The Unconscious


Standard Edition Volume XIV

Before going into depth on this important paper we can note the fact that at the very outset Freud differentiates between two different kinds of unconscious. He tells us that although what is repressed is unconscious, the unconscious is not simply the sum of the repressed: “The repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious. The unconscious has the wider compass: the repressed is part of the unconscious” (p.166). As we will see, later in the article he states that “The unconscious comprises, on the one hand, acts which are merely latent, temporarily unconscious, but which differ in no other respect from conscious ones and, on the other hand, processes such as repressed ones, which if they were to become conscious would be bound to stand out in the crudest contrast to the rest of the conscious processes” (p.172). So as a starting point we have the unconscious as that of which we are simply not conscious, but also another kind of unconscious which is a result of the process he calls repression. The most important thing that Freud does in this paper is to distinguish between the two – to present an unconscious that could properly be called ‘Freudian’, and to show us what is unique about it.

1. Justification for the Concept

Freud wants to detach the notion of what is mental from what is conscious, and attempts to justify the existence of the unconscious on the grounds that its assumption is both necessary and legitimate. It is necessary simply due to the fact that “our most personal daily experience acquaints us with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how (p.166 -167). The assumption of unconscious mental phenomena is not one that has just to be reserved for neurotics, therefore. There are two things that strike us from the outset. First, that in beginning the paper in this way his argument is very limited and will not find many critics today. It is a popularly accepted notion that not everything that is mental is necessarily also conscious. Secondly, it is important to note that in this opening passage he is not talking about the ‘Freudian’ unconscious as we have come to know it, but merely a state of latency that needs to be described as psychically unconscious. Very simply, all this means is that not everything that we are capable of thinking about is unconscious: “When all our latent memories are taken into consideration it becomes totally incomprehensible how the existence of the unconscious can be denied” (p.167). Now, these “latent states” (p.168) as Freud calls them are quite easily capable of becoming conscious and we can recognise them as being alike to the things we are conscious of – they might take the form of ideas, purposes, resolutions, etc. Therefore, we can say that “the only respect in which  “latent states of mental life” (p.168) differ from conscious ones is precisely in the absence of consciousness” (p.168).

This is the most elementary definition of the unconscious and Freud says that there is nothing specifically psychoanalytical about it. Understood in this limited sense, the recognition of the unconscious pre-dated him and Freud accepts this, pointing in particular to hypnosis as affording evidence of the existence of the unconscious. Specifically, he is referring in this passage to experiments conducted by the French neurologist Hyppolite Bernheim at Nancy in 1889 demonstrating a phenomena known as ‘negative hallucination’, a psychological curiosity which we can recognise as one of the most important precursors to the birth of psychoanalysis. As opposed to ‘positive hallucination’, in which a person is hypnotised into seeing something which is not there, ‘negative’ hallucination involved hypnotising someone into not seeing something which is actually there. Freud was not only present at and assisted in these demonstrations, he was deeply fascinated by them. In 1924, he writes of his experiences, “I received the profoundest impression of the possibility that there could be powerful mental processes which nevertheless remained hidden from the consciousness of men” (Freud, An Autobiographical Study, SE volume XX, p.17). It is therefore worth giving a full account of what he saw in these experiments as recounted in one of his last works, written in 1938 and published posthumously. Freud writes:

“The doctor enters the hospital ward, puts his umbrella in the corner, hypnotizes one of the patents and says to him: ‘I’m going out now. When I come in again, you will come to meet me with my umbrella open and hold it over my head’. The doctor and his assistants then leave the ward. As soon as they come back, the patient, who is no longer under hypnosis, carries out exactly the instructions that were given him while he was hypnotized. The doctor questions him: ‘What’s this you’re doing? What’s the meaning of all this?’ The patient is clearly embarrassed. He makes some lame remark such as ‘I only thought, doctor, as it’s raining outside you’d open your umbrella in the room before you went out’. The explanation is obviously quite inadequate and made up on the spur of the moment to offer some sort of motive for his senseless behaviour. It is clear to us spectators that he is in ignorance of his real motive. We, however, know what it is, for we were present when the suggestion was made to him which he is now carrying out, while he himself knows nothing of the fact that it is at work in him” ( Freud, Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis, SE volume XXIII, p.285).

