Klaus Theweleit

Klaus Theweleit is a German cultural critic who seems (like a lot of people I’ve been reading recently) to be a bit under-recognized in the US currently. His massive two-volume book Male Fantasies, originally published in Germany in 1977, won him some American fame (in academic circles, at least) when it was translated into English in 1987; but it seems to have been forgotten in the years since. Since then, he’s published a lot, including another massive, multi-volume work, The Book of Kings; but little of it has appeared in English translation. (You can find out a little about The Book of Kings here and here).
Male Fantasies was a wonderfully over-the-top study of the relations between misogyny and fascism. More precisely, it was a kind of left-Freudian analysis of the Freikorps, which was a proto-Nazi militia in Germany just after the end of World War I. In analyzing letters, fiction, and propaganda created by members of the Freikorps, Theweleit uncovered a configuration in which militarism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were driven by a fear of dissolving boundaries, a reactive need to affirm the body’s hardness and invulnerability, a phobic resistance to the “oceanic,” and to flows and flexibilities of all sorts: these latter being associated with the maternal, the sexual, the feminine, etc. Theweleit both grounded this configuration very closely in the particularities of time, place, culture, and social class; and suggested how the pathology he uncovered had larger resonances throughout the history of misogynistic Western culture.
Basically, Theweleit offered an update of (the early) Wilhelm Reich’s analysis of “the mass psychology of fascism” and of rigidified, repressive “character armor.” What Theweleit added to Reich was a brilliant and omnivorous pop culture sensibility, a decided feminist slant, and a kind of gonzo theoretical style. (He is always excessive, and often quite funny as well).
I read Male Fantasies fifteen years ago and I was greatly impressed. I’m not sure what has brought me back to Theweleit now, aside from my general project of looking at other theoretical sources (from Whitehead to Jaynes to McKenna to Kittler to Canetti) instead of just rereading the usual French suspects. But, besides Male Fantasies, it turns out that only one quite slender volume of Theweleit’s has been translated into English: Object-Choice (All You Need Is Love). It’s a discussion of Freud’s notion of “object-choice,” i.e. how we “choose” the people we fall in love with.
Theweleit first gives a typology of the varieties of object-choice, proposing a lot of categories in addition to Freud’s. He then looks at Freud’s own “object-choices,” looking at his relationships with his wife, with his daughter Anna, with his patients, with his female disciples (women psychoanalysts were important in the early history of the psychoanalytic movement), and with women who “mediated” his intense relationships with other men (most notably hear, C. G. Jung’s wife).
Psychoanalyzing Freud himself is something that has been done widely in the last 25 years; this aspect of Theweleit’s book isn’t all that new or (to me) interesting. What is interesting about the book is this:
Theweleit brings out the sense, which one finds in Freud at his best, that our deepest desires and actions are ones over which we have no control, and which we cannot possibly understand, or even recognize in and about ourselves. This sense of our inevitable blindness to our own motives, of the way the “self” is imbricated in configurations of meaning that extend far beyond it, is what’s missing from all those contemporary approaches to the mind, cognitive or otherwise, that congratulate themselves on leaving Freud behind.
And this is the aspect of Freud that I cannot give up, no matter how unfortunate (Oedipus) and obnoxious (the discussions of female sexuality) I find so many of his particular formulations to be.
As a “postmodern” person, I can’t be happy with Freud’s (characteristically modernist) insistence on interiority and “depth psychology.” We don’t believe any longer in that old, deep self, which Freud maintained in his theories, even as he showed it to be irretrievably riven.
But Theweleit redoes Freud, you might say, laterally instead of in depth. He traces horizontal networks of effects in the place of Freudian profundity. In Object-Choice, this is done both through the multiplication of Freud’s categories, and through the way that Theweleit extends their reach throughout the social field — so that male “object-choices,” in particular, turn out to have as much to do with social class, with institutional power relations, and above all with the continual subordination of women, as they do with the old Oedipal triangle. Though he’s more Freudian than Deleuze and Guattari (and though he certainly has that sense of the irremediable that D& G programatically reject — which rejection is one of my problems with D&G), Theweleit definitely shows, in a manner congruent with theirs, how unconscious drives and desires invest the whole social field, and not just the self-enclosed nuclear family.
That, and Theweleit’s love for rock ‘n’ roll, are what drive his work. (I’m ambivalent about the rock ‘n’ roll part, because it makes me fear that Theweleit might be one of those people who, while understanding the greatness of the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, fails to display a similar enthusiasm for more recent developments. Is Theweleit down with Missy and Timbaland, or with Dizzee Rascal? I honestly don’t know).

One Response to “Klaus Theweleit”

  1. […] Amazon.com: Books: Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies–Psychoanalyzing the White Terror by Klaus Theweleit. […]