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The Rational Destruction of Artistic Sublimation
Modernism, with its emphasis on reason, progress, and the individual, had promised to bring about a better world, but by the mid-20th century, it was clear that it had not delivered on that promise. Postmodernists argue that the atrocities of the preceding century had continued to plague humanity, and largely mostly bore disillusionment, reject the grand narratives and universal truths of modernism, focusing on the local, the particular, and the individual. It rejected the idea that there was a single, objective reality that could be known or understood, and instead argued that all knowledge was culturally and historically constructed. This is the trap postmodernism constructs for you as a citizen, but applies to the psychological aspects of the creation of art, and specifically singles out a core component of materialism’s social psychology that typically does not put the onus for experiencing the material world on individuals for shared conditions affecting the public on that level and not the individual. Similar to the condition of creating sickness and perpetuating it as constraint for the ills of postmodernism to thrive, this too is true of the creation of art for the public through the experience of the personal psychological.
Postmodern’s skepticism towards psychological sublimation, which is the process of channeling primitive and unconscious desires into more socially acceptable forms of expression, such as art, is revisionist on its face; it’s ineffective but won’t tell you why, and the solution it fails to propose in response is, simply, “Deal with it, rock and roll”. In the modernist view, sublimation was seen as a key mechanism for achieving personal and social progress, as it allowed individuals to control their primal urges and channel them into more productive outlets, such as the arts— Kafka is an example of this, speaks to a very public set of social and emotional conditions reflective of the society he lived in, but felt isolated from, and channeled it through writing arguably never meant to see the light of day. Postmodernists argue that this view is naive and misguided, that sublimation is not a true form of liberation, but rather a form of repression that serves to maintain the dominant power structures of society, which they argue occurs only by forcing individuals to conform to social norms and expectations, sublimation prevents them from fully expressing their true selves and desires, despite being a deeply personal exercise. The two outcomes left under postmodernism: again, “deal with it”, or never express yourself in a productive way because why bother? They tend to argue that the very idea of the unconscious is a social construct, that it is impossible to access the true, authentic self that lies beneath the layers of cultural conditioning, the concept of the unconscious is simply a way of imposing order on the chaos of human experience, and that there is no true, objective reality behind it— this would be an uncharitable and dense willful misunderstanding that no one is arguing the unconscious is a material consideration, but like many constructions, useful conceptually for relating between individuals in a collective consciousness that out society and artistic culture absolutely represents.
In the postmodernist view, the death of artistic psychological sublimation is not a loss, but rather a liberation, allowing for free expression, without the need to conform to any particular set of norms or expectations. This, they argue, can lead to a more authentic and meaningful form of artistic expression, one that is not bound by the preconceptions of the dominant culture. The oeuvre of postmodern art, however, demonstrates this, immaterial the question of taste or style, is not true— bound to theme, by definition, and orientation. By removing a materialist process, the mechanisms for processing the variety set of one’s psychology, it creates a very specific type of heterodox— this is simply put also evident in the transition to post-postmodernisms like literary New Sincerity, that postmodernism had basically irony-poisoned the public, and like any toxin saturation, re-establishing an individual-led still, but collectively oriented human artistic culture was required to wean off of what this had done to the arts.
A true solution does not emerge from whatever truths postmodernism does manage to surface, and already inclusive to dialectical materialism is the belief that these philosophies are based on a premise that reality is not fixed or static, but rather is in a constant state of change and development, with one thing giving rise to another through a process of conflict and resolution known as the "dialectic." This addresses the issue of constraint in postmodernism; this becomes about process and the things in process, rather than establishing limits first without a survey of the material variety set to process. All aspects of reality, including the social-psychological, are determined by the underlying material conditions of life; the way we think and behave is not determined by some abstract, internal psychological process, but rather by the concrete, material conditions in which we live— these are not fixed boundaries being imposed. The key material condition shaping human behavior was and is the mode of production, or the way in which a society produces the goods and services it needs to sustain itself. The mode of production, in turn, is determined by the forces of production, which include the tools and techniques used to produce goods, and the relations of production, which refer to the way in which people are organized to produce those goods.
Given this view of the world, dialectical materialism has a somewhat different perspective on psychological sublimation than the one offered by postmodernism. For Marx and Engels, sublimation is not an individual process that takes place within the mind, but rather a social one that is shaped by the underlying material conditions of society— you experience and output as an individual, but this is matter of social significance, by virtue of living in a society where that output is socially managed (even if not owned socially); psychological sublimation is not simply a way of channeling primitive desires into more socially acceptable forms of expression, but rather a way of adapting to the demands of the mode of production. It is the dialectical response to the contradictions and conflicts that inevitably arise within any given society, and of finding a way to resolve those conflicts in a way that allows the society to continue functioning— this is inherently productive, not self-annihilating.
Psychological sublimation is not a form of repression or a way of maintaining the dominant power structures of society, as postmodernists might argue, a wellspring of harmony with the society around you, and this is particularly true of the arts, and why it is important that it occur genuinely, and not from behind an irony-haze rank with the belief that nothing truly matters; this is a process that sees sublimating acts as a social rather than an individual process, and one that is shaped by the underlying material conditions of society. It is a view that offers a more nuanced and complex understanding of the forces that shape human behavior, and one that takes into account the many different factors that contribute to the way we think and act.
Theodor Adorno was deeply concerned with the role of art in society, and argued that it had the potential to serve as a powerful force for social change and liberation. He wrote, “Dissonance is the truth about harmony.”— this is the end goal of applying the dialectic to the resolution of conflict as artists. For Adorno, artistic psychological sublimation was a key mechanism for achieving this goal; the creative process involves a process of sublimation, in which unconscious desires and impulses were channeled into more socially acceptable forms of expression to universalize personal experience and individual emotion into something that could be shared with, but more importantly processed meaningfully by, others, and that would drive the resolution of contradiction, both, for the artist and for the public consuming the art.
