—Danae Tapia


In this paper I will investigate the possibilities of locating the act of dreaming in a posthumanist place. According to Cary Wolfe, posthumanism names “a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatics, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore” (Wolfe 2010 p.xv). I propose that dreams constitute an experience that, although in happens to the human, this human is not at the centre of the experience since he or she cannot control nor explain it.

Is particularly challenging to grasp dreams through humanist-rationalist paradigms, dreams are a space where our perception is altered, in dreams our mind defies the traditional conceptions of language and creates new systems of expression. Therefore, the intersections between posthumanism and the act of dreaming are not only easily relatable but potentially prolific in terms of possible creative tools that this interplay can shape.

I will briefly review the most relevant cultural approaches to the act of dreaming and assess the current role of the oneiric experience, which nowadays has been relegated to a mere bodily function that can only be approached through the empiricist neuroscientific approach or through the instructions-manual-like Freudian theory of interpretation of dreams.

Through the revision of selected artistic representations that portray technological attempts to grasp the dreaming experience, I will elaborate initial guidelines for a posthumanist theory of dreams.


The idea of dreams as a space that is complementary to social activities has been present in several ancient cultures and in every religion that has a god. Stories of prophecies that appear in dreams exist in the Bible and in the Quran, for example. This has allowed the development and evolution of a range of interpretative techniques, rituals and other supplementary social activities related to dreaming (Green 2015 p.143).

Many of these techniques and activities survive in communities that operate in a more mystical realm, this is the case of shamanic culture worldwide, in which dreams are a fundamental part of the formation of the shaman, they constitute a space for learning where the initiatory and the final ecstatic experience occur (Eliade 1951 p.34). To shamans, dreams are an actual space and they establish a continuum between the oneiric and the awaken life.

An empiricist approach to the role of dreaming in society that is accepted until today is the work of Sigmund Freud, who in 1920 presented his psychoanalytical theory that indicates that every dream has a latent content that is subject to interpretation, Freud was emphatic affirming that all dreams are realizations of wishes and that the vast majority of these wishes correspond to a sexual nature (Freud 1920). Authors Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari establish a clear relation between psychoanalysis and capitalism, their critique of Freud is brutal and locate his work on doubling the imagined object with a real object as dream interpretation at the “lowest analytical level” (Deleuze and Guattari 1972 p.322), this affirmation seems quite pertinent when looking at some of Freud’s reasonings where dreaming of a box means a vagina, a sharp weapon a penis and a row of rooms means a harem (Freud 1920 p.60).

In 1953, traditional science allocated dream activity at the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage of sleep, this is a period of slumber involving fast brain activity similar to that when awake. This was concluded through experiments that consisted of waking up the test-subjects just at the REM stage so they were able to provide detailed descriptions of their dreams. The REM stage, can only be attained through sleeping (Aserinsky and Kleitman 1953), therefore, science allocated the possibility of dream only in this specific stage of sleeping, completely unattainable for an awaken individual, extremely away from our daily life.

However, a recent neuroscience study, contested this notion that dreams are only reachable at REM. Current findings in this discipline indicate that individuals can have dreaming or the absence of dreaming both in REM as in non-REM stages (Siclari, Baird et al. 2017). These results are especially relevant as a critique of the prevailing assumption of dreams as an experience that occurs in an isolated, unattainable place. This study is particularly relevant since it hints the possibility of grasping some of the dreaming experience even in awaken states since non-REM stages are not exclusively achievable through sleep.


To dream is an act clearly unproductive for capitalist standards: the dreamer is motionless and the products of the dream have no commercial value whatsoever. Therefore, it is possible to argue that the seclusion that the act of dreaming has experienced in our recent cultural history, has been a biopolitical process.

Michel Foucault defines biopolitics as a fundamental element in the development of capitalism, he establishes the deliberate implementation of a biopower to subject the bodies and control the population. Biopower has a central bodily component, it’s not just abstract regulations, it’s the invasion of the living body, its valorisation and the distributive management of its forces (Foucault 1976 p.131).

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, takes the concepts of biopolitics and biopower proposed by Foucault and develops it further using the idea of the control of the bodies. In order to do this, he brings the Greek distinction between “zoē” and “bios”. Zoē expresses the simple fact of living that is common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, indicates the form or way of living that is proper to an individual or a group. Agamben establishes a correlation between the idea of zoē and what he calls “bare life”, and this bare life is the one that biopower intends to control, to Agamben, this control is executed in current politics with the exclusion of these forms of life, as exceptions, never as a part inside of the dominant political structure (Agamben 2017 p.12).

Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus explain how capitalist society deliberately has positioned desire machines in the realm of dreams or the imaginary, and through that operation now desire is not in the material world, therefore has no importance, it is a denial, it’s only a dream (Deleuze and Guattari 1972 p.304). This last phrase, “it’s only a dream” is absolutely in line with the exclusion that Agamben proposes, dreams are not part of the political realm and they are excluded from the law since no law can operate inside the individual experience of dreams.

In the following section I will review examples of film and literature that propose possibilities of incorporating the bare life of dreams into bios. These examples range from the most dystopic to propositions in which zoē is addressed with a transformative posthumanist approach.


