The Socio-Psychological Matrix of The Bourgeois Subject in Crisis

A Reading of Freudian Psychoanalysis from A Value-Dissociation-Critical Perspective

Leni Wissen


This article draws its inspiration from two motivations. The first is determining the ‘socio-psychological matrix’ of the bourgeois subject based on a reading of Freudian psychoanalysis developed from a value-dissociation-critical perspective. The background of this endeavor is the insight that the objective dynamics of the value-dissociation form sustain capitalist society, but that this does not result in a determinism of social trajectories, due to the dialectical relationship between value and dissociation. This means that the thinking, acting and feeling of people cannot be derived directly from the form of value-dissociation – and yet the capitalist organization is sustained by people who reproduce the abstract categories of value-dissociation in their thinking, acting and feeling every day without being aware of it. So, the question arises as to how these abstract categories are internalized into people’s feelings, thoughts and actions, or, to put it another way, how the subject becomes a subject at all.

Because the form of capitalist socialization does not show itself abstractly, but is mediated with its empirical trajectories, the subject and its socio-psychological mediations are also subject to the dynamic nature of capitalist socialization. This is the second motivation of the text. For in the course of the postmodern crisis processes, a new socio-psychological formation of narcissism has spread. In the experimentation with differences and in the wake of deconstructivism, a narcissistic social type was able to develop. The constant tinkering with one’s own identity became a virtue – indeed, a proof of one’s own flexibility. The constant redesigning of one’s own life was thereby an expression of a narcissistic social type. In the meantime, it has become clear that the spread of the narcissistic social type is by no means as harmless as it might have seemed in the colorful (mascaraed) hustle and bustle of postmodernism since the 1980s/90s. The crisis surges since the late 2000s have shattered the illusion of a never-ending party, and the reality of the crisis is breaking out ever more drastically. This constellation encounters a narcissistic social character whose fragile ego makes him highly susceptible to being offended or threatened. The ability to immediately move from one position to another – especially when one sees themselves threatened – is inherent in the narcissistic social character. With this, however, the narcissistic social type, who is losing more and more opportunities to keep its fragile self alive, is very susceptible to banishing its narcissistic fears of powerlessness into ‘new’ unambiguities. This is precisely the gateway for anti-Semitism, anti-gypsyism, racism, anti-feminism, neo-fascism, etc… Not least for this reason, a critique of the narcissistic social character against the background of a radical critique of the subject is necessary.

Terminal Crisis and Its Displacement

A look at the enforcement and development of capitalist-patriarchal society reveals that the internal history of capitalism is riddled with crises. Capitalist socialization and crises cannot be thought of separately. Since the 1970s, however, a process of crisis has now become apparent that raises the question of an “absolute inner barrier of capital” (Kurz 2007, 280). Karl Marx had already pointed out the possibility of an ‘inner barrier of capital’; the crisis theory of the critique of value-dissociation sees this ‘absolute inner barrier of the socialization of value’ becoming historically topical with the emergence of the crisis processes in the context of the third industrial revolution. Because of the microelectronic revolution, more labor is made superfluous in society as a whole than can be compensated for by the expansion of markets and the like. The critique of value-dissociation has pointed these connections out many times.

The effects of the postmodern crisis tendency are no longer only observed in the so-called ‘periphery,’ but are becoming increasingly evident in the core. Symptoms of the worldwide crisis process in this country are unemployment (or the spread of precarious employment), the erosion of the welfare state, the ‘return of poverty’ associated with these processes (which in any case could only be imagined as overcome in a small part of capitalist history, among a small part of the world’s population), as well as the confrontation with refugee crises and violent rampages on our doorstep. Despite the crisis phenomena that are becoming more than evident worldwide and on various levels, the possibility of a ‘final crisis’ of capitalism seems to be categorically excluded – indeed, this possibility is denied and repressed. Thus, the absurd situation has arisen that, despite the catastrophes and narrowing scope of possibilities everywhere, radical criticism of capitalist society is marginal, at best, and is even exposed to the fiercest hostility.

With regard to the perception of crisis processes and how they are dealt with, there are frightening similarities between the spectrum on the left – from ‘left-wing’ parties to groups/alliances that see themselves as extremely radical, etc. – and ‘mainstream society,’ or even right-wing and neo-fascist voices. You can see how the desire for immediate action aggressively suppresses the question of an analysis of the crisis conditions or an understanding of what is really happening, and pushes any question of content into the background. In other words, there is no questioning of the issue at hand, not to mention an analysis of its connection with the totality of society. At the same time, the fact that immediate action, in combination with the elimination of all content, is not only limited to the perception and handling of the named crisis processes, but also shows itself in all pores of social life, is an expression of the society-wide repression of the realization of the “inner barrier of capital.” It seems to be almost irrelevant what the issue is. If a problem arises, it must be reacted to immediately, without a moment of pause and reflection that could potentially irritate such action. For complex problems, culprits or responsible parties must be identified immediately. Thus, a complex problem becomes manageable. It appears as if the problem can be eliminated by immediate action toward the guilty parties. Instead of the insight that there can be no solutions in the value-dissociation form, attempts are made to banish the resulting powerlessness in an action-fetishistic way. These are the reasons why Pegida, AFD, and other right-wing movements were able to spread so quickly: they offer simple explanations and solutions that also serve as an outlet for racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, etc. attitudes (see text by Daniel Späth in this issue).

