Socialisation and Desire

In psychoanalytic theory, on the level of individual psychology, we find compatible ideas about the connection between the self and the world in the work of the German-American psychoanalyst Hans Loewald. Loewald does not start by separating the inner world of the subject from outer reality. On the contrary, in the psychological organisation of the subject—ego, reality, objects and drives—they are created at the same time, in a process where a unitary whole is gradually differentiated by the subject. In this process many versions of both ego and reality will be created and, unless fixations happen, this will allow for a flexible ego-reality integration where earlier versions will remain alive as dynamic resources in later versions (Loewald 1980: 20). This means that the qualities of inner and outer are not given in any direct empirical sense, but are elaborated by the subject in ‘a lifelong process in which not only the meaning but also the constitution and organization of inner and outer are negotiated’ (Chodorow 2003: 903).

It is the work of Hans Loewald and Nancy Chodorow who in particular have informed my understanding of the continuous and creative interchange between the conscious and the unconscious. In their perspective the unconscious is not entirely equated with dynamically repressed emotions and fantasies, since the unconscious is also seen as a creative and generative part of our psychological organisation. This makes us co-creators of meaning and reality, not passive victims of the world. Neither Loewald nor Chodorow’s vision is to replace unconscious life with conscious, but rather to infuse and integrate unconscious life in the conscious. It is this infusion and integration that gives conscious life its depth, texture and richness. Fantasy and reality come to resonate in a way where fantasy deepens and enriches the experience of reality, and reality keeps us rooted and connected in the world (Chodorow 1999: 248). The constant intertwining of the conscious, the preconscious and unconscious, of past and present, self and reality, subject and object are captured by the concept of transference. In Chodorow’s words, transference is the phenomena ‘that we personally endow, animate, and tint, emotionally and through fantasy, the cultural, linguistic, interpersonal, cognitive, and embodied world we experience’ and, by this process, ‘any single thought or feeling simultaneously creates and embeds itself in both realities’ (Chodorow 1999: 244, 14). Thus, feelings are always part of experienced meanings, of the ways in which the subject makes sense—or cannot make sense—of things.

Nancy Chodorow has argued that Hans Loewald together with Erik H. Erikson and others can be seen as representatives of a specific American ‘intersubjective school of ego psychology’, which combines an understanding of the ego functions as integrating and synthesising experience in a creative way, with a relational perspective that sees the self as developed through interpersonal relations and by processes of transference between subject and object (Chodorow 2004). This ego-psychological and object-relational perspective where development is not only seen in terms of instinctual drives or universal conditions for subject formation, but also in terms of relational attachment and culture, and where the unconscious is not only understood as the dynamically repressed, but also as a part of the self that organises and may enrich experience and inform creativity and agency, has been criticised for severing the critical potential in Freud’s theory of desire. Psychoanalytic perspectives indebted to Lacan reject the notions of ego and reality, and talk instead about a radical difference between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious is here seen as a site formed by the prohibition and repressing of desire, and it can only express itself in enigmatic and symptomatic ways that are not translatable to consciousness. Whereas conscious identity is doomed to be expressed through language, social categories and norms, ‘the unconscious constantly reveals the “failure” of identity’ (Rose 1986: 90). As subjects, split and cast in socially defined identities, we will always lack something, and the pressure from unconscious desire will push us towards activity, but we do not know what we are looking for and we will never find it other than in momentary and partial ways.

A problem in conceiving of consciousness and the unconscious as radically separated systems of meaning is that it leads into a dualism of conformity and non-conformity. The possibility of reflection and agency as sources for change is dismissed as it is only unsocialised and unsocialisable desire that may represent resistance against the social because it is outside the symbolic realm (see also McNay 2004; Layton 2004 and Woodward 2015 for similar critiques). But as Erikson, Fromm and Williams insist, society not only represents pressure and pain for the subject, it also represents possibilities and pleasure. Conversely, Lynne Layton has argued that the unconscious is also infected by the social: it is neither a space free of norms nor a space that can solely be conceptualised as resistant to norms (Layton 2002, 2004). Her concept of ‘the normative unconscious’ refers to the splitting-off of feelings, behaviours and thoughts when they conflict with particular social norms connected to gender, class and ethnicity, and therefore are deemed unacceptable to those on whom one depends for love. Williams also argues that most human actions will combine conformity and non-conformity in a way that does not fit into a model of either/ or of conscious confinement and unconscious protest, and these actions must be analysed concretely and over time to decide their character and outcome (Williams 2011: 117). Such combinations may represent small but desired steps of action, and even when they look rather conformist, they may still lead to change in a more long-term perspective. In particular, the dynamics between generations indicate how a series of actions that, seen independently, look only adaptive may in the long run become one of the conditions for change. Instead of understanding socialisation and desire as opposing forces, we may think in terms of ‘socialised desire’, which places the subject in a generative and creative role that combines adaption, defensive reactions and change. Within this framework it is possible to understand the conscious, preconscious and unconscious as different levels of meaning that can float into each other, without also dismissing the existence of unconscious conflict and forbidden desires. By seeing self and reality as an original unity that is later differentiated and continuously reshaped throughout life, it is possible to see the subject not only as either conforming or protesting, but also as continuously in search of and as a creator of intermediate solutions in his or her life. In this view, the subject is simultaneously socialised, desiring and agential.

The blending of the conscious and the unconscious, of meaning and feeling, of conformity and non-conformity, of subject, identity and reality represents a perspective that renders a flexible and useful way to think about my data. What I see here is that feelings of gender change over lifetimes and between generations, and become part of the specific agency we see in each generation. A radical critique of the repressive society or an accidental acting-out of unconscious conflicts is seldom what informs agency and change of the generations in my study, but is rather a more gradual and varied response to the historically framed experience and possibilities and new ways of adapting to a given context, whether it is done with inattentiveness, hope, ambivalence or pain. This perspective makes it possible to describe and understand the strivings of the subject in a cultural and historical context instead of analysing it in terms of universal conflicts between the social order, power regimes and unruly desire.

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