The film Inception (2010) written and directed by Christopher Nolan was a Hollywood success that proposes the possibility of manipulating dreams. Nolan portrays a society in which this ability has been mastered by “extractors” who commission their work to powerful and rich people. Nolan’s approach is not experimental at all in terms of narrative and oneiric visions are presented in the current Hollywood way with extremely expensive special effects that involve cities and buildings moving in impossible ways.

Inception is a capitalist dystopia, predictably, the people with the ability to manipulate dreams use their skills for commercial purposes, basically, corporate espionage within dreams. Nolan does not make a very deep reflection on what does it means to dream, nor its creative possibilities. He depicts dreams as a commodity, as a prison to be rescued from or as a land to colonize by his good- looking actors. This approach is in line with Donna Harway’s concerns proposed in her Cyborg Manifesto, particularly when she explains that communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move -the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange (Haraway 1991 p.34). Nolan probably envisions the most realistic future for the eventual development of a technology that could grasp dreams: completely controlled by corporate powers.

This is a problem that Haraway assigns to biotechnology advances, since this discipline has an aim in which organisms have ceased to exist as objects of knowledge, giving way to biotic components, i.e., special kinds of information-processing devices (Haraway 1991 p.35). Thus, a posthumanist approach should tackle that quantifying vision in order to propose interdisciplinary views that reflect on the biopolitical component of these scientific efforts.


Until the End of the World is a 1991 film directed by Wim Wenders that is situated in a futuristic vision of the year 1999. At the center of the film there is a machine that records brain activity in the form of a video but coded in neural signs, the purpose of this helmet-like machine is to allow a blind woman to see these images through the connection of her brain to the machine. This part of the film presents the distinction between what do we perceive through vision and what do we perceive with other elements or senses of the human body. Wenders use the concept “biochemical images”.

By the end of the film, the inventor of this machine, develops a system based on the same technology but this time it records dreams. People in his laboratory use this helmet and then watch what they have dreamt in a small screen, similar to a smartphone. In their dreams they recall their childhood, relatives who passed away and rapidly they become addicts to their dreams and this addiction produces an isolation of themselves. This result is coherent with an understanding of dreams as a private thing, an experience that is never social nor political. The strong image of the characters totally immersed in their devices even operates as a prediction of life nowadays, with all of us completely absorbed by our smartphones and devotees of the image of ourselves that we present in our virtual life. To Donna Haraway current technologies are fundamental for the eradication of “public life” for everyone (Haraway 1991 p.42), and Wenders proposes a future in which dreams constitute the ultimate element of isolation from society.

Haraway also explicitly proposes that technologies as video games and highly miniaturized televisions seem crucial to production of modern forms of “private life” (Haraway 1991 p.42). The case of Until the End of the World actually proposes a new form of private life that could be considered posthumanist in a very twisted way since the imbrication of the individual with the technology has centered him/her so much that is completely lost. Again, using Haraway’s words “it is not clear who makes and who is made in the human-machine relation” (Haraway 1991 p.60).

Maybe a more optimist way to look at this potential form of private life is to look at Wim Wenders film and at our smartphone-controlled society as a warning on design ethics and as a call to start thinking of ourselves as hybrid subjects part machine. “The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment” (Haraway 1991 p.65)


The American essayist Chuck Klosterman, has a line of work called “Hypertheticals”, he writes extreme hypothetical questions, that he introduces into his chronicle books. He even released a board game with the questions. The following question is called “The Dream VCR”:

“At long last, someone invents “the dream VCR”. This machine allows you to tape an entire evening’s worth of your own dreams, which you can then watch at your leisure. However, the inventor of the dream VCR will only allow you to use this device if you agree to a strange caveat: When you watch your dreams, you must do so with your family and your closest friends in the same room. They get to watch your dreams along with you. And if you don’t agree to this, you can’t use the dream VCR. Would you still do this?”

This text, despite its humorous tone, reveals again the tension between dreams and private life. And principally shows the impossibility of incorporating dreams in public life in a smooth, comfortable way. To analyse this piece, it is useful to borrow David Wills’ idea of “the prosthetization of the ego”, to Wills, the human develops his/her entire existence using a mask. He uses the example of blushing as a form of prosthetization: an automated reaction to express a position in social life. For Wills, to prosthetize is to propose a form of advancing or projecting oneself, by which the self readjusts itself outside of itself. And in the end emerges an I that reveals itself as originally prosthesis (Wills 2016 p.39).

In the example of the dream VCR the prothesis does not operate as it should since it doesn’t mask us. Therefore, through Klosterman’s example, we are able to conclude that dreams contain this bare life characteristic, they are not allowed in the political life and they are unable to be controlled by a transparent device. It is also possible to say that the inventor of the dream VCR was very visionary with his or her instructions. The prospect of a machine that records dreams carries the threat that Giorgio Agamben describes in What Is an Apparatus?: “the phase of extreme development of capitalism that we are living now is characterized by a gigantic accumulation and proliferation of devices, it’s like theres not a single instant in an individual’s life that is not modeled, contaminated or controlled by some device” (Agamben 2006 p.25).

