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Civilization and its Discontented

In the three extended essays of Civilization and its Discontented, John Laffey explores various notions of civilization and the uses to which they are put. From the appearance of the word in the late 18th century, to the eve of the publication in 1930 of Freud’s Civilization and Discontents, the first essay focuses on its varying definitions, its transformation into an item of cant by the late 19th century, the shock which the values associated with it recieved during World War I, and the pallid post-war efforts to revive it. The second essay is concerned with those relegated to civilization’s margins or cast beyond its pale once it had emerged as a hegemonic standard of judgement: the ‘savages’ abroad or on the frontiers; the ‘savages’ at home, that is the working class, criminals and the insane, and women of all conditions. Laffey pays special attention to the way in which such groups were equated with each other, with the ultimate equation to be found in depictions of the crowd as savage, criminal, mad and woman-like in its hysteria and openness to seduction. The concluding essay provides a close reading of Freud’s ambivalent reaction to the idea of civilization and argues that he too very much participated in the discourse of marginalization and equation.

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