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Totem

Image by InSidE oUt via Tumblr

According to old school anthropology, a totem is a symbol that represents a spiritual ancestor for a group in aboriginal Australia and North America. The totem usually takes the form of an animal or sacred plant. Normally there are taboos against slaying or eating the totem.

More recently, definitions of the totem have broadened to include the entire globe. Wikipedia says:

A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. The totemic symbol may serve as a reminder of the kin group’s ancestry or mythic past.[1] While the term “totem” is Ojibwe in origin, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to cultures worldwide.¹

Not to be confused with the totem pole, most thinkers probably project their own ideas onto the meaning of the totem. For instance, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim said the totem is nothing more than an emblematic center for a social group. For Durkheim, the aboriginal’s belief in ancestral spirits is spurious but the totem plays a crucial role in ensuring the social cohesion of the clan. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to know if the belief in ancestral spirits is somewhat misguided or genuine. But to dismiss it outright seems arrogant.

Sigmund Freud used the idea of totem to create a fanciful history of mankind that apparently supports his theories about the Oedipus Complex and the development of the superego. Today, Freud’s history isn’t taken too seriously, except, perhaps, by ardent Freudian psychoanalysists.

English: Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken...

Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anthropologists have advanced so many different ideas about the totem that one leading anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, questions the validity of the term.

However, the many and conflicting interpretations of the totem have raised some important questions:

  • Can one cultural system really understand another?
  • Do all members of a given culture hold the same beliefs?
  • What is a cultural system?
  • Could a researcher answer the above questions with any kind of certainty?

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totem

Related Posts » Emic-Etic, Levels of Knowledge, Lévi-Bruhl (Lucien)


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Transference

Freud - Exploring the unconscious mind by Enrico

Freud – Exploring the unconscious mind by Enrico

For Sigmund Freud transference is a psychological dynamic where mostly unconscious ideas and feelings associated with past figures or events are displaced onto current figures or events, thereby distorting current relationships.

Charles Rycroft notes that Freud initially saw transference as inappropriate and an unfortunate aspect of the psychoanalytic relationship. But Freud later recognized it as an unavoidable and, in fact, useful aspect of psychoanalytic therapy.¹

While the narrow definition of transference refers to distortions generated by the patient and thrust onto the figure of the analyst, counter-transference refers to distortions created by the analyst and falsely attributed to the patient, these also based on past experiences.

C. G. Jung‘s view of transference emerged from the Freudian school but includes the concept of the collective unconscious and extends to the borders of the metaphysical.

For Jung, transference is positive and negative, making it a significant interpersonal factor among friends, coworkers, lovers, family and marriage partners. On the plus side, transference is a special type of projection that may link human beings in an almost mystical bond of meaning.²

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. (Wikipedia)

While at the extremes transference may exhilarate or enslave, according to Jung it is a natural dynamic in which the psyche strives for genuine individuality and wholeness. Jung calls this quest for individuality and wholeness the individuation process.

When projections are made conscious and stripped away, Jung believes individuals are faced with the task of relating in a more mature, realistic manner. This arguably is a never-ending process by virtue of our inherent human limitations.

In pop culture the idea of projection appears in Bruce Cockburn’s song “Tell the Universe” (2006):

You’ve been projecting your sh** at the world
Self-hatred tarted up as payback time
You can self destruct–that’s your right
But keep it to yourself if you don’t mind

Image via Tumblr

¹ A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 168.

² Today it’s becoming increasingly common to talk about other people’s “energy.” Some believe this can transfer and linger, especially from intimate contact like sex (See, for instance: https://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mczlk8Accw1qer5v4o1_1280.jpg. But the term “energy” might be misleading. Sensitive people might perceive not so much energy, but rather, a spiritual environment (technically called numinosity).

Related Posts » Future of an Illusion, Lévi-Bruhl (Lucien), Participation Mystique, Psychoid,  Syntonic Counter-Transference, Unconscious

 

 


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Abreaction

Conversación / Conversation by Heart Industry

Abreaction is a psychoanalytic term referring to a discharge of emotion that is attached to a repressed experience. In contemporary psychoanalysis, the analysand tries to not only feel but also intellectually understand the emotion—that is, the why and how of its repression. According to contemporary abreaction theories, the emotional experience coupled with an intellectual understanding bring about a therapeutic result.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, however, the intellectual component wasn’t deemed important for successful therapeutic progress. One just had to feel, it was thought. In fact, Freud, who introduced the concept in 1893, often tried get his patients to abreact under hypnosis.

Freud’s star pupil Carl Jung showed some interest in abreaction but also in its limitations. Jung believed that abreaction could bring about a positive, cathartic experience. But also he believed that abreaction of personal trauma wasn’t the only way to bring the psyche to health. Also, Jung argued that some patients fantasized or actively made up their early traumatic experiences.

