Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sex Symbols: An Introduction to Phallic & Yonic Dream Symbolism

A phallic symbol is the representation of an erect penis. It is typically associated with fertility, cultural implications and the male sex drive or orgasm. The phallus may also be known as the lingam. It derives from the Latin, although in Proto-Indo-European, the root word bhel means to 'swell' or 'inflate', thus referring to the erection. In Ancient Greek tradition, Hermes the messenger god was often depicted with a large phallus, as was his son, Pan. Priapus, the son of Aphrodite and either Dionysus or Adonis was a fertility god, and possessor of an exaggerated phallus. His name has been used for the medical condition, priapism - where the erect penis is unable to return to its flaccid state after 4 hours, despite physical and mental stimulation. The phallic symbol has prominence in many other ancient cultures, traditions and mythologies and is central to notions of male power and dominance. 

This is the meaning afforded to the phallus in psychoanalysis. According to Freud, while man may possess a penis, no-one is able to possess the symbolic phallus. In Jacques Lacan's Ecrit: A Selection (1977) he distinguishes between 'being' and 'having' the phallus. Men are positioned as men because they are seen to have the phallus; women who do not have the phallus are seen to 'be' the phallus. The symbolic phallus is the concept of being the 'ultimayte man'. In Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990), the author analyses Freud and Lacan's treatment of the symbolic phallus, which connects it to the penis. However, during the Renaissance sculptural depictions of the male nude, such as the Apollo Belvedere, are characterised by the detachment or minimisation of the penis. Many of the sculptures housed at the British Museum are displayed sans penis - with the phallus often kept separately. Some academics have equated modern notions of male beauty and aesthetics with the absence of the penis.

In Renaissance medical anatomy, the relationship between the male and female body was regarded in hierarchical terms - the female was 'lesser' - an inverted version of the male with a phallic tube and internal genitalia. During the 17th and 18th centuries, males and females came to be regarded as 'opposites' with anatomy peculiar to their own gender and reproductive function. In the 21st century we are experiencing a new liberation where gender is perceived as fluid and non-binary and not confined to physical attributes or characteristics. The Self transcends its physical confinement and gendered characteristics and many societies and cultures celebrate the freedom to be transgender or gender-neutral as an accepted alternative to the traditional notion of fixed binary gender - i.e. male or female.  

The female equivalent of the phallus is the yoni - which is a Sanskrit word meaning 'vagina' or 'womb'. In contrast to the phallus, it is depicted as a receptacle or hollowed out space and symbolises the divine temple or sacred passage. In Hindu philosophy it is regarded as the origin of all life, whereas the lingam or phallus is the transcendental source of all existence. The yoni, the creative power of nature, represents the Hindu goddess Shakti, whilst the linga stone relates to the god Shiva. Placed together, they refer to the non-duality of divine reality and transcendental potentiality. 

Phallic symbolism is often used in advertisements and commercials which use subliminal messaging techniques. Subliminal stimuli operates below the threshold of consciousness, in contrast to supraliminal stimuli which functions at the normal level of perception. Studies into functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown that subliminal stimuli activate certain areas of the brain, despite subjects being unaware. Visual images may be flashed so quickly that the subject is unable to consciously perceive them, or masked by something else, interrupting the process. Audible stimuli may be played below perceivable levels or similarly masked. Subliminal stimuli may trigger an emotional response or act persuasively upon the subject. The same techniques may be used for 'subliminal priming' - to help subjects overcome addictions or improve performance in specific tasks, such as boosting learning capacity. The most controversial applications of subliminal messaging are advertisement and 'mind control', although such activities are regulated and may be, in certain instances, prohibited due to fears that they may 'brainwash' viewers. Messages or images which are typically embedded into advertisements, using subliminal stimuli, relate to sex or death - i.e. the violent drives and impulses of the Freudian Id. There has been substantial commentary on use of subliminal stimuli - often of a sexual or provocative nature - in Disney animations. A study by Ruth & Mosatche (1985) found that advertising which used Freudian conceptions of sexual symbolism - i.e. genital symbolism - had a significant effect on purchasing and desirability of a product. This led to a conclusion that sexual symbolism motivates a subject towards goal-directed behaviours. Psychoanalysis assumes that recognition of sexual images, genitalia and the act of intercourse unconsciously stimulates the subject and motivates their behaviours.

This article, while addressing the use of phallic and yonic symbolism in popular culture (because what we perceive subconsciously or consciously may influence the meaning we impose on symbols, particularly those occurring within the dream state), is centred around Freud's theories of phallic symbolism and therefore, we return to his views. Freud made strict distinctions between male and female bodies. Earlier theory treated the vagina as an inverted penis, but Freud's emphasis on the excitation of the vagina, as a complement to the male orgasm was quite controversial. His concentration on the vagina also ran counter to contemporary focus on the clitoris as the source of female arousal. Freud believed that the female must give up the phallic clitoris and differentiate herself from males in order to set herself on the path of sexual reproduction. 

Freud theorised that the psychosexual development of females often led to 'penis envy' - a reaction to the fact that the girl does not possess a penis, a defining moment in the realisation of gender and sexual identity. In males, the comparative response is 'castration anxiety' - which occurs when they realise that girls do not possess a penis. Penis envy occurs during the phallic stage of libidinal development (3 - 6 years of age), when the female infant apparently experiences sexual desire for her mother. Upon discovering that she are not physically equipped to consummate a (hetero)sexual relationship with her mother, her sexual impulse shifts to the father (Electra Complex) and she seeks to eliminate and replace her mother and envies the power bestowed in possessing a penis, blaming her mother for the 'castration' she has suffered. The girl will identify with her mother in order for her to mimic her. In males, there is no need to shift a sexual desire from the father to the mother. The boy will identify with his father, whom has the object of his sexual impulses - his mother (Oedipus Complex). Both genders were thought to use the defence mechanism of displacement to project their sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent onto others generally. Freud thought that penis envy transformed itself into the wish for a man or a baby. Freud's theories have received significant and intense criticism. Not only were they not amenable to empirical observation or testing, but they have been labelled by feminist criticism as patriarchal and misogynistic, representing women as broken or deficient 'men' and reinforcing of patriarchal power structures and male narcissism.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Freud indicated that the distinctions between the genders were blurred during infancy - a period of 'polysexuality' - the mouth, anus and genitals are explored by the child due to their excitability and it is not until puberty that sharp distinction between male and female characteristics are established. Freud also emphasised a basic continuity between pre and post-pubertal sexuality, indicating that sexuality after puberty is always an attempt to relocate the objects which gave us pleasure in infancy. Penis envy and castration anxiety is not relinquished in adulthood - femininity is characterised by a masculine desire to possess the penis, while masculinity is threatened by a loss of the penis. In boys, realising that the mother is 'castrated' (has no penis) jolts them from their primeval happiness and resolves the Oedipus Complex, although some males may never stop desiring the non-castrated phallic mother. Freud depicted fetishes as a substitute for the castrated penis of the mother. In girls, recognition of the lack of penis in the mother (and the subject) is often the catalyst for the Electra Complex - the desire for the father's penis. This is a very brief overview of quite complex and lengthy psychoanalytic theory, but in summary Freud's views were commensurate with notions that psychologically, each individual is neither wholly male or female, but instead a mixture of both at once, although they are physically and biologically distinct. Freudian thought is infused with ideas of the 'detachability of the penis', the fear of its loss and hopes to (re)gain it. In Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910), Freud identifies the search for the phallic mother as the driving force behind Da Vinci's artistic impulses, basing many of his psychoanalytical interpretations of Da Vinci on Enlightenment texts, such as Richard Payne Knight, Discourse on Priapus (1786), which traces the historical and religious worship of the phallic symbol. Freud notably made connections between ancient civilisations and archaeology (a particular passion of his) and modern biological science. Like Da Vinci, he positioned himself as both a classical humanist and a modern scientist.