Despite the fact that he is now at the end of his career and his life, Freud restates the importance he attaches to this demonstration. “Anyone who witnessed such an experiment will receive an unforgettable impression and a conviction that can never be shaken” (ibid).

What significance can we take from this? As the psychoanalyst Bernard Burgoyne remarks,

“… The defence of repression produces exactly the same effect [as Bernheim’s experiment]. Unconscious knowledge and perception, once created by repression, produces the conditions for a conscious failure to perceive. In this situation, to find the real connection between events in consciousness often demands an access to inaccessible material; this real connection is then unavailable, and the ego confronts a gap in consciousness. Freud claims that the ego seems to be impelled to a compulsive filling-in of such gaps, and that when such real connections are unavailable, the ego fabricates connections – fictive and distortive accounts of the world – simply because it cannot bear to construct an account that bears more closely on the real nature of the world” (Burgoyne, B, Autism and Topology, in ‘Drawing the Soul’, p.195, ed. Burgoyne, B,  Rebus: 2000).

To return to follow Freud’s paper, his next argument in this chapter is that the assumption of there being such a thing as an unconscious (in the albeit limited sense in which Freud introduces it) is legitimate if we recognise that our inferring its existence only requires us to take the same small step that we would in inferring consciousness in other human beings. We infer a consciousness in others that is alike to our own; for us to accept the notion of an unconscious we only have to do the same for ourselves – to recognise our own unconscious processes as if they were the conscious processes of someone else. “All the acts and manifestation which I notice in myself and do not know how to link up with the rest of my mental life must be judged as if they belonged to someone else: they are to be explained by a mental life ascribed to this other person” (p.169).

However, whilst Freud uses this argument to gain our acceptance of the existence of a purely descriptive state of unconsciousness – a ‘latent’ state of consciousness – it soon becomes clear that this is not what Freud is most concerned with in this article. Such a notion of the unconscious is too limited for him. He recognises that if we treat our unconscious as if it were the consciousness of another person we would be left not with an unconscious, but logically with a kind of ‘second consciousness’ within us (and then why not a third, fourth, fifth consciousness ad infinitum)? Notwithstanding the careful remarks Freud inserts at the outset lest we think the unconscious is simply the sum of the repressed, the kind of unconscious that is specific to Freud, that he is concerned with in this paper is quite different. It is an unconscious that works in a totally different way from the consciousness we might say we are at home in. It has “characteristics and peculiarities which seem alien to us, or even incredible, and which run directly counter to the attributes of consciousness with which we are familiar” (p.170). The unconscious cannot be reduced to a consciousness of which we are unaware, or a ‘sub-conscious’ (Freud rejects this latter term outright). Moreover, the object of consciousness may be unconscious mental processes, but this does not mean that such processes are themselves conscious: the unconscious is not the dream or the slip of the tongue, for example. Freud is looking instead for the unconscious processes that manufacture or construct these manifestations of the unconscious, and for this we need some conceptual clarity.

2. Various Meanings of ‘The Unconscious’ – The Topographical Point of View

It is because of the aforementioned difficulty that Freud begins the next part of this article looking to distinguish a descriptive use of the term ‘unconscious’ from a systematic one. This is a very important distinction, one that if not grasped will lead to the greatest conceptual misunderstanding when reading the rest of the article; yet it is often simply overlooked by commentators on the Freudian unconscious. Freud sets himself the task of differentiating the unconscious as a system (with its unique characteristics, laws and modes of operation that oblige us to abandon thinking of it simply as another consciousness) from that which we would descriptively refer to as unconscious (all that is latent, all that we are not currently conscious of). As a system therefore, he proposes the abbreviation Ucs. for what is unconscious, and Cs. for what is conscious. This constitutes what Freud calls a topographical view of mental phenomena.

