Funny things dreams. Profound to some – sophistry to others.
So please mind your language!
I used the word Dream in a presentation once in the UK. Won’t be doing that again in a hurry any time soon: certainly not without a lot of qualification.
Let’s just say I had not realised how ‘spooked’ grown ups can get by a word.
Equally, it served to remind me that my own slap dash use of language and bumbling naivety could do with some heavy spanner work and a healthy dose of tuning fork.
To be fair the D word popped up in very particular circumstance – a discussion about a methodology called Dream In A Box.
The methodology endeavours to reuse and recycle old wisdoms, contemporary cultural signposting, local idioms and vernaculars to write a new narrative – to re-imagine prosperity, reframe sustainability and transform desire – the consuming kind particularly – to a more enduring and sustainable model; all this in pursuit of a more sustainable human existence.
The D word was chosen for its particular resonance with and reference to ‘the American Dream’ and the staining nature of its most recent variant on our beleaguered planet. Not that it was always thus.
The American Dream was one under which all men (and, sure, yup, women, and ok, eventually, if you’re going to push it, with a civil rights movement for example, Afro-Americans) were equal.
In the heady industry-rebuilding, economy-expanding (where waists would surely follow) post-war rush to create the perfect American thriving, surviving white-picket society, that dream took a few toxic turns, until finally, it eventually settled on the perfectly trimmed lawn of the idyllic all-consuming sub Urban lifestyle that we know and love.
Cue Cary Grant movies. Loveboat. Doris Day. And the chirpy satire of Mad Magazine.
It was a dream promising the consumer citizen infinite growth, financially, spiritually, socially and collectively; all merrily based upon an apparently infinite, fecund and plentiful pool of glorious ‘Godly’ resources; material human and physical.
The patently obvious and accelerating realisation of how wrong that immaculate assumption actually was aside, the feeling in the Dream In A Box camp was that the Dream bit of the phrase was reasonably off set by the In A Box bit.
The In A Box part of it made the following particular point: unless you can find a way of containing the otherwise intangible, lofty, unreachable and mildly frustrating dimensions of a Dream and make them real in ways that are meaningful and valuable to everyday people in the everyday thread of life, you are merely peddling opiates.
Even so, for some it smacked of an over simplified homogenous hideous social chimera. A one size fits all piece of social bullying or bluff that was fundamentally anti–social in its anti-individualist bent.
But this vehemence is not a feeling reserved exclusively for the more square cornered sustainable analysts, scientists, engineers underwriting the operational truths of supply and value chains everywhere.
Dreams generally enjoy a dynamic polarity in many people’s minds.
Dreams seem to inhabit a similar place to things like religious fervor, faith and Walt Disney for many of the reason and rationality junkies out there.
To the nay-sayers and doubters, the idea of having a dream (a phrase preferably spat out or sneered through) verges on criminal self delusion and puffery.
The intangible what if nature of them seems to fill them with some form of existential dread.
There is no place for dreams in a reasonable world, especially a scientific one and certainly no place for reason in dreams – so what if Brian ‘Mine’s Hadron Collider’ Cox’s band was called D.Ream. Doesn’t mean he ascribes to them.
The reoccurring theme seems to be that Dreams, like faith, are dangerous things – dark instruments. Dreams obfuscate the real raw nature of our human existence and all of its incumbent challenges, puzzles and conundrums.
The realm of Morpheus is a confection that far from enlightening us is seen as one that diminishes us.
Its almost as if Dreams are flawed in some evolutionary way: rendering us incapable of basic human survival; stupefied by our hazy, twinkle-filled and fantastical view of the world.
A small rummage around the point counter point arguments of, on the one hand, the evolutionary benefits set out in Anttii Revonsuo’s Threat Simulation theory, and Flannagan’s concept of Evolutionary epiphenomena (dreams as a state that lacks any form of adaptive function) on the other clearly inform us that the evolutionary jury’s out on this one.
