Electric Dreams.
Transgressive Dreamworks:
Theorizing the Exceeding of Limits and the Creation of Improvizones

Richard Wilkerson

(Electric Dreams)  (Article Index)  (Search for Topic)  (View Article Options)
Wilkerson, Richard (2004 January). Transgressive Dreamworks:
Theorizing the Exceeding of Limits and the Creation of Improvizones. Electric Dreams 11(1).

"This may frighten us a little. Dreams are often socially transgressive. They chafe at boundaries, championing the rude, lewd, and wholly unacceptable."
Marc Ian Barasch - Healing Dreams

Transgressive: Exceeding a limit or boundary, especially of social acceptability. Creating an opening between or at the limit of dominant powers for alternatives.

Dreamworks: Approaches to dreams before, during and after the actual dream.

Improvizone: A temporary space or clearing where as sense of improvisation and creative freedom take precedence over plans and structures. The abstract world of improvizones may be called the Improverse.

Transgressive Dreamwork

Transgressive dreamwork seeks to pass beyond prescribed limits and boundaries without define itself against or in opposition to these boundaries as necessary conditions. Transgressive acts are often seen as "against" established social values and norms, but this is only because of the tight control that the dominate powers exert over all time and space. The particular and even general 'how' and 'why' transgressive dreamwork might take place vary according to a wide variety of contexts, situations, events and their informing values. These transgressions can also open up a kind of improvised universe, novel zones of semi-autonomous creativity, improvizones. This may be a simple as a musician veering from the planned musical score or as complex as the social spaces opened in ritual dance ceremonies of tribal peoples. Dreamworks (approaches to dreams) that subvert repressive powers and create spaces where improvisational activity dominates may be considered as transgressive dreamworks.

Transgressive dreamwork's most basic level is the act of dreaming itself. The actions in dreams may at times themselves be seen as transgressive acts and dreaming itself subverts dominate cultural attitudes about consciousness and waking. There are many ways that dreaming and dreams seek out or encounter limitations and pass beyond them, seek out repressive structures and destructure them, seek out fixed representations and loosen them, encounter attitudes, beliefs and values, and question them, display ideologies, biases and prejudices, and expose them.

Transgressive dreamwork appears in most forms of dreamwork, though not always in the service of subverting repressive authorities and producing novel alternatives and improvizones.

A quick survey of Twentieth Century dreamwork may give some weight to the first part of this statement, that it appears in most forms of dreamwork. Psychoanalyst Paul Lippmann[1] , notes that the early pioneers of psychoanalysis were very excited by the new notions of the unconscious and in constant discussions around the possibilities presented by dreams. Patients with psychological disorders might exhibit strange configurations of behavior opening up the inspection of the person out of control, but everyone had dreams that transgressed the consciously controlled system. Freud's "dream-work" became the first model of how transgression works at the level of primary process, and the processes are now part of our general language system; displacement, projection, condensation, substitution, symbolization, substitution and so on.

Carl Jung[2] was not to be outdone in the area of transgressive dreamwork. At each level of work, the analysand finds that all they have acquired must make way for new forces that need to come through. Rather than stopping at the personal unconscious as Freud did, Jung found that there were deeper forces attempting to transgress stodgy aspects of the personality that hinder the integration of rejected parts of the self. At each point in the movement from personal to archetypal, the dream functions as an index of transgression, providing just-barely-conscious symbolic presentations of new plateaus supported by the tension of irreconcilable opposites. These are gains that consciousness can barely tolerate. And further, it enacts and constructs these mesas of the soul in the crazy wisdom of dreams, in deterritorialized area where the known and unknown form limits past which only the partial sane, and the dream mind, can maneuver. That is, reason is given its due as a partner, but is not at the center of the development.