This aggressive suppression of questions of content always occurs in combination with an equally aggressive ‘niceness terrorism’ – a term by Daniel Späth. There seems to be an addiction to harmony that threatens to level all ambivalences and contradictions. The general cult of concern seems to further fuel this tendency. Contents can only be perceived and processed with direct reference to one’s own self: if they fit into one’s own ‘self’-conception, immediate identifications occur, if they do not fit, they are destroyed, and, if they are not understood, either blame is put on the mediator (because one’s own gigantic self immediately understands everything, after all), or the content is experienced as an imposition, an insult or even a slight, which all the more throws a correspondingly negative light on the mediator. And since everyone ought to be ‘nice’ to each other, it is not considered ‘nice’ at all to express such a complex thought in the first place, and it is possibly even judged as a personal ‘assault.’ In this process, all questions of content thus become personal matters.

It must now be explained why immediate action, the cult of concern, the addiction to harmony, etc. have become so widespread as a way of reacting to and dealing with living conditions that are becoming ever more complex and hopeless. This question sheds light on why radical social critique that reflects on the inner barrier of value-dissociation socialization has such a hard time; because, as the outlined phenomena have already indicated, there is a ‘limit of mediation’ that lies, so to speak, in the subjects themselves.

The postmodern subject is above all a subject in crisis, undergoing a process in which the foundations of bourgeois subjectivity are constantly being eroded. To put it simply, it is about the working subject who is running out of work. This must be processed. The nature of this processing, despite all individual differences, cannot simply be freely chosen, insofar as this process is decisively structured by the socio-psychological matrix of the capitalist subject.

Postmodern Crisis Processes and the Emergence of a Narcissistic Social Type

Before I take a closer look at the socio-psychological matrix of the bourgeois subject, however, I would first like to outline in key terms the phenomena that are connected with a change, on the level of social character, toward the narcissistic type, or that have helped to drive this change.

