Electric Dreams

The Impossible Dream Part 1:
Identities in Process and Impossible Objects

The Postmodern Dreaming Series on Transgressive Dreamwork

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2006 February). The Impossible Dream Part 1: Identities in Process and Impossible Objects. The Postmodern Dreaming Series on Transgressive Dreamwork.
Electric Dreams 13(2).

Electric Dreams Forward: Most of the readers of Electric Dreams are familiar with Jung's tremendous influence on dreamwork, and how these influences have been developed and have influenced the contemporary dreamwork and dreamworkers. But what about the development of dreamwork from the more followers of Freud? Many feel that psychoanalytic developments in dreamwork ended with Freud, and with some legitimacy in the claim. Freud himself complained at the end of his life that his followers had not done enough to develop his dream theories further. I pretty much agree with this assessment, but feel that some of the more radical schools of psychotherapy that didn't really develop techniques in dreamwork, could have, and their theories can still provide source material for modern day dreamworkers to develop approaches to dreamwork in areas not typically explored by Jungian based dreamwork and the dreamwork trends spawned by post-Jungians. Over the past decade, the Postmodern Dreaming Series has suggested several alternative routes of dreamwork development using the theories developed by Jean Baudrillard, Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze and others. Most of these theories rely heavily the work of French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Not only has Lacan brought into the theoretic realm the importance of language and representational systems, but he has also offered some interesting portals through which the subjective dreamer can see his/her dreams from a political viewpoint, and the "secret" attempts of the self to find itself in these political ideologies. I would call this dreamwork "transgressive" to the degree that it is iconoclastic and reveals dreams as the playful fool who says the emperor is wearing no clothes. Besides being a jumping-off point for most all poststructural theory, Lacan also develops a position that is situated between essentialism and relativistic constructionism; that is, between the notion that only one interpretation of a dream is correct, and the notion that any interpretation of a dream is a legitimate as any other. The Emperor's lack of clothes creates a location where we can at least talk about clothing, and make judgments about what clothes may or may not fit. No imagined outfit (ideology) is going to fully robe the emperor (reality). But this doesn't mean that reality or ideology don't exist, just that their incompatibility generates a creative movement.

How Lacan might be appropriated for dreamwork

[As mentioned above] The field of dreamwork is usually left to clinicians following Jungian models and grassroots dreamworkers who use variations of analogy and generalization to interpret dreams. Lacan's psychoanalytic theory offers an alternative view to interpretation by association that may allow access to more radically disparate areas of psyche that are not accessible though associate and analogic techniques.

In Lacan's theory, each element needs to be interpreted from three different angles at the same time, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. These terms (Registers) will be explored more fully in later essays. For now, the Imaginary can be seen as the pre-linguistic world of child and mother where gaps in wholeness are covered in fantasy. The Symbolic is not like Jung's symbolic, but used to mean the world of representational symbolism, mainly language. The Real is what eludes us, what intrudes into our fantasies of wholeness, breaks through our sense that the Symbolic has completely described reality.

A reassessment of identity is also provided by Lacan. When the waking or dreaming subject attempts and fails to identify him/herself in static images or in representations and symptoms, then frustration, disappointment and alienation dominate. (I wanted to be the "wife" but the role is not something I can fully identify with. I wanted to be "Roy Rogers" but something continues to intrude in on this fantasy.) When a process of identification emerges which allows the subject to situate him/her/itself in a larger variety of roles without the demand for these identifications to be whole and total, there is more enjoyment and satisfaction.

Dreamwork can then function to facilitate deconstruction and reconstruction in two ways. As an interpretation of totalizing identifications and their alternatives, dreamwork offers post-dream examinations of stagnant identities and creative alternatives. For lucid dreamers, the new freedoms (of identity) offer the dreamer a chance to directly and consciously explore alternative identities during the dreamtime.

