Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sigmund Freud's theory and sociology

Freud differs sharply from thinkers in sociology by beginning solely with the individual mind.  The question then is how does his psychoanalytic theory of the mind lead to a theory of society?  Or how does a notion of society become necessary for his psychoanalytic theory of the mind?

Freud's theory of the mind did not arise all at once.  It developed slowly over more than three decades, from the earliest studies of hysteria in the 1890s to Freud's ruminations on the life and death instincts in the 1920s.  We will step into this intellectual stream at two points: (1) The discussion of dreams in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, a set of lectures given in 1915, which accurately presents Freudian theory as it was at that moment. (2) The New lntroductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), which summarize the central changes in Freudian theory since the earlier lectures, especially the development of the notions of the superego, ego, and id (as replacements for the conscious and unconscious) and the emergence of eros and thanatos, his final concepts of the instincts.
Our initial goal is to grasp the central notions of Freud's theory--the
Unconscious, repression, psychic conflict, and instinctual drives.  Freudian theory is compelling because of the power of these basic ideas and because Freud is a wonderfully systematic and careful thinker, pursuing difficult questions from book to book.  This is not to lionize Freud.  Quite to the contrary:  Recent scholarship has raked him over the coals, often for good reasons.  Many of his ideas are either untestable or inconsistent with important evidence.  His case studies are often highly contrived, with Freud suggesting the "right" interpretations to his patients while ignoring everything else.  Psychoanalysis itself is largely regarded as a failure as therapy.  Yet even if all this is true, Freud is still worth reading, and I hope to show why.

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

The lectures on dreams (#6, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14) are important because they show Freud applying his theory of mind to a phenomenon that is concrete and "normal" (i.e., something we all do).  Freud develops his analysis in a straightforward, logical way.  Each chapter adds something, and Freud tells you exactly what in his title and usually toward the end of the chapter.  Notice, above all, how the general concepts of Freudian theory creep in--conscious, unconscious, repression, instinctual drives. 

New lntroductory Lectures

Lectures 31 and 32 discuss how Freud overhauled his theories in a series of books in the 1920s (e.g., Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and The Id, The Problem of Anxiety).  Lecture 31 rejects the division of the mind into conscious and unconscious, opting instead for a division between superego, ego, and id.  Lecture 32 replaces the distinction between sexual and ego instincts from Freud’s earlier work with the distinction between eros and thanatos (life and death instincts).

Lecture #33 is Freud's effort to understand gender.  That is, it is Freud's answer to the question of how boys grow up to be men and girls grow up to be women.  So, what does he say?  Note that he asserts that up to a certain point the development of boys and girls is similar: They both have a primary relationship with the mother; they both move through the first few sexual stages in similar ways. 

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

In this book,  Freud addresses the question of what holds individuals together in society.  Recall that Durkheim argued that self-interest is not enough to hold society together.   Some sense of solidarity, some moral or emotional bond, is necessary.  Weber argued that organized power rarely relies solely on coercion.  It seeks legitimation, acceptance on the part of those being ruled.  Freud in effect addresses both these issues from a psychoanalytic perspective in this book.   He wants to know what psychological processes go into belonging to a group and obeying a leader.  He argues that a libidinal tie of some kind is necessary to group life—i.e., an erotic drive that has been redirected from its primary objects and desexualized.

Future of an Illusion

Future of an Illusion is Freud's most important work on religion and its role in society.  According to Freud, why does society need religion?  Could there be a society without religion?  Freud says religion is an "illusion," but that it is not necessarily false. (p. 39) What does he mean?  What does psychoanalysis have to tell us about why religion has such a powerful hold on people?  Finally, Freud says that "religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." (P. 55) What does he mean?  Can one call a culture neurotic?  What are the implications of doing so?

