Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Cult of Guilty Pleasures: A Freudian Analysis of the Music Genre (part 2)

Please click here for part 1 of the blog: The Cult of Guilty Pleasures (part 1)

This somewhat circuitous route has been necessary in terms of my proposal that the underlying dynamic of Guilty Pleasures is better described as a form of narcissism. I would like to propose that the subject’s temporary identification with this music is actually an identification with a past self. So, what may appear to be the subject’s superficial connection with a cultural object, located outside of her/himself, is in fact a connection with a her/himself of yesterday: a recognition of a past self in the present. Not only is the subject caught in a temporality that is not the present, but by bringing the past into the present, s/he is misidentifying the self s/he sees in her/his mind’s eye. The self in the past-cum-present is not the self as it is known today: “He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of […] remembering it as something belonging to the past.” (Freud 1995b, p.602). Therefore, this is a narcissistic pleasure. The nostalgic ‘guilty pleasure’ is a pleasure in the self-of-the-past, a recognition of an ‘I’ situated in the past: a misrecognition. I would also like to suggest that this act of concretising a past ‘I’ in the present, is a method of materialising a past self that is certain and ‘known’, unlike the present self which is never certain, a la Lacan, Benveniste, etc.

The act of listening to nostalgic music has a particular effect on the mind that we are all aware of: one feels temporarily transported back to that time because of the various emotional associations one has with the music. The temporal effect produced by the music has, in a sense, collapsed time: upon listening to the music one has invited the past self into the present, the past has been returned by bringing the object into oneself. This can be compared to Freud’s “fort da” game whereby the child throws away a small toy announcing “fort” (gone) and then upon retrieving it exclaims “da” (there) (1995b, p.599). Freud goes on to explain that the child then transfers this same process to his mother’s departure and return, thus it becomes a “cultural achievement” in that he allows his mother to go away without showing distress (1995b, p.600). Listening to Guilty Pleasures could have the effect of producing a “da” moment: allowing the music to be absent for a time will heighten the pleasure when it does return. Eagleton says the “fort-da” game symbolises the child’s first attempt at narrative and because narrative has a consolatory effect (as demonstrated in the return of the lost object) it provides pleasure (1983, p.185). Listening to Guilty Pleasures may also provide this particular form of pleasure in that it provides a narrative of the past which is returned to the individual.

In The Dilemma of Narcissus Louis Lavelle explains that Narcissus’ main preoccupation is with his search for himself in the world around him: “the sign of this sign, and the image of this image” (1993, p.33). He goes on to say: “On leaving himself, he hopes to find himself, and to return again within himself” (ibid.). This is similar to Freud’s “fort da” game and also demonstrates that the act of listening to Guilty Pleasures might not only be a search for a past pleasure, but also the desire for a pleasure that was located in a past self. Therefore the pleasure is not located in the cultural object, as such, but is displaced into that past self.

In his essay ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ Freud not only explains the origins of narcissism as being a stage within childhood development but he also provides examples of it in terms of a pathology in adulthood. In addition he offers up what he calls “narcissistic attitudes” which are not necessarily problematic but are rather “the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation” (1995a, p.546). A number of definitions of narcissism arise in his essay and refer to different aspects of his theory on this subject. In the young child, Freud sees narcissistic pleasure existing prior to the differentiation of ego (as discussed above with regards the child’s self-fascination with his/her body and the pleasures it can bring with auto-erotic excitation). This is what Freud describes as “primary narcissism”. Once the ego comes into play this narcissistic pleasure is displaced onto the world around him/her, into what Freud calls “object-cathexes”, whereby the child forms an emotional investment in people and objects around him. Freud also describes a form of narcissism which arises from a “drawing in of object-cathexes” (ibid.). This means that the ego has made some sort of choice in terms of withdrawing something it had once offered to the rest of the world: what Freud distinguishes as “secondary narcissism”. Lavelle describes an individual suffering from an extreme form of this type of narcissism: “He shuts himself up, alone with himself, to keep company with himself: but in this total self-sufficiency on which he pins his hopes, he discovers his own impotence.” (1993, p.34). This self-love described by Lavelle is an attachment to what Freud describes as an “ego ideal” (or “ideal object”) which is set up by an individual who cannot accept the loss of the narcissism experienced in childhood (1995a, p.558).

Lavelle also explains that the pathogenesis of narcissism is related to the past and death (1993, p.29). He explains how an obsession with the self prevents the individual from living in the present or future at all, he/she is always consigned to the past: “I cannot see myself in any other way than by turning around and contemplating my past, but that is to contemplate something I have already ceased to be.” (ibid.). Guilty Pleasures, because of its nostalgic focus, is a turning back to the past. But, is this necessarily the negative act that narcissism so eloquently describes? R. D. Laing says that providing fantasy is meaningful to the individual, they are not dissociated from it and it has value to them (1973, p.27). In line with Lavelle’s description of the narcissist, above, Freud describes the narcissistic adult as having withdrawn “his libido from things and people in the external world, without replacing them by others in phantasy” (1995a, p.546). If we choose to use this description by Freud, then it does throw into question the listening to Guilty Pleasures as a narcissistic act.

So, it appears, listening to Guilty Pleasures, in terms of whether it is pathological narcissism, may be a function of the individuals’ subjective experience. Lavelle does consider it to be problematic if the past is pursued at the cost of the present (1993, p.118). However, Freud, upon his analysis of the origins of instinct, believes instincts can all be traced back to “a need to restore an earlier state of things.” (1995b, p.622). So it may well be that, as individuals our need to fight the nostalgic pursuit of past experiences is an uphill struggle against a biological instinct. Roger Horrocks believes that humans are selective in their use of memory and some memories are useful in maintaining a sense of self (2001, p.60). Philip Rieff also explains that, for Freud, memory is not passive but involves “acceptances and rejections” (1979, p.38). So, if that is the case, the individual could be considered to choose to indulge in the narcissistic ‘guilty pleasure’ or not, and is not in fact a slave to it due to an instinctual drive or a neurotic pathology. However Horrocks does go on to say that Freud is not a supporter of nostalgia: “the past, for him, is condemned as impermanency, burden, neurosis.” (ibid.). So, perhaps, even with a thorough analysis of Freud’s work we will never be able to surmise his thoughts on the partaking of the music of Guilty Pleasures.

In conclusion I would like to suggest that Guilty Pleasures may be considered an attempt at closing the gap that exists at the subject’s centre because of his/her place in the Symbolic Order. Emile Benveniste explains that this problem derives from the fact that “each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as an I in his discourse” (1971, p.225). At the point the enunciating subject utters ‘I’, and concretising him/herself in the present, he/she is also becoming the subject of the enounced, the subject of the past. Eagleton describes this as “a radical split between these two levels of being” (1983, p.169). Lavelle’s discussion on how Narcissus is constantly searching for his own image is extremely pertinent here: I cannot see myself in any other way than by turning round and contemplating my past, but that is to contemplate something that has already ceased to be. To live is to create my own being by turning my will towards a future in which I do not yet exist, and which will not become an object until I have not only reached it, but have gone beyond it. (1993, p.29). The listener of Guilty Pleasures attempts to mark out a present for her/himself that is a certainty in a world of sliding signifiers and lack, an identification with a self of the past in the present.

Benveniste, Emile. 1971. Problems in General Linguistics (Miami: University of Miami Press). Billig, Michael. 1999. Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Eagleton, Terry. 1983. Literary Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
Freud, Sigmund. 1976. ‘The Sexual Life of Human Beings’, Sigmund Freud: 1. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Harmondsworth: Penguin) pp. 344-361.
Freud, Sigmund. 1995a. Extracts from ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (London: Vintage) pp. 545-562.
Freud, Sigmund. 1995b. Extracts from ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (London: Vintage) pp. 594-627.
Freud, Sigmund. 2004. Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. by David McLinktock (London: Penguin Books).
Horrocks, Roger. 2001. Freud Revisited (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave).
Lacan, Jacques. 2004. Ecrits: A Selection, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York, London: W W Norton and Company).
Laing, R. D. 1973. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Lavelle, Louis. 1993. The Dilemma of Narcissus, trans. by William Gairdner (New York: Larson Publications).
Oppenheimer, Paul. 1997. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Guilt (London: Gerald Duckworth).
Rieff, Philip. 1979. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

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