Freud’s ‘Civilisation as Technology’

Freud had a beard, but not a hipster one. His analysis of the human condition allies with that of Marx and Nietzsche; it’s bleak.

Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.

In an almost throwaway comment towards the end of his lecture on Freud, Szelényi suggests that Freud saw civilisation itself as a technology. To begin with, nature and the world is the source of our unhappiness – our discontent – and therefore we seek to assert control over it. This is something that reflects Lewis Mumford (our system that ‘…makes control over physical nature, ultimately control over man himself, the chief purpose of existence’), Murray Bookchin’s ecological worldview, and more recently the laments of Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost and the Object Oriented Ontologists – more on them later. This man versus nature battle, or subject versus object if you prefer, yielded for Freud the civilisation with which we are possessed, one bent on world domination, so to speak. Our system of social relations, our politics, is designed to extend more and more control over the world, and over mankind itself. Our civilisation is a technology, a machine, that is designed towards that end, designed to relieve us of the pain and frustration that nature inflicts upon us, up to and including mortality itself. Morton suggests that we are in fact already governed by what is effectively a primitive Artificial Intelligence, that of industrial capitalism.

We’ve seen how technology is more than just bombs and cars and computers, that it is (in the Wittgenstein sense) a form of life, a mechanism for us to engage with the world. Similarly, when dealing with Weber’s accounts of state legitimacy, we’ve seen how bureaucracy can be seen as mechanistic, or an actual machine. Freud’s concept (or more accurately Szelényi’s interpretation of Freud) of civilisation as a technology extends both concepts to the level of civilisation. Freud has plenty critics; civilisation in his context may or may not include the less developed parts of the world. Bringing Freud and Morton together, we can assemble a number of provocative questions: Is our civilisation actually conscious? Are our technologies conscious? Then we revisit Langdon Winner’s question and ask ‘Do Artifacts have Politics?’ They also re-contextualise the questions about artificial intelligence and how it is constructed; while the most recent advances have been in the idea of machine learning – AIs are not programmed, they learn – these ideas inform the concept of AI as being alien, external to us. Machine learning certainly offers the prospects of constructing a machine that is smarter than we are, stronger and more capable. But it remains tethered to human creativity, to our art.

Winner dismissed the alternative, that objects had any kind of politics, let alone consciousness – ‘…to argue that certain technologies in themselves have political properties seems, at first glance, completely mistaken. We all know that people have politics, not things.’ He qualified this explaining that certain technologies (such as the atom bomb), and certain technology choices (e.g. solar versus nuclear), have political qualities, and that therefore those technologies are imbued with a politics as they are situated within the human context. However, let us consider Marx’ interpretation of history, and Freud’s description of the ego. ‘Men make their own history,’ Marx wrote, though he qualified that by insisting that it was within a context bequeathed to them: ‘[T]hey do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ (from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) The context, then, within which people exercise political judgement, and make decisions, is decided for them in advance, he was saying. We can extend this by arguing that people do not have politics save insofar as it is bequeathed to them. Similarly, Freud’s concept of the ego as it develops in the new born child is one, he argues, that develops over time based on various stimuli (Civilisation and its Discontents, p.5). While initially the ego is not separated from the outside world (part, perhaps, of a grand ecology), the child acquires its entfremdung, to borrow from Marx again – her alienation, estrangement from the world as she grows up.

Where does that leave us? Well, Tim Morton suggests that we ‘shake hands with a hedgehog and disco,’ and he may well be right; though I’ve seen quite a few hedgehogs, and they’re not very sociable. Perhaps they know something we don’t. In considering technology, however, we do need to realise what our technology is for. When we build it, we should build it for the right reasons. When we build our societies, we should do the same. I would suggest that perhaps we should be more thoughtful, though I’m concerned it’s not a Trump versus Clinton dichotomy, nor even a Corbyn versus May one. It remains even beyond (or beneath?) the basic concepts of state and country; revolutions of the kind to which we have become accustomed only perpetuate modernity in different clothes. Maybe the answer is within ourselves.


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