The Dream as a Forum for Cultural Criticism

by Mark Hagen

The Medium

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary has five definitions for the word dream:

  1. a series of pictures or events occurring in the mind during sleep, the act or time of seeing this, a similar experience while awake;
  2. a daydream or fantasy;
  3. an ideal, aspiration, or ambition;
  4. a beautiful or ideal person or thing;
  5. a state of mind without proper perception of reality.

The first and second definitions describe dreaming as a form of internal communication for the dreamer, and how this is perceived. It is only natural that in developing the techniques for communication between and among individuals, artists should attempt to duplicate the medium that humans use to communicate within themselves. Visual and musical artists seek sounds and symbols that provide shortcuts to human emotions. Storytellers of all media, work to achieve "suspension of disbelief" within each member of the audience, a dreamlike state in which the individual disregards perceptions of immediate surroundings to actually enter into the story.

The third and fourth Oxford definitions reveal what commonly provides content for the dream: ideals, aspirations, ambitions, notions of perfection. The second reading of definition two, fantasy, combined with definition five, lacking perception of reality, create a sort of dramatic tension, a device that authors use to motivate readers through their stories. Taken together, these definitions recognize that dreams reflect humanity's positive aspirations, and that such aspirations are in conflict with daily experience.


The Message

It follows that popular communications form communal dreamscapes, where collective ideals are given voice. It also follows that, when the techniques and devices of such collective communications are identified, they will be used to return information back to dreamers, modified to influence individuals and effect behaviour. These ideas enter individuals' dreams, creating acceptance or conflicts that are in return then reflected back out on the communal dreamscape. The cycles of dreaming and storytelling have intensified with technological advances, to the point that it has become possible, within the space of a single day, to witness several cycles of stimulus and response between individual and collective ideals that follow widely and intensely attended events. Speculation about possible causes of the recent massacre in Littleton, Colorado had gone out in the media and initiated individual responses even as the event unfolded.

Just as individual dreams can be analyzed as a coping mechanism, public storytelling, the music, art and literature that form popular culture, can be criticized on the basis of how well it represents the dramatic tension between individual ideals and collective realities.


The Communal Dreamscreen

Communications technologies have progressively produced media that reproduced the physical characteristics of the dream. The combined presentation of visual and auditory animation most closely resembles the modern media of film, television and the Internet. Editing techniques for those media often reproduce patterns found in dreams. Information is adapted to connect directly to primal patterns of human perception and understanding. We can think of these media as the communal dreamscreen. As such, they are the filters for the Sociology of Everyday Life.

The dreams of Western society have been shaped by a variety of influences. Do many people smell, taste or touch in their dreams, senses largely unexplored in external media, as vividly as they see and hear? Is this cause or effect? Appeals through the strongest human senses form major, singular disciplines among our cultural industries, such as fashion, which use all the techniques of modern communications to apply pressure on individuals to conform to communal values. These pressures appeal to two, strong primary narcissistic desires within humans: voyeurism (the pleasure of looking) and exhibitionism (the pleasure of being looked at). Together, they form the basis for a visual narrative.



Bildungsroman is a style of novel that emphasizes the psychological and moral maturation of characters. Individual dreams frequently use similar themes. Dreams offer a developmental reconstruction of the socialization process that can be viewed through memory recollection and free association. They are individual Bildungsromans, autobiographical reconstructions of the Self as it interacts within the dynamics of the surrounding society.

The dreamscreen is part of a perceptual theatre, with the individual and society providing the characters.


Sociology of the Dream

As a personal and collective document, the dream dramatizes the spectacle of life, and associated rites of passage. Biotopographic analysis of the dream has developed a Sociology of the Dream, suggesting that individuals lose touch with the archetypes of Self, producing alienation and depersonalization as a result of pathological power relationships.

From a Biotopographic perspective, there is an individual and collective relationship between literature, biography and film. From a sociological perspective, the individual dream could be viewed as a personal document, similar to a journal or diary, which captures the subjective view of a person's life-story production. Collectively, several life-story analyses provide objective insight into individual and collective life histories. When we study dreams, we study the intersections of individual biography and collective history. This is the Sociology of Dreams.


