For more than a century and a half since the founding of the psychoanalytic criticism by Sigmund Freud, the school has found a tremendous audience in the field of literature and politics in general. Psychoanalytic or “Freudian” critical practice is essentially the criticism of something, in two ready-made examples, a person or a literary text, through the lens of contemporary psychology in order to explain the sexuality and behavior of that same person or abstract character.
Sadly, despite Marxism’s best efforts, the return of the concept of the political unconscious to go along with Freud’s now-hugely-famous “unconscious mind” concept has not taken hold to the mainstream. It is much easier to find the political unconscious of any given text then might be imagined, but for some reason critics have gone running into one German scholar’s arms and not the other. Indeed, readings of a work that speaks of the hermeneutics of suspicion and do not end up referring to homoerotic desire or an Oedipus complex these days are few and far in between.
While it is justified to talk of Moby Dick, the Picture of Dorian Gray and Kidnapped in terms of the sexual tension between male characters, almost no attempt is made to analyze the political modes, class interests and production that might influence such characterizations. After all, do these characters emerge from nothing but the individual psychology of the author? For example, in the above-mentioned novels, are the characters’ repressed homosexual desires a mere endorsement of hedonistic values as a celebration of beauty, or an overt expression of sexuality as an outgrowth of decadence which challenges bourgeois society and thus is seen as desirable? Is it Romantic-era lushness taken to an extreme in order to compensate for the perceived royalist “drabness” of industrial life, or a manifestation of the appeal to sensation against the moralist society at large? A Freudian would doubtlessly say the latter in both cases, simply because it lures him away from politics except that of the postmodern. However there is an important distinction between those two types of homosexuality: one is progressive in the neo-liberal sense and one is essentially royalist.
The famous Marxist critic Fredric Jameson essentially criticized the psychoanalytic form as being too focused on the individual experience, and thus unable to reach a level of cultural and social analysis. For a Marxist, the immediate leap is made to connect this with neo-liberal policies, which seek to liquidate class struggle and eliminate the survival of anything contrary to the postmodern existential and individual experience.
Jameson is right in saying that the master dogma of Freudian criticism depends on an isolated, autonomized sexuality that emerges only within the contexts of capitalism. Consequently, because Freud’s own branch of thought can only reach bloom within capitalism, it is hardly in a place to critique it-it lives inside the house, and cannot go outside and have a look at it the way Marxism can. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis does retain a credible force of criticism which is merely expanded by Marxism, which says that human consciousness is not master within its own house.
Mental illness diagnoses in general are often a response to behavior that either conflicts with, or concentrates, ideas and practices prevailing under the imperialist system. A “murderer” or a “serial killer” is one who kills people and does not happen to possess a badge or gun, or a plane with bombs in it. What psychologists call depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder is particularly interesting from this approach. The manifestations of mental illnesses are social products even if there is a chemical basis for them.
The radical individualism and violence in America may lead people diagnosed as mentally ill to shoot up a school or worry about CIA surveillance, while in a socialist society their behavior would manifest itself differently. The obsessive-compulsive man, for example, is frequently distressed with what he perceives to be uncleanliness or imperfection, defined usually in bourgeois terms of class thinking. See the movie “American Psycho” for an example. Another interesting phenomenon is the popular idea of the “mad genius,” or the concept that mental illness can coincide with or produce genius. Always it is shown as also bringing its downfall, though little is done to analyze whether or not this is true. Instead, one is invited to gaze in awe of the genius and to strive to be one of these “greats” who “burn out, rather than fade away,” which does little but reinforce individualism and the rights of capital.
Unfortunately, Freudian criticism does not ponder how every single citizen in an imperialist country, male or female, white or black, worker or celebrity happens to be prone to “mental illness and depression.” To do so would undermine the whole individualist approach to Freudian psychology and expose (do not faint!) real social problems.