Summaries of additional important works by Freud:

Sigmund Freud - The Interpretation of Dreams
Sigmund Freud - Civilization and Its Discontents

Uncanny reading (Freud)

1)      Freud begins discussing the uncanny as a feeling of dread, then as that same feeling being stirred up as a result of an encounter with something unfamiliar. He finally shifts this notion to his final conclusion that the uncanny proceeds from something familiar which has been repressed (only literary depictions of uncaniness vary from this conclusion). In the uncanny really does stem from the repression of the familiar than what other instances that we tend to include in superstition might be a result of these same repressions (ex. d?j? vu)?

2)      Many fears that are linked to the uncanny have either to do with the unknown (supernatural and death) or the castration-complex (such as the boy who was afraid of losing his eyes). Many of these fears seem tied up in absence. For instance, the supernatural where there is something where there should be an absence. Death where there is an absence where we would expect life after death (for those who are religious), and the castration-complex where an organ, such as the eye in the Sandman story, leaves the person with an absent organ (thus the fear of absence). Do other examples have the ability to be tied to absence, and if so what do you think this tells us about the uncanny and its link to superstition?

3)      Freud says that literary uncanniness is the only place where his theory that the uncanny stems from the repression of the familiar. If this is the case, is that perhaps the effect of the author trying to control these feelings of the uncanny. That is, in literature one can change universal rules and bend them to their will. If the area of literature then becomes a way of talking about the uncanny and still having control over it than what does this say about our desire to control emotions tied to the psyche?

Fausse Reconnaissance reading

1)In the beginning of this short excerpt Freud talks about how a patient will think that they have told him something before, but that in reality they really had only meant to relate that experience, but never did (perhaps even touched on it) and that this is a form of resistance. In Random Harvest Charles had a similar symptoms in that he almost remembered things of his life as Smithy, but always ended up forgetting in the end. What might be the cause of these resistances? Are they caused by associations w/ painful memories, or are there other underlying causes?

2)Later on Freud introduces the idea of a screen memory, or a memory where the memory that is actually meant to be told is alluded to in a different memory ex. the man who had the castration complex where he thought his finger was cut off by a knife related the memory of getting the knife as a gift, but only much later the memory of cutting is finger, which showed his fear of castration). What are other forms of screening out memories that we may wish to repress?

3) Freud seems pretty certain that all boys at some point have an moment where they fear castration. Is this perhaps b/c as one man recollects that the female gentalia would be what a castrated male would perhaps looks like and thus the child who doesn't understand bodies well would misinterpret the female for a castrated male, or are there other sources of this fear? If there are other sources than where might this initial fear stemmed from?

Fausse Reconnaissance

My dislike for Freud only grew after reading this paper.  I have no real discussion questions for this piece, only very general questions such as, Why is Freud such a pretentious and pompous haughty?  Why don’t we “psycho-analyze” Freud and expose him as a fraud?

The Uncanny

On page 383 and 384, Freud discusses in great detail the connection the fear of losing one’s eye and castration anxiety, suggesting that one can experience such dread in relation to the loss of vision since the eyes are often seen as a substitute for castration.  This argument seems to be suggesting that the anxiety of the loss of one’s eyes is understood through a castration anxiety.  Therefore do women not share the same emotions as men in regard to their vision?  Are women then entirely different from men, who seem to have a greater appreciation for their visual organs?  I feel as if I have read that women too are said to experience castration anxiety.  Thus if true, Freud has his argument backwards.  We might then suggest that castration anxiety stems from the human anxiety of the loss of the eyes.  However, I am a firm believer that all injuries are detrimental, and if I had to choose one injury over the other, the decision would be incredibly hard.  I think the idea of the lose or injury of any part of the body, as phallic as the injury site may seem, this has nothing to do with the fear of losing the penis.

