Electric Dreams

Dreams, postmodern theory and the Improverse:

 Selections from Postmodern Dreaming

Richard Catlett Wilkerson 

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2001 April). Dreams, postmodern theory and the Improverse: Selections from Postmodern Dreaming. Electric Dreams 8(4). Retrieved April, 2001 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams  

Note: I plan to publish here a variety of essays taken from a longer work in progress, Postmodern Dreaming. In this section, I look at the new values of postindustrial societies and how dreamwork can improve our chances of having a meaningful life in the midst of a world spinning so fast that speed itself becomes a celebrated value.

"Virtualization is hominization."
Pierre Levy

The frontier of Cyberspace is the accelerated edge of much larger project that has been going on for sometime, the virtualization of culture. This means we spend less time in concrete reality and more time in constructed reality. Everywhere there is connection to the Net there is a rapid movement into this new world causing a paradigcybermatic shift. It is now clear we can capitalize this space, but it is not as clear how we can live in it. Cyberspace changes and mutates faster than our normal cultural means for understanding it. Old notions of identity, presence, national alliance and concrete reality dissolve in multiple cyber-identities, remote yet intimate interactions and virtual alliances. It is almost like we have learned how to collectively dream together. If this analogy of dream-space and virtual-space is useful, an investigation of work and play with dreams will also be useful in developing a productive virtual-work.

Dreamwork is a loose collection of practices used by both clinical and non-clinical groups interested in exploring dreams. Some people become dreamworkers through recording and keeping a journal. Other dreamworkers use dreams for complex therapeutic and spiritual reasons. Some dreamworkers only "work" while they are in the dream state itself, such as with lucid dream practices where they are aware they are dreaming during the dream, and in imaginal, shamanic journeys during sleep. Others allow the dream imagery to lead them into personal and social transformations.

In 1994 a dream sharing community formed online called Electric Dreams. The initial formation of Electric Dreams explored different ways the Internet could be used for dreamwork and dream sharing. The members were unhappy with the superficial conversations taking place on the open bulletin board format of the Usenet Newsgroup, alt.dreams, and began exploring alternatives. Since the Electric Dreams community developed during the rapid period of growth of the Internet in the 1990s, the struggles and conflicts of the community reflect many of the cultural concerns about becoming virtual, such as identity, alliance, nationalism, globalization, confidentiality and quality of life online.

The similarities between dreamspace and Cyberspace are many. Neither exists in any particular space, but in virtual space mediated by special protocols, rules that allow for the unfolding of experiential immersion. While the protocols of dream-space unfold subjective immersion for the sleeping dreamer and the protocols of Cyberspace are more objective (or at least, have collective conventions), both create inhabitable worlds in which we feel, sense, suffer and interact. Dream space and virtual space both produce a complex environment populated by others whose existence and status are always in question and flux. Particular dreams may disappear upon awakening, and websites come and go and seem to disappear when we log off, but planes of consistency build enduring nomadic relations and themes across individual spaces. Those interested in dream-ecology and those interested in cyber-ecology are both concerned about how we live and interact in these mutant worlds and what it means.

Another group interested in the issue of mutant worlds and our place it them is postmodern cultural theory. Postmodern thought shares with dreams and Cyberspace a playful irreverence with the powers that be, a deadly serious questioning of the regimes that pressure us and an interest in the strange twists in the logic and fabric of time and space. Postmodern theorists have produced a large body of literature addressing issues of living in Cyberspace, such as virtual presence, the reorganization of subjective identities and simulated reality. Unlike dreamwork and dream sharing, which generally focus on individuals and small groups, postmodern cultural theory has a social and political focus, providing concepts that allow the insights of personal dreamwork to be carried over into a collective dreamwork of life in Cyberspace, a virtual-work.


"The loss of Material Space leads to the government of nothing but time... The violence of speed has become both the location and the law, the world's destiny and its destination." Paul Virilio

In the concrete material world there are limits on speed and dramatic limits on the speed of large objects. Still, cultures push to go faster. Part of this is the need expressed in military competition in tactics and strategies, part the need of capital competition in market economy and production. In the information society, information needs to move faster and faster, and its users do as well. Life itself becomes faster and faster. How fast can it go? Economic and nationalistic concerns will impose their own limits, but the speed needs of living in Cyberspace are not yet clear. What is clear is that speed has become a need. For the organic being, speed needs to be fast enough to re-create what are called real-time interactions. But this fantasy limit of real-time is based on old models of interaction. Basically they rely on the demands of an organic self for action and reaction to match his/her selection speed, perception speed, and apperception speed. Slight variances from this interactive speed and we become impatient at one end, nauseous at the other.

