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Kahane, C. (1992). Freud's Sublimation: Disgust, Desire and the Female Body. Am. Imago, 49(4):411-425.

(1992). American Imago, 49(4):411-425

Freud's Sublimation: Disgust, Desire and the Female Body

Claire Kahane

I can scarcely detail for you all the things that resolve themselves into—excrement for me (a new Midas!). Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess. December 22, 1897

“More so than men who are coaxed toward social success, toward sublimation, women are body” writes Hélène Cixous (1976, 257), thus articulating a problematic relation between women's greater proximity to the body and cultural production that still provokes theoretical controversy. I want to interrogate that relation and its implication that women don't sublimate by exploring Freud's concept of sublimation and what it might suggest about the effects of sexual difference on representation. But first, beginning with the word: etymologically, sublimation is linked to the sublime, to an idea of higher states of being valorized by their distance from the body and from quotidian matter. To sublimate is “to purify,” “to exalt out of the body,” “to transmute from dross into value, into some other state of value.”1 For Freud also, sublimation was an alchemical conversion of the dross of the body into a representation of value conferred by civilization. But in theorizing this transmutation from dross into value which constitutes culture and civilization, Freud indicates that the attribution of value that is sublimation derives from a masculine response to a sexual difference specifically located in the body of the woman.

Freud speaks of sublimation at various points in his papers, and always in terms of value. Describing sublimation as the transformation of a sexual aim into a non-sexual one, he writes in Civilization and its Discontents that “sublimation is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life” (1930, 97).

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