Notes on Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

To me this book is still a scandal, half a century after it was published, and a generation after it became a talismanic book-object—more than a mere text—on campuses.  It’s a scandal because the author is utterly serious about proving his claims for psychoanalysis as a theory of culture, a philosophy of history, and a science of original sin.

Herbert Marcuse gets the better of the historical argument in Eros and Civilization (1955), when contemplating the immediate future from the standpoint of the 1950s; he did so by maintaining some faith in the possibilities of sublimation, on the one hand, and automation (the end of alienated labor) on the other.  But Norman O. Brown wins the theoretical stakes—he’s the more thorough and responsible reader of Freud, even though, in the end, he treated sublimation and repression as the same set of urges.  If nothing else, you can say that he revised Lacan avant la lettre, anticipating Foucault, as it were, and meanwhile grounded Weber and Tawney after the fact by psychoanalyzing the Protestant Era.  You can say, in other words, that like Marcuse, or Raymond Williams at precisely the same postwar moment, Brown tried to grasp capitalism as a cultural and social-psychological reality, and succeeded—he broke beyond the grip of a moribund Marxism by supplementing, correcting, and rehabilitating it.

To be more specific.

Life Against Death insists that psychoanalysis can and must become a theory of culture rather than a psychotherapeutic device that explains character structure by reference to changes in toilet training or child-rearing, that is, by the character of the parent(s).  The trans-historical infantile experiences of omnipotence and erasure, of instinctual defusion, and of polymorphous perversity—sexuality at its most extreme—are the raw clinical materials of the historical analysis, not the specific trauma of this or that childhood.  The theoretical set-up of Parts I through IV stands as a long introduction, in other words, to the empirical study of the Protestant ethic and the reality of capitalism in Part V (“Studies in Anality”), in much the same way that Parts 1 through VI of Capital, Volume 1, stand as a theoretical introduction to the empirical study of enclosure, expropriation, and colonization which follows.

Psychoanalysis is throughout treated as a symptom of the return of the repressed—that is, as an insight into the origin of culture in the displacement of bodily experience, and the evolution of culture required by the sub/consequent translation of bodily experience into intelligible signs.  Freud’s insight wasn’t new, in short, because all of religion and every work of art had already come up with it.  In this sense, psychoanalysis was a philosophy of history that couldn’t dismiss religion as false consciousness, or ignore art as mere ornament on the tree of life.  To put it more plainly, psychoanalysis was a theory of culture, and thus a philosophy of history, precisely because it was a way of acknowledging—and incorporating—the perverse truths of religion (and/or art) rather than dismissing or ignoring them as deviations from the truth afforded by reason and science (“modernity”).

“A reinterpretation of human history is not an appendage to psychoanalysis but an integral part of it.  The empirical fact which compelled Freud to comprehend the whole of human history in the area [sic] of psychoanalysis is the appearance in dreams and in neurotic symptoms of themes substantially identical with major themes—both ritualistic and mythical—in the religious history of mankind.  The link between the theory of neurosis and the theory of history is the theory of religion.” (12)

Every symptom is an attempted cure.  “Psychoanalysis must view religion both as neurosis and as that attempt to become conscious and to cure, inside the neurosis itself, on which Freud came at the end of his life to pin his hopes for therapy.  Psychoanalysis is vulgarly interpreted as dismissing religion as an erroneous system of wishful thinking.  In The Future of an Illusion, Freud does speak of religion as a ‘substitute-gratification’—the Freudian analogue of to the Marxian formula, ‘opiate of the people.’  But according to the whole doctrine of repression, ‘substitute-gratification’—a term which applies not only to poetry and religion but also to dreams and neurotic symptoms—contain truth; they are expressions, distorted by repression, of the immortal desires of the human heart. . . .  Psychoanalysis can go beyond religion [and Marxism, another symptom] only if it sees itself as completing what religion tries to do, namely make the unconscious conscious; then psychoanalysis would be the science of original sin.  Psychoanalysis is in a position to define the error in religion only after it has recognized [that] truth.” (13-14)

Again, the first 176 pages of dense theoretical exegesis are prolegomenon to an empirical inquiry into the Reformation—that is, into the character structure created by Protestantism and its relation to the emergence of capitalism.