  • Even though the term postmodernism already appears toward the end of the 19th century, this term indicates an epochal rupture within the internal history of capitalism, which has come to a social breakthrough as a result of the neoliberal reforms. Robert Kurz sees postmodernism as the “ensemble of a crisis capitalism that misunderstands itself as postindustrial” (Kurz 1999, 7).
  • In barely two decades, the Third Industrial Revolution has conjured up the greatest world crisis since 1929: In the capitalist core countries, mass unemployment has returned, and in the periphery, “along with ‘abstract labor,’ the money economy in many countries has already collapsed” – as Robert Kurz wrote back in 1999 (Kurz 2005, first: 1999, 739). This, then, merely describes the beginning of the incipient postmodern crisis developments. The collapse of the monetary economy combined with the collapse of statehood has long since reached European states as well. The trouble spots all over the world can hardly be counted…
  • The flight of financial capital into the ‘realm of speculation’ – a development that was already a clear sign of crisis at the beginning of the 20th century – is an indication of how unprofitable real investments have become. Capital accumulation is shifting from real to speculative spaces, becoming a simulation. The fragility of this simulated capital accumulation becomes clear again and again when the bubbles begin to pop and very real catastrophes suddenly burst out of the financial sky.
  • Even the processes of globalization could not compensate for the contradictory dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, globalization has had an impact on social life: new technologies and, above all, the Internet have created new networking possibilities that are less tied to regional contexts.
  • In view of the massive increase in unemployment in the 1970s, a process of social cuts began which, among other things, led to the spread of precarious employment and finally culminated in the so-called “Hartz reforms” in Germany.
  • Parallel to these developments, a social process began in the 1980s that has entered the sociological literature under the term individualization. This process must be seen in the context of changing working conditions and demands. With the spread of unemployment or precarious employment, the basis of the bourgeois ‘normal biography’ collapsed: an education no longer guarantees a permanent employment relationship. The new ‘freedoms’ that have repeatedly been associated with the concept of individualization, e.g., being less dependent on one’s family of origin and fixed biographies, have come at the price of a loss of security and orientation. Individuals are expected to take more and more responsibility for the success of their biographies. This in turn means that it is up to individuals to keep themselves ready, fit and healthy for the labor market. Not being able to keep up is an expression of a poor work-life balance and not a problem of objective constraints. The shift of responsibility to the individual forces an ‘ego-centeredness’ – after all, this is a prerequisite for being able to keep up at all under conditions that are becoming increasingly individualized and flexible.
  • The bourgeois nuclear family could not remain unaffected by the processes just outlined (insecure, precarious employment, individualization, flexibilization). It is exposed to enormous dissolution processes. High divorce rates, the widespread phenomenon of ‘single mothers’ and so-called ‘patch-work families’ are expressions of these processes. The family has become less important in terms of the socialization of children and young people, but it has not disappeared as an authority. Peer groups, the omnipresence of media, and technical devices such as smartphones and the like, which shape the new form of relating to the environment, have pushed back the role of the nuclear family.
  • In addition, family structures are also dissolving from within: Entering into fixed relationships and the obligations and responsibilities that go with them seems to be perceived as a threat on a broad level. Thus, people speak of ‘life-interval companions’ to make clear in advance that the connection is only entered into for a limited period. Having children has become a question of complementing one’s own biography: if a child fits into the concept of life, it is brought into the world at a precisely planned time. If children do not meet one’s own narcissistic expectations, the clamor is great, and the child is dragged from the doctor to the therapist to the psychiatrist, to be diagnosed with ‘social behavior disorder’ and/or ‘ADHD’ and sedated with medication.
  • The almost general inability to enter into obligatory contact with others already points to narcissistic character structures. It can be observed at every turn how people can only perceive and process the world in relation to their own self. This indicates that no clear distinction can be made between inside and outside. Thus, any object (another person or even content, among other things) can become an immediate threat to one’s own easily offended ‘narcissistic self.’
  • It is not coincidental that the term ‘self’ has been mentioned many times. There is a history to this term: It was the ego and self psychology which made an idealistically constructed self out of Freud’s confrontationally conceived ego, which is then simply positivistically regarded as set. There is no ‘I that develops (confrontationally)’ in ego and self psychology. Rather, the ego or self is always already there, and it is merely a matter of calling up the self-development potentials inherent in the heaven-fallen self from birth. Thus, those who cannot keep up in the working society have simply not yet found a way to activate their powers of self-development.
  • The postmodern demands to constantly ‘work on oneself’ and to ‘optimize oneself’ hardly leave out any area of life: the postmodern subject is supposed to always be flexible, willing to perform and fit – both on a physical and on a psychological level. As Ulrich Bröckling pointed out in his book ‘The Entrepreneurial Self,’ self-optimization is an incomplete process that has little chance of success (cf. Bröckling 2016).
  • The expression of this is the ‘career of depression.’ Alain Ehrenberg writes: “Depression began its ascent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves” (Ehrenberg 2010, 4). Depression is thus a “illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure” (ibid. Emphasis in the original).
  • With the rise of depression, markers have already been set that indicate the direction for a change at the level of social character in the face of postmodern crisis processes. On the pathological level, the shift toward the narcissistic social type is expressed in a shift from neurotic to depressive illness. Thus, Ehrenberg writes: “Depression teaches us about our current experience as an individual because it is the pathology of a society whose norm is no longer based on guilt and discipline but on responsibility and initiative. […] The depressed individual is a person out of gas” (ibid., 9).
  • The excessive demands that accompanied behavioral norms based on guilt and discipline broke out in neurosis as an expression of an underlying conflict between desire and repression. Depression, on the other hand, is not characterized by a conflict, but is an expression of the narcissistic inability to make contact with the world of objects – psychoanalytically speaking, depression is an expression of an inability to occupy objects libidinously. However, an object can only be libidinously occupied if it can be perceived as an object outside the narcissistic universe.
  • For Freud, melancholia, which in its symptomatology bears some resemblance to depression, was in a sense a clinical (i.e., pathological) form of mourning. The distinction between mourning and melancholia becomes clear in Freud’s answer to the question of what the ‘work of mourning’ consists in: “Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object” (Freud 1976b, 3042). This process is conscious. Melancholia, however, is about an ‘unknown loss.’ Freud writes: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (ibid., 3043).
  • What Freud wrote in 1917 with regard to melancholy is certainly true with regard to depression. Depression is the expression of an emptiness, which is the flip side of the permanent overload of always having to work on and optimize oneself.
  • The constant manifestations of concern are an expression of the inability to name that which ‘concerns’ – to be able to do so would require not perceiving the world exclusively from one’s own narcissistic universe and recognizing the world of objects as existing outside one’s own ego. With the inability to recognize the world of objects as existing outside of one’s own narcissistic universe, the possibilities of reflection also break away: problems, burdens, confusing experiences etc. can no longer be named, no longer be brought up. Everything remains diffuse, somehow you just don’t feel well, everything is too much, you just don’t feel like doing anything anymore.
  • Another type of narcissistic processing in its extreme form is running amok. Here a narcissistic megalomania acts out, which carries out its self-constitution via its self-destruction and the destruction of others.

Out of all these processes the narcissistic social character has sprung as a child of postmodernity. The postmodern conditions are above all an expression of the objective crisis dynamics of the value-dissociation socialization. And only by taking this crisis dynamic into account it is possible to understand the triumph of narcissism. For the spread of the narcissistic social type is an expression of the disintegrating bourgeois-capitalist subject, which is incessantly digging its own grave. Narcissism has thus become the last resort for the decomposing subject of the value-dissociation society.