Just as with Kant's third critique (of Beauty) and his reconciliation of the two main truths of art (its all subjective/ones own opinion vs. everyone ought to recognize this piece as beautiful), Lacan offers dreamworkers a reconciliation between the extreme views that the dream means anything we want it to vs. the dream has a meaning everyone ought to recognize. For Kant, the resolution had to do with how the genius spontaneity of nature provides our understanding, through some objects, with a feeling of purposiveness that everyone has, but is experienced (and hence interpreted), individually. In Lacan's theory, as I hope to show, we go through a similar process of development where we are found to have abandoned our original selves to acquire an identity through the use of a representational system, a system that will never fully actualize this identity, as all identities [developed via representation] fall short of who we fully are, just as all words fall short of what they describe or signify. Just as Kant's individuals must fill in the lack of meaning in the face of beauty's purposive purposelessness, Lacan's individuals must fill in the lack of identity left in the process of representation. It is not a work that is done one time and left as complete, but a condition of life, a process that is never ending. This is how great works of art continue to inspire us, how nature continues to infuse us, and how life continues to draw us into forever re-making our selves.

The incomplete identity of self.

Let's create a little story. Before we learn language, there is sense of self that is diffuse and we can take pleasure in the simplest of things, the touch of a cloth on the face, the drowsy moments before sleep, the amazing array of colors and shapes around us. Its all pretty blissful, except when it isn't. We get hungry, cold and hot, and can't do much about it. We pee all over ourselves and can't even hold a glass of milk without spilling it. Then something magical happens. We say something and mom appears, nearly every time we do it. We say something else and milk or toys appear. We become so enraptured by this process of language acquisition that don't realize we are losing touch with who we were before. And the hope that these words would fill in the gaps that would make us complete is soon dashed as well. "I'm Roy Rogers," the little boy proclaims, and for a moment, its almost true. I'm Mr Smith's daughter, she says. But something intrudes to remind us we are more than this, more than can ever be told in words. This lack is now found in two directions. There is the lost childhood and pre-linguistic bliss we can't recover. And there is the incompleteness of the words and representations we fill in with temporary fantasies. That is, when I look at that object and say "desk" I know that word can only capture a tiny piece of the object, even though I think of the desk as a complete object. There is always more that escapes the words we give to it, and even escapes the conscious sensing of the object. The Real is covered up with an imaginary wholeness, but it breaks through. How can we tolerate this inaccessibility and loss of direct connection with ourselves and the world? Prohibition. If I make something prohibited (no, you can't have your mother) then all of a sudden the diffuse disconnection becomes possible again. The possibility of having it is the other side of something being prohibited. It escapes our attention that we didn't even know what we wanted until it was prohibited. This gets the flow of desire going again. End little story.

Psycho-erotically (in terms of desire), there are elements of our psyche which are incomplete, which we continually have to deal with. Typically we try to cover them over with personae, masking their incompleteness with a sense of wholeness. But symptoms break through. To the degree we can engage with these symptoms, is the degree that these cut-off aspects of psyche can emerge, not a full finished objects, but as works in progress, that can produce connections to the world in ways beyond our imagination.

This is true in social identification as well. Identification politics is revealed as the politics of impossibility. (I'm a Republican, I'm a Democrat, I'm a Green, I'm apolitical…) That is, we also cover up our lack with ideologies and other socially available constructions. As Lacanian interpeter, Stavrakakis (36) points out, its not what we are, but what we are lacking that is in Lacan's viewfinder. That is, socio-pollitical objects of identification used to fill the lack.

This lack and what fills it, is our concern.

"Anyone who has ever tried to recount a dream to someone else is in a position to measure the immense gap, the qualitative incommensurability, between the vivid memory of the dream and the dull impoverished words that we can find to convey it. Yet this incommensurability, between the particular and the universal, between the vécu and the language itself, is one of language itself, is one in which we dwell all our lives, and it is from it that all works of literature and culture arise. " -- Lacan

Problematics of Structure in Lacan

I wake up and write down this dream: I'm in a building with some people when my friend asks me a question. This distracts me from my attention to the project I was involved with and I get angry with them. A large animal barges into the building and I wake up.

OK, so I've written my dream down and I'm pretty pleased with myself for recalling and recording this dream. Then I think about the details of a dream. What kind of building was it and where in the building was I? Who were the people I was with and what did they look like? And so on. That is, the description I initially thought represented the dream so well was actually quite an inadequate description, if we talk about 'fullness' of description in any sense of the word.

Generally I could just write this off as the problem of language, that its only a way to speak about reality, but isn't reality itself. I always feel a remainder between my description and my memory of the dream. But wait, without the words I use to tell myself to remember the dream, it is typically forgotten, evaporated before breakfast. And without the words I use to describe the dream in more detail, those details would be lost. Now I'm in a situation. The words I use poorly represent the experience, but without them I wouldn't have an experience to complain about.

