Most people without an interest in psychoanalysis do not know what it is. To the man in the street, psychoanalysis – indeed, anything carrying the prefix psy-  - denotes something in the field of psychology, and so this is the closest reference most people have.

To the uninitiated psychoanalysis is sometimes looked upon as a form of psychotherapy, and this is not wrong: many psychoanalysts practice as psychoanalytic psychotherapists. And it is of course true that although he claimed to have read more books on the subject of archaeology than on psychology, Freud himself thought of psychoanalysis as a branch of psychology (as he says so himself here). But talk to someone who describes themselves as a psychologist – at least here in the UK – and you will most likely to find them ambivalent if not downright hostile towards psychoanalysis, and towards Freud in particular.

What does Lacan make of the tendency to subsume psychoanalysis into the realm of psychology? In contrast to what seems to be the view of the general public, and perhaps Freud himself, Lacan is exceedingly eager to distance psychoanalysis from the realm of psychology.

In this post I am going to give some references to comments by Lacan that demonstrate this.

One of the ideas that Lacan challenges throughout his teaching is that the surface is the level of the superficial. For Lacan, what we find at the surface (for instance, what is being said by someone lying on the couch) is precisely what is of importance. It is curious then that a certain view has nevertheless gained credence that the job of psychoanalysis is to ‘search the depths’, to go below the surface. Indeed, Freud himself chose as the incscription on the first page of The Interpretation of Dreams a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid: Acheronta moveboI will move the underworld. Lacan however believes that it is at the surface that we find the truth. The unconscious is always presented on the surface, never in the depths.

The Mobius band is perhaps one way to illustrate this idea topographically. Whilst it is essentially just a strip of paper, twisted, and joined at each end, its distinguishing feature is that it only has one surface. Whilst it appears to have a top and an underside, if you run your finger over it you find that they are both the same. This is a useful tangible representation of the topology of the unconscious.

Lacan uses the terms ‘psychology’ and ‘psychological’ very frequently but in a descriptive way, and this is different to the way he refers to psychology when distinguishing it from psychoanalysis. Although occasionally, as in Seminar XV, he deplores the effort to “completely reduce the relief of what had been contributed by Freud to what is called the reduction to general psychology, namely, to its abolition” (Seminar XV, 06.12.67., p.5), a lot of the time Lacan has a particular form of psychology in mind.

We ourselves, as readers of Lacan, have to be careful not to misread Lacan’s pronouncements and adopt a position that tars all psychologies with the same brush. What kind of psychology does he have in mind? At the very least, we can say that Lacan is talking about a post-psychoanalytical psychology, so what are its central tenets and how do they differ from those of psychoanalysis? It might, we can imagine, be the kind of ego psychology that was burgeoning in the United States in the 1950s, the very time that we find the most references critical of psychology in his Seminar. But even later, in Seminar XII in 1965, we find him telling his audience that the assumption of a ‘healthy’ part of the ego with which the psychoanalyst can form an alliance – one of the central tenants of ego psychology – is to use a “false language borrowed from psychology” (Seminar XII, 19.05.65., p.8).

Are the criticisms that Lacan made then still valid today? Is it still justifiable to, with Lacan, try to put psychoanalysis at arm’s length of psychology? If Lacan tries to set his teaching aside from that of the psychologists, as a group, might this not tell us more about Lacan’s personality than it does about why psychoanalysis should be considered distinct from psychology?

Psychology without the symbolic

One of the primary distinctions Lacan tries to effect between psychology and psychoanalysis is to encourage us to think about human psychology less on the model of animal behaviour, and think instead of human subjects as existing in a signifying network, a structure, the key feature that separates the human world from the animal world. That the subject exists in a structure, the structure of the signifier, is something that Lacan feels psychology does not take account of, telling his audience in Seminar IX that their object of study should be “a function which is that of the subject, not of the subject in the psychological sense but of the subject in the structural sense” (Seminar IX, 20.12.61, p.14). In Seminar XI he elaborates on this:

“Everything emerges from the structure of the signifier…. The relations between beings in the real, including all of you animated beings out there, might be produced in terms of inversely reciprocal relations. This is what psychology, and a whole area of sociology, is trying to do, and may succeed in doing as far as the mere animal kingdom is concerned, for the capture of the imaginary is enough to motivate all sorts of behaviour in the living being. Psycho-analysis reminds us that human psychology belongs to another dimension. To maintain this dimension, philosophical analysis might have sufficed, but it has proved itself to be inadequate, for lack of any adequate definition of the unconscious. Psycho-analysis, then, reminds us that the facts of human psychology cannot be conceived in the absence of the function of the subject defined as the effect of the signifier” (Seminar XI, p.206-207).

