By Seth Vannatta
What are the necessary conditions for middle class life? This is the central question of Jordan Peele’s horror movie, Us. I argue here that Peele’s answer is both Freudian and Marxian, that these are interrelated, and that the tethered doubles of the Wilson family in Us represent their dynamic unconscious drive structures, the return of the repressed, and the revolutionary return of those oppressed by destructive effects of capitalism on a working underclass.
Keywords: Marx, Freud, Jordan Peele, Us, class-consciousness, psychoanalysis
What are the necessary conditions for the possibility of a contented, middle class life? I take this to be the central question of Jordan Peele’s horror movie, Us. I argue here that his answer is both Freudian and Marxian and that these analyses are interrelated. For Sigmund Freud, civilization itself is not possible without our collective repression of our libidinal and destructive instincts. Further, our sense of autonomous agency, which is responsible for working our way through school and succeeding in the marketplace, is, in reality, an effect of a dynamic unconscious. Next, Freud’s concept of ego resounds of the atomic individual of classical liberalism constructed to justify the politico-economic nexus that can give rise to middle-class existence. Therefore, for Freud, both civilization and consciousness are the collective and individual results of repression. Karl Marx shows that the individual is an historical accretion built upon both primitive accumulation and the deformative effects of industrial labor under capitalism. The ego, as an atomic individual, is one lynchpin between Freud and Marx: the alienated industrial labor of an invisible and forgotten proletariat is necessary both to construct the atomic individual and to produce the capital deployed by the middle class. Thus, I argue that the tethered doubles of the Wilson family in Us represent their dynamic unconscious drive structures, the return of the repressed, and the revolutionary return of those oppressed by destructive effects of capitalism on a working underclass.
Freudian Themes in Us
Sigmund Freud’s central claim is that consciousness is neither the whole of psychic life nor coextensive with the seat of agency in the world (The Ego and the Id 3). Rather, both a latent preconscious and a repressed unconscious exist, and consciousness itself is the effect of this structured unconscious. Our consciousness is “tethered” to our unconscious. The repressed unconscious contains the traumas of our sexual development, including our working through the Oedipal complex and our growth through the oral, anal, and genital stages of sexual desire. Freud showed us that our id, the non-moral locus of mental life, contains the libido, the pleasure principle, and Thanatos, the death drive. These unconscious drives relate to the ego in ways that motivate much of our behavior. The pleasure principle drives the libido, and the death drive, Thanatos, strives to lead animate life back to its inanimate state. The ego is seat of our relationship with and control over our external world. It mediates between the desires of the id and, as we will see below, the harsh moral commands of the super-ego.
The Wilsons, Gabe, Adeleide, Zora, and Jason, appear to be a contented, middle-class family. They have the disposable income for a vacation to the beach and for the purchase of a boat. Common to middle class families, they constantly compare their relative wealth to their peers. The film reinforces this tendency as the Wilsons envy their louche white friends, Kitty and Josh, whose pleasure principle drives them even more than the Wilsons’ does. While on the beach, Adeleide does not drink, while Kitty says that it’s “vodka-o’clock.” Gabe dons a Howard University sweatshirt. Hunter Harris writes that the sweatshirt is “a constant reminder of exactly what kind of guy he is: smart, honorable, probably a little bougie” (pg). These are qualities we attribute to successful middle-class folk. They stay out of trouble, refrain from drugs and alcohol, get the grades and the degree, and provide for their families. They stay out of trouble by inhibiting their sexual and destructive instincts. Insofar as the system qua civilization works, we all do. By a displacement of the libido, Gabe and Adeleide can sublimate their instinctual drives and take pleasure in intellectual endeavors—those that produce forms of culture, such as arts and science, in a civilized world (Civilization and its Discontents 29-30).
Freud writes that we narcissistically turn ourselves into our own object, thereby developing a super-ego, the moral dictator that replaces the powerful father figure, that turns its cruelty inward to our egos, that polices our instincts, and that results in guilt complexes. We can see Adeleide’s ego ideal governing her behavior on the beach when she refrains from alcohol. However, we also see her PTSD memories of her childhood trip to the same boardwalk and beach. When her doppelganger, Red, shows up in the driveway of her vacation home, we see the return of her repression.
Religion, for Freud, is one of the “mass-delusions” of humanity constructed to secure happiness through a “delusional remoulding of reality” (Civilization and its Discontents 32). The ultimate father figure, God, and thus ultimate super-ego, posits moral law and retribution for transgressions. The Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11, a recurring number pattern in the film, reads: “Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” Its reoccurrence in Us announces the ominous doom awaiting the Wilsons. The retribution for the consumerist idolatry in middle-class existences presages the Marxian analysis below.
