Nightmares


Transcript of a talk I gave January 21st, 2012, as part of an Occupy event entitled “Symposium of V for Vendetta”

The second in a series, which began with “Ghost Stories.” 

Lately, academics have been throwing around a new buzzword. Like all buzzwords, it is repeated to the point of meaninglessness. And academics, being the fragile creatures they are, feel it necessary to use the term to show that they are initiated members of some elite club, even if they’re not sure what the term really means. That word is political “imagination.” It is my intention to take that vague idea and give it a little meat. The way I plan to do so, is to talk about one form of imagination: our dreams.

Dreams exists as the left-overs of our waking life. They are mode up of those unprocessed bits of our day that are worked out when the mind is relaxed during rest.

During our waking hours, the primary job of the mind is to filter and select. Every second, we are bombarded with so much stimuli — sights, sound, smell, touch — that our mind is rushing to keep up. The result is a constant mental triage, of the brilliant world around us, we only take in a small sliver of details. The information that makes up our dreams is quite a different mix.

Consider for a moment what makes up your dreams. What is the texture of your dreams, what is the palette of sensations? Do you smell? How about see? Maybe you touch? Now, imagine the jump people immediately make. “What did that dream mean,” they usually ask. But do you dream in meanings? In easy to find words? Of course not. In fact, dreams are not about meaning, at least not primarily. Rather, they are about images and feelings that do not depend on a specific meaning-struture. To force meaning onto them is like asking to tree to explain to you its meaning in the world.

So what are dreams made of? Dreams are made of what _sticks_ to you. The things that you encounter but somehow stay with you. It could be the brilliant beauty of a flower, or the soft touch of your mother. Or even more profoundly, something that you could never fully process at the time.

Dreams can serve as the basis for politics for that reason: that they exceed the immediately classifiable. Because, everything that is immediately apprehended follows a clear three-step process: it’s understood, classified, and then filed away. The only revolutionary politics that truly lives up to its name is something excessive, it is something beyond the immediately classifiable. It sticks in people’s craw. It keeps them up at night. And it invades their dreams.

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There are, of course, many kinds of dreams. But nightmares stand out as a special type of dream; a dream so intense, so powerful, that it attacks the usual flow of dreams. Most people don’t remember their dreams, and if they do, recollection quickly fades. It has a useful function, most dreams sweep up the cutting room floor by taking out the trash of the day. They allow us to process the snippets of what remains while allowing us to let go.

Nightmares often do the opposite, however. Rather than providing a helpful way to let get and lose the remainder of our day, they impose themselves on reality. They strike at the heart of the night by forcing us awake, and burn a memory into our consciousness.

States & governments are acutely aware of the power of nightmares. Neo-conservatism, for instance, rests on a fundamental belief that fear motivates people more than any other emotion. We saw the drastic effects of this after 9/11, when the surging anti-globalization movement that had shut down the WTO and other massive global institutions, was fragmented by nationalist ideologies. The color-coded Terror Alert system and “See Something, Say Something” campaigns reduced most of the the US population to flag-waving ‘patriots’ willing to call domestic dissent “Anti-American.”

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V for Vendetta asks us to imagine a world of nightmares run amok. But before those of us gather here, in some sort of self-righteous chorus of, “we’d never fall for this shit,” I would like to provide us with a few thought experiments that I call “screams and dreams.”

And let me first disclose own perspective:

I think there is a massive difference between the two dominant forms of state authority today.

between (1) Bureaucratic Socialist States & (2) liberal capitalist democracies.

— Bureaucratic Socialist States gone bad turn into single-party police states, dominated by a clear “right” and “wrong” way. Being on the “wrong” side could get you blacklisted, jailed, or even assassinated.

— Liberal Capitalist Democracies gone bad are taken over by the crushing indifference of postmodern capitalism. “Right” and “wrong” cease to exist, and terribly matrix of profit and power start running our lives. We were work more, love less, and slowly realize that nobody cares about truth, only influence.

So: here is my thought experiment,

(1) Let’s think to the “chasing” type dreams. If you need something more colorful, I always think of the surrealist scenes in the Coen Brother’s Big Lebowski. So, you’re being chased by something. Do you know what it is? Do you know why it’s chasing you?

–Really get a picture of it for a second.

–So here’s my question, “what is worse, knowing who’s chasing you, or being chased but not knowing by whom?”

— I would say that the first, knowing who’s chasing you, is characteristic of living in a police state. There are real examples of these places in the world, North Korea, Burma. But this isn’t exactly what it’s like here in the State.

–Rather, I would say that we live in the second. We’re being chased, but we never know by whom. In the age of cybernetic capitalism, our threats exist as a general environment that is hostile to us — with the risks of cancer everywhere, where every business is looking to make a profit off of you, especially the “buy local” retailers set up in yuppy parts of town — and there’s not a small group of “bad guys” we can point to.

As we watch the film, think of what world V for Vendetta present us. The first, the second? Some proportion of the two?

My second thought experiment:

(2) Recall an especially influential film, book, speech, or conversation from your life. Consider, what made it so transformative? Did it active your more reptilian emotions of fight & flight, security & survival, or was it more aspirational, loving, or beautiful?

Now think: how can we overcome the politics of fear? As I mentioned earlier, nightmares seem to be much more powerful than other dreams. But, if we are really to succeed, we need to unlock the power of higher emotions: comfort, love, cooperation –> a future we can believe in.

So, I want you all to imagine what it is going to take for you, as a person, to believe in those better emotions, and what it will take to make this shift nationally, globally, and beyond.

And for the film: whenever you see something unbelievable, whether contrived or fantastical, ask yourself one of two questions, either “what should they have done to make this match our current reality?” or “what could be done to make this believable, or even happen”?

Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams
Freud, S. “Femininity”
Lacan, J. “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power”
Lacan, J. Seminar IV
Lyotard, J-F. Discourse/Figure

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