Friday, May 24, 2013

Against Interpretation

In Susan Sontag's most famous essay, "Against Interpretation," she wrote,

Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can't admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

Most approaches to dream analysis uphold the idea that the dreamer, rather than the dream worker, is the ultimate authority on the meaning of the dream.  While leaving the interpretation up to the dreamer is on the surface a good way to avoid the biases or "projections" of the dream worker, it doesn't solve the underlying problem that gives rise to invasive projections. Sontag argues that the deeper fallacy is to  pursue interpretation in the first place. That is, she says that the real error is treating art (and dreams) as equivalent to their "content," and then setting about to reveal what that content is. The content is usually thought of as the dream's assumed "symbolized" meaning. For Freud, it was the disguised hedonistic desire to express some unacceptable sexual or aggressive impulses. For Jung, it was the individuation urge expressing itself through archetypes, or the compensating function of the psyche attempting to restore balance. For art, it's the artist's conscious or unconscious message that they intend to convey through the form. But regardless it has to be "revealed," and that's where interpretation comes in.

It is very hard to overturn two millenia of thinking about understanding dreams. The mind synthesizes what it sees and renders it meaningful if it can. But there is an alternative to the revelation of the dream's underlying content. It is simply put, an exploration of the relationship between dreamer and dream imagery. This dimension is already largely revealed by the story or narrative that the dreamer reports upon awakening, but is largely overlooked when the intent of the analyticial process is to reveal something that is not already manifest. By focusing on the relationship, we stay  tethered to what is actually there, and what is actually happening. When we add our associations to the imagery, using noninvasive methods such as amplification or Gestalt dialoguing in the larger context of exploring the dreamer-dream relationships, we arrive at a holistic approach that is phenomenologically congruent with the dreamer's own experience. We don't abandon the dreamer's story or alter it with our analytical brilliance, all in the name of "disclosing it's true meaning." To put it in Sontag's words again:

What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation.

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