The Art of Repression by Dan Starling

“But the symptom is in itself, through and through, signification, that is to say, truth, truth taking shape.” Jacques Lacan (1)


During WWII, pilots in the RAF complained of “Gremlins”, impish creatures that were mischievously meddling with their aircraft. From a medical perspective, the problem is straight-forward: the pilots are categorized as psychologically wounded and then treated for the traumatic injuries associated with the stress, anxiety, and fatigue of battle. The “Gremlin” is a visible symptom, a coping mechanism of an invisibly repressed psychological disturbance, hence the saying used by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: “the repressed and the return of the repressed are one and the same thing (2).”

But instead of condemning the RAF pilots solely to a fate of medical treatment, something else happened: their hallucinations were manifested “objectively” in our society in the form of a new archetype: the Gremlin. The empathy achieved in this kind of “objectification” can only be accomplished by a great artist; having become familiar with the folkloric tales about Gremlins as an RAF fighter pilot in WWII, it was Roald Dahl who wrote and sold the story to Disney in 1943 as his first children's book (3) .

Using this simple example, does this structure of trauma not hold, albeit in a milder way, for us today? Do we not create “Gremlins” in order to deal with the stress, anxiety, and fatigue of living in the modern world? And is it not artists who are sensitive enough to turn these “Gremlins” into art?

Fictionalization of Fiction

However, this is only the simplest way of approaching the topic of trauma. In the first phase of Freud's theory, as our example illustrates above, a symptom is an individual defence against the threat of trauma to a homeostatic psyche. Further, Freud categorized the defence mechanisms as repression, displacement, denial, reaction formation, intellectualization, projection and sublimation. The symptoms produced by these defences are only temporary and defer dealing with the initial problem until a later time, perhaps when the individual is more capable of dealing with it. Even sublimation, considered the only “successful” defence mechanism because it turns trauma into socially useful artistic achievement, can only be considered temporary because of the element of social recognition involved that changes over time. In this way of conceiving trauma it is the personal and individual nature that is emphasized.

In his second approach to the topic of trauma, Freud expanded his position and turned it on its head: the trauma is not so much individual as collective. It is a manifestation of an imbalance in the world itself–a sign for an antagonism that is real and traumatic because it cannot be reasonably accounted for. In the above example, the antagonism would not so much be the stress of battle but the fact of war in the first place. In this case the trauma is a placeholder; It is only when we recognize an antagonism that it is manifested so that we have something to account for the gap. The proper question to ask when a trauma can be identified is: “to which antagonism does it belong?”

In 1964 Roald Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a story about a boy and his journey through Willy Wonka's factory. Dahl suffered criticism due to his racist depiction of the workers in the chocolate factory as “pygmies from Africa” and chose to change them to “Oompa-loompas from Oompaloompaland”. The original illustrations, done by Joseph Schindelman, of small black figures were changed for the second edition in 1973 to white dwarf-like people with rosy skin and long blond hair (4). This “fictionalization of fiction” seems to have been a satisfactory compromise. Yet, while the representation of all the other characters in the book have remained relatively stable, subsequent depictions of the “Oompaloompas” have varied widely. They cannot seem to find a stable representation, and so could it be that this lack of a stable representation is the sign that these workers signal a real antagonism in our society?

“black pigmies from Africa” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first edition 1964 (left) and “Oompa-Loompas from Oompa-loompaland” in the second edition 1973 (right) Jospeh Schindelman, illustrations

Military Artistic Intelligence

We are very familiar with the military producing innovations for warfare, which are then adapted to civilian life but the same goes for the adaptation of representations used during war that don't fit post-war society. This was the case with those performers who got their start in the United Service Organization (USO) founded in 1941 by Roosevelt to entertain the military. Performing in these shows made the careers of entertainers like Bob Hope and gave the start to many future comedians such as Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen, who would all work together after the war on the popular Your Show of Shows. Their method of entertaining the troops, which consisted of short skits or comedic sketches, borrowed a ‘variety show’ format from Vaudeville and would ultimately be the modern precursor to shows like Saturday Night Live.