While these Depth therapies served to liberate the few who could afford their time and expense, the group therapies of the Sixties brewed a transgressive dreamwork available to everyone, and is now disseminated across the globe through grassroots dreamwork movements. Here, there is an implicit understanding that the king has no clothes and authoritarian forms of control and interpretation are as suspect and undesirable in larger political arenas as they are in the individual psyche. There is no one technique or school. These newer transgressive dreamworks form a collage, a pastiche, a bric-a-brac collection, a kind of hypertexted inter-net that resist any singular characterization. Even calling the collection "grassroot" is stretching that category beyond what it can reasonably be asked to hold, as many of the new transgressive dreamworks combine with and emerge from institutions and traditional therapies and spiritual practices. Many of these dreamworks rely heavily upon Freud and Jung, providing techniques for transgressing the superficial, breaking down the mundane, and running rough shod over the inauthentic. Others shift the attention from interpretative techniques to methods of encounter, transgressing the whole subject/object dichotomy (as in my dream and its objects) and thereby transgressing the tendencies to treat the world as an object altogether. Still others transgress the notion of work in dreamwork and undermine the representational approaches by making dreams an existential encounter with the imaginal, whether as a conscious or lucid encounter with the dream, or in using the dream as a recreational vehicle, subverting all notions of "work" in dreamwork.

Transgressive dreamwork appears in most forms of dreamwork, but not all dreamwork is subversive of authority and productive to creative alternatives. Some tribal dreamwork, for example, has tended to be in the service of the tribe. Tedlock[3] relays the story of a young Hopi who tells his dream to a village elder. She shows him how the dream is about changing his behavior, and in ways that support the tribe. There is a value of living in scarcity, with little water and food, and the dreams are interpreted to bring the members into alignment with this value. True, the dream is used to transgress the wasteful pattern of the dreamer, and a case could be made that this transgression was to open the dreamer to a more creative pathway, but this misses an essential point in transgressive dreamwork as I am following it here. Transgression has its own inner value, and when it is picked up to be used in the service of some other value, this "other" value needs to be made transparent, or else the transgression is just another brick in the wall.

Freud, though he elaborated the basic wheels and cogs of a transgressive primary process at work in the dream, then turns and abandons his project for one singular transgressive; sexuality. Freud may be credited with having most clearly articulated and studied and having brought into the cultural sphere the concept of a transgressive libido. But just exactly at the moment he does so, he restricts this libido to a narrow channel that follows a predetermined path of development.

Transgressive dreamwork employed in the 21st Century is likely to continue acknowledging and developing sexuality theory, but to have this particular Freudian representation of the libido as only one among many. Perhaps the libido will be seen, as Deleuze and Guattari[4] say, in Freud's pre-genital child, the notion of perverse polymorphism, where the whole body is an erogenous zone and makes direct connections, not with an object of desire, but in waves and swarms of connective networks of partial objects.

Transgressive dreamworks finds it hard to swallow the whole Jungian system as well. Even though a close examination of Jung reveals that dream symbols are not simple representations, the tendency to eschew the temptation to say, "This represents that myth" and, "That is the so and so archetype" is just too great to resist. One post-Jungian psychology has attempted to subvert this tendency by always using the work "archetype" in its adjectival form "archetypal" and never a noun, so that one may have an archetypal encounter, but never define some-thing as an archetype.[5]

More broadly, transgressive dreamworks are suspicious of any system, group or organization. That doesn't mean that systems, groups and organizations are never used, only that they are taken up with a more transversal purpose in mind, with a sense that they are a boat to get to the other side, a coat wore lightly and a project taken on temporarily. As Plato noted, Eros sleeps naked in the doorway.

Transgressive dreamwork in Psi and Lucid dreaming

One of the emerging transgressive dreamworks is dream psi and all the related paranormal theorizing that transgresses our current rational view of the world. As the Maimonides Project showed,[6] dreams and psi are closely connected and all sorts of psi phenomenon are amplified or more noticeable in the dream state. To the degree that there are connections from the dreaming state to remote places, remote times and previously designated subjective states and private psyches, psi dreaming presents itself as a transgressive act and theory. This recently (last 20 years) happened with lucid dreaming.[7] There was a great deal of sentiment before the empirical validation of lucid dreaming that there were only two natural states, conscious and unconscious. Some scientists rejected the notion of lucid dreaming based on this model, claiming that being conscious in a dream was contradiction in terms. Now the privacy of the act of dreaming is being challenged by psi and mutual dreaming, were two or more people inhabit a single dream. If we are in fact in contact with other being and objects during sleep, a whole host of new ethical and social issues arise. The notion of ownership of one's own mind comes into question. These theorists are now developing their own topical conferences (PsiberDreaming Conferences) within the larger organization for dreams, the International Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD).[8]

