Lecture Notes: Freud's Conception of the Psyche (Unconscious) and His Theory of Dreams
I. Freud’s Conception of the Structure and Function of the Psyche
A) Background: Freud's Theory of the Unconscious:
Hysteria and Memory:
Freudian psychoanalysis is predicated largely and principally on a dialectic between lost memory, and remembrance as compensation for loss; many of the central concepts of Freudian theory, such as the "unconscious," the "repressed," the "return of the repressed," "free association" are intimately related to questions of memory, loss, remembrance, reminiscence, and recollection.
Neurosis for Freud, and, for that matter, most of the psychological pathologies with which he dealt in his medical practice, he considered to be illnesses related to memory and remembrance. He wrote:
"Hysterical patients suffer largely from reminiscences." (Studies on Hysteria, 1895)
What does it mean to "suffer from reminiscences"? = Incomplete engagement with some (traumatic) event in the past; it has neither been completely forgotten (overcome), nor adequately remembered. But reminiscence also alludes to idea of similarity between things: one event is reminiscent of another = hints at Freudian idea of association by means of similarity.
= Psychological pathology as a disruption of the dialectic of memory and loss, forgetting and recalling: reminiscence = a vague, but incomplete connection to this past event, or a substitution of one memory/idea for another with which it is associated. (=displacement) If reminiscence is the malady, then reminiscence is also manner by which a cure is effected.
Psychoanalysis as Therapeutic Practice
This explains why Freud's therapeutic practice entails the bringing-to-consciousness of "unconscious" ideas, events, memories, based on the technique of free association.
Psychoanalysis as therapeutic practice can be described as
THE RECOLLECTION OF PARTIALLY LOST MEOMORIES TO ACTIVE REMEMBRANCE SO THAT THEY CAN ULTIMATELY BE COMPLETELY OVERCOME (that is: FORGOTTEN). This process is often called "working through," engaging with and psychologically processing traumatic experiences.
The "pathological" as a kind of limbo between memory and its loss: neither total remembrance, nor total loss or forgetting, rather a hybrid between memory and its loss. This is what Freud's word "reminiscence" (Reminiszenz) stands for. Reminiscences are "ghosts," like the "undead" in horror movies: they are neither completely dead not alive, hence they "haunt" the psyche, seeking resolution.
Symptoms (of hysteria, etc.) are vestiges of memory; these vestiges, these incomplete memories, can cause pathological symptoms.
Freud's Contribution to Theory of the Unconscious (Called himself the "Columbus" of the unconscious = its discoverer and first explorer.)
1) Along with Josef Breuer, he constructed out of the popular notion of the unconscious a scientific, empirical concept. Freud began as neurologist. Early attempt to localize seat of unconscious in brain.
2) Freudian unconscious as center of passions, urges, desires: it is a source of motivations, drives that have a profound, but commonly unacknowledged impact on our existence: = the dynamic nature of the unconscious: seething, active, not mere passive "repository." It is operative, functional in everyday existence
3) Unconscious as the dominant psychic agency; its workings underpin in unknown ways our conscious minds, rational decisions, logical thinking = unconscious as quantitatively the larger part of our psyche. This is Freud's revolutionary transvaluation of Enlightenment's view of human being, whose dark urges will gradually be occupied by reason (teleology). (Freud's image of riding bareback on a wild horse.)
4) Unconscious as absolute memory: an active data base. Indestructible hard-drive; nothing ever lost; always potentially effective, virulent.
While it is generally true that the notion of the unconscious is Freud's "god-term," the founding and fundamental principle of his entire theory, this alone does not tell us much unless we recognize that the essential feature of the Freudian unconscious is its function as universal, total memory.
"In mental life, nothing which has once been formed can perisheverything is somehow preserved, and in suitable circumstances it can once more be brought to light." (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929)
Most of the central concepts of Freudian theory can be derived from, and are dependent on, this memory principle of the unconscious: repression; hysterical reminiscence; return of the repressed; free association; talking cure as therapy; infantile experience as formative of personality, etc., etc.
Analogy to Archaeology
Roman Forum and reconstruction: But remembrance is also the cure, the therapy for this pathology of memory. One must reconstruct the "building" of this past event based on the remnants (the "reminiscences") of its foundation.
Freud's archaeological interests and his metaphors drawn from archaeology. (Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) and excavations of Troy; Freud as Heinrich Schliemann of the psyche.)
We can imagine psychoanalytic therapy in terms of the visual reconstruction of such ancient archaeological sites as the Roman Forum and Delphi.
Based on the remnants or vestiges of Delphi or the Roman Forum, we can imaginatively reconstruct the way the buildings on that site must have appeared centuries ago. This is the essence of Freudian interpretation: it is the reconstruction of memories, their "re-membrance" in double sense of recalling and putting the members back together, reconstructing. Re-membering in the literal sense of putting the "members" of something back together, but also in figurative sense of re-calling.
B. "Note on the Mystic Writing Pad" (1925)
Freud begins by citing the connection between writing, graphic notation, and memory; we make notes to store thoughts, etc. and make them accessible to later recall. For this we have different technological apparatuses. Pen and ink have the advantage of relative permanence; but a sheet of paper fills up and then becomes unusable. Its storage capacity is limited. Chalkboards have the advantage of being reusable, of having infinite capacity for storage of writing, but the marks made on the board are not permanent. Freud is interested in finding a writing utensil that combines both criteria, permanence and infinite storage, because he believes these are the two primary traits of human memory.
Freud takes the child’s writing utensil, today commonly called a "magic slate," as an example of a utensil that combines both traits, and hence as a symbol for the psyche and its operation. (For a diagram of the parallels between psyche and magic pad, click here.) A magic slate is a dark wax pad covered by a clear plastic sheet, and it usually comes with a pointed stylus. One writes on the clear sheet with the stylus, and the letters appear.
The clear sheet, which can be lifted off the wax pad to make the writing disappear, is associated with the conscious mind, or with what Freud calls "consciousness/perception," that part of the mid that interfaces with the real world and processes empirical data.
The wax pad (the unconscious) retains all marks of the stylus as depressions in its texture, despite the fact that these marks are erased on the plastic sheet (in the conscious mind).
The unconscious for Freud has the character of a palimpsest (Greek = “rubbed again”), a parchment on which many series of inscriptions can still be detected below the most recent text written upon it. (For an image of a palimpsest, click here.) It is a tabula rasa, a “blank slate” (John Locke) onto which all psychic experience is recorded forever.
The unconscious as a writing/recording machine: all mental experience deposits its indelible signs there. It is the vault of the psyche, the “lock box” (to use a metaphor from Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign). Or also as a kind of playback machine, that retains and can re-play all psychic impressions. Imagine a hard-drive that never crashes! That is Freud’s idea of the unconscious: it stores all memories for the life of the organism.
The unconscious is absolute memory; the experiences locked away there are always accessible to dreams, slips of tongue, accidents, but also to pathologies, neuroses, etc. They manifest themselves, for example, as neurotic symptoms. Freud writes of “hypermnesia,” the unconscious as a kind of hypermemory. Random Access Memory, like the RAM of a computer, can be accessed in any order = transcends historical sequence, temporality. It even retains early childhood and infantile experiences. Freud also believes that the unconscious retains traces of primitive experiences of the human species as a whole.
Relationship between Memory and Forgetting
A. Forgetting as Purposive
1. We tend to think of "forgetting" as a simple form of "loss": mind as a sieve, through which some things slip and fall away.
memory as imperfect, faulty; obliteration of the old and its replacement by the new. "Overwriting" and displacing: But we know from Freud's model that what is overwritten is never eradicated! It is a hard drive that can never be "scrubbed."
2. For Freud the process of forgetting is active and purposive: we try to forget; we want to forget (certain things). Freud calls this "repression" (Verdrängung)
Predecessor in this: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900):
On the Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral; 1887):
"Forgetting [Vergeßlichkeit] is no mere vis inertiae [force of inertia] as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of restraint [Hemmungsvermögen]."
3. Freud's term for this: Repression (Verdrängung)
B. Repression and the Return of the Repressed (see Freud Reader 164; 165-66)
Repression as central term of psychoanalysis: what we cannot deal with consciously or is too distasteful to be admitted must be suppressed, but they remain locked away in the unconscious. Social prohibitions can also play a role in repression; these social constraints are appropriated by the conscious mind and applied to the unconscious.
--Repression is a kind of active forgetting; not simple memory loss, but purposive forgetting, putting aside, keeping under wraps.
Repression can have negative consequences: it can become pathological, producing neuroses etc. In this sense it is like political oppression. Significant for a healthy psyche is a balance between expressing and controlling the unconscious urges.
Some instinctual urges we repress are irrepressible: they constantly seek avenues for their own expression. In this sense, repression is an on-going process, not a one-time effort. Hence if we ever let down our guard, the repressed material can resurface again. The more traumatic the repressed urge or experience, the more serious the abnormalities it can cause. Freud calls this resurgence the return of the repressed. This is a central concept in his psychoanalytic theory.
