Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious, by Michael Billig

A review to appear in Human Relations.

Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious, by Michael Billig. Cambridge University Press. 1999. (290 pp).

Thomas J. Scheff

At present the humanities and the sciences constitute two different worlds, with virtually no intercourse between them. Here I will review a book that suggests art might be of service to the social sciences, and social science, in turn, to literary scholarship.

The biologist E. O. Wilson (1998) has called for "consilience" (the interlocking of perspectives) between the realms of knowledge. He points out that many of the current advances in the physical and life sciences have been due to the integration of disciplinary frameworks, as in biophysics, biochemistry, and astrophysics. Wilson also point that such integration is notably absent in the social sciences and humanities. Each discipline goes its own way, usually ignoring or denigrating the contributions of the other disciplines.

Although biological psychiatry now dominates the field of mental illness, the conjunction of biology and psychiatry is not consilient in Wilson's sense of the term. Biology offers many robust theories, but psychiatry and psychology do not. Rather there are hundreds of specialized viewpoints, each organized around one or two insights, but with little or no integration with the insights of other viewpoints.

Psychoanalysis is a case in point. As Billig points out, Freud had two sides, one artistic, the other scientific. Billig goes on to make clear that Freud's artistic vision still has much to contribute, but his scientific, his metapsychology, very little. It should be noted, in connection with the book to be reviewed here that Wilson strongly urges a meeting between humanities and science.

Such a meeting will be difficult because of entrenched attitudes on both sides. Scientists pride themselves on their logical approach, artists on non-logical intuition. Pascal noted that the first approach is based on what he called system, the second, on what he called finesse, that is, intuition. He also noted that one can be an ordinary scientist using only system, or an ordinary artist using only finesse. But he went on to say that to be a great scientist or artist, one must use both.

Advances in science require not only number crunching, but also intuition. We know from studies of computer simulation and artificial intelligence that there are severe limitations to systematic approaches. Indeed great scientists have often been either artists themselves (Da Vinci, Pascal), or at least used intuition freely as if they were artists. Von Neumann, the mathematician whose work provided the basis for computers, was completely intuitive in his work. If he didn't see the solution to an equation instantly, he simply went on the next problem.

It appears that the intuitive mind may have instant access to solutions of problems too complex for the analytic mind. However, intuitions aren't necessarily correct solutions; they may be profoundly erroneous. What seems to be needed is a marriage of the ingenuity of intuition with the reality checking of system.

A crucial problem for social scientists and psychologists is that most of us, indeed, virtually all of us, are not highly gifted in noticing and remembering the vast array of concrete details in human experience. In this respect, we are much like the rest of the human race. The novelist Milan Kundera makes the point tellingly:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. but the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories which affect the mind deeply like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is...

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present—the concreteness of the present—as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination…(Kundera 1995)

Kundera goes on to say that only the greatest of poets and novelists are able to notice, remember, and use concrete representations of human thoughts and acts. (See also his The Art of the Novel 1988 for a somewhat broader treatment of this theme). If social science theory is to be more than a collection of superficial or untestable ideas, it must somehow be grounded in such images. A grounded theory could, in turn, could help literary scholars become aware of universal patterns and themes in literature. Billig proposes that Freud's writing about his cases and himself captures many of the essential details, and therefore offers the basis for scientific advance through discourse analysis.

In my view, Billig's use of discourse analysis has the potential of transforming an entire field of endeavor. Although Billig modestly claims only to clarify Freud's theory of repression, the book lays the groundwork for a complete re-statement of psychoanalytic theory as a whole. By focusing on the details of dialogue, Billig's work portends a psychoanalytic theory and method that is virtually new.

First of all, it should be said that Billig is not one of Freud's detractors; he is profuse in his admiration of Freud's work. He pays it the compliment of having read all of it, and an impressive amount of the secondary literature as well. He is fulsome in his praise of Freud's brilliance as an observer and his extraordinary clarity as a writer. In this respect, the book clearly belongs in the camp of the followers of Freud.

But he is not an idolater. He appreciates what he finds to be true in Freud's work, and criticizes the parts that ring false. In this respect, Billig belongs to no camp. He is a "free artist of himself," to use Harold Bloom's phrase. In these days of intellectual fads and schools of thought, such writers are a rarity.

What Billig has done is to apply discourse analysis to dialogue reported in Freud's cases and in his life. But in doing so, he has avoided some of the pitfalls of the discourse analysis camp. The other discourse and conversation analysts have stayed on the surface, assiduously avoiding not only unconscious motives, but any kind of motivation at all. Although they do not use the term, they pride themselves in being behaviorists, dealing, as they say, only with linguistic behavior. But in taking this course, they fall into the trap of employing a metapsychology that is only tacit. Hidden from view, it cannot easily be discussed, particularly its gross oversimplification of human conduct and experience.

As he does with Freud's writing, Billig also takes only what he needs from discourse analysis. In eschewing both metapsychologies Billig comes up with a new one, one that seems to capture more of the reality of human conduct, and is much more defensible.