Freud seems to gleefully make blanket statements without even the slightest attempt in backing them up.  My person favorite amongst many can be found on page 395 when introducing the idea of “original emotion” in relation to human notions of sex.  He states that “Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it only a regular but perhaps avoidable event in life.”  I just loved this since even in my very introductory studies of biology, a great stress has been placed on death as being an incredibly central aspect of our lives.  Death is coded in our DNA and on the cellular level is important in the creation of the very organs and orifices   Freud loved to talk about.   He continues to make blanket statements by suggesting that what we find to be uncanny is actually from what our ancestors found to be unexplainable.  How is Freud allowed to make such a claim?  He seems to suggest that our very fears are innate and part of our DNA, almost as seemingly ridicules as Christianity’s claim that all humans are born into sin, or that alien souls are trapped in our bodes as written in the scriptures of Scientology.  How does Freud suggest that such thoughts could be passed down from our ancestry, through the “Biologically” unknown barriers of death?  How is this explained away?


1. In the examples provided by Freud about feelings of fingers being cut off, how does this relate to the phenomenon of paramnesia? Both memories are from youth and are associated with a ?naughty? action, and both memories account for a female in the vicinity, either a nurse or the Mother. That Freud also associates this with fear of castration links this and the idea of d?j? vu in what context? D?j? vu and the early stages of sexual development are shown as causal connections but in terms of the ?egg versus chicken? debate, can it be said that d?j? vu is a product of these early traumas of the child, fearing that the pinky, a link to the penis, has been castrated, or instead could d?j? vu act as a tool to uncover these embedded memories?

2.2. This article conjures a fabulous scene from Silence of the Lambs, where Buffalo Bill reveals himself to a mirror and he has tucked his genitalia away to appear as a female. In this capacity, he is not doing this to understand the discrepancy of his genitalia to that of females, but is instead doing in to investigate the discrepancies within his own mind, or as Freud put it in the article, an absence of simultaneity in the cerebral hemispheres. Is the action of denying one?s genitalia to create one?s self as the other sex a natural part of development, per Freud? If this is so, can d?j? vu be a natural following phenomenon, then? How does the example in the article of the man?s repressed memory of pressing his thighs together to appear female correspond to the subject of d?j? vu, and how does the memory function within the article? Freud?s strong ties to d?j? vu and sexually repressed memories makes what argument about the phenomenon of d?j? vu in general?

Ashley Donnell
Fausse Reconnaissance

1. The subject of the past and the recognizance of this suppressed mental allusions sees to be directly connected to the instances that Freud  uses to exemplify the false recognition of exploring a repressed state of the past. Many time I myself have found a moment to collapse upon itself as if it had been just a moment ago I had been hearing and seeing that same experience of time. The moments that Freud gives seem to be derived from long term explorations of the past, but the short term existence still exist. Though he states that this may be derived from deprivation of sleep and other forms of fatigue, how does this interpretation limi and broaden its ground f understanding? The mind seems to always be simplified and easily explained by Freud,  but where does the dynamic of dream fall into place as vivid dreams become reality of a moment of deja vu?

2. The tie for Freud falls back to the connection between childhood repression and a lapse of recognition of the events and the time that they took place. The examples fall towards the understanding of the male castration anxiety and the repression of these moments through the break of reality and  fall sense of reality that the patient created for themselves. As these moments of exploration between patient and doctor have been manifested by the patient why wouldn't these events as well be manifestations of the past where a cycle starts of a pattern of false recognition? Could the memory of a memory of a false memory of a time that may as well be a manifestation of the patient.

The uncanny

1. As the essay explains, there are various experiences within the realm of uncanny, all of which Freud finds a reasoning behind. The unknown, the repressed, the involuntary chance that leads to superstitious. All these ideas are placed as the meaning behind the means in which one finds them-self lost in a notion of uncanny. The tales of the uncanny arise form the fantasy genre of literature as with Hoffman's tales. Though these can be discerned as uncanny where then does uncanny lie. Is it only exist in the mind as a manifestation of a fantasy? Does the subconscious exploration of the unknown create the known in our own perspective, leading to this false sense of understanding? Or is Freud failing to explore further the true nature of the uncanny by not giving closer real world examples?

2. The idea of the doubling as the uncanny rises in the essay as an extension of the self in the mind. Freud focalizes the notion of the doubling to hold a self critiquing position for one that believes in et uncanniness of the double. As he writes it off as a self-preservation fling that the ego as with itself to deny its own inevitable end, but he also believes it as well to be sentiments of a past regression to a lower state where the denial of the self and the outside existed. But is it worth striving to look deeper to understand the true effects of the doubling? isn;t it more the uncanny cognation from the unknown then from a self preservation regression?

The Uncanny

1.      The Uncanny, the fear of not knowing, or possibilities of the extraordinary or uncertain are very much related to the telephone book and our discussions of the telephone.  How exactly are they related?  In what ways do we let the uncanny effect our decisions, or moods, etc?  How Do we let the uncanny relate to the phone?

2.  The passage dealt with some stories speaking of removing eyes. There are things we cannot see, which we allow to gain possession over how we think and what we do.  As a sufferer of anxiety, I have had to work hard not to let the anxiety of the uncanny overrule my actions and mindset with certain things in life.  In what ways does the uncanny hinder us from making good choices?   Does it effect us often?  In what ways then is the uncanny good for our decisions?

Fausse Reconnassiance

1.  How do we connect the castration anxiety to deja vu?  What correlation do anecdotes of the missing fingers of children connect to deja vu?

2.  Is Freud making the claim that deja vu is related to repression?  By remembering :I feel like this has happeend before" is this dealing with an unconscious desire or repressed memories which ultimately make a 'deja vu'?


Fausse Reconnaissance

Freud describes deja vu as a recollection of a previous situation as a means to deal with a present similar situation. Deja raconte seems to be defined as a false memory due to the recollection of a really stressful memory, such as a memory or feeling of castration. Freud's examples of the fear of castration, however, seems to be farfetched. How real exactly are his stories of castration? Wouldn't someone be able to actually feel a finger falling off? How can we know that his patient's memories are actually real and if they actually describe their current 'fausse reconnaissance?


Freud states at one point that going blind is a fear of equal dread as castration. The self induced blindness of Oedipus was a substitute for castration. In being blind we cannot see anything including our own genitals, so in a sense everything is lost. Is blindness, then, the ultimate form of castration?

the uncanny is 'something which ought to have been concealed but which has nevertheless come to light.' Ghosts, for example would be classified as uncanny or repressions of fear of death. How can the uncanny be interpreted through fausse reconnaissance in the example of the boy believing his finger to have fallen off? Is this example actually uncanny?


1. How is mistaking the fact that you've told someone something "completely analogous" to "fause reconnaissance" or deja vu?  Characteristic of Deja Vu is the uncanny feeling of "being in this place before", or "feeling this way before".  While understanding the logic behind Freud's interactions with his mistaken clients, I do not see how these mistakes can be linked to fause reconnaissance.  Freud explains that his clients were mixed up and remembered the intention to tell him such-and-such story, and mistook that memory for actually revealing the story.  I believe Freud bundles too many phenomena into this category of fause reconnaissance.

2. Freud tells how he noticed a young girl his own age when he was a boy that had male genitalia.  Was this a true account?  We've previously established that Freud tends to stretch the statistical truth of his diagnostic articles so as to observe the results in the readers.  Are we meant to take this anecdote as a literal account of Freud spotting a young hermaphrodite?  Or to assume that our minds are vulnerable to misinterpretations when young, and those misinterp.s can cause us to believe untruths if never corrected?


1. Freud opens with the statement that the uncanny "belongs to all that is terrible... arouses dread and creeping horror." Why must the uncanny only be classified as something terrible or frightening? Concepts that we do not understand are not necessarily frightening. So why exclude the uncanny to a category so restrictive right off the bat of the article?

