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
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).