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  • Lex van der steen

Encounters 1: Dreams, Pokémon, Names

I wondered the other day about the fact that we use the term ‘dream’ in several ways. I can have a dream, insofar as I have an ideal image in my mind about the future, or I can have had a dream, insofar as I had, at a certain point, experienced thoughts, sensations and images during sleep. The former refers to a desired image of the future, while the latter refers to an experience in the past. I have a dream about the future, and I had a dream last night. In most cases, a dream does not concern the present state of the world, or of one’s experience. When someone mentions something like ‘I am dreaming’, or ‘I must be dreaming’, this person often aims to express a certain unbelief about what is currently happening: things are too good or too terrible to coincide with reality. The present, the way things actually are right now, does not coincide with our dreams.

However, if dreams and the present reality exclude one another, are dreams, in whatever sense, essentially unreachable? Are dreams things that exist, but always outside of the present moment? In what sense then do dreams exist, if never in the now?


On LinkedIn I saw a post of one of my former art history teachers about a mythical animal called ‘Baku’. This mythical animal is known to eat bad dreams. Yet, what caught my attention most was the reference my former teacher made to Pokémon, the fictional tv-series in which human beings live and train with creatures called ‘Pokémon’. Apparently, the Pokémon ‘Drowzee’ is inspired by this Japanese mythical animal. In light of this, I decided to watch the 27th episode of Pokémon, named Hypno’s Naptime, which is the episode in which a Drowzee can be seen in the series for the first time.

The protagonists of this Pokémon episode, Ash, Brock and Misty, visit a new town. Soon after arriving at its local Pokémon center, a place for Pokémon to be healed, they figure out that something is wrong: since a couple of days, the Pokémon in the center have been weak and unable to function properly. Besides that, children of the town have gone missing, also since a couple of days. Ash, Brock and Misty suppose that there is a connection between the two phenomena. At the Pokémon center, they find out that the Pokémon’s lack of energy is caused by ‘sleep waves’. Brock comes to the conclusion that they should “find the source of these sleep waves”. Tracing the sleep waves brings them to a mansion on top of a flat in the middle of town. There they interrupt a meeting of the ‘Pokémon Lovers Club’. Many of the members of this club apparently suffer from insomnia due to the stresses of city life. For that reason, they have been training two Drowzees, the Pokémon I mentioned earlier.

At the moment Ash, Brock and Misty arrive, one of the two Drowzees had ‘evolved’ into a ‘Hypno’ a couple of days ago (just like the appearance of the other Pokémon’s lack of energy and the disappearance of the kids). Within the Pokémon universe, Pokémon are beings that can, depending on what Pokémon, ‘evolve’ into a different type of Pokémon. Yet, they can only evolve into the Pokémon that follows up its own type. For example, the Pokémon Drowzee can evolve into the Pokémon Hypno, and there the development of that individual Pokémon (the Pokémon that used to be a Drowzee) stops. Another example would be the evolution of the Pokémon ‘Charmander’, that can evolve into a ‘Charmeleon’, which then can evolve into a ‘Charizard’. The amount of evolutions a Pokémon can go through differs between different types of Pokémon.

One of the members of the Pokémon Lovers Club mentions that they can now, to their excitement, use Hypno’s ability for hypnosis to make themselves sleep properly. Apparently, Drowzee’s hypnosis was not suitable for making adult human beings sleep, but Hypno’s is. At this point, Brock concludes that the use of Hypno’s hypnosis on human beings resulted in a certain wavelength that generates side effects for the Pokémon in the area. Probably, he reasons, kids are also susceptible for some side effects of these new wave lengths. In light of these conclusions, Misty lets herself be hypnotized by Hypno, in order to see whether she is also affected by side effects. As soon as she falls asleep, Misty starts acting like a ‘Seel’, a certain type of Pokémon. She runs off into a nearby park, where, apparently, the missing kids are also found. All of them act like different types of Pokémon. The head of the Pokémon Lovers Club suggests using Drowzee’s hypnosis on the kids in order to counteract the effects of Hypno’s hypnosis. This technique turns out to work, and it can thus be said that they awaken the kids from their ‘Pokémon-dreams’ by means of normal dreams.

