Monday, March 7, 2011

Freud and Overdetermination

My initial attempt at working through Freud's concept of overdetermination.  Louis Althusser would eventually drew on this concept in his reading of Marx, and still remains one of the best ways of thinking through the complex structures that shape the world.  I'll probably write about that sometime soon.  

            Freud’s analysis of the symbolic system of dreams is heavily dependent upon contingency.  This is clear in one of the comments he makes earlier in the book, “I, on the contrary, am prepared to find that the same piece of content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts.” (Freud 137)  Later in the book in Chapter 6, “The Dream-Work”, Freud begins to work out a way of analyzing this highly complex and contingent system by introducing the concepts of condensation, displacement, and overdetermination.  Although this system is vague at times, it seems that the concepts of condensation and displacement make up the material for over-determination, so I will begin by explaining the way that the two systems work to constitute dreams.  I will then look at the way that these two systems produce a complex system of over-determination.
            Condensation operates by combining a whole myriad of images into a smaller group of more comprehensible images.  As Freud points out, “Dreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of dream-thoughts.” (Freud 313)  In looking at any particular dream image, we find “the multiplicity connections arising from the former [the dream-image]. (Freud 326)  Throughout his various examples, Freud points out that the way that these images combine are not innocent ones.  Instead throughout his dreams he shows that the way that images combine act to avoid the direct implications of a wish, by either hiding it in a series of parallel images, or expressing it in a more subtle form, in the combination of the images themselves.[1]
            Displacement operates in complicity with condensation.  A point of condensation will frequently occur at a moment of displacement.  An image that represents a desire that is clearly repulsive to the dreamer will be replaced by a related image that will be “divorced from its context and consequently transformed into something extraneous.” (Freud 340).  In doing this, “Dream-displacement is one of the chief methods by which that distortion is achieved… We may assume, then, that dream-displacement comes about through the influence of the same censorship—that is, the censorship of endopsychic defence.” (Freud 343)
            These two systems come together to, in effect, form a system of overdetermination.  Freud at times describes this as a third separate system that operates beside the other two, but it seems to me that it is in fact the guiding principle of the other two.  Dreams become overdetermined by the system of condensation and displacement that occur within them.  The dream “must escape the censorship imposed by resistance”, and it does this by means of displacement.  Displacement in turn depends on condensation to displace that image with a complex series of images of lower psychical values.  This transforms the dream into a complex terrain of images, sometimes apparent, sometimes submerged that describe another series of dream-thoughts.
This is not a simple system.  Freud describes it in the following manner, “Not only are the elements of a dream determined by the dream-thoughts many times over, but the individual dream-thoughts are represented in the dream by several elements.  Associative paths lead from one element of the dream to several dream-thoughts, and from one dream-thought to several elements of the dream.  Thus a dream is not constructed by each individual dream-thought, or group of dream-thoughts finding (in abbreviated form) separate representation in the content in the dream—in the kind of way in which an electorate chooses parliamentary representatives; a dream is constructed, rather, by the whole mass of dream-thoughts being submitted to a sort of  manipulative process in which those elements which have the most numerous and strongest supports acquire the right to entry into the dream-content—in a manner analogous to election by scrutin de liste.  In the case of every dream which I have submitted to an analysis of this kind I have invariably found these same fundamental principles confirmed: the elements of the dream are constructed out of the whole mass of dream-thoughts and each one of those elements is shown to have been determined many times over in relation to the dream-thoughts.” (Freud 318)
In effect, the dream is not constructed on the basis on a simple one on one system of representation.  Instead, one finds complex knots of representation, where an element can tie into a series of dream-thoughts, and a dream thought can tie into a series of images.  What’s more, Freud notes early on, “I have already had on occasion to point out that it is in fact never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted.  Even if the solution seems satisfactory and without gaps, the possibility always remains that the dream may have yet another meaning. (Freud 313)
What’s more, it also necessary to take the dream into context with other dreams, which are in themselves as complex as the dream itself.  It is possible that there may be homologies, analogies, or parallels between these dreams that must be taken into account.  In short, the process of overdetermination quickly spills over any discrete boundaries, and puts us into the realm of continuous production.
However Freud introduces some tactical ideas to deals with the wealth of material.  “What appears in dreams, we might suppose, is not what is important in the dream-thoughts but what occurs in them several times over…  The ideas which are most important among the dream-thoughts will almost certainly be those which occur most often in them, since the different dream thoughts will, as it were, radiate out from them.”  It seems that Freud is, to borrow a term from Althusser, introducing a certain notion of fusion within the understanding of dreams.  The more an idea will be touched on within the dream, or series of dreams, the more significance it undoubtedly it has.  The manner that these knots of fusion are revealed is, needless to say, complex, but it is a way to begin analysis.
It is important to point out that within this discussion of the production of the dream, a number of important ideas have not been discussed.  The most significant of those the process of identification, and the way that the ego can be highly diffuse within the dream-work.  I should also note that Freud’s emphasis on censorship, and the production of contradictions based on the unconscious’ desire and preconscious’ censorship of those desires.  However, the complexity of the dream-work can say something complexity of the production of the subject itself.  The subject is always incomplete, always in the process of production, and never self-contained.  Within this process, Freud emphasizes the conflict that this productive process has conscious state of mind.  This I am not sure, but even if we reject the notion of an essentially repressive outside, the process overdetermination is still of value. 

[1] Freud’s dream of that combines his colleague with his uncle is the best example of this.

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