The Other Children and the Oedipus Conflict: who’s the daddy now?

It occurred to me recently that the ‘father’ role in the Oedipus conflict, which was never intrinsically bound to actual fathers, may no longer even coincide with it very much in practice. It may be that, as in so many other areas, the mass society, the media, the public, the peer group, has taken over from specific family roles – or rather, has started to play those roles more directly, rather than indirectly through the mediation of those family roles.

For those who forget the essential dynamics of the Oedipus conflict, the idea is pretty much this: the child’s father holds a position of power that inspires both resentment and the fear that requires that resentment to be suppressed. The conflict between resentment/rebelliousness and fear/submissiveness is resolved, in male children, by the child coming to identify with the father, a sort of ‘social contract’ whereby the child makes peace with paternal authority and in exchange is permitted access to the social world that the father possesses.

Crucially, the power that’s involved is not just brute strength but the social power of access to the shared cultural world – the mingled power-knowledge of knowing how things are done, what things are appropriate, what is admirable and what is contemptible, how to be respected, what’s cricket and what’s not cricket, etc. It is in sense personhood itself, recognised as such by others. This is why there’s so much talk of ‘castration’: in an explicitly sexist society, having a penis is recognised-by-society-as equivalent to being a real person, which is as much as to say that having a penis is being-recognised-by-society-as-a-real-person. Which is what the father has and what the child must preserve and develop.

So that’s Oedipus. The thing is, this analysis was written about a century ago and a lot has changed. For a start, sexism is much less explicit now. For another thing, familial authority has weakened a lot.

Which I think is why the Oedipus-conflict story, to me, never quite rang true. Speaking personally, my father didn’t have that kind of authority, that kind of guardianship of the whole social world. But if the story was told instead about my peer group, about the general mass of other children and other people out there, it resonated much more.

I don’t want to get into the details of my own psychosexual history, but I think this phenomenon is exactly what we might expect.

In an increasingly ‘mass’ society, the public peer group does come to have tsome of he sort of authority that fathers would have had a century ago. They can tell you how things are done, what things are appropriate, what is admirable and what is contemptible, how to be respected, what’s cool and what’s uncool, what’s hot and what’s not, etc. They can write the meanings onto the every action and feeling that a given child displays.

There’s no need to overstate this, or to deny the prominent role that more traditionally “patriarchal” psycho-symbolism still plays. Obviously.

Note that while there may be gradients of individual such power, with the cool kids having more say, the basic dynamic is more that the group as a whole dominates each one of its members – insofar as each seeks to conform to (or rebel from in approved ways) what the others think, but ‘what the others think’ is just the product of everyone else trying to conform.

And we might then suppose that for many people growing up now, there’s an analogous conflict – how to reconcile the resentment that this amorphous, distributed power inspires, with the fear that it also inspires. And the ‘adjustment’ that resolves it (supposed by Freud to be a sign of psychic ‘health’) is to identify with it, to make onself fit into what it defines as an acceptable sort of person (to avoid ‘castration’) so that there’s no longer any need to fear or resent it – because you are it.

But of course, never perfectly – that conflict, that uncertainty, that potential for hatred of the mass, remains throughout a person’s life, as long as they remain something more than simply the roles they play and the identities they assume, with the potential to think a new thought. Which people, fortunately, are.

As a final note: the precise identity of this dominating public is obviously almost entirely unspecific. This might have implications regarding who becomes the target, the scapegoat, if and when the suppressed ‘Oedipal rage’ expresses itself.

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