Revised from a post to the ASD Bulletin Board, August 2003
I may have been catastrophizing a bit in suggesting that representing dreams
is dangerous. We have been representing dreams for millions of years and
getting away with it.
And yet, representing is (can be) an act of abstraction and moving away,
into models and messages and codes of reality rather than connecting with
the particular and unique and singular in reality. Pretty soon we are
dealing and living and thinking in terms of models of reality and codes of
action, abstractions of the real. That is, things are never what they are,
they are models and messages and means to something else. All the while,
that something else becomes more and more distant.
Henri Bergson worked on the problem of abstraction. Bergson identifies the
problem in the spatialization of time and gives the metaphor of the tic-tock
of the clock. These tick-tocks are each uniquely individual, each one sounds
slightly different, each swing of a pendulum a slightly different distance,
yet we tend to see them all the same as abstract equal measures. And then we
begin to think of time itself as an equally measured substance. A geometric
net of equal spaces laid out over time. Bergson begged Einstein not to
abstract time. But for mathematics to work in those days, one had to have
equal, discrete measures. It is powerful to abstract. I can look at an
orchard of fruit and say, "These are oranges, those are all apples." Though
each fruit is unique, I have now abstracted from them a similarity around
which I can group them and collect them and market them. Pretty soon I will
have more money and be spending my day thinking about apples and oranges
while someone I hire does the actual work with them. I will count them on
paper and the actual unique objects will recede into the distance as the
models and abstractions occupy my attention.
What happens in the dreamwork where signs and symbols begin to replace
direct contact? Or is there ever any direct contact anyway? Is human
consciousness itself a process of abstracting?
Immanual Kant noted that for reason to work, it has to have and hold a
measure of a thing in space and time. If the object doesn't have any time,
and duration, it is outside our reason, and if its spacial parameters exceed
our measurements, it is outside all but the most sublime reason. We first
need to get a measure of an object, then reproduce it, then hold up this
object to understanding for conceptual placement. But first we measure. If
we see something, we say, it's about half my size, its twice my size. We
may look at a tree and say its ten-men high. We look at a mountain and say
it's a hundred trees high. We scan the horizon and say it's about 10
mountain ranges wide. If we encounter something that we can't immediately
get a measure of, we will never be able to reproduce it, and thereby never
be able to determine its concept. There are times this happens, times our
perceptions will overwhelm us, like the times we get overwhelmed by the
starry night or the proximity of a volcanic eruption. For a moment there is
nothing to measure it against. If we survive, in the next moment we at least
find some sense of it in our concept of the infinite, and at that moment we
call the event sublime.
However, the point here is that for our reason to operate, it has operate on
something we have already turned into an abstraction. We measure it out in
time-space and reproduce it in our memory and imagination and apply
Language too is the use of abstraction, representing and thereby creating
things from the plenum.
This is all not to just say that humans don't have anything but abstracted
awareness. Other possibilities of reception and location exist. But the
degree to which we are involved in the process of abstraction is often
diminished. Note that anytime we deal with an object as an object, we are
involved in abstraction. How much of our lives involve recognizing and
working with objects?
Representation involves objects, and objects that take the place of other
objects. This barber's pole is a sign of a barber, but not the barber
himself. Not only is there a level of abstraction needed to perceive the
barber's pole as an object in general, but there is another level of
abstraction occurring in recognizing the pole as a stand-in for another
object. We could also talk about another level of abstraction involving
barber poles where they represent barber's in general, but the point here is
not to lay out all the aspects of abstraction that humans perform, but to
point out the degree to which the process of abstraction is involved in
representation and representing.
The issue of representation is a conflict at the heart of dreamwork and of
civilization. Western civilization anyway. And as far as I can see, now
everybody in the world wants a pair of Nikes. (that is, if they aren't a
Western society now, they will be soon). So without too much exaggeration I
can speculate on a global crisis in representation. Which representational
system is the highest, the best, the one above all others? Or can
anything/one represent us without diminishing our uniqueness? Jean-Francois
Lyotard has noted that there aren't any Grand Narratives left to guide us on
which system of representation to use in interpreting the world. Anyone who
tries to impose a Grand Narrative or system of belief or value system beyond
their own personal sphere will run into argument and conflict.