What allows for the coherency in this Pokémon episode is the conception of two different types of dreams, namely the ones that follow from Hypno’s hypnosis, and the ones that follow from Drowzee’s hypnosis. If it were not for this difference, the story could not have manifested itself in this way. The distinction between an unproblematic original and a problematic new underpins the structure of the story: problematic new causes trouble, and unproblematic original is used to return things to normal. But what makes the original type of dream unproblematic and the other problematic? Why did the new cause trouble? And what allowed for such a qualitative distinction to be thought in the first place?

The new type of dream is characterized by the kids that are in it ‘thinking’ that they are a certain type of Pokémon. Following Foucault, it can thus be said that in the new type of dream their ‘subjectivity’ changed. Foucault defined the subject most clearly when he stated: “There are two meanings of the word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to”. In the dream generated by Hypno’s hypnosis, the individuals are subjugated to a certain idea of themselves as Pokémon that determines the possibility of their lived experience.

But, if the subject is something that occurs also outside of Pokémon (since Foucault was not referring to the 27th episode of Pokémon, since the Pokémon franchise only got established eleven years after his death), then I should assume that the children before (and after) being affected by Hypno’s new hypnosis are also subjects. The peculiarity of the new type of dream is therefore not the constitution of subjects, but rather, I suppose, the sudden and complete change of subjectivity. What is problematic in the Pokémon episode is not the fact that the children acted like Pokémon, but rather that they suddenly did so, that they literally out of nowhere believed themselves to be Pokémon. The people and society around them still function in the way they used to before, and therefore a certain discrepancy arises. This discrepancy makes the new subjectivity problematic. Since there was no process that initiated it, the change that occurs in this episode is literally out of this world; it is impossible.

The coherency of this Pokémon episode is thus based upon an impossibility. But why? The categorization of dreams into two different types is not principally impossible. Here I would like to pay attention to the preconditions of the two different types of dreams that have been conceptualized in this episode. What allows for the distinction between two different types of dreams, is the two different Pokémon, namely Drowzee and its evolved version Hypno. The existence of these two Pokémon, which are simultaneously the same while also qualitatively different, lies in the idea that Pokémon can ‘evolve’. The term ‘evolution’ is normally used in the series, while evolution refers to a gradual change. What actually happens in Pokémon is ‘transformation’, which concerns a complete changeover. So, the idea of transformation (presented as ‘evolution’) is the presupposition for the qualitative difference between Hypno’s sleep waves and Drowzee’s sleep waves, and hence of the two different types of dreams and subjectivities. Therefore, it also indirectly functions as a necessary presupposition for the discrepancy between the new subjectivity and the already existing world.

Yet, here one could wonder why a certain subjectivity, even if it follows from an unexplainable ‘jump’ (allowed for by the notion of ‘evolution’), would result in a strong discrepancy that involves trouble. Do subjectivities never change in real life without being problematic? There must be something specifically problematic about the ungrounded change in subjectivity that occurred in this Pokémon episode.

In the new dream caused by Hypno’s sleep waves, the kids started acting like Pokémon. This also involves making sounds like a Pokémon. More specifically, this entails the utterance of the name of the particular Pokémon. Indeed, Pokémon only utter their own name, and have no other capability for language. In a short essay called Subjectivity in Language, which I had to think of given these questions, the linguist Émile Benveniste argues that subjectivity is established in and through language. He writes that “It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language alone establishes the concept of ‘ego’ in reality, in its reality which is that of the being ... ‘Ego’ is he who says ‘ego’”. Thus, according to Beneveniste, it is in and through the moment of speech, in which one designates an ‘I’ distinguished from a ‘you’, ‘the one who speaks’ distinguished from ‘the other’, that subjectivity is established. In fact, according to Benveniste, language requires this establishment of subjectivity in order to function: “Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse”. So, subjectivity takes place in language, and language requires subjectivity to function. The matter of the Pokémon uttering their names is therefore perhaps a matter that concerns the nature of their subjectivity, if there is any. Since in this Pokémon episode dreams and subjectivity are connected, the meaning of Pokémon uttering their name is also of importance for the conception of dreams that underpins the episode.

