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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Bloch contra Freud

The third installment of my close read of Ernst Bloch's The Principle of Hope. Every essay is a stand-alone piece, but if you want to read the previous essay, click here.

Hope, this expectant counter-emotion against anxiety and fear, is therefore the most human of all mental feelings and only accessible to men, and it also refers to the furthest and brightest horizon. It suits that appetite in the mind which the subject not only has, but of which, as unfulfilled subject, it still essentially consists. (75)

Having established that ‘our immediate being is empty and hence greedy, striving and hence restless’, we are now told that this is hidden to us, requiring that consciousness, ‘must first go out of itself’ (45) to see itself. Bloch looks into the nature of ‘naked striving’ for the unsatisfied wish (the drive or striving). He is interested in setting out the nature of human psychology.

Being a materialist, this is a psychology that starts with embodiment, ‘first and foremost the living individual body; moved by stimuli, overcrowded with stimuli, it contains the drives, they are not floating generally.’ (48) But we cannot be reduced to stimuli, we have more than animal drives; Bloch calls humanity ‘the animal which makes detours.’ (49) We find higher drives, can extend infinitely in imaginative strivings. However, before a psychology based on such strivings can be worked out, Bloch takes a detour of his own; a critical assessment of the legacy of Freud.

Bloch notes that for Freud, even in the complexity of the death-drive, ‘the core is and remains sexual here, this is what motivates Freud’s man.’ (51) These primal motives are checked only by Freud’s ego, and the tension between the ego-drives and the other, sexual drives, gives rise to tensions and therefore to the unconscious. The ego is in turn governed by the ego-ideal or super-ego, ‘our relations to our parents; it creates all the surrogate formations of piety.’ (53) (Bloch’s analysis of Freud, and Freud’s own theories, cannot be done proper justice in a one paragraph summary; this merely captures what is most relevant to Bloch’s main argument.)

Bloch shares a standard Marxist criticism of Freud; namely, Freud takes a specifically bourgeois society and makes it a state of nature. However, Bloch does not follow Erich Fromm in recovering Freud by interpreting him through Marx. Rather, Bloch has an additional criticism; in psychoanalysis the unconscious is ’never a Not-Yet-Conscious, an element of progressions; it consists rather of regressions.’ Bringing out the unconscious ‘clarifies What Has Been; i.e., there is nothing new in the Freudian unconscious.’ (56) Freud emphasises our traumatic pasts, without weighting what Bloch considers most uniquely human: our future orientation.

Bloch is also critical of various attempts to find alternative drives besides sex. C. G. Jung’s frenzy-drive, for example, is said to reduce the unconscious to the primeval and Dionysian; Bloch argues that Jung’s psychoanalysis is most appropriate to fascism in its veneration of the obscured and mythic. Alfred Adler substitutes the sexual drives for the simple will to power, ‘in supreme capitalist fashion’. (57) (Adler, for Bloch, plays the part of Friedrich Nietzsche to Freud’s Arthur Schopenhauer and his will to life qua libedo.) Jung and Freud, however, are pitted most directly against one another:

In Freud the unconscious is combated and, as far as it is individually acquired, kept in the orbit of the individual. In Jung the unconscious is welcomed and completely settled in the archaic-collective, and is also contemplated with limitless tolerance towards everything that swirls around in it as fog, numen and taboo. (63-4)

Bloch marries his criticism of Freudian (and other) psychoanalytic theories with the more general Marxist one; that is, its problem is ’the class-based limitation of psychoanalytic research into basic drives’ such that ‘social questions cannot be treated here.’ (66) To correct this he cautions that we put forward an altogether different and more basic drive, one which he accuses Freud and his students of either improperly relegating or obscuring altogether: the hunger-drive.

The self-preservation which manifests itself within this interest is the soundest among the many basic fires and, despite all temporal, class-based modifications which it is also subject to, surely the most universal. (63-4)

The hunger-drive also returns psychology to the body, to the experience of embodiment. This drives also returns the subject of psychology to history, rejecting the false universality of Freud’s ‘bourgeois man’ or Jung’s ‘fascist phantasmagoria’. (Likewise Bloch singles out Nietzsche and Rousseau for censor here.) There is no primal man, only historically situated drives, with hunger being only the most universal (but not ahistorical) drive.

Charting a notion of intentions through the work of Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Soren Kierkegaard, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Martin Heidegger, and Hegel, we get a brief history of how the mind works and, in particular, different conceptions of emotions. (Bloch takes particular issue with Spinoza and Descartes for effectively eliminating emotions, and with Heidegger for doing in phenomenology what Jung did in psychology, namely founding a theoretical basis for fascism. But he does find worth in the existentialist tradition and, however qualified, the thought of Kierkegaard.) Bloch begins from the claim that ‘all emotions are therefore primarily states of self; and, precisely as these states of self, they are the most active intentions.’ (71)

Bloch goes on through the different types of emotion, before arriving at the most primary emotion, ‘the most important expectant emotion, the most authentic emotion of longing and thus of self, always remains in all of this—hope.’ (75) The substance of hope, which ‘moves ahead of the self-extension drive forwards’ is the Not-Yet-Conscious. That is, rather than the repressed, the subject of our desires is the new. Bloch returns, then, to such desires, to daydreams.

This is an interesting section of Bloch’s book. His analysis of various psychological thinkers does not always seem especially charitable, but in pressing the idea that human consciousness, as embodied, is constituted in a striving after what it currently lacks, we are offered a characteristically hopeful depiction of human psychology. One that serves as a corrective to the Freudian tradition and associated theories.


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