What does it mean to say that something is ‘unconscious’?

The idea of the unconscious is the single biggest differentiator separating psychoanalysis from all other ‘psy-’ practices. Fidelity to a certain understanding of the nature and character of the unconscious is at the bedrock of psychoanalysis as a discipline. So it follows that a theory of psychoanalysis should give an account of the ‘stuff’, ‘workings’, and ‘product’ of the unconscious.

This article will trace the history of the debate about the nature of the unconscious over three major turning points: 1915, 1928, and 1960.

Right now though, in 2017, one of the largest Lacanian schools in the world is about to meet for its annual conference under the title ‘About the Unconscious’. Hundreds of psychoanalysts will gather in Paris to discuss what is evidently still a difficult, but very relevant, topic.

And with good reason. When psychoanalysts – particularly Lacanians – make bold statements like ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, this does not absolve us from being able to answer certain ‘naive’ questions about the unconscious:

  • Do unconscious phenomena have a meaning?
  • Is this meaning expressed, or expressible, in the form of a wish – like an ‘I want to….’?
  • If so, can we say this meaning ‘exists’ for us to discover, as if it were the contents of the unconscious itself? Or is it merely a fiction of interpretation, a secondary effect of the process of psychoanalysis?
  • Finally, is the unconscious really structured like a language?
  • Many have happily called bullshit on the psychoanalytic idea of the unconscious over the years. Hans Eysenck wondered why, at the start of the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud offered the dream of Irma’s injection as some kind of exemplar of his theory. If it showed that dreams represented the fulfilment of unconscious wishes, but Freud’s own interpretation showed only the wish to be absolved of medical malpractice, what was so unconscious about that? The question is made trickier by the fact that, at the very end of the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud admitted that “Whether we can attribute reality to unconscious wishes I cannot say” (SE V, 620, his italics).

    So let’s try and answer some of these questions, beginning in 1915, with Freud.


    While pretty much everyone these days accepts the idea that a thought can be conscious or unconscious, in his metapsychological paper of 1915 Freud wanted to distinguish a descriptive unconscious from the unconscious as he saw it – a separate system that has a distinct character and plays by different rules. For Freud, we are not talking about a non-conscious, like another version of consciousness, or even a sub-conscious at one level ‘deeper’ than conscious, but something distinct in itself, as if on a second stage or in another scene (ein andere Schauplatz).

    There are effectively two (psychical) realities at play, he thought – one conscious and the other unconscious. The laws governing each are completely different. This is why Freud denoted them by Ucs. for the system unconscious, and Cs. (for the system conscious/pre-conscious). How these two systems work – as part of an overall psychical economy, and as a result of the dynamics of interactions between the psychical forces within that economy – give us the metapsychology that Freud was outlining in 1915.

    How do we see this unconscious in action? Returning to the dream of Irma’s injection as an example, we can divide the dream into two ‘texts’ – the manifest text, the part Freud remembers when he wakes up, and the latent text, the thoughts and associations that come to him when thinking about the dream.

    Rather than one being conscious and the other unconscious, it’s clear that both ‘texts’ are in fact conscious or perfectly capable of becoming conscious. So we have to look for the unconscious in a system that operates on the connection between the two. Less a ‘contents’ and more a series of processes that work by interpolating or inserting something of a different nature from one scene to another at the point where there are certain gaps or breaks. As Lacan’s student and sometime confidante Anika Lemaire described it,

    “The unconscious is a distinct entity, interpolated on the basis of the lacunae of conscious discourse and made up of another discourse which groups the complements of these lacunary points together in another site”
    (Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, p.135).

    Importantly then, if Freud’s latent thoughts correspond to a ‘first text’, this isn’t the same as the meaning of the dream from which we might infer an unconscious wish. The fact that the latent thoughts are not represented in the dream itself is not an indicator that they are in any way hidden or concealed. This ‘first text’ is just the material that unconscious processes work on. But it is the distortion itself that we are interested in, what happens between the first and second texts.

    To flesh out this process, Freud hypothesised a psychical dynamism involving censorship, repression, and compromise formation that takes place between a wish on one hand, and a defence against the wish on the other. We are presented with a view of the psyche as animated by little dramas involving a cast of psychical actors or agencies constantly fighting each other. The danger here of course is one of over-personification. In itself this could diminish Freud’s point about the unconscious being a separate scene or stage with its own rules. But as we tend to picture psychical dynamics in these terms, let’s focus instead on the common currency between the two systems: a thought.

    What would make a thought either conscious or unconscious? Freud presents two options:

    1. There is a single inscription of the thought – it exists in either the conscious or the unconscious, and whether it is one or the other depends on the level of (libidinal) investment (what Strachey translates as ‘cathexis’) it receives, as if a different light were being shone on the same thing. This he calls the functional hypothesis.
    2. There is a double inscription of the thought – the same thought exists in both the conscious and the unconscious systems at the same time, so there is a qualitative difference between the two systems. The ‘two texts’ in question therefore are not just the manifest content of the dream and the latent thoughts, but a double inscription of the same thought. This he calls the topographical hypothesis.

    Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.

  • The advantage of the single inscription model is that it explains how something becomes unconscious in the first place. The process would be: a disinvestment of the thought or idea from the preconscious system; a counter-investment of another idea in its place, and a new investment of the original idea from the unconscious system. What we need to make this work is a theory of how this ‘investment’ operates to determine whether a thought is conscious or unconscious. As we will see, this is where the theory of libido and the drive comes in.
  • The problem with the single inscription model however is that it does not explain how an unconscious idea stays in place. If it’s just a matter of the investment of a thought, wouldn’t repressed unconscious thoughts constantly force themselves into consciousness, and equally be constantly pushed back? What quantitative factor can account for the apparent ‘fixity’ of repression?
  • The advantage of the double inscription model, on the other hand, is that it might explain how we can still accept an idea consciously and at the same time recognise that it has an unconscious status. Even if Little Hans had a phobia of horses that was in some way connected unconsciously with other ideas (whether about the threat of castration or not) this did not stop the idea of a horse being conscious. He could still think about a horse and horses still had a conscious value to him despite their unconscious connections.
  • The problem with the double inscription model however is that it doesn’t account for why we can’t shift an unconscious complex just by pointing it out. Simply telling Little Hans that he was afraid of horses because of an unconscious connection to the threat of castration would not make him any less afraid of horses. So what works, psychotherapeutically?
  • Key to resolving this problem, Freud thought, is the idea of a counter-investment or ‘anticathexis’ of another idea from the preconscious. This is all-important because it might explain how repression is not just maintained but established.

    Freud distinguished two types of repression. The initial establishment of repression by a counter-investment – which he called primal repression – and its maintenance by a kind of ‘after-pressure’, secondary repression (Freud, SE XIV, 180-181). It is this double-action which keeps repression in place and refines the two options above into an economic model.

    We can then build up the following picture of what happens to a thought or idea under this economic model.

    In the case of repression: the investment of Idea 1 is transposed to a second, substitute idea, Idea 2, which then takes on an affective weight through the process of ‘anticathexis’ described above. Idea 1 remains conscious, though neutralised, but on the double-inscription model it also becomes unconscious. So we have two registrations of the same idea, conscious and unconscious, and a substitute idea in the conscious.

    In the case of the return of the repressed: the reverse happens – Idea 1 receives a conscious investment or cathexis, regains its affective weight, and so becomes conscious again. However Idea 1 still retains a registration in the unconscious, where it has formed associative connections that crystallise into an unconscious complex. Analytic work can undo some, but never all, of these tight associative binds – they constitute the ‘hard core’ of the unconscious.

    The idea of anti-cathexis or counter-investment is therefore very important. And behind it sits a theory of psychical dynamism – the so-called libido theory – from which this investment springs. Freud’s model of the psychical economy – the semi-personalised interplay of ideas, agencies, and forces – is based on this ‘metapsychology’, as he calls it in 1915.


    Fast forward to 1928. Freud is still alive and living in Vienna, but from France comes the publication of a major attack on his metapsychology. Georges Politzer’s Critique of the Foundations of Psychology was to greatly influence a new generation of French psychology students.

    Politzer was a principled man at the forefront of the French communist movement. When the Nazis invaded France he was picked up by the Gestapo and given the option of either turning his talents to indoctrinating French schoolchildren or being executed. He chose the latter and was murdered in 1942 (Giorgi, foreword to English translation, p.xxiv).

    Politzer wanted to emphasise the individual, personal, and subjective status of the unconscious. In this sense his was a fundamentally phenomenological position. The unconscious, for him, expresses a first-person drama via a “personal dialectic” as he called it (Politzer, p.69). The job of interpreting the formations of the unconscious – dreams, for example – is one of uncovering these intimate rather than conventional significations.

    “Since it is the individual signification of the terms of the story that interests us, we need to approach the dream as a text to decipher.”
    (Politzer, Critique of the Foundations of Psychology p.66).

    So far so Freudian.

    But this insistence on the unconscious as a first-person drama put him at odds with Freud. Politzer rejected what he saw as Freud’s impersonal characterisation of the unconscious in terms of agencies, forces, and psychical economy. Politzer was opposed to any abstraction in psychology, and he thought Freud’s metapsychology had created just that.

    Where Freud’s theory started to go wrong, he thought, could be pinpointed in the progression of the Interpretation of Dreams. As we saw, Freud started that book with the dream of Irma’s injection, a dream in which Politzer believed we can clearly discern the ‘I’, in the form of Freud’s own psychology, taking a front seat.

    But by chapter VII of that book, Freud had constructed a metapsychological theory of the psyche which – even though he had already been working on it for years – had the effect of swapping out the subjective for the impersonal. For the rest of his career, as Politzer saw it, Freud pursued this path: the psyche was the battleground of warring forces or agencies like the ego and the id; the censorship operated like a nightwatchman or a border guard between the unconscious and consciousness; life and death drives vied over civilisation itself just as they did within the individual, and so forth.

    Politzer’s idea was very simple: there is no ‘disguise’ at work in the products of the unconscious, just a different way of expressing the same thing. He returned to the example of the dream of Irma’s injection. If we think in terms of a manifest content of the dream and the dream’s meaning this doesn’t lead us to assume there are two ‘texts’ at play – for Politzer it’s either one or the other. Irma’s sore throat simply means ‘I wish for an error of diagnosis’ just as the French word pere means the English word father (Politzer, p.107). They are just two ways of saying the same thing, two forms of expression:

    Instead of two texts in reality we have just one. The dream isn’t derivative of anything – like an interplay of psychical forces in conflict, as Freud thought. It is simply the same idea expressed differently. For Politzer, it is this mode of expression – highly idiosyncratic – that we should be studying and not some abstract notion of an agency of censorship.

    Politzer gives a cunning analogy to illustrate this: the manifest content of the dream is related to the latent thoughts – and thereby, he thinks, the dream’s meaning – like a play to its theme.

    Just as we would not expect to find the theme of a play written down in a separate text next to the play itself, so the meaning of a dream is not like a separate text inscribed in the unconscious (Politzer, p.42). We can still say the dream has a meaning, but that meaning is immanent to it in the same way that the theme of a play is immanent to its text, or the laws of gravity are immanent to the forces of nature. It does not exist separately alongside them:

    For Politzer, the ‘reality’ of the unconscious is much like the reality of the laws of physics. The unconscious is ‘discovered’ like laws of physics are discovered – we see them at work in events, like gravity acting on a falling body, but we would not expect them to have their own material reality.

    This is in some ways a very helpful idea. Politzer teaches us to avoid a ‘reification’ of the unconscious, as if there existed some independent meaning of the dream with a special ontological status, awaiting the skilled psychoanalyst to pluck it from the depths and bring it to light.

    In this he is right. But true aim of Politzer’s critique is more than that – it is to do away with the entire Freudian metapsychology on the grounds that if we don’t need a ‘two texts’ model to explain the unconscious, then we don’t need a theory of psychical conflict to account for how one text gets ciphered into another. There is no need for the process that Freud labels the ‘dream work’, replete with its supposedly impersonal mental forces, if the only difference is in how the same idea is expressed as part of a subjective narrative.

    Note that this leads to a fundamentally different conception of the unconscious to the one Freud began with: it is no longer a separate scene or stage, operating on separate rules to that of consciousness. There is nothing really unconscious about this unconscious.

    But what Politzer’s phenomenological critique does retain is the assumption of an ‘intentionality’ to the unconscious. The dream still has a meaning, there is still a way this meaning is communicated, and – like Freud thought – that meaning is of the order of a wish.

    The consequence of Politzer’s dogged phenomenological insistence is to give unconscious formations an intentionality, so that the meaning of every dream can be expressed in the form: ‘I wish that….’ For Politzer, this intentionality is inherent in the dream in the same way a theme is inherent to a play, even if we don’t immediately grasp how its expression changes between the manifest and latent contents.


    We reach 1960 and something of a turning point for psychoanalysis. It was an exciting time! Politzer’s critique had been ringing in the ears of a new generation of psychology students who had read Freud with an avidity but also a critical distance.

    In the small French town of Bonneval a conference on the unconscious, organised by Henri Ey, was held at the end of October.

    Up stepped Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire to deliver the standout paper, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’. It would later be published in 1966, the same year as the Écrits. The pair began by directly addressing Politzer’s challenge with a commendation of how it had reopened the debate: “It would be difficult to find a clearer introduction to the problem of the unconscious than a discussion of this [Politzer’s] text”, they said (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.224).

    Yet their paper was not just a response to Politzer but an ambitious attempt to account for the origins of the unconscious using the terminology of structural linguistics which Lacan had by then introduced to the psychoanalytic field. From Leclaire’s own clinic there was also the brilliant example of the application of this theory to a dream of one of his patients, which we will look at in depth later.

    Nevertheless the pair remained rooted in the Freudian heritage and there was a limit to how far they were willing to subscribe to Lacan’s ‘creative misreading’ of Freud. After all, Laplanche and Leclaire were not just students of Lacan’s but analysands of his too – Leclaire from 1949-1953, and Laplanche until November 1963.

    Lacan himself was at the conference and it would be fair to say he did not like what he heard. While he delivered a response at the conference itself, this was later rewritten in 1964 and appears in the Écrits as ‘Position of the Unconscious’.

    For the next ten years following the Bonneval conference Lacan would remain embittered and critical of Laplanche and Leclaire’s view of the unconscious, and what he saw as their misuse of his work. Whether this demonstrates the importance of the topic, or the extent of the slight Lacan felt he had received, we find him penning a sustained attack on his former students in January 1970 as a preface to Anika Lemaire’s book Jacques Lacan. Lemaire, clearly fascinated by this controversy, had gone to interview him about it, and the purport of their conversation from December 1969 can be found in the appendix of her book. (Lemaire’s own assessment is in Chapter 8, Part 4).

    We will look at just one part of their disagreement on the unconscious in this article. But first, let’s look at how they handle Politzer.

    Arguments against Politzer – from Laplanche

    Laplanche and Leclaire open ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’ with a number of responses to Politzer’s challenge. We can summarise three of them:

    1. Just because the workings of the unconscious are impersonal doesn’t mean that the formations of the unconscious are impersonal. Politzer can keep his phenomenological adherence – the meaning of the dream isn’t any less subjective if we can’t translate it directly to the first person. Rather, subjectivity itself is never really in the first person, in any simplistic sense.
    2. A second text is not necessarily a hidden text. A ‘dynamic’ view of the unconscious entails that ‘surface’ and ‘depth’ are never easily distinguished. We shouldn’t expect to detect the unconscious through ‘discovery’ or ‘translation’ of a disguised wish – we should look for its signs in the small, discreet failures and compromise formations (garbled words, slip-ups, contradictory ideas and so on) that emerge at what Laplanche calls certain “load-bearing points” (Laplanche, p.41). Instead of looking for alternative modes of ‘expression’ of a fully conscious idea, the notion of a ‘dynamic’ unconscious means that the output of the unconscious will bear the mark of its processes. Interpretation therefore involves interpolating the manifest text as if the unconscious were a kind of lost discourse (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.230). This approach would not just restore the value of interpretation, but it would put the ‘otherness’ back into the unconscious, as Freud originally conceived it.
    3. Politizer’s assertion that there is an ‘immanence of meaning’ in actual fact does nothing but diminish the subjectivity he’s trying to restore to the unconscious. If there’s really just one ‘text’ of the dream – that is, if Irma’s sore throat explains the wish to be absolved of medical malpractice the way the word pere explains the word father – we would have to assume a kind of fixity of meaning. Interpretation would then be a pretty weird business. To take the dream of Irma’s injection, it would mean we would have to ignore all associative chains – all the things in the manifest ‘text’ of the dream that pointed to something other than the idea of medical malpractice. But of course how would we know this was the meaning of the dream? And why stop here? Laplanche gives a hypothetical example. Let’s say someone dreams about a Mrs X wearing a red scarf. He associates this to his mother. Under Politzer’s approach, this would lead us to a dead end: red scarf = mother. But it would not explain why the red scarf was associated with the mother. This is the essential question Freud ponders in the Interpretation of Dreams and which leads him to detect the mechanisms of condensation and displacement characteristic of the primary process; and from there a psychical dynamism that could account for why the ‘red scarf’ was overdetermined as a result of a compromise formation stemming from a psychical conflict (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.227-228).

    For Laplanche, what’s so unconscious about the unconscious is not the wishes it may or may not harbour but the processes it exhibits. The unconscious:

    “ … does not correspond to any material, but simply to a mode of functioning, to a way of dealing with these contents – that is to say, to the dream-work.”
    The Unconscious and the Id, p.54).

    On this model,

    “… The unconscious would not be a ‘content’, but a ‘force, and the dream would be nothing but the treatment of preconscious thoughts in the mode of unconscious functioning”
    (Laplanche, Ibid, p.54)

    Arguments against Politzer – from Lacan

    Lacan too is completely opposed to Politzer’s view of the unconscious. He is an adherent of the ‘two texts’ model of double inscription, and views the unconscious as a completely separate reality from that of consciousness:

    “Starting with Freud, the unconscious becomes a chain of signifiers that repeats and insists somewhere (on another stage or in a different scene, as he wrote), interfering in the cuts offered it by actual discourse and the cogitation it informs.”
    Écrits, 799).

    Here Lacan is talking about an unconscious that is most definitely a second structure. But where Lacan goes further than even Freud is to privilege the text or message itself over the sender of that message. Lacan – famously, perhaps infamously – extends Freud’s view of the unconscious by granting an autonomy to this text that completely ‘jams’ the idea of first-person subjectivity that Politzer was so keen to preserve. For Lacan, ‘it’ speaks, and it speaks in more than one person:

    “I would have suggested to Politzer the image of the innumerable I, defined only by its relation to the unity of recurrence. Who knows? I might have put it in the transfinite”
    (Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, p.x.)