Related Posts » Catharsis, Cathexis


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Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and its Discontents via Tumblr (click on image for quotes from the book)

Civilization and its Discontents is an important work written in 1929 (after WWI) by Sigmund Freud in which he proposes a “death instinct” (thanatos) said to exist on both personal and cultural levels.

Freud says tensions arise between personal, instinctual desires their cultural repression. And realizing that mankind is capable of mass destruction, Freud suggests that not only individuals but subcultures and even entire societies can be neurotic.

This might all seem pretty obvious today but in his time, Freud was groundbreaking.


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Displacement

Sigmund Freud diskutiert am 18. Juli 1929 mit ...

Sigmund Freud on 18 July 1929 by Gustav Klimt at Café Landtmann – The opposition between Eros and death instinct, cultural and instinctual impulse | Oil on canvas, 2000 (Photo credit: Christiaan Tonnis)

In Freudian psychoanalysis displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism where an idea, object (Freudian term that includes other people) or behavior is substituted for another.

Like sublimation, this involves a redirection of mental energy but with displacement the original impulse may be socially acceptable, whereas with sublimation the original impulse is socially unacceptable.

Displacement may occur in dreams when one image stands for another. Or it may occur in a simple substitution of one activity or person for another. When it’s linked with sublimation, displacement might result in humor where the unspeakable is spoken, if in a veiled manner.

Although displacement is usually described as a primary process (the primitive, unconscious part of the psyche that doesn’t follow strict rules about space and time), when it merges with conscious activity it also becomes a secondary process (the newer part of the mind concerned with logic, order and daytime reality). Examples of displacement as a primary and secondary process would be daydreaming, creative acts, and emotional thoughts.¹

¹ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Penguin, 1972, pp. 35, 124-125. It should be noted that not everyone accepts Freud’s view of primary and secondary processes and, moreover, that the two are essentially at odds with one another.


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Defense Mechanism

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud N...

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1922 the pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote that the defense mechanism is “a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to neurosis.”¹

The defense mechanism may be useful and adaptive but when inappropriate or out of balance it is regarded as neurotic and potentially destructive.

A defense mechanism arises from anxiety that poses a threat to the psyche. Anxiety may be generated by instinctual tensions, guilt (threats of bad conscience from the superego) or by actual danger.

Freud was close to his daughter, Anna, who became a psychoanalyst in her own right. Anna Freud lists the defense mechanisms as

  1. regression
  2. repression
  3. reaction formation
  4. isolation
  5. undoing
  6. projection
  7. introjection
  8. turning against the self
  9. reversal
  10. sublimation

Of the ten, sublimation always refers to positive, so-called normal behavior and is never deemed neurotic or negative. Additionally, the psychological processes of splitting and denial are usually regarded as defense mechanisms.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of the defense mechanism is worded in such a way so as to make the world seem like a hostile, attacking place. While it’s true that much of human life is about psychological assault and being assaulted, children with a good, loving upbringing have parents (or primary caregivers), family and friends who shield them from many of life’s attacks. Good parenting also knows how to guide the child toward a healthy kind of mastery that includes genuine consideration for the rights of others. From this, kids and adults can experience all the joy and satisfaction that accompanies a mature balance of mastery and considerateness.

Having said this, one might wonder why Freud didn’t take a more positive approach and call these psychological dynamics coping or, perhaps, living mechanisms instead of defense mechanisms. Perhaps Freud’s choice was partly due to the fact that he developed his theories from working with neurotic patients. Also, Freud had a pessimistic, atheistic vision in which his patients, at best, progressed from neurotic anxiety to an apparently normal state of human unhappiness.

By forwarding a psychology which omitted God’s love from the healing process, one could say that, for all his smarts, Freud missed the main point.

¹ Cited in Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 28.


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Electra Complex

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from...

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from the Greek Tragedians, by Alfred Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Freudian theory, the Electra complex is the group of feelings arising within a young girl, aged three to five, who wishes to possess her father and eliminate her mother.

For Melanie Klein, these feelings begin as early as the first year of life.

The Electra complex is outlined less clearly than the Oedipus complex, the counterpart complex for young boys. With the Electra complex the girl apparently envies her father’s penis, desiring it for herself to the extent of fantasizing about bearing his children—the origin of the term “penis-envy.” Her unrealistic, unattainable desire causes her to resent her mother. And the young child’s mind translates her extreme psychological discomfort into the fantastic belief that she’s been castrated by her mother.

A feminist response to this is expressed as follows:

The idea that the Electra complex is referred to most of the time as “penis-envy” shows where Freud was in his thought process. He simply thinks the male psyche is the dominant entity in human relations, and that female influence is secondary. This may be due in part to his belief that girls have weaker superegos, where morality is developed and values internalized. We develop this judicial component of our personality during the phallic stage.¹

¹ Amy Simokaitis, “Freud: Let’s Talk about Sex,” October 13, 1999. http://www.umsl.edu/~mgriffin/psy302/Simokaitis/electra_complex.html

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