A technique popularized by these comedians was “doubletalk,” a form of gibberish in which the sounds of a particular ethical dialect is imitated. The resulting senselessness and exaggeration of speech had a humorous effect. Such that during the war the target of “doubletalk” were Germans, exemplified by Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of Hitler in The Great Dictator. Whereas the Americans could make racist visual depictions of Japanese people in their propaganda, the same could not easily be done to the Germans because of their shared ethnic heritage; so other differences had to be found. Thus, racism had to be located at the level of sound.

This is one possible reason that Donald Duck is the protagonist in Disney's propaganda films. Donald Duck’s squawk-like and semi-intelligible speech is a close approximation to broken English, much like how his explosive temper also functions as a parody of Hitler. Quizzically, ducks were the choice characters in most of the other cartoon studios as well. One particularly striking example was made by Warner Bros: “The Ducktators,” (5) which contained duck representations of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. This was the solution to the traumatic fact that during WWII America had to deal with a problem they had hitherto not encountered since the civil war: despite the majority of the population having European descent, Americans were asked by America to fight against their ancestors. So art and culture were mobilized as ideological propaganda to massage the war.

Can such ideological messages be adapted easily once the war is over so that, like Dahl’s original Oompa- loompas, we can forget they ever existed? Or are there, like the “Oompaloompas,” ambiguities left in their representations? According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek, if ideology represents “the paradox of a being which can reproduce itself only insofar as it is misrecognized and overlooked,” to undermine the ideology it should then be enough to see it "as it really is," so that “this being dissolves itself into nothingness or, more precisely, it changes into another kind of reality (6)” By the method then of the “return of the repressed”, artists can and have played a crucial critical role to identify, name, and objectify such ideological ambiguities.

Division of Labour

Much like a detective, the modern artist is the one that isolates clues to the antagonisms that underpin our society and displays that which is repressed. For example, what is Manet's Olympia if not a condemnation of the bourgeois male hypocrisy of equality? One motivating force for modern art-production therefore is a kind of critical deconstruction of the systems of power that define the world; Tackling the difference between the surface appearance and the reality underneath by concentrating on what and who was left out from official discussions and history. This version of an ideological critique is thought of in terms of ‘unmasking’ a false consciousness propped-up by the dominant system in order to maintain its power. Progressive artists believed that if in their work they revealed the way the system functioned, their work would change the way people see the world and therefore they would be able to, if not overthrow the dominant ideology, make it true to its principles of fairness and equality. This “return of the repressed” model made for some seriously good art.

However, the effectiveness of this critique of ideology is contingent and sometimes does not produce the desired ideological break. The “return of the Real” in post-modern art can actually be a “return of reality”, a way to prolong our dreaming7. In our attempt to awake the dreamer and bourgeois subject who is asleep in ideology by making visible that which is repressed, the artist can bastardize Brecht's "break with the forth wall" and reify it too strongly or make it more confusing to interpret. This obfuscation acts as a buffer to cushion a confrontation with the Real. Sufficient examples confirm this paradoxical condition that forms the flipside of the return of the re-pressed: from the fetishization of the minimalist or conceptual art object to the solicitation of critique by institutions and more.

If this is the case, should we abandon the return of the repressed model even though it has been so profitable for art? Additionally, if the return of the repressed model of art production is conditioned by a conceptual awareness of the context around that which is repressed, are there developments in how we receive images today that dispel its possibility? Radical change is imagined as ultimately a change for the worse. We may lose what we know of as art entirely. Perhaps for the first time in the history of humankind radical changes in our daily experiences (of biogenetics, ecology, and cyberspace) confront all of us with basic issues and questions for art: about form and content, language and image, movement and stasis. This experience compels us as artists to re-imagine our most basic theses.

Works cited:

1. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2, the Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 320.

2. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 1, Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954, (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press, 1988), p. 191.

3. For full text of the book see

4. For a further discussion see

5. To see the video see

6. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), p. 28.

7. Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2012), p. 33.