Life Against Death is designed, then, as an exit strategy from the constraints of Marxism, which located the “compulsion to work” in a prior, external circumstance—primitive accumulation, class hierarchy, the superior power of the bourgeoisie, and so forth.  The book’s strategy works by demonstrating that this compulsion is internally generated and reproduced in the deep structure of what we call character: it’s the central symptom of the “general neurosis of mankind,” which might be characterized as the irrepressible urge toward freedom, that is, the urge to reinstate the experience of infantile omnipotence, to reunite the desire and the capacity to make the world move in accordance with our words.  Science, in these terms, is a rationalized version of the magical thinking that derives from our infantile glimpse of freedom.  In the same terms, the “compulsion to work” is a trans-historical component of human nature, or rather the essential element in the development of this human nature (which of course takes different historical forms in the course of human civilization).  Not incidentally, Marx said as much in Volume 1 of Capital: “The labour-process resolved  . . . into its simple elementary factors, is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; . . .it is the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.”  (International ed., 1967, pp. 183-84)

Still, Brown has a point, and a purpose.  “The necessity of a psychoanalytical approach to history is pressed upon the historian by one question: Why does man, alone of all animals, have a history?  For man is distinguished from animals not simply by the possession and transmission from generation to generation of that suprabiological apparatus which is culture [cf. Geertz], but also, if history and changes in time are essential characteristics of human culture and therefore of man, by a desire to change his culture and so to change himself. . . . [The] historical process is sustained by man’s desire to become other than what he is.  And man’s desire to become something different is essentially an unconscious desire.  The actual changes in history neither result from nor correspond to the conscious desires of the human agents who bring them about.  Every historian knows this, and the philosopher of history, Hegel, in his doctrine of the ‘cunning or reason,’ made it a fundamental point in his structural analysis of history.” (15-16)

Life Against Death is also designed as a radical departure from Weber’s (thus Tawney’s) correlation of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism; in this sense, it’s a way of forcing us back to Marx and Hegel, or placing us alongside Tillich, in either case edging us toward a more fundamental critique of capitalism than we can derive from the “decadent Protestantism” of the 20th century, which won’t, or can’t, acknowledge the actuality of evil—and thus can’t map out the Kingdom of God on this earth.

Brown wants us to take Luther’s fear and hatred of the Devil as seriously as we take, say, Marx’s theory of alienation.  For the Devil is the middle term that connects the privy—where Luther discovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone—to capitalism on the one hand and Protestantism on the other.  “The Devil’s word is money,” and he rules the world, according to strict Lutheran usage.  And this Devil himself is a monstrous, “materialized anality”—the incarnation of shit—who deploys the symbolic residue of feces we call money to seduce  and control his victims.  So by acknowledging the Devil’s sovereignty on earth, early Protestantism acknowledges the excremental rule of money—that is, the existence and the evil of capitalism as such.  (pp. 202-30)

From this standpoint, Protestantism is a powerful constraint on the development of capitalism, not its enabling condition, as Weber would have it in explaining the “spirit of capitalism” (e.g., at pp. 40-46, 73-75, 104-14, 120-21, 161-63 of The Protestant Ethic, Scribner ed, trans. Parsons)—or rather it is a powerful constraint until it becomes an enabling condition in the very late 17th century, as the millennial hopes of the English Revolution recede, and, accordingly, as the gospel telling of the Kingdom of God on this earth begins to sound like news from nowhere.

But the centrality of anal compulsion in Part V of Life Against Death must sound either disgusting or hilarious—probably both—in the absence of Freud’s general theory of sublimation as recounted and enlarged by Brown.  So herewith my summary of this theory.

Sublimation happens, Freud argued, insofar as particular bodily experiences are repressed and translated into the more accessible symbolic resources made available by the culture at large.  Words and less complicated visual icons are the crucial symbolic resources in this sense, for we situate ourselves in the world beyond our bodies by talking or writing (or drawing), by depicting and changing the world with words and icons that others can understand.  We feel and communicate our original bodily states or desires as sounds and gestures, because as infants we have no other way of making them—ourselves—known to others.  At this stage of development, however, the world does move, occasionally at least, in accordance with the intention of these sounds and gestures: pain is relieved, food is delivered.  Thus the imagined bliss of infantile omnipotence and the enduring belief in the greater magic of mere words. [on infantile omnipotence, Sandor Ferenzci, “Stages in the Development of a Sense of Reality” (1916), in First Contributions (1921)]

We grow up, then, as we grow out of our bodies by means of linguistic abstractions—we sublimate and sanitize those originally polymorphous experiences as we rise above our bodies by replacing sounds and gestures with words and icons.  But of course the body’s urges always remain as ingredients in the mind’s eye.