The Critique of Value-Dissociation and Psychoanalysis

The critique of value-dissociation focuses on the analysis and critique of the capitalistically constituted totality. In doing so, it does not serve a universalistic concept of totality. Value-dissociation critique starts from an ‘in itself broken totality’ (cf. Roswitha Scholz, 2009) and thus takes the driving dialectic of value and dissociation into account. Accordingly, different levels of the ‘in itself broken totality’ must be kept apart in the critique, without therefore losing the reference to the level of form.

This understanding of totality results from the insight that the capitalist-patriarchal organization works into all social spheres – and thus also into the drive structure, which is carried, driven and reproduced by a ‘social unconscious.’ In order to clarify the question of why people reproduce the capitalist principles of form in their everyday actions, feelings and thoughts, it is thus necessary to clarify different levels: the level of form, the level of the subject as the agent of the commodity-producing patriarchy, the ideological, the cultural-symbolic and socio-psychological level. All these levels must be interrogated again and again in relation to current phenomena and developments – that is, in relation to the ‘concrete totality,’ which tries to accommodate the individual without losing its relation to the totality.

Psychoanalysis is indispensable for the clarification of the socio-psychological level (and with restrictions, also for the cultural-symbolic level). This is because it focuses on the processes of mediation between society and the individual and poses the question of subject genesis. However, it is not a contradiction-free subject – neither in relation to Freudian psychoanalysis itself nor in relation to its historical reception. It should be noted here that, on the whole, a taming of psychoanalytic thinking has taken place, which can be seen in the displacement of the concept of drive from the inner-psychoanalytic debate: Freud’s conflictual ‘I’ became, in the environment of a corresponding ego or self psychology, a contradiction-free ‘I,’ which no longer knows any drive conflict. The ‘de-libidinization’ of psychoanalysis corresponds to the social developments of a general psychologization and individualization of social contexts and a centering on a conflict-free imagined ‘self’ or ‘I.’

From a value-critical point of view, however, it is precisely the banished libido theory that could be made fruitful. With the help of Freud’s metapsychology, which itself is not free of contradictions and admittedly must also be subjected to critical examination, it is possible to describe the socio-psychological matrix of the subject. According to this reading, ego, id, and superego are the central instances that shape the psychological form of the subject. At the same time, they are expressions of underlying drive dynamics and conflicts.

The Freudian Libido Theory from a Value-Critical Perspective

First of all, the historical situation in which Freud developed psychoanalysis must be clarified. Here it quickly becomes clear that Freud was referring to the bourgeois subject, which had only just established itself and, after a brief period of flourishing, was already in crisis (cf. ‘Civilization and Its Discontents,’ Freud). Now, the bourgeois subject did not simply fall from the sky, but was the result of the brutal history of the enforcement of capitalist-patriarchal society, which extended over centuries, was pushed forward on many different levels, and was finally connected with a restructuring of all areas of life. Here are just a few key points that may have played a role in this history of enforcement:

  • The emergence of manufacturing because of the absolutist hunger for money due to the costs of warfare, with the development of firearms likely being partially responsible for the spiraling costs.
  • Inculcating the work ethic in workhouses as a prerequisite for factory work.
  • The newly emerging mode of production was associated with the dissociation of the spheres of production and reproduction, with women assigned to the area of reproduction. This assignment forms the basis for the emergence of the bourgeois nuclear family.
  • These developments were accompanied by a ‘domestication of women as natural beings’ (witch hunts), which in turn refers not least to the fact that a completely new relationship to nature emerged (androcentric domination of nature).
  • The internalization of the ‘work ethic’ and the emergence of corresponding ideologues, which ultimately culminated in Enlightenment philosophy.

In the context of these processes of upheaval, the bourgeois subject has asserted itself with a corresponding socio-psychological matrix. The bourgeois subject and its socio-psychological matrix are centrally based on the dissociation of the feminine, the phantasm of the mastery of nature and the imagination of self-constitution. They are also essentially linked to the internalization of the work ethic. Corresponding to this is a drive dynamic in which, when drives surge, the libido skyrockets in joyful anticipation of the ‘reward for this failure.’ This ‘trick’ of the libido to deal with drive refusals also lays the track for drive sublimation processes. The necessity for drive sublimation arises with the enforcement of the capitalist mode of production and the expenditure of abstract labor demanded by it. Thus, it becomes clear that the capitalist social formation could not remain external to the drive structure. From this it can be concluded: Only with the capitalist patriarchy does a drive structure emerge in which ego, id, and superego interact as separate instances that conflict with each other and thus mediate the psychological dynamics. This form of psychological mediation has thus only emerged in the wake of the historical assertion of capitalism. Freud, of course, did not write it this way; this is part of the interpretation of Freud made here, which is based on reading Freud in the context of the historical situation in which he developed his theory.