Postmodern dreamworks

Touted as the transgressive literature and philosophy par excellence, the body of postmodern work seems as if it would be a natural fit with dreamwork. After all, they drew heavily upon Surrealism. Surrealism in the 1920's- 1930's Paris was a vast cultural movement like the Sixties in America.[9] They questioned authority, they re-examined taboos, they challenged norms and they produced alternative lifestyles. They valorized dreams as a transgression of the humdrum everyday world of mechanized trance and social niceties, and an opening to the Surreal beyond the mundane. One would think the poststructuralists of the 50's and 60's who inherited these values would rely heavily on dreamwork, but they didn't.

The story of how dreamwork was missed by the French Poststructual theorists has not really been very well researched or studied. Whether we talk about Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze & Guatteri or Lyotard, we find they each avoided dreamwork for their own reasons. But a few generalizations are possible. I find it interesting that these postmodern writers learn psychoanalysis through Jacques Lacan. Freud's followers abandoned dreamwork very early, and Freud laments this move later in his life. "Abandon" may be too harsh a word, but once the games of transference and defense analysis took root, work with dreams took a very back seat. This means that by the time psychoanalysis is taken up by Lacan, dreamwork is not a major player. And Lacan has little to say on the issue as a Structuralist who feels interpretive dreamwork is just burdening the already intertwined sign system of a reported dream with a socially constructed Symbolic overlay.

Yet Lacan brought psychoanalysis to France in a way that could be accepted as French. Freud's theory was often seen as an exploration of the conflict between instinct and culture, and that this conflict found various compromise solutions. For Lacan, the psyche itself was the conflictual intrusion and the fracture it created eternally irresolvable. Our contact with universal instincts is forever barred the moment we take on language. Dreams, associations and slips-of-the-tongue are as much impacted by this representational language system as they are by repressed desires. In fact, those desires become characterized as an absence around which the structures revolve. The dream no longer represents some hidden thought, but rather becomes an intrusion between the real we cannot know and the imaginary we can never have. While appetites can be filled, desire cannot and must be held (or the patient falls into the illusion and dances out the unconscious). One sacrifices the illusion of wholeness to gain the world. This is another way of saying that the postmodern style is that of collage, and if there is a "whole" it emerges indirectly from the interaction of the pieces.

On the other side of the equation, the American dreamwork movement drew heavily upon Jung, not Freud. The whole notion that a dream is telling us something and producing a positive product is pure Jung. The idea that the dream can be situated in our value system by locating its themes in religious stories, myths and fairytales is pure Jung.

Further distancing dreamworks and French postmodern theorist is language. The texts of the postmodern writers have been all but unavailable to the general American public. Most Americans will, when asked about Surrealism,respond that it has something to do with melting clocks. And not only did poststructuralism pass by non-academic Americans, but structuralism as well. There wasn't a single Lacanian institute before the 1990's and graduate students are hard pressed to find a single course on his psychoanalysis in a university or state college. Postmodernism entered the US universities in the late 1960's, but Derrida and Deleuze are taught in the Language and English departments, not in philosophy departments. Translations of their work before the 1980-1990's were difficult to come by.

And so the two, dreamwork and structuralism/poststructuralism, passed each other in the night without meeting. Perhaps to the relief of many. I asked a University of Davis professor about Derrida (Who recently had his archives installed at that site) and he was very unhappy with Derrida being at the campus and said he had just tried to ruin everything. Other have characterized postmodern writers as "Men with hammers." But here, we are going to look at them more as people with screwdrivers thatfit the bonds that keep various social and personal prison doors closed. Instead of destroying structure, transgressive dreamworks may be see as loosening the structures just enough to slip through.