2. Is the uncanny less understood by so-called educated people?  With the example of death, Freud contends that educated people, presumably void of religious beliefs, cannot submit to the idea of spiritual presence of a human soul after death. Their positions on the matter of death "toned down to a simple feeling of reverence." Does the religious man, presumably believing in that post-mortal spirit, then have a better grasp of the uncanny?  Or is the uncanny, as Freud explains it, an elusive spot somewhere between the death and the spirit, so that neither man can know it?  Or do both men know it the same by means of the "unfamiliar" feeling upon encountering death, or a dead body?

1. On page 13, Freud quotes Jentsch's explanation of the uncanny, which includes "'doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate."  We see many such uses of objects as "uncanny" in films like "House of Wax," "Child's Play," "Mannequin," "Bladerunner," etc.  Freud later explains Jentsch's quote with the theory of repression.  However, this quote can also be explained by a person's adverse reactions to betrayed expectations.  A person expects an inanimate/animate object ot remain that way, and a breach of these expectations throttles sensory perceptions.  This also leads to the suggestion of conformity of the object, that it should remain in its prescribed role.  How do these avenues of possibility on the subject of the "uncanny" relate to Freud's approach involving repression?
2.  In the article, the subject of epilepsy and insanity are viewed as examples of the "uncanny" due to the fact that they unearth the mechanics of the human mind and body, which are usually unnoticed and taken for granted.  This relates to Schelling's quote about what ought to be concealed coming to light, and to Freud's theory of repression.  According to Freud, the uncanny proceeds from something familiar that is repressed, and therefore becomes unfamiliar.  In many cases, people of such afflictions as listed above are ostracized as "other" and hidden away from "normal" people.  Is this in itself a repression?  Why do you think people fear the revelation of their own most basic physical and mental natures?  Are people afraid of acknowledging the threat of one's own mind and body turning against them?  Why are mental disorders used so much as the "uncanny" in horror films?


In Freud?s ?A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad,? we discussed how the writing pad resembles the transfer of memory from the conscious to the unconscious.  In this article, Freud examines Grasset?s explanation of d?ja vu, which is that deja vu is the sensation of experiencing something that occurred previously in a dream or another ?unconscious perception,? and is then forgotten.  Grasset essentially describes deja vu as the transfer of memory from the unconscious to the conscious.  Can this be related back to the mystic writing pad?

Freud calls the phenomena that his patients experience deja vu, or fausse reconnaissance, but it differs in the common use of deja vu which is centered more around the feeling of experiencing an action for a second time.  In Freud?s scenario, deja vu is brought on by a conscious recount of a story or event.  Why is it that the majority of memories his patients claim to have previously described to him are all ?repressed? memories?

Freud initially describes the uncanny as a fear of the unfamiliar. He then investigates other languages with words similar in meaning or connotation to uncanny, but claims that they are not of much importance because they are in an unfamiliar language.  Do languages that are not our own elevate uncanny situations?  Is an unknown language itself uncanny?

Natalie Nix

The Uncanny
1) Freud talks about the "Sand Man" and tells a story about a young boy Nathaniel and his memories of the Sand Man as a child. The story was told to inflict fear in children, taunting if the child did not go to sleep immediately, the Sand Man would get them by saying, "He is a wicked man who comes when children won't go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the moon to feed his children." (p.279) Growing up, I thought of the Sand Man as friendly and compassionate, sprinkling glittery sand on my eyes when I couldn't fall asleep, spreading happy dreams and wishing away my nightmares. Why do you think Hoffmann would create a the inverse of the happy western forklore?
2)On page 407 Freud writes, "Concerning the factors of silence, solitude,  and darkness, we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of that infantile morbid anxiety from which the majority of human beings has never become quite free." What do you think Freud means by this statement? Is he condoning or complimenting the human race?


