A culture named desire

Ransacking the excesses of contemporary culture

A culture named desire

The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism

by Anne Manne

Melbourne University Press, $32.99 pb, 319 pp, 9780522861082

It is now approaching eighty-five years since Freud published his seminal book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). A foundational work of psychoanalytic cultural criticism, Freud’s focus was repression and its cultural consequences. He argued that sexual repression, and its associated guilt, had become the fundamental problem of modern societies. Freud understood society as a kind of trade-off: unfettered sexual pleasure is sacrificed for a sense of collective security. Freedom of the self is limited in the name of social order. ‘Civilization,’ Freud wrote, ‘is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity.’

From today’s vantage point, to speak of culture in terms of unity or order sounds somewhat quaint. In the light of globalisation and the communications revolution, Freud’s cultural analysis looks increasingly out of date. In our global world of 24/7 digital culture – one shot through with religious, racial, and gender divisions – the production of social order may depend less upon consensus than upon a lack of consensus at the very point where cultural divisions could conceivably translate into political action.

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Anthony Elliott

Anthony Elliott

Anthony Elliott is Director of the Hawke Research Institute, where he is Research Professor of Sociology at the University of South Australia. He is also currently Visiting Professor of Sociology at the Open University UK, and Visiting Professor of Sociology at University College Dublin, Ireland. From 2014 he will be Visiting Fellow at the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin, and in summer 2014 he will hold a Visiting Professorship at the Graduate School of Human Relations, Keio University, Japan. Professor Elliott is a prominent social theorist, sociologist and public intellectual. He is the author and editor of some thirty-five books, which have been translated or are forthcoming in a dozen languages. His books include Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition, Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction, Subject To Ourselves, The Mourning of John Lennon, Critical Visions, Social Theory Since Freud, The New Individualism (with Charles Lemert), Making The Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery is Transforming Our Lives, Mobile Lives (with John Urry), On Society (with Bryan S. Turner), Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, and Reinvention. He is best known for Concepts of the Self. Professor Elliott is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Published in September 2014 no. 364

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