Living Dreams, Dreaming Nightmares

Amber Trotter

October 24, 2016



This paper was presented at the 2016 Association for Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society Conference, October 13-15, Rutgers, NJ.

Virtual reality (VR) is the latest digital craze: tech giants have spent an estimated 1.4 billion dollars as they race to control a domain where the wildest artistry of our imaginations will be seemingly actualized. In VR, Yang (2016) comments in a recent issue of Wired Magazine, we will be able to experience “exploring Mars; living as a lobster; a close-up of your own beating heart, live.” In short, we will at last be able to live our dreams. Or at least, a handful of the highly privileged will be able to do so, if dreaming is indeed the right word. One must wonder: Is living a dream really dreaming? When a dream becomes concretized—when the dreamer gains control—is it not rather a perversion of dreaming? Through our collective (conscious and unconscious) fantasy, might we in fact be dreaming ourselves a nightmare? The enthusiasm for the virtual omnipresent in San Francisco where I live and work is shadowed by the mass displacement of those who cannot afford to live in this dream and by a real reality that, in Wendell Berry’s (1998) words, ‘breaks in cutting pieces all around.’ Let us see what psychoanalysis might help us to understand about dreaming, nightmares and reality.

In a well-known paper, Ogden traces the relationship between dreams and nightmares, and between dreaming and reality. For Ogden, dreaming is essentially synonymous with doing the “unconscious psychological work” (2004, 858) that allows us to change and grow—to come to life emotionally and become something other than we have been—to dream ourselves into being, in his evocative phrase. Dreaming allows us to participate meaningfully in our own lives—in our own lives in reality, that is. Dreaming for Ogden crucially involves the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction. The dream world, like psychoanalysis, loosens reality’s grip. It allows us to play, to explore the gamut of fantasy. But we do not actually mistake the dream as real, just as we do not actually mistake our analyst for our father. In bad dreams this distinction collapses: the nightmare’s villain is terrifying because he feels so real. Nightmares, like tragedies, involve a sort of failure of the imagination. Adam Phillips writes, “Tragedies are dramas in which satisfactions are too exactly imagined by their heroes” (2012, 144). They make the mistake, in Phillips’ words, of underinterpretation. Similarly, nightmares are dreams that have lost sight of the fact that they are dreams, and as such, have possibilities. They are a perversion of dreaming. And as with any perversion, the real thing—in this case the unconscious work of dreaming into being—stops. Both when the nightmare feels real and when we wake up, knowing it wasn’t, we cannot metabolize our experience. We cannot convert beta into alpha (Bion). Nightmares are thus not only a perversion of dreaming, but of unconscious process, of freedom and of desire.

Phillips writes about freedom and desire, frustration, and dreaming in his short book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (2012). He reminds us that in psychoanalytic theory, “our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration” (xix). Frustration generates the capacity to think—to figure out what is wrong and to imagine possibilities for satisfaction—to know our own desire. Under circumstances of too little frustration, we fail to learn what we really want and are superficially satisfied (pacified) with the cheap thrills of instant gratification.

If we are lucky enough to know something of our own desire, however, we are faced with an inevitable gap between that desire and reality. In this gap grows the dream. So long as it is simply a gap and not a chasm, we learn to modify fantasy to accommodate reality and to modify reality to accommodate desire—Phillips locates the genesis of political action in the same gap as dreaming. He writes, “There can only be unrealistic wanting, but that unrealistic wanting can be satisfied only by realistic satisfactions; everything else being. . . the murdering of the world” (33). When this gap is a chasm, however, when frustration is overwhelming or excessive, we attempt to satisfy ourselves in fantasy alone, killing off reality, or we deaden or mutate our desire. Either way, it’s a nightmare.

Dreaming you will have noticed, has been thus far discussed metaphorically—Ogden’s dreaming as doing unconscious psychological work and feeling like a participant in the story of our lives, Phillips’ dreaming as a creative process that bridges desire and reality. But dreaming is of course a literal facet of experience—and one of psychoanalysis’ primary preoccupations. Dreams as such are intensely personal, the active product of our particular fears, confusion, fantasy, etc. Yet they lie decidedly beyond the realm of conscious control. Dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious and provide evidence for the eternal mystery of being—for something which transcends us and runs right through us, obeying its own logic, and involving us along the way. Lear (1998) observes that when we understand unconscious process in this way, and not merely as something science does not as yet understand, it produces a state of wonderment or awe. Attending to our dreams is humbling, liberating and enlivening. We marvel at the metaphor and symbolism generated by our unconscious. We become more foreign to ourselves, and more interesting. In contrast, the information overload and weary knowingness by which Lear characterizes the present age yields feelings of boredom, arrogance, entrapment and deadness. Too much knowing—as Bion knew well—disrupts our capacity to observe unconscious process, to convert beta into alpha, and hence to dream. Information overload may not murder the world in Lear’s view, but it murders our sense of vitality.

With the above in mind, let us return to the subject of virtual reality. By pulling us out of our immediate surroundings and expanding our imaginal horizons, VR, like dreaming, can be seen to loosen the grip of the real. It allows us to experiment with new identities and travel to distant places—to play with existence as such. Yet, as its name suggests virtual reality fundamentally involves confusion between fantasy and actuality—VR technology is evaluated precisely in terms of the extent to which its synthesized experience feels real. Its engineers work diligently to deceive our sense perceptions, down to the fluid in our ear canals, while simultaneously denying the real through their negation of materiality. In Ogden’s terms, this constitutes a perversion of dreaming, and thus of unconscious psychological work. We cannot metabolize our experience, cannot dream ourselves into being. So we lose a sense of freedom, in a psychoanalytic understanding of the term.