    Instead of an unconscious that articulates a wish in the first person, the unconscious for Lacan is a series of processes that operate independently of the subject. If there is a ‘meaning’ to the unconscious it doesn’t belong to either the subject or to the analyst interpreting it. Instead it is a feature of an autonomous system. This is how Lacan reads the ‘other’ scene or stage that Freud envisaged. “The unconscious only has meaning in the Other’s field”, as he puts it, but

    “… it is not the effect of meaning that is operative in interpretation, but rather the articulation in the symptom [or dream] of signifiers (without meaning at all) that have gotten caught up in it”
    Écrits, 842).

    As a result, our interpretation of the unconscious should sit between citation and enigma, simulating the primary process of the unconscious itself, Lacan thought (see Leader, ‘Interpretation’, in Introductory Lectures on Lacan, p.91). The ‘otherness’ of the unconscious means we have to think of it as a second text, but not one that can be said to belong to a first-person narrative in the way Politzer conceived it:

    “The unconscious is that part of concrete discourse qua transindividual, which is not at the subject’s disposal in reestablishing the continuity of his conscious discourse.”
    (Lacan, Écrits, 258).

    If we think of the unconscious as a ‘second text’ it is one that is personal for sure, but at the same time is a kind of lost, censored, or crossed-out discourse. It won’t fit our view of a first-person narrative in the way that can be articulated with a wish. This second text is inscribed, but we need to look for its inscription in strange places, which he says may range from the body, memories, distortions of memories, semantic evolution, and cultural traditions (Écrits, 259).

    How do we square this with Freud?

    Freud’s 1915 solution to the single or double inscription problem was essentially to divide the idea (vorstellung) into what he called ‘word-presentations’ on one hand and ‘thing-presentations’ on the other. The conscious system would consist of the thing-presentation plus the word-presentation; the unconscious of just the thing-presentation alone (Freud, SE XIV, 201).

    Irrespective of how helpful this solution might be, it certainly does not mean that the unconscious is composed of signifiers, as Lacan suggests (Écrits, 799). Freud is not speaking about ‘presentations of things’ but ‘thing-presentations’. Whilst it’s conceivable that these could be taken as signifiers in their raw materiality, what’s clearly important for Freud is the level of investment or cathexis these presentations receive:

    “The system Ucs. contains the thing-cathexes of the objects, the first and true object-cathexes”
    (Freud, SE XIV, 201).

    Signifiers are really neither conscious nor unconscious. The same signifier may be subject to two quite separate processes in the unconscious system compared to the conscious. In either case, Freud thought the operative determinant of whether something is conscious or unconscious had to come from the realm of libidinal investment and – ultimately – the drive. This is the powerhouse that fuelled Freud’s dynamic model of the psyche, and Laplanche had an interesting way of conceiving the interaction.

    Solving Freud’s problem – Laplanche’s Napoleon’s hat analogy

    Prägnanz is the idea, drawn from Gestalt psychology, that our visual perception has the tendency to organise the images we see into a neat, regular cohesion. From a series of disparate shapes a coherence emerges as a result of a clustering of these elements into definable patterns.

    Like this:

    Image credit: http://www.moillusions.com/napoleons-grave/

    For Laplanche, this provides a model for how unconscious and conscious systems interact (Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, p.237-238).

    Let’s think of the entire scene, taken as a whole, as a prägnanz established by the conscious system. Although we see the trees, the beach, and Napoleon’s grave, the image of Napoleon himself is always there, latent. It’s nonetheless capable of being revealed through a shift in our attention, in much the same way that Freud thought cathexis could shift on or off a single inscription of an idea.

    But what makes us see the image of Napoleon in the first place, rather than just a collection of leaves or the silhouette of an anonymous man? The answer lies in the hat. It is the ‘load-bearing point’ of the picture, to use Laplanche’s phrase. This iconic element denotes the context of the Napoleonic legend. The hat is the part of the image which is cathected or receives investment; the legend of Napoleon is the cathexis which gives the image of the hat its weight.

    Similarly, the arrangement of the leaves of the tree, which ‘disguise’ the hat, are like the anti-cathexis. Laplanche’s neat comparison helps us understand why repression and the return of the repressed are two sides of the same coin – anticathexis works by establishing a counter-investment that reweaves the fabric of representations in order to mask what has been repressed. But the repressed itself is always still there, as if hidden in plain sight.

    But what’s important in determining whether we see either the outline of Napoleon or the leaves of the tree is not whether our attention can shift from one to the other, but the hat itself. The hat – corresponding in Laplanche’s analogy to an idea or ‘presentation’ in the psyche – has a special value as what Laplanche calls the “isolated equivocal element” (ibid, p.237).

