Between Freud and Einstein

On the homology at the heart of modernist art

In my long career as professor of a very particular discipline known as the Phenomenology of Styles, I made frequent use of a precious notion coming from the French sociologist Lucien Goldmann: homology. “Homology” refers to a coincidence between the structures (schemes, patterns) we may extract from different fields of culture, be they in the human or the physical-mathematical sciences.

With this possibility of a coincidence in mind, we may dare to compare the two fundamental contributions given by Sigmund Freud in the field of the humanities and by Albert Einstein in the almost opposite world of the natural sciences. Let us remember the well-known formula on which Einstein’s relativity theory is built, i.e. that energy corresponds to mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light. Now let us try to think of a correspondence between such energy, considered from a physical point of view, and Freud’s theory of the libido — where the unconscious (Id or eros) corresponds to this energy and the Ego to the mass that tries to introduce a limitation, a control.

Both energy and eros are to be considered the origin of productivity in both fields, but at the same time they may become extremely dangerous if not placed under clever administration. If we succeed in liberating the energetic-erotic principle, we may risk a nuclear explosion in the physical kingdom, or the equivalent in our everyday social life, total deregulation. But if, on the contrary, the Ego and mass are too restrictive, we risk losing a great possibility in the physical world and/or neurosis in the psychological one. Every civilization has to find an equilibrium between these two extremes.

In this post, I would like to test this homology by applying it to a variety of cultural products, in the light of what I have previously called a “phenomenology of styles.”

Let us begin with some of the salient features of modernist narrative. Why does James Joyce employ the stream of consciousness approach in his pivotal work, Ulysses? It is because the narrator, following the Freudian teaching, accepts the primacy of the kingdom of eros, libido, and so on, which is a whole continent based on a perpetual flux ignoring bounds, limitations, obstacles.

To this, someone may object that another writer often compared to Joyce, Marcel Proust, seems to follow a contrary principle. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s characters, beginning with Marcel himself, his own self-projection, apparently prefer to follow the prescriptions coming from Ego, that is, narcissism and over-emphasis on their own selves. But this is only the surface level, and it is interrupted very frequently from outbursts of a lower stratum — corresponding again to the Id, eros, or libido, which unites opposite instances. Let us consider for instance the very much celebrated moment of the “madeleine.” The latter amounts to a sort of resurrection from a remote past, which had been rejected by the precautionary control of Ego as being without any practical value. But this proves to be a state of enlarged consciousness in that it is capable of giving us a sudden and inexplicable pleasure. In fact, at least for a brief moment, the rigid barriers of the Ego have been violated, and this is a very propitious event in our life.

We could now continue this line of interpretation and apply the same homology to the greatest exponents of the first avant-garde movements, i.e. to modernism. Indeed, one cannot understand these revolutionary trends without linking them to a common project of changing the balance between the different strata of our psychology. If the great age of literary realism and naturalism can be described as the epoch of the uncontested domination of Ego, i.e. of well-known impulses totally placed under rational control, then the following century had to upset such a situation, thereby giving a voice to the psychical underground.

In this light, one can read the work of the great novelists that are usually associated with the couple Joyce-Proust, such as Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, and Franz Kafka (and we may add to the list also two Italian writers, Italo Svevo and Luigi Pirandello — the latter being one of the greatest dramatists of the past century). But we may also proceed further to apply this homology to the visual arts. Here, too, we clearly witness an attempt at challenging the bounds that limit objects, so to obtain something that may be considered homologous to the stream of consciousness, better defined in such case as a stream of perception. The latter is not limited to the surface appearances of the objects, but is ready to explore beneath. Put in a nutshell, in visual art too we have a battle between the solidity and normality of how things usually appear to us and an unlimited, underground energy.

However, in order to avoid the fallacious idea of a universal key, able to open every door, I would like to conclude with a few contradicting observations. In fact, if we look at Cubism, we can perceive the imprint of the previous age, with its emphasis on mass rather than energy. The rigid, regular forms normally constituting the cubist style are homologous to the mechanical technology of the early modern epoch. This is because the electromagnetic culture had not yet totally prevailed, so we still have a compromised mixture of the two: the rigid machines of the past and the nascent electromagnetic culture with its fluid solutions for the future. It is only with Abstract Expressionism that we will see the final and complete victory of energy versus mass. A powerful illustration of this is the procedure adopted by Jackson Pollock in his paintings, the dripping: through such a procedure the painting itself is transformed into a vibrating net of strokes, whereby energy seems to explode the boundaries of the mass.

Also for you:

Renato Barilli

  • Dominique Suberville

    I am new to the concept of “homology” but it sounds incredibly fascinating as a phenomenon between aesthetics and the study of the natural sciences. Your writing opens up a lot of questions as to how advancements in theories of distinct areas of academia affect the materialization and perception of art.

    After having read your piece, I was referenced to an exhibition currently in display at the Wendi Norris Gallery in San Francisco under the name Science in Surrealism. It displays surrealist work by artists concerned with quantum mechanics and the Theory of Relativity. I would imagine this would be of interest to you; seems to have an interesting connection, although more illustrative than Abstract Expressionism. Maybe there is something there? Thank you for a great piece as it gives us a lot to discuss.

    • I find the connection between Suberville’s piece and Barilli’s intriguing: his works to explore the patterned structure of cultural imagination, while hers works to illuminate the experience of art and its connection with the interactions of social life. I respect both approaches and wonder if it is possible to combine them as a way to do art criticism and history.

  • Chiara Bottici

    i think this homology is highly illuminating. since i read (and heard) professor barilli speaking about it, i was fascinated by it and kept asking myself: where do we stand now? are we complexly done with the mass?
    as to the question of the boundaries between society and art, i do not even know whether they exist: maybe they existed in the past (or at least some people found useful to believe they did), but my sense is that they are gone now.

  • Francisco Gonzalez

    Barilli´s post has some mistakes concerning the psychoanalytical theory and how he uses it. After defining his notion of “homology,” a coincidence in mind, Barilli compares the contributions made by Freud and Einstein. Are these two works comparable? Human psyche and mind are not the same. Einstein´s contribution is a pure rational work, a product of the mind, and psychosis, what psychoanalysis studies, is not irrational conduct: reality is still there for the psychotic.

    The main problem, in my opinion, is the way the Einstein´s formula is being used to explain the coincidence between the two works. Barilli says that Energy, in Einstein’s work, and Libido in Freud’s are comparable. Libido in Freud’s work is not “the unconscious (Id or Eros),” as Barilli points out. Freud himself states that the difference unconscious/conscious cannot be applied to instincts, life and death, Eros and Thanatos. What is more, both Life and Death cohabited the Id, not only Eros as Barilli says. Thus, the formula is incomplete and cannot be tested because it does not consider the Death drive. What can be compared is that both Freud and Einstein were highly obsessed with knowing it all.

    • Francisco Gonzalez

      Psychoanalytic theory*

Previous post

Art is the Social Condition: A Proposal for the Marriage of Art and Sociology

Next post

Zizek and me