Medieval alchemists,German idealist philosophers, and romantic poets had all taught thatthe ultimate reality was unconscious. The philosopher Schopenhauer,a profound influence on Freud's teacher, Theodor Meynert, maintainedthat human beings were the playthings of a blind, anonymous will. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of thesubconscious was especially widespread.
Often termed a "secondaryself," larger than the mere ego and accessible through hypnosis ormeditation, the subconscious implied the ability to transcendeveryday reality. Whether as cosmic force, impersonal will, orsubconscious, the unconscious was understood, before Freud, to beanonymous and transpersonal. Frequently likened to the ocean, itaimed to leave the "petty" concerns of the ego behind.
Freud, too, thought of the unconscious as impersonal, anonymous, andradically other to the individual. But harbored within it, generallyclose to consciousness, he discerned something new: an internal,idiosyncratic source of motivations peculiar to the individual. Inhis conception, contingent circumstances, especially in childhood,forged links between desires and impulses, on the one hand, andexperiences and memories on the other.
The result was a personalunconscious, unique, idiosyncratic, and contingent. For Freud,moreover, there was no escaping into a "larger" or transpersonalreality. The goal, rather, was to understand and accept one's ownidiosyncratic nature, a task that, in principle, could never becompleted. While Freud went on to posit universal mental patterns,such as the supposed stages of sexual development oral, anal,genital and the Oedipus complex, his focus remained the concreteand particular ways that individuals lived out these patterns.
As Schorske suggested, Freud formulated the concept of the personalunconscious in response to a crisis in the nineteenth-centuryliberal worldview. This crisis began with industrialization. Associated with the early factory system, the first industrialrevolution seemed to reduce individuals to mere cogs in a cruel andirresistible machine.
The Victorians erected the famous "haven in aheartless world"-the nineteenth-century middle-class family-againstwhat they viewed as "the petty spite and brutal tyranny" of theworkplace. Heavily gendered, the Victorian worldview was in onesense proto-Freudian: it located the "true self" in a private orfamilial context. Nonetheless, it viewed that context as acounterpart to, or compensation for, the economy-not as a discreteand genuinely personal sphere.
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The latter understanding emerged onlywith the crumbling of the Victorian family ideal during the secondindustrial revolution, amid the beginnings of mass production andmass consumption in the s. To be sure, mass production deepened the crisis in the liberalworldview, for example, by introducing the assembly line.
But italso revealed the emancipatory potential of capitalism in massculture, leisure, and personal life.
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By the mid-nineteenth century,cultural modernity, foretold by Baudelaire in Paris, Whitman inBrooklyn, and Dostoyevsky in St. Petersburg, had already weakenedVictorianism's separate-spheres ideology and fostered an interest inhysteria, decadence, artistic modernism, the "new woman," and thehomosexual. As womenentered public life, there emerged polyglot urban spaces and newforms of sensationalist, mass entertainment, such as amusementparks, dance halls, and film. The result was a conflict over theheritage of the Enlightenment.
Suddenly, the liberal conception ofthe human subject seemed problematic to many, as did its highestvalue: individual autonomy. For the Enlightenment, autonomy meant the ability to rise above the"merely" private, sensory, and passive or receptive propensities ofthe mind in order to reach universally valid rational conclusions. Thus, he joined an extensive choruscalling for a return to self-control, linked to hard work,abstinence, and savings. At the same time, the beginnings of massconsumption also gave rise to a party of "release.
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It was in the context of this division that Freud developed his ideaof the personal unconscious. In particular, he was responding to thealternation between "control" and "release" that characterizedlate-nineteenth-century psychiatry. On one side, the tradition ofpsychiatry that descended from the Enlightenment sought to restorecontrol by strengthening the will and ordering the reasoningprocesses of "disordered" individuals.
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