Ogden does not exactly say this, but I think the freedom required for dreaming, in his model, is made possible in part by the protection afforded by privacy. Psychoanalysis permits us to play in a particular, free-associative, generative—even subversive—manner because it is private. I say subversive because we know (from Foucault [1975] among others) that the experience of constant surveillance effectively and efficiently controls. In VR of course, everything is tracked. “After all,” writes Yang (2016), “the more precisely and comprehensively your body and your behavior are tracked, the better your experience will be… This comprehensive tracking . . . could be used to sell you things, to redirect your attention, to compile a history of your interests, to persuade you subliminally . . . and so on. If a smartphone is a surveillance device we voluntarily carry in our pocket, then VR will be a total surveillance state we voluntarily enter.” VR is like being sucked into a pre-made dream, realized via staggering financial backing, with Big Brother watching. Everything is known. At least to the elite minority of dreamers in control.

Such omniscience and omnipotence is the antithesis to the awe and receptivity that Lear postulates as essential to psychoanalysis, to dreaming and to democratic freedom. VR keeps us highly engaged, but precludes the ‘negative capability’ (Keats) vital to dreaming. VR offers infinitely more to know—and infinitely less to not know. It distracts us from the mystery of being (Bollas, 1999) that animates experience. The ineffability of embodied, sensual reality is replaced by comprehension—and again, I think this is very much by design. Although Adorno and Horkheimer were writing about different technologies in their expose of what they call “the Culture Industry,” their assessment of entertainment as a pivotal facet of the late capitalist project of political domination remains relevant. They argue that the Culture Industry keeps us entertained in the service of political disengagement. They write, “The withering of imagination and spontaneity in the consumer culture today need not be traced back to psychological mechanisms. The products themselves . . . cripple those faculties through their objective makeup. They are so constructed that their adequate comprehension requires a quick, observant, knowledgeable cast of mind but positively debars the spectator from thinking” (1944, 100)—thinking, that is, in a Bionian sense of the word. Dreaming. The products of the Culture Industry are constructed so as to both superficially satisfy and subliminally frustrate our desire.

Recall Phillips’ theory that the right amount of frustration is necessary to figure out what we really want, and that authentic desire, in turn, in contact with the limits of reality, is an essential component of dreaming. VR at once obscures and satiates desire; it perverts desire and with it, dreaming. Mass culture, per Adorno and Horkheimer (1944), excessively, and ultimately falsely, indulges our desires at their most banal. It perpetually titillates our sexual and aggressive urges in fantasy, which leads to their repression in reality.

The paradox works like this. On the on hand, by closely approximating reality, and stimulating basic urges, the culture industry (including VR) offers a deeply convincing illusion that it provides us with what we really want. In contrast to dreams, and to psychoanalysis, we mistake virtual technology for real life, mistake the desires sold to us by a powerful industry as authentically ours, and content ourselves with their virtual fulfilment. VR affords us the seductive possibility of complete satisfaction. The desire, frustration and sense of possibility that Phillips believes fuels dreaming and political action, is pacified with cheap thrills.

But as with every Oedipal triumph, of course, there is a nightmare brewing. Capitalism’s “supreme law,” according to Adorno and Horkheimer, “is that its consumers shall at no price be given what they desire” (112). Thus, they continue, “The culture industry endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises. The promissory note of pleasure . . . is indefinitely prolonged . . . the diner must be satisfied with reading the menu. The desire inflamed by the glossy names and images is served up finally with a celebration of the daily round it sought to escape” (111). By this last line the authors imply that the culture industry, in allegiance to the power elite, makes real satisfaction increasingly hard to attain. It subjugates the psychoanalytic project of dreaming. Ultimately, consumers are left frustrated. But because we don’t understand what we really are frustrated about, and what we might do to change it, we act out in violent ways or dissociate further into virtual reality. The entertainment industry neutralizes the subversive power of our instinctual core.

In sum, I think VR, for all its dreamlike features, constitutes a perversion of dreaming, which is also a perversion of desire, frustration, freedom—and ultimately of reality. Like psychoanalysis, VR powerfully evokes our unconscious fantasies and basic drives. But instead of using this material to breathe new life into our embodied reality VR seduces us further into illusion. Its limitless landscape remains two-dimensional; it negates the third that potentiates dreaming-into-being. At once omnipotent and powerless, we control our virtual experience as we murder the real world. Indeed, our immersion in the virtual may be a product our anxiety and helplessness in this “time that breaks in cutting pieces all around” (Berry, 1998). Unfortunately, I do not have time at present to explore further the question of what VR might tell us about our collective psyche. I will simply end with T.S. Elliot’s words: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”


Amber Trotter is a clinical psychology student at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  She holds a BA in Sociology. Her dissertation is titled (grandiosely enough) “Psychoanalysis’ Edge: Ethics, Freedom and Subversive Social Change.”  She is also interested in virtual technologies.  



Adorno and Horkheimer (1944). “The Culture Industry.” In Dialectics of Enlightenment. New York, NY: Social Studies Association, Inc.

Berry, W. (1998). The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.

Bollas, C. (1999). The Mystery of Things. London: Routledge.

Lear, J. (1998). Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ogden, T. (2004). This art of psychoanalysis: Dreaming undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 85, 857-877.

Phillips, A. (2012). Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Yang, P. (2016). The Untold Story of Magic Leap, The World’s Most Secretive Startup. Wired Magazine, May 2016 Issue.