Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rieff - The Triumph of the Therapeutic

Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic; Uses of Faith After Freud. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

"The religious psychologies of release (Jung, Reich, Lawrence) and the social technologies of affluence do not go beyond release and affluence to a fresh imposition of restrictive demands." (254)

"...a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end..." (261 [last sentence of book])

Rieff argues Freud's theories triggered the most consequential cultural revolution since Christianity subsumed the Roman Empire. (Note: Rieff is speaking of an apparently global revolution, but speaks mainly of Western culture. The East to Rieff in 1966 is the Soviet Union, which he argues is merely a more conservative attempt at a society designed for maximum improvement of individuals.) Freud replaced Christianity (and the religious impulse in general) with psychological analysis designed to release the individual from his psychological problems.

Rieff dedicates a chapter each to three of Freud's predecessors, Jung, Reich, and D.H. Lawrence, each of whom attempted to re-institute an element of faith into Freud's purely scientific system.

Jung - Unable to set his protestant faith aside as Freud had done with his Judaism, Jung imagined the "subterranean God" - the inner impulses Freud identified at work within man - as a replacement for the Heavenly Father.

Wilhelm Reich - Reich called himself a Freudo-Marxist. Reich, who admitted in his late-life memoirs that he thought himself a sort of prophet, imagined "Orgone," a universal energy (sexual...a replacement for Freud's is the supreme form of energy) which, if unleashed and embraced by individuals, would help bring about a moral and social revolution.

D.H. Lawrence - Lawrence idealized the innocent child, accepting Freud's theories about the sexuality of the child, and arguing the child is the perfect state of humans, one to be striven for.

A Definition of Culture
"To speak of a moral culture would be redundant. Every culture has two main functions: (1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into asystem of symbols that make men intelligible and trustworthy to each other, thus rendering also the world intelligible and trustworthy; (2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic, internalized variant readings of culture that constitute individual character." (232-3)

How this Fits
Freud is the revolutionary intellectual elite. Rieff is identifying his effect on culture, particularly, as he states over and over, his effect on American culture where he was most strongly embraced. As Freud's followers demonstrate, Freud left the world short of a full replacement of Christianity, but he seems to have started the process.

I feel like I was reading too much criticism of Freud into Rieff's writing, because the end of the first and last chapter seem to celebrate the potential for Freud's revolution to eventually replace the way Christianity created a culture that accepted social hierarchies and consoled the discontented with a promise of a better afterlife.

In a way, Rieff suggests Freud destroyed Christian culture and replaced it with nothing but individualism just as the US student movement critiqued fifties conformist culture and replaced it with nothing but individualism.

Rieff does critique the replacement of the Christian concern for community with a more selfish concern for the individual well-being, and acknowledges the loss of a clear moral system at the close: "What is moral becomes and remains self-evident only within a powerful and deeply compelling system of culture." (261) That system of culture has yet to to arise as of 1966, but Rieff seems to be hopeful for the the end of the cultural revolution Freud started.

However, here is where Lasch, Bell, Slater, Putnam, Lasch-Quinn, Hunter, and even Riesman (writing before Rieff, and perhaps more like Rieff than these others optimistic about the eventual results of this cultural revolution) begin to suggest how problematic the loss of a moral system is turning out to be. Lasch-Quinn bemoans the turn in the Civil Rights movement from the MLK/Christian concern with the community to the Black Power concern with individual well-being. Lasch, Bell, and Slater critique the 60s student movement for a similar obsession with individual well-being at the cost of the community. A decade later than these three, Putnam offers the sociological proof that the individual is being emphasized over the communal, while Hunter (less explicitly) explores the how religion has divided social activists on the right and the left to such an extant that they are unable to speak to each other, much less work together for the community's benefit, much less agree on how the community should be improved.

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