    We can use the hat to answer Freud’s 1915 question – whether there is a single inscription of the idea in either the conscious or unconscious, or whether there is a double inscription in both systems at once. If it were only a question of how our attention oscillates to invest either one perspective on the image or the other we would only need to suppose a single inscription of the idea. But Laplanche comes down on the side of the double inscription model because the hat is effectively inscribed twice – first in the context of the Napoleonic legend (the cathexis) and second in the context of the leaves on the tree, where it hides in plain sight (the anticathexis). Repression, as Freud said in 1915, “operates in a highly individual manner” (SE XIV, 150, his italics). A single element – in this instance, the hat – is seized upon and made an organising part of the dream or symptom as it is the image in this scene. The outline of the hat is still there materially, in two separate contexts, regardless of whether we notice it or not.

    Solving Freud’s problem – Lacan’s hieroglyphics analogy

    Lacan also comes down on the side of the double inscription model (or topographical hypothesis) of how the unconscious works. But he thinks it can be explained using a far simpler analogy than Laplanche’s.

    He asks us to imagine a single hieroglyph inscribed on two sides of the same obelisk.

    The first point to make about hieroglyphics is that what they depict pictorially isn’t what they represent as signifiers. A hieroglyph of a bird or a crouching man does not mean the author wanted to express something about birds or crouching men (Écrits, 510). It is a signifier that points to other signifiers, not to a fixed signification. In the same way, as Lacan highlights, the Rat Man’s obsession about rats did not always refer to the creatures scurrying around in sewers – the signification changed depending on the other signifiers it was linked to.

    Lacan’s idea is that the same signifier can be present in two different batteries, just as the same hieroglyph can be written twice on two sides of the same obelisk. But its signification will change from one side to the other depending on the context it’s placed in – the signifiers that surround it. This is why, consciously, the Rat Man could link the signifier rat to the torture involving rats he heard from the character known as the ‘Cruel Captain’. Unconsciously however it was linked to a series of other signifiers with a quite different signification – Hieraten (to marry), Spielratte (a gambler), Raten (installments). Each of these signifiers were of course conscious to him, but the network of their connections in another system – the unconscious – were not.

    “There may be a totally different inscription of the same signifier in consciousness and in the unconscious. These inscriptions are the same on the plane of the signifier, but they are, on the other hand, different in that they turn their battery to occupy topographically different places. That a certain signifying formation can be at one level or another is precisely what will ensure it a different import in the chain as a whole
    (Lacan, as quoted in Lemaire, p.130).

    With this analogy Lacan not only demonstrates Freud’s topographical or double-inscription hypothesis, but also make the difference between the unconscious and conscious systems much more explicit than it had been in Laplanche’s analogy. The comparison to two sides of an obelisk emphasises the ‘otherness’ of the unconscious that Freud had insisted on with the comparison to another scene or stage. Additionally, the distinctness of these two sides give us a perspective on why Lacan privileged the bar that separates the signifier and signified in the old Saussurean formula:

    While Lacan’s analogy does not find a place for the libidinal cathexis so important to Freud’s metapsychology, it is a less complex way of accounting for how a single idea or signifier can exist in two separate batteries at the same time. Propounding the merits of his own analogy, Lacan explained:

    “It is not only in theory that the question of double inscription arises, having given rise to a perplexity whereupon my students Laplanche and Leclaire could have read its solution in their own split over how to approach the problem.

    The solution is not, in any case, of the Gestaltist type, nor is it to be sought on the plate where Napoleon’s head is inscribed in a tree. It is quite simply to be found in the fact that an inscription does not etch into the same side of the parchment when it comes from the printing-plate of truth and when it comes from that of knowledge.”
    Écrits, 864).

    A clinical example – Philippe’s dream

    Let’s test out some of these ideas with one of the richest dreams in the whole of psychoanalysis. It is the dream of Philippe, a 30 year old obsessional patient of Leclaire’s, and it is analysed in great depth by Leclaire in the third part of ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’ (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.238).

    It begins when Philippe falls asleep still thirsty from the Baltic herrings he had consumed earlier that evening. This is what he dreams:

    Leclaire draws out some of latent thoughts from Philippe’s associative connections:

  • Deserted square – Philippe associates this element to the memory of a small provincial town in which there was a ‘unicorn fountain’ in the main square. When he was three years old Philippe tried to drink from it, cupping his hands to gather the water. This triggers another childhood memory of a Swiss mountainside, where he watched an older playmate imitating a horn by blowing into his cupped hands.
  • It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such fine sand – A third childhood memory, this time of a trip to a beach on the Atlantic, again when he was three years old. He remembers the fine sand. We can note the signifying substitution from the plage [beach] in the memory to the place [square] in the dream.
  • Liliane – With him on that trip was a cousin of his mother’s, known as Lili. This is an affectionate name used only by her now-husband and Philippe himself. Lili had an affectionate name for Philippe too. He remembers constantly moaning to her that he was thirsty, so Lili mockingly baptises him ‘Philippe, I’m thirsty’ [Philippe, j’ai soif], a name that stuck into later life. Meanwhile ‘Anne’, he notices, is the name of his niece.
  • Unicorn [licorne] – Into this signal signifier we find condensed both the female cousin’s nickname Lili, and his own name Philippe. Leclaire also notes that the unicorn – licorne – is associated with virility for Philippe. According to the myth, it is impossible for a hunter to capture a unicorn. Only a virgin can snare one when the unicorn lays its horn in the virgin’s lap and fall asleep. But there is something about the unicorn which is more particular to Philippe: the unicorn has a horn on its head where Philippe himself has a scar.
  • This bring us to a second dream Philippe relates:

    It would be very easy to see the emblem of castration in the motif of a wound that can’t be seen. But the challenge that Politizer’s critique lays down is to explain how a dream can be a highly personal formation even if the unconscious mechanisms that produced it are not.

    Why is the unicorn chosen?

    Leclaire finds an answer in the scar that Philippe bears on his forehead and which is listed on his French identity papers under the section ‘Identifying marks’. This establishes a link between the unicorn’s horn and the comma-shaped wound in the billhook dream. Neither explicitly point to the scar on his forehead, but both are substitute formations for it – and perhaps also for the theme of castration (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.250). We therefore have a series that runs:

    The dream is constructed around a series of what Freud calls “switch words”, which act like points at a junction (SE VII, 65). Our dreams appear to make no sense because they are not linked by conjunctions – ‘and…’, ‘then…’, ‘so…’, etc – as in a normal narrative, but instead by these ‘switch-words’ that act as load-bearing points and lead us from the manifest text of the dream to the latent thoughts.

    ‘Unicorn’ [licorne] is exactly such a switch-word. It does multiple jobs at once: being the over-determined element that links Philippe’s own name; that of Lili; the idea of phallic potency from the unicorn myth; the memory of wishing to drink from the unicorn fountain in the town square; and even the corns on his feet that come up in reference to the billhook dream and the sandy beach on the Atlantic.

    We have the two unconscious mechanisms of condensation and displacement at work here to produce the ‘unicorn’ signifier which Leclaire – following Lacan – aligns with metaphor and metonymy. If metaphor is a substitution, metonymy is a bridge. On one hand ‘licorne’ allows for a substitution of Philippe and Lili in their pure materiality as signifiers. On the other, the bridge of metonymy “is much more arbitrary and singular” (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.249). It depends on the particularity of Philippe’s associations, running from the unicorn fountain, to the myth of the unicorn and the idea of phallic potency, to the scar on his forehead as ‘identifying mark’, and back to the identifying mark of ‘Philippe-I’m-thirsty’ that Lili gives him when as a child he complains to her of being thirsty.

    The unicorn is therefore the ultimate metabolic element in the dream. As a ‘switch word’ it serves as a kind of junction that connects all the elements of Philippe’s associations. Like the hieroglyphs on Lacan’s obelisk it has a double inscription – while being entirely conscious, the networks it forms in the unconscious system obey a different logic to that of conscious association.

    Philippe’s Magic Word

    But the unconscious is not just a play of signifiers. We need to connect Leclaire’s explanation to a theory of psychical dynamism – as Freud had intended – if we want to justify why Politizer was wrong to junk Freud’s metapsychology. To do that we have to account for what might ‘power’ unconscious processes behind the signifying constellation of ‘unicorn’. That is, the nature of the investment or cathexis that led Freud to a model of the psychical economy, and on which Lacan’s analogy of the hieroglyphics falls short.

    Let’s go back to the instigator of the dream – the salty Baltic herrings that Philippe consumed before falling asleep. Freud tells us that a wish provides the sole motive force behind the dream (SE V, 568). And here we appear to have a simple enough wish: to drink in order to quench a thirst.

    So why is the fulfilment of this wish not represented more simply in the dream? Why does Philippe dream of a unicorn and not of drinking from the unicorn fountain he remembers from his childhood?

    Leclaire’s idea is that behind this organic need another kind of ‘thirst’ is at work, one which is connected to the drive (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.241). This has a quite different character from the organic or instinctual need that would be satisfied by the wish to drink, and while Freud vacillates about its nature we can say at least that it has a libidinal quality. These two types of ‘thirst’ mean the dream is supported from two ends, as it were.

    In between we have all the animation of the ‘dream work’ – the garbled processing of elements like licorne that make the operation of the unconscious system different from that of consciousness:

    The drive sneaks into the dream like a trojan horse, via ideas or signifiers that – in Laplanche and Leclaire’s beautiful phrase – are “electively assumed” (Laplanche and Leclaire, p.262). The drive can never be directly expressed so we never find it speaking in the first-person. We know the drives only when they attach to ideas. “Even in the unconscious”, Freud wrote, “a drive [trieb] cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea” (Freud, SE XIV, 177).

