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The term 'sublimation' (Fr. sublimation) is one of the most familiar terms in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis.

Sublimation and Freud

Sigmund Freud never developed a coherent theory (or account) of sublimation.

Sublimation is a term widely used in psychoanalytic theory to describe the process in which the libido sexual drive (psychic or erotic energy) is channelled, converted, transformed into an apparently non-sexual activity, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, or redirected, diverted toward an apparently non-sexual aim or a socially valued object, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, into creative and intellectual activity, into "socially useful" achievements.[1]

Sublimation is a type of coping mechanism or defense mechanism, which functions as a socially acceptable escape valve for excess sexual or erotic energy which would otherwise have to be discharged in socially unacceptable forms (perverse behaviour) or in neurotic symptoms. Erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression.

The logical conclusion of such a view is that complete sublimation would mean the end of all perversion and all neurosis. Civilization has been able to place "social aims higher than the sexual ones."[2]

Sublimation and Art

This usage appears to be influenced by the aesthetics of the sublime. In his study of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud uses 'sublimation' in this sense to describe the transformation of theyoung Leonardo's sexual curiosity into a spirit of intellectual inquiry.[3] Whilst this produced great works of art, the sublimation of libido into a general urge to know meant that a small quota of Leonardo's sexual ennergy was directe dtowards sexual aims, and resulted in a stunted adult sexuality. Elsewhere Frud suggests tht a mature woman's capacity to pursue an intellectual profession may be a sublimated expression of her childhood desire to acquire a penis.

Sublimation and Lacan

Lacan's account of sublimation differs from Freud's on a number of points.

  1. Freud argues that sublimation is only necessary because this direct satisfaction of the drive (although theoretically possible) is prohibited by society.
  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 conceives of perversion in a highly structured relation to the drives which are already, in themselves, linguistic rather than biological forces.[4]

  1. 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."[5]

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."[6]

  1. In Freud's account, sublimation involves the redirection of the drive to a different (non-sexual) object.

In Lacan's account, sublimation does not involve directing the drive to a different object, but rather changing the (position of the object in the structure of fantasy) 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."[7] 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. 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."[8]

  1. Lacan (following Freud) associates sublimation with creativity and art, but also links it with the death drive.[9]
    1. Firstly, the concept of the death drive is itself seen as a product of Freud's own sublimation.[10]
    2. Secondly, the death drive is not only a "destruction drive," but also a "will to create from zero."[11]
    3. 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.

Sublimation and Ethics

In his 1959-60 seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan emphasizes the element of social recognition as central to the concept, and reflects upon the dimension of shared social values (towards which the sublimated drives are diverted) in his discussion of ethics.[12]


See Also


  1. Freud 1933
  2. Introductory Lectures 16.345
  3. 1910a
  4. see Zizek, 1991: 83-4)
  5. S7, 91
  6. Introductory Lectures 16.346
  7. S7, 293
  8. S7, l 12
  9. S4, 431
  10. S7, 212
  11. S7, 212-13
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. p. 107, 144
  13. Seminar XI sublimation, 11, 165