Moreover, this reading of Freud’s psychoanalysis is only possible against the background of a radical critique of the Enlightenment and the subject – this also means that Freud’s concept of the subject must be criticized in its affirmation of the Enlightenment. For the Enlightenment must be understood as an “‘enforcement ideology’ of the commodity-producing system” (Kurz 2004, 18). The Enlightenment produced the modern subject and at the same time equated all people living under capitalism with this subject (cf. ibid.). The subject as the “modern actor of abstract labor and its derivative functions” is nothing other than the “social form of individuals’ own activity: form of perception, of thought, of relation, of activity” (Kurz 2016, 184f). The subject is thus not identical with the socially sensible individual, but rather “the conscious (individual as well as institutional) bearer of the subjectless movement of valorization” (Kurz 2004, 57).

For the critique of the socio-psychological form of the subject, this means that here, too, a distinction must be made between subject and individual. For the social-sensual individual is confronted with the socio-psychological matrix of the bourgeois subject, but does not merge into it. The socio-psychological matrix provides, so to speak, the psychological form in which psychological mediation takes place.

However, the socio-psychological level cannot be derived from the subject concept. On the one hand, this is forbidden against the background of a critique of deductive logic. On the other hand, the psychological form is in a certain way also prior to the subject, insofar as it is the precondition for becoming a subject. In view are the processes of subject genesis or reproduction of the subject as ‘agent’ of the capitalist-patriarchal organization. And this is true both at the ‘individual level’ (i.e., in relation to the question of why people repeatedly form the subject position and reproduce it in their thinking, acting, and feeling) and at the level of the emergence of the psychological form itself. The latter, as already indicated above, emerged in the context of the enforcement of modern patriarchy. The socio-psychological matrix of the subject is supported or reproduced not least by a ‘social unconscious,’ which is also the result of the real demanded drive suppression (see above) and reproduces itself in every process of ‘becoming a subject.’

Gender-Differentiated Trajectories of Psychosocial Development.

The constitution of the (male) subject is accompanied by the dissociation of the feminine. In other words, the dissociation of the feminine is the mute precondition of the male-bourgeois subject. This relationship of the (male) subject to the dissociation extends into an ‘androcentric unconscious’ and reproduces itself in the form of the Oedipus complex in individual life histories. This interpretation is based not least on the fact that Freud himself conceptualized the Oedipus complex both at the level of phylogenesis (i.e., the genesis of the subject) – in ‘Totem and Taboo’ patricide is described as a founding act that is passed on from generation to generation as an (unconscious) inheritance or repeated in the Oedipus complex (cf. Freud 1976) – and at the level of ontogenesis (the development of the single individual). However, it is precisely Freud’s concept of phylogenesis that must be critically examined in terms of its ontological moments. In this respect, Freud’s concepts cannot simply be taken up hastily.

Freud, of course, conceived his Oedipus complex in this context without consideration of the value-dissociation structure. Nevertheless, Freud has an eye for the gender-differentiated psychosexual development. Thus, along the Oedipus complex, he describes ‘male’ and ‘female’ libido fates.

Before I discuss the gender-differentiated progression of psychological development, I would like to note that when I speak of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ in the following, it is by no means a matter of ontologizing these terms, but rather of taking into account the socio-psychological matrix of the subject, which is profoundly two-gendered or based on the dissociation of the feminine. Within the socio-psychological matrix, femininity and masculinity are markers that psychosexual development cannot bypass, and thus they must be conceptualized. With the modern two-gender model, women as well as men have been/are forced to form gender identities in the progressive forms of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ with femininity devalued from the outset. Femininity is the absence of the phallus, deficiency par excellence. This ‘void’ that femininity then leaves is well suited to accommodate male projections. The fact that ‘femininity’ has to serve as a projection surface – in the familiar projection directions of mother/wife and whore – is an expression of the value-dissociation structure. These masculine projections are, first of all, an expression of the fact that the dissociation of the feminine precedes the constitution of the (male) subject. However, they also show that the dissociation of the feminine is not an act that is accomplished once, but rather is one that pushes for constant repetition. In this respect, ‘femininity’ is not a ‘dark continent’ by chance, and should/must remain so.

