Freud 150. Still Discontent in Civilization?
Fri, 01.12.2006 – Sun, 03.12.2006
Sigmund Freud would have been 150 years old in 2006. Reason enough to renew the questions he posed so clear-sightedly in his oeuvre – in »Civilization and its Discontents« for instance – and to reopen the debate on whether the processes Freud identified still have lasting effects on civilisation today. From 01 December through 03 December 2006 scholars of various disciplines and artists will discuss the interaction between civilization and the primitivity of the drives as well as the social phenomena, which emerge from this interrelationship.

It is not nature that poses a threat to civilization: Freud is the one who comments on our times and the time that passes, i.e. on history and the possibility to make sense of it. In 1930, just as the surge of horror was beginning to become noticeable, he wrote »Civilization and its Discontents.« Freud has broken with the dualism of the origins of psychoanalysis for good. He no longer confronted the primitivity of the drives with the excessive rigor of civilization. Despite the temporary and often compliant vigilance of conscience, Freud no longer referred to the danger of repression and recurrence of the primitivity of the drives.
He sought the dangers of civilization in civilization itself. He is certainly among the first, after Nietzsche perhaps, who had the acuteness of mind to recognize the ambivalence of progress: while modern men possess increasingly more technical and political means to happiness, they feel discontent and dream of turning civilization against itself. Freud uncovers the cultural connections with the instinctual powers and the powers of the super ego. Culture owes its achievements not only to the sublimation of the drives, but also to the sacrifice of their gratification imposed by the super ego. Yet sublimation does not work without the mobilization of the death drive, and the renunciation of this drive strengthens the super ego in a vicious cycle: the more one abstains from satisfaction, the stronger the super ego becomes. These processes place too heavy a burden on man and define the discontent postulated by Freud, which is felt and internalized by everyone during the socialisation process.

Freud’s analysis continues to take effect today. Do we not continue to profit from the »sexual revolution« that filled the headlines in the 1960s? Have we not entered socially, economically, and politically into the greatest era of global wealth? Has the end of the Cold War not allowed us to continue to hope for a regulation of international violence by means of the law, despite the obvious uncertainties? Does the latest technological revolution in informatics and soon also in biology not show that the concept of scientific progress is far from being exhausted?
It is not our concern to judge the present era. Instead, we aim to resume a reflexive process with Freud that is freed from the brutal naiveté of humanism as well as from the artificial horror, which finds its place in the spirit of vigilance during these happily confused times. For Freud is certainly the one who most poignantly and least complaisantly demanded the subjection of the spirit of enlightenment to the idea of ambivalence of progress. He does not give in to universalities, but teaches us that barbarity is not a remnant that civilization would have successfully absorbed and placed in the service of its ideals. Barbarity is the product of civilization itself. Thinking of civilization in terms of its discontents and not the utopia of its liberation; the contribution of various dimensions of culture, its economic, sexual, political, aesthetic, literary dimensions as human destiny - this could be a way to honour Freud 150 years after his birth.
Project team
Bernhard Serexhe (project management)
Organization / Institution