Reality re-structured

Sculpture fragments of human bodies with orange hue

Mass media entertainment gives the word “reality” a real hammering. Hammering provides a useful metaphor. One of the ways the empirically minded commonly assert the incontrovertible reality of the world is to thump on something solid.

Catching up with just 15 minutes of the BAFTA winning “structured reality” tv show The Only Way is Essex (ITV2) (“The tans are fake but the people are real”) has the same effect as head banging.

But human relationships, the stuff of reality tv, however frothed up, are inevitably complicit in definitions of reality.

Sculpture fragments of human bodies with orange hue

I re-visited the Parthenon recently, and remembered what Sigmund Freud said about it. In his essay “A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis,” Freud recalled the first journey he took out of Austria with his brother, during which, due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to change their plans and were unexpectedly able to visit Athens. Both had always wanted to visit Athens, but rather than fill them with delight the prospect plunged them both into depression.

The following day, when they arrived in Athens and stood on the Acropolis, Freud remarked: “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” (p.449).

Freud links the depression of the previous day to his declaration of the removal of doubt in the reality of the Acropolis: “the actual situation on the Acropolis contained an element of doubt of reality.”

By his account, as a child, Freud had never doubted that the Acropolis existed, only that he should ever see it, constrained as he was by his parents’ limited income. Freud equated seeing the Acropolis in his own case with running away from home, a common childhood fantasy. Why was he depressed the day before?

It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way: there was something about it that was wrong, that from earliest times had been forbidden. It was something to do with the child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of earlier childhood. It seems as though the essence of success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden.

This is also the stuff of Greek tragedy, particularly Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. And so from Freud follows a pleasingly twisted argument about reality, or at least our search for reality. In keeping with Freud’s perennial themes, exclamations about the rock-solid, incontrovertible reality of a thing are accompanied by guilt, problems with authority, and childhood trauma.

Trauma, guilt, family relationships, memories, depression, disturbance: soaps and reality tv capture something of what it is to be real and to pursue the real. No less an authority than Freud asserts as much.

As a coda: Like the dramas of life, soaps get repeated. The Parthenon also repeats. The new Acropolis museum, by architect Bernard Tschumi, at the foot of the Acropolis has a true-to-scale, stylized, simplified replica of the Parthenon on the top floor, oriented in the same way, and with a view to the original Parthenon. A week after my own re-visit to the Acropolis I happened to be passing by the British Museum in London, and so had another look at the Parthenon, in fragments, reconstructed, virtualised, and with a story that links it back to the plunder of the original. Back in Edinburgh I saw similar fragments, as plaster casts, in the Sculpture court of Edinburgh College of Art, and then in the corridors of the University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

Reality seems to depend on repetition and reproduction to assert itself, whether it’s a place, building, sculpture, visitor experience, identity or tan. One day I’ll see if Essex really exists.


  • Freud, Sigmund. 1991. A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. In A. Richards (ed.), The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 11: On Metapsychology: 443-456. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. (First published in German in 1936.)

Note [added 2 April 2014]

  • I’ve just caught up with Loens Holm’s book in which he explores the response of Le Corbusier to a similar encounter (to Freud) on the Acropolis 7 years later. See  Holm, Lorens. 2010. Brunelleschi, Lacan, Le Corbusier: Architecture, Space and the Construction of Subjectivity. London: Routledge, pp.189-191. Holm also says, “A good bump on the head puts everything in perspective.” p.192.


  1. yujia dong says:

    People are always trying to look into others’ life, to reveal the secrets. At the same time, they are also trying to avoid being spied by others, try to keep their secret proper.

  2. Qiaoyi Tu says:

    There do exist some moments at which I doubt something is not true when I see it. This reminds me the concept of ‘Phenomenology’. The ‘reality’ is the systematic reflection of one’s conscious experience.I don’t really understand phenomenology well, but I think the ‘reality to someone’ is probably structured by his/her own consciousness, I have learned the Acropolis in school and it impresses me so much, then the Acropolis becomes ‘my reality’ no matter I have seen it or not. So the disturbance of Freud’s memory perhaps resulted from the collision between 2 kinds of reality – the absolute reality (objective) and ‘the reality to Freud'(subjective). I also reckon that people only doubt the reality they concern, at least I never doubt the stuff I’m not interested in…

    ‘Reality seems to depend on repetition and reproduction to assert itself’, in my opinion, these repetitions and reproductions are right the ways to construct one’s own reality.

  3. Ian Hynd says:

    There seems to be an assertion that for something to exist it must be displayed, it must earn its own keep. I was taken by the documentary series ‘Storyville’, BBC 4 this week, it recounted the story of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the wrangling surrounding the future of it’s collections of modern art. It seemed that the art was incidental to the story, it was regarded as a commodity, it was a play, a tragedy of money and politics over who was the most cultured. it was an insight into change and what drives change (transience) as noted by Toffler in Future Shock

  4. Beth says:

    It’s interesting how simulations are often more real than the originals. While sitting in a piazza during my first trip to Italy, my sister remarked, “It’s just like Epcot.” The simulation, to her, was how Italy is, rather than the truth of the matter. Discussions of reality and simulation always bring me to this quote–I think it rather exemplifies some of what Baudrillard had to say, particularly regarding Mainstreet USA and Disneyland (made all the better because my sister’s understanding of what Italy looks like comes from Epcot).

  5. So Epcot really does exist! Early explanation by the fatherly Walt Disney at

  6. Chen Xi says:

    Personally, reality is not only depend on repetition and reproduction to assert itself, but also base on the knowledge of people. What is the mean of that is people who have different knowledge levels usually have different understanding on the same things. For instance, the Utopia. Does it really exist? We talked about it during the class, some of students assert that it is meaningful question but others argue not. What is more, the plant which is called Pandora in the film Avatar. It has same controversy in the academic field.

  7. S. ZHANG says:

    Media and technology make us doubt what reality is. In China, there is an idiom ‘耳濡目染’ to describe that people are unconsciously influenced by what they hear and see constantly. However, cameras or other media technologies may fool our eyes and ears. For instance, some documentaries reveal important information. News are not always reliable since event marketing becomes popular. For a long time, the first question that comes to my mind is whether it is real after reading a news or watching a TV series.

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