1. This article focuses on confusing a recollection of intention with a recollection of performance.  This means that someone begins to tell a story but then they get a feeling that they have already told the story but infact they are just confusing themselves because they made a connection to this story in another story they have told once before.  What is the explanation if you were to flip this around?  What if you are telling a story and then the person hearing the story stops you saying that you have already told the story but you don?t remember telling it?

2. In the story about the five-year-old boy with the pocketknife, he is telling the story even though he feels he has already told the analyst the story.  More importantly in the story he mentions how he cut is finger but then he looks down and he is completely uninjured.  Is it important to look into the fact that the child was hallucinating about his finger being cut?  What is more important to be analyzing, telling the story even though he thinks he has told it, or analyzing the fact the he was hallucinating as a child?


1. Freud discusses a doctor and a mental patient both experience deja vu in his article. Often times we dismiss claims made by people who have mental disorders. The very fact that they have a mental disorder automatically invalidates and makes us question whatever they say. Yet, as soon as it is experience by someone else creedence is held in those claims that were previously made by those with mental disabilities. Why is this? Does the fact that a person with any kind of mental difficiency mean that they cannot experince deja vu or any kind of normal experince?

2. Although deja vu is a validated trick of the mind some dismiss it as just a hoax. However it is a phenomenom that is studied by many scientists, why are we so quick to write it off? What if we are experiencing something that we have experienced before? There is not evidence to contrary.


In the article the author wrote of how the patient really had the intention of giving up information, was then prevented by resistance from carrying out his purpose.  What is this resistance that the author is speaking of? Is this resistance something that we are able to recall in the future?

The author wrote of recalling memories.  How memories that we might seem to believe that we are recalling are nothing more then an illusory memory.  Are we not able to trust our memory simply because we are told that it?s false or is our memory not able to be trusted because we alter the truth?

Which of the two popular theories of 'fausse reconnaissance' or 'deja vu' seems to be more accurate? Do you feel as if the action or event of the subject has really happened or is does it follow the theory of the illusory memory? What would be an example of each? How does the example of the young man who thinks his little finger is cut off mirror the fear of castration?

What is 'intellctual uncertainty' and how does it explain the case of Nathaniel, the young boy afraid to lose his eyes to his fathers optician? How is the loss of the eye comparible to the loss of the penis or castration? How does Freud use the loss of the eye to portray castration coomplex? How is the story used to portray the several different types of 'uncanny' figures?

Freud / The Uncanny - reading notes


What is the ‘uncanny’?

Initial definition: A quality of feeling in response to all that is terrible, all that arouses creeping horror.

 Is it a feeling of hesitation, of “intellectual uncertainty” about whether something is supernatural?  Freud says this is too simple.  (We call that hesitation or uncertainty “the fantastic.”)

Freud calls the uncanny “that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar (heimlich)” (620).

How does the familiar, the “heimlich” (home-like, familiar) become strange, uncanny, “unheimlich”?

Freud goes back to the meaning of the word “heimlich”:  it can mean “belonging to the house [heim],” “familiar,” “not strange.”  But it can ALSO mean “secret,” “concealed,” “kept from sight”—in other words UNCANNY—even Gothic.
So what was once familiar and “home-like” becomes weird and strange when it is hidden or repressed.

Borrowing from Schelling, Freud tries another definition:  “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained . . . hidden and secret, and has become visible.”

Listing some uncanny things may help us get to the bottom of this:

·         It seems uncanny when a being which seems alive or animate is really dead or mechanical—and vice versa.  Examples:  the Chucky movies; The Stepford Wives; the belief that your doll is staring at you!
·         Childhood memories of losing your eyes, your hands, etc.—what Freud terms “castration anxiety” or “dread of castration” because he says that these are really symbols for the loss of that “precious organ,” the penis. 
·          The theme of the double.  Why are doubles uncanny?  Because they are created as an “energetic denial of the power of death” (Otto Rank).  The idea of the soul is a kind of double, as are statues, paintings, twins, etc.  Think of all the superstitions that surround these concepts—the notion that statues may come alive, that twins can read each other’s minds.  BUT what happens is that from being a “guarantee of immortality,” the double becomes a REMINDER of imortality:  “an uncanny harbinger of death.”  Why, we ask ourselves nervously, do we need a double unless we’re going to die?
·         The repetition compulsion (connected to what Freud calls “the death drive”).  What does it mean when coincidences occur, such as when as certain number keeps coming up for us in different situations during the day?  Probably nothing, but it can seem uncanny. 
·         The Evil Eye.
·         “Omnipotence of thought” or “primitive animism.”  Freud (in a politically incorrect moment) says that “we still think as savages do.”  We believe that things are secretly alive (did that chair just move?) or that the world is connected in some mysterious way that we barely grasp.  This is connected by Freud to tribal beliefs.

Freud’s explanation for these feelings:  the uncanny is the reactivation of archaic (old) beliefs that had been forgotten or repressed:  “a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it.”  So old beliefs, superstitions, unconscious childhood fears can re-emerge and seem uncanny. (In fact, any evidence of the workings of the unconscious mind can seem uncanny.)  The “heimlich,” or familiar, is repressed, hidden and becomes “unheimlich.”

Freud’s conclusion:  “An uncanny experience occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.”

Do you mean that mommy and daddy really do want to kill me?  That my teddy bear walks around at night?  That witch doctors can cast spells?  That little old ladies with white hair can read the future?  How uncanny!

More by Freud:
The Ego and the Id

Culture Industry explained simply (Adorno and Horkheimer)

Simply explained, culture industry is a term used by social thinkers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to describe how popular culture in the capitalist society functions like an industry in producing standardized products which produce standardized people.

A more advanced definition of culture industry draws on the seeming contradiction between human culture and mechanical industry. This is exactly Adorno and Horkheimer's point in "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" (which is a chapter inside "Dialectic of Enlightenment"). They argue that culture industry is associated with late capitalism in which all forms of culture (from literature, through films and all the way to elevator music) become part of the capitalist system of production which also has deep cultural mechanisms and not just economical ones. According to Adorno and Horkheimer these cultural products are not only meant for profit (appealing to the lowest common denominator) but also produce consumers that are adapted to the needs of the capitalist system.

A simplified example which can help explain culture industry is TV lifestyles. Ever noticed how characters on TV shows you watch usually have great homes and nice cloths (except in the case in which the character is poor)? According to Adorno and Horkheimer this is not a coincidence since it's not only nice to watch good looking people leading a good looking life, these shows also send a consumerist message about how good lives should look, prompting people to adopt a certain version of the American Dream.    

The concept of culture industry become widely held in sociology, media studies and critical theory and it remains functional till this days in describing how mass culture and big business are inherently bound together to make up a large scale system of control and exploitation. Some years after "Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" Adorno wrote another article titled "Culture Industry Reconsidered" (see link for a summary), elaborating on the ideas and definitions of his initial essay with Horkheimer.   

Check these out:


Adorno and Horkheimer - summary

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were two of the most prominent figures in The Frankfurt School, a group of German intellectuals that worked together during the 1920's to develop a critical theory of society with Marxist influences.

Adorno and Horkheimer's work is based on the legacy of Karl Marx and was aimed at the critique of Western industrialized-capitalist society. Unlike traditional Marxism in which the economy determines everything, Adorno and Horkheimer and their friends at the Frankfurt School sought to describe the interconnections of economy with culture, psychology, media and other intricate factors through which capitalism functions. For this end they offered a combination of different disciplines and traditions of thought, bringing Marx and Sigmund Freud together in one theory aimed at explaining repressive mechanisms in society.

