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Portland Center for Public Humanities, Portland State University 

Portland Center for Public Humanities

Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices



Guest Editorial
by Renee Lertzman, Miller Postdoctoral Fellow in Humanities and Sustainability, Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices and Portland Center for Public Humanities, Portland State University

Virtually Unconscious: Dreams of Escape


I found myself thinking about Sigmund Freud as I exited the theatre, where like millions of others, I had donned the plastic glasses and spent a couple of hours in an immersive virtual world of Avatar. Yes, I was enchanted by the visual textures and breathtaking virtual vistas, and the remarkable technological achievements of this film. But mainly, I was preoccupied with the way the film had grabbed me affectively, thrown me into an entirely imagined world, and forced me to struggle, as Jake Sully does, with the reality of my own frail, fragile, precarious, and imperfect world when the lights came up.

Up Movie Poster
Avatar Movie Poster
Alice in Wonderland Movie Poster
Up and Alice in Wonderland images courtesy The Disney Company.
Avatar image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Films have always served as stepping stones into virtual worlds, so in this respect Avatar is not unique, nor is Up, Alice in Wonderland, or the myriad forthcoming 3D visual experiences on the horizon. Rather, what makes me think of Freud at this precise moment is how these new virtual worlds look and feel like collective or shared dream. And as Freud remarked famously about dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious,” I am left wondering what these virtual worlds are telling us about our own unconscious longings, desires, fantasies, aggressions, and losses.

For now, then, let’s imagine the proliferation of virtual worlds, as a sort of “royal road.” What I believe Freud meant in this statement is the ways in which we express and manifest difficult, often contradictory, ambivalent and painful desires and impulses through the language of the dream; that the material erupting without our conscious control reflects a treasure trove of symbols, meanings, and messages for us to “excavate” (Freud was fond of the archaeological metaphors). We are thus presented with a rich arena to explore the aspects of our culture and shared social worlds that are being presented and expressed through these virtual worlds.

Avatar's Jake Sully in human and avatar form.
Avatar's Jake Sully in human and avatar form.
Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

On the most mundane level, we may say the virtual is about escape; a fleeing of our earth-bound, fragile, and imperfect world, full of limitations, plastic, diseases, and extinctions, to an idealized world. We can leave our bodies in the seat or the console, and effectively be anywhere, at any time, and with any one. However, the expression of the virtual in its many forms offers more than a story simply of escape, and we can never truly leave behind our bodies, as Jake can.

I am reminded of Freud for the central reason that perhaps no one else in human history has written as eloquently about the human struggle to be integrated with our world, desires, imaginations, and frustrations. While Freud’s work has since evolved profoundly through the work of relational and object-relations psychoanalytic thought in recent decades, what remains is the recognition of the human propensity for splitting off unwanted experiences. Usually, humans do this psychically and internally, with dramatic consequences: denial of reality (e.g., “climate denial”), projection of rejected qualities on to others (“tree huggers” or “red necks”), or even more dramatic expressions of delusion and psychosis. Now, more recently we see the capacity to animate our capacities for splitting off aspects of reality (internal and external) through the creation of virtual worlds, whether through 3D, virtual reality (e.g., Second Life) or just the simple act of creating websites or Internet surfing for hours at a time.

The attitude I find most productive in contemplating these phenomena is what is called in psychoanalytic literature, the “analytic attitude.” This attitude is informed by a curiosity in the relations between what is conscious and unconscious, rather than focusing on the relations between the individual and society. That is, attending to what is being expressed and manifested unconsciously through the technological artifices that we create, and more crucially, what this tells us about our relationship with our ecological, biotic contexts.

Sigmund Freud, 1922.
Sigmund Freud, 1922.
Photo by Max Halberstadt.

Jake’s struggle between worlds is a clear expression of our own dilemmas concerning the capacity for creating virtual worlds and our earth-bound status as mortal beings. Torn between two worlds, as many environmentalists can resonate with (as we dwell in societies we know full well we are destructive and ignorant of symbiotic systems), Jake finds himself affectively (psychically, emotionally, energetically) attaching to a place where the air is toxic, and yet is an expression of what life can and should be. He has tasted vitality, community, ecological harmony and a form of communion with the non-human other that renders him unable to “go back” to the old way of life. He must move forward; however, to do so he must depart his human body. As participants in virtual worlds, we are not given this choice. We cannot leave our bodies or this planet, and yet we hold out for the promise of creating something purer, better, less broken, somewhere else.

It is too easy to dismiss virtuality as a rejection of our earthly plane, and decry it as an ecologically dangerous path to tread. Our affective attachments should be cultivated here, and not on Pandora or any other virtual place. However, we have good reason to worry about what dwelling in virtual worlds means for our capacities for reparation—repair, restoration, concern, care—right here, and right now. Can we blame young people for wanting escape?

I am wondering what Freud would say; my guess is that he would find Avatar a fascinating cultural dream, that one can literally step into and experience affectively for a few hours. He may notice the fantasy manifested in Jake’s ability to merge with his new life, in an Arcadian space, even on the threshold of certain destruction (the machines will come back; it’s the return of the repressed, after all). He would probably urge us to think, very carefully, about what is being expressed in our creation of virtual worlds, and whether they may help us in the achievements of human psychic maturity: the ability to be present, to not flee, and at the same time, respect the fact we will always want to return to the Garden, a place of innocence and where we imagined we had total control over the world and all its beings.


Renee Lertzman is currently a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow in Humanities and Sustainability at the Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices and Portland Center for Public Humanities at Portland State University. She is currently working on a manuscript, The Myth of Apathy, based on her doctoral work.
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The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud, on Google Books

Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia)



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