    The implications of this for countering Politzer’s critique are powerful. If we want to grasp the meaning of a dream – or defend the idea that it represents a wish fulfilment – this meaning or wish is not going to be found by tracing back along an associative chain to latent thoughts and expecting to find at their end an unconscious intentionality expressed the first-person. Philippe’s dream is saying neither ‘I want to drink’, ‘I want to have sex with Lili’, or ‘I am scared of being castrated’. Instead, starting from an organic need (thirst), what might have begun as a simple wish to drink goes through a complicated, combinatorial processing so that what comes out the other side is a contradictory formation which loses all connection with a first-person, wishful, intentionality.

    It would look something like this:

    Rats and Unicorns

    What’s especially interesting about Philippe’s dream is that it shows how this ‘elective assumption’ of the signifier licorne sits at the junction of the oral drive, the libidinal object, and the identifying mark of the subject himself:

    We find another example of how a weird, nonsensical signifying formation can condense the enjoyment of the drive, the libidinal object, and the subject’s own person in the following compromise-formation from the Rat Man’s case history:

    “Another time he told me about his principal magic word, which was an apotropaic against every evil; he had put it together out of the initial letters of the most powerfully beneficent of his prayers and had clapped on an ‘amen’ at the end of it. I cannot reproduce the word itself, for reasons which will become apparent immediately [the word was Glejisamen]. For, when he told it me, I could not help noticing that the word was in fact an anagram of the name of his lady [her name was Gisela]. Her name contained an ‘s’, and this he had put last, that is, immediately before the ‘amen’ at the end. We may say, therefore, that by this process he had brought his ‘Samen’ [‘semen’] into contact with the woman he loved; in imagination, that is to say, he had masturbated with her.”
    (Freud, SE X, 225).

    Leclaire, in fact, goes even further in Philippe’s case and attempts a somewhat adventurous boiling down of the unicorn dream into a formula that would be the elementary text of Philippe’s unconscious: Poor (de) J’e-Li’. (We won’t go into it here but Lemaire presents an excellent summary of how this construction is broken down – p.143-144).

    This combination of drive and idea via an “elective assumption” gives Leclaire a refined definition of ‘signifier’ which shows that what’s unconscious about the unconscious is not just a process of linguistic combination, but a capture of drive energy in the web of the signifier:

    “I put forward that a signifier (in the order of the unconscious) can be called a signifier only insofar as the letter which constitutes one face of it necessarily refers back to a movement of the body. It is this elective anchoring of a letter (gramma) in a movement of the body which constitutes the unconscious element, the signifier in the true sense of the word. The signifier is as much body as it is letter, it has a somatic and palpable aspect”
    (Leclaire, quoted in Lemaire, p.144-145).

    Conclusion – Radio Unconscious

    What can we say by way of conclusion about the nature of the unconscious? Let’s summarise the above into five points:

    1. The unconscious is a dynamic system characterised by a series of processes that operate according to fundamentally different rules to those of consciousness/pre-consciousness.
    2. In this sense the unconscious is an entirely different reality – as if in another scene or on another stage to that of consciousness – but not simply a ‘sub’-conscious or another form of consciousness.
    3. We should therefore approach it as a second text. Even if the terms it uses are the same as those of consciousness (a double inscription), the mechanisms of its writing are particular to it.
    4. The unconscious can be said to transmit a meaning, but this meaning does not imply an intentionality. We can never pin an unconscious meaning down to a single wish expressed in the optive, first-person form ‘I want….’. The unconscious only finds expression in a contradictory, combinatorial character.
    5. To quote Laplanche’s own beautifully concise conclusion, “The unconscious is a phenomenon of meaning, but without any communicative finality” (Laplanche, The Unconscious and the Id, p.103). The unconscious, in other words, communicates nothing. There is no ‘intentionality’ on the part of the unconscious to push a certain meaning or signification forward.

    But perhaps the last word – for now – can be left to Leclaire, who in his 1970 article La realite du desir provides our final analogy for how to explain what is unconscious about the unconscious:

    “The unconscious is not the ground which has been prepared to give more sparkle and depth to the painted composition: it is the earlier sketch which has been covered over before the canvas is used for another picture. If we use a comparison of a musical order, the unconscious is not the counterpoint of a fugue or the harmonics of a melodic line: it is the jazz one hears despite oneself behind the Haydn quartet when the radio is badly tuned or not sufficiently selective. The unconscious is not the message, not even the strange or coded message one strives to read on an old parchment: it is another text written underneath and which must be read by illuminating it from behind or with the help of a developer”
    (quoted by Lemaire, p.137-138).

    By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com


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