We might look at this in terms of who gets to represent? That is, which
perspectives are privileged, and which perspectives are marginalized?
To decide what the best dream interpretive system is, we have to impose
another system by which we can judge this. Values begin to proliferate.
Beauty, Justice, Peace, Honor, Survival. Individuation, actualization,
interpretations that are true to the manifest dream, to the latent dream.
It's quite a stage of competing values from which to pick. But if we don't
pick, there is only nihilism.
Even more deeply, (if there is something now more deep than this struggle
with nihilistic relativism) is the question of representation itself. In
dreamwork, representation is such a part of the game. At one level its
completely necessary and unavoidable. Recalling dreams is a form of
interpretation, writing the dream down, exactly as you recall it is a form
of interpretation, and each telling and discussion, even if its just
clarifying the imagery, is another layer of interpretation. As Nietzsche has
said, there is no data, only interpretation. And each interpretation
connects and object with a system.
In this sense, interpretation is unavoidable, and so we become skilled
and learn to do our best. We go to therapists, we build dreamgroups, we
become eclectic and take on a wide variety of approaches. Or we get lazy
and look up the meaning of a dream in a dictionary. In all this, something
is radically missed. The dream is reduced to being a messenger and becomes,
as Carl Jung noted, about signs rather than symbols. That is, the dream
image becomes an object to be used. And in being a representation, it is an
object for some value that is imposing upon us. It doesn't matter if the
dream image is said to be a messenger from God or the unconscious, or to
prophetically represent the next day of life, or even to be a psychic
representation of a distant thought or object. Once we have moved into the
game of the dream image being a representation, we have stripped it of its
own autonomy and put it in the service of what it is suppose to represent.
Once we know what the dream means, we leave it behind for the message it has
delivered, we run off it search of the author.
How many friends in waking life would we have if we treated them the same
way? If we saw them only as messengers of someone else, as messages about
ourselves and not having autonomous value in themselves?
The danger in treating dream images as representations somewhat reflects the
ecological concerns of the world. We see it (natural objects and processes)
as something to exploit for our advantage without concern for the
consequences. I'm not (just) saying we are polluting our dreamworld with
exploitative adventures in representation just like we exploit the rain
forests for wood, but more that the attitude of representation makes little
room for otherness, for dreams as ends-in-themselves and rather turns them
into means to ends. Any representation is a form of territorialization, an
imposing of a field of constraints. It's a particular organization of
forces upon other forces that constrains the flow of life into objects and
We are learning that the world rebels when we exploit it, and rather that
we need to tend to the world and cultivate it with a sense of end-in-itself
rather than just means-to-ends. To care for the world for its own sake.
True, there is usually a hidden agenda in all this, to make the earth last,
to conserve it for future generations of humans and so on. Ulterior
motives, personal interpretations, hidden agendas are all part of the game
of life in both its treat-as-object and treat-as-subject form. But in
treat-as-subject form, they are no longer in a central position like
dictators and rather more in a swarm which rotates around inclusive,
There is a danger either way. If we let the dream image be autonomous, if
we grant it the right of any sentient being, it might not have any message
for us and may not be interested in us in the least. When we can't enter the
field of play with the decision about what its going to be, what's going to
happen and what it is all going to mean already decided, then the field is
open and nothing may happen. This is always the risk of allowing something
to be what it most essentially is.
Yet representations are a risk we take. Carl Jung worked and discussed this
in terms of dreamwork under the topic of signs vs. symbols. Signs, he
noted, are when we look at something as directly representing something
else, as in the barber's pole example, or in the red light representing the
agreement to stop. Symbols, on the other hand, were for Jung the best
possible presentation of a yet unknown emergent psychological factor. Or,
taken more from the spiritual canons, the symbol is the concrete and known
manifestation of a spiritual and unknown truth. More mechanically, the
(Jungian) symbol pulls together two or more aspects of the psyche that just
can't normally be understood (or tolerated) by consciousness. The raging
two-headed horse is not a representation of repressed animal emotions, but
is the galloping animality in its best attempt to manifest, to be.
