Norbert Elias: Beyond Freud

Norbert Elias, Au-delà de Freud: sociologie, psychologie, psychanalyse (Paris: La Découverte, 2010). Edited by Marc Joly; translated from English and German by Nicolas Guilhot, Marc Joly and Valentine Meunier; with an afterword by Bernard Lahire. 215 pp. ISBN: 978-2-7071-5760-7.

This is arguably the most important ‘new’ book by Elias to appear in the last decade. Marc Joly has put together a collection of Elias’s writings that bear upon psychology and psychoanalysis, none of which has previously appeared in French. These include the essays on ‘Sociology and psychiatry’ (1969), ‘The civilising of parents’ (1980) and ‘civilisation and psychosomatics’ (1988), which have already been published in English and (in the first two cases) German. The volume also includes a translation of the transcript of Elias’s 1950 lecture, ‘The field of social psychology’, delivered at king’s College, London – which has been included in neither the Gesammelte Schriften nor the Collected Works.

But what makes this volume of the greatest significance is that Marc Joly has succeeded in making a coherent, readable and cogent text from the sprawling multivariate drafts of the major essay on ‘The Freudian conception of society and beyond it’ that Elias was writing in the months immediately leading up to his death in 1990.

Elias never made any secret of the profound influence that Freud had on his work from the 1930s onwards. The influence was in any case very obvious. Yet careful reading always revealed that, as Elias said himself, he was never an uncritical and orthodox adherent of psychoanalysis. Freud’s impact upon the human self-image remains profound, but today Freud’s ideas are markedly less fashionable among à la mode intellectuals – who seem generally to throw the baby out with much of the bathwater that arguably is indeed disposable. That is relevant to the reception of Elias’s work because, especially in the USA, the perception that Elias is ‘a Freudian’ tout court becomes an excuse not to read his works with the care and attention that is required. One problem is that Elias never set out at length where he stood in relation to Freud – what he agreed with, what he disagreed with, and why – until he attempted to do just that in the last months of his life.

In his last few years Elias was effectively blind. His last writings, including The Symbol Theory and the ‘Maycomb model’ essay, as well as his work on Freud, were dictated to assistants. Since he could not read the result, he had also had to rely on the assistants to read back what they had typed up from the previous day. This appears to have exacerbated Elias’s existing tendency to produce many different drafts of the same ideas. Nevertheless, in the case of The Symbol Theory (which he did more or less complete), Elias would not give permission to Richard Kilminster to take radical editorial initiative to eliminate false starts and repetitions and to sort out the material into some more coherent and systematic exposition. Precisely such radical editorial initiative is what Marc Joly, using his experience as a journalist, has achieved with the Freud papers – which, hitherto, had languished at the DLA in Marbach in a state that was thought to preclude publication.

The resulting 54-page essay (pp. 131–85) is highly convincing. It is in certain respects – to those familiar with Elias’s thinking – fairly predictable, but it is no less persuasive for all that. The first major section describes Freud’s as ‘a social theory founded on the opposition of individual and society’; like so many others up to the present day, Freud had no effective notion of social dynamics,. He was after all a psychologist, so it is hardly surprising if his thought was psychologistic – his explanations were sought in the properties of the individual human mind. In other words: homo clausus rides again. The next section of the text assembled by Joly follows logically under the heading ‘a myth of origins’. Next comes an extended discussion of ‘social repression and psychological represssion’. And then, in characteristic fashion, Elias moves on to advocate ‘a processual reorientation of Freudian concepts’. And finally: ‘beyond nature and culture’: or, Elias might have written, ‘In my beginning is my end’, for the problem of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ had been one of his preoccupations from the beginning of his intellectual life.

Now that Marc Joly has shown what can be done with the Freud papers, we have plans to publish his edition of them in the original English. Watch this space to find out how we manage to squeeze them into the last volumes of the Collected Works that are now under preparation. In the meantime, if you read French, read this book.

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6 Responses to Norbert Elias: Beyond Freud

  1. TYRA says:

    This appears to have exacerbated Elias’s existing tendency to produce many different drafts of the same ideas.

  2. tom scheff says:

    Elias went far beyond Freud also in that a main point in his Civlilzing Process is the crucial importance of shame, and how modern societies hide it.

  3. admin says:

    Posted on behalf of Cas Wouters:

    Hans-Peter Waldhoff has interesting publications on the topic of your interest. His most recent contribution „Menschen im Singular und im Plural – Norbert Elias‘ grundlagentheoretischer Beitrag zur Gruppenanalyse“ [English: People – in the Singular and the Plural: Norbert Elias’ Founding Theoretical Contribution to Group Analysis] will appear in June in the German Zeitschrift für Gruppenpsychotherapie und Gruppendynamik 50/2014, S. 111-145. This is his abstract:

    Focusing on the basic theoretical contributions of Norbert Elias to Group-Analytic thinking and practice highlights how deeply our image of human beings is split and dichotomised: between body and soul, between human beings as individuals and as groups, between emotions and thinking. It shows how harmful these static polarities are for our ability to cope with psychic processes in others, as well as in our individual selves, both on a personal and on a professional level. Elias stresses that Foulkes’ Group Analysis seems particularly apt to steer clear of such splits. For deeper reflection on these artificial divisions, in observers as well as in the people observed, the concept of ‘controlled de-controlling of emotional controls’, developed by the Dutch sociologist Cas Wouters, can be fruitfully used.

  4. willem kranendonk says:

    There seemed to be no end to new beginnings by Elias in his last productions, especially in the New Introduction to ‘The Symbol Theory’ (toward which Richard Kilminster now is bringing, I hear, that “radical editorial initiative” that Norbert did not allow for its earlier version).
    As one of the assistants who laboured also on the last Freud paper I often wondered what happened with it. Now I am glad to read that it got life in a ‘jolie’ French version. And the latter’s inclusion in English in the Collected Workd is a brilliant move!

    • Joshua Lavie says:

      Dear willem kranendonk ,
      As one of the assistants who laboured with Norbert Elias, and especially on his essay on Freud, do you remember if Norbert talked also about his activities in Group Analysis, or his intense collaboration with the psychoanalyst S. H. Foulkes.
      Joahus Lavie,
      Group Analyst and Clinical Psychologist,
      Tel Aviv, Israel

      • cas wouters says:

        The posting on my behalf by admin on may 29, to be found above Joahus Lavie’s question, is in fact a reply to Joahus Lavie, Group Analyst and Clinical Psychologist, Tel Aviv, Israel
        cas wouters, amsterdam

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