Many of us struggle for personal identity in a capitalistic culture that pushes immediate gratification for every need. Why postpone anything when you can get it now? Yet while quick fixes are often fundamentally dissatisfying, we hurry toward the next hit without a thought about what it may mean to stay with the frustration.
It turns out that a deeper understanding of Sigmund Freud sheds some light on why dissatisfaction and malaise can dominate our lives. One of the smartest writers today on psychological issues is Adam Phillips, a Brit, a big thinker, and an author of a number of provocative and thoughtful books: On Tickling, Kissing and Being Bored, and Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life among them.
Phillips has written a new biography about the young Freud, with a novel take as to why psychoanalysis was headed to the dustbin of history, but is worth saving. He argues that essentially psychoanalysis is a powerful process that can liberate patients from the compulsive need for gratification and the enormous pressures of material advertising messages — and help us hang more in the ambiguity of life, where there is potentially more wisdom and satisfaction.
One of Phillips' points is that failure to understand and grapple with the unconscious is missing in our psychological growth. The avoidance or contempt of the unconscious has also led to the demise of psychoanalysis. Phillps explains that the rejection of Freud and psychoanalysis has:
Everything to do with statistics, consumer satisfaction, the belief in science and neuroscience in particular. These are all old-style materialist causal accounts of who people really are as though, if one day, somebody can actually explain how a brain works, we'll know everything. But knowing how a brain works is not going to help somebody, e.g. whose child has just died. ...
There's no way psychoanalysis is going to work in a culture that's committed to religion, science and consumer confidence because it doesn't meet any of those criteria. That's the great thing about it. It's intrinsically counter-cultural. It actually is against the grain of all the things we're being sold… so that actually, I think, it was inevitable that psychoanalysis died a death.Uphill Battle
Of course, giving Freud another deeper look is an uphill battle in American culture. Many, particularly second-wave feminists, found Freud's theories to be sexist and have dismissed the good doctor as hopelessly out of touch, and in some cases destructive when it comes to sex roles and sexuality. And critics have salient points to make about Freud and women. Freud was, among many things, a product of his time. Many younger people haven't spent much time thinking about Freud at all. As a result, psychoanalysis has mostly stayed on the edges of psychological thinking, and as a therapy mode is mostly reserved for the wealthy or the intrigued, though many psychotherapists practice with Freud in mind, or not too far away.
Phillips argues for a very different interpretation of Freud's sense of sexuality than the conventional wisdom. In a podcast interview
with Steve Paulson (which I urge you to listen to, because listening to Adam Phillips articulate these points is quite a pleasure), Phillps explains:
I think the point is that Freud redescribed sex to include many more things than it previously included. ... We are bodily creatures who begin our lives by falling in love with a beautiful body, which is our mother's ... so that we're naturally, in that sense, hedonistic. We survive through our pleasurable experience of other bodies. I don't think Freud puts sex exactly in the center of the picture. He puts the erotic, and that means an erotic apprehension of reality. What he means by that is, what makes staying alive alluring? The erotic is different because I think it's not a basic physical function to do with reproduction. It's much more about a way of seeing the world, and seeing the world in terms of what gives pleasure and what gives fear and suffering? And when Freud's talking about the unconscious, he's very often talking, I think, about what passes between people without them realizing.
It can follow that this erotic being, seeking pleasure, can be seduced by external consumer and quackery like messages along with accompanying intolerance for frustration, when we can't get our needs quickly met.
Phillips' book, Missing Out, is about frustration:
Freud says, "When we are frustrated, we fantasize what we want," but of course, you notice if you fantasize a meal, it doesn't nourish you at a certain point, you have to engage with reality. You have to get the meal you want. We're actually very frightened of being frustrated, so whenever we're frustrated, we're prone, we're tempted to fill the gap very quickly. The moment I feel a bit of unease, I buy something. I have a bath. I eat chocolate. I do whatever I do.
What Freud is saying is, "We need to be able to bear with our frustration to be able to discover what it is we actually do want. Freud says a very interesting thing in a letter to Fliess. He says, "The reason that no adult is actually satisfied with money is because no child ever was. Children don't want money." I think that's a very profound point because children want affection, emotional contact, reliability, adventure, etc.
In the end, Phillips makes the case that Freud made a fundamental critique of capitalism and all of its discontents — the deep levels of unhappiness, dissatisfaction and lack of meaning. Of course, notions that mix capitalism and Freud are not news — the Frankfurt School of theorists devoted attention to Marxist interpretations of Freud in the 1960s and '70s. Nevertheless, the notion that capitalism creates the illusion it will give satisfaction yet doesn't satisfy, is unavoidable.
The search for instant satisfaction taken to its extreme but logical technological conclusion is a major message of Dave Eggers' brilliant novel, The Circle. Eggers tackles the instant gratification of our tech lives—the constant presence on Facebook, the immediate response to email, Twitter and chat. The tyrannies of transparency, and the persistent drive to display ourselves in many ways (selfies being the current method) can all lead to a new form of authoritarianism. In this sense, Eggers is today's Orwell.
Getting back to psychoanalysis, Phillips is arguing that the practice of therapy — or at least reading about it — can help us cope with the dissatisfaction and get us on the road to finding more non-material, non-marketing solutions for our needs.
Though Freud doesn't say this, Phillips adds:
The implication of his work is that capitalism is really for children. In other words, it exploits the fact that children, of course, like adults, don't know what they want. Then they grow up into this world of capitalist exploitation, in which they discover there are millions of things to want. In fact, we're living in a supermarket. It's great, but actually it's terrible, because it depends upon non-satisfaction. It's not that there is satisfaction, but there are degrees of satisfaction, and Freud is saying, "Again, psychoanalysis might be one of the places where we might do this.…If one can learn to bear one's frustration, one will not be willing to be fobbed off by substitute gratifications," and consumer capitalism is a supermarket of substitute gratifications.