Social theory since Freud: traversing social imaginaries
Social theory has the task of providing conceptions of the nature of human agency, social life and the cultural products of human action which can be placed in the services of the social sciences and humanities in general. Among other problems, social theory is concerned with language and the interpretation of meaning, the character of social institutions, the explication of social practices and processes, questions of social transformation and the like. The reproduction of social life, however, is never only a matter of impersonal ‘processes’ and ‘structures’: it is also created and lived within, in the depths of an inner world, of our most personal needs, passions and desires. Love, empathy, anxiety, shame, guilt, depression: no study of social life can be successfully carried out, or meaningfully interpreted, without reference to the human element of agency. Modernity is the age in which this human element is constituted as a systematic field of knowledge. That field of knowledge is known as psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, a product of the culture of late nineteenth-century Europe, has had a profound influence on contemporary social thought. Psychoanalysis, as elaborated by Freud and his followers, has been enthusiastically taken up by social and political theorists, literary and cultural critics, and by feminists and postmodernists, such is its rich theoretical suggestiveness and powerful diagnosis of our contemporary cultural malaise. The importance of psycho-analysis to social theory, although a focus of much intellectual debate and controversy, can be seen
in quite specific areas, especially as concerns contemporary debates on human subjectivity, sexuality, gender hierarchy and political debates over culture. Indeed, Freudian concepts and theories have played a vital role in the construction of contemporary social theory itself. The writings of social theorists as diverse as Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, Jürgen Habermas, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Jean-François Lyotard all share a Freudian debt. Yet there can be little doubt that the motivating reason for this turn to Freud among social theorists is as much political as intellectual. In a century which has witnessed the rise of totalitarianism, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the possibility of a ‘nuclear winter’, social theory has demanded a language which is able to grapple with modernity’s unleashing of its unprecedented powers of destruction. Psychoanalysis has provided that conceptual vocabulary.