Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Power and Sex: the Tragic and the Philosophical

April 6, 2013 · by  · in 
The famous conclusion of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents was that civilization is, by necessity, coterminous with repression–that, in a certain sense, civilization simply is repression. The theory contains a certain theoretical prior plausibility: civilization as such simply wouldn’t be if we all enacted what Frued believed to be the basic human desires: to engage in orgiastic pleasure and to kill. Indeed for Freud, the very reason, as he suggests in Totem and Taboo, that societies prop up rules against such activity is that they are our most basic instincts: we would have no necessity for them otherwise. The law, in fact, recapitulates the basic structure of the super-ego, a structure which circumscribes the id, the basic carnal instincts. Therefore, insofar as a a society’s level of civilization can be measured by its adherence to the rule of law, it must be to that extent, repressed–by definition.
Yet we are concerned here, in our attempt to place Jesus somewhere in the ancient agon between the philosophical and the poetic, to establish what these Freudian theories mean as regards power. Where in the Freudian forumla–civilization and repression–we might ask, does power fit in? The answer all but stares one in the face: just as civilization is coextensive with repression, so is civilization coextensive with power, and power with civilization–they are all, in the final analysis, presupposed in the other. Civilization is power, or to be precise, the power of some alien entity–the state, for example, or in the Freudian model the superego–to constrain–might we not say repress?–its anti-social instincts. The relationship between power and repression is just as straightforward, as even the language employed in disparate discourses of power point us in the same direction. If we take the term ‘political repression’ for example, we see here that political repression is repression in the truest (Freudian) sense of the word–a superegoic function: harmonization. Here we may begin to ask the question: why is it that philosophers are always fundamentally apologists of power.
In it precisely in this function–harmonization–that philosophy has deep, though often unacknowledged, political commitments, for insofar as harmonization is constitutive of the project of philosophy (I have in mind, the Platonic), it is already a repression, as we have earlier established. I find it no coincidence that the philosophers are, among all people, the most sexually-frustrated lot, and it would come as little surprise to me if philosophy were merely the sublimation of an internalized repressive function, an instinctual cathexis of sublimated sexual energies into cognitive ones, where unfulfilled sexual energies seeking release in a cathexis but unable to release sexually, must sublimate into the cognitive. Voila, philosophy! The annals of philosophical giants reads like the history of sexual deprivation, and my own suspicion is that this is not coincidental. Nietzsche, as a pre-Freudian psychologist, I think, most keenly sensed this, this unhealthy tendency in the ‘philosophical type’–he caught the scent of something evil in their ‘subaltern hatred.’ ‘How malicious philosophers can be!’ he wrote. Indeed.
Philosophy is everywhere filled with death, the death instinct, to be precise, what Freud never himself called ‘Thanatos.’ Philosophy is pervaded by Thanatos–and it is easy enough to sense this, as Nietzsche did, with the gut. The Holy Scriptures, however, couldn’t be more different. The very first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is almost archetypally Erotic–in the sense of the Freudian Eros: it is suffused with creative and, to the extent that the creative is sexual, sexual energies–the reality principle and the libido. The all-too-human Yahweh, as the literary critic Harold Bloom points out, in a certain sense, simply is the reality principle–made nowhere clearer than in his wilful self-assertion: I am that I am.

Read more at Harvard Ichthus.

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