This has consequences for female psychosexual development and its analysis. Thus, ‘femininity’ must correspond to the requirements of the male side and must not be anything ‘on its own’ outside the ‘male’ catchment area. In this sense, it is almost absurd to speak of a ‘female psychological form’ at all, since this form consists mainly in having to be ‘formless.’ This is also reflected in the ‘female’ libido fate as described by Freud: in the male course, the male child, under the threat of castration emanating from the father, gives up the desire it directs toward the mother to bow to the paternal law through identification. In the most favorable case, this development leads to the ‘demise of the Oedipus complex’ (cf. Freud, Oedipus). In contrast, the female child, who does not have to fear castration – because it has already been accomplished – runs into the Oedipus complex ‘as into a haven of refuge’ (Freud 1976e, 4731). The background of this movement is the discovery of the difference between the sexes. The disappointment about ‘one’s own deficiency’ is blamed on the mother, and this makes it possible to turn to the father. From the father, the girl hopes for a (male) child to compensate for penis envy and to restitute herself narcissistically. Thus, the absence of the phallus or this discovery is decisive for the female libido fate. The background of this development is a ‘phallocentric-androcentric unconscious,’ which reproduces itself again and again in the gender-differentiated pathways. Thus, phallocentrism structures the ‘formless’ female psychological form.

Christa Rhode-Dachser rightly criticizes the ‘patriarchal foundation’ of psychoanalysis. She also calls “Freud’s theory of female development” “a theory of non-individuation [] which […] served the adaptation of women to the gender role intended for them at that time” (Rhode-Dachser 2003, 5. Emphasis in original). This statement can be agreed with in part; for, of course, female psychosexual development is attuned to the role intended for women. And it is also true that Freud describes the female libido fate in an affirmative way. Nevertheless, it is not Freud’s theory that is responsible for the female libido fate, but the social conditions of the value-dissociation form. In this respect, it would also be a mistake to simply throw Freud in the garbage can since his theory is androcentric in nature. Rather, it is important to subject Freud to a feminist critique and, against this background, to ask why Freud described the female libido fate as he did.

In addition, Rhode-Dachser’s hypostasis of the feminine is apparent. But it cannot be a matter of searching for a ‘femininity’ beyond phallocentrism. In ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ the value-dissociation structure shows itself. Thus, it would be completely wrong to look for a somehow ‘better,’ even ‘non-identical,’ in ‘femininity’ – Roswitha Scholz has pointed this out again and again. For a critique of capitalist gender relations, this means that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ must be seen as two poles within the value-dissociation socialization and must be criticized as such – of course, the hierarchical status of the ‘masculine’ and the discrimination of the ‘feminine’ connected to it must not be underestimated. With regard to ‘femininity’ this means that first of all an idea of what is hidden in the ‘dark continent’ would have to be developed. In this sense, the question of a psychoanalytic theory of femininity would have to be posed anew.

Christa Rhode-Dachser is not alone in her attempt to develop a feminist reading of psychoanalysis. Other authors have also dealt with this question. However, the fact that these authors repeatedly hypostatize the “feminine” is certainly not accidental. Here, the fact that feminist-psychoanalytically oriented theory has dealt too little with a critique of the subject takes its revenge. Instead of radically questioning the subject form itself, it tries to develop a theory of femininity beyond phallocentrism that enables women to be ‘subject.’

Crisis Processes and a Narcissistic Social Character

By now it should be clear that the ‘socio-psychological matrix’ of the subject could not withstand the postmodern crisis processes. Gainful employment and family as supporting agencies of socialization break down more and more in the context of general processes of flexibilization and individualization, and thus pillars that were indispensable for the socio-psychological development of the bourgeois subject fall away. But again: the form of psychological processing does not simply dissolve, it still indicates the paths of socio-psychological development – but under postmodern auspices, this path can only lead to narcissism. As I will show, narcissism is already inherent in the constitution of the subject, but it seems to implode, so to speak, under postmodern crisis conditions. The postmodern social character is a profoundly narcissistic one – and this is likely to be true, albeit in different trajectories, for both ‘female’ and ‘male’ characters. What they have in common, so to speak, is the high degree of ‘self’-reference as an expression of their narcissism.

What has changed with regard to the socio-psychological form of the subject in the face of postmodern crisis processes can be illustrated by a quotation from the book ‘The World as Will and Design’ [Die Welt als Wille und Design] (Robert Kurz). Robert Kurz writes:

“The absence of social relationships means nothing other than being a commodity on two legs; ‘expressive individualism’ must also shift to the outfit, because behind the clothes there is only the specter of an individual. Adorno was never more topical than in the postmodern times of the Love Parade, whose followers really do commit a gross impertinence when they say ‘I’” (Kurz 1999, 49).

This quotation can be interpreted against the background of Freud’s concept of the ego. Freud writes in the text ‘On the Introduction of Narcissism’ (1914): “We are bound to suppose that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed. (Freud 1976a, 2934). Freud names ‘primary narcissism’ as the decisive driving force of the constitution of the ego. For this – writes Lili Gast as an interpretation of Freud’s train of thought – “initiates a dynamic self-reference in objective self-perception, which ultimately results in the constitution of subjectivity” (Gast 1992, 52). The initial constitution of the ego is a narcissistic one. In Freud’s concept of ego, narcissism is firmly inscribed as the driving engine. However, Freud saw the overcoming ofprimary narcissism as the central step in ego development. With regard to the socio-psychological matrix of the postmodern subject, we can now assume a dominance of a ‘narcissistic ego’ as the carrier of psychological mediation – an ‘ego,’ in other words, that actually cannot call itself ‘I’ in the sense described above.

