Psychoanalysis in Our Time 2016: Psychoanalysis and Sublimation

Symposium Abstracts



Conversations with Imaginary Friends: On the Difference between the Imagination and Daydreaming

Annie Hardy


In ‘Studies on Hysteria’ Freud and Breuer warn against the perils of an over active imagination, claiming that the hysterical disposition is preceded by a tendency to daydream which ‘lays the ground for psychopathology’. This paper will contrast a classical psychoanalytic view of the imagination as presented by Freud with modern psychodynamic understanding presented in the mentalisation model. Current understanding of imaginative faculties do not focus on their potential to be the representational vehicle for an act of sublimation, but as an attempt at ‘mindreading’ – of understanding the mental states of others and the self in an affectively-laden manner which differs substantially from dispassionate cognitive empathy.

Alongside a new view of infantile development, such contemporary insights usher in a new mode of understanding other forms of creativity such as children’s play and adult works of art. Creativity takes on a moral tone that it previously did not possess: as children we play as a way of ‘trying on’ perspectives which are not our own. Such work within psychology and psychoanalysis can be integrated with the work of philosophers such as Ted Cohen who argue in favour of a ‘talent for metaphor’: an ability to the think metaphorically which underlies the capacity for empathy and moral understanding.

The theoretical shift in our understanding of the imagination, I will argue, is best understood appreciating its deep qualitative differences with daydreaming. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theorists such as Donald Winnicott and Hanna Segal, I will argue that Freud failed to give a satisfactory theory of the imagination by failing to recognise the distinction between the two. New perspectives offered in contemporary psychoanalytic theory can help us form an interdisciplinary perspective on capacity to imagine that recognises it as sophisticated and uniquely human achievement.



Annie Hardy is a PhD candidate at the Psychoanalysis Unit at UCL where she is writing on status of the visual imagination in contemporary models of psychopathology. She has a particular interest in examining the philosophical issues that arise from adopting a multi-disciplinary perspective on the mind.


Sublimation and the political implications of Winnicott’s ‘third space’ of creative potential for viewers of visual culture

Claire Hope


In this paper I will discuss sublimation in the context of British Psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott’s identification of the ‘location’ of creative production as a ‘third space’ of potential, one found neither internally or in the object. Where Winnicott’s ‘potential’ space is created by a safely managed ‘separation’ from the attachment figure for the child; the amount of creativity and play correlates with the amount of ‘space’ left to ‘play’ in. Yet, where separation is difficult, or attachment already insecure, the suggestion is that the space of ‘creativity’ is limited. Sublimation, in relation to this ‘third space’ seems to suggest a parallel strategy for ‘managing’ the trauma of separation by allowing related affects to be redirected via the act of creative production. Yet, sublimation tends to recall drives that can be communicated via creative work, rather than openly. But in Winnicott’s terms it is an open, trusting space of play that connects to both the production and consumption of culture, a space determined by the attachment figure’s acceptance of the child. I have recently claimed that rather than being escapist or fantasy-based, the relationship between the viewer of screen-based visual culture, and the people they watch can be treated relationally. The ‘choice’ of what to watch in contemporary visual culture and social media often seems determined by the difference between the protagonists’ position and the viewer’s – what I have framed as an inequality. This might indicate the desire or capacity of the viewer to experience proxy agencies, and hegemonically improve their position, through relating to the people they watch. In this sense, the ‘space’ between the viewer and the people they choose to watch may be a politicised space of ‘potential’ and ‘becoming’ akin to Winnicott’s space of creativity.



Claire Hope (UK, 1977) is an artist and academic living in Leeds. Recently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow (Jan-Apr 2016) in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds – where Hope was awarded her PhD in 2015 with a thesis title Politicising Agency through Affect – she screened her commissioned film Contact, 2016, in collaboration with Pavilion, Leeds in April. Hope is a Part-Time Lecturer in Fine Art at Leeds Beckett University, a former LUX Associate Artist (2007/8) and a graduate of the MA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London.


