Thursday, 25 March 2010

Reverse Sublimation: I

Much as I've always been suspicious of Freudian categories, I can't help but wonder about Freud's relevant constructs in the context of what I'm now thinking of as reverse sublimation.

If Nietzschean / Freudian sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements (often via encounter with the mystical, the muse, and the meditative), then reverse sublimation would be not "desublimation," undoing sublimation, but rather the process of experiencing potentially "socially useful" aspirations as sexual ones.

In this way that reward-oriented signals appear to generalize across categories, interest in doing something potentially entirely non-sexual with someone can end up feeling like an appetitive sexual attraction. Dipping into Freudian terminology again (this may seem quite basic for those steeped in psychoanalysis), this may reflect, particularly in the bookish, a regression to -- or sticking in -- the latency stage, in which appetitive drives are organized around the gratification derived from friendly and educational activities, the locus of thinking. Since many bookish people in fact make their livelihoods through the activities of thinking, it's somewhat amusing to note the ways in which sexualized appetites might be, in some lights, more culturally acceptable (more sexy, surely) than admitting to the pleasures derived from thinking with someone.

But it is not merely a matter of social acceptability and appearances; it's the experience of this reverse sublimation that seems fascinating: sexual tension is often the bond that holds much more prosaic associations together, and that simultaneously appears to provide some of the motivating sparkle and also to fluster people (according, no doubt -- if we continue to follow the Freudian line of thought -- to how honestly they're acknowledging and managing to work through defense mechanisms).

We creative bookish types appear to seek sensitization to these affordances to out our implicit desires: this is our habitual sublimating relationship with muses. What is more motivating toward an afternoon of creative production in the face of all other demands, than the challenges raised by unexpected desire? Non-compulsory challenges that fall outside the obligation of established relationships -- that we are nominally free to ignore, and yet that promise unpredictable consequences -- can be utterly galvanizing, particularly when these challenges entice us to consider goals that have been articulated perhaps not quite explicitly enough, or towards which one doesn't quite know how to progress or act adequately.

Many of us appear to cultivate a discerning eye for opportunities to be drawn in lustily by consuming desire -- for what often turns out to be not someone else, and often not even someone else's ideas (although it seems we often think of our infatuations as being with someone else or their ideas), but perhaps, more accurately, with the ideas they make us think -- or, more fairly, perhaps, think with us. We engage, in other words, with a (to-some-degree) limited (and potentially only partly intentional) heartsickness in order to think through thoughts that need -- not an audience for itself, but the emotional and cognitive stimulation a compelling (even if imagined, in the relational details) audience affords.

For the description of sublimation as process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements, see Carole Wade and Carol Tavris, 1996. Psychology. HarperCollins.

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formerly a wage slave said...

Forgive me if I haven't gotten exactly your point, but mightn't it be that focused sexual/relationship desire as well as some intellectual/artistic pursuits have something in common: they both force us to develop, and that sense of developing --or using
parts of one's self one didn't know one had or
only suspected--brings with it a kind of pleasure?

The sad thing about being a bookworm is that it is less social than other pursuits. ( I think of how choreographers or dancers must be social as part of their work.) And while you speak of how we partially grasp the other in a relationship (those aren't your exact words), surely the same partial awareness characterizes our acts of reading--though that, too, is the reason why re-reading can be enjoyable.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Yes, an excellent point; thank you. For example, I may read about a character whose thoughts or activities make me explore things about myself that cause growth or development, as Keith, Maja, and Raymond have written about extensively before (I'm reading Tolstoy right now, so this is quite salient). But then part of what strikes me as interesting in returning to re-read, as you say, a book with such a character, is the way that my enthusiasm for the character often subtly vacillates, swinging back and forth between a crush of affection for the character (Levin - I'm seized with a new feeling of affection for him!) and for some aspect of my own experience his character has illuminated (hm - I think about the land problem this way, too; what does this *mean*?). This movement of exploration and enthusiasm between the self and others is surely part of the process of growth, and even social abilities, attributed to engaging with fiction ( -- but it is also often below the radar of attention, and, I suspect, contributes to considerable transference of substantial exploratory energy onto the pages we read.

formerly a wage slave said...

I hope I'm not losing the thread. Your initial post seems more complicated to me now that I've re-read, it, but I wanted to say:

I guess I find with reading that there's two things: one is like an immediate apprehension,say, that if a character does this, he's making a mistake ( the error of wanting revenge in Kundera's "The Joke") --and there's something like a sinking feeling as one recalls briefly that it turns out badly...But then there's another process which might be direct, a thinking about something in one's life that matches what's going on... and here some feature of the book can shed light or add a detail to one's life,
as in helping to articulate what I felt or what someone else might have been thinking...

But that's part of a dynamic continuing process whereby you can experience your life differently and articulate it out loud or with stories.

For me dealing with other people is often exhausting, but reading fiction usually is not. But what I've said partly explains why it seems helpful.

While I can try to write or talk about what I've read or what I'm reading, that's a process that lacks the immediacy of reading.

