Saturday, September 12, 2015

Essential dreaming...

In reading Freud's text, On Dreams, I ask students to pay attention to not only what Freud says, but how he says it. In other words, to think about how this text offers not just an explanation and interpretation of dreams, but a theory of interpretation, of reading itself. For Freud, psychoanalysis is reading. All the various components of the psyche constitute a text: a series of signs that need to be assembled into a meaningful coherence or order, in other words, a narrative.

One of the distinctive features of Freud's text is its repetitive structure. Rather than organizing his argument in a linear fashion, Freud seemed to favor a logic of narrative return. I think this is significant, because as we read further and "unpack" more concepts we'll see a Freudian fascination with repetition, with structures of return, with repetition as a basic organizing principle of both experience and how we make sense of it.

A relation between reading and repetition is illustrated in Freud's approach to dream analysis. The specimen dream (the "table d'hote" dream) is narrated, various associations (of similar experiences or situations) are recounted and then "returned" to the specimen dream and "re-narrated" into it. The process is then repeated with incremental progression--greater and greater understanding--upon each return. Thus, repetition doesn't necessarily signal stasis (staying in the same place, saying the same thing over and over again), but can also aid movement and progress.

What are the basic terms and concepts put forth in On Dreams?

First, Freud asserts that dreams have a relation to waking life, they thus have meaning and significance. Broadly speaking, all dreams function as symbolic wish fulfillment. Dreams somehow provide us a satisfaction reality denies us. But wish fulfillment is not as simple as it sounds. Some dreams are quite obvious in their meaning: Freud's example of the dreams of children illustrates simple desires frustrated in waking life fulfilled or "completed" by the dream narrative. One of his examples is the child who was not allowed to eat strawberries actually verbalizing her dream of gorging on them in baby talk: a clear night time fantasy that alleviates a day time frustration.

Other dreams however are not so transparent and even if they have an overall coherence, they don't seem connected with waking life and conscious desires (I dreamed my uncle died of a terrible illness, I saw it all, his sickness, his death, the funeral---but I love my uncle! And he's never been sick a day in his life? Why did I dream of this?) or seem to lack a coherent meaning or narrative structure (I was traveling through Manhattan, but it was somehow also San Francisco because I saw the Bay Bridge, and the Empire State building. My car kept falling apart, a door fell off, then a tire, but wait, it was my Dad's car! A snowstorm. Oh yeah, I left my car in the other parking lot. The snow parking lot. Where you park when it snows. Did I pay rent this month?)

Freud responds to these last two kinds with a model of the dream: dreams consist of both manifest and latent content. Manifest content refers to the details we remember of the dream when we wake--what we would consciously describe when recalling the dream. For Freud, the dream's complete meaning is not found in the manifest details. The manifest content is only a trace of the latent content, the multiple, possibly contradictory or complex wishes, desires, anxieties, frustrations that are represented in partial, "coded" or disguised form by the manifest dream. (But why should desires need to be "disguised"? Why is the latent meaning presented so indirectly and obscurely? More on this later when we take up the concept of repression and more completely make sense of Freud's notion of the Unconscious).

The process by which the latent content is transformed into manifest content is what Freud terms the "dream work." The primary mechanisms of the dream work are:
  • Condensation: the enormous work of compression carried out by the transformation of a great deal of latent content into a handful of manifest imagery. Two or more ideas, experiences, desires, situations, etc., are compressed into one, made to overlap by finding one or more traits that they share. Freud uses the example of photo superimposition to illustrate this, referring to geneticist Francis Galton's "composite photographs" which layer photographic images in order to produce a combined image that stresses the shared or similar features of all the individuals represented. (While Galton's work is an early example of superimposition, it should be noted that he used these images as "evidence" for rather questionable notions of racial or criminal "types." Students may find the Galton-inspired work of contemporary photography Nancy Burson a richer and more provocative use of composite photography. Her work not only references Galton's technique, but is a critique of the racist conclustions he drew from it. See for example, "Mankind" a composite of Asian, Caucasian, and Black, weighted according to current population statistics, or her interactive project, "The Human Race Machine.") Condensation is essentially the rhetorical trope of metaphor: meaning is created via (multiple) comparisons.
  • Displacement: the replacement of a particular element in the latent content by some other, peripherally related image in the manifest dream, often also coupled with an inversion of relative value or importance. Displacement can signal a shift in the importance of a thought or element in a dream when shifted from the latent to the manifest content. The trivial can become significant, and the significant trivial: a kind of transvaluation. Displacement is essentially the rhetorical trope of metonymy: a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty"). Both metaphor and metonymy involve the principle of substitution: one thing represents another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on similarity, while in metonymy, the substitution is based on contiguity.
There is of course, more that Freud says about things in On Dreams (the preponderence of visual images and symbols, the rebus-like fusions of images and language, the free-association technique used to tease out latent associations, the role of the dream instigator/residue of the day) but this summary gives us the basis for beginning to look at Freud's method as a theory of narrative and reading. Some things to think more on:
  • how Freud reads the dream like a literary text, paying more attention to figurative meaning (metaphor, metonymy) than literal meaning
  • how meaning is produced through structures of repetition and substitution
  • how what is absent (latent) is as, or more, important than what is present (manifest); Freud reads what the dream "doesn't say" as well as what it "does say."

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