Freud's phallocentric theories of childhood sexual difference are likened to the primeval androgyny which is apparent in ancient Greek mythology. Critics of Freud's approach have suggested that children do understand sexual difference - the male is aware of the existence of the vagina, but either fears its vastness (in comparison with his penis) or denies its existence as a result of the threat and rivalry presented by his father. Many of these critics take a view deriving from the Biblical book of Genesis - that humans are born with an innate sense of sexual difference.

A symbol is something which refers or represents something - distinct from a sign, which indicates the presence of something. Symbols derive their meaning by their reference to something else and their connection to their referent by association of ideas and convention. Symbolism is argued by some to be conscious, but psychoanalytic theory depicts it as an unconscious process - the replacement of an image, idea or activity for another. Freud described dreams as the 'Royal road to the unconscious', highlighting their revelatory function. True symbolism is thought to derive from intra-psychic conflict and repression. Thus, symbolism is the unconscious sublimation of something repressed, a process which involves the modification or altering of the quality of the original object or idea. These are private constructions which are discoverable only through individualised personal experience. The exception to this theory is the existence of universal dream symbols. This is countered by acceptance that there are fundamental and perennial interests which are uniform within mankind and the fact that humans share a capacity to recognise the resemblance between objects. Symbolism is therefore a primary process in unconscious thought - and most accessible to analysis which focuses on Freudian ideas of displacement and condensation. Freud's interpretation of dreams is hinged on symbolism and acceptance of universal dream symbols, but rejects the prophetic character of dreams, the latter being discussed in earlier discourse on dreams and their meaning. Freud believed that symbolism occurs because the referent (the thing which has been substituted by the surrogate symbol) is distasteful or dangerous to the censor. Dreamwork enables the unconscious brain to smuggle in this dangerous material disguised as something harmless or innocuous. Surveys of psychoanalytic literature is able to locate in excess of 709 identifiable dream symbols - 102 of these relate to the penis and 95 relate to the vagina. Other referents which are subject to symbolisation are: death (62), intercourse/penetration (55), masturbation (25), mother (15), father (14), breasts (13) and castration (12). With the exception of death, typically these dream symbols substitute something observable, tangible or concrete for something else which is concrete - i.e. an object or activity. 

Symbolism works by association - resemblance in shape, function, quality, action, status, number, sound, colour etc. There may also be association with contiguity, of part with whole or by contrast. Some critics of Freud's interpretation of dreams point out that often activities such as patricide, incest or sexual expression may be presented on some occasions as shrouded in symbolism (through processes of displacement and condensation), while they occur candidly and plainly (i.e. without substitution) on others. There is no explanation as to why the unconscious brain might create an elaborate deception through dream symbolism only to abandon it in favour of a literal depiction in another dream. Such critics also argue that subjects are able to easily comprehend the meaning of their dreams, even without knowledge of Freudian symbolism, therefore negating it - why would the unconscious brain need to deceive a subject who is able to readily understand and translate their dream content without reference to Freudian theory? It may be that because we have adopted and developed a consciously contrived language of symbols in our verbal and visual communication - i.e. 'slang', we are already programmed to read symbols - there is a common thread between the referent (usually sexual in nature), the common slang terminology or symbol and dream content. However, it would appear fruitless for the subject to unconsciously code objects, ideas and activities during dreaming if he is able to articulate them consciously during waking life. 