Billig's story begins with what seems to be an inconsistency in Freud's theory of repression. On the one hand, Freud clearly stated in his history of the psychoanalytic movement that the concept of repression, not that of the unconscious, formed the core of psychoanalytic theory: "the theory of repression is corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests."

On the other hand, Freud was surprisingly diffident about his knowledge of repression. In the Introductory Lectures, published when he was over sixty, the confident head of the psychoanalytic movement, Freud stated: "…so far we have only one piece of information [about repression]…that [it] "emanates from forces of the ego." Apart from that, Freud added, "we know nothing more at present." As Billig points out, this one piece of information does not tell us much, since we have no way of knowing what forces Freud was referring to, nor for that matter, how the ego itself is to be construed. The vast significance of the concept of repression, compared to the meager amount of knowledge about it, Billig proposes, makes an enormous gap in psychoanalytic theory.

Given this gap, Billig sets about to fill it with a new theory of repression. He proposes that repression arises from social practices regarding topics or feelings that are generally regarded in a particular society as too shameful to discuss. At the time that Freud's lived in Vienna, sexuality was such a topic. Billig goes on to document that in Freud's practice there were other such topics, such as anti-Semitism, and that there were also such topics in Freud's own life, such as desire for women other than his wife.

Billig proposes that repression begins in social practices: Little Hans learns from dialogue with his mother and father that certain topics (sexuality, aggression, etc.) are not to be discussed. If one of these topics is raised, the parent routinely changes the subject to another topic, one that is not forbidden. This transition is usually marked by small, innocuous phrases, such as "Even so," "Oh, well," and so on. In the case of the Ratman, he had established the use of the word aber (but), along with a gesture of repudiation, in order to change the subject when he heard his inner voices. But the inner voices themselves, according to Billig, are also a routine to avoid topics or feelings.

Billig's analysis of dialogue is so precise and brilliant that I can not do justice to it here. Suffice it to say that his use of dialogue raises strong doubts about most of Freud's interpretations. For example, Freud thought that the case of Little Hans provided strong support for the Oedipal theory that he had derived from adult cases. But Billig reinterprets the dialogue that the father reported to Freud. Billig shows how the dialogues suggest that it is the avoiding of talk about sexuality and aggression that frustrates the child curiosity, and increases his desire to know more about the forbidden topics. Of course the child is interested in these topics, but probably no more than hundreds of others. This interpretation locates the Oedipal themes not primarily in the child, but in the parents. But the interests and avoidances of the parents reflect, for the most part, the conversational practices of the society in which they live.

The major focus of Billig's re-evaluations, in addition to Little Hans, are the cases of Elizabeth, the Rat Man, The Wolf Man, and Dora. In addition to these cases, Billig also uses Freud's reports of dialogue with his wife Martha and with his sister-in-law, Minna. Each of these cases allows Billig to uncover new facets of the process of repression. For example, he uses the dialogue concerning Martha and Minna to strongly suggest that Freud repressed his desire for Minna and other women.

Perhaps the most dramatic of many revelations is provided by the analysis of the case of Dora. Billig demonstrates that although both Freud and Dora were both Jews living in a virulently anti-Semitic society, all references to Jewishness and to anti-Semitism seem to have been excluded from their sessions, and in much of Freud's life. As an example of the latter, Billig demonstrates how Freud was able to avoid referring to Christmas gifts he received, and even, in some cases, actually exchanged.

The most flagrant instance of mutual avoidance is demonstrated by Billig's use of Freud's response to an episode that Dora reported of her visit to an art museum in Dresden. She told Freud, in passing, that she stood for two hours admiring Raphael's painting of the Madonna. When Freud asked her what had pleased her so much about the painting, "she could make no answer. At last she said: "The Madonna." Which of course is no answer.

Rather than probing further into her obvious evasiveness, his usual tactic, Freud simply accepted her non-answer, moving on to another topic. In a footnote in his report of the case, he interpreted her fascination for the painting in sexual terms: an identification with virgin mother enables young girls to fantasize motherhood without admitting sexual desire.

Billig, however, suggests a more comprehensive interpretation, one that was validated by a later event in Dora's life. When she got married, soon after the publication of Freud's report on her case, Dora and husband converted to Christianity. Her two hours of gazing at the Madonna was likely to have been fantasizing not only about motherhood, but also about Christian motherhood. This is likely to have been the reason she didn't respond to Freud's question, and the reason he avoided questioning her further about her non-response.

Apparently it was a widespread practice for Jews the Europe of that time, especially middle class Jews, to avoid the issue of anti-Semitism, and their oppression by their society. Perhaps this was the main reason that so many of them failed to escape from that oppression. Freud himself fled Vienna so late that it was only the intervention by a third party on his behalf that allowed him to escape.