Against the background of narcissism, it then also becomes clear why such a delusion of immediacy, as I have described it above, can spread in such a way. Because this goes along with a psychological structure which also pushes for immediacy. Freud describes the ‘subject-object unity’ of primary narcissism as a developmentally specific ‘recognition of reality’ or ‘reinterpretation of reality’ (cf. ibid. 52ff or Freud 1976a, 2931ff). This means that the world of objects can only be directly incorporated by the narcissistic ‘subject-object-unit,’ or must be repelled and destroyed (psychologically) if it threatens the narcissistic integrity.

With regard to the background of origin and the immanent transformations of the socio-psychological matrix of the subject, it can be assumed that different manifestations overlap and coexist. Thus, the ‘authoritarian personality’ did not exist in pure form, and so today the ‘postmodern social character’ does not exist in pure form. Socio-psychological trajectories cannot be thought in a straight line, neither on the level of the description of a social character nor on the individual level. At this point, once again, consideration of the underlying drive dynamics is central: for these are linked to a specific temporal logic in which what is past is not simply past and ‘unconscious’ is not simply ‘unconscious.’ The drive dynamic pushes for the past and unconscious to be flushed up when the present demands or permits it. This means, banally speaking, that ‘old,’ ‘resolved’ conflicts can become virulent again under the impression of a changed reality and now take new paths of processing or repression. Thus, it can be assumed that the narcissistic social character is not only to be observed in the younger generations, but also in older generations, who are not spared from the narcissistic pull. The fact that it is precisely the ‘narcissistic trajectories’ that are taken has to do with a reality that also pushes towards narcissistic positions because of its complexity and hopelessness.

The postmodern narcissistic type in particular cannot be thought of as a rigid figure in view of the general processes of flexibilization and individualization, insofar as the postmodern subject is flexible to the point of self-destruction. This also means that the narcissistic type can pass from one extreme to the next completely abruptly. The ‘narcissistic ego’ and the corresponding mediation of drive processes are extremely ‘flexible’ and adaptable in their immediacy, which may be due not least to the lack of formation of the object libido. This in turn is an expression of an immediate (narcissistic) access to the ‘world of objects.’

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that ego-, self-, and object-relational psychology could prevail against drive theory. The far-reaching purge of psychoanalytic theory from the drive concept corresponds to the real developments of a focus on the narcissistic self. These developments have been affirmatively taken up – or anticipated – by ego-, self-, and object-relational theories, and thus these theories can be interpreted as theories of adaptation to postmodern impositions. This can also be seen, for example, in the fact that these theories – whether intentionally or not – have found their way into the ‘new management literature’ and are thus also part of the intellectual-historical background of the ‘entrepreneurial self’ (cf. Bröckling 2016).

The purification of psychoanalytic theory from the concept of libido in the context of ego-, self-, and object-relational psychology does not mean that with the elimination of the concept the thing itself has disappeared. The ‘drive’ or the dynamic it sets in motion does not disappear; rather, the conditions for a ‘successful’ sublimation in the bourgeois sense break away. This means that the drive dynamic itself had to change qualitatively and the processes of a (in the bourgeois sense) ‘successful’ ‘ego’ development, in which the ego is a stable mediating agency between id (the drive-like moments) and superego (the ‘paternal’ – patriarchal – law) (whereby it should be clear that, in view of the immanent history of crisis, a ‘stable ego’ can never actually be assumed), are blocked. The narcissistic withdrawal or self-reference is an expression of this reality.

Crisis Gender

Against the background of the critique of value dissociation, it is now necessary to question the spread of the narcissistic social character in terms of its gender-specific implications. Here, it must first be stated that in the wake of the postmodern developments described above – also favored by gender and queer theory – there has indeed been an equalization of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender codes. Women as well as men seem to be less fixed to their traditional social roles. This equalization of the ‘codes’ is not least an expression of the fact that, due to the real processes of crisis, the gender roles shaped by the two sexes are increasingly losing their possibilities of realization and are visibly coming into conflict with the demands of the postmodern ‘compulsory flexible individual’ (Roswitha Scholz). The question is how the narcissistic social character mediates this equalization of gender-differentiated codes. Psychoanalytically, the primary narcissistic stage does not yet know gender difference. Thus, the narcissistic social character also does not simply develop along the rigid lines of ‘male’ and ‘female.’

