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Beyond Drive Theory, Article Review Example

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Article Review

Nancy Julia Chodorow’s »beyond drive theory: object relations and the limits of radical initialism

Nancy Julia Chodorow’s article “Beyond Drive Theory: Object Relations and the Limits of Radical Individualism” is an attempt by the author to break with some of the fundamental tenets of the most prominent interpreters of Freud’s psychoanalytical theory. In particular, Chodorow’s finds fault with an emphasis on accounts that centralizes the role of the drive in psychoanalytic theory, in particular, accounts that use drive theory to explain the phenomenon of society and the individual’s place in society. In the article, Chodorow criticizes these accounts in a detailed manner, while suggesting her own interpretation of psychoanalysis as combined with object-relations theory to explain society. Accordingly, Chodorow’s theoretical perspective can be understood as a combination of an adherence to both Freud’s theory of drives and object relations theory, which she claims is present in Freud’s work itself: “Freud’s theory…is a dual theory – a theory starting from drives and a theory starting from object relations.” (Chodorow, 306) It is her contention that this approach is able to provide a fuller account of society and social relations, and furthermore one that is compatible with the dynamic nature of society and social relations.

The key polemical targets of Chodorow’s article are Marcuse and Brown. These two authors are of particular importance to Chodorow, because they reduce Freud’s theory to drives, while then using the latter to explain society. Chodorow’s central theoretical questions in the article are thus as follows: Firstly, what are the limits and inadequacies of such interpretations?; And secondly, what is a theoretical perspective that can resolve this ambiguity?

Chodorow notes that Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents contains “Freud’s most important work of social theory.” (Chodorow, 273) In this text, Chodorow suggests that Freud develops a picture wherein “drives and civilization are unalterably opposed”, (Chodorow, 273) which means that society is constituted by a fundamental tension between the individualism of drives and a society that is essentially a conglomerate of individuals, or in other words, society is non-individual. Both Marcuse and Brown, according to Chodorow, develop Freud’s logic to suggest that the “repression of drives is the core of civilization”, (Chodorow, 273) such that, for Marcuse and Brown, “the major contribution of psychoanalysis is…its account of the fundamental opposition between the individual and culture.” (Chodorow, 273) Chodorow thus attempts an explanatory approach of Marcuse and Brown’s texts. Working through these books, her strategy is to show the insufficiency of these accounts, using both society and Freud’s original work as a source for methodological critique.

For example, one of the key insufficiencies of the primacy given to the drive theory, for Chodorow, is that it encourages a “disappearance of women as subjects.” (Chodorow, 298) Particularly, Marcuse and Brown assign a more dominant position to the male within society, and as consequence the woman becomes something of an unnecessary supplement to the system. According to this critique, we can understand that there is a certain feminist theoretical perspective present crucial to Chodorow’s account according to such a marginalization of women in Marcuse and Brown.

This marginalization is, however, symptomatic of Marcuse and Brown’s appropriation of drive theory to account for society. In other words, for Chodorow it is key to think of society as not only made up of a singular element, but rather, that society is necessarily made up of various constitutive elements, and thus such an appropriation of drive theory precisely cannot adequately theorize the heterogeneity of society as an object and the complex inter-relations that are active in defining societal roles. That is to say, drive theory only concentrates on individuals as opposed to relations between individuals, relations that are central to society.

Certainly, Chodorow identifies a pertinent problem when she notes the methodological shortcoming of reducing everything to a certain part of Freudian theory. Accordingly, we can identify two main parts to the article: firstly, Chodorow provides a critique of the particular reduction. Secondly, it is the combination of the drive theory with object-relations theory that can allow for a fuller account. As Chodorow writes: “Object-relations theory develops its account of primary sociality by describing the relational construction of the self, both developmentally and in daily life.” (Chodorow, 308) In other words, the theory of relation allows for a dynamism that may account for a more diverse range of phenomena, because relations by definition consist of multiple elements.

However, the question remains as to whether the mere fact that object-relations theory can account for a larger number of phenomenon guarantees that it is a superior position. In essence, Chodorow’s argument begins from assuming a diverse number of elements that compose society, from which she deduces that all these elements must be treated in a single theory to make the theory relevant. However, this is indicative of an ultimately intuitive or common sense methodology, as Chodorow gives phenomena importance merely because they are perceived to exist in society: Chodorow emphasizes what other authors would call “folk psychology”, as opposed to methodologies such as elimination or reduction. The limit to this “folk psychology” interpretation is that part of the reason why theoretical approaches are necessary is because things that are intuited are not always the most important. This is arguably the entire point of psychoanalysis with Freud’s central concept of the unconscious, as it is precisely that which we are not conscious of that is of the utmost significance. Hence, while Chodorow nevertheless makes an interesting argument about the problem of reduction in psychoanalysis, her own approach rooted in “daily life” can be understood as an approach that simplifies its object, while missing the lesson of psychoanalysis that what we are conscious of, such as apparently important parts of society, are not always of the greatest pertinence.

Works Cited

Chodorow, Nancy Julia. “Beyond Drive Theory: Object Relations and the Limits of Radical Individualism”, Theory and Society, Vol. 14, No. 3 (May, 1985), pp. 271-319.

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