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Got Freud?

From movies to sitcoms to advertising, his legacy permeates our popular culture.

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As you enter the hall, a heavily accented man's voice floats through the air, and stays with you as you move through several large rooms. The traveling exhibition is "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," and the voice is the founder of modern psychoanalysis himself, reading a defense of his life work, concluding with the words, "The struggle is not over yet."

The purpose of this is simple.

"Whether you know it or not," says curator Michael Roth of the Getty Research Institute here, "Freud is in the air." Roth laughs, acknowledging that more than one exhibit guest has found the omnipresent voice of the Austrian psychoanalyst (1856-1939) vaguely irritating. "That's the whole point," he says. No matter what you think of Freud, "you have to figure out what to do with him."

The theories of one of the towering figures of the early 20th century have quietly slipped into our daily lives.

Indeed, in everything from TV sitcoms to movies and advertising, Freud's legacy permeates our popular culture, either directly or indirectly. Terms connected with him - Freudian slips, Oedipal complexes, defense mechanisms - are routinely used in casual conversation, describing everyday behavior.

Over the decades, Freud's work has been debated, revised, updated, debunked, and reviled by everyone from feminist leaders to MTV GenXers.

Yet his influence remains.

"My bottom line is that any trip to a movie theater, any conversation with someone at work, seems to make clear that the influence, the impact, of Freud is still alive and well in the year 2000," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "In spite of the fact that most people have no idea that he is humming so loudly in the background of everything from their 'pickup lines' to their talk about the weather, the 21st century begins as one in which we know a cigar is never just a cigar, and that's an important thing to know."

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