Freud explains repression as follows: “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances … it can once more be brought to light” (Civilization and its Discontents 16). Freud uses an archeological and architectural analogy to illustrate the unconscious and the possibility of the return of the repressed. He describes Rome as a modern city built up over and around an ancient city. One can excavate its history intentionally, or it discover accidentally (Civilization and its Discontents 17). He describes Rome as “not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity … in which noting that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one” (Civilization and its Discontents 18). Similarly, the past is preserved in mental life, and psychoanalysis represents the intentional mining of the unconscious, while Freudian slips or seemingly unimportant memories of a Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11, illustrate its accidental coming to light. Peele represents the repressed in Us architecturally as well, as a series of tunnels beneath the surface of the civilized, known, and conscious world. The Wilson’s contentment depends on the repressed—a forgotten but not lost—underworld.
Concerning the operation of the pleasure principle and its relationship to the death drive, Freud writes, “The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed bur the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed” (Civilization and its Discontents 29). Thus, we desire forbidden things. Wild instinctual impulses include our destructive ones, and the tethered don chilling smiles as they terrorize the Wilsons. While all of the tethered doubles wield scissors and carry out bloody murders, Jason’s double, a dog-like pyromaniac named Pluto, represents Thanatos at work. He is the manifestation of the self-destructive instinct, even as he wears a mask to conceal self-inflicted burns on his face. He is closer to the animal world, qua dog-like, thus uncivilized. Both Jason and his double wear masks throughout the film, representing that there is something, the unconscious, under the mask, qua consciousness, driving the actions of the mask. Jason’s double even self-immolates at the end of the film, holding his arms out, making a cross, a self-sacrifice necessary for Jason’s continued existence.
That they are tethered illustrates another Freudian theme. As Herbert Marcuse wrote, “Freud’s hypothesis of the death drive and its role in civilized aggression shed light on one of the neglected enigmas of civilization; it revealed the hidden unconscious tie which binds the oppressed to their oppressors” (270). Jason must conquer his death drive, manifest in his double, for civilization, qua middle class life, to survive. Freud sees “repression as the necessary concomitant of civilization” (Robinson 203). Freud illustrates how the evil is in Us: “Some of the things that one is unwilling to give up, because they give pleasure, are nevertheless not ego but object; and some sufferings that one seeks to expel turn out to be inseparable from the ego in virtue of their internal origin” (Civilization and its Discontents 14). Individuals in the middle class both fetishize pleasurable commodities, such as fancy boats and AI servants, and contain internally the drives of their own suffering. Beneath our consumption of, for example, meat, are rows and columns of corporate cages of animals, represented as white rabbits in Us.
Marxian Themes in Us
For Freud, we falsely think of the ego “as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else” (Civilization and its Discontents 12). If the atomic individual, qua ego, in Freud, is a function of a dynamic unconscious, for Marx, it is a function of collective historical and social forces. Marx historicizes the ego of the autonomous and self-determining agent in the course and progress of history. He uncovers the social relations that serve as the substratum of individual consciousness, and this involves uncovering the history of the social institutions treated as unchangeable by bourgeois political economy. Georg Lukàcs writes that the laws that govern the individual will are functions of a specific historical structure. This priority of historical force over individual denies individual consciousness the significant role in history attributed to it by liberal economists and political theorists (Lukàcs 49). Similarly, Frederick Engels claimed that individual control of actions is really false consciousness. According to Marx, individual consciousness is a function of the capitalist social organization that hinders its self-realization and misdirects it as “false consciousness” (Fromm 21).
Marx asserts that the bourgeois conception of individuality, a function of alienation, is not the advance from previous forms of individual dependence as claimed by some political economists. Opponents of Marx claim that in capitalism, the interconnection of world markets and the indifference with which they act on individuals has a certain benefit over and above previous social connections of a local, feudal, or master-servant nature. The Wilsons could have descended from enslaved people in the United States, and liberal political and economic theorists view their emancipation as a triumph. Emancipation removed the personal ties of dependence and enslavement, so they, as individuals, seem independent and free. Marx calls this independence a mere “illusion” (Fromm 163): “The golden age for labor in the process of becoming emancipated” was only golden from the bourgeois perspective (Fromm 510). Individuals “free” to sell their labor in the “free” market are supposed to be better off than enslaved serfs on the manor or slaves on the plantation. Bourgeois political economists hailed this independence as the harbinger of a “free” economy. Rather, the absence of extra-economic force, as was the case in a previously militarized rural aristocracy, became the presence of economic force, as is the case with market imperatives (Wood 99). The impersonal relations of production and exchange act upon individuals as imperatives, not freedoms. In Marx’s terms, what was personal dependence gave way to objective dependence. That is, the entirety of social relations in capitalism become independent and then act upon and in opposition to “seemingly independent individuals” (Marx 164). The relations of production and exchange become autonomous over individuals, who were then “ruled by abstractions” (Marx 164).