On Excess – Performing And Sublimating Intense Psychic States Through Writing

Elizabeth Hughes


In 1909, James Joyce wrote a series of letters to his wife and muse, Nora, which have been described variously by critics as dirty, lustful and fetishistic. Outlining in explicit detail the imagined sex acts he would play out with Nora, Joyce’s letters are read by Van Boheemen-Saaf as a particular source of performativity, linking the process of writing to the drive. The author posits that Joyce’s letters also signified a turn toward the fragmentary and dynamic poetic prose which would come to mark the aesthetic of his work. Quoting from the letters, in Joyce’s words, ‘some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.’ Taking Joyce’s letters as a starting point, this paper asks questions about what it might mean to live with excess. This work draws on psychoanalytic theories of affect regulation (Laplanche; Benjamin) and Phillips’ essays on excess.

What can Phillips’ claim that ‘there are situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it,’ tell us about the role of writing as a technique of performance and sublimation of intense psychic states? I ask how the act of writing can be used both to refine some of our most uncontrollable and morally questionable desires and fantasies, as well as a way of acting them out. This has implications for the ways in which our private worlds can be made public and that which is outside of us can transform the inside. This speaks to personal and political ways of making sense of the times we are living and the potential for collective action and change. If we can recognise the too-muchness that is inherent in ourselves and in the worlds we embody then, rather than repressing or projecting excess, we might find creative ways of being with, and potentially working it through.




Sublimation in completion of the racial trauma narrative through artistic expression

Marlo De Lara


Narrative studied as a vehicle for closure or completion is apt for trauma studies. Cultural products can be seen as performative/artistic forms of narrative processing. Despite the work previously conducted by psychoanalytic oriented scholars, an examination of creative forms as completion of a trauma narrative is much needed. Wigren (1994) explains that narratives formed during trauma are incomplete and therefore storytelling allows the trauma to be “condensed and stored as part of an ongoing life story”. Therefore creative forms such as theater or art, like the relationship of psychoanalyst to analysand, can demand attention from those who enter the performance space. It ideally challenges the audience to think outside their current worldview. The completion of a traumatic narrative can accompanied by a theatrical impulse that “may seek to heal, individually and collectively” (Nuetzel 1999). By reviewing the psychoanalysis of artistic forms in relation to studying the benefits of narrative expression as a vehicle for understanding a trauma, artistic expressions of narrative can be understood as a form of social reparation.

In this study of the Filipino American diaspora, the specificity of negotiated subjectivities is complex. As a former territory and with complex shifting migration policies, the US government has considered Filipinos an ambiguous population, falling just out of reach of national visibility. As the population has continued to grow, Filipino Americans have shared narratives and begun conversation to address the constant cultural negotiation and struggles within the social and racial structures of America.

I propose that the colonized and traumatic history of the Filipino immigrant leads to a potential continued trauma embodied by their offspring. Psychoanalytically, transgenerational trauma affects the development of identity to their sociocultural challenges. In examination of the art and in the listening to the narrative of Filipino American artists, the unconscious transmission may be acknowledged and essential in completing the trauma narrative unique to transgenerational pathology.



Marlo J. De Lara is currently pursuing a doctorate in Cultural Studies at CentreCATH within the department of Fine Arts, History of Art, and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her current research concerns the study of subjectivities within Filipino American cultural texts. Her work focuses on personal/social histories, migration and transnational narratives, postcolonial and critical race theory, and psychoanalysis.



Knausgård’s struggles – repressive desublimation and the impossibility of fiction

Charlotta Lund


In the novel “My Struggle” Karl Ove Knausgård writes about a discussion with his dear friend about making their children happy and saving the next generation from the traumas of the previous one. Knausgård criticizes the “therapeutic society” where people do away with unrest and anxiety by talking about it rather than transforming it for creative and productive purposes. He describes a culture is filled with fantasies of happiness, harmony, wholeness and perfection, fantasies which disguise the simple facts that we do not know what we are doing, and that our good intentions may not do any good.

