sublimation (sublimation) In Freud's work, sublimation is a process in which the libido is channelled into apparently non-sexual activities such as artistic creation and intellectual work. Sublimation thus functions as a socially acceptable escape valve for excess sexual energy which would otherwise have to be discharged in socially unacceptable forms (perverse behaviour) or in neurotic symptoms. The logical conclusion of such a view is that complete sublimation would mean the end of all perversion and all neurosis. However, many points remain unclear in Freud's account of sublimation.
Lacan takes up the concept of sublimation in his seminar of 1959-60. He follows Freud in emphasising the fact that the element of social recognition is central to the concept, since it is only insofar as the drives are diverted towards socially valued objects that they can be said to be sublimated (S7, 107). It is this dimension of shared social values which allows Lacan to tie in the concept of sublimation with his discussion of ethics (see S7, 144). However, Lacan's account of sublimation also differs from Freud's on a number of points.
1. Freud's account implies that perverse sexuality as a form of direct satisfaction of the drive is possible, and that sublimation is only necessary because this direct form is prohibited by society. Lacan however rejects the concept of a zero degree of satisfaction (see éiûek, 1991: 83-4), arguing that perversion not simply a brute natural means of discharging the libido, but a highly structured relation to the drives which are already, in themselves, linguistic rather than biological forces.
2. Whereas Freud believed that complete sublimation might be possible for some particularly refined or cultured people, Lacan argues that 'complete sublimation is not possible for the individual' (S7, 91).
3. In Freud's account, sublimation involves the redirection of the drive to a different (non-sexual) object. In Lacan's account, however, what changes is not the object but its position in the structure of fantasy. In other words, sublimation does not involve directing the drive to a different object, but rather changing the nature of the object to which the drive was already directed, a 'change of object in itself', something which is made possible because the drive is 'already deeply marked by the articulation of the signifier' (S7, 293). The sublime quality of an object is thus not due to any intrinsic property of the object itself, but simply an effect of the object's position in the symbolic structure of fantasy. To be more specific, sublimation relocates an object in the position of the THING. The Lacanian formula for sublimation is thus that 'it raises an object . . . to the dignity of the Thing' (S7, l 12).
4. While Lacan follows Freud in linking sublimation with creativity and ART, he complicates this by also linking it with the DEATH DRIVE (S4, 431). Several reasons can be adduced to explain this. Firstly, the concept of the death drive is itself seen as a product of Freud's own sublimation (S7, 212). Secondly, the death drive is not only a 'destruction drive', but also 'a will to create from zero' (S7, 212-13). Thirdly, the sublime object, through being elevated to the dignity of the Thing, exerts a power of fascination which leads ultimately to death and destruction.
The redirection of sexual desire to "higher" aims. Freud saw sublimation as a protection against illness, since it allowed the subject to respond to sexual frustration (lack of gratification of the sexual impulse) by taking a new aim that, though still "genetically" (Introductory Lectures 16.345) related to the sexual impulse, is no longer properly sexual but social. In this way, civilization has been able to place "social aims higher than the sexual ones, which are at bottom self-interested" (Introductory Lectures 16.345). This is not to say that the "free mobility of the libido" (Introductory Lectures 16.346) is ever fully contained: "sublimation is never able to deal with more than a certain fraction of libido" (Introductory Lectures 16.346).
Sublimation is the refocusing of psychic energy (which Sigmund Freud believed was limited) away from negative outlets to more positive outlets. These drives which cannot find an outlet are rechanneled. For example, a student who has a major upcoming test, rather than spending time and energy worrying about it, would rechannel that time and energy into studying. In Freud's classic theory, erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression, and much of the remainder of a given group's erotic energy is used to develop its culture and civilization.
Freud considered this defense mechanism the most productive compared to the others that he identified (ie., repression, displacement, denial, reaction formation, intellectualization and projection). Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "social useful" achievements, mainly art. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism.