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Magritte, Le beau Monde

Sublimation as a Tool of Self-Design

Defining Sublimation

In response to a user’s question, this post elaborates on a term used in the previous post. The original context, in which the term sublimation appeared was a historical observation on the disappearance of the liberal arts and humanities from college curricula and research platforms, which results in cultural impoverishment. Sublimating activity is essential to the survival of cultures and traditions. The essential part of the process, which is a key aspect of iCulture therapy, takes place at the individual level of media engagement before it is publicised. Blogging is a promising new medium that has the potential to rejuvenate stagnating traditions, if it is engaged consciously, with purpose and design. As a tool of self-design sublimation is a key theoretical concept and the central practice of iCulture therapy. A number of posts will be devoted to this category, since it is not only a purely theoretical reference, but also a fundamental literary, religious, and consumer structure. Consumer products are not acts of sublimation, but they are inscribed in a cultural network that provides a number of media for sublimation activity. In this sense, sublimation can also function as consumer practice.

Origin in psychoanalysis

The concept originated in Freud’s writings on psychoanalysis and remains a much contested and elaborated term. It has a very specific definition and function in iCulture therapy. Traditionally sublimation refers to the displacement of instinctual satisfaction through mental engagement of the arts, science, and religion. In iCulture it refers to these activities as they are changed and re-designed by online activity, especially blogging and social micro-blogging, aka social media. Whether we realize it or not, every message we send into cyber space is potentially an instance of sublimation.


As in chemistry, where the term is reserved for the transition of solid substances directly into their gaseous state without passing through the intermediate liquid phase, in iCulture therapy sublimation stands for structural transformation of mental states, mental demands and commands from a state of raw physical instinct, material wish, or impulse into its metaphysical state of valuation.

Here is a crude example of sublimation: boy can’t get girl; boy writes a song or a Tumblr post to satisfy his hungry instinct. This explains the numerous soft-porn images we see on Tumblr, but iCulture will train users to perform at a more sophisticated, culturally relevant level. When deprived of an opportunity to satisfy a wish or an instinct directly and immediately, the mind begins to search for alternative solutions in the immaterial, mediated realm. It engages material media and performs a number of symbolic actions that have the capacity to satisfy the failed execution of the demand. Instinctual demands are not biological, but rather culturally and historically determined. Culture, though born through sublimating activity in the immaterial, symbolic realm needs renewed acts of sublimation to maintain itself and not be degraded to instinctual materiality in a process of de-sublimation. A lot of what passes for culture today in fact belongs to a degraded material system of instinctual satisfaction and no longer qualifies as “culture” in its original state of sublimation.

Other Practices of the Immaterial: Dreams and Hallucinations

Sublimation is different from hallucination and magic, which are purely imaginary activities that cannot bring about the symbolic satisfaction of instinct. They can only simulate material satisfaction. The dream is different from both sublimation and hallucination in that it hides the sublimating activity it performs. In sublimation the symbolic conversion of mental data is real and has a real effect on the structure of the mind. It alters the mind and its behaviour. It also alters the medium of its execution, which makes it available for all forms of externalization and socialization. Thus it produces culture.

The dream performs this activity behind the scenes and in private. It is well-known that a dream is the fulfilment of a wish that cannot be satisfied in reality or that is repressed in the unconscious, as Freud argued, because it is not admissible to the system that programs one’s self-image. For example, Mr. Smith is angry with Mrs. Smith, who cheated, and wishes to kill her, but his conscience, which is the mastermind behind his self-image, prohibits the very notion of murder. Mr. Smith represses his anger and the wish to kill Mrs. Smith and dreams about the unfortunate demise of a certain gold-smith in a flood. The dream has converted the murderous wish into a mental picture that performs it in a benign, permissible scenario, in which Mr. Smith remains a good person, yet the negative image of Mrs. Smith has been cleaned up. Her transgression, which caused anger, has been safely erased from his emotional landscape. Mr. Smith forgets his displeasure with Mrs. Smith and the two enjoy a harmonious relationship. The dream has performed its function and restored love between the two.