In my paper, I will explore Herbert Marcuses concept of repressive desublimation, which describes the process through which the subversive potential of the drives is thwarted by a society that offers a seemingly free outlet for these drives, but only in ways that comply with the social system. According to Marcuse, one definition of sublimation is the artistic alienation. This is linked to what he calls the Big No, the refusal of that which is, and a way to speak about that which is not. In the society of consumer capitalism, art as the Big No however no longer represents a qualitatively different experience but has been incorporated in mass culture as a commodity. In a society filled with technical and rational solutions to all problems, instant gratification and illusions of harmony have been made possible, due to which the general experience of the world has been de-eroticized and the erotic experience has been reduced to sexual activity. Both the areas of sublimation and the need for sublimation have thus been diminished. As Marcuse puts it; today all the Don Juans, Hamlets and Oidipuses are not tragedies, they are simply cases to be solved by psychiatrists. The discontent of civilization has been replaced by the psychopathology of the individual. I ask how the discourses of a “therapeutic society” in the ego’s era reinforce this repressive desublimation.



Charlotta Lund is working as a psychologist in mental health services and psychiatric care. She graduated as Master of Arts (psychology) from University of Eastern Finland in december 2015. In 2014 she completed a bachelors degree in social psychology at the Helsinki University Swedish School of Social Sciences.



Sublimation or creative transfiguration of life?

Poem is an act of love: Joseph Brodsky’s psychological and visionary poetry. Jungian and Post-Jungian Perspectives.

Elena Neznamova

In contrast to the Freudian concept of creativity, for Russian-American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky art and sexuality are sublimation of one’s creative energy, and that denies them hierarchy. The supra-personal element in poetry transcends the individual who creates it and connects him with the collective memory and love. Brodsky questions, ‘is creation the sublimation of sexual principle or vice versa? Is sexual activity the sublimation of the creative, constructive element in man?’ (Brodsky qtd in Volkov 1998, p.256). These thoughts stay in line with Jungian ideas about the nature of his creativity. Starting with different premises, Brodsky came close to Carl Jung who also didn’t share the Freudian conviction that the nature of creativity all comes down to sublimation of sexual urges. From the stand point of analytical psychology the artist could be considered not as a person but as the creative process that moves him. According to Jung, ‘great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors’. Jung acknowledges that art could originate outside of the individual, transcends him and therefore exists outside any temporal and physical space. From this perspective, that I combine with philosophical and post-Jungian conception on art, represented by Nicolai Berdyaev and Anthony Storr accordingly, I will offer a critical assessment of Jungian division of art as psychological and visionary. Drawing on Joseph Brodsky’s poetry, I suggest that his poetry is transcendental in origin and could not be reducible to a personal motives of an artist. It contains constructing capacities that derive from the combination of personal and universal experiences and allows a full blossoming of free human creativity. I suggest that Brodsky’s poetry has an archetypal as well as a personal dimension.


My short biography

Following an education in law I earned a candidate of science degree and an associate professor certificate in Russia. This qualification allowed me to teach in various Moscow’s universities (2001 – 2009).  I also worked as a research fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C. and then at American University (Washington College of Law, Washington D.C. (visiting scholar, 2006-2007). My deep interest in the interplay between the human subjectivity, literature and depth psychology led me to study at Birkbeck, University of London (MA Psychosocial Studies program, School of Social Science, History and Philosophy) (2012-2013). Currently I am a PhD student, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, UK.  My supervisors: Andrew Samuels and Kevin Lu.



Replacement in Stories We Tell

Agnieszka Piotrowska


Sarah Polley in her 2012 film Stories We Tell interrogates her origins and the secrets, which haunt both her life and those of her siblings and parents. In this paper I will suggest that the very process of making the film is a kind of reparatory replacement for the trauma of her confused parental provenance, namely the everlasting sense that she is not her father’s biological daughter. That sense is later confirmed but not in the way Polley expected. Polley’s mother who died young of cancer haunts the whole film as her images are omnipresent in it. I will argue that the process of making the film has enabled the filmmaker to take control over the narrative of her life and that of her family. One of the controversial elements of the film is the director’s undisclosed creation of fake family archive alongside the real archive. The lines of fiction or fictionalized story telling are purposefully blurred. The effect is disturbing, dislocating but also exhilarating for the viewer.