The “inversely reciprocal relations” Lacan refers to here are imaginary ones. Whilst a shorthand definition of the imaginary would be that it is the realm of images, we can be more specific if we say that it is where all relations with other human beings are plotted on the axis that runs a > a’ in Lacan’s schema L:







As Lacan sees it, the project of psychology is to plot all human relations, and human subjectivity, on this axis. Whilst here Lacan is attacking this as a mistake, we can argue that for a while in his work Lacan himself does exactly this: the period from the early thirties to the late-forties might be seen as the period where Lacan progressively develops a theory of subjectivity based on the determining properties of the image. But by the fifties Lacan’s interest develops into a focus on the symbolic, and what Lacan is saying in the quotation from Seminar XI above is that psychoanalysis is different from psychology, sociology and philosophy in that it is interested in what kind of subject is implied by the way the unconscious works: namely, through the effect of the continual displacement of signifiers.

Subjectivity, for Lacan, is inseparable from a theory of language that privileges the mobility of the signifier. In Seminar VI he proposes that all disciplines that deal with ‘psychological’ subject-matter could be unified by such a theory of subjectivity:

“I would say that this law of subjectivity which analysis especially highlights, its fundamental dependence on language is something which is so essential that it brings all the psychologies together” (Seminar VI, 12.11.58).

But what Lacan suggests is psychology’s project – to treat human psychology as an extension of animal psychology –  is thwarted by the non-inclusion of this prime ingredient of what he calls ‘symbolic processes’ in its theoretical orientation: signifying ambiguity, the ability for a signifier to be unhinged from its referent. In Seminar VII he disparages what he sees as the psychologists’ oversight in this respect:

“I don’t want to begin developing a theory of knowledge here, but it is obvious that the things of the human world are things in a universe structured by words, that language, symbolic processes, dominate and govern all. When we seek to explore the frontier between the animal and the human world, it is apparent to what extent the symbolic process as such doesn’t function in the animal world – a phenomenon that can only be a matter of astonishment for us. A difference in the intelligence, the flexibility, and the complexity of the apparatuses involved cannot be the only means of explaining that absence. That man is caught up in symbolic processes of a kind to which no animal has access cannot be resolved in psychological terms, since it implies that we first have a complete and precise knowledge of what this symbolic process means” (Seminar VII, p.45).

If we think of human subjectivity as being a product of a structure that is composed of signifiers it follows that we cannot think of subjectivity in terms of psychology. Lacan thus rephrases Freud’s famous pronouncement in the New Introductory LecturesWo Es war, soll Ich werden (‘Where It was, there must I come to be’, SE XXII, 80) – as ”Where it was, the Ich – the subject, not psychology – the subject must come into existence” (Seminar XI, p.45).

The signifier – its autonomy in the sense that it can act as a referent to more than one thing – is the key aspect of the symbolic processes that Lacan highlights to his audience continually through the Seminar. Psychoanalysis would go astray if it were to fail to employ the notion of the signifier to understand human subjectivity, and instead make an unquestioning appeal simply to ‘reality’. As he says in Seminar XI:

“In analytic practice, mapping the subject in relation to reality, such as it is supposed to constitute us, and not in relation to the signfier, amounts to falling already into the degradation of the psychological constitution of the subject” (Seminar XI, 22.04.1964, p.142).

Psychoanalysts, he believes, should be more like linguists and take as their reference not the psychology of the speaker, their patient, but the signifier to find the core of subjectivity. They should look for “something which is perhaps indeed the function of the subject, but of the subject defined completely differently than by anything whatsoever which is of the order of concrete psychology, of the subject in so far as we could, as we must, as we will define it properly speaking by its reference to the signifier” (Seminar IX, 20.12.61., p.9). Notice also that Lacan makes no appeal here to affects, which his comments in Seminar X on anxiety indicate that he sees to be in the domain of psychology rather than psychoanalysis:

“I did not take the dogmatic path of giving a general theory of affects before what I had to say to you about anxiety. Why? Because here we are not psychologists, we are psychoanalysts” (Seminar X, 14.11.62, p.11).