Postmodern theorist Paul Virilio feels that the speed will increase to a point where we can no longer keep up and remain as we are. As we move towards light speed, space collapses. We will have to abandon our subjective identities and mutate into a new consciousness. In this scenario, technology will continue to take up residence in our bodies, externalizing our senses. Our sight, hearing and touch and even memory will all be metabolically turned inside out, giving birth to a speedy virtual being. In this scenario, the need for speed will be the basic code of culture. In a virtual world, space does not have to be conquered, it has already surrendered. The struggle will instead be for time. The discovery of Cyberspace is not like the discovery of America by Europeans who saw a vast expanse of space to colonize. Cyberspace only exists as it is created. It is not pre-made. The value of cyber-territory is only as valuable as its relations with its neighbors. If one has a website with a trillion pages, but unknown to others, it's as good as non-existent. As culture reaches terminal speed, the meaning and value of all other activities will be stripped and reoriented towards speed. Whether this spectacle of velocity ends in ruins or a new relationship with time depends on our own ability to develop a relationship with speed.

During the global media frenzy surrounding the death of Princess Diana, a woman deeply affected by the event told me "I just can get any space to find my own feelings. I can't stop watching the TV and the latest tidbits and stories." Cassidy continues, " I see other people suffering around the world, but can't make time for myself to suffer, I have to see the next event on TV."

On the Internet, alternative modes of sharing grief are emerging. One of these modes is dream sharing. Dream sharing refers to the same practices as dreamwork, but with a focus on the transactions in relationship. It often includes the exploration of meaning and value as in dreamwork, but emphasizes the actual sharing of the dream as the primary activity. People having dreams of Princess Diana exchanged these across the Net like gifts exchanged between family members at a wake.

Dream: Diana Not Quite Dead by M. (970909)

"I was very close to Diana and was helping wash blood off of her (into a large bath); I remember watching it swirl clockwise around and down the plug-hole while at the same time we were talking in detail about the irreversibility of what had happened, and the reality of the here and now; she found it hard to accept that she could not yet leave the place where we were, or that she was in fact dead; she was not overly distressed, more like puzzled, tired, and regretful but the main focus of the dream was on her healing (of soul and body) and on my offer (not in words, but simply as something that happened) to take on myself her woundedness. There was no particular point at which this happened, but suddenly I began to feel physically badly hurt, weak, and aching, as if I were recovering from a recent and devastatingly major operation. I looked down the front of my body, which was badly bruised from the upper chest area, and a huge, healing scar was running down my body. The scar was like a long clean scalpel cut - a thin line that was already closed up. I felt a kind of joy and wonderment at this, partly, I think, because (in a relieved fashion) I'd taken on the woundedness in a kind of recovery mode, without having endured the preliminary shock and horror of its cause. I recall that this process - helping Diana wash herself free of blood, talking through what was now real, and feeling wounded - was enacted over and again in different ways several times, until there was an acceptance by her of death, after which I was free to leave her in peace. I can't describe the kind of closeness this all involved; it wasn't what you'd call friendship, or sisterliness, or motherliness; it was (for want of better words) an indefinable sense of oneness, sorrow, patience, and compassion."

M. reported that like many others, she had been drawn deeply and with powerful emotion into the tragedy of Diana's death. On the night she had the dream, she felt an overwhelming desire to be of some help to Diana.

Unlike M.'s waking self, her dream self created an interactive environment in which she could spend time with Diana's death, time with her desire to be of some help. Poetics has a term called "impleaching" which mean poetically interweaving. As the poet Hölderlin says, "poetically man dwells." In this dwelling, this lingering and winding back and forth across the surfaces and textures of an image, meaning and value begin to emerge. Psychotherapist Sylvia Perera has referred to this process as "interlacing" and uses the image of complex interweaving of Celtic illuminated manuscripts. More currently, there has been a revival of the practice of labyrinth walking. Here individuals locate mazes on the floors of cathedrals, in courtyards and in gardens and mindfully walk though them. The point is not to speed through them to the end, but to create time and space for alterity, alternative experiences and universes, a similar process when we walk though a forest with a quiet mind.

Psychotherapist Carl Jung once asked a Native American why they performed the sun ritual. He learned that without the ritual, the sun would not rise again and time would end. This is the responsibility of freedom through virtualization. We can use it to create or destroy time. Making time may not involve a complex ritual, but it does require something like a ritual. When Jesus came across a man working in the field on a sacred day, he simply said "If you know what you are doing, fine, but if not, you are really in trouble."

In this sense, the dream sharing online becomes a digital sacrament that creates time and space. Recalling the dream creates time and space in waking life. Sharing the dream creates time and space for a whole group. The particular interpretive system is not so important as the ability of the system to keep the dream present long enough to create a rupture in normal time. In Aboriginal Dream Time, there is the notion of time outside of time. That is, it doesn't directly partake in the everyday swirl of media and commercial signs, but rather is aligned to a symbolic order outside of time, a sacred time. Here the project of speed is exposed as game whose terminal limits seek a field of digital ice without friction, a false freedom that pretends to connect everything to everything else and ends in leaving nothing but the icy surface of empty death. Although dreamwork is not the only way to create time and space, it does provide a useful set practices which address how to take control of the throttle and create time/space in a world moving at the speed of light.

The irony that speed and media both created and killed the princess, and created and killed public suffering, is not a lesson we should miss. The vivisection by the mediascape can be mitigated by a digital dream time.