This explains why we forget our dreams so easily; this is simply a symptom of the renewed and more complete repression of the unconscious urge or thought. Repression also explains the distortion to which unconscious dream-thoughts are subjected before they can come to consciousness. The dream-thoughts can only enter consciousness in disguise, as it were.
Neurotic symptoms and other psychological pathologies are nothing other than the return of the repressed: things that cannot find an easy avenue into consciousness will express themselves along a detour: slips of tongue, dreams, physical (psychosomatic) symptoms, etc.
The Unconscious as Timeless
The unconscious is timeless; it has no sense of temporal sequence. In terms of temporality, everything in the unconscious exists as a mass and jumble of simultaneous events.
Freud as collector of antiquities: displayed without historical organization: hodge-podge: reflects the timelessness of the unconscious.
Hence the unconscious cannot represent sequence in time: it must translate temporal succession into terms of spatial proximity, co-presence, simultaneity.
The past survives in the unconscious, but it survives in a kind of timelessness.
Rome as Example:
In Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), Freud illustrates this idea on the example of the city of Rome:
"Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-tracethat is, its annihilationwe have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish [. . .]. Let us try to grasp what this assumption involves by taking an example from another field. We will choose as an example the history of the Eternal City [Rome]. [. . .] Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious pastan entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest ones. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine [. . .]. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more standwithout the Palazzo having to be removedthe Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus [. . .]. Where the Coliseum now stands we would at the same time admire Nero's vanished Golden House. [. . .] There is clearly no point in spinning out our fantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd. If we want to represent historical sequence in spatial terms we can only do it by juxtaposition in space: the same space cannot have two different contents."
Rome today and ancient Rome
To conceive the Freudian unconscious, we must imagine ancient Rome and the modern-day city superimposed upon one another.
But also all historical stages prior to "classical" Rome and in-between then and now: Rome literally as the "Eternal City": its entire history, existing simultaneously in one place, is his metaphor for the multidimensionality of the unconscious.
II. Freud’s Theory of Dreams:
1) How do dreams operate?
2) What mechanisms or structures account for the creation of dreams?
3) Can we discern and describe a deep structure that generates the infinite production of dream material from a finite set of rules?
4) Is there a grammar or syntax of dreams? Rules for creating all dreams?
5) What is the significance of dreams? What to they mean and what is their relationship to our psychic lives?
6) Why are dreams so ethereal, why do we forget them so easily?
A) The Visual Character of Unconscious Representations
Collage: Francis Picabia (1879-1959)
1. We have no direct access to the unconscious; we only have access to it by means of its representations. These can take various forms, but the privileged form is dreams. This is why Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious."
Dream-texture, dream-logic as the closest approximation of how the unconscious functions structurally.
2. Predominance of visual representations.
Dreams, like other modes of unconscious representation (e.g. fantasy), tend toward the pictorial, toward images, scenes that occur as individual elements without causal connections. Dreams dramatize ideas; like playing a game of "charades" in which ideas must be acted out.
Unconscious knows no logic, no sequence, no "plot" = it may be a language, but it has no syntax: just images arranged in a series.
Collage: Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
B) The Unconscious as Picture-Memories
In his writings Freud often refers to "picture ideas," "memory pictures," or "memory images": memory that is recalled from the unconscious hence tends to take a visual form. (Think of the formula for trimethylamin in Irma dream, which Freud sees as printed in heavy type.)
Freud tended to urge his patients to turn their attention to the visual aspects of their memories. In the Studies on Hysteria he wrote:
"When material returns in the form of pictures our task [as analysts] is in general easier than when they return as thoughts."
C) Pictures at an Exhibition
Or we might think of a "salon-style" exhibition, like that employed by the Frye Museum, or Freud's own antiquity collection, where artworks of various periods are displayed together in random order.
In mental life, as Freud conceives it, all impressions are imperishable: they exist side-by-side, like pictures at an exhibition, regardless of their historical origin or their emotional etiology.
These impressions, these "memory-traces," as Freud liked to call them, are always at the ready, open to recall and remembrance. They have no inherent hierarchy; significance is lent them solely by their role in our psychic life, not by issues of temporality.
Such recall, for Freud, is more likely to occur unintentionally than intentionally, based on some experience, perception, or sentiment that, by way of association, connects up with this stored memory-trace and reactivates it, transporting it back to consciousness. (Trigger)
D) Freud’s Problem: How can we gain access to the repressed material stored in the unconscious? How can the psyche, the unconscious, be studied in an empirical, scientific manner? How can psychology become a positivistic science, with an analyzable body of evidence? His answer: By studying dreams. Freud called dreams the “royal road” to the unconscious: privileged access to what is otherwise inaccessible to the conscious mind.