That the Wilsons are a black middle class family is notable. They represent the thin veneer of the black middle class that separate the oligarchs from the black working and non-working underclass. They are the only social difference between the Baltimore uprisings in 1968 and those in 2015. The historical forces that made their lives possible also over-determine the underclass in the film, the tethered souls. The Hands across America theme mocks the way that thin calls for charity toward this underclass mask and defend the economic structures that created them. Winston Duke, the actor playing Gabe, said of the Wilsons: “They are attached to the American Dream, a construct that has oppressed them, and they’ve been on the bottom half of that in their lives [and in their repressed historical memories]. Once you attach yourself to that construct, you then become responsible for its sins. And when Judgment Day comes, you have to pay for it” (Harris). This Judgment Day is the revolutionary return of the repressed and oppressed.
In the Grundrisse, Marx lays out the history of the social relations of capitalism that lead to a misconstruction of the individual. In capitalism, individuals become more socially indifferent to each other the more their subsistence depends on the creation of exchange-value in production. This includes the alienation of the workers to those benefitting from the work and the alienation of the middle class from those on whose backs their consumerist lives depend. Mutual dependence in capitalism is only a universal dependence of each individual’s production upon all others’ production and consumption (Marx 156). This is an economic and atomized dependence, rather than an organic one. Because of this mutual and universal economic dependence, activity and production have a social character. The individual’s role in and share of production confronts him as something alien. What replaces subordination to previous social and political institutions is subordination to a set of relations. Because for his very subsistence, the individual is dependent universally as described above, the set of relations, arising “out of collisions between mutually indifferent individuals,” confronts him and subordinates him. Subordination to this set of relations is part of Marx’s assertion regarding the fallacy of individual power. Social production subsumes individuals rather than individuals controlling social production. Freud’s ego and Marx’s abstract individual are effects, rather than causes.
Conclusion: What about the Twist?
So far, the present analysis has ignored the fact that Red is, in fact, Adeleide, and has been performing the role of Adeleide, the protective parent. Therefore, the person we thought was a manifestation of the return of Adeleide’s repressed childhood trauma in the House of Mirrors is in fact Adeleide herself. Red’s lifelong performance of Adeleide, however, strikes a powerful Freudo-Marxian theme. Individually, Freud’s reality principle governs Red’s maternal and spousal performance. Her ego defers immediate gratification of the desires of the id when faced with the obstacles of her reality. The collective correlate to this is Marcuse’s performance principle, which corresponds to Marx’s qualitative depiction of existence under capitalism in alienation. Marcuse writes, “Under the performance principle, body and mind are made into instruments of alienated labor; they can function as instruments only if they renounce the freedom of the libidinal subject-object which the human organism primarily is and desires” (46). Red is, as are all of the tethered, a representation of id, but she operates under the performance principle, doing what Adeleide is supposed to do, which is to act according to Freud’s reality principle. Marcuse writes, “The performance principle, which is that of an acquisitive and antagonistic society in the process of constant expansion, presupposes a long development during which domination has been increasingly rationalized: control over social labor now reproduces society on a large scale and under improving conditions…. [People] do not live their own lives but perform pre-established functions” (45). Red performs the pre-established function of Adeleide. Peele’s film inscribes the notion of performance into Red performing Adeleide as a dancer. Her dance is her performance of the role of a contended, middle class child.
Freudian and Marxian analyses commingle in Peele’s Us in significant ways. Freud’s consciousness, the seat of the ego, is an effect of a dynamic structured unconscious to which we only have indirect access. The atomic individual, as a construct necessary for a capitalist economy, is an effect of historical and social forces. Both operate under the illusion of control. Beneath the guise of control are the shadows of repression and oppression, both of which violently return in Us. The American Dream of middle-class life—that the Wilsons have tethered themselves to and that Red performs as a mother, spouse, and dancer—is founded on the displacements of our instinctive desires, the repression of our traumas and drives, and the oppression of an alienated working and non-working underclass.
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