I've been re-reading Kundera's "The Joke", and well, the largeness of certain things must not have struck me when I first read the book more than twenty years ago. The protagonist sets out to get revenge on someone in a truly terrible way, and, of course, it doesn't work. Then, again, I would say I have more experience of sadness and disappointment than I did 20 years ago, and that has made the re-reading more real.

Keith's writings have made me more attentive to the moments when I construct an analogy between my own experiences and those of a character....and I continue to appreciate how much I gain insight from such moments...

But I should confess that my original thought about sublimation was largely derived from a former teacher's (Terry Penner's) interpretation of Plato, according to which erotic desire is itself a desire for knowledge, of what Plato in (for example) "the Republic" would call "The Good"....

Although Plato has the reputation of being an enemy of the emotions, I'm not convinced that he need be read that way, or that what I've just said need itself lead to hostility toward emotion per se.

Rather emotion needs to be understood as open to error or truth just as much as the states which are routinely contrasted with emotion...(and, I guess, it's true that Keith has argued along roughly those lines, in "Best Laid Schemes"...)

I don't want to be dogmatic, but maybe one further remark might make my reading of Plato seem more believable: The highest object of knowledge is the "Form" of the "Good", but our awareness--limited though it is supposed to be--has much the quality of a perceptual state, or intuition....But that immediacy is something like the quality that emotions often have.

Maybe like the kind of direct insight I seem to experience in reading fiction...

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Thank you for this remarkable set of thoughts. I've been thinking about them for a couple of days, and, for one thing, you're making me want to go read Plato's Republic (the Good!). The thing that most strikes me, though, is the emphasis on immediate experience -- partly because *mediation*, and the way that it often fits poorly with our understanding of our experience, is something that I find fascinating. Most of us (especially those of us who live with psychologists) have some sense of the way that our experience is, of course, mediated by innumerable filters -- and yet (perhaps because of this? moreso when we think of it, even? psychologists often seem even more badly bitten with this than others), there is something undeniably attractive for many people in the quest for unmediated seeming experience, for the direct, the straightforward, the being there.

The erotic might be argued to be attractive partly because of the experience that appears to be so direct: arousal that subverts, it often seems, thinking. This is what's attracting me to the Plato, though! What, then, is *added* by dwelling on the mediation? (This is part of the motive I mention for daring to look directly at the semi-taboo relationship with muses.) If we are attracted by the clarity of immersive experience, what is the delicious complexity added by thinking about it? I may have to mull this into an additional essay...

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Valentine, and Formerly-a-wage-slave, for this very interesting set of thoughts. Sorry to be so long in responding. This is an engaging idea, and the idea that an idea itself can be engaging in an erotic way makes it even more engaging. If we take the Freudian notion that the erotic is the creative in life, and that it involves leaving our solitariness to join with another, then getting s slight glimpse of the libidinous quality of some of the more ordinary things we do is very clarifying.

formerly a wage slave said...

Well! I think I understand what you said about the non-immediacy of experience! And, if you forgive a bit of autobiography, I spent most of the past thirteen years as a foreigner (a USA citizen living out of the States), so perhaps I felt it or have felt it in an immediate way! (If I dare put it that way.)
My original thought was simply about what we really want when we want something. What is it we really want when we want sex or friendship or feel attracted to someone or even feel a strong emotion toward a fictional character? And I guess what I wanted to say is that you were beginning with the powerful view that an erotic desire is primary. But, then you were flipping it around, so that things that weren't erotic were primary. My own idea would be that we are thoroughly complicated creatures so that it is risky business to look for something primary.

I thought that my "Platonic" suggestion about what we want (that we want something which you could call knowledge of The Good) avoids that sort of limitation because the subject, "The Good", is so rich and complex.

And I should add a warning, or repeat something.
I don't think immediacy is the same thing as total awareness or complete knowledge. But as I understand Plato (or Socrates, for that matter) every human being has a kind of immediate awareness of justice and beauty or "The Good"--though not at all complete knowledge of them....And it seems to me that part of what's going on with the modern fascination with emotions is a study of this aspect of humanity.

Now, I have to be honest. Not every serious Plato scholar would agree with what I've just said. I have been influenced by Terry Penner's interpretation of "the Republic", for example, and Penner is unusual thinking that book is not all pie in the sky (if you forgive a colloquial expression). A common complaint is that it is hard to see how Plato's metaphysics really fits psychological reality. But, I have been assuming another interpretation is possible.

I'm glad if my comments have been stimulating! (-:

formerly a wage slave said...

My previous comment was done through my gmail box, and I imagined myself to be directly responding to Valentine. I didn't mean to simply ignore Keith's comments. I should have said to Keith that I am very happy that this site exists, as it has provided me much stimulation and pleasure.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you formerly-a-wage-slave for your comment about liking OnFiction. It's a bit different from the usual blogs, so I am really glad you like it. It's very good to have you, with your wide interests, reading and commenting on this blog-magazine.

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