The Discomfort of Culture

I was both aggravated and relieved upon walking into the “marathon reading” of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, published 1930) this afternoon at the Judson Church. Where I expected a single podium and speaker, I instead found a cacophony of voices, in both English and German, sometimes reading different sections simultaneously. While this dramatization interrupted the linear flow of the essay, and hence made it impossible to become immersed in its unfolding, it made the whole event much quicker. In fact, there was time to read the entire text twice through and still be out in time for dinner. How civilized!

Although not considered Freud’s best text, this work made an indelible impact on me when I first encountered it at age 18. Together with Joel Kovel’s psychohistory of white racism (which I read in graduate school), it consolidated in me a pessimism of the intellect that has proved difficult to fully dislodge. Hearing it read aloud by so many psychoanalysts, who gave to their enunciation of the text (one even interrupted reading for a brief impromptu commentary) a sense of systematic logic, was memorable. Having never myself put the necessary time into Freud’s system to make it work for me, I had read the text more less as cultural criticism. It’s uneveness lends itself to such a reading, as Freud admits at one point, worrying that he has said nothing in the book except the painfully obvious. But I’m glad I got the “results” of Freud’s cultural diagnosis first, before being presented with his method. And this was confirmed by my ultimate appreciation for hearing the text read in snatches, in German in one ear and English another, as a polyphonic sound installation rather than an orderly argument. This made Freud’s text into a conversation, and if such a maneuver might miss the point of a more rigorously structured text, it was well suited to this one.

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