That is, these symbols don't represent the two irreconcilables, but are in
fact a primary synthesis of them in action. However, Jungian symbols don't
completely escape from abstraction and representation. For one thing,
teleology is imposed upon them, and the manifestation of the dream image is
seen as driving the ego towards individuation. This is an imposition on the
image. This creates a kind of theatrical sense that the symbol, living as it
might be, is but an actor upon a stage of a greater play. Hence the notion
of dreaming the dream onward in Jungian psychology. That is, the dreamer
needs to bring the dream into the waking world to complete the project.
Noble and useful as this directive may be, it is an artificial imposition on
the dream image.
As I mentioned previously [see
Archetypal Psychology and Dreamwork, Electric Dreams 10(8)],
the post-Jungians have tried to apply a kind of
corrective to Jung and yank that Self archetype out of the middle of the
carousel and place it on the merry go round with all the other archetypes.
The Self still functions in its capacity to integrate, organize,
coordinate... but this is just seen as part of its game and not something
that needs to be in the center of the universe of archetypes. But one has
to have a poetic heart and ear to continually talk about soul and
re-ensouling and re-enchanting the world. Many would like to free the dream
image from being a representative without importing all the mythology and
Romantic terminology that comes with post-Jungian dreamwork.
Aren't representations and abstractions part of the world too? Sure, and
once we acknowledge and understand the dangers of representations, we don't
have to give them up but can rejoice in them. It is similar with thoughts
when learning meditation. In many meditation practices, the point is not the
suppression of thinking and thoughts, but the dis-identification of an
aspect of the meditating self from these thoughts. Once the separation is
achieved, there can be a reunion.
The same for dreamwork. Once we have done enough work subverting the
repressive authority of representationalism, then the representations can
come back and play. The dangers of taking the dreams only as a
representation still exist, but we can now flirt with this danger. The
dream images needn't be despotic representations of one value (This snake is
about my reptilian side of myself), they needn't just follow lines of tribal
alliance and filiation (Your dream means its time to marry and have
children). Rather, they are allowed to speak for themselves, to act for
themselves and we can then begin to play with them, both as representations
and as autonomous and semi-autonomous beings.
This allows us entry into the dream flow of the improverse. This is an
improvisational multiverse, that is imp-like and often perverse world where
everything is not just ego, not eaten up by "me" (as in dreamwork where one
practices saying how this dream lamp is me, this dream bunny is me, this
cane I'm using is me....). As mentioned previously, the dream is at play
and creates for the improverse one of its most conspicuous characters in
being playful, in twisting and bending, exaggerating and downplaying, in
simulating other realities and producing its own unique realities. We might
see imagination, dreams, creativity, repetition of difference, mutational
fluidics and other rhizomatic connectivities as activities that blur the
boundaries of the limit between represented and unrepresented space. Here
it is less the world of despotic representation more an improverse of
content and its expression. Contact is close and expression and content may
change places depending on which forces are resisting, which are giving
expression. Words make this sound a little cold and reduced to notions of
force, but everything is here in the dream flow. All the petty
representations, all the subjects, all the people and plants and forests and
their inhabitants. A potter throws on a wheel and the forces that inform
the potter's hands, the institutions of art, the ideas in the mind of the
potter, the genes that shaped the hands, all come into collision with the
clay, and all the geological and biological forces that have entered into
the clay and give it expression. But things may change in a moment. A shape
in the form suggests something to the potter and she stops and begins to
cry. The expression being given the clay now shifts and the potter becomes
the content of an emotional expression suggested by the shape of the clay.
Or more materially, the potter may come across a lump in the clay that
knocks him/her off the seat. Content and its expression shift constantly.
A dreamer dreams and a multitude of forces give the dream its expression.
We may still say the lamp on the table represents me, and the light of
consciousness I can support, but we will also know this game of
representation is part of larger dance that always exceeds it.
August 30, 2003