Friday, February 15, 2013

Dreaming and “Time-Reckoning”

I have an obsessive, recurring dream of loosing a tooth or several, swallowing it/them, and lots of light…And in the dream, it hurts excruciatingly as if in reality; or maybe the hurt is manifested in anxiety over the loss, the pain, or the feeling of responsibility for the loss…The pain and loss are the symbolic value I have attached to the interpretation of this lingering feeling in the material form of the dream, even accounting for the agony I sleep through and awaken with. 

The state of anxiety, agony, pain has been experienced, even exaggerated in such graphic ways – breaking, pulling, followed by swallowing and wailing  in the dream that persists while living in New York City over the past few years, than loosing a fourth of a tooth in reality while living in Cairo at the age of eight…Running through piles of backpacks left in front of my school church at Wednesday mass, annoyed by the secrecy of the mass and its restriction only to Christian students, I kept peeping into the church entrance…When caught (by the soeur[1]), I pretended to be chasing a friend around the churchyard, erasing any symptoms of being seduced by the foreclosure of the church and its ritual…As I tripped over a backpack arm, I fell to the ground and chipped a front tooth…At that point I felt (saw) the pain of my bleeding knee from the fall; only then realizing that something happened inside my mouth through the horrified expression on my older sister’s face and the placement of her hand on mouth…I felt around my lips and mouth for blood, finding none, instead feeling the sharpness of a jagged edge of a tooth…In horror, I ran to the bathroom staring in the mirror at this gapping hole in my set of pearly whites.

Since then, I have taken pride (and my sweet time) in obsessive cleaning habits, expecting nothing short of pure whiteness – bright as the sun…But in the dream, sunlight hurts: the sight and physicality of the feeling of breaking my teeth, loosing, and swallowing is insurmountable…In fact, I wake up feeling for my teeth, and squinting from that blinding near-white brightness that shakes me out of the physical reflexes of the dream.

What is the relationship between dreamtime and real time? Is a dream state the period (and arena) where excessive thoughts and energy are expended? If dreaming can be considered an unproductive activity in a space where the exertion of energy is unquantifiable, then it seems the general allocation of my daily energy must be leaving a remainder to be expended elsewhere. But what does this elsewhere allow for, and how does it acquire an unquantifiable, even unprofitable quality? Calling it a constructed space of imagination gives it fixity, and puts too much of its possibility in the conscious hands of the dreamer. Perhaps it is the excessive time-space that houses extra thought, experience, even (re)interpretation, or the obsessive and unresolved residue of the excess of everyday life.

Freud’s “pleasure principle” contradictorily tells us that there is no such thing as enough; that there is a built in need for excess; a flaming flamboyance exaggerating utility, necessity, and acquisition. For Freud, expenditure is a discharge of sexual energy, a closed system of economics (Brown, Dionysus in 1990 183). Does this sexual energy create a hierarchical split between desire in the mind and discharge of the body? And what is a temporality that is of the body and not of the mind? It might help here if I revisit the breakdown of some traditional categories of interpretation: for animals (monkeys and gorillas), showing teeth is a sign of aggression; for humans showing teeth while smiling is a sign of pleasantry, submission, conformity. Both are somehow reflected in the dream, and the feelings and energy attached in vividly experiencing it; but neither accounts for its time-space or unproductive capacity to exert such energy, nor what makes the two excessive.

To explore the potentiality of dreamtime, I would like to turn to Evans-Pritchard’s distinction between “oecological time” and “structural time:” the former represents people’s (specifically, Nuer’s) relationship to their environment; the latter reflects their relationship to one another in the “social structure” (Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Time-Reckoning 189). Now, I would like to apply this breakdown in time-values to the type of activity taking place in the dream state: I can exert energy to run and (unintentionally) break a tooth, which becomes the residue-base for the (intentional) breaking, swallowing, and mourning of (losing) my teeth in a dream. Here, the (failed) attempt to apply this distinction in time-values shows that the concepts of oecological and structural time do not square themselves onto real time and dreamtime. I believe one reason for this to be that the material and symbolic activity as well as time in both states is difficult to parcel out let alone measure.

Can the energy expensed by a dreamer be only an unproductive product made up of processed thought, regurgitated experience, or reconfigured possibility? Here, product seems to fall back into the closed cycle of a productive economy, and not the realm of consumption where a dream can be a possible stowage for the excessive. But is consumption – of thought, of time, of action – a form of reception whereby one looses in receiving, or gives up to get back? Here, the exchange is one of power; power then figures as the ability to loose as much as gain, the imposition of giving through return, which can create rivalry in the form of exchange.

If unproductive activity in dreamtime is the need to exceed the closedness of production time, then consumption comes to serve a creative form of destruction. Is creative potentiality or expenditure then the ridding of what has been acquired through consumption of thought and experience? But how does that account for excess in dreamtime without repeating the closedness or polarity of the production cycle? And can a sleep state that contains dreamtime still be considered part of real time? Finally, on the terms of loss, does not something stand in residue, like the creative energy or compulsion in destruction? And since there is no definition of what is of use value to individuals, is the end of production through the modes of consumption then the end of utility?

