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On Sublimation vs. Supplantation.
5th Dec 2011Posted in: Blog 2
On Sublimation vs. Supplantation.
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An Art therapist knows that sublimation is an important part of a healthy psyche's diet just like a nutritionist knows that calcium is good for your bones. Freud coined the term "sublimation" as a defense mechanism among other defenses such as: Reaction formation, displacement, projection, denial, regression, repression, intellectualization and a few others. Sublimation refers to the process of expressing the energy from either creative or destructive drives in an altered subliminal  from. Thus sex instincts are sublimated in the act of dancing. This is why some psychiatrists have said that "dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire". Salsa would be an example a not-so-subtle expression of sex drive whereas line dancing would be a more discrete way of saying "let's do it". I have even heard Carlos Santana say that music was a form of copulation between rhythm and melody. Rhythm being masculine and melody the feminine. When you look at things this way, you start to see that sex is expressed to some degree in just about anything. The phallus is a universal symbol which finds sublimated expression in architectural manifestations like the capitol building, IMG_1641

the twin towers and just about any mosque

to name a few instances. I could see where Freud was going with what some feminists call his sexual obsession!. The ever-presence of the phallus as symbol also could account for some of the phenomenon of penis envy.The only place where Freud went wrong was to suggest that only women have penis envy when in fact men have it too! Men want a bigger phallus and women want the symbolic properties of any old phallus.  Anyway, back to my post as i seem to have gotten off topic again. Here is an etymological breakdown of the term: sublimation: From latin: sublimare sub = at the entry/beneath, limen = door step/threshold. In other words, sublimation means operating below the conscious threshold. In art therapy, sublimation takes on an added meaning of transformation. The sublimated material becomes something else. Maybe the phallus is a tree or a rock. Maybe violence is a certain kind of handshake or two waves colliding in a painting. What this means is that we construct the world in the image of our repressed instincts. We make god in our image, not the other way around. It is not the only way we construct the world but it is one of the more important ways.

Destructive instincts must also be sublimated because like sexual instincts, our civilization does not usually tolerate their direct expression. Former Roman and Hellenic societies just had orgies and mass killings when they felt like it but we don't do that anymore. We sublimate. In the case of war, you might think that we are not sublimating. It is true. We are intellectualizing and rationalizing the motivations for going to war which reside deep  within the reptilian brain. When it comes to sublimation of an aggressive impulse, the practices of sport or art would be comparably good examples. In sport we compete to win. We strive to succeed in a hockey game and that often means plowing someone down into the boards.  We fans love to watch. NHL hockey is a less subterfuge sublimation because the aggressive impulse remains present albeit in an attenuated form. It is because we can witness the framed fights, the brutal aggression that we forego our true unconscious wish for raw, unadulterated violence. Sublimation usually means that the impulse will be expressed in such a completely different way that you may no longer recognize them. After all, if you recognize it, it is no longer working as a defense mechanism. In the hockey example, the aggression is attenuated to the extent that rather than kill your opponent after the game, you hit him on the ice, playing within the rules of conduct and within the parameters of the game. The aggression is intense and it is of a murderous variety but because it is contained within the parameters of "fair play" within a socially sanctioned cultural ritual, everything becomes digestible.  Sometimes the aggression gets way out of hand and you have permanent injuries in football and hockey.  Because the aggression is sublimated through the guise of sport it is diminished and becomes more tolerable and therefore acceptable to society. We can say of the football tackle that it was necessary whereas tackling someone on the street is criminal.

Let's look at the example of art for a second because it can be a sublimation of either aggressive or sexual drives which is slightly more nuanced and complex than the previous example. Through an abstract painting we may be witnessing actual expressions of unconscious desires to murder, rape, destroy or make love to some external object. We might never know by looking at the colours and shapes on a canvas or the form of a sculpture but the theory behind sublimation does hold that artistic expression is to some extent a sublimation of such feelings. Sublimation explains why the phallus is a symbol which surfaces in just about every culture's' iconography.  The phallus is such an important part of our everyday consciousness because it is a stand-alone symbol for power, it appears throughout modern architecture in everything from 28,000 year old neolithic art, to Greek obelisks and everything in between.  When the phallus is expressed as a phallus it is a literal representation, however when it is embedded subconsciously into the iconography of a culture it takes on the function of uncosciously affirming an unconscious desire. The whole thing happens on an unconscious level but this has very real implications on the reality we experience consciously.

Now let's look at the closely related term of supplantation. I should level with you and tell you that i created the word supplantation from the word : supplant, which means: c.1300, "to trip up, overthrow, defeat, dispossess," from O.Fr. supplanter "to trip up, overthrow," from L. supplantare "trip up, overthrow," from sub "under" + planta "sole of the foot" (see plant (n.)). Meaning "replace one thing with another" first recorded 1670s. Interesting sense evolution parallel in Heb. akabh "he beguiled," from akebh "heel." Notice that the sub of sublimation is the same sub we find in supplantation. So while sublimation is the unconscious manifestation of an unconscious drive, supplantation is the conscious substitution of one symbol for another with the sinister intent of commandeering the original image. One prime example of supplantation is found in the Nazi swastika. The swastika is an ancient symbol that has been used for over 3,000 years. (That even predates the ancient Egyptian symbol, the Ankh!) Artifacts such as pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that the swastika was a commonly used symbol as far back as 1000 BCE. (I have plagiarized the last two sentences from here: http://history1900s.about.com/cs/swastika/a/swastikahistory.htm). Another supplantation is found in the double meaning of the word "Star". A star is something which hangs in the sky above us, which has meaning we do not understand, which existed before we did and will exist afterwards but it is also the name we give to a human being who lives in Hollywood. This is a clear supplantation of the the word star. The star of David is another example and the stars and stripes is yet another. The last two examples are even more dangerous because they are at the imaginal roots of cultural and religious identities. Supplantation is a kind of stealing of an idea. You take someone else's idea and call it your own. It is a form of culturally significant plagiarism of the image. Because you can't copyright a symbol like the the religious cross or the star of David, you can't own it and it is up for supplantation at any time. Because supplantation is here to stay as a human behaviour, it behooves the next generation to supplant previously dangerous symbols and make them safe. Thus, we must re-appropriate the swastika, take over the pepsi and coke symbols and use them to push forward our agenda of having quality education and daycare and justice. Maybe we could re-appropriate the symbol for the Royal Bank of Canada and use it for some organization that protects the earth from pollution. It seems that logo would be so appropriate for that type of thing. After all, the royal bank of Canada appropriated the symbols of the Lion and the Earth. Why can't we take that back? Why should we accept the logo of corporate, banking interests as a lion with it's paw firmly in a dominant position over our planet? I say reject it and re-appropriate it. Defy the trademark when it defies you!

So there you have it, a breakdown of the relationship between supplantation and sublimation!

2 Responses

  1. theresa zip says:

    YES!!! Let’s occupy the world of corporate logos – it’s been waiting to serve us!!!

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