After a century of ongoing influence, Sigmund Freud’s work continues to exhibit a remarkable regenerative power. This is related to the interdisciplinary and hybrid quality of his writings, which elude appropriation by any single interpretive approach. Unquestionably, there are also conceptual problems and contradictions ensuing from this play of opposing tendencies. However, such tensions contribute to the production of multiple levels of meaning and lines of argument that expand the horizons of psychoanalytic inquiry.
An inherent conflictual quality fosters plurivocity in a way that keeps the Freudian corpus open to fresh encounters. It may be that if Freud’s work was more consistent and systematized it would also be more one-dimensional.
A pivotal development in contemporary postmodern thought, occurring in several forms, is the recognition that conflicting tendencies within texts can be intentionally emphasized and explored as a resource for expressing new insights. Readings of Freud along such lines have been undertaken by Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and many others. These theorists have applied themselves to a wide range of Freud’s writings, and have contributed to an ongoing rethinking of psycho-analytic theory.
The present inquiry appropriates aspects of the conceptual and methodological contributions of these predecessors, while integrating them into my own line of thought. In this, I am seeking to illustrate how postmodernist strategies of reading elicit new perspectives on the subject that evoked Freud’s most reductive and inflexible tendencies: the psychological function of religious forms within cultural existence.
Freud’s major writings on religion include some of his most important inquiries into the intersections of psychology and culture. There are, of course, rather glaring manifest problems and limitations in these writings, particularly Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, but also The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. These works have served to establish the dominant psychoanalytic views of the psychology of religion within the closed, essentially dismissive parameters assumed by most theorists.
However, assuming a fairly clear, obvious level of surface meaning discourages sustained analyses of these texts. My intention in this study is to rectify this neglect, which seems glaring for several reasons. Freud’s writings on religion have shaped so much thinking about the relations among psychology, religion, and culture that their influence alone, their history of effects, warrants re-examination to sort out what may or may not be occurring in them. It is well established that portions of Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, in particular, are inaccurate and outdated in many of their manifest claims. Yet the massive influence of Freud, the ongoing impact and appropriation of his texts, calls for delimiting which aspects of his thought on religion and culture might be salvaged, and which merit rejection.
Beyond this, however, close reading reveals Freud’s inquiries to be quite complex, multileveled, and fruitful for ongoing interdisciplinary reflection. My argument is that these writings reflect on the meaning of cultural forms related to religion in significant ways, exceeding the scope of Freud’s explicit postulates and arguments. Additionally, they open broader questions concerning subjective formation and development. These questions are related to religion in its traditional forms, but extend beyond those confines into other, related cultural and symbolic spheres.
They concern the meta-issue of the formation and transformation of human subjectivity within culture, necessarily involving language, values, and ideals. That is, while Freud’s analyses purportedly address the question of how religion originates, they serve better to illuminate aspects of how it functions, psycho-culturally.
Introduction: tensions in Freud, extensions in Lacan and Kristeva
1 Trauma, Oedipus complex, and the exigencies of subjective formation
- Traumatic experience and psychical reality
- Oedipal dynamics and entry’ into the symbolic
2 Religion, ethics, and acculturation
- Freud’s critique of religion and the latent issue of ethical transformation
- Lacan and the problem of modalities of subjectivity
3 Displacement, supplementary, and symbolic meaning in Totem and Taboo
- The myth of origins and the problem of origination
- Omnipotence of thoughts and cultural reality
- The sacrifice: from the real to the symbolic
4 Moses and Monotheism: the trauma of symbolization
- More originary hypotheses
- Textual and psychological vicissitudes
- Trauma and the return of the repressed
5 Moses and Monotheism: the psychodynamics of Geistigkeit
- The great man and the symbolic order
- The realm of Geist
- Drive renunciation and subjective transformation
6 Psycho-cultural inquiry from Freud to Kristeva
- Issues of critique and transformation
- Displacing the ego and opening to the Other
- The unconscious structured like a language
- Kristeva on melancholia, art, and religion