Money is the only symbolic resource that is comparable in scope to language.  It is the universal commodity that works like a primal metaphor, thus allowing us to recognize and negotiate difference by equating unlike things (reducing a whole person, for example, to a bodily orifice, as in “he’s a real asshole,” or acknowledging the equivalent value of an expensive car and a cheap house).  Psychoanalysis follows the lead of anthropology, however, in treating money not as the epitome of economic utility but as the extremity of irrationality.  In Freud’s terms, money is the sanitized, sublimated equivalent of shit.  In other words, our desire for money—wealth in the abstract—is the enduring residue of the emotional attachment to excrement that comes with the anal-sadistic phase of infantile development, before the bodily sources of the child’s sexual pleasure are “elevated” and confined to the genitals by the rigors of the Oedipus complex.

The child’s feces are originally experienced and perceived as a detachable part of his body, as the first thing he can control with muscular effort and the first object he can give away as a gift—by the same token, it’s the first approximation of his property, a separable, tangible, and fungible asset he owns outright, as his own end product.  No wonder “anal erotism” organizes his infantile being: these feces are the material evidence of his differentiation from himself—his product—and from the external world, but they also measure his mastery over his body, which is all the identity he knows.  As he inevitably learns to rise above the bodily pleasures of playing with the fecal masses he produces, that is, as he sanitizes the urge to accumulate and allocate more of his own shit, he gradually transfers his emotional attachment to other separate, tangible, and fungible objects or assets, like collectibles, coins, and, eventually, less solid forms of money.

By this psychoanalytical accounting, the anal-sadistic urges are trans-historical dimensions of human nature and human being, but they remain as recessive symptoms of infantile development—as signs of deviance or childishness—until the advent of a money economy, a market society, validates them as necessary, rational, even admirable character traits of adults.  At that stage of human development, the anal-compulsive personality becomes normal; for where money mediates all social relations outside the family, no one can avoid the urge to accumulate—to abstain is to suffer poverty, social disgrace, perhaps even to starve to death.

Luther understood this stage, his own time, as a “rain of filth,” a perfect storm of shit: “money is the word of the Devil, through which he creates all things, the way God created through the true word.”  Money ruled the world: “Usury lives securely and rages, as if he were God and lord in all lands.”  In sum: “the world is the gaping anus” of the Devil himself.  Luther experienced the demonic more directly than most 16th century individuals, and articulated it more immediately; but his correlation of the Trickster, the Devil, and the universalization of exchange value was by then a commonplace.

Here is how Brown summarizes his empirical findings.

“The Devil is a middle term connecting Protestantism and anality.  As against the neo-Freudians, anality means real bodily anality . . As against the orthodox Freudians, the pathogenic factor in anality is not real bodily toilet training, but peculiar fantasies (the Devil) connected with the anal zone.  Furthermore, these fantasies are not private or individual products, but exist as social projections into the world of culture.  It follows that the precipitating facto in a psychological upheaval such as the Protestant Reformation is not any change in toilet-training patterns, but an irruption of fresh material from deeper strata of the unconscious made possible by a large-scale transformation in the structure of the projective system (the culture).  The dynamic of history is the slow return of the repressed.” (230)

There’s more: it gets better.  “Luther’s vision of the dominion of death in life is correlative to his eschatological hope in the transformation of life on earth, and the transformation of the human body—the resurrection of the body, in a form, as Luther says, free from death and filth.  Luther’s eschatology challenges psychoanalysis to formulate the conditions under which the dominion of death and anality could be abolished.  In thus challenging psychoanalysis, Christianity would perform the function, proper to all religion, of voicing the substance of things hoped for, the [conviction] of things unseen [this is Hebrews 11].” (232-33)

I assigned Part V of Life Against Death to a graduate class I’m teaching on the development of capitalism, and we discussed it today, alongside Weber’s Protestant Ethic and C.B. Macpherson’s Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962).  We agreed, I think, that Marx and Weber converge on a definition, and thus a periodization, of capitalism.  On all else, we remain confused, and that is a good thing.  I thought Brown would shake up our thinking about the character structure specific to early modern capitalism—certainly he fleshes out what Weber politely calls the ascetic personality enfranchised by Protestantism.  I also thought that our ideas about modern individualism would take some concrete shape in the terms proposed by Marx in the Introduction to the Grundrisse, where we started with all this, and by Brown in Chapter XIV.  Specifically, I thought we’d see that the individualism—the character structure—solicited by the development of capitalism was a brand new creature that, in its turn, enabled the further development of this mode of production.

No such luck, and that, too, is a good thing.



Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Notes on Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

  1. Tara

    I am happy to know there is someone who has read and understood Norman O. Brown.

  2. i don’t know how i missed him in my life.glad to catch up a bit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s