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The Social History of the UnconsciousReview - The Social History of the Unconscious
A Psychoanalysis of Society, Revised Edition
by George Frankl
Open Gate Press, 2003
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Dec 20th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 52)

I have to start this review with expressions of puzzlement. I believe that I have never written more question marks on the margins of a book. More precisely, I have used as many question marks as I would need for a dozen scholarly books. I would say that this reflects its lack of internal consistency. My most important impression about the book is that it consists of two irreconcilable sides, no matter the issue we discuss: composition, writing style, hypotheses, or conclusions.

To start with, the book has two parts. It is important to note these parts were once books of their own, two among Dr. Frankl's several books. These separate volumes are now merged together without, so it seems, any major adaptations of material or style. This edition published in 2003 is the third one. It does not seem to be much different than previous ones, with additions mainly addressing possible psychological foundation of terrorism and terrorists.

The first part of the book is entitled Archaeology of Mind. It opens with a chapter on methodological issues concerning psychoanalytic study of culture, society, and history. After this opening definition of his standpoint, the author provides a very detailed review of data about prehistory and ancient civilizations, and tries to give psychoanalytic explanations of their major characteristics. He discusses matriarchal cultures, the emergence of Homo sapiens, and patriarchal cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The second part - entitled Civilisation: Utopia and Tragedy - proceeds from there and gives a survey of all major cultural trends that followed. In less than 200 pages, Frankl writes about Jerusalem, Athens, Christianity, Renaissance, and other important societal issues all the way to contemporary music or al-Quaeda.

As far as his methodology is concerned, Frankl is a faithful Freudian. He agrees that "sociology [is] just an applied psychology" (p. 1), and he hopes that " … the study of history could become analytic interpretation" (p. xii; emphasis in the original). And in the same manner, Hesiod is considered to be a prodigious psychoanalyst and his "Theogony" a sketch of the psychoanalytic understanding of development (pp. 206-220). The author believes that " … the most important contribution of psychoanalysis will emerge in its application to the social neurosis … " (p. xi), and embarks on a study of prehistoric man's life, customs, and survival using what I consider a direct application of the Kleinian child analysis (cf. p. 55ff).

This equation between psyche and culture is achieved through the author's reductionistic attempt to find a single principle that would explain phenomena from both realms. This basic principle is named externalization: "It is a fundamental characteristic of man that he externalizes his mental processes by reproducing them outside himself in material symbols and cultural ideas" (p. 32). The illustration provided should help us understand the process: "[The first man] would, on seeing a stone, recognize in it the imagined weapon and shape it accordingly. He would, therefore, transfer his image outside himself and make it real by means of work" (p. 61).

In this manner, society and culture are viewed as nothing but the artifacts of human mind: "modes of human self-expression objectified in the norms and structures of society", or "… public expression of private fantasies … " (p. xx). Society is nothing but a shared, negotiated fantasy: "Culture signifies the capacity to populate the world with ghosts, spirits and myths, to communicate them to members of community and relate to them collectively through common worship and ritual" (p. 62). Besides being reducible to the psychological, society can also be reduced to the biological level. One of the low points of the book is Frankl's acceptance of Haeckel's Biogenetic law (which says that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) as an "important theory or, rather, as an hypothesis which still needs a lot more evidence before it can be fully accepted, and I intend to contribute to the evidence" (p. 41). However, as Frank Sulloway repeatedly warned, this "law" has been refuted long time ago and endorsing it means living in the past. That Freud preferred Haeckel to Darwin is strange; that Frankl does the same at the beginning of the XXI century is difficult to explain.

This leads the author to a position that is closer to a Jungian theory of the collective unconscious (cf. p. 76), than to the contemporary relational turn in psychoanalysis. This is evident in his claims that "the prehistoric experiences of our race are reproduced in the unconscious layers of the individual mind" and that "we inherit not only … [our ancestors'] … achievements, but also their bloody, sadistic and sacrificial fantasies" (p. 169).

The question I wanted to see asked did not appear even once - What is a cause and what an effect? I think that the author underestimated possible cultural influences on personal development, despite the abundance of theories and data of this kind in developmental psychology. Throughout the book everything is explained in a linear fashion - human mind influences society. There are no reversed influences, no accounts of their interaction or collision. Furthermore, the author neglected "social forces" which organize the realm and are not reducible.

One strong point of the book is Frankl's account of the Oedipus complex. He is critical toward the thesis of the universality of Oedipus complex in history, in different societies and among primates. He claims that the Oedipus complex is characteristic of patriarchy, and that it would be a mistake to equate patriarchy with society. And this, I believe, sets him on the right track when he writes that "the Oedipus complex did not in fact start in the family but in society, or rather, let us say it developed in society and in the family to become an interacting feedback process" (p. 140).

The strongest point of the book is without any doubt Frankl's incomparable erudition. His knowledge in areas so diverse as history, archeology, languages, arts and literature, sociology, etc., is absolutely impressive. I cannot remember reading a psychoanalyst who could be a professor of so many disciplines. This is a kind of a book that is usually written by a group of scholars. I am sorry to find that this knowledge produced just interesting narratives, which seem to be completely untestable and aimed at reducing wonderful diversities of our minds and cultures to a single principle.


© 2004 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic


Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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