Cultural transmission

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The term "cultural transmission" does not appear in Sigmund Freud's work, but the idea is implicit in such notions as cultural heritage and phylogenetic inheritance. Freud believed that the (since abandoned) biological precept, according to which "ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis," could be applied to human psychic development. The notion of cultural transmission refers to the possibility that the acquisitions of an individual or of a culture can be transmitted to descendents and form the basis of cultural development. Freud addressed the topic for the first time in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), where he advanced the hypothesis that the feeling of guilt over the murder of the primal father had persisted over the centuries and still affected generations that could know nothing directly about it. In Freud's later works, the main mechanism of transmission was said to be identification, which ensconced the lost object in the ego, as described in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), and finally produced an alteration in the ego that gave rise to the superego, as described in The Ego and the Id (1923b). In the New Introductory Lectures (1933 [1932]) Freud observed that the superego could be viewed as the outcome of successful identification with the parental agency, and as the natural and legitimate heir to the Oedipus complex. As the bearer of tradition, the superego was a true agent of cultural transmission from one generation to the next. In Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]) Freud returned to the idea of an archaic heritage and compared such inherited acquired characteristics to instincts in animals—an inheritance on par with symbolism. After Freud, the idea of phylogenetic transmission was seemingly relegated to the background, as an explanation of last resort, and the emphasis shifted toward a detailed and expanded study of identifications. The point of departure for this was Freud's remark in the New Introductory Lectures, in which he observed that the child's superego was not formed in the image of the real or imaginary parents, but instead modeled on the parents' superego. The main focus soon moved beyond direct parental and intergenerational identifications to more distant identifications, such as those with grandparents, ancestors, or mythical characters in family history, who re-emerge amid the descendents as a kind of actualization of family prehistory. The theme of the intergenerational (or transgenerational) appears in psychotherapeutic work with families, children, and adolescents, and sometimes gives the impression that this sphere of observation is being invaded by the study of archaic identifications. The other area where this theme comes to the fore is work with survivors or descendents of survivors of the Holocaust or other genocides, such as those committed by Latin American dictatorships. In these two areas, the importance of secrets, the unspoken, or ancestral crimes that the family has decided to bury, is much in evidence. In the case of the survivors of genocide, there is an attempt to make the traumatic situation disappear by denying it representation. But the buried material reappears two or three generations later, as a ghost that occupies the place where the concealment of important aspects of the ancestor's life has produced a "blank" in the descendant's psyche. In such cases, we speak of "alienating identifications." A particular aspect of this type of intergenerational transmission was studied by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (1972/1978), in relation to the problem of grief. We thus see that a number of ideas are related: in Freud's work we encountered identification, phylogenetic heritage, and intergenerational process; in other authors, the notions of transgenerational transmission, "fantasies of identification" (de Mijolla, 1986), and "alienating identifications." In summary, we may say that the concept of phylogenetic heritage has gradually been reconsidered, to the benefit of more detailed study of the mechanisms of possible transmission, notably identification, the core of the issue. The uncovering of alienating factors in the subject's prehistory, factors that can go back several generations, has come to the fore, replacing the ideas of "family romance" and "mythical descent," so well known to us since Freud. But emphasis on the intergenerational may push analytic work in the direction of applied psychoanalysis, so distancing it from a deeper understanding of the configurations and processes of the analytic situation, which is the prime locus of psychoanalytic discovery. This danger may even be exploited by the ever-renewed faces of resistance to psychoanalysis.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  2. ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
  3. ——. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.
  4. ——. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
  5. ——. (1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 139-207.