It seems that dreams are a frontier that has not been colonized by technology yet.


Blood and Guts in High School is a novel written by Kathy Acker in 1984, it is considered her most popular work and it is known for its controversial aim that involves incestuous sexual relationships, the use of drugs, prostitution and slavery. Literary scholars have categorized the novel as a metafictional text since it is explicitly aware of its status as a fictional piece, this characteristic allowed the author to incorporate non-linear narrative techniques, drawings, plagiarism and other expressions that situated the book as an avant-garde literary icon.

One of the most significant sections of the novel is “A map of my dreams”, which is an illustration that depicts the main character’s dreams, she uses a cartographical approach to address this obscure topic:

This is an example where visualization plays an important role in the explanation of a subject, in words of the digital humanities scholar Jesse Rosenthal “allows us to engage with that irreductible element in a way that language would not” (Rosenthal 2017).

I present this cartography as a posthuman possibility to fight the colonization of our dreams. This colonization has already started with psychoanalysis, and sooner or later, a biotechnological attack is going to be carried by technological devices. Giorgio Agamben proposes a strategy for this type of conflict: "Which strategies should we adopt in the battle of our bodies against the devices? It’s about liberating what has been captured and separated because of the devices, in order to restitute these elements for a possible common purpose” (Agamben 2006 p.27).

Kathy Acker uses a technology as a strategy to liberate her dreams: cartography. She is also translating the oneiric experience into a visual output, some might even say she is colonizing it. However, there is no commodification in this exercise, as is in the case of Inception, this is neither an isolating effort as in Until the End of the World, on the contrary, it presents this sphere of private life in a public way. Traces of posthumanism can be also found in this map: the references to the dissolution of boundaries between human and nature (“A tree which is the world which is my back. Its branches are moving. Making sounds”), or the animals in this map in which they have agency (“I don’t care what happens. I’m so tired, I give up. I decide to let the bird catch me. I fall, the huge black bird catches me and folds mean its arms. As soon as I give up to him he falls in love with me. We try to figure out how to save me from death”).

Acker’s approach to dreams provides a guideline of a non-capitalist way to address bare life, it is the human effort to connect with the ungraspable elements of our consciousness in an exploration that is mindful of non-human types of agency and that challenges rationalist approaches to knowledge.


Cary Wolfe is very clear expressing that the nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist (Wolfe 2010 p.xvi). And throughout the revision of the cultural history of dreams and the examination of its posthuman possibilities, we find that the dreaming experience by definition challenges the accepted paradigms of rationalist thinking.

In order to think of the potential of dreams as a force that will de-center the human in our current cultural setting it will be necessary to evaluate the cooptation possibilities of the act of dreaming. The examples reviewed in this essay provide an appropriate reference to assess these biopolitical threats. In the case of eventual machines that attempt to access dreams it will be necessary to incorporate Giorgio Agamben’s vision on the process of “desubjectivation” perpetrated by technological gadgets. To him, what defines the devices we find in the current phase of capitalism is that these do not act through the production of a subject (as prisons or factories) but through process that could be called of “desubjectivation”. This is why Agamben negates the possibility of solving the problem of biopolitical control of digital devices through an “appropriate use”, it will always be just control and the people who promote these well-meaning discusses are only the result of the mediation device that has captured them (Agamben 2006 p.30).

If Foucault defines biopower as power to accessing the body (Foucault 1976 p.133), then the biopolitical attempts to access dreams (a bodily function) will have to be evaluated under their “desubjectivating” attributes. In Sigmund Freud’s vision the dreamer is not a subject, is a prisoner of his or her desires which should be hidden. In the speculative ideas on accessing dreams that occur in Inception, Until the End of the World and The Dream VCR, the dreamer is not a subject either but an inert individual ready to be absorbed by external powers: the dream extractor of Inception, the addictive screen of Until the End of the World and the public shame of The Dream VCR.

Only in Kathy Acker’s novel the dreamer has agency and a transformative potential. She proposes a way in which the dreamer and the dream are matter to be imbricated in a surrealist cartography. The Surrealist project began in the early 1920s and used dreams as a primary resource, their goal was a pure psychical automatism that intended to express through the arts, the real functioning of the thought, without the regulatory intervention of reason and without aesthetic or moral concerns (Breton 1934 p.24).

In a posthumanist theory of dreams, we will have to incorporate the aims of Surrealism as well as Kathy Acker’s perspective. In this theory dreams will have to be considered as bare life and embrace this condition in the Agamben’s sense: a bare life that has been abandoned by the law and that is exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable (Agamben 2017 p.23). To Giorgio Agamben, this life exposed to death (bare life or sacred life) is the originary political element (Agamben 2017 p.55), therefore, a promotion of dreaming as a space of bare life, attainable for every individual, will constitute a new political space that will be physical and non-physical at the same time. A political space that will challenge rationalistic approaches to politics and to knowledge.

A dream is never “just a dream”, a dream is the possibility of posthumanist dissidence.

Originally published in

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