This is the situation that describes for Lacan our position in life in general. We sense there is much more than words, but have only words to experience and express it. (or some kind of representational system of art, music, movement…).

But wait, it gets worse. Not only are objects in my world dependent on a language that inadequately represents them, but my identity suffers from a similar problem. As mentioned the "Little Story," as children we play-identify with the whole person, "I'm Roy Rogers, I'm a fireman" and yet we can't fully achieve this. A son may want to identify with his father, and finds in later life that he can never get his father's approval. The attempts to fully identify fail us, and in doing so, we have instead a situation or process of continual identifications, and unending stream of self discovery. (Its no wonder the Self-discovery industry continues to grow). This puts us in a odd situation, where the place of reality and the place of the self are important, but these things as things-in-themselves elude us. Looking at the locus of identification and the locus of where the real is produced, is another way of saying we are looking at the process of what is happening, the shifting structure. This is what Lacan's theory addresses so well, this shifting structure and place were identity and the real are produced.

Why Lacan when he doesn't really do dreamwork?

Most dreamworkers in the States have come to know a wide variety of imported and homegrown psychologies; Freud's interpretation of dreams, Jung's rich dreamwork, Perl's group gestalt work, and the influence of many other schools. But dreamwork from Lacan's version of psychoanalysis is rarely discussed or written about. Perhaps because there is so little of it. A Lacanian once make a joke about interpretive dreamwork at a conference by drawing a bunch of arrows circling around one another in a tangled knot. This, he said, was a dream. Then he added even more of a jumble around the mess and say, this was a dream interpreted.

While those dreamworkers familiar with Lacan may appreciate the implied joke regarding the impossible situation in which signification has landed us, and how no addition of word will cure this issue, those same dreamworkers may lament the lack of awareness in the Lacanian community about the power of dreamwork. True, we all know the superficial level of dreamwork where a dream mixed with confusing twists and turns is given an interpretation that only adds to the confusion or clarifies in a way that ruins the mystery of the dream. But this is not dreamwork at its finest moment. And so to toss all dreamwork out because some of it compounds the problem, seems unfair.

On the other hand, for dreamworkers to turn away from Lacan and his rich culture of ideas is, I feel, a great mistake, and will result in a loss of important ideas and practices, leading to an impoverished field of dreamwork. More specifically, I feel that dreamwork has tended to develop in a particularly subjective direction away from the social and political, and closely adheres to the subjective interpretive approach, ie, all parts of the dream are me. There is the dream daddy me, there is the dream tree me, and so on. True, this is part of an important and useful approach that suggests we get our own house in order before telling other people in the neighborhood that their houses need to be in order as well. There is in this technique, of owning all parts of the dream as oneself, the taking up of the events in dream-life as one's responsibility. This leads to working on one's own projection/boards before complaining about the speck in someone else's eye.

While this is always good advice at one level, and doing one's own psychological work always seems to make for better relations all around, it ignores that we are already always thrown into social relations and have responsibilities to other that are not simply dealt with inter-subjectively by the ego. Seeing poverty in the world as symbolic of our own inner poverty can lead to a better relation with the inner soul, but only helps the overall issue in a very round-about way. (That is, the person seeing their own impoverished soul may become a better person and improve the world in some way, but this doesn't necessarily put food on the table of a child in Nigeria.)

But I don't feel the solution is to abandon the intersubjective dreamwork method for literalism. That is, a dream of poverty stricken child is not automatically interpreted as the call to find a poverty stricken child in the waking world (though that may be a profound response). Dreaming of wolves knocking down one's door and waking up only to reinforce one's doors around the house is, I feel, completely missing the point. At least, its missing Lacan's point that subjectivity is socio-political and undermines the old notions of separation of individual and social.

The notion of taking on a theoretical orientation that challenges and undermines theoretical orientations may provide dreamwork with a theory that can hold its own unconscious.

In Part I of this essay I'm going to select the notion of the ultimately impossible and how, because it is impossible, it can drive a dream narrative.

Let's look at a few examples from two Lacanians, Jean-Claude Milner and Slavoj Zizek, and compare these examples to common dream imagery. They reveal the fantasy aspect of desire through the paradoxes given by the ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, and Eleatic school student of Parmenides. The school maintained that reality was one, unchanging and motionless, apprehended properly by the mind rather than the senses. Milner used Zeno's paradoxes not as statements of philosophical or empirical truth but as literary devices exemplifying the staging of desire in/as fantasy. In other words, we can look at them as paradigmatic ways in which desire drives the dream, but remains hidden and off-stage.