And the case for Dreams as a scientifically proven improver of our human condition is never helped in the eyes of the scientist by the presence of Dream Catchers and other juvenile voodoo bric a brac in the windows’ of student houses and hippy retreats.
Perhaps the most virulent critics spent one long night too many at college or university pretending to give a crap as the fragile teen sitting opposite them bleated their dream stories in some desperate effort to seem windswept, deep and interesting.
Equally the phrase ‘to follow one’s dreams’ doesn’t help, in that it implies a sheep-like loyalty: a subservience in service of something intangible beyond your control. And we know how rationalists like a smidgen of control.
Whatever it is that causes the anger and disdain; it is a powerful and quite corrosive emotion.
But, for the Dream believers, Dreams are a way of allowing people to transcend the bleak sharp cornered truths of what is and embrace the brighter potential of what could be. Dreams allow us to rise above the deterministic absolutes of any given situation and envision something better.
Martin Luther King had a dream that succeeded in helping to shift millions of black Americans from a position of sub human species needing to know its place to a powerful ethnic constituency in search of a spiritual homeland and tangible human rights and respect.
I doubt even the fiercest doubters could ridicule or set aside the power of that dream to change lives and human existence for the better in some shape or form.
There is a sense that, in the USA of the 1960s, the political power elites, intellectual tribes, state collectives, regional advocates and community activists all jostling for position on either side of the colour divide would never have convened their mighty voices into that one immutable, immoveable and deafening roar without the focus of that Dream, voiced so eloquently and publicly.
But equally, John Stuart Mill found the idea of galvanising and socialising a nation through a singular collective idyll – an idea or dream of better – was at best childish and naïve and at worst an aggressive act of hubris and societal hegemony – a social tyranny.
He believed in the axiom that ‘man should judge everything in life based upon its ability to promote the greatest individual happiness’.
“the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling is more formidable than many kinds of political oppression …leav[ing] fewer means of escape … and penetrat[ing] more deeply into the details of life. ”The “tendency of society to impose … its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and if possible, prevent the formation of individuality, not in harmony with its ways”
There is a sense in this view that an individual Dream is fine while it is held safe and unsullied in the heart and the mind of an individual. It is a beautiful and highly personal wonder, broadly uncorrupted though perhaps a little influenced by the dreams of others.
(It is worth reminding ourselves that Martin Luther King Jnr. said ‘I have a dream…’; not ‘We have a Dream’. It was his; it just had the potential to move many others within it.)
It seems that while in its unadulterated individual state, that which is most emotionally proximal to its originator, a dream is widely lauded as the profound generator of poetry, music, art and literature.
Yeat’s Cloths of Gold directs the listener to ‘tread gently for you tread on my dreams’. They are presented as the purest, most precious things he has to offer the world.
Mamma Cass’s ‘California Dreaming’ protested a desire for a sunnier brighter life far removed from the cold emotionally bleak east of Fall and Atlantic swells. It is her dream and hers alone: just one that happened to be shared by a generation.
The problem it seems is that when mobilised, industrialised and socialised at scale, a dream becomes The Dream – the Mother of Suppression of the Individual in hot pursuit of the collective good. The Dream quickly becomes the destroyer of intelligent dissent and the brutal editor of different orthodoxies and philosophies that did not quite ‘fit’ ‘The Dream’. It becomes all that John Stuart Mill berated and warned of in his view of one dimensional models of collective happiness as some conjuring trick played on the masses.
Dreams also have an ill-judged and reoccurring tendency of turning up at the very heart of large orgiastic excursions into nationalistic and hubristic megalomania.
Dreams of Empire whether by Georgian and Victorian Britain, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy or the German Third Reich always seem to bear out the truth of Mr Mill’s perception.
To use a singular Dream in this way is to squash the very diversity and healthy human tension the enables us to evolve as a species. Dreams are a recidivist and controlling mechanism that are worthy of deep suspicion.
The pollutant seems (as so often is the case) to be somewhat rooted in what man has done in the name of dreams; not in the condition of dreaming which in itself is a pretty confounding experience. They are after all an axial mechanism of our deepest mind.
