions that impede others’ satisfaction, the existence of other satisfaction-seekers keeps us dissatisfied even as it makes our satisfaction possible. Obviously.

For Freud, this point is “in fact” singularly obvious: it is the world’s most gratuitous-feeling, paperwasting point. It is not really a point, but a “fact.” The “nature,” or necessary structure, of civilization appears through the constant of the dissatisfaction that binds human beings to what they do. So why the apology, if the fact is as decisive as it is self-evident? He apologizes because talking about discontent is as problematic as discontent. His apology replicates the obviousness for which it apologizes and, moreover, implies that discontent is structured like an obvious utterance. Trivial and/or gratuitous statements have had peculiar roles to play in the history of the philosophies of language and mind. I would like to suggest that such utterances connect the “other minds problem” to discontent, or what we might think of as the “other people problem.” These are interlocking problems whose interlocking makes each the more compelling.

There’s more of Freud's apology. After mentioning these “things which are, in fact, self-evident,” Freud goes on to offer, then withdraw, a justification for his uneconomic labor:

I will gladly take on this work if it provides for the recognition of a particular, independent aggression drive that restructures the psychoanalytic doctrine of drives. We shall see, however, that this is not so and that it is merely a matter of bringing into sharper focus a turn of thought arrived at long ago and of following out its consequences. (64, tr. modified)

Even when it comes to the metapsychological significance of his argument, then, Freud is not expounding something the reader unambiguously needs to learn. The implication is that he does take on the work, but not “gladly”; psychoanalytic work—his and ours—struggles with the self-evident, which interferes with our gladness. How does it do that?

Gratuitousness is anything but gratuitous in the argument of Civilization and Its Discontents. It leads to the place where psychoanalysis can do no more; the apology signals that we’re approaching that place. If Unbehagen is structured into relation, it is a natural condition that is the task of evolution, not therapy, to transform. Unbehagen would then locate a limit of psychoanalysis similar to, but more exigent than, the limit Freud approaches in his considerations of groups and masses. “In an individual neurosis,” he writes, “we take as our starting-point the contrast that distinguishes the patient from his environment, which is assumed to be ‘normal.’ For a group all of whose members are affected by one and the same disorder no such background could exist; it would have to be found elsewhere.” One can’t psychoanalyze from “elsewhere,” “since no one possesses authority to impose such a therapy upon the group” (91). If one can’t “impose . . . a therapy” upon a group, still less can one impose a therapy upon a culture, or on civilization.

On the other hand, however, even so—even though discontent may be exactly normal in culture and even nature—it never feels necessary, Freud notes. The gratuitousness of mentioning discontent reflects the equally gratuitous-seeming experience of discontent itself. “Our relations to other people,” Freud writes, generate suffering which “is perhaps more painful to us than any other. We tend to regard it as a kind of gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less fatefully inevitable than the suffering which comes from elsewhere [Entsprechend dieser Zweiteilung der Ziele entfaltet sich die Tätigkeit der Menschen nach zwei Richtungen, je nachdem sie das eine oder das andere dieser Ziele—vorwiegend oder selbst ausschließlich—zu verwirklichen sucht]” (24; GW 434). The metasuffering of resentment at dissatisfaction with relations with other people—continually implying that here we shouldn’t be dissatisfied—is the defining feature of Unbehagen. Discontent is therefore more, after all, than simply experiencing satisfaction finitely; or rather, the experience itself isn’t simple: to mind it once is to mind it twice. Simultaneously remediable and irremediable, cultural and natural, discontent always feels double, as though it should be helped and can’t be.

Discontent’s double negative form reflects our experience of other people. Its self-critical self-reflexivity is the effect of our sense that everyone else feels the same way; likewise, the idea of “everyone else” is a personification of the possibility of that self-reflexivity. Texts concerned with discontent tend to work with “inner voices” and figures of audiences, as we see in Freud. The voices and figures imply that other people are in ourselves, in the form, for example, of the reflexivity of language, and at the same time, that this condition is a dilemma—that feelings are burdensome to the extent that they are already someone else’s. Obvious discontent, with its black comic recursions, is a kind of bruise at this spot.

Image: store window Marilyn, Los Angeles

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