Dreams as extra-psychological productions

Of the innumerable comments that Lacan makes on the subject of dream interpretation one of the most noticeable implications is that he views them not as manifestations of a dreamer’s psychology but rather as extra-psychological productions.

When we remember a dream, do we remember it in the same way that we remember something that happened in our ‘real’, waking life? Very often we find that our dreams are so indistinct that we cannot be sure whether we are remembering the dream correctly, as we dreamt it, or whether we are constructing some kind of ‘secondary revision’ of it, adding bits to it as we narrate it so that it makes more sense to our waking consciousness. This might make us wonder whether we really remember a dream at all, or whether we just experience the illusion of remembering it. Freud wonders about this himself in the  Interpretation of Dreams (SE V, 517 n2), but for Lacan, pondering this question in Seminar II,

“That doesn’t bother Freud, that doesn’t matter to him, what he is concerned with isn’t of the order of psychological phenomena. Do we remember a dream in the same way as an event which took place and which is locatable somewhere? It is literally insoluble. Philosophers have always been concerned with this – why isn’t the experience one has in sleep just as important, as authentic, as that of the previous day? If he dreams every night that he is a butterfly, is it legitimate to say that he dreams he’s a butterfly [sic]? But Freud doesn’t care. This psychological realism, this quest for an essential subjectivity doesn’t detain him. For him, the important thing is not that one dreams one is a butterfly, but what the dream means, what it means to someone. Who is that someone? That is the important question” (Seminar II, p.125-126).

The dream in Lacan’s understanding is a source of meaning. It takes us beyond a view of subjectivity that is reduced to a personal psychology. Its message is not something the dreamer produces, but that the dream itself produces. The dream, or the material of the dream, has a kind of autonomy of its own; the process of the dream work is autonomous to the psychology of the dreamer.

A more general point can be made here, which is that it is Lacan’s belief that the unconscious is not a part of the mind. It is not for him some kind of deep recess in which unacknowledged thoughts dwell, but rather something at the level of the symbolic. The dream, as an example of this, is therefore not for him a psychological production as much as it is a symbolic production:

“When Freud puts something in his text, it is always extremely important. And when he mentions to Fliess, in a letter, what a revelation it had been for him when he read the passage in which Fechner says that one can only conceive of dreams as being located in another psychic locality, one must give this note its full weight. This is precisely what I am telling you – the psychic locality in question is not psychic, it is quite simply the symbolic dimension, which is of another order…. It is placed and defines itself in another locality, governed by different local laws, the place of the symbolic exchange, which is not to be confused, although it is embodied in it, with the spatio-temporal dimension in which we can locate human behaviour. The structural laws of the dream, like those of language, are to be found elsewhere, in another locality, whether we call it psychic or not” (Seminar II, p.131).

This provides us another reason why the object of psychoanalysis is not a psychological one. In the same way that we cannot think of the unconscious as being the negative, or the underside, of consciousness, Lacan is eager for us to reject the easy idea that the unconscious is a spatio-temporal entity.

The implication for dream analysis is that we should pay less attention to the psychology of the dreamer and more to the text or wording of his dream, the signifiers that it employs. This is how Lacan advises his students to handle dream interpretation in Seminar II:

“You must start from the text, start by treating it, as Freud does and as he recommends, as Holy Writ. The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second. The commentaries on the Scriptures were irremediably lost the day when people wanted to get at the psychology of Jeremiah, of Isaiah, of even Jesus Christ. Similarly, when it comes to our patients, please give more attention to the text than to the psychology of the author – the entire orientation of my teaching is that” (Seminar II, p.153).

When Lacan looks at the dream of Irma’s injection later in that Seminar II he has criticisms for two of his contemporaries whose analyses of Freud’s famous dream he sees as overly psychologising. The first is Erik Erikson whose approach is to read the dream in its cultural-historical context. Whilst Erikson’s paper  (‘The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, January 1954, Vol 2, no.1, pp. 5-56) is a good read, and throws up some interesting observations on Freud’s German signifiers that are not revealed to the English-speaking reader of the Standard Edition, in Seminar XV Lacan criticises Erikson’s approach, saying of it that, “Everything can be constructed in terms of psychology”, but that, “It is a matter of knowing how the psychoanalytic act is compatible with such rubbish” (Seminar XV, 06.12.67., p.9)!