Narratology: The Voice, The Vision

Narratology is the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure and function of narrative. It considers issues such as plot, semiotics, point of view, etc. The dream stands as an ever-present narrator with an all-encompassing view, providing insight and introspection into the secret desires and hidden motives, past, present and future, into humanity's stories. In whose voice is the narrative spoken? Whose vision is seen? The grammar of the dream provides the syntactic codes for storytelling and life-story productions. Narratology is the study of the mechanics of media as the filter for daily experience.


Jacques Lacan - Linguistic Determinism

Jacques Lacan saw the unconscious, and therefore the dream, structured as a language. The dream can be seen as the Language of the Self. Dream narratives represent the language of the Self and the Social. The dream narrative is a literary, artistic and social scientific production that can become the subject and object of literary, artistic and social scientific criticism with the emphasis on voice.


Media Cause and Effect

Society is frequently obsessed with the role of media, particularly at the dramatization of tragic events. Do the media influence behaviour, or merely reflect it? Taking that question a step further, do the methods and structures of public media reflect those found in the private medium of the dream, or does it shape them, in content and in form?

Understanding follows when we recognize that individuals fill at least two roles in modern storytelling, those of spectator and actor. In both individual and communal dreamscreens, we watch ourselves, individually and collectively, interact in the micro and macro sociological patterns of everyday life. This is increasingly overt, on radio phone-in shows, social relationship talk shows, home video television shows, and individual web-sites, for instance.

This is also evident in news stories that witness ritualistic outpourings of grief following tragedies such as mass murders or the deaths of societal icons. Humans evidence a need to witness and participate in rituals that express communal identity. Rituals that were once played out in the relatively small theatres of church and family, are now often large-scale media events. Have we then created news stories that require tragedy to provide a dramatic tension that will fulfill the need for ritual?


Christian Metz and the Scopic Regime

In The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, Metz linked the concepts of film, dreamwork, and the visual and auditory regime. In the botanical monograph of his own dreams, Freud assumed the practice of the time to study humans after death (autopsy), rather than as active, living creatures (biopsy). He discovered that society has institutionalized the visual and auditory regime. Hierarchies in governments; corporations; schools; "watch over" their citizens; employees and customers; and students, then enter into discussions to shape decisions that will affect them. The model is so firmly based upon the male-dominated family, that it is called paternalism.


Changing Narratives, Changing Dreams

There are, of course, competing points of view, in all societies, but meaning is created within the body politic by the dominance of one vision and voice over others, a dominant narrative that legitimizes power elites. They change over time. Popular western culture has seen three such movements in arts and communications in recent history.

In the late 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau instituted Romanticism, a dream that favoured inspiration, irrationality, subjectivity and the primacy of the individual, over the restraints of classicism and neoclassicism.

In the late 19th century, Modernism overthrew classic religious views with the secular pluralism that accompanied mass communications and technology. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche defined the modern view of art and media as reflections and reflectors of self-realization. Freud and Einstein contributed scientific concepts of the Self in ways that still inhabit dreams in the late 20th century.

World War II produced a distrust of all-encompassing theories and ideologies. The late 20th century is the era of Post Modernism, whose arts are primarily concerned with consumerism and the explosion of communications technologies. Think of Warhol's repeated images of Campbells Soup cans, and the iconography of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor. Tradition, history, and faith in deeply held values have given way to conspicuous consumption, hedonism revolving round the ostentatious display of goods, and superficial visual stimuli. If it feels good, do it.



The objective of art and popular culture is the successful sublimation of organic drives rooted in the individual and collective unconscious, the need to channel primitive, frequently sexual energies, into valued activities. The alternative is the repression of those drives through the censorship of vision and voice. For Freud, the dream was the expression of otherwise repressed forces. Nightmares signaled the failure of repression, the leakage of unpleasantries left strewn under building pressure. Repression through censorship is a defense against creativity, a method to encourage obedience and eliminate self-knowledge. Dreaming is a creative process, its product a personal and sociological document that provides insight and a life-story narrative.