In the first scene, the Paradox of Continuous Approach, the object can never be obtained but always seems to be getting closer. Through clever philosophical argument, Zeno shows that Achilles can never catch Hector, but neither can Hector escape Achilles. (see Collinson, 1987 in bibliography for example) This is often experienced in dreams, either not ever being able to clearly catch someone or something, and not being able to clearly get away from some pursuer. Lacan points out that the issue here is the circulation, and that no matter what we do to obtain the object-cause, it always eludes us. And the opposite is true as well, no matter what we do to elude the pursuer, we cannot get away. Typically this is explained as being the result of the intrapsychic nature of a dream. Since all parts of the dream are really parts of us, goes the argument, then of course we can never get away from them. This argument is less satisfying when it’s the opposite, that we can never reach the goal, or that the dream ends once the goal is reached. Note all the dreams of being lost, trying to find one's way back, trying to find the way home. The maze dreams of not being able to find one's way out can be seen in this paradigm, as well as the next Paradox of Cheated Movement.

In the Paradox of Cheated Movement, Zeno tries to show that no matter how much we act to change, we are always in the same place. Hercules fires arrow after arrow but Zeno proves that its impossible and they go nowhere. For an arrow to reach its target, it must go half way to the target. But then it must also go half way to the half way point. This division of distance the arrow must travel can be infinitely divided, keeping the arrow from ever moving.

Note the stories of Tantalus in Hades and the curse of Midas. Tantalus, after trying to steal the food of the gods (which might be seen as the object which would eternally feed us, with life as well as other hungers) is condemned to eternal need in Hades.

"There he stood up to his chin in water, but whenever he bent to slake his burning thirst, the pool dried up. Boughs of fruit hung over his head, but when he raised his arms to pluck them, the wind blew them out of his reach. A stone, moreover, was suspended over him and threatened at any moment to fall and crush him" (Tripp, 1970, pg. 543).

For the famous Midas, everything he desired and touched turned to gold and became useless to him. Zizek points out that when we demand an object, that the object goes through a magical transubstantiation. The object takes on fantasy and produces desire. Mother's milk becomes a token of her love and produces excess fantasy rather than just satisfying hunger.

We can begin to explore this switch of use-value to exchange value in our dreams that have similar predicaments and then use the unobtainable object as an index of our intersubjective relations. For example, that others comply or don't comply with our demands shows how they confirm various attitudes towards us. And again, all this requires that we let go (at least momentarily) of the idea that the dream is revealing or repressing our secret obtainable object. Rather, the creation comes from a different quarter, the withheld object is creating or revealing our style of desire. [Some people run to find their lost home, some drive, some ask others, each of these reveals our relationship with the impossible object] The point in reference to dreamwork might then be a shift from finding ways to get the hidden object, to ways of helping it display and play itself out. For example, making a shift from being desperate about finding one's way home, to ways of enjoying the search, or even intentionally becoming more lost. Just exactly how one interprets a dream that is past or lives through a dream present or prepares for an upcoming dream is left up to the individual. Desperately seeking home is not less legitimate than choosing to stay lost. The point here is that one can shift one's relationship with the object-cause of desire. Instead of compulsively being driven, one can creatively be inspired.

Carl Jung went to a lot of time and trouble to shift people's attitude about dreams being revealing rather than disguising. And I don't want to lose that gain. But note that even Jung saw the psychic reality that the symbol was trying to reveal as primarily unconscious. That is, the dream symbol holds in consciousness a reconciling image, whose parts could not be conscious. The reconciliation was of two or more realities that could not co-exist together in the dreamer's rational mind at the same time. For Jung, development or individuation could not proceed until the individual could find ways to tolerate these opposites.

In the Paradox of Increasing Diminishment we can never get where we want to go because of an infinite amount of half distances we would have to cross to get there. Here the drive is again reveling in its circulation, in the path itself, in play. Lacan says in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis,

"When you entrust someone with a mission, the aim is not what he brings back, but the itinerary he must take, The aim is the way taken... If the drive may be satisfied without attaining what, from the point-of-view of a biological totalization of function, would be the satisfaction of its end of reproduction, it is because it is a partial drive, and its aim is simply this return into circuit." (p. 179).