It may be necessary to understand the psychological implications of language, and in particular tropes (figures of speech) to understand dream symbolism. Four main tropes are identified by CS Hall, 'A Cognitive Theory of Dream Symbols' (1953) 48 The Journal of General Psychology 169:
  1. Synecdoche - the part if used for the whole - cause for effect, name of the material for the object, the species for the genus etc
  2. Metonymy - the word is changed by association or close relationship to something else
  3. Metaphor - the transference of a name/attribute to an object based on analogy or figurative likeness, rather than literal or strict similarity or meaning
  4. Irony - the intended implication is the opposite of that which is stated
Hall suggests that the connection between slang/tropes and dream symbolism is linked to psychological identity - they are idioms by which the subject seeks to express his conceptions. He therefore views dream symbolism as revealing rather than concealing. He states that psychoanalytic theory is flawed because it does not explain why a multitude of different symbols are required to act as a substitute for the same referent. Under his own theory, he asserts that is dreams are 'conceptions' (as opposed to 'wish fulfilment' under Freud), the multiplicity of symbolism for a single referent becomes clear - a versatile idiom is required for conveying the precise shade of meaning. This article is not intended to act as a vehicle for my own criticism or defence of Freudian or any other theory of dreaming - I hope to develop my own paradigm of dream interpretation in the future, through which I will address such issues. However, it is suffice to point out that Hall's theory fails to apply observations about the flexibility and abundance of dream symbolism to the Freudian wish fulfilment ideology. If a variety of symbols exist in order to convey the precise 'shade' of the subject's conception or idea, why is this different for the Freudian dreamer, who equally may experience a range of symbolic 'idioms' to communicate the specifics of the disguised referent? It seems that Hall argues against Freudian psychoanalysis because the latter requires an acknowledgement of the highly complex processes of the dreaming mind. Hall states that sleep is a period of reduced mental activity, but - due to the fact his paper was published in 1953 - overlooks neuroscientific evidence of complex mental processes and functions which occur in the dream state. 

Hall endorses the free association method of dream interpretation which is central to Freudian theory - which supports the idea that dream symbolism is an individualised language decipherable to the subject through the narrative context of the dream content. Hall's theory simplifies Freud's ideas of symbolic disguise and subterfuge, delineating them as expression of ideas, using the language of imagery which is a more direct and powerful than abstract modes of expression. He supports Freud's view that dreams are a regressive and anarchic process which resuscitates earlier childhood relationships, drives and impulses using modes of expression which were available to the subject at the time of their occurrence. Accepting that there are no fixed, mechanical connections between referents and symbols does not undermine Freudian dream interpretation theory, but rather, adopts a more nuanced, individualised approach, and indeed Hall states that symbolic condensation is a common phenomenon, lending support to Freud's theory of dreamwork. In summary, Hall's reconfiguration of dream interpretation theory takes its starting point from Freud's ideas about 'regard for representability' with dream symbolism operating, not as an elaborate disguise for subversive meaning, but rather as a means of communicating ideas in a clear, economical and compelling way where the subject's conception of the dream symbol is identical to his conception of the referent object.  The process of symbolisation is a cognitive function of the ego. 

Freud also placed emphasis on mnemic symbolism, particularly in his later works. He stated that these symbols become linked with the referent because they occurred incidentally and simultaneously with the traumatic event which has been decoded within the dream. He argued that symbols may also be already present within the unconscious, and thus are not created by the censoring process of dreamwork, but used as convenient, readily-accessible material from which the disguise can be constructed. This supports his theory that symbolism may be phylogenetically inherited as part of the archaic language of the unconscious. Freud's earlier writing focuses on two forms of symbolism: mnemic symbolism where the connecting link is temporal simultaneity and symbolisation in normal symbol formation/obsessional neuroses, where the connecting link is similarity. The a priori existence of universal, inherited symbolism (which takes us into the realm of Jungian dream interpretation), can only relate to the latter - where the tertium comparationis is similarity, not associative memory.