Psychodynamic Theory: The Criticism of Everyday Life in Western Society

Psychodynamic theory provides a vision and voice through which to critique the stories of Western society. Its primary interests are products of the mind (subjects such as art and science), and of the body (viewed as symptoms). Concepts rely heavily on Freud's monumental work Interpretation of Dreams. The critical approach emphasizes problems in individual life stories, as observed by clinicians, in the different aspects of personality advanced by the movement's theorists, such as:

Freud -sexuality and repression, the struggle of nature versus culture
Jung -universal archetypes embedded in genetic patterns of thought and behaviour, the struggle of culture versus nature
Adler -the struggle for power versus helplessness
Rank -separation anxiety, and birth trauma, the individual's struggle versus the collective
Horney -feminist theory, the pursuit of security versus insecurity
Fairburn -conflict, the struggle for freedom, dependence versus autonomy
Hartman -the struggle to develop a strong, rational ego versus irrationality
Fromm -the struggle for economic reward versus failure


Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism attempts to analyze personal and universal myths developed by societies. The archetypal metaphor for human society is the body, a metaphor that has endured since Plato's body politic. Individuals are part of the archetypal body, which is overdetermined, having both spiritual and material forms.

Political communities need these symbolic expressions to deal with conflict among their members. The body politic has served as an expression of the nature of social order and disorder, and survives in the vocabulary of popular politics. The organic body politic encompasses the senses and libido, and is the basis for universal dreams irrespective of time, place or culture. Such archetypal images can be viewed as the works of creation of "personal and collective myth" (Northrop Frye).


Shared Mythology- Jung

Myth is a basic phenomenon, a constant dimension of human experience. Roland Barthes was first to interpret myths as being composed of symbols for everyday life and culture. For Jung, archetypes were hardwired into the genes and brains of all humans, and the source of spiritual experience that embrace the meanings of life, death and history.

Myth is a metaphorical narrative of the body politic. The dream is the vehicle for individuation, self realization, while also providing genetic and interpersonal links between individuals, and with collective history and biography.

Different political entities will have different mythologies. Conflict between competing National Dreams is not inevitable. As a Canadian, I subscribe to MacKenzie King's Canadian Dream as a model of nation building. This does not prevent me from deeply respecting the American Dream, and feeling concern for its transformation into a film-noir American Nightmare.


Rhetorical Criticism- Adler

Rhetorical Criticism proposes the assumption that communicators make intentional use of language in their narrative. By discovering the motives behind points of view inherent in the rhetoric used in narratives such as dreams, social-psychological influences such as persuasion, conformity and prejudice become transparent. Counter-memories to dominant-narratives are revealed.


Performance Criticism- Goffman

This is a dramatic analysis of the dream, which sees the narrative as a play meant to be performed. Humans take up roles in their own life-story productions, which are then criticized in predominantly visual terms, such as dress, dÈcor, lighting. Popular cultural pressures, frequently expressed in mass media dramas, shape individual and collective productions in relation to the cultural milieu of a performance.

Social science needs to acquire more knowledge about individual feelings of powerlessness and helplessness revealed through nightmare. The work of the dream is an auto-psychodrama. Dreamwork is an attempt to master expressive and dramatic performance anxieties.


Feminist Criticism- Horney

Feminist criticism of the collective dream views the body politic as being shaped by male domination. Patriarchy is phallocentric in the sense that it promotes and perpetuates through rhetoric and persuasion the notion of the phallus as a transcendent symbol of empowerment. Patriarchy is occulocentric in that it promotes visual perception, voyeurism and exhibitionism as the primary ways to value social reality. When masculine views of sexuality dominate, women are seen strictly as the objects of male desire, and manipulated as such.