Dreams at their most basic level are the powerhouse of our emotional computing.
They are the synaptic equivalent of taking the big data from every facet and corner of our existence and atomically mixing it up with the narrative skills of Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Spielberg and Plato.
Dreams are the super processor of individual human potential.
They are the transcendence mechanism in us – they are the ‘reach’ mechanism that compels us to perhaps stretch beyond what seems immediately possible or probable to test the edges of what could or might be.
Science clearly sets out the power of our sleeping computations in regards to cognitive ability and capacity.
But given their sleep hosted ‘madness’, flaky associations, the abstracted corollaries that exist within them and Freud’s rather particular take on them, it is easy to set Dreams aside as garish hyperemotional gibberish – or reinvent them as some twist of needy or proving self-identification and elevation.
Most people find the sharing of what one dreams an immature act of identity assertion; usually by those who feel there is little social or intellectual mystery or magic about them. Given that it is a habit that one usually hopes dies out with the arrival of slightly greater intellectual and spiritual surety, perhaps the mere sight of the word makes them run for the hills screaming.
There is a theory that dreams exist in the sleep-scapes of REM Rapid Eye Movement and NREM Non Rapid Eye Movement and do so with a very clear function.
It is believed that the process of sleep to encode and transfer data from the temporary memory store in the conscious mind accesses and activated in NREM sleep to the long term memory store in the subconscious mind accessed and activated in REM sleep – and the continual activation of this flow is what stimulates dreams. So in that way they are a robust and meaningful process of our body science and an enricher of our more adaptive cognition.
It is not just the science of the brain that frames the arguments and beliefs around dreams and their role.
Human history and the texts of the ancients are riddled with expansive philosophical treatise and frameworks. From the ancient Mesopotamians, Chinese, Upanishads, and Babylonians, to the Egyptians Greeks and Romans, the powerful nature of dreams have always held a deep and profound place in our collective social memory.
In some ways perhaps the truth of Dreams lies as with many things somewhere between the two; at the point at which these two distinct perspectives overlap and stitch together; neither being the predominant force but both represented as balanced and weighted in a perfect symmetry with each other. This duality might offer us a more productive way forwards.
Gramsci invites us to apply Pessimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will in all things. Perhaps this is the filter through which we should view Dreams and everything to do with them in regards to the ambition of transforming the more toxic desires of the average consumer.
Certainly in regards to the Dream word being used as a way to frame the spiritual social and material vision of a more sustainable form of consumption, Gramsci’s invitation would help balance the two dimensions.
The pessimistic Intellect – the science – interrogating the truths of how we engineer and support these more sustainable lifestyles while the optimistic Spirit – the philosophical – compels a more transcendent human nature be applied at every opportunity – a higher human purpose that might take everyday humanity beyond the impenetrable science and just doing enough to scrape through.
This would liberate the word and the language around it to be both rooted in the deep science that will be required to reinvent our standard forms of consumption and yet elevated by the optimism of a collective human endeavour lived in real time in the real world.
And perhaps if we liberated the word – set it free from the shackles of an Either/Or model of determinative application we might find something richer and more human again in Dreams.
If perhaps we also recognised that in regards to visionary models of human consumption, Dreams can be nuanced, shaded and culturally meaningful even at a meta level.
In the Dream In A Box initiatives undertaken so far we already have 5 Shades of Dream – Emerging; Latent; Resurgent; Extant; Evolving – starting to reveal themselves in regards to formulating desirable and enduring lifestyles of consumption.
I am certain that more will present themselves before we are finished.
So here’s to those turbulent, intangible, flaky, studenty, inspirational, nation-shaping, scientist irritating things called Dreams.
If for nothing else they should be considered eminently remarkable purely on the basis that they can elicit so much passionate debate and discourse purely by their mention.
As long as each Dream is considered on its merit – not on some preconceived concept of what it does not fulfil, or on some etymological witch hunt dressed up as rigour and realism we’ll perhaps be fine. Until then…
As Stephen Tyler sang: ‘Dream On’