The paper will consider here the psychoanalytical notion of sublimation which places creative activity at the heart of replacing a direct libidinal experience with a sublimated one. Julia Kristeva characterised sublimation in terms of the dynamic of meaning-making and suggested that the very formation of the subject in and through language is a process of sublimation, as the transposition of the semiotic into the symbolic. Shoshana Felman pointed to the fact that ‘the combination of desire and a Law prohibiting desire is regulated, through a linguistic structure of the exchange, into a repetitive process of replacement – of substitution – of symbolic object (substitutes) of desire’ (Felman 1987: 104). In a way, in Polley’s film the filmmaker replaces the dead mother in the lives of her two fathers, thus reintroducing the notion of rivalry between the men. However, instead of being a trapped pawn in this love triangle, as arguably her mother was, Sarah Polley takes up the challenge of re-positioning the power balance this time round, through being the only truly in charge of the narrative.



Dr Agnieszka Piotrowska is an award winning documentary filmmaker and a theorist. Piotrowska is the author of the monograph Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary Film (Routledge, 2014), editor of Embodied Encounters: New Approaches to Cinema and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2014), and co-editor of Psychoanalysis and the Unrepresentable: from Culture to the Clinic (Routledge, 2016). Her new book is Black and White: cinema, politics and the arts in Zimbabwe (2016, Routledge) and she has just completed her first feature film in Harare.

Piotrowska is a Reader in Film Practice and Theory at the Department of Media Arts, the University of Bedfordshire, United Kingdom.



Putting Žižek in The Crucible: Social Antagonism and the Sublime Object of Ideology

Ben Tyrer


In 1952, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible – a fictionalised staging of the 1692 Salem witch trials. As an allegory of McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria in 1950s America, the play could itself be considered a form of sublimation: firstly, of course, in the way that all creative works can be understood, in the Freudian context, as a diversion of the drives (1916-17). But secondly, and as allegory specifically, we could consider it a sort of sublimated political gesture: Miller’s protest against a modern-day witch hunt finding its expression in an alternative form. However, for the purposes of this paper what I want to identify is the socio-political mechanism of sublimation at work both in the context of the production of The Crucible and within its narrative and staging.

Specifically, I intend to explore The Crucible in relation to Slavoj Žižek’s theory of the “sublime object of ideology” (1989). To this end, I will address Miller’s own adaptation of his stage play in Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 film, for the ways in which its formal strategies emphasise the key features of social conflict that drive persecution. And while it might, at first face, seem almost an error of category to examine the “sublime” in the context of a symposium on sublimation, it is worth noting that both Freud (1930) and Lacan (1992) emphasised the social function of sublimation. Moreover, Žižek’s theory relies specifically on Lacan’s most succinct definition of sublimation, as the elevation of the object “to the dignity of the Thing” (1992: 134), which we can understand here as the raising of something quotidian to a privileged position within the social fabric. Reflecting the terrible fascination of the Thing, such an object may be venerated or, indeed, denigrated, like the totemic animal that is both worshipped and sacrificed in order to ensure the cohesion of the tribe or clan (Freud 1913). In this paper, I will focus on what Žižek calls the sublime object as “negative magnitude” (1997: 81) to explore the logic of scapegoating – where the internal contradictions or antagonisms of a particular society are ideologically displaced onto an external figure of the Other – that we can chart from (at least) the Salem witch trials to the present day refugee crisis.



Dr Ben Tyrer teaches Film Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Out of the Past: Lacan and Film Noir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-editor of Psychoanalysis and the Unrepresentable: from Culture to the Clinic (Routledge, 2016), and has published widely on psychoanalysis and cinema. His latest project entails an exploration of the work of Slavoj Žižek in relation to cinema and the question of film-philosophy. He is co-coordinator of the Psychoanalysis in Our Time international research network, funded by the Nordic Summer University.