Where does psychoanalysis suggest we find these systems? A “psychical act” (p.173) is firstly unconscious and therefore belongs to the system Ucs. Before it can become conscious (and move to the system Cs.) it is subjected to what Freud refers to as “censorship” (p.173), a kind of testing which if it does not pass leads to the psychical act being “repressed” (p.173) and remains unconscious. If it passes this censorship however, it becomes either conscious, or capable of becoming conscious, the latter being a state which Freud labels “preconscious” (p.173).

It is worth pausing here to examine what Freud means by the term “psychical act”. Freud suggests that we think of “one which is in the nature of an idea” (p.174), but the translation of the German term he uses – Vorstellung – as ‘idea’, has been much commented on in the Lacanian literature. Lacan himself makes a number of remarks to the associated term very often used by Freud, Vorstellungrepresantanz, which Lacan prefers to translate in Seminar XI as “That which takes the place of representation” [le tenant-lieu de la representation] (Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.60, Karnac: 2004). Burgoyne favours the translation of ‘representation’ for the term Vorstellung, and Lacanian writer and analyst Bruce Fink aligns this Vorstellung to the Lacanian category of the Real. Paradoxically, however, the Lacanian Real is that which evades representation – how therefore to make sense of this term? Fink writes,

“Here representation seems to refer to a presence or image; in English it is usually translated as “idea”, but clearly an idea is at the level of thought, thus of the signifier. Vorstellung is that which is represented by signifiers; it is not the signifiers themselves. It seems to be a real presence or image which can never be rendered into words…. One might be tempted to think that it is the ‘true thought’ which is missing, but it seems that Vorstellung here is more likely at the level of the unthinkable, unnameable, unspeakable” (Fink, B, The Real Cause of Repetition, in Feldstein, R, Fink, B, and Jaanus, M, ‘Reading Seminar XI’, State University of New York Press: 1995, p.227).

If we take the translation of Vorstellung into ‘representation’ seriously, it is difficult to think of a “psychical act” being akin to an ‘idea’, as the latter seems to be a more substantial and encompassing concept than a ‘representation’. In fact, in the vast majority of instances one finds Lacan (and, for the most part, Lacanians) citing Freud’s use of the term Vorstellungrepresantanz. This is not just that which comes in the place of a (Real) representation; as we will see later Lacan equates it with the signifier itself.

Freud moves on to question the idea of the transposition of a Vorstellung from the Ucs. to the Cs. Does this mean that the ‘idea’ is present in both systems simultaneously, (a topographical hypothesis); or is there a change in the idea itself (a dynamic hypothesis)? Whilst we cannot, Freud says, approach this question by looking for the anatomical localities in which such representations  are registered (Freud had given up such a project in the late 1890s), the topographical hypothesis appears to be lent support by the fact that you cannot remove pathogenic repressed ideas simply by telling someone what they are.  This, Freud wittily remarks, is like handing out menus in a time of famine. On this model you would have two registrations of the same idea, one in the system Ucs. and one in the system Cs. However, because it is not until “the conscious idea, after the resistances have been overcome, has entered into connection with the unconscious memory-trace” (p.175-176) there would be no effect on the symptom. Of course, this does not solve our problem, as we would only have to recognise that there is a difference between being told something and actually experiencing it to realise that this topographical explanation is insufficient, and that the dynamic one may be better suited. Freud returns to this question later on.

