Term Paper: Freud's Theory of Repression

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[. . .] He and Freud never met again." (Bridle & Edelstein) These differences included a rejection of the overwhelming importance of sexuality (particularly infantile sexuality and sexual trauma) in the development and daily existence of the psyche, and a rejection of the seeming lack of self-determination which Freud's ideas about repression seemed to engender.

In speaking of repression, Freud strongly insinuates that by experiencing and then repressing childhood trauma (of various sorts, but specifically sexual), humans create psychological disfunctions which later control their lives. There is a certain determinism about Freud's theories of repression which suggest that that which is repressed determines the individual's future life to a greater degree than Adler believed was true.

Adler founded a school of psychology called "individual psychology" which focused on the "indivisibility of the personality." (Bridle & Edelstein) He disagree with Freud by suggesting that humans were not "a conglomeration of mechanisms, drives or dynamic parts....human beings are self-determined... he writes... 'No experience is a cause of success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences... we make out of them just what suits our purposes. We are self-determined by the meaning we give to our experiences.'" (Bridle & Edelstein) This is relevant to the theories of repression because it takes away some of the supposed power of repression to cripple and destroy lives, as well as to control them. Adler found the meaning of human psychology not so much uncovering forgotten secrets, traumas, and fantasies, but in creating love for fellowmen, and other high moral expressions.

This focus on active choice seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance in the current age. Lauren Slater, author of Opening Skinner's Box, speaks of the way in which many modern psychologists such as Eysenck, Ginzburg, Bonanno, and Gist have all independently worked on theories inspired by Adler which suggest that sometimes repression (moving on with one's life while, as it were, forgiving and truly forgetting) may be healthier than psychoanalysis which dwells on the trauma and the weak emotions associated with it. She is in someway echoing Adler's sentiments when she writes:

Freud once defined repression quite benignly as a refocusing of attention away from unpleasant ideas. Of course there are times...when we need to do that; repression as filter, a screen to keep us clean. So turn away....If you're breathless, knees knocking, and life is a pure sprint from some shadow, I say go back.... Dwell. As for the rest of us,... Let us fashion our lids; let us prop them proudly on top of our hurting heads."

Skinner: Denying --and Repeating?-- Freud's Theories

If there was one group of psychologists who could be said to be most against Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, it would be the behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner. These behaviorists suggest that the psychological does not matter, and are skeptical about its very existence. Rather they suggest that the human being, like any other animal, is merely conditioned by the positive and negative reinforcements of their environment. When Skinner wrote his infamous utopian novel Walden Two about a world in which all the citizens were programmed (through behaviorist reinforcement and training) from birth to be happy, productive, and void of the "anxiety of choice," he very much created the image of a place in which psychoanalysis would be not only unnecessary, but even absurd. According to behaviorists, repression as a psychological motivator and purpose for action in bunk. Repression in simplest sense -- the forgetting of unpleasant things -- has no psychological charge or effect, but is merely the conditioned (and perhaps even wise) avoidance of pain. Of course, Freud would have used repression and the subconscious to explain many actions which Skinner would have attributed to environmental factors. Despite these significant differences, some critics have noticed an uncanny similarity between Skinner and Freud. As one writer comparing the two theorists writes:

Whereas behaviorism placed all its stress upon external environment (that is, upon stimuli from the outer world) as the controlling factor in behavior, psychoanalysis placed its emphasis upon the internal environment (upon stimuli from within, in the form of drives and instincts).... [yet] For all its differences with behaviorism, Freudian theory agrees in the fundamental image of man as a stimulus-response machine, although the stimuli that work their will upon the human being come from within rather than from without. Freud's determinism was not environmental, like Watson 's, but psychogenetic; nevertheless, it was a determinism, and it left little room for spontaneity, creativity, rationality, or responsibility." (Matson)

Thomas Szasz, a noted critic of Skinner's, also points out the strange parallels. He writes that while Freud attributed the creative process to the broken workings of repressed sexuality, Skinner attributed it to the broken workings of evolution-created conditioned responses. "Anything will do, so long as it reduces the artist to the level of robot or rat." (Szasz, 3)

Billig: A Modern Voice on Freud's Humor and Repression

Michael Billig is an influential modern-day psychologists who writes and lectures frequently on Freud, and quite literally wrote the book on Freudian Repression. At a recent C.S. Meyers Lecture Conference, Billig gave a talk on the relationship between repression and humor as Freud envisioned it. Billig is different than the other three writers mentioned in that (at least from this lecture) he does not seem to have any significant theoretical problems with Freud. What he does do, and in a very important fashion, is point out where Freud failed to carry his own theories to their full and logical conclusions, and suggests slight adjustments to help his audience better appreciate the old master.

As mentioned earlier, according the Freud's theory of repression, humor is used as an outlet for the subversive, socially unacceptable elements of life. Billig points out the while this is true, it is odd that Freud never fully explored some of the implications of the darker side of humor. For example, despite his obvious obsession with sexuality in the realm of the repressed, Freud never goes into any detail about the psychology of dirty jokes, a " theoretically significant omission." (Billig, 453) Freud also fails to address the issue of truly racist jokes, or jokes perpetrated at the expense of the less fortunate. Freud suggests that most jokes which are race or class-based deal with reproducing stereotypes and with mocking those who have power. According to Freud, most joking is subversive -- it is the expression of repressed distress within a society, showing a societally acceptable form of aggression towards those with more power. Freud does not deal with situations where "the joke is not a rebel but a conservative who uses mockery to maintain social order and roles," (Billig, 454) nor does he address "the role of ridicule in maintaining social order... A deeply conservative function..." (Billig, 454) Billig further points out that a significant portion of racists jokes show pure hostility without stereotypes, such as the joke common at Freud's time which suggested the best way to baptize a Jew was to hold him under water for ten minutes. These are cases, Billig says, where "laughter becomes a sign of sympathy with the perpetrators of actual racist [or classist] aggression" (455) So, not only does Billig agree with Freud about the relationship between repression and humor -- that humor allows the unspeakable to be spoken -- but it takes it farther to apply it to situations Freud was afraid to approach.


Bridle, Susan & Edelstein, Amy. "Was Ist 'Das Ich'" What is Enlightenment Magazine [online]. August 8, 2004. http://www.wie.org/j17/wasist.asp

Billig, Michael. "Freud and the Language of Humor" The Pyschologist vol 15 no 9.

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Freud: On Repression." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue U. August 8, 2004 http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/freud3.html.

Freud, S. (1990) Humour. In: A. Richards (Ed) The Penguin Freud Library: Vol 14. On Art and Literature. Hammondsworth: Penguin. (original work published 1927)

Gannon, T. "C.G. Jung: A Brief Biography and Bibliography." August 8, 2004. http://www.usd.edu/~tgannon/jungbio.html

Matson, Floyd. "Humanistic theory: the third revolution in psychology" The Humanist, March/April 1971. August 8,. 2004 http://web.isp.cz/jcrane/IB/Humcrit.html

Slater, Lauren. "Why Is Repression Possibly Better Than Your Therapist?" New York Times, 23 Feb 2003. August 8, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/23/magazine/23REPRESSION.htm

Rieff, P. (Ed.) Freud: General Psychological Theory. New York: Collier, 1963

Webster, Richard. Excerpts from Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995). August 8, 2004. http://www.richardwebster.com [END OF PREVIEW]

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