Monthly Archives: June 2015

The surprising origin of civilization according to Freud

Kjetil Simonsen made me aware of Sigmund Freud’s highly original view of the origin of (human) civilization, from Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Freud starts off conventionally enough:

If we go back for enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement, 1 […] (p. 37)

However, the real meat is in the accompanying footnote:

1 Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture—a fantastic-sounding one— about the origin of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about’ the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot, upwards. Putting out fire by micturating — a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire. It is remarkable, too, how regularly analytic experience testifies to the connection between ambition, fire and urethral erotism. (p. 37)

When man stopped (homo-erotically) peeing on fire, civilization rose.

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Monthly book roundup – 2015 May

Books finished in May:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Now, May was a really busy month.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015) by Robert Putnam. Putnam’s (born 1941) generation grew up in the post-war period and experienced the economic boom and opportunities for upwards social mobility of that era. Their kids, the subjects of this book, have not done as well, however. Drawing mostly on interview material, Putnam tells the stories of many struggling families and how a class divide is growing. That divide is partly economic, but the cultural dimension is just as important, in particular the one having to do with parental behavior. Resourceful parents plan when to have kids, manage to exploit all opportunities, prevent risks, and raise their children to have the right attitudes, while parents with bad parenting styles don’t. Residential and social sorting is part of the problem – kids of not-so-great parents get less exposure to other good role-models than before. Putnam is concerned, first on the part of these people themselves, but also on part of democratic governance, as “the opportunity gap undermines political equality and thus democratic legitimacy (p.239)”, and “[a]n inert and atomized mass of alienated and estranged citizens, disconnected from social institutions (p. 239)” might give rise to “antidemocratic extremism (p. 239)” when pressured, as in Germany in the 1930s. He stresses that we have not seen the worst yet, as he believes that this type of inequality is still growing, and that we will see that when today’s kids become parts of the labor and education statistics. Recommended.

Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids (2010) by Mark Hyman. American culture in general and parents in particular are driving kids and youth in sports until it hurts. An example is overuse injuries and surgery for young athletes becoming much more common. Hyman recounts several stories of crazy parents and coaches, and though these surely exists, I believe he too often loses sight of the positive sides of sports. But I support the general advice to take it easy and listen to kids and stop before it hurts.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

philosophiae doctor

Thursday May 28 I defended my Ph.D. thesis in economics at the EUI in Florence. As for most people, the defence marked the end of a journey through many ups and downs and unexpected turns. The most significant development for me, and one I was very happy with, was a switch from theory to empirics, in particular from conflict theory to applied (micro)econometrics.

The thesis itself consisted of three chapters – on television and cognitive development, terrorism and work effort, and voting habits in turnout. Three very different papers bound together by using modern empirical methods to discover causal effects.

The defence was a taxing, but also very useful experience. I was lucky to have a committee that had taken their job seriously, and that provided extensive and thorough comments that will lead to large improvements to the papers; papers which I look forward to blog about when I get them out as working papers. Perseus was the proper venue for finishing everything off.