Dreams give us access to the unconscious: when we sleep, the critical faculty that "censors" the unconscious and represses its urges is relaxed; hence unconscious material enters consciousness via our dreams.
This unconscious material rarely enters consciousness in its pure form; usually it is disguised and distorted, “censored,” made presentable to the conscious mind. The more egregious the unconscious thought, the more it is subject to distortion and censorship. Three basic categories: 1) Dreams whose manifest content is coherent and whose interpretation is obvious. 2) Dreams whose manifest content is coherent and sensible (tell a comprehensible story), but whose latent meaning is obscure. 3) Dreams whose manifest content appears chaotic, senseless, and whose latent meaning is wholly obscure. Freud believes the last category is the most common type (see Freud Reader 148-49). The unconscious idea is like a spy or a terrorist who wants to infiltrate the “land” of consciousness; in order to do so, it must receive a false passport and otherwise disguise its true “identity.”
The “dream-work” is the product of this distortion, or, as Freud says, the result of a compromise between the unconscious urge or experience and the conscious mind. He writes of a dialectic structured in these terms: repressionrelaxation of surveillancecompromise position between the 2 extremes (see Freud Reader 165-66).
The dream-work is inherently related to the function of repression; it is the product of the struggle between the unconscious’s will to divulge an experience, thought etc. and the conscious mind’s struggle to hide this same experience or thought.
Freud uses the metaphor of political censorship to elucidate this relationship. He commonly speaks of “agencies,” like part of a bureaucracy.
Three types of dreams, based on relative coherence:
1) Manifest content makes sense and has a coherent "plot"; its connection to psychic life is clear. Literary analogy: trivial literature, or dime-novel.
2) Manifest content seems clear and connected (has plot), but meaning of dream remains obscure. (Literature: like a "good read" or perhaps an older "classic" of literature.)
3) Manifest content confused and chaotic, and there seems to be no discernible meaning; interpretation apparently impossible. For Freud, most dreams fall into this category. (Literature: like "classic" avant-garde modernist texts, Dadaist poems, etc.)
E) Structure of Dreams and Structure of the Freudian Psyche
Latent content = unconscious dream thought (wish).
Manifest content = form the dream takes in our conscious mind, our memory.
Distortion (or “dream-work” = the set of rules or processes that dictate the translation of the latent content, the “truth” of the dream (the unconscious dream “thought”), into its manifest content, its façade or its purified, cosmetic form. (Freud Reader 147-48)
Parallel between dream structure and structure of psyche:
Manifest Content -------------------------------------------------------Conscious
Distortion -----------------------------------------------------------------Censorship (Preconscious)
Latent Content ----------------------------------------------------------Unconscious
If dream production moves from latent content, through distortion, to manifest content, then interpretation reverses this process, undoing distortion in order to arrive at the original dream thought. (For a diagram of this parallel structure of the psyche and dream, click here.)
F) The Mechanisms of the Dream-Work (Distortion) (See Freud Reader 162).
1) Condensation: Two or more ideas, images, thoughts, etc. are compressed into one, made to overlap by finding one or more traits that they share.
Freud uses the example of Francis Galton’s “composite photographs” to explain this. In composite photography images of individual people are superimposed on one another to produce a combined image that stresses the shared or “typical” features of all the original photos and the individuals they represent. (Galton’s composite photography on the web.) (Freud Reader 151-53). In the Irma-dream, Dr. M. is a composite of himself and Freud’s elder brother (Freud Reader 135).
2) Displacement: : Describes a shift in hierarchy or importance of a thought or element in a dream when shifted from the latent to the manifest content. The trivial can become significant, and the significant trivial: a kind of transvaluation. Displacement can also describe the replacement of a particular element in the latent content by some other, peripherally related image in the manifest dream, often also coupled with an inversion of relative value or importance (Freud Reader 154-57). In the Irma-dream, Irma is replaced by friend (Freud Reader 133-34).