What about Pokémon and their names? Two notable things can be mentioned. First, Pokémon, as can be seen throughout the episode, and the rest of the series as far as I am aware, only utter their name. But, are Pokémon named after the sound that they utter, or do Pokémon make the sounds that they make, because that is their name? Second, the names of Pokémon are used both as proper nouns and as common nouns. Ash refers to Pikachu as ‘Pikachu’, insofar this would concern its proper name. However, they also occasionally refer to wild Pokémon with phrases like ‘a wild Pikachu’. The use of the article ‘a’ indicates that ‘Pikachu’ is a common noun, and not a proper name. It is, however, nevertheless used in both ways. Why are Pokémon not given proper names that differ from the common nouns used to refer to their species?

To offer a possible explanation for these questions, I would first like to briefly discuss Saul Kripke’s notion of the ‘rigid designator’. I found this notion in a book on the philosophy of language, which I bought second-hand a few years ago. A rigid designator is a term that designates the same referent in all possible worlds. These ‘possible worlds’ are the worlds (or images of these worlds) that could have possibly been ours, but are not. The truth of a sentence varies from world to world. For example, the phrase ‘Obama has been president of the USA’ is true in this world, but could be false in another. In a similar way, the referent of a certain term or description can vary between different worlds. For example, in this world right now ‘the president of the USA’ refers to Joe Biden, but this could be different. In contrast, a rigid designator refers to the same referent in all possible worlds. If one talks about Obama in an alternative universe where he did not become president of the USA, but rather a farmer, one is still talking about Obama. Kripke offers an intuitive test for signaling a rigid designator: put the term in the phrase ‘N might not have been N’. If this turns out to be wrong, then one is dealing with a rigid designator. For example, one can truthfully say that ‘the president of the USA might not have been the president of the USA’, since the person who is right now the president of the USA might indeed not have been so. However, to say that ‘Joe Biden might not have been Joe Biden’ is wrong (taking for granted that Joe Biden exists).

Now, as I have mentioned already, Pokémon evolution entails a radical transformation, a complete turnover. The individual Pokémon is somehow the same being, while simultaneously being too different from before to actually be ‘the same’. This might be so much so that keeping the same proper name would be inaccurate. A proper noun, according to Kripke, is always a rigid designator. However, in order for a rigid designator to be a rigid designator, some element of the referent must remain constant in all possible worlds. Yet, the Pokémon transformation makes that Pokémon do not even have this minimal amount of constancy within the same world. To give a Pokémon one name in their lifetime, a name with rigid designation, would be inaccurate.

However, not having one single name within the whole of a lifetime does not explain the overlap between common nouns and proper names. Yet, since the nature of Pokémon makes it inaccurate to rigidly designate them, and proper names are always rigid designators, it could be the case that Pokémon are not given proper names because Pokémon are simply understood to be entities that are not suitable for proper names. Most entities, like trees, staplers, mugs and flies for example, are not given proper names. Yet, Pokémon are still actors that need to be addressed directly (take for example all the commands that the Pokémon trainers give their Pokémon). Therefore, they do require something that functions like a name. To fulfill this function, the common noun that designates the specific type of Pokémon is used as a sort of fragile proper name. What remains is a ‘name’ – a ‘nameless name’ perhaps – that does not rigidly designate its referent, but does offer the practical (linguistic) functioning that comes with a proper name.

The Pokémon name does not refer to the individual Pokémon by itself, but rather names the Pokémon insofar it is named. Differently put, the Pokémon name does not refer to the Pokémon insofar it exists separate from language, but rather only refers to the Pokémon insofar it exists within the functions of language. As such, both ‘Pikachu’ and ‘a Pikachu’ refer solely to the being insofar it stands in relation to the act of linguistic categorization. ‘A Pikachu’ refers to a being that belongs to a certain (linguistically marked) group of beings. ‘Pikachu’ refers to a being that belongs to a certain group of beings, and is in the moment of pronunciation individually addressed. The only included difference between the two, then, is a grammatical shift from the third person to the second person singular. ‘Pikachu’ is not technically a proper name: it does not refer to one particular being. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Pokémon are gestured towards by joining their utterances. When Ash speaks directly to Pikachu, he does not use a name in the normal sense, but rather gestures towards him by uttering the sound that Pikachu also usually utters. This would be similar to small kids referring to a cat as ‘miauw’ or ‘a miauw’. When a kid says ‘There is miauw!’, the cat is not given a proper name, but is gestured towards.