3. Unconscious Emotions

The first thing that may strike the uninitiated Freud reader on beginning this chapter is Freud’s statement that there are no such things as unconscious instincts (or better, drives): only the idea that represents the drive exists in the unconscious and is capable of becoming conscious. “A drive can never become an object of consciousness – only the idea that represents the drive can” (p.177). Here it is certainly best to follow Lacan in translating Freud’s German word trieb as ‘drive’ rather than ‘instinct’ given in the English Standard Edition (see for example, Lacan in  Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.49, Karnac: 2004; or Lacan, Ecrits, p.499, Norton: 2006). However, Freud’s English translator, James Stratchey, notes that there are places in Freud’s work where Freud does not make a distinction between the drive and its representative (which, as we have seen, is translated by Stratchey as ‘idea’), and places in which Freud separates the two (see for example, Editor’s Note to Freud’s Drives and their Vicissitudes, SE XIV, p.111-114). If the former is the case it might leaves us wondering what exactly are the nature of the drives, and what we might be able to say about them per se (if anything) given that, as Freud remarks in this paper, “If the drive did not attach itself to an idea or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it” (p.177). Nonetheless, we shall leave this question to one side for the time being, as Freud takes it up in the metapsychological paper on the drive, published the same year.

What about unconscious feelings, emotions and affects? Can we speak about unconscious feelings and emotions if it does not make sense to speak about unconscious drives? Indeed, is there really such a thing as an ‘unconscious feeling’? Very often it is not the feeling itself that is repressed but the connection to a particular idea. I may feel a deep anger or upset about something comparatively trivial that has taken place at work, but the link to the unconscious idea or representation – what I am really angry about – is not apparent. The anger is not repressed, but rather the connection between thoughts. Nevertheless, Freud is clear that if we do find ourselves talking about unconscious feelings or emotions what we are actually referring to is “the vicissitudes undergone, in consequence of repression, by the quantitative factor in the instinctual impulse [the drive]” (p.178). This is a very strange definition and it makes us wonder whether affects, feelings, emotions, are not simply manifestations of the drive in the process of discharge? The commonly-held view amongst Freud scholars appears to be that it is. As Laplanche and Pontalis write, “Each instinct [drive] expresses itself in terms of affect and in terms of ideas (Vorstellungen). The affect is the qualitative expression of the quantity of instinctual [drive] energy and of its fluctuations” (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, p.13, Karnac: 2004). The “vicissitudes” that Freud refers to in his enigmatic definition are explained more fully in the metapsychological paper on repression that he wrote the same year, but he introduces three such vicissitudes here: the affect either remains as it is; or it is directly transformed into anxiety; or repression operates upon the affect to inhibit its development or discharge. In this final case it would make sense to speak of the affect as ‘unconscious’, admits Freud, and indeed he is very clear here that repression is operative. But nonetheless, he makes an important distinction between the way we might speak of ‘unconscious feelings’ or affects, and ‘unconscious ideas’:

“… Unconscious ideas continue to exist after repression as actual structures in the system Ucs., whereas all that corresponds in that system to unconscious affects is a potential beginning which is prevented from developing…. The whole difference arises from the fact that ideas are cathexes – basically of memory-traces – whilst affects and emotions correspond to processes of discharge, the final manifestations of which are perceived as feelings” (p.178).

Furthermore, the real aim of repression, Freud says, is to prevent an affect from developing, and in this sense he admits it is legitimate to talk about unconscious affects or feelings. But, as we saw before, Freud is clear here that the unconscious, the system Ucs., is not structured in terms of feelings, but through ideas, which as we have seen correspond more closely in the German original to representations.

When Lacan comes to discuss this third chapter of The Unconscious in Seminar VI, Desire and its Interpretation from 1958, he is unequivocal about the importance of this point. Lacan tells his audience,

“Freud explains the following very clearly, that the only thing that can be repressed, he tells us, is what is called vorstellungsreprasentanz. It is only this, he tells us which can properly speaking be repressed”, and that, “the vorstellungsreprasentanz… is strictly equivalent to the notion and to the term of the signifier” (Lacan, Seminar of 26.11.1958, p.7-8, unpublished).