The dream alters the mind by rewriting unwanted scenarios, but since the mind was not conscious of the alteration, it is not empowered by it. The dream work does not interact in any way with the public sphere. It remains inarticulate and does not impact in any way the medium of its execution. Dreams use all available media the mind engages in wakefulness. In an act of sublimation, Mr. Smith would engage an existing medium to accomplish what the dream did, but with the tools and technical know-how of a master. If the act of sublimation is executed with mastery, which requires that Mr. Smith is familiar with state-of-the-art technical artistic media, the product, which can be a song, a novel, a prayer or a blog post, will alter the medium itself, because it will make a new form of its application available to others. This is what makes works of art priceless. Alterations in the medium also alter reality, which is entirely structured by media. Only sublimating activity can alter reality. Dreams, magic, and hallucinations cannot. They are passive, whereas sublimation is an active manifestation of individual will. It contributes to the design of culture.


If we were plugged into a vast social system, well engineered by political and social scientists to meet every instinctual demand, we would never need to sublimate, dream, hallucinate or perform magic. In fact, the entire entertainment industry and consumer culture would become obsolete, because that is their job, to offer substitute satisfaction where we can’t get it. A world free of instinctual or material demand is often what sociologists and politicians promise to deliver. This is an empty promise, indeed emptier than most consumer products. Sooner or later we will lose a dear beloved, a loved one will reject us, or we will be stranded on a road without food or drink. We will run into fatal ‘friends’ or somehow get into trouble. This is when the cultural and consumer habits get activated to protect the mental apparatus from collapse, so it continues to function and maintain the memory and continuity of what we know as human life, as bio-graphy, or blog-graphy.

To sum briefly, sublimation is mental power, whereas dreaming achieves passive satisfaction. Hallucination, much like magic, is an illusory and delusional activity that does not change the state of instinctual need, nor the mind of the individual. Both the dream and the hallucination do not alter the personality, which makes them unusable as tools of self-design. The dream has the capacity to heal a broken link in the mind and to restore it to its original design, but only sublimation has the power to change the design of the interior.

Artists, musicians, writers, professors with original ideas — very rare today — appear eccentric and quirky because the cookie-cut personality, in which an individual is issued by the particular programming language of his culture, has been altered by works of sublimation. The reason people generally shy away from sublimating activity is their fear of disfiguring the perfect, socially acceptable face they put on in order to function in the civilized world. If Mr. Smith is unable to acknowledge his anger, his wife’s transgression, and his own sinful wish to retaliate, he will fail to initiate a conscious sublimation process.

Self-reflexivity, the ability to observe oneself, is crucial to the process of self-design. Acknowledging an uncomfortable truth about ourselves or a painful realization such as the loss or betrayal of a dearly beloved does not mean condoning evil and transgression, and even less acting on it. To the contrary, the negative experience is the fossil fuel that propels the creation of objects of high cultural value.

The next post will broach the religious host of sublimation and a later one will address Shakespeare’s use of sublimation, dreams, and magic in The Tempest.

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

Magritte, The Son of Man

Magritte’s Works: Mirrors within Mirrors

Like most works of art that have altered perception historically, Magritte’s paintings possess a high degree of self-reflexivity. The apple in Le Beau Monde is not a physical apple, but a two-dimensional image, the sublimation of an apple. But Magritte does something else: he takes the act and product of painting as his object, thus removing the proverbial apple, the source of temptation and ultimate object of original sin, twice from its fallen physical state. His is not a mere image of an ordinary apple, but an image that points to its second nature as an image and a sublimated object. It is an image that is conscious of being an image, a mirror within a mirror. The apple of original sin is taken out of its context in the natural world and then also removed from its context in the technical world of painting, where it consists of a few brushstrokes, colour, paint, and canvas. Magritte sublimates the very materiality of the medium of representation and achieves a new level of sublimation at a time historically when his medium, painting, has become stale and physical as a cultural artefact, in other words no longer capable of sublimation.

At a time when painting an apple has become an ordinary act, Magritte sublimates the crude, material act of painting by removing it one metaphysical level further from the origin. The Son of Man takes this self-reflexive process of sublimation even further. Obviously referring to Christ, who is the original Son of Man, Magritte paints his self-portrait as Christ covered by the external and trivialized image of an apple. The face that is put in circulation in social — media — circles is not original, nor individual, but pre-fabricated through old cultural sublimation processes that have become automatic in their production of ‘individual’ identities. Original sin, as Soren Kierkegaard also writes in his Sickness unto Death, is not having a unique identity that is invisible to others and available to oneself and to the world only through acts of sublimation. Human autonomy is unthinkable outside sublimation processes where the individual is free to practice auto-design.

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