Adorno, however, was also skeptical of the ability of art to truly achieve this goal, like any dialectical being might be, and sought to resolve it; in a society marked by domination and oppression, it was difficult, if not impossible, for art to be truly transformative. Instead, he argued, it was more likely to be co-opted and used to reinforce the dominant power structures of society. He believed the pursuit of pleasure through media was the battlefield for this particular war for the public’s soul: “Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.” For Adorno, this was particularly true in the case of mass culture, arguing it was a tool of the ruling classes used to distract and pacify the masses, serving only the interests that wish to keep people in a state of passive conformity rather than stimulating their critical thinking or challenging the status quo. Consider a contemporary media culture where every movie theater shows only one studio’s films, they become more in volume, simpler in substance, but more and more profitable until cinemas potentially have to close their doors if they even dare show another studio’s films in the building— escapism, but is it really if you’re given no options, and the escape is being pressed on you. A critical Marxist might ask you to consider why it’s so important, if it’s meant to be simply a pleasure, that it be pressed on you, what it is that you, a consumer, need to see and have normalized. Taking the process further, Adorno did not reject the idea of artistic psychological sublimation, itself, but only if it was able to transcend the constraints of mass culture and speak to the deeper, unconscious desires of the individual. He argued that true art was the product of a deeply personal, unconscious process, and that it had the power to challenge and transform society if it was able to tap into that process in a meaningful way. He argued that for art to truly achieve its potential, it must be able to transcend these constraints (which themselves are postmodern in nature, the ennui that allows this) and speak to the deeper, unconscious desires of the individual.
There is a reason a generation of artists born in the 80s and 90s embrace this context more innately than past generations and future ones where material conditions have always been worsening while exploitation to sustain it, in this, the richest country in the world, is blatant and cruel, it’s the quotidian backdrop for an inherently contradicted set of assertions by the superstructure about how good one really has it, and we wonder why postmodernism and capital are so invested in keeping us from making eye contact. The previous generations indulging in a kind of postmodernism that makes it relatable but not really cathartic or productive, and the latter generation to this one making so liberal a universalization of the conceptual that even the most sincere artistic product has a pre-marketed context to it that even includes (manufactured) lore about how the album came to be. A personal favorite recent example, Soccer Mommy, the performing name of Sophie Allison, is a young musician who has gained a significant following in recent years with her deeply personal and introspective brand of indie rock which often deals with themes of anxiety, loneliness, and self-doubt, has been praised for its honesty and emotional depth, and has helped to establish her as one of the most promising young artists of her generation.
One of the key aspects of Soccer Mommy's music is its relationship to artistic psychological sublimation, using the creation of her her music as a way of channeling her own personal experiences and emotions into something that can be shared with others, transforming her experience into something that is meaningful and resonant for her listeners, not simply sad and uncomfortable, or toxically positive and optimistic; it reaches a conclusion through its creation, as a form of catharsis and self-expression. Art like this is therefore able to confront and explore the deeper, unconscious desires and impulses to find a way to come work over contradiction, achieving a sense of self-understanding and personal growth, and an object example of artistic psychological sublimation as a transformative and cathartic process, in doing so, she is able to explore and understand the deeper, unconscious forces that shape her identity. By embracing the process of sublimation, she is able to find a way to connect with others and to create something that is truly authentic and meaningful in a shared, but productive and solidarity-building way.
“Sarcasm and jokes were often the bottle in which clinical depressives sent out their most plangent screams for someone to care and help them.” wrote David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, speaking to the postmodern condition, that it fundamentally makes you unwell, that it lacks an outlet for the blatantly real psychological impact of living under it, with postmodern psychiatry (and per the last piece, all medical care) unequipped to treat the cause and only willing to acknowledge the symptom as a personal moral failing. The novel work that deals with a wide range of themes, including addiction, loneliness, and the nature of meaning and what it means to have purpose, and crucially the role of art in society, and in particular, the idea of artistic psychological sublimation. Wallace’s view of artistic sublimation is less dialectical and more about productively coping with the postmodern world (you could argue by this point Wallace was firmly a skeptic of his own postmodernism in his previous novel, Broom of the System), arguing that art has the power to transform and transcend the mundane realities of everyday life, and to provide a sense of meaning and purpose that is otherwise lacking; a sort of surfacing of the self in resolving these feelings, in clarity sense, rather than a social contradiction sense while also being open to recognizing that it is not always easy or straightforward, kind of dancing around the question of the need for more, which the dialectic might otherwise provide if he would have taken this to the conclusion, but the book provides such a foundation. In the novel, he portrays a number of characters who struggle with addiction and other forms of self-destructive behavior, and use the process of creativity in this way, that by giving shape to their psyches, they are better able to enrich socially each other. Wallace also portrays the dangers of this kind of artistic sublimation, much in the way Adorno had, arguing that it is easy for art to become a form of escapism (Adorno’s mass culture problem) and for individuals to become so focused on their art that they lose touch with the outside world. This can lead to a kind of solipsism, in which the artist becomes isolated and disconnected from others, and is unable to engage with the world in a meaningful way, fulfilling the dangers of becoming too focused on art at the expense of everything else, to which Wallace says the response is to find a balance between the two, and to use art as a way of enriching and enhancing one's life, rather than as a means of escape.
A quote I will re-use here, but one that has multifarious application to the issues at hand from the perspective of the ways in which this, too, is a rational destruction by postmodernism, Wallace wrote in the novel, “You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again.”— the greatest tragedy is a failed revolution under these circumstances.