This ideas and theories make me wonder about lucid dreaming and how Freud and other dream scholars' model of dreaming and dream interpretation can be read and understood within this context. What is the relationship between dream symbolism and lucid dreaming? Is the lucidity trigger in a dream (the part of the dream content which triggers lucidity in the dreamer - i.e. the conscious realisation that they are asleep and dreaming) sometimes a 'recognition' on the part of the dreamer that there is an apparent disconnect between what is being symbolised in the dream content and their conscious or rational mind? I find that my lucid dream triggers are often moments in dreams where I question what is being presented in the dream narrative due to my conscious knowledge about a particular person, object, event or concept. Theories of dream symbolism and lucid dreaming ('Lucid Dreaming After Freud?) will be a topic I hope to write on at a later stage after undertaking some thorough research. I have not yet come across any literature dealing with this theme, so I have no idea what discourse there is, although I do engage with many sources of information and learning on lucid dreaming generally.

Freud's focus on manifest and latent content of dreaming has been used as the basis of psychoanalytical dream interpretation methods, but has also found its way into popular culture. I already mentioned the use of phallic imagery in subliminal advertising or messaging. Here we have what is presented consciously to the viewer and what is communicated unconsciously, The subliminal message is imprinted on the mind at a subconscious level and associated with the supraliminal, or perceived, image/stimulus. I have highlighted studies which have taken Freudian phallic symbolism and identified its effect when implanted into advertisements for consumer products. Dreams can be read as subliminal messages surfacing from the subconscious - latent content which is disguised by the manifest content of dream symbolism and the dream narrative. The dreamer uses the language of dream symbolism to reach the latent content - or meaning - of the dream. Freud warned that interpreting the manifest content only - i.e. what is perceivable on the surface, would lead to error in dream interpretation. The latent content could therefore be seen as a 'subtext', decoded by recognising associations between the manifest and latent content - or the referent and the dream symbol. In particular, Freud's theories on dream symbolism and sexuality have been influential in art, literature and film. In particular, id impulses are often symbolically represented, as will neuroses, fears and anxieties. This is true of Freudian theories on dreaming - which emphasises 'wish fulfilment' and conflicts between the id and the superego in negotiating impulses, desires and drives which may be unacceptable to express consciously. Popular culture is full of phallic symbolism - objects or events which we perceive to have some association with sex or sexuality. Whether the referent object (i.e. the 'Gherkin' building at 30 St Mary Axe, central London) was expressly intended to convey the meaning we (sub)consciously ascribe to it, or merely the result of collective association based on a universal language of symbolism. The very notion of 'intended meaning' is obsolete when we find phallic symbolism occurring in nature. Architecture (i.e. skyscrapers) and weaponry (guns, arrows, knives, missles, torpedos etc) are phallic - displaying dominance and power, capable of destruction and characterised by erectness or penetrating qualities. 

For Freud, walking into a room in a dream may be symbolic of sexual intercourse. The room - the space which is entered through the doorway - represents the vagina and womb of a female - which is 'penetrated' by the symbolic act of walking into the space. Freudian theory depicts females in two ways: the nurturing woman and the devouring woman - or 'vagina dentata'. The latter is a result of castration anxiety, which creates a fear of women in men. Early representations of the devouring woman include Medusa, the Gorgon in ancient Greek mythology - the appearance of Freudian sexual symbolism in cultural iconography, mythology and art is credited to the fact that ideas which are difficult or impossible to communicate consciously may subconsciously emerge in creative expression.

Ludwig Wittengenstein argues that Freud's wish fulfilment theory of dreaming and dream symbolism is deficient as: (a) the 'wish' appearing as a camouflaged enactment within the dream, is not a satisfactory 'fulfilment' - instead the fulfilment of the wish is substituted for hallucinated event; and (b) the censor has been cheated. He suggest that there is no one reason or explanation for anything and not everything is allegorical or meaningful. This is the problem with symbolism - in some circumstances it is universal and others deeply individual and subjective. In many cases it may be indecipherable - such as with some dream symbols which seem to elude any rational or comprehensible interpretation.

I have included some examples of phallic symbolism in various forms:
Phallic & yonic symbolism in art
 Phallic & yonic symbolism in architecture
 Examples of subliminal imagary in advertising
Phallic symbolism in nature
 Classic Freudian symbolism

1 comment:

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