The real purpose of a drive is simply to reproduce itself. Half is double. And thus our horror when we diet and try to diminish our desire simply to find it has increased. Again, note the common dream theme of the desire to get somewhere and always having a million diversions, sub-plots, mazes and distractions along the way. In dreams, we often take the long road home, and things that we flee find us, things try to rid ourselves of return in double force.

These literary paradoxes give us a way to approach the dream imagery which allows for a new relationship with and to desire. Regardless of the technique or style we use to approach dream imagery, there emerges now an option to note the element which, from the viewpoint of desire, is producing the image from off-stage. And an opportunity to come into a relationship with dream imagery in a way that speaks to the circulation, or with the desire.

Since the Lacanians deal with structure more than content and see the object of desire as only visible indirectly (like the clue qua missing-clue found by a detective at the scene of a crime: "Did you hear those dogs Watson." "I hear no dogs Holmes." "Exactly!") I'm going to shift for a moment back into a Jungian paradigm to build a quick model that can be used with manifest dream content.

Jung spoke of how important it is to hold the irreconcilable opposites of the psyche in consciousness. If held long enough, a reconciling symbol will emerge. The opposites spoken of here are incompatibles in one's life - like desires and needs for mutually exclusive things. Jung felt it was always a disaster to try and force these things together (identification with the Self) or allow oneself to be tossed back and forth between them. Rather he suggested that we differentiate them as far as humanly possible, that we hold the tension between them until a symbol or image is produced that can carry both the conscious and unconscious elements and allow us to reconcile the incompatibles.

The question is always what kind of containers do we have to hold and examine these incompatibles. I want to live forever with I'm going to die. I want to be monogamous with I want to mate with everyone in sight. I want to be thin, after I finish this bag of potato chips. One approach is to see the dream itself as the container or holder of that which cannot yet be expressed in consciousness any other way. To see our dreams as an already mapped out playing and continuing of our unreconcilable desire means that every dream is already a furthering of desire's project and is its own reconciling symbol. The degree to which we want to come into relationship with this process as co-creators will have more to do with our ability to stay in the play of desire rather than our ability to "get" the objects we seem to want in our dreams. This shifts the dream from just being a working out of frustrations to an imaginary theater that uses frustration to produce works of art and pleasure.

Models for dreamwork then shift to models of dreamplay. The skills needed shift from abstracting and pulling back to embodying and drawing in. Examination fantasies gives way to images of exploration and experimentation. The tensions, rather than being worked out, are sought after like the tensions of a stringed instrument. Structure shifts from predetermined rules to trust and support found in the interplay. The older structures, views and rules are not thrown away, but become revisioned as imaginary platforms, each with their own desires and styles of presentation. In this way we not only get to see the desire of which the fantasy is a play, but also begin to participate and find enjoyment.

And so these dream paradoxes, the home we never get to, the lover who eludes us, the crime for which we are eternally punished, the monsters we can never escape, become imaginary, improvisational platforms, theaters of our desire. And it is in this sense that they are gifts that allow us to remain in that place where possibility and desire blow kisses to each other across the gap that holds them together.

Read more about Postmodern Dreaming and Transgressive Dreamwork on the Postmodern Dreaming Page http://www.dreamgate.com/pomo

Bibliography and notes:

  • Collinson, Diane (1987). Fifty Major Philosophers. New York: Croom Helm.

    (Achilles and the tortoise: "Suppose a race run over 100 meters in which the tortoise is given a 50-metre start on Achilles, It is impossible for Achilles to overtake the tortoise; for by the time Achilles reaches the tortoise's starting point, S, the tortoise has moved on to S1, and by the time Achilles arrives at S1, the tortoise has advanced to S2, and so on. thus Achilles never catches up with the Tortoise. The distance between them will diminish ad infinitum as they move from point to point but it will never disappear." Collinson, pg. 14).

  • Freud, Sigmund (1924-50). Collected Papers. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Jung, C. G. (1953). Collected Works. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1977). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth Press
  • Wilkerson, Richard C. (1995). Playing with Fire, The Object-Cause of Desire at the Heart of the Dream. Electric Dreams 2(4).
  • Stavrakakis, Yannis (1999) Lacan and the Political. NY: Routledge.
  • Tripp, Edward (1970). The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology New York, NY: New American Library.
  • Zizek, Slavoj (1993). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.