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On Sublimation

The Letter, Issue 34, Summer 2005, Pages 108 - 113

On Sublimation[1]

Masaaki Hoshina

Freud pointed many times to the potential limit of psychoanalytic theory for the consideration of aesthetics, but as you know, he did offer us the concept of sublimation. Unfortunately this concept seems obscure with regard to its relation to other psychoanalytic concepts. For psychoanalysis, the main task of which is the therapy and understanding of neurotic patients, the problem of sublimation may be probably secondary. However it seems to me that there are difficulties in the concept of sublimation itself as Lacan states it. Indeed it was sublimation that forced him to look toward the problem of the Real. I would like to trace today developments regarding this concept, from Freud to Lacan, so as to illuminate its inherent difficulties.

When I started this study, I considered sublimation from a Freudian viewpoint, one might say, basically, namely, with reference to the drive (Lacan prefers drive to instinct). I thought that I would treat sublimation in its relation to the drive, that is, to the aims, sources and objects of the drive, terms and methods introduced by Freud in his article of 1915 - Instincts and their Vicissitudes. At that time, Freud counted sublimation as one of the vicissitudes that the sexual drives produce. It is said that he wrote an article on sublimation as one of his metapsychological works as well as articles on instincts, repression and the unconscious, but he destroyed it with other texts. Ernst Jones, author of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, explains this action in terms of his theoretical modifications produced in the twenties, which would have required a total remake of the destroyed texts. But did Freud judge that sublimation is incompatible with the point of view of metapsychology, that is, of dynamics? I would like to argue that he thought that sublimation could not be well situated metapsychologically in contrast to the drive and repression.

Jacques Lacan set about this subject during his second term of Seminars during 1959-60, entitled The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. In his famous previous Seminars started in 1953, he hardly mentioned th sublimation. When he commenced studying on the 13 January 1960, he said: 'It is a point that you haven't yet seen rise up on the horizon. And (...) I have avoided using this term. (...) It is what Freud called Sublimierung, sublimation.'[2]

So, we have the destruction of the original text by Freud and avoidance of the term by Lacan. You already begin to see the difficulties that sublimation entails. But I would like to suggest that this avoidance does not necessarily mean either hesitation or fear on his part. As you know, he distinguishes three registers, Symbolic, Imaginary and Real. When he examines problems of ethics - differently from a general opinion that would think that the Symbolic, the ideal, and justice (loi) are essential in the problem of ethics - he underlines the necessity to call into question the Real itself. Since it is impossible by definition to start with the Real, it is necessary to approach the subject in a roundabout way. He actually employed the term, 'contour' or 'walk around'. So I want to point out that the avoidance by Lacan in question implies a preparation for a more accurate consideration of the Real aspect of sublimation. Indeed, in order to treat the Real, he had previously introduced the concept of the Thing, an essential term to which I will be continually returning.

We must now reconsider Freud and his definition of sublimation and examine associated difficulties, insofar as the term is limited to the point of view of metapsychology. In an article in 1908 on Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness Freud gives a very important definition of sublimation:

The sexual drive places extraordinary large forces at the disposal of civilized activity, and it does this by virtue of its especially marked characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing in intensity. This capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another, which is no longer sexual but which is psychologically related to the first aim, is called the capacity for sublimation.[3]

This definition of Freud's puts stress on displacement, change of aim from sexual to non sexual, and finds the condition of change in the plastic character of the drive itself. But this definition leaves open many questions. First, the notion of sexual aim is itself ambiguous. What is sexual aim? Does it merely concern sexual reproduction? It seems to me that nobody can answer 'Yes', except by subscribing to puritanism. Freud himself says in this article: 'we consider that in man the sexual drive does not originally serve the purpose of reproduction at all, but rather has as its aim the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure.' (The word "originally" does not mean "by nature" but rather, taking infant sexuality into account). The sexual aim of the drive is the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure, says Freud, but what kind of pleasure? According to the Pleasure Principle, pleasure lies in the reduction of the quantity of excitation, so it is far from sexual pleasure in its literal sense. Here, the importance of Lacan's notion of "Jouissance" stands out. However it would be impossible to discuss this fully at the present moment since we have time constraints and our problem is in fact sublimation, the change to a non-sexual aim.

Non-sexual aim is no more self-evident than sexual aim. Freud said that it consists in "civilized activity", cultural activity. Then, what is cultural activity? It could be, as Freud would like to affirm it elsewhere, limited to art, religion and science, always intellectually and socially admissible activities? Or, do we have to consider other domains, possibly the whole world of thought? I would like to think that counter-culture, art against civilization, cannot be here disregarded. How about sport? Is football a sublimated activity? I can mention many examples: a visit to Disneyland for instance, is this sublimation? I have consciously enumerated extreme examples to which the definition of Freud, regarding this change of aim, might lead. But this problem has not been solved by neo-Freudians, and has led them to the concept of desexualized energy, that is a return to the state before Freud.