However, it would be fatal to think of the narcissistic social character as gender-neutral or as independent of the two-gender matrix because of the loosening of gender boundaries described above. Even if the boundaries between the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ trajectories are blurred, this does not mean that the differential gender forms and the hierarchy associated with them have simply disappeared. The narcissistic social character is, after all, characterized by the fact that it can change completely abruptly from one extreme to the other, since its object ties – to put it euphemistically – are quite loose. Even if the primary narcissistic stage does not know the difference between genders, it knows the ‘phallus’ very well. Both girls and boys in the primary narcissistic stage assume that they possess a ‘phallus.’ This means that phallocentrism has not been overcome even when there has been some equalization of binary codes. And under the domination of the ‘phallus,’ in the context of the value-dissociation society, even the binary codes cannot simply disappear. Rather, the ‘feralization of patriarchy’ (Roswitha Scholz) is also evident here: the codes ‘male’ – ‘female’ do not simply disappear, but go wild – and this happens not least against the background of the codes having lost their ‘meaning’ in real terms, since they no longer coincide with reality. So, it is hardly surprising that the postmodern softie-man can still celebrate the play with the genders at a ‘queer party’ today, and write a ‘Manifesto for the Man’ tomorrow, in which he laments the crisis of masculinity and advocates a flat anti-feminism. The supposed equalization of the different gender codes happens through the different gender forms, so that the apparent equalization can also turn back into gender essentialism at any time. This hard-as-nails changeover from colorful gender hustle and bustle into gender essentialism is an expression of narcissistically shaped crisis gender. With the subject, its gender is also at an end.

The incursion of gender and queer theory has not only encouraged the spread of the narcissistic social character, but has also brought feminism – although it has suddenly become prominent – into a situation in which it must once again fight for survival. Mediated via gender theory, the postmodern repression of all content and of a claim to truth was carried into feminism and here wreaked its havoc. Now it is precisely gender theory that cannot explain why, despite the equalization of the binary gender codes, the hierarchical gender relationship has not disappeared, or why it even seems to have been revived. In retrospect, it turns out that gender and queer theory were a vehicle or expression for the spreading crisis gender under narcissistic auspices and now cannot understand the result of their drifting, since their conceptual tools do not reach beyond the cultural-symbolic level. Thus, gender and queer theory must also escape the ‘feralization of patriarchy’ (Roswitha Scholz), or else it cannot explain the individual phenomena that make clear the hierarchical gender relations that still exist.

In view of the worsening gender relations, it would be important for feminist thinking to face up to the “feralization of patriarchy” and to perceive how it acts out. A look at the worldwide crisis shows that, despite the (still) colorful gender hustle and bustle (in this country), a crisis masculinity has long since spread, which finds its expression above all in a brutalization of gender relations. Addiction and violence are everyday phenomena of masculine crisis subjectivity – a combination that may also have played a role in the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany. It is evident that sublimation possibilities and thus inhibition thresholds for the direct acting out of affects are breaking down. This is an expression of the narcissistic, as I have tried to show. The connection between crisis masculinity and narcissism becomes particularly clear in the case of amok: the last act of the masculine narcissistic self-constitution is the extended suicide, in which ultimately the destruction of the world is imagined.

On the female side, crisis gendering shows itself in the form of the ‘double socialization’ that Roswitha Scholz has repeatedly pointed out in her interpretation of Regina Becker-Schmidt (cf. Scholz 2011, 67ff). In the course of the postmodern crisis processes, women are once again forced into the role of crisis administrators and made equally responsible for family and income, but this under the auspices of a collapsing capitalism, in which it is ultimately a matter of mere survival. (‘Rubble Women’ [Trümmerfrauen] were also crisis administrators, but they were still able to build something). Moreover, women are still exposed to male projections which, under narcissistic auspices, become so immediate that they can be discharged in (even violent) affect at any time. Thus, in addition to the responsibility that women have for family and income, there is the threat of becoming victims of male violence, hostility, and the like. This permanent overload, which is directed at the role of the woman, may not be named – it would not fit the image of an emancipated woman, who actually manages her job and children quite easily. It is in this context that research findings indicating that women in Germany suffer from depression twice as often as men should be explained. Depression is an expression of the narcissistic way of dealing with the aforementioned contradictory, permanent, and excessive demands. Depression is a ‘female’ variant of narcissism, even though depression also increasingly affects men. As far as a ‘female narcissism’ is concerned, some things would still have to be clarified. For example, we should also ask about the female ways of narcissistically acting out aggression. There seems to be a certain ‘feminine’ tendency to be able to get rid of aggressions quite directly, but in a way in which the aggressions are not acted out openly. It is rather something like a ‘narcissistic-passive aggressiveness,’ which from the outset, because it is not open, evades any reaction and confrontation and thus shows itself to be incapable of conflict.

Even if there is much need for clarification on the socio-psychological level with regard to the latest obfuscations of gender relations, it should be more than clear: The spread of narcissistic social character is an expression of crisis gendering, which is visible on both the female and male side, albeit in different ways. All this indicates that people cannot simply step out of the socio-psychological matrix of the subject, even though this matrix is decomposing from within – and it is also being stripped of its substance. The result of this contradictoriness is narcissism as the last hold of the crisis subject: only through it can the disintegrating subject still pretend to be capable of acting, thinking and feeling.


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Originally published in Exit! no. 14 on 06/01/2017

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