Dangerous Representations:
Abstraction in Dreamwork

Richard Catlett Wilkerson


* 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, ďThese are oranges, those are all apples.Ē 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 doesnít 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, itís 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 itís a hundred trees high. We scan the horizon and say itís about 10 mountain ranges wide. If we encounter something that we canít 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 concepts.

Language too is the use of abstraction, representing and thereby creating *things* from the plenum.

This is all not to just say that humans donít 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 barberís pole is a sign of a barber, but not the barber himself. Not only is there a level of abstraction needed to perceive the barberís 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 barberís 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 arenít 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 arenít 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. Itís quite a stage of competing values from which to pick. But if we donít 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 doesnít 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. Iím 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. Itís a particular organization of forces upon other forces that constrains the flow of life into objects and their manipulation.

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, changing relations.

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 canít enter the field of play with the decision about what its going to be, whatís 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 barberís 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 canít 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 donít represent the two irreconcilables, but are in fact a primary synthesis of them in action. However, Jungian symbols donít 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, coordinateÖ 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.

Arenít representations and abstractions part of the world too? Sure, and once we acknowledge and understand the dangers of representations, we donít 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 neednít be despotic representations of one value (This snake is about my reptilian side of myself), they neednít 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 ďmeĒ (as in dreamwork where one practices saying how this dream lamp is me, this dream bunny is me, this cane Iím using is meÖ.). 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 potterís 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.

Richard Wilkerson
August 30, 2003


Richard Wilkerson is a Bay Area educator and communications specialist who has been teaching dreamwork since 1985. He is the author of several essays and has been the editor of Electric Dreams since 1994. His most recent works include the book "A Brief History of Dream Sharing: Theory, Techniques and Cyberspace", and "Dream Sharing in Cyberspace" from Stanley Krippner & Mark Waldman's Anthology "Dreamscaping" Richard Wilkerson is the Chair of the Electronic Communications Committee for the Association for the Study of Dreams and webmaster for their homepage (www.asdreams.org). He owns the online communications company, DreamGate.com.

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