Since these two traditions share strong transgressive attitudes, they may complement one another by being read together. Dreams and dreamwork offer postmodernism a channel that is universal but still poly-channeled, multidimensional, heteromodal and off-center. Postmodern theory offers dreamwork an opportunity to situate itself politically, globally, philosophically, and culturally as well as just being an inward journey for personal psychospiritual growth.

Theorizing transgressive dreamwork using the tools of postmodern writers

One of the grandfathers of the postmodern theorists and masters of transgression, Frederich Nietzsche,[10] was a sworn enemy of nihilism on one hand, and totalitarianism on the other. And yet, many think of him as a nihilist, focusing on the first task of transgressive work (subverting repressive structures) while ignoring the second (opening to alternatives). In the second part of Nietzsche's transgressive task, he worked to develop a path through which new heights of freedom could be reached. This leads us to his notion of power and will. Typically, we confuse power and will with effort and brute force. But for Nietzsche, forces took two forms, one active the other reactive. Reactive forces might be called inauthentic forces, forces that withhold their essence for secondary gains. Active forces are deeply in touch with the source that generates an endless flow of power related to that force or set of forces. I think of Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek[11]as a kind of model of this Dionysian fountain of power, a character that lived fully his own essence in the moment and could give continually from this source, always overflowing in its own abundance. Often we are left with this fascist view of the Overman, as if Nietzsche's superman was modeled along the lines of a Nazi. Rather, his Overman was yet to be achieved, and more the continual enactment of freedom and choice. The test was the eternal return, the ability to live in this moment as if it were to repeat eternally. And, as Deleuze suggests, the repetition is from a source that continually differs from itself, not one that is self-identical.[12] That is, the eternal return is a vibrant repetition of difference rather than a mechanical repetition of the same. Monet creates a water lily and then repeats these lilies across the canvas and across many paintings. But it's not the same water lily. The second and third repeat the first, but their beauty is in the repetition of the difference of the first. The Festival is not a new festival each year, but repeats the first festival over and over and celebrates not through the repetition of the same, but of the different.

We see this play out in dreams. Combat trauma and many PTSD sufferers often report nightmares that repeat the same, over and over. The dream gets stuck in a mechanical repetition of the same. Therapy that brings imaginative play to the dreamer, such as re-entry techniques, allows the dream to repeat the essential differences. That is, the dream begins to morph. The Dionysian quality of the dream returns and its generous abundance overflows the reactive forces that seek to sap its novelty.

Transgressive dreamworks may wish to note both aspects of Nietzsche's project, undermining dictators full of reactive forces and the location of active forces that withstand the test of the eternal return and open the pathway to a humanity that can exceed itself. From this general idea, one could formulate a transgressive dreamwork developed by postmodernism. The first part is that dreams are often already full of active forces and reactive which question, tease and play with authority and beliefs, and that a dreamwork which assisted and cooperated with these active forces will be more naturally transgressive than one that caters to reactive forces.

However loud one may proclaim with Nietzsche that the ideologies and powers above us are now gone (Nietzsche's famous "God is dead"), the tendency of humans to remain somewhat less than supermen persists. And while the world has grown tired of dictators and totalitarian leaders at the level of state government, there are plenty of states of mind left that are still reactive, that withhold themselves in deference to another power, that undermine their own authenticness in favor of an imposed value. Transvaluation; this is the process where forces create their own values rather than being saddled with those imposed upon them. But before we start talking about creating new values, we need to understand the ones which imprison us now and to be transgressive rather than reactive.

Jean-Francios Lyotard[13] writes that we live in a world of story telling and narrative, each of which makes some claim to the truth and claims some proximity to the truth. Lyotard notes that each story is situated in the context and language of a particular discipline. Science stories are from the institutions of Science, Religious stories couches in the language of Religion, Political stories in the language of Politics, Psychological stories in the language of Psychology and so on. Its like a bunch of virtual realities, each governed by the protocols of that particular game. And so, the way we can talk about anything becomes governed by the narrow rules of any particular game. Of course, these disciplines don't like to see themselves as limited and just telling stories. So they come up with a metanarrative, a grand story that applies to or comments on the validity of all other stories. Note how one's life story or a set of scientific experiments might judged by their relation to progress, truth, and justice. Might be, but can no longer be. There is no Grand Narrative that mediates between all these different stories and values. There is no globally agreed upon basis for any singular viewpoint. But if power is not imposed on us from above anymore, don't think it's missing in how it's imposed on us from below. Media bytes and society bits are everywhere. Commercial infestations and shopping choices. Yet if everything can be oppressive, then one can find transgressions in the simplest of everyday experience, what is referred to as micropolitics.

