Monday, March 26, 2007


May 6, 2006 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, leading to numerous articles, opinion pieces, diatribes, and discussions. So nobody should mind my sticking an oar in.

In many ways, anti-Freudianism is as interesting as anti-Darwinism, though there is perhaps more irony in the former, since it’s generally people’s psychology that is on display in these matters. Both Freud and Darwin are subject to the constant barrage of “That’s not Science!” from their detractors, usually as a result of a combination of misunderstanding what the theories are about and a refusal to accept the results and implications. There is also the matter of not conforming to someone’s overly restrictive view of What Science Is, but that’s a different essay.

Still, many otherwise intelligent and educated people have a disdain for Freud, despite their actually believing in many of Freud’s discoveries and results. One common stance is to focus on some of Freud’s more outrĂ© ideas, such as Penis Envy. Now I can quite understand any woman not believing herself to have an unconscious envy of the male organ. In fact, I’m entirely willing to believe it to be a Freudian mistake, occasioned by the fact that Penis Envy is a very common component of the male psyche. In other words, Freud may have been Projecting, but then you can’t believe that without buying into a Freudian trope, can you?

The attack on Freud by modern psychologists has taken two forms, really. The first was the complete denial of cognitive psychology by an academic establishment that was, for a time, dominated by behaviorists. That’s just garden-variety academic in-fighting, of course, but no less unfortunate for all that. The second attack, if that’s the right word, was the wholesale appropriation of the Freudian phenomenology by more cognitive-oriented psychologists, all the while denying that Freud was the originator. Ben tells me, for example, that he has seen academic papers where the final conclusion is something like, “This looks a lot like Freud’s ‘latency period,’ but it isn’t the same. Really.”

Just as often, the Freudian phenomenon is repainted to make is more palatable. Jung, for example, made the concept of the unconscious more easily swallowed by coming up with the “collective unconscious.” See, it’s not really you that’s responsible for all those dark and nasty things. No, it’s collective; other people are to blame. Pretty easy to see where Jung’s racial theories came from, isn’t it?

Most post-Freudian psychology begins with the Freudian phenomenology, then concentrate on some specific feature as central to the whole shebang. So Adlerian psychology is Freud plus an emphasis on social dominance issues. Maslow emphasized specific motivational needs. Erickson thought that later development was more important than he thought Freud allowed. Wilhelm Reich jumped in with both feet and held that if sex was important, then, by God, orgasms should be at the center of the universe.

That’s just the neo-Freudians, of course. The cognitive psychologists began by rejecting behaviorism, insofar as they accepted the idea that consciousness actually exists and is worthy of study, but at the beginning they didn’t care to talk about the unconscious. That’s not surprising, since they weren’t too keen on the idea of introspection. What exactly do you do about distinguishing between the conscious and the unconscious when the most salient characteristic of the latter is that it is not accessible to the former? Do you ask someone? Uh, no, that would involve introspection, wouldn’t it?

Whatever. In the last two decades, as cognitive psychologists got their acts together, they’ve managed to devise tests and experiments whose results basically got them back to the unconscious, but it’s not Freud’s unconscious, because they weren’t using Freudian methods. Uh, huh.

In my view, the nub of Freud is first the acknowledgement of the existence of the unconscious, then the bestiary of those mental processes that the psyche uses to defend itself against anxiety, especially anxiety emanating from the unconscious. Freud also divided the psyche into the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Ego is “you,” your conscious self, the Id is all your primitive wants, needs, and desires. The Superego is the one that is most often gotten wrong, since most people think of it as the “conscience.” But there is another part, the “Ego Ideal,” the person that you’d like to be, or your own idealized version of yourself. When someone has a “Big Ego” what they usually have is a big Ego Ideal, while their Ego may in truth be rather fragile.

Freudian therapy, when it works, is devoted to bringing the unconscious elements of anxiety to the conscious mind, where they can be dealt with, or so one hopes. The best description of it that I ever heard was “Converting neurotic anxiety into honest grief.”