3) Pictorial Arrangement or Visualization (Dramatization): Dreams function as does poetic speechthey translate ideas into pictures (Freud Reader 157). The primary structuring principles are similarity (metaphor) and contiguity (spatial proximity or connection). Argument and logical connection give way to the juxtaposition of individual images, whereby the relative relation of the images can express logic, such as causality (sequence), similarity (fusion), contradiction (absurdity). Dreams have the structure of a rebus, a fusion of images, language, symbols, etc. (For examples of rebus puzzles, click here.) (Freud Reader 157-59)
4) Structural revision: This mechanism re-arranges the constituent images of the dream so that they approximate a coherent whole. It operates like a narratological function, organizing elements into a kind of story or coherent structure. This organization is guided by considerations of intelligibility. (Freud Reader 161)
5) Association: Dream logic operates by following obscure chains of similarity and association; hence the interpretive process must likewise work by trying to track down all the possible unconscious associations the dreamer can connect with individual elements of her/his dream. This explains the emphasis on the procedure of free association in Freudian analytic practice. (Freud Reader 144-46)
G) The Dream-Work as Poetic Practice
Freud frequently compared the mechanisms of dream production to the creativity of the poetic mind:
1) He compared the language of dreams (the manifest content) to "poetic speech," and saw the transformation of latent dream idea to manifest dream content as a process by which plain thought is couched in poetic speech, by employing metaphors, similes, and other forms of rhetoric. Freud Reader 157: “The dream-thoughts [. . .] are not clothed in the prosaic language usually employed by our thought, but are on the contrary represented symbolically by means of similes and metaphors, in images resembling those of poetic speech.”
2) Much like poems, dreams do not rely on conventional grammar, syntax, etc. to forge connections between ideas. Linkages are made through verbal form, things like plays on words, rhyme, assonance, or other verbal/material similarities. Similar to how poems link ideas by using rhyming words. Freud Reader 152: “If a common element [. . .] between the dream-thoughts is not present, the dream-work sets about creating one [. . .]. The most convenient way [to do this] is to alter the verbal form of one of them, and thus bring it half-way to meet the other [. . .]. A parallel process is involved in hammering out a rhyme.”
3) "Secondary revision" is a process by which an anonymous organizational reflex reorganizes the elements in the dream so that that fit together better as a sensible totality. This can be viewed as a type of aesthetic shaping, "composing," that puts the pieces together in a manner that gives the dream apparent coherence, or as a kind of narrative logic that forges a sensible sequence. Freud Reader 161: “Its function [that is, of secondary revision] would then consist in arranging the constituents of the dream in such a way that they form an approximately connected whole, a dream-composition. [. . .] Dreams that have undergone a revision of this kind [. . .] may be described as ‘well-constructed’.”
H) But what happened to Freudian symbols in all of this? What is their place?
1) Freud explicitly states (Freud Reader 172) that symbols are not products of the dream-work itself, but instead are "a characteristic of unconscious thinking." They thus are independent of the distorting operations of the dream-work.
2) Symbols are less individual and more universal; they can cross languages and cultures. (Jung's "collective unconscious"?)
3) Dreamers are unaware of the meaning of symbols; hence they cannot provide associative information.
4) New objects ("airships") can subsumed under typical symbol categories.
5) Symbols can be interpreted without asking the dreamer to produce his or her associations. They are independent of context, and hence provide easier access to certain aspects of dream meaning.
6) Note that although symbols represent a relatively minor aspect of Freud's dream theory, they have attained prominence in the popular reception of his ideas. Why? Because they are the only method open to non-analysts, available outside the analytical situation.
Typical symbols: sharp opbjects, etc.; boxes, rooms, open spaces = uterus; climbing stairs = sexual intercourse; King = father; Queen = mother; etc.
I) Other Aspects of Freud’s Theory of Dreams
1) Wish-Fulfillment: All dreams for Freud represent the fulfillment of a wish, an unconscious desire, etc. Dreams provide us the satisfaction reality denies us. (Freud Reader 150-51; 165)
2) Day Residue or Dream-Instigator: Every dream is triggered by an experience in waking life, usually on the day before the dream, that initiates s chain of connection leading to the latent dream thought or the repressed wish. (Freud Reader 150; 156)
3) Dreams are inherently related to all other psychic processes; the mechanisms that create dreams are hence the same mechanisms that produce slips of the tongue, forgetting, errors, bungled actions, and even pathological symptoms such as phobias, obsessions, neurotic symptoms, etc. (Freud Reader 163).
4) Three-fold temporality of the dream: It is triggered by an event or experience in the immediate present; it refers back to an experience from the past; it projects the resolution of the problem into the future in the form of the fulfillment of a wish.
III. Task: Taking the “dream of Irma’s injection” and Freud’s analysis (Freud Reader 130-42), develop a list of examples for each of the mechanisms of the dream-work Freud describes (condensation, displacement, picturing, etc.), as well as for the other elements he associates with dreams (wish-fulfillment, day-instigator, association, etc.) For a diagram of the associative links that hold together the element's in Freud's dream of Irma's injection, click here.
For examples of the various structural elements of dreams in the case of the "dream of Irma's injection," see the class handout.
Last Update: 10/2/13