Hereby, the other question about Pokémon names is also answered. Do Pokémon utter their names or are they named after their utterances? Well, they are only ‘named’ insofar their own utterances are used to address them directly. Pokémon therefore utter that which can be their ‘name’, and at times even actually functions as such, but never resolutely so.

Let me recapitulate the line of thought that has expanded itself so far. The 27th episode of Pokémon distinguishes two different types of dreams brought about by two different types of Pokémon. These two types of dreams are characterized by two different types of subjectivity. This conceptual difference is allowed for by the idea of ‘evolution’, which happens to Pokémon and actually entails transformation. Differently put, the conceptual difference that allows for these two types of dreams and subjectivities is based upon a sudden and complete change, an unexplainable ‘jump’. The trouble around which the episode centers occurs as a result of the two different types of dreams, and thus indirectly from the idea of transformation that underpins this difference. The question that remained is why the specific subjectivity that resulted from this transformation leads to trouble. What is problematic about the dream that is only possible after transformation? Following Benveniste in designating language as the locus of subjectivity, the focus shifted towards the names of Pokémon. Then, it was revealed that the names of Pokémon are not proper names, but rather entail gestures that refer to the Pokémon insofar it is ‘named’, insofar it has a potential relation to language. As such, two questions remain. What does this special type of name reveal about the subjectivity of Pokémon, and thus about the new type of dreams in which one identifies oneself with a Pokémon. And, why does this lead to dreams that cause trouble?

The new type of dream, made possible by the conceptual foundation of transformation, involves the subjectivity of Pokémon that is mirrored and constituted by a very specific type of name and relation to language. This ‘nameless name’, as has been brought to light, entails the functioning of a proper name, but not the particular type of content (one particular individual) that normally belongs to it. Its functional form is established in the moment of pronunciation, and immediately dissolves again, without ever rigidly designating and establishing the Pokémon or human as this or that defined subject. The subjectivity of the Pokémon, and therefore of the dream that captured the children, never rigidly involves a particular content and identity. Pokémon are thus subjects without subjectivity. Pokémon are never rigidly established as certain subjects with this or that identity, but neither exist completely without subjectivity and identity. The dreams caused by Hypno’s hypnosis thus put the children in a subjectivity that only relates to identity and subjectivity in a radically fragile way. Fully appropriating the absence of rigidity concerning their names and subjectivity, the children caught by Hypno’s dreams lost their ability to take any form of subjectivity seriously.

Why are these dreams troublesome? The kids that are captured by the dream and start acting like Pokémon all run to the city park. There they can live the lives that correspond with their new subjectivities, roaming the bushes while being withdrawn from the issues of modern life. Trouble arises because these kids have not always been like this: they have parents and family with whom they used to talk and live, they have school to attend and, not unimportant, the ‘nature’ in the park probably does not offer a sufficient ground to survive. Perhaps these empty dreams do involve the good life, but the sudden and impossible jump by means of which they have to be brought about, which is allowed for by the idea of ‘evolution’ (transformation), puts a rift between them and actuality, troubling any interaction between the two. The dream without content, for the time being, renders them unable to engage with the contingent but nevertheless actual traditions, institutions and their challenges.


This expedition started with some questions on the term ‘dream’. Why is it used in such a way that dreams are excluded from the present, and can only reside in the past or in the future? And if this is so, in what sense then do dreams exist, if never in the now? It is interesting that what allows the problem in the Pokémon episode to arise is the concept of evolution, and that, in my earlier question of the dream, dreams seem unreachable from the present, and that one can only go there by means of a sudden ‘jump’. Evolution does not exist in the way Pokémon introduces it: it is the essentially fictional part of the franchise. Perhaps then, the conception of dreams strictly separated from reality also follows from a certain fictional presuposition. A similar idea of transformation, where one can apparently separate our nightly dreams and our future dreams from the present moment. This conception of reality merely differs from the contentless dreams that caught the children. Perhaps only when we believe our dreams, in whatever shape, to traverse the present, we can fully engage with actuality. Just like the way in which the children got saved from the nameless name and the dreamless dream by means of ‘normal sleep’, we can start to acknowledge our constant daydreaming, and the actual effect it has on the world around us.


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