The Freudian anxiety defense bestiary is fairly small, but insightful. The anxiety defense mechanisms are

ASCETICISM: I start with the one that doesn’t show up on most lists (because I’m going in alphabetical order), but it’s what is going on in anorexia, which is usually a problem with adolescent girls. Adolescent boys are more likely to go into some sport or martial art that requires a high degree of self-discipline. Adolescents in general often try to protect themselves by denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. Hey, why do you think that Mr. Spock was so popular?

Anna Freud also discusses a milder version of this called restriction of ego. Here, a person loses interest in some aspect of life and focuses it elsewhere, in order to avoid facing reality. A young girl who has been rejected by the object of her affections may turn away from feminine things and become a "sex-less intellectual." (Jung’s term was “angel without wings”). A boy who is afraid that he may be humiliated on the football team may become a science knurd.

DENIAL: Blocking the ego threatening events or facts by refusing to believe them. It may enable person to live through difficult times, or it may make it impossible for them to deal with a problem. Most people reserve their “skepticism” for a short list of things that, remarkably, are precisely those things that make them uneasy.

DISPLACEMENT: Displacement occurs when an instinctual impulse is redirected from a more threatening activity, person or object to a less threatening one. Can’t get at Bin Laden, then invade Iraq.

FANTASY FORMATION: This is Escapism, plain and simple. It’s so much better to worry about the fate of the Galactic Empire than about losing your job.

IDENTIFICATION: You can vicariously take comfort from the successes of someone else (Hero-worship). Or, you can have Identification with the Aggressor, which is the essence of Stockholm Syndrome. Where would Fascism be without Identification and its blood brother Projection?

INTELLECTUALIZATION/ ISOLATION: By analyzing threats in a detached, intellectual way, anxiety is isolated, separate from the psyche. Fritz Leiber called this “living in the mirror.” Trust me, it works.

PROJECTION: Projection involves attributing to others one's own feelings, thoughts and intentions. One's own personality is displaced upon people, objects or animals. If you know someone who always blames other people for the bad things that happen to them, you’ve got a pretty good candidate for a Projection diagnosis. People who feel inferior can project inferiority on selected racial, ethnic, or social groups; people who are obsessed with sex become very censorious of others’ sexuality, which leans toward Reaction Formation.

Altruistic surrender is a form of projection that at first glance looks like its opposite: Here, the person attempts to fulfill his or her own needs vicariously, through other people.

RATIONALIZATION: Rationalization is the idiot child of Intellectualization and the sibling of Denial. Here, the intellectual arguments are fallacious or dishonest. Rationalization provides ethical-sounding rationales for unethical motives, or dishonest excuses for bad results. The least harmful example of rationalization is probably sour grapes.

REACTION FORMATION: “Believing the opposite.” Anger becomes exaggerated concern for the one who made you angry. Fear leads to anger at the one who scared you. And boys hate girls, and vice versa.

REPRESSION: Repression was Freud’s biggie, the primary ego defense that makes all other psychological defensiveness possible. Repression is suppressio_, the temporary and conscious pushing of something out of one’s mind, writ large. In Repression, suppression is habitual and unconscious.

Repression is also part of one of Freud’s most controversial theories: Repressed memory, where past trauma is not remembered, but where there is still a neurotic price to pay. The past 20 years of the “repressed memory syndrome” fracas was, more or less, a replay of Freud’s own work. But, of course, everyone ignored what Freud actually said because Freud wasn’t “scientific.”

REGRESSION: Reverting to an earlier, more secure, stage of development. Someone may be regressing when they act fatigued or ill, throw tantrum, or curl up into a fetal position in the corner.

SUBLIMATION: Sublimation diverts instinctual impulses into some other activity, often advantageous. Don’t want to finish the report? Clean the oven.

I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets here by noting that I’m pretty much an Intellectualization/Sublimation/Fantasy kinda guy. Indeed, one of the benefits of being an science fiction and fantasy writer is that it’s possible to combine them into one grand scheme of Working on the Next Story, or even, Thinking about the Next Essay.


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