Occupying a privileged position in psychoanalytic thought, sublimation—the process in which the sexual instinct becomes social—is notably undertheorized and notoriously criticized, to some extent as the embodiment of the methodology and politics of psychoanalysis. As a way of elucidating the concept, this article addresses political critiques of sublimation by situating it in Freud's metapsychology and elaborating its speculative theorization. Critics put psychoanalysis in the context of the power structures that it takes for granted as real to show that it imposes on the subject the failure to accede to reality and the failure of its desire—a double bind supposedly finalized by sublimation. In contrast, expositors of Freud's metapsychology draw on its positing of a more complex relation between failure and reality to assert sublimation as real and libidinal. Even as sublimation may be sexual by other means, however, it is premised on the libido's failure to shape social reality. Seemingly compromising it, sublimation's repetition of the condition it is supposed to solve in fact hints at a definition of reality beyond the reality it ostensibly upholds. Freud illustrates this in his analysis of Leonardo, which I reread to highlight sublimation as the realization of desire in its failure and psychoanalysis as reflecting a common sense of reality to embed in it, indeed realize through it, another reality bearing foreclosed desires.


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pp. 79-103
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