Jacques Lacan took a definitive step forward in the problem of sublimation, affirming that here it is not a question of the aim of the drive, but rather its object, introducing his own concept of object: the Thing, das Ding in German, la Chose in French. However in order to articulate this, he had to carefully clear the field in which to place the object, because this field was strongly charged with the so-called part-object of object-relations theories. Based on the idea of development, the adherents of this theory assert that the objects of drive (for them, instinct is a better term than drive, for it develops, is destined for maturity) are made of part-objects: breast, excrement and phallus, according to developmental stages. Further, they add to this list one object, the most important object for sublimation: the mother's body as affirmed by Melanie Klein. According to Klein, sublimation is the repairing of a good object, a mother-related object, attacked or threatened by the aggressive instinct. This notion for sublimation was indeed considered as one of the most advanced at the time of the Seminar of Lacan on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis.

I would like to loosely quote a paragraph of Lacan which allows a summarizing of what I have said so far.

The satisfaction of the Trieb (drive) is, then, paradoxical, since it seems to occur elsewhere than its direct aim. Are we going to be satisfied with saying that the aim has changed, that it was sexual before and that now it is no longer the case? That is, by the way, how Freud describes it. Whence one has to conclude that sexual libido has become desexualized. (And that's why your daughter is dumb.) Are we going to be satisfied with the Kleinian register, which seems to me to contain only partial truth, and speak of the imaginary solution of a need for substitution, for repair work with relation to the mother's body.

Lacan criticizes Klein's concept of sublimation as an imaginary solution, because it is in fact for him a question of a real object far beyond an imaginary one.

As the real object, he offers us the concept of Thing, La Chose, that is the precursor of his famous concept: objet a, that now has a long history of elaboration. I am going to approach it in the sense with which it is treated in the Ethics of Psychoanalysis.

To ask the question "what is the Thing" is already a mistake, because it is not a presence but an absence, a lack. To translate the thing into 'the essence of the object' can be an approximation but that is still insufficient. In order to introduce the Thing, Lacan adopts two fundamental ideas, one from Heidegger, the other from Freud.

Heidegger, questioning the essence of the Thing (la choseite d'une Chose) as it is different from the object in his presentation entitled "das Ding" takes as an example a vase: what makes it a Thing , not an object. He says: though made of clay, the walls of a vase retain liquid, they do not contain it. A container, is empty, not material. What makes a vase a Thing, is a space that is indicated, not the clay that traces its contours: 'With clay, the potter has contented himself with giving form to space.'[4]

On the other hand, Lacan extracts the Freudian Ding from his Project for a Scientific Psychology of 1895, his private papers originally not intended for publication. Before Lacan, everybody thought that it was rather a neuro-scientific draft and that it was a study prior to the birth of psychoanalysis. Here Lacan detects the Thing and its ethical dimension. It is a passage in which Freud speaks of Nebenmensch, neighbour.

Thus the complex of the Nebenmensch is separated into two parts, one of which affirms itself through an unchanging apparatus, which remains together as a thing, als Ding, while the other can be understood by activity of memory.[5]

Thus there is a division. The Ding is the element that is initially isolated by the subject in his experience of the Nebenmensch, as being by its very nature alien, Fremde. The other element is representation, signifiers. In other words, initially, in the mythical infant experience that is the encounter with the neighbour, a black hole is drawn. The Ding remains separated out of language. Around the Ding, language is formed, like the clay of a vase around the central space, that no signifier can define. Language dances around the 'absolute outside , this "Fremde", without entering.

This is the heart of sublimation. Thus, the formula that Lacan gives is the following: Sublimation raises an object to the dignity of the Thing.[6] Thus, it is quite possible to sublimate any object, whether it is sexual or not, sublime or not, sacred or not, valuable or not. Sublimation is then a matter of a specific relation to the Real.

For Lacan, in psychoanalysis as well as in art, one has to unveil the place of the Thing contrary to Melanie Klein who, introducing the myth of the mother's body, veils it.

I hope that now you appreciate that sublimation is not only an element that permits a solution of the mystery of artistic creation, but also a fundamental for psychoanalysis as conceived by Lacan, so that psychoanalysis becomes situated beyond good and bad, at the ethical level beyond the moral.


[1] This paper was presented at the Symposium "Lacanian Psychoanalysis and East-Asian Psychiatry" at the XII Word Congress of Psychiatry on the 28 August 2002.

[2] J. Lacan. Le Seminaire, Livre VII: L'ethique de la psychanalyse. J.-A. Miller, Paris, Seuil, 1981. p. 105.

[3] S. Freud. 'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. S.E., IX, p. 187.

[4] M. Heidegger. La chose, in Essais et conference, Paris, Gallimard, 1968. p. 200

[5] S. Freud. Project for a Scientific Psychology. S.E., I, p. 331

[6] J.Lacan. he Seminaire, Livre VII: L'ethique de la psychanalyse. J.-A. Miller, Paris, Seuil, 1981. p. 133: 'la sublimation eleve un objet - et ici, je ne me refuserai pas aux resonances de calambour qu'il peut y avoir dans I'usage du terme que je vais amener - a la dignite de la Chose.' [Lacan plays on words, dignity means the essence of Ding, Dignity, choseite de la Chos

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