The idea of loss or (the ridding of material habit in an immaterial state) seems to best ground what an excessive time-space can do in stripping production out of an activity to yield its meaning beyond the latter’s closed system. But if meaning in (the exchanges of) our waking is always in surplus, then its residue must somehow seep into our sleep. Does the spectacle in the dream – or the spectatorship of it upon waking, possibly recollection – extract or abstract meaning from the everyday? Does it come to stand for a symbolic expenditure, whereby thoughts, experiences, and articulations are propelled by an unproductive energy to shatter their prior meanings, to manipulate their time and use values through an entirely obsolete and profitless exertion? Here, the stuff of everyday life – acquired and accumulated in waking – can be unmade, repeated, or remade in the dream state. Whatever the creative form, I find that in order for it to be expended, this leftover symbolic energy destroys, thereby retracting itself from the cycle of material value; making any of its resonating sensorial qualities (in sleep or waking) residual.

If sleep is a transgressive break with or suspension of the time of being awake, what is the connection between structural time and oecological time, (of action and imagination) more? Does dreamtime become an expended state of symbolic anxiety over the material world? In taking excess, and dispensing it into a time-space that enables energy to hover without ever reaching an end product, dreams can be understood to turn the stuff of everyday life into the stuff of imagination. The power to destroy, to loose, to give up becomes generative. But of what? Of an unproductive experience, or time-space that transform our own sense of temporality, creating a slippage between dreamtime and real time? Something else lies at (even breaks) the seams of sleep and waking: if sleep can be read as a desire to rest from, suspend, or undo the material value of waking, then one must exist on the premise of the other’s destruction. Without running a distinct line between material and symbolic values of time, I would like to speculate that the toing and froing between the state of sleeping and waking is a form of exchange. What does the sleep state accomplish by outdoing the material value of waking through its suspension, or replacement by the symbolic? Perhaps the dream state allows for a time-space where destructive and creative power can be attained, dispensed, even vanquished by waking without the loss lending itself to only symbolizing the dynamism of material production.

I do not think that consumption – of a destructive power or residue of material value – in giving up or breaking habit leads to a halting of time, but its transport. If consuming time in waking leads to its expenditure in sleep, then excess becomes a core instance of imagination. And something about consumption in the dream state comes to resemble a spiritual activity, or a consummation of spirit whereby the lines between mind and body, conscious and unconscious are untraceable. Is time in excess then the liminal state between waking and sleep, the powers conveyed between the two, or the dream itself? When dreaming, I consider the energy exerted to be lingering in a space impregnated with possibility over which I have no control or will to produce. And the unproductive activity seems to designate the dream as one instance of it. But what does it mean to do things in dreams? And what does that allow in terms of understanding (and valuing) energy, self, and the time-space between waking, sleeping, and awakening?

by Menna Khalil

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Suggested Readings:
1. Bataille, Georges. 1985. "The Notion of Expenditure," in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  
2. Brown, Norman O. 1992. Dionysus in 1990.
3. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1939. "Nuer Time-Reckoning," in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. Vol. 12(2): 189-216. 
4. Gell, Alfred. 1992. The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford; Providence: Berg.  

[1] Mine was a Franciscan all girls’ Catholic school administered by nuns – soeurs. The English equivalent – sister – is still strange to me, given the familiarity and intimacy of the term soeur.   


Tianyu Xie said...

Body and mind, materialized reality and symbolic imagination? What is the temporality going back and forth between these “stats of nature?” This kind of metaphysical/philosophical question keeps wandering in my mind when reading this blog. Is body and mind really constituted a whole, as an entity, as equilibrium of energy? Or the material and the symbolic are just two interacting systems? Therefore, the temporality and the spatiality are independent as well as inter-connected? If so, are we going to have more than one agent in ourselves? Perhaps, body, the material object, may also contain a “consciousness” and being “agentive?”

It is a way to think body and mind as a totality and thus we have a completed whole of energy production and consumption/destruction. Therefore, as Menna said, we might imagine “…Perhaps it is the excessive time-space that houses extra thought, experience, even (re)interpretation, or the obsessive and unresolved residue of the excess of everyday life…” I think it is a really refreshing way of thinking. Also, she denoted the superimposed “consciousness” upon the “unconscious” “dreaming,” “…Calling it a constructed space of imagination gives it fixity, and puts too much of its possibility in the conscious hands of the dreamer…” Here it seems Menna tries to deconstruct the “structured” understanding of “dreaming” and to point out the distinctive time-space residing in the realm of “dreaming.” And I think this kind of deconstruction is key to understand the distinctiveness of “structuralist time” as a sort of “collective representation.” It is to construct a certain type of epistemology and building certain concepts and frameworks of thinking.

On the other side, I cannot help but thinking what about if mind and body are two entangled spiraling systems, just like the way that chromosome is structured. Hence, we see how dream may be derived from the “material residue” and become a place for expressing the excess of energy. Meanwhile, the separatedness of these two system (body and mind, material and the symboli) may actually provide an explanation for the now-and-then feeling of breakdown, discontinuity, or even extraction from reality.

Dreaming is a fascinating “supernatural” (allow me to use the word “supernatural,” I just feel when we are dreaming, we are entering a different stage of living) sphere. When we are dreaming, are we turned into the mode of the “unconscious self” and feel more in the temporality of “the symbolic?”

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