Lacan is quite scornful here of the disregard which analysts of his time paid to the concept of affect, whilst all the same relying heavily on affect to guide them in their clinical work. He notes the fact that Freud rejects at least formally the notion of unconscious affects, feelings and emotions. Nonetheless, Lacan’s focus here is really on the way that Freud defines affects as vicissitudes of the drive in motion. The German he picks up on is Triebregung, literally, ‘drive-motion’, which gives us a better sense of the strange definition Freud provides of affect as the ‘vicissitude of the quantitative factor of the drive’. “It is the transformation of the purely quantitative factor”, Lacan tells us, “there is absolutely nothing which at that moment is really in the unconscious this quantitative factor in a transformed form, and the whole question is to know how these transformations in the affect are possible” (ibid, p.9).

Freud goes on to enriches the idea of a separation of affect and idea that occurs under repression, which he had discussed earlier. It is not that the affect is already there from the start,  like a hidden feeling bubbling below the surface in the unconscious. Instead, the drive goes looking for another, substitutive idea in consciousness that it can attach itself to, and it is only once it has found one that the “qualitative character of the affect” (p.179) – which we might take to mean the feeling – will arise.

4. Topography and Dynamics of Repression

How is it that an idea can become repressed? “It must be a matter of withdrawal of cathexis”,  Freud tells us (p.180). The term ‘cathexis’ is a neologism invented by the translator, James Stratchey, in place of the German term Besetzung.  ‘Cathexis’ has its origin in a Greek term meaning to occupy, fill or invest, which is fairly equivalent to the meaning of Besetzung. However, Stratchey himself tells us that Freud disliked the English substitute because, whilst besetzung is a common word in everyday German, ‘cathexis’ struck Freud as “unnecessarily technical’ (Freud, SE III, p.63, n. 2). For our purposes, however, we can briefly say that Freud is talking about an investment of an energy of the psyche necessary for repression.

Both systems, the Ucs and the Pcs (Cs) are capable of ‘cathecting’ or withdrawing cathexis from ideas. The process of repression involves “a withdrawal of the preconscious cathexis, retention of the unconscious cathexis, or replacement of the preconscious cathexis by an unconscious one” (p.180). Returning to Freud’s two hypotheses from Chapter II about how an idea passes from the Cs to the Ucs –  the topographical and dynamic-functional hypotheses – a process such as that Freud describes here clearly lends support to the latter.

But if an idea receives investment from both the Ucs and the Cs, how does it stay repressed? If an idea is cathected in the Ucs why does it not seek to become Cs again? This is why Freud posits an ‘anticathexis’, a cathexis of an idea by the Pcs(Cs) that prevents an idea in the Ucs becoming conscious. This makes what is primarily repressed repressed, and keeps what is the repressed proper repressed. “Anticathexis is the sole mechanism of primal repression; in the case of repression proper (‘after-pressure’) there is in addition withdrawal of the Pcs cathexis” (p.181). Freud sees this as constituting a third model of how an idea passes from the Cs to the Ucs – an economic hypothesis based on “the vicissitudes of amounts of excitation and… some relative estimate of their magnitude” (p.181). If we were able to combine the three hypotheses – topographical, dynamic-functional and economic – and describe a psychical process in these terms it would constitute a metapsychological presentation.

So Freud tries his hand at a metapsychological explanation of phobia, hysteria and obsessional neurosis. In phobia (anxiety hysteria) he identifies three phases. In its first phase phobia has no object – there is nothing that the phobic is actually afraid of (height, spiders, etc): “A first phase of the process is frequently overlooked, and may perhaps be in fact missed out…. It consists in anxiety appearing without the subject knowing what he is afraid of” (p.182). This is really quite a radical thing to assert given that, although it is commonly accepted that the object of a phobia is not something that warrants the fear that it carries, it is nonetheless the point on which a therapy should focus. We see, for example, in certain types of hypnotherapy, the aim of the treatment is to bring the patient in closer and closer proximity to