Ideology, Psychoanalysis, Narrative

by Mark Wallace

Perhaps the most fascinating of intellectual movements of the last 100-odd years is psychoanalysis. Fascinating not just in its substantive content, but also in its place in modern culture. It has by now managed to inflect so many corners of our lives that we really figure ourselves out partially through certain concepts from psychoanalysis – so if psychoanalysis is, as a hermeneutic of humanity, possibly essentially flawed, it has managed to go about making itself true. It is much truer now than it was over a century ago when Dr Freud began to publish his theories.

This has become relevant to me as I read on the theory of ideology. Ideology is – or most commentators take it for granted that it is – a Marxist concept. Thus, the central thread of Freudian psychoanalysis which sees the individual psyche as composed of instinctual drives at the bottom of all human behaviour doesn’t mesh that well with a concept believed to be implicated in the Marxist base-superstructure model of society. If economics is the base, then Freud’s pleasure principle* can’t be, and vice versa. In other words, one could see it that Freud makes a pure Marxism impossible. And Michele Barrett deals with this in a very cogent and readable book called The Politics of Truth (Polity, 1991). The book is basically a conceptual history of ideology, balancing it against post-modern ideas and assessing how ts relevance can be defended against the critiques of Foucault, et al., but concluding that it can’t be, and resting on the need for “new and more precise concepts”. Yet the analysis of her book had seemed to me to suggest that the term had great advantages over competing concepts like Foucault’s power, Gramsci’s hegemony, etc. I also suspect “new and more precise concepts” are only new for a while, and only precise until somebody goes to the trouble of critiquing them. No critical term will ever be immune from criticism, so part of the value of a storied term like ideology is that it provides a way in to so many thinkers of the past 200 years. One finds oneself working through Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Althusser, Williams, Hall, Eagleton, etc. – now that’s a motley bunch, some evidently more significant than others, and some who I really have no time for (Althusser, notably), but they form a wide historical spectrum, and that only scratches the surface.

On psychoanalysis, Barrett has this to say:

[T]he insights of psychoanalysis with regard to the unconscious, repression, fantasy, sexuality and so on are not merely ‘within the true’ of psychoanalytic discourse but play an important part in the way in which people in contemporary western societies now understand themselves. Giddens has referred to the “double hermeneutic” in which members of a society use sociological knowledge in their decisions and activities, and this idea can be illustrated in terms of the use that people make of psychoanalysis in their lives. To say that we live in the west in a therapeutic culture, where people interpret, reflect upon and to some extent change their behaviour in the light of psychoanalytic ideas (and, for some, therapy) is not to say that these ideas are not true; it is to understand the contextuality of their truth. (115)

Psychoanalysis has escaped being simply a discourse, and has been elevated to a part of the human condition. This condition is of course spatially and temporally specific, and the point is that here and now we think psychoanalysis is true. Not as a science but as an essential ingredient of the stories we tell about ourselves. This is where narrative comes in, or could come in. And not just narrative, but, even more so, adaptation. Why adaptation? Because it is narrative moving through time and space. Examine a narrative as it appears in different spaces/ epochs, and one can find points of interests in the way we story ourselves.

It’s not about our actual material reality, but how we, in a more generalized sense, see ourselves. Narrative is for general consumption, it depends on The Reality Effect; it is thus a manner of examining how we see ourselves. And adaptation, in which the palimpsest of narrative is overwritten in two distinct styles, is a great, and rather untapped, source for speculation and analysis on this point. And the psychoanalytic story of the human self is one that has fascinated me of late. I won’t give any examples now as I’m currently working through my main example for my thesis. But think about it. Think of an adapted narrative, and how the presentation of character changes, how a 19th-century character is depicted in a 21st-century text, for example. A change is especially apparent in those adaptations which are updated in setting: the setting doesn’t change alone, but the character, too, cannot be themselves in the new setting. What changes? Things like a repressed always returning, a childhood key to present trauma, an underlying neurosis in the most capable and ostensibly together, a centrality of the sexual. in adaptation, we find all of these things demonstrating that, yes indeed, we are psychoanalytic beings, and, no, it was not always so.

*In later Freud, there’s also a mysterious and speculative Death Drive