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 In the light of globalisation and the communications revolution, Freud’s cultural analysis looks increasingly out of date.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.