This leads to the notion in transgressive dreamwork that we are engaging these imposed values in our dreams. And in fact, much of dreamwork has been about engaging values and beliefs and challenging them. This is perhaps the reason that dream sharing is found at the beginning of every major religion, and then later banned by the hierarchical authorities.[14] The vibrant, novel visions that both predict and create the authority for a force to express it own power, then are judged to be too radical and antithetical to a hierarchical structure.

What Lyotard adds to Nietzsche that may help a transgressive dreamwork develop is his theorizing around the many tiny ways in which reactive powers attempt to control the scenes we inhabit, and the ability and freedom this gives us to find appropriate transgressive acts at micropolitical levels. Since dreams contain many of these acts already in relation to society, it's just a matter of cultivating these active forces, both in and outside of the dream.

If we don't appeal to general moral universals as an index of transgression, what can be used as a guide to the limit? One model employed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari[15]is the limit created between coded and decoded flows. Most of our conscious life is involved with coded territory. This includes not only all the social rules, but also genetic and physical organization and codes. Deleuze and Guattari see everything in flux, in a flow and in flow-breaks. Even mountains dissolve into the sea. Organizations attempt to code the flows into particular channels rather than allowing deterritorialized movement. That is, they attempt to turn all forces into reactive forces. Most of the time, we passively accept these codes and stay away from the wall, the wall outside of which flow is not coded. Neurotics become so sensitive to this limit that their own inner walls become tighter and tighter, until they can't even leave their house. Others more perverse know where the limit is, but stay just inside the wall and pick off vulnerables who get too close to the limit. We can see this in those who love lunar societies and who hang out at the edges of the school-yard. Many dreamworkers learn this game. Then there are those who just run smack into the limit without realizing it and find themselves in decoded territory and get tossed back. The schizophrenic comes apart at the seams here as the abstract and the real change places. There is no proper place in relation to the limit. We can't abstract a position. But we can note where and how the coded and decoded flows are distributed, subverting the more repressive codes, breaking into them and creating new flows. What Deleuze and Guattari offer as theorists is an approach to this project that undercuts any conscious attempt to reconstruct another dictator in place of the ones overthrown. This is always the risk and chance we take in subverting local and distant authority. Guattari's response is soft revolution, where there are no rules, just a continual chaosimosis, where free spaces can only last for a short time, long enough to do their thing, but not long enough to start self-organ-inzing. Deleuze's response is to generate concepts; partial-object desiring machines, bodies-without-organs, repetitions of difference, planes of immanence across which nomadic forces traverse rhizomatic deterritorializations. Perhaps all this work would have been easier had Deleuze & Guattari been more engaged with their dreamlife. Again, the point is not so much to take up Deleuze's concepts and apply them to dreamwork, but rather to suggest that picking up the spirit of the work and move into temporary autonomous zones[16] where the forces have a chance to directly and actively overflow their own inner differences.

What is the purpose of pursuing an alignment with theorists, many of which are now dead, and the point of backtracking into postmodern theory, when a transgressive dreamworks will by nature seek out its own limits? Pomo theory may not be able to offer anything more than the positive process of enhancement, which doesn't sound like a transgressive value in itself. But for new dreamworks to emerge, old theories need re-working and postmodern theorists offer a wide assortment of theoretical tools.

Just to mention briefly again a few of the shared issues:

Representations. At one time, representations were objects in the service of true copies of reality. As copy theories of reality began to erode, so did representationalism. Now the representations are acquiring their own autonomous status and no longer find themselves in the service of accurately reproducing reality. In transgressive dreamworks, dream images are acquiring their own existential status.