The second target is Heinz Hartmann, President of the International Psychoanalytical Association from 1953-1957 and its Honorary Life President thereafter. Lacan attacks an idea he associations with Hartmann: that dream interpretation is a way of telling us something about the personal psychology, the ego, of the dreamer (in this case, Freud):

“Apropos of the dream of Irma’s injection, it leads to some remarks which I will try to point out to you, as I will have to encounter them in the re-analysis which I will try to conduct today. You will be surprised to see that this culturalism [Erikson's] converges quite singularly with a psychologism which consists in understanding the entire analytic text as a function of the various stages in the development of the ego. You see that it isn’t simply the desire to chaff his synchronisation which led me to mention Hartmann. The attempt is made, then, to locate the dream of Irma’s injection as a stage in the development of Freud’s ego…. Of course there must be a psychology of the creator. But is it the lesson we have to draw from the Freudian experience, and more especially, if we examine it under the microscope, is it the lesson we must draw from what takes place in the dream of Irma’s injection? If this point of view is true, we will have to abandon the notion I tell you to be the essence of the Freudian discovery, the decentring of the subject in relation to the ego, and to return to the notion that everything centres on the standard development of the ego. That is an alternative without mediation – if that is true, everything I say is false” (Seminar II, p.148).

Psychoanalysis versus psychology as an ‘egology’:

Lacan’s railing against an ego-centred approach to psychoanalysis is a common refrain of his work in the fifties. But if we look closely at what he says in these attacks we can see that his target is as much the view that psychoanalysis is a kind of psychology as it is that it should be an ‘ego psychology’:

“But for us, workers, scholars, doctors, technicians, what direction does this return to the truth of Freud indicate? It is the direction of a positive study whose methods and forms are given to us in this sphere of the so-called human sciences, which concerns the order of language, linguistics. Psychoanalysis should be the science of language inhabited by the subject. From the Freudian point of view man is the subject captured and tortured by language. Psychoanalysis introduces us to a psychology, to be sure, but which one? Psychology properly so-called is effectively a science of perfectly well-defined objects. But, undoubtedly, by virtue of the significant resonances of the word, we slide into confusing it with something that refers to the soul. One thinks that everyone has his own psychology. One would be better off, in this second usage, to give it the name it could be given. Let’s make no mistake – psychoanalysis isn’t an egology. From the Freudian perspective of man’s relationship to language, this ego isn’t at all unitary, synthetic. It’s decomposed, rendered complex in various agencies – the ego, the superego, the id. It would certainly be inappropriate to make each of these terms a little subject in its own right, which is a crude myth that makes no advance, illuminates nothing” (Seminar III, p.243).

The ‘crude myth’ here is the one that understands the ego, superego and id on the model of warring personalities within one subject. It is fair to say of Lacan’s work overall that his interest is not in the Freud of the second topography but in the Freud of the first topography. By and large, Lacan seems unengaged with the tripartite division of the ego, id and superego, and so it is interesting to find him reference them here. Whilst it is rare for him to criticise  Freud directly for developing his theory in this direction, he does not hold back in attacking the use of the agencies of the second topography by post-Freudians like Hartmann.

Even in the late sixties and early seventies, when Lacan’s criticisms of ego psychology were no longer such a prominent part of his work, he is still critical of the handling of Freud’s second topography by some of his former students. In 1967 he refers to, “… that grotesque, ridiculous function all those who were for a while my fellow-travellers pounced upon, and they came from God knows where, and full of psychology, which is no preparation for psychoanalysis” (My Teaching, p.83). This attack on his analytic colleagues, accusing them of being too psychologically-orientated, is similar to remarks he makes about the analytic community during the Anxiety seminar in 1962:

“Some non-analysts are mixed in with us. There is no great inconvenience in this because moreover even the analysts come here with positions, postures, expectations which are not necessarily analytic, and already very sufficiently conditioned by the fact that in the theory that is constructed in analysis there are introduced references of every kind, and more so than may appear at first sight, that one can qualify as extra-analytic, as psychologising for example” (Seminar X, 21.11.62).

