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America is an incredibly Freudian culture that doesn’t believe in Freud

Sigmund Freud
Wikimedia Commons
Why do we talk about Freud so much if we no longer believe in him?
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Freud has an unquestionably powerful impact on American culture. Turn on the TV and Joan from “Mad Men” is suffering from “hysteria,” and Brian from Family Guy is trying to uncover whether urinating on the floor is an act of subconscious aggression. Or, there’s Tony Soprano’s psychoanalysis sessions:

Films and books are also cluttered with Freudian references. Jonathan Franzen’s latest book “Purity” portrays “mother and father figures with shades of the Oedipal and the Electral,” according to an Esquire review. Similar Oedipal themes have been noticed in Francis Ford Coppola’s films, and Lars Von Trier’s horror film Antichrist was “loaded” with Freudian constructions.

Or take US politics: President Barack Obama’s jokes have been analyzed according to Freud’s belief that jokes give insight to the subconscious, and the commander-in-chief has also been accused of making “Freudian slips.” Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg argued that George W. Bush’s Oedipal relationship with his father shaped his presidential decisions. And in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd claimed that “American politics bristles with Oedipal drama,” and managed to link Freudian theory to John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Al Gore, among others.

But though Freud’s “Oedipus complex” and ideas on “penis envy” are common cultural references, his theories have been largely dismissed by mainstream mental health professionals. Psychoanalysis, the field most closely associated with Freud, has largely migrated out of psychology classrooms and into literature other departments, according to a 2008 report by the American Psychoanalytic Association.

“Psychoanalysis and analytic ideas, however admired in their history, are not likely to be seen as living contributors to the science of psychology; rather, they will be regarded by readers of these texts as ‘has-beens,’” the report authors wrote.

Freud has steadily falling out of favor among psychologists since the 1960s, shortly after B. F. Skinner published his theories on behavioral therapy, with its focus on environmental stimuli rather than dreams or repressed memories. Psychology also developed into a more empirically-tested science, emphasizing evidence-based ideas over Freud’s often un-provable theories. This focus on evidence-based research has only increased with the growth of neuroscience, and ability to scan brain activity.

Harvard cognitive scientist and psychologist Steven Pinker is a strong critic of Freud and exemplifies the attitude of many in psychology in his book How the Mind Works, when he writes, “The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard.”

So as psychology abandons Freudian ideas in favour of empirically tested ideas, why does Freud’s work still have such a hold on American culture?

To some extent, Freud is now simply part of the literary tradition. Peter Rudnytsky, a professor of English at the University of Florida who also practices psychoanalysis, and is an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, tells Quartz that Freud’s work has influenced generations of writers and can’t be so easily discarded.

“Once psychoanalysis takes hold in the culture, it becomes something that influences later writers. There’s a self-consciousness, starting in the 20th century, about engaging with psychoanalysis,” he says.

Freud himself drew on the literary canon, performing psychoanalysis on characters in works by Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. In turn, practitioners of literature—and by extension films and movies—cannot completely detach themselves from Freud’s ideas.

Freud ideas are also interwoven with earlier works of mythology, which further heightens his cultural resonance, even as science has moved on.

“When Freud gave his concept the name ‘Oedipus complex’, he capitalized on the cultural prestige of Sophocles,” says Rudnytsky. “He was arguing that this Oedipus complex is a developmental phase that structures the human psyche, but it had the resonance and depth of a mythological narrative.  He caught lightning in a bottle.”

Meanwhile, many of Freud’s theories naturally lend themselves to drama. John Fletcher, professor of English at University of Warwick, tells Quartz that Freud’s work in psychoanalysis involves complex and compelling narratives. “He describes and analyses the ways in which human subjects are caught up in emotional dramas that repeat and repeat, and which they carry with them as a kind of baggage.”

This Freudian narrative alludes to both a past—where do these neuroses come from?—and a future, namely how the character is trying to progress. Such character progression is crucial in literature and, as Fletcher says, Freud’s has the added benefit of referencing both fantasy and reality. He explains:

“When Freud is interpreting neurotic and borderline psychotic symptoms, he’s challenged to interpret some kind of scene that has been blocked out of memory but appears to be acting out. He doesn’t know if it’s a fantasy, a memory, or a combination of the two. The interaction between patient and analyst is part of the drama. Literary people find Freud illuminating because of this focus on scenes, micro-dramas, and the acting out of dramas.”

And though Freud may be unpopular in psychology departments, his work isn’t considered totally meaningless from a scientific perspective. Freud’s emphasis on the importance of early experiences is evident in attachment theory, while scientific evidence supports Freud’s belief in an unconscious mind. And, as Fletcher points out, neuropsychologist Mark Solms has given credence to Freud’s theory that dreams are signs of wish fulfilment.

So while Freud’s ideas are no longer considered an authority on the human condition, they remain inherently dramatic and compelling, and many of his theories contain more than a grain of truth. No wonder novelists and scriptwriters are reluctant to let go of such excellent source material.

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