The Self. Once the battle cry of individualism, the unified natural self is now in question and the polyvocal soul is in emergence. But freedom from the hierarchy on high has led to suffering the infestation of the viral from below. Breaking free of the torments of the One and the Many is as much an issue for transgressive dreamwork as it is for postmodern culture.

Reality. Both postmodern theory and dreaming continual play with reality and questions about reality. Western philosophy still struggles with Descartes' dream question, how can we know this is not a dream? Postmodern theory and transgressive dreamworks not only question our concepts of reality, but produce transgressions that undermine the whole concept.

Minority Reports. Both transgressive dreamworks and postmodern theory continually give voice to and speak for the marginalized, the repressed, the minority. This is not so much because they are repressed and marginalized, but that this is the site where repression and marginalization appear the clearest and transgressive acts are possible.

Stories. It is clear we live in a sea of stories and coming up with more to avoid this fact is not at all as interesting and productive as looking at how stories are constructed and producing them ourselves. The other part of this is continually realizing the stories of which we are only partially conscious. Postmodern theory and transgressive dreamworks delve deeply into these ideologies, metanarratives and personal fascisms.

Self-humor. Transgressive dreamwork is always self-destined to self-destruct as it transgresses itself. That is, if the true production of transgression is the production of difference rather than the repetition of the same, each act undoes the last. Suggestions about how it has developed or how it is going to develop drag the project back into the geometrically abstract structural world of the ideal rather than the world of real contact. Again I would remind you of Zorba the Greek. Every project he was involved with seemed on one level a disaster. And yet there was so much authenticity in stumbling, it began to take on its own rhythms and became a dance of life. In the end, the protagonist (Basil) who comes to the island and encounters Zorba as a kind of force of nature, fails at all his attempts to commodify the island, but learns more about life than he could have ever dreamed. Or perhaps, as he could have dreamed had he practiced more transgressive dreamworks.

Richard Wilkerson
January 1, 2004

Postmodern dreaming theorists' essays can be found on the Postmodern Dreaming Page http://www.dreamgate.com/pomo

  1. Lippmann, Paul (2003) The Canary In The Mind: On The Fate Of Dreams In Psychoanalysis And In Contemporary Culture. Presentation at the Association for the Study of Dreams, Berkeley, CA, June 28, 2003.
  2. Jung, C. G. (1953) The Collected Works. Translated by R. C. F. Hull. Bollingen Series XX, vol.s 1-20, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  3. Tedlock, Barbara (1981). Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles. & Guattari, Felix. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn Press. Originally Published as L'Anti-Oedipe, 1972 Les Editions De Minnuit.
  5. Hillman, James (1983). Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account. Dallas: Spring Publications.
  6. Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2002 Sept). A Briefing on the History of Dream Psi Research. Electric Dreams 9(9).
  7. LaBerge, S. (1985). Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books. See the website at http://www.lucidity.com
  8. See http://www.asdreams.org for the International Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD).
  9. L1vy, Bernard-Henri (1995). Adventures on the Freedom road: French Intellectuals in the 20th Century. Translated by Richard Veasey. London: The Harvill Press.
  10. Nietzsche, Frederich (1967). Basic Writing of Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library.
  11. Kazantzakis, Nikos (1946/1995). Zorba the Greek. Republished by Simon and Schuster. The movie, by Michael Cacoyannis stared Anthony Quinn (Zorba) and Alan Bates (Basil), Irene Pappas and Lila Kedrova.
  12. Deleuze, Gilles (1983/1962). Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University.
  13. Lyotard, Jen-Francois (1989). The Lyotard Reader. Edited by Andrew Benjamin. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
  14. Mislove, Jeffrey (1998). Working with Dreams with Jeremy Taylor. An interview from the Thinking Allowed series. Conversations On The Leading Edge Of Knowledge and Discovery With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove. Transcripts available online at: http://www.intuition.org/txt/taylor.htm
  15. See note 4.
  16. See Hakim Bey and Ontological Anarchy:The Writings of Hakim Bey. Available online at: http://www.hermetic.com/bey/