We find him once again attacking an unquestioning over-reliance on the ego as the object of study for psychoanalysis in 1965, this time linking it to the tendency to what he labels derisiviley ‘psychologism”:

“Ever since the time when I showed that psychologism is woven from false beliefs, let us call things by their name, of which the first is that of these intuitive identities that is called the ego, it seems to me that I have gone over the path sufficiently to show you where the path can be traced quite differently” (Seminar XII, 16.06.65., p.2).

Psychology and the cogito:

Many of Lacan’s statements about psychoanalysis and its difference to psychology seems almost throw-away remarks, but they do tell us something about his attitude towards the latter and his desire to keep this domain apart from psychoanalysis. The key thing here, as we have already noted, is the placing of psychoanalysis on the side of the unconscious; psychology, by contrast, takes as its chief object phenomena of consciousness. In Seminar XIII Lacan despairs “the incorrigible psychology of these consciousness references [that] enter into the field of analysis” (Seminar XIII, 25.05.66., p.8). The formations of the unconscious, he claims in the Ecrits,

“… Have nothing in common if one grounds onself in psychological objectivity, even if the latter is derived by extension from the schemas of psychopathology,… this chaos merely reflects psychology’s central error. This error consists in taking the very phenomenon of consciousness to be unitary, speaking of the same consciousness – believed  to be a synthetic faculty – in the illuminated area of a sensory field, in the attention that transforms it, in the dialectic of judgement, and in ordinary day-dreaming. This error is based on the undue transfer to these phenomena of the value of a thought experiment that uses them as examples. The Cartesian cogito is the major, and perhaps terminal, feat of this experiment in that it attains knowledge certainty [sic]. But it merely indicates all the more clearly just how privileged the moment upon which it is based is, and how fraudulent it is to extend its privilege to phenomena endowed with consciousness, in order to grant them a status. For science, the cogito marks, on the contrary, the break with every assurance conditioned by intuition” (Ecrits, 831).

The central error of psychology is the presumption of an undifferentiated consciousness. The point of Lacan’s (slightly confusing) reference to Descartes’ thoughts experiment in the first of his Meditations is to propose that consciousness does not imply thought, and that you do not have to be conscious of having a thought. Lacan expands on this point with another reference to Descartes in Seminar IX:

“This ‘I think therefore I am’, encounters this objection – and I believe that it has never been made – which is that ‘I think’ is not a thought…. I would go even further: this characteristic, it is a thinking of a thinker, is not required for us to talk about thought. A thought, in a word, in no way requires that one thinks about the thought” (Seminar IX, 15.11.61., p.9. For more on this point see Seminar XI, 22.04.64., p.139).

If a thought can exist without it being thought about, this obviously implies that a thought can be unconscious. Lacan continues, integrating into his remarks an attack on psychology, and separating the two parts of the Cartesian mantra: the ‘I think’ from the ‘I am’:

“For us in particular [psychoanalysts] thinking begins with the unconscious. One cannot but be astonished at the timidity which makes us have recourse to the formula of psychologists when we are trying to say something about thinking…. The formula we are dealing with: ‘I think therefore I am’, we could say that, as regards the use that is made of it, it cannot but pose us a problem: because we have to question this word ‘I think’, however large may be the field that we have reserved for thinking, to see the characteristics of thinking being satisfied, to see being satisfied the characteristics of what we can call a thinking. It could be that this word proved itself quite insufficient to sustain in any way, anything whatsoever that we may at the end discover of this presence: ‘I am’…. To clarify my account, I would point out the fact that ‘I think’ taken simply in this form, is logically no more sustainable, no more supportable than the ‘I am lying’, which has already created problems for a certain number of logicians” (Seminar IX, 15.11.61., p.9).

The conscious ‘I’ of ‘I think’ is not a pre-requisite for thought to take place: it is not necessary that we think about having a thought for us to have it. ‘I think’ does not say anything more about the nature of thought than the statement ‘I am lying’ says about the nature of truth.