Not all the members of Freud's family were so lucky. Billig tells a particularly grim story about Adolphine, the youngest of Freud's five sisters. She had a reputation in the family as being slightly dotty. When walking in Vienna with her brother Martin she would whisper to him that a man had just called her "a dirty stinking Jewess and said it was time they were all killed." Since neither Martin nor the other Freuds noticed such remarks, they treated her reports as a joke.

But, of course, they were no joke. As Billig notes, the Nazis took Adolphine and three of her sisters to the death camps. None of them returned. Both individual and collective repression of the facts of anti-Semitism had tragic consequences for Freud's own family, as well as for the other European Jews. I can remember that as a child, my father wrote countless letters to his parents and sister, pleading that they come to America. They always answered that there was no danger. Like Freud's sisters, they perished in the Holocaust, victims not just of the Nazis, but also perhaps of their own repressions.

Billig's new theory of repression suggests that it begins with social practices of avoidance of certain topics. Both the practice of avoidance and many of the topics to be avoided are taken up by the individual. How are they internalized? Billig's theory is not completely articulated. But it suggests two steps. First, learning the social practice of routinely avoiding a certain topic by changing the subject to another topic. This practice is intentional at first; it results in a collective failure to notice the forbidden topic. Perhaps after many repetitions, the individual takes the second step, learning to routinely avoid noticing his or her practice of avoiding the forbidden topic, by changing the subject to one that is not forbidden. This second step functions to remove the forbidden topic from conscious awareness. If this second step fails to remove the shame, a third and even subsequent steps can be taken (see the discussion of the case of the Ratman, below).

Billig's theory suggests that when it topic is forbidden both by social and by individual practice, it effectively disappears from consciousness, as was the case apparently, with anti-Semitism among middle class Jews in Freud's time. In this case, an individual who notices what everyone has repressed becomes embarrassingly deviant, as was the case with Adolfine in Freud's family.

Conversely, if the individual represses topics that the collectivity does not, or uses personal routines in the service of repression that are not confirmed in social practice, such idiosyncratic practices are seen as neurotic or psychotic symptoms. Billig illustrates this point with the obsessions, inner voices, fetishes and rituals employed by the Ratman (his real name was Paul Lorenz).

This patient seemed to have worked out unusual and complex routines to avoid his feelings. One example Billig uses concerns an episode when Paul apparently became annoyed. His girlfriend had gone away to nurse her sick grandmother. He reported to Freud that his inner voice gave him two commands, to kill the grandmother and to slit his own throat. Freud interpreted these voices as a means of masking Paul's feeling of anger, first toward the grandmother, then toward himself for his murderous thought. Apparently in Paul's case, more than two steps of avoidance were needed, as he was ashamed of not only the original topic, but also the later avoidance steps themselves.

Billig's theory of repression and his examples represent the interaction of two processes usually kept separate: social interaction and internal representations. Billig's interpretations of dialogue show the interpenetration of these two realms His theory fits neatly into the growing body of thought on the social construction of the self and of reality, as Billig notes. But his theory and interpretations are much more precise and specific than social constructionism, which is little more than an abstract idea. Billig shows how both normal and neurotic responses arise from social practice, and less explicitly, how they are internalized.

Billig's theory undercuts Freud's idea that the drive toward repression is a universal biological phenomenon. In his version, aggression and sexuality were repressed in Freud's Vienna because of the linguistic processes in the segment of that society he was familiar with, middle class Jews. That is, hostility/aggression and sexuality were repressed in this group, but because of linguistic practices, not biological necessity. The case of Freud and Dora's repression of Jewishness and anti-Semitism seems to be a telling refutation of the idea of biological necessity.

I have only a few minor reservations about this book. One trivial one is that the sentences seem to me awash in a sea of unnecessary commas. Although they don't change the meaning, they slow down the reader. A second problem occurs only in the first, theoretical part of the book, some fifty pages. I found the argument here tiresomely repetitive. As soon as the cases are introduced, however, the remaining two hundred pages, the pace picks up nicely. There are no unnecessary words in Billig's analysis of the cases. Some could even have been expanded.

A tiny detail about the case presentations: they are nicely indexed under the heading "Freud's patients." But I think an appendix listing the patients' names, their age at the time of treatment, the length of treatment, and the year(s) during which treatment occurred would be of great help to the reader, especially the reader who is not as familiar with the cases as Billig (practically everyone).

One final issue which is not really a reservation, but a suggestion. I would like to see further attempts by Billig to articulate his analysis of these cases with larger theoretical frameworks. He mentions one, Vygotsky and others on theories of self-talk. Although shame is frequently mentioned, is not integrated into a general theory of shame and repression. Other, still larger frameworks would be provided by G.H. Mead's theory of the genesis and maintenance of the self in social interaction, and Eric Erickson's ideas about stages in the growth of the self. At the level of collective behavior, Billig's analysis of the case of Dora suggests a new direction of endeavor, the formation of denial in oppressed minorities, surely a vital issue in today's world. These and many other ideas were generated by Billig's small book, surely a sign of its intellectual and scholarly vitality.


2, 456 words C:\letters\repress Feb. 3, 2000