Society: In Our Heads

Freud: Self/Systems of Meaning









Freud’s schematization of the mind elucidates internal facets of the tension between the self and the system of meaning. The self is the daily life processes of the individual dictated by what seems like unique and individual wants and needs. However, the system of meaning can directionalize the self to a grander goal as well as dominate the expression of the individual’s self. Freud is describing in detail the self as well as sicknesses of the self by analyzing the conscious and unconscious. As we saw in Durkheim, the individual is not the only ‘body’ that has a conscious. The social body also has a consciousness with wants and needs. Could society have an unconscious with a similar form as the unconscious of the individual? Does society have its own neuroses as well?


The conscious is an organization of the urges the individual feels. The social conscious could be equated to the system of meaning. It is organized. The urges that the individual feels are rooted in pleasure-seeking. Society on the other hand seeks to reproduce itself. So, the unconscious of society is rooted in reproduction, and the system of meaning organizes these urges.

It is most important to understand how the society effects the individual mind and actions in order to get a picture of the dictator of our own actions and behaviors. Freud identifies neurotic symptoms in patients that he analyzes, and categorizes individuals who do not exhibit neurotic symptoms as ‘normal.’ Normal people don’t get sick, but what if the neurotic symptoms were in the social body and not in the individual. Then could we be sick without our knowledge?

In order to understand the unconscious in both the social and in the self, we must look closer at the specificities of Freud’s theory of the mind. In the most general sense, Freud describes the aim of mental activity as, “an endeavor to obtain pleasure and avoid unpleasure, emerges, looked at from the economic point of view, as the task of mastering the amounts of excitation (mass of stimuli) operating in the mental apparatus and of keeping down their accumulation which creates unpleasure” (466). He is describing mental activity as a tension. The desires for pleasure that manifests in socially unacceptable ways bring about unpleasure. There are two types of mental urges. The libidinal urge or the pleasure-seeking instinctual urge and the urges dictated by the ego. The egoistical urges are also seeking pleasure but through ‘real’ means.

The ego is created by learned behaviors shaped by history and nurture. Freud describes, “An ego thus educated become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality” (444). The ego is the social facet of the individual mind that can be shaped. In contrast, the libidinal urges are unchangeable. The ego is also the more powerful side of the mind because it actually dictates actions and provides reasonable solutions for the libidinal urges. If there is no reasonable solution for the urge, then the urge manifests itself in neurotic symptoms.

However, again from Durkheim, the social body dictates the reason itself. The social has its own unconscious that has its own frustrations. How actually reasonable is the ‘reasonable person’ when the individual’s reason is dictated by a potentially neurotic social? The system of meaning could have neurotic symptoms that the individual cannot actively identify because the neurotic symptoms manifest itself in the very socialization of the individual.

Subliminal Messaging

The social body wants to reproduce itself in an organized fashion. The wants and needs of society manifest itself in popular media.  For example in the Disney Movie Aladdin, Aladdin clearly becomes lighter skin the wealthier he becomes in the film. Historically, because of modern imperialism and domination, white skin has been attributed to wealth. Society has the urge to reproduce itself, yet society would suffer more unpleasure than pleasure if society socialized the individuals in an openly racist system. The need to reproduce a racist and sexist society in a rational way manifests itself in modes like subliminal messaging. We see examples of sexism in the Lion King and The Rescuers. All of these are targeted towards younger children who are still being shaped, educated, and socialized to what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’.



Lion King Subliminal Message                         Rescuers Topless Woman in the Window


Relevant Tangent:

The subliminal message in the video below is obviously knowingly constructed. The creators of the ad are attempting to directly access the unconscious. The word ‘Rat’ will now be associated with Al Gore and the bureaucrats. This will in turn shape the ego. The ego organizes the chaos of the unconscious. When the viewers of the ad internalize ‘rat’ in their unconscious, they will associate Al Gore in reality as a rat unless aware of the subliminal message. The unconscious is being accessed through subliminal messaging without the awareness of the individual. The unconscious is a powerful venue for effective persuasion and coercion because the individual is unaware of the act of persuasion itself. The individual’s conscious decision-making is being conformed to a specific agenda. The danger of subliminal messaging when considering Freud’s theory of the mind is obvious and scary.

Subliminal Message ‘Rat’ at time 00:24


The tension between the self and the system of meaning in Freud’s theory is present in both the human body and the social body. The two bodies are not however separate. The social body influences what the individual discerns as reasonable or unreasonable. Reason in the individual determines the ego which dictates the individual’s desire for pleasure. In terms of the ego, pleasure in sought after in a reasonable way that is also mediated by the individual’s avoidance of displeasure. The social body that socializes individuals and educates them in reason has neuroses of its own. The social body wants to reproduce itself as much as the individual does. The system of meaning in place is the organization of the social urge to reproduce itself in an attainable way. When the urge of society to reproduce itself conflicts with popular changes in society, then a problem arises. This social problem is parallel to when the individual’s conscious and unconscious are not congruent. If the incongruency cannot be dealt with in the conscious or in the organizational structure of society, then society like the patient will exhibit neuroses.  The neuroses of the social body infiltrates the human mind which manifest as social ‘normalcy.’ Examples of social neuroses are sexism and racism. The political message featured above illustrates a different problem all together. The video is showing that capitalist and political ventures are trying to subvert the reasonable conscious and advertise and campaign through the unconscious. The efficacy of advertisement subliminal messaging is staggering. We are being sold products and candidates without knowing so. What else is dictating our wants and needs?


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