Psychology without the real

It is not just psychology’s lack of interest in the symbolic that Lacan takes issue with. The real, that which evades symbolisation, is also for him a radically extra-psychological category. One of his most forceful attacks on ‘psychologism’ asserts this point:


“To look for the real that psychoanalysis deals with in the psychological is the principle of a radical deviation. Every reduction, every attempt to return, as they say, or of the exhaustion of psychoanalysis in some psychologism in whatever constituted fashion it may be forged, is the negation of psychoanalysis” (Seminar XII, 16.06.65., p.2).


One way to think of the real is as the impossible – the impossible to say, for instance, the thing that evades signification – and Lacan believes that this impossibility is at the centre of psychoanalysis. In Seminar XVII he presents this real-impossible as lying beyond the celebrated Oedipus myth, and beyond the reach of psychology:


“There is effect, beyond the Oedipus myth, we recognise an operator, a structural operator, the one described as the Real Father – with, I would say, even this property that as paradigm it is also the promotion, at the heart of the Freudian system, of the father of the Real, which places at the centre of Freud’s teaching the term impossible. This means that Freudian teaching has nothing to do with psychology. There is no conceivable psychology of this original father” (Seminar XVII, 18.03.70., p124 in the published edition).


Psychology as a tool of “technocratic exploitation”

Lacan’s insistence that Freud’s trieb be translated and thought of as a drive, rather than as an instinct, is well-known. But when he argues this in the Ecrits we find that he is particularly attacking the abuse of Freud’s notion by psychologists. As we saw in the case of dream interpretation, for Lacan the drive is one of the fundamental postulates of psychoanalysis that does not permit it to be reduced to a psychology. However, he goes far beyond just asserting this point, accusing psychology of being a tool of “technocratic exploitation”:

“The drive, as it is constructed by Freud on the basis of the experience of the unconscious, prohibits psychologising thought from resorting to ‘instinct’, with which it masks its ignorance by assuming the existence of morals in nature. It can never be often enough repeated, given the obstinacy of psychologists who, as a group and per se are in the service of technocratic exploitation, that the drive – the Freudian drive – has nothing to do with instinct (none of Freud’s expressions allows for confusion here). Libido is not sexual instinct. Its reduction, when taken to an extreme, to male desire, indicated by Freud, should suffice to alert us to this fact” (Ecrits, 851).

Indeed, we can see that Lacan has a very dim view of the place of the psychology of his day. In Seminar XII we find him hinting that psychology is an idelogical tool when he says that “… All modern psychology is constructed to explain how a human being can behave in the capitalist structure” (Seminar XII, 09.06.65., p.8), and in the following session he repeats this assertion, adding that “the psychologist is there to give us the conditions of possibility of a subject in a society dominated by the accumulation of capital” (Seminar XII, 16.06.65., p.2). But in Seminar XVII he is even more scathing:

“As for psychology, it is striking that there is no shadow of it in things that are enlightening…. It is a little montage that gets its value from its master signifiers, which is worthwhile because it is readable. No need in the least for psychology” (Seminar XVII, 17.06.70., p192 in the published edition).

This is not just a theoretical point, however. Neither can a psychological or psychologising theory, for Lacan, inform a clinical practice. Even as early in his work as Seminar I he is calling psychology an “error of perspective on the human being”:

“Psychoanalysis is a dialectic, what Montaigne, in book III, chapter VIII, calls an art of conversation. The art of conversation of Socrates in the Meno is to teach the slave to give his own speech its true meaning. And it is the same in Hegel. In other words, the position of the analyst must be that of an ignorantia docta [learned ignorance, scientific ignorance], which does not mean knowing [savante], but… what is capable of being formative for the subject…. If the psychoanalyst thinks he knows something, in psychology for example, then that is already the beginning of his loss, for the simple reason that in psychology nobody knows much, except that psychology is itself an error of perspective on the human being” (Seminar I, p.278).

The point he is making has implications for clinical practice but we can also read this as an attack on psychology as a discipline, a system of knowledge that is applied to the patient or analysand. In contrast, for the psychoanalyst to hold the place of ignorantia docta means for him to accept that he does not know anything about the analysand except for what the latter’s own words, or signfiers, reveal. And what is most revealing in the analysand’s words is not the rehearsed stories he has told himself about himself, but the inconsistencies that are revealed in their telling. The psychoanalyst simply starts from this position of ignorance and follows the inconsistencies produced in the flow of the analysand’s discourse.

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