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Pop Culture Rewind: Who And What Is Freud?


“Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation.”

– Katie Cannon

You’ve heard of him, sure, but who was Freud? What does it mean for something to be Freudian? What is psychoanalysis? What is a ‘Freudian slip?’ What does this have to do with pop culture? Let’s break it down.

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of the field of psychoanalysis. While he is considered to be one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, he is also regarded as one of the most controversial. His infamy surrounds his focus on inner conflicts, defences, and instincts, and how they are at the root of mental suffering – he tried to expose the secret ways in which our minds work for and against us.

Therefore, for something to be considered ‘Freudian,’ it either is a theory submitted by Freud, or influenced by Freud’s theories and methods of psychoanalysis. But what, then, is psychoanalysis?

If psychology is the study of the human mind and the way the mind functions in relation to behaviour and context, psychoanalysis is essentially the system of theory which aims to treat mental disorders specifically. According to Oxford Languages, the goal is to investigate the “interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind and [to bring] repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind.”

And while this might not seem extremely far-fetched, or sound like something unheard of, modern psychoanalytic practices are being marginalised and struggle to survive hostile academic and clinical analysis. The analysis of psychoanalysis just isn’t holding up.

Freud’s theories centre around motivations and behaviours: that people are driven by unconscious desires and repressed memories, which can re-emerge to the conscious mind through therapies such as talk-therapy – which, I suppose, we now just call ‘therapy.’ He pushed past the machismo social diagnosis of female hysteria and forced the medical establishment to acknowledge psychological disorders were real.

So, he did a lot of good. But, he also invented baseless figures that were behind traumatic events in the minds of some of his patients. He misrepresented some of his most famous case studies (see: the case study of ‘Dora’), claiming he had cured his patients with the treatments he developed, when some of them had, in fact, only gotten “worse.” His followers have been accused of coaxing patients into recovery by revealing supposedly repressed memories of childhood abuse that never happened.

Of course, both ‘sides’ of Freud have slipped into the public consciousness, with many people only knowing (or, rather, wanting to know) one perspective or the other, rarely knowing (or, again, wanting) a nuanced viewpoint. There are rarely more than dichotomous Good-/Bad-faith actors in social history.

It’s important to note that some of (if not most of) his perspectives were flawed. For example, Freud saw homosexuality as a “developmental glitch,” and as a perversion. He coined the infamous term “Freudian slip,” which is defined as “an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings” – accidentally calling your teacher “Mum,” for instance, might reveal… something (if not, at least, a long period of embarrassment). And the reason for his falling out of favour with the medical and scientific community is that his theories, nowadays, are considered pseudoscientific. His theories predominantly lack empirical evidence or support. Freud and his followers actually believed that prehistoric traumas of individuals and societies long past – deaths in the ice age and the death of Moses – had ongoing impacts on human psychology.

But the fact of the matter is that he opened and expanded a whole field of study to investigate and build upon, which has, and will, aid generations. His concepts have, as a matter of fact more than opinion, become everyday household terms which shape the way our society understands and talks about individual and collective experiences. This is somewhat problematic when we consider that some of these ideas aren’t completely true; the average person understands and knows about the subconscious, but the knowledge that modern psychologists only believe in the “cognitive unconscious” has not superseded this pop culture relic of understanding about the self.

Freud’s theories were framed in ways that could not be empirically tested. His clinical practices definitely don’t meet today’s ethical standards. But it is important to note that he gave western society a vocabulary with which to discuss emotion, even in the most primitive of ways.

“From error to error one discovers the entire truth.”

– Sigmund Freud

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