Anxieties caused by gender conflicts in individuals are relieved through a focus on fetishistic items. The fetish is a visual symbol that stands-in for the real object of obsessive sexual fantasy. In pornography, female bodies are icons, displayed for the gaze of the men who experience both pleasure and anxiety in their roles as actors, audience and producers of pornographic psychodramas. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: obsessive-compulsive behaviour and preoccupation. (Film Noir)


Life-style Criticism- Fromm

This viewpoint comes from several quarters, notably Marxist criticism of capitalism. Capital, work, career, money and power play extremely important roles in dreams. Alienation, as described by Marx, and neurosis as described by Freud, are humanity's estrangement, via repressive socialization, from human sensibilities and desires.

Life-style is overdetermined, viewed a number of ways: class distinctions seen primarily through the division of labour (Emile Durkheim); the competition of rural versus urban lifestyles; the tensions created by alternative lifestyles. Sociologist Max Weber investigated how bureaucratic rationalization has uprooted tradition, making a sense of belonging expendable in the capitalist social system. Raymond Barglow noted how this led to a crisis of the self, revealed through dreamwork.

The dream provides a view of the life-style effects of money on thought, feeling and motivation. Simmel first used the metaphor of being swept along a stream to depict the universal and irresistible nature of money flowing through the market place. No individual can be more than a dramaturgical spectator amidst the flow of money. The metaphorical flow of life intertwines with the flow of money, which may vary in volume (dry up or flood), in speed (eddy or rage) or direction (branch).


Counting Dreams

The progress of rationalization since the 15th century has been marked by the eradication of mystery, emotion and tradition as valuations, to be replaced by calculation. The process, according to Max Weber, affects all aspects of life. In economic life, things are valued relative to the number dollars for which they can be sold. In judicial life, guilt is determined by a vote of peers, the seriousness of crime reflected in ascending numeric fines and sentence lengths. In bureaucratic life, value is assessed in polls, votes and statistics. In religious life, validity is conferred by the size of the congregation. "Counting angels on the head of a pin," is the phrase used to invalidate the old ways of mystery. In the modern world, five, fifty, five hundred million shoppers, voters, adherents "can't all be wrong." The pressure to conform increases accordingly.

Calculation, primarily through the vehicle of money, transforms every inter-personal relationship into the common denominator of a cold, calculating rationality. The juxtaposition of Simmel and Freudian theory suggests a sociological interpretation of the dream in which power and money form latent valuators in the dream, and popular culture provides a phantasmagoria of content. (see Freud)


Economic Determinism of Thought and Dreams- Freud

"To use a simile: it is quite possible for a thought from waking life to play the entrepreneur for the dream. But the entrepreneur who, as they say, has an idea and thirsts to put into effect, can never-the-less do nothing without capital. He needs a capitalist to meet the expenses and this capitalist who can supply the psychological outlay for the dream is invariably and inevitably, whatever the thought from waking life may be, a wish from the unconscious."


Biotopographic Criticism

The classic definition of virtue is an excellent performance of human life. Virtue, as a source of pleasure, bonds pleasure with the pursuit of humanity's highest values. If life can be viewed as a story, or at least as a story in progress, there is value in viewing life through the concepts of literary, or artistic criticism. This is not a new concept. The words "theory" and "theatre" are derived from the same Greek source, meaning "to see", linking spectacle to a basis for the philosophy of life as something to be seen and to be examined.

Dream research can use the tools of literary criticism to understand the underlying ideologies and philosophies that produce the textual description of the dream, and vice-versa. Semiotics, the study of symbols, for instance, will provide understanding of the workings of society when applied to language, art, dreams and daily life. Biotopographic criticism will benefit from an understanding of literary structures and devices, such as biography, narrative, myth and farce.


Reading Symptoms

Another way to criticize the dream, literature and art, is by reading symptoms. A symptomatic reading uncovers buried and censored problems in the text. These are invariably social problems. Their removal allows the dream to focus on lacunae and blind spots generated by censhorship and the repression instigated by dominant narratives.

Play and dramatic interaction are central to understanding the dynamic of life, problems to which individuals must adjust, and their solutions. Dreams provide a baseline for the understanding of human growth in Western society. The dream can be used both as a diagnostic tool to recognize the need for social changes, and a prognostic tool, to understand the future development and growth of a society, and its individuals.



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