Like many members of the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer were Jewish, which led them to flee Nazi Germany in the 1940's and migrate to the United States. Although not as bad as Fascist Nazism, Adorno and Horkheimer had to suffer living Capitalism in its American extreme. They're later philosophy is very bleak as they developed a view of modern society as controlled by massive anonymous systems of power and control which have no humanity in them and which reduce both society and the individual into what Marcuse called "The one-dimensional man" (such courses of thought led Adorno and Horkheimer to coin their famous term "culture industry" (see also a simple definition of culture industry) that broadly says the culture is not only industrially produced but also industrially producing minds).

During their work in capitalist exile Adorno and Horkheimer focus on their critique of the failed promise Enlightenment carried with it to liberate people. One of the better known results of Adorno and Horkheimer's collaboration is their book "Dialecticof Enlightenment" publish shortly after the war in 1947. 

Adorno and Horkheimer remain highly influential figures in the tradition of critical theory and neo-marxist, media studies, sociology and more. 

Some books on and by Adorno and Horkheimer:

Monday, October 9, 2017

Summary: Georg Simmel / The Problem of Sociology

Source: Simmel’s major work Soziologie published in 1908.
1.       DEF: society exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction.  What is Simmel’s “definition” of society?  What does this tell you about his “ontological” assumptions?  Is society a thing for Simmel or an event?
2.       What does Simmel mean by “unity” (23.7ff) – reciprocity of effects – mutual interaction – Wechselwirkung?
3.       Simmel says that sociation or unity exists to different degrees.  What does he mean?  Can you give some examples?
·         getting together for a walk
·         founding a family
·         citizenship
·         relations “until further notice”
·         being fellow guests in a hotel
4.       An important distinction for Simmel here is between CONTENT and FORM.  He talks about CONTENT being “everything present in individuals” – drives, purposes, inclinations, interests – and says these are not themselves social.  What are they then?  When do they “become” social for Simmel? “when they transform mere aggregation” into “specific forms of being with and for one another
5.       All social phenomena or processes consist of FORM + CONTENT
6.       DJR: There is something different between a room with four chairs, a room with four cows and a room with four people.
7.       If we were to describe what we might call the “strong Simmelian” perspective about sociology, what would it be?  That the only thing that can be a special science of society is the study of social forms.
8.       What is Simmel’s “test” for whether something ought to be the subject of a society of science? (25.9-26.2) Show that the form can be observed in quite dissimilar contents and that the contents can be realized in dissimilar forms.  Cf. geometric forms and logical forms and their respective contents.
9.       On p. 27.6 Simmel writes of a “hypostatization of a mere abstraction” right after saying that there is no such thing as society.  Explain.
10.    Is Simmel advocating a “geometry of society”?  How do the ideas on p. 28 support or refute such an approach?
11.    List some of the forms that Simmel mentions in this short section:
·         formation of parties
·         imitation
·         competition
·         formation of classes and circles
·         secondary subdivisions
·         superordination and subordination
·         growth and role of hierarchies
·         bearing of common hostility to the inner solidarity of a group
·         joining for common tasks, common feeling, common ways of thinking
·         self adornment for others
·         representation of groups by individuals
·         significance of the nonpartisan
·         role of the poor
·         numerical determinations of group elements
·         first among equals and the third who laughs
·         intersection of circles in individuals
·         significance of the secret for groups
·         the stranger
12.    Don’t worry about whether any given instance matches the form exactly.  That’s not the point (30.3)
13.    Methodological challenge.  Consider his medieval guild master example.  He draws the form out, but points out that this is not an automatic process.  Whereas mathematician can assume forms, sociologist cannot: “isolation of truly pure sociation out of the complex total phenomenon cannot be forced by logical means.”  (31.8)
            DJR: cf. Husserl’s problem describing the phenomenological reduction
14.    On pp. 32-4 we get a working out of what is the psychological and what is the sociological.  For our purposes the important thing is to appreciate the fact that Simmel allows that there are interesting psychological processes going on, but that the purely sociological questions are those listed on the top of p. 34.  A clear understanding of the last two pages probably means you understand this article.

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