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The return of the repressed

What are the main social circumstances, or guises, in which the return of the repressed occurs? We can specify the following conditions as of prime importance:

1 At fateful moments, individuals may be forced to confront concerns which the smooth working of reflexively ordered abstract systems normally keep well away from consciousness. Fateful moments necessarily disturb routines, often in a radical way. An individual is thereby forced to rethink fundamental

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aspects of her existence and future projects. Fateful moments perhaps quite often can be dealt with within the confines of internally referential systems. But just as frequently they pose difficulties for the individual, and quite often for others closely connected with that individual, which push through to extrinsic considerations. Of course, the notion of fateful moments is a broad category. But many such moments do more than bring the individual up short: they cannot easily be dealt with without reference to moral/existential criteria. At fateful moments it is difficult for the individual to continue to think purely in terms of risk scenarios or to confine assessments of potential courses of action to technical parameters.

Most of the main transition points of life represent moments at which external criteria force themselves back into play. Birth and death are the two main mediating transitions between inorganic and organic life whose wider existential implications are difficult to escape. In both instances, institutionalised systems sequester these experiences and their attendant implications for others. In pre-modern cultures, childbirth and death of course were hardly happenings exposed to the view of the whole community. But they normally took place in group or family contexts and were closely integrated with traditional practices, as well as with cosmic interpretations of the passing of the generations. Today, both sets of events tend to happen in the sequestered milieu of the hospital and are there treated as discrete phenomena, having no distinctive connection with either the cycle of the generations or with broader moral issues concerning the relation between human beings and inorganic nature. Death tends to be the more completely hidden away of the two, perhaps because it is the more dangerous in terms of the return of external criteria. For childbirth is a process of entry into life and can be technically managed as such. The process of dying, on the other hand, cannot be seen as anything other than the incipient loss of control: death is unintelligible exactly because it is the point zero at which control lapses.

It is in these terms that we should understand the resurgence of literature concerned with making the phenomenon of death a subject for wider public debate. 9 There are various institutional manifestations of such a trend: one is the development of hospices as environments in which death can be discussed and confronted,

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rather than merely shunted away from general view. It has often been pointed out that rites de passage are relatively lacking in modern societies in respect of basic transitions, including the beginning and end of life. Most such discussions emphasise that, without ordered ritual and collective involvement, individuals are left without structured ways of coping with the tensions and anxieties involved. Communal rites provide a focus of group solidarity at major transitions as well as allocating definite tasks for those involved -- such as specifying fixed periods of mourning and modes of behaviour associated with them.

This thesis may very well be valid. However, something more profound is lost together with traditional forms of ritual. Rites de passage place those concerned in touch with wider cosmic forces, relating individual life to more encompassing existential issues. Traditional ritual, as well as religious belief, connected individual action to moral frameworks and to elemental questions about human existence. The loss of ritual is also a loss of involvement with such frameworks, however ambiguously they might have been experienced and however much they were bound up with traditional religious discourse. Outside strictly theological circles, discussion of death for us has become largely a preoccupation with sickness. For example, in the case of Aids, what is disturbing is not that the illness, or rather its associated consequences, kills, but that it does so among the relatively young, and in the context of sexual activity. Death is only a `problem' when it is premature death -- when a person has not lived out whatever, given certain risks, a table of life expectancy might suggest.

2 We may detect a return of the repressed in endeavours to promote decarceration in various spheres. The origins of tendencies towards decarceration are no doubt complex. In some part, for example, attempts to set up open prisons or to rehabilitate prisoners in the community, as well as treating the mentally ill by means of community care, have been prompted by economic motives. But an important factor in these changes has also been the reformist belief that it is morally wrong to separate the `deviant' from the `normal' members of society. On the surface, decarceration seems to be merely a `normalising' of deviance -- a means of bringing the offender into closer contact with the ordinary population. Yet it may also be the reverse: a means of

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encouraging `normal' individuals to face the potentially perturbing questions raised by those who fail to adhere to central norms governing social life.

Contact with the mentally ill, as many writers have pointed out, in traditional cultures was often thought to be a mode of access to a spiritual experience and even to divine truth. Such contact is hardly likely to reproduce such sentiments today. On the other hand, mental illness, particularly the various kinds of schizophrenia, reminds us of the fragility of the day-to-day conventions by which our experience both of social reality, and the basic parameters of existence more generally, is ordered. The paranoid schizophrenic, for example, might cause us to reflect on why we do not -- as she or he does -- see malevolence in a glance from another person or an accidental clash of bodies on the street. The person who `hears voices' may not be in communication with God, but nonetheless might cause us to think afresh about our own `normality': for perhaps there are aspects to our taken-for-granted views of existence (founded on basic trust) which we can subject to interrogation.

Foucault argued that madness represents all that is excluded from the triumph of modern reason; but we do not need such an exalted view of insanity to see that mental illness reveals to us repressed aspects of our existence. Goffman, rather than Foucault, may be right about mental illness: it represents an incapacity or an unwillingness to conform to some of the most basic `situational proprieties' that everyday interaction presumes. Looking at the `other side' of the mundane discloses its contingent, and even arbitrary, character. The mentally ill, or certain groups among them, actually live out the dread which, as Garfinkel's `experiments with trust' reveal, the constitutive conventions of day-to-day social interaction suppress.

3 We can trace a return of the repressed at the core of sexual behaviour. Passion has become privatised; yet its implications and resonances are far from private. Sexuality has become one main element of the striving for intimacy, but it addresses problems and stimulates feelings which are not restricted to a personal relation between two human beings. In intimate sexual relationships, people today frequently find their greatest moral satisfactions in life. From one angle, this phenomenon can be seen as a

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reduction of moral purpose and existential consciousness to a purely personal sphere: a shrinkage which corresponds to the general process of the sequestration of experience. Yet at the same time sexuality breaks out from these confines, and perhaps is quite often the means whereby some of the deeper connotations of `passion' are rediscovered. Sexuality has become separated from procreation and therefore from cosmic processes of life and death. But it still retains a moral charge and a generalisable significance which separates it from the egoistical concerns of the partners. It cannot be entirely severed from that sense of moral engagement and potential tragedy with which, prior to the rise of romantic involvements, sexual love was ordinarily associated. 10 The very preoccupation of modern discourse with sexuality, of which Foucault speaks, in some degree represents an acknowledgement of these connections. Sexuality both repudiates, and gives substantive form to the involvement of human life with morally transcendent conditions and experiences.

As Alberoni points out, the experience of falling in love -- rather than day-to-day sexual encounters -- epitomises this phenomenon. Falling in love, in contrast to most forms of sexuality, is intense, exalting and specifically `extraordinary'. `At these times, sexuality becomes the means by which life explores the frontiers of the possible, the horizons of the imaginary and of nature.' 11

4 We may also trace a return of the repressed in a burgeoning preoccupation with the reconstruction of tradition to cope with the changing demands of modern and social conditions. Of course, in many sectors of modern life traditional elements remain, although they are often fragmented and their hold over behaviour partial. Moreover, some of the `traditional' features of modern social life are in fact inventions dating only from the earlier period of modernity. 12 They are ways of encapsulating and representing modern trends rather than links with a deeply sedimented historical past.

Today, we see a definite tendency to seek to re-establish vanished traditions or even construct new ones. As was mentioned in a previous chapter, whether tradition can effectively be recreated in conditions of high modernity is seriously open to doubt. Tradition loses its rationale the more thoroughly refiexivity, coupled to expert systems, penetrates to the core of everyday

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life. The establishment of `new traditions' is plainly a contradiction in terms. Yet, these things having been said, a return to sources of moral fixity in day-to-day life, in contrast to the `always revisable' outlook of modern progressivism, is a phenomenon of some importance. Rather than constituting a regression towards a `Romantic refusal' of modernity, it may mark an incipient move beyond a world dominated by internally referential systems.

5 As a phenomenon partly independent of the previous point we might mention the resurgence of religious belief and conviction. Religious symbols and practices are not only residues from the past; a revival of religious or, more broadly, spiritual concerns seems fairly widespread in modern societies. Why should this be? After all, each of the major founders of modern social theory, Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber, believed that religion would progressively disappear with the expansion of modern institutions. Durkheim affirmed that there is `something eternal' in religion, but this `something' was not religion in the traditional sense: symbols of collective unity persist in more secular vein as the celebration of political ideals.

Not only has religion failed to disappear. We see all around us the creation of new forms of religious sensibility and spiritual endeavour. The reasons for this concern quite fundamental features of late modernity. What was due to become a social and physical universe subject to increasingly certain knowledge and control instead creates a system in which areas of relative security interlace with radical doubt and with disquieting scenarios of risk. Religion in some part generates the conviction which adherence to the tenets of modernity must necessarily suspend: in this regard it is easy to see why religious fundamentalism has a special appeal. But this is not all. New forms of religion and spirituality represent in a most basic sense a return of the repressed, since they directly address issues of the moral meaning of existence which modern institutions so thoroughly tend to dissolve.

6 New forms of social movement mark an attempt at a collective reappropriation of institutionally repressed areas of life. Recent religious movements have to be numbered among these, although of course there is great variability in the sects and cults which have developed. But several other new social movements are particularly important and mark sustained reactions to basic

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institutional dimensions of modern social life. Although -- and in some part because -- it addresses questions which antedate the impact of modernity, the feminist movement is one major example. In its early phase, the movement was pre-eminently concerned with securing equal political and social rights between women and men. In its current stage, however, it addresses elemental features of social existence and creates pressures towards social transformations of a radical nature. The ecological and peace movements are also part of this new sensibility to late modernity, as are some kinds of movements for human rights. Such movements, internally diverse as they are, effectively challenge some of the basic presuppositions and organising principles which fuel modernity's juggernaut.

The return of the repressed will occupy us in a more direct way in the next chapter. For it is arguable that the period of high modernity is one of fundamental transition -- not just a continuation of modernity's endless dynamism, but the presaging of structural transformations of a more profound type. The expansion of internally referential systems reaches its outer limits; on a collective level and in day-to-day life moral/existential questions thrust themselves back to centre-stage. Focused around processes of self-actualisation, although also stretching through to globalising developments, such issues call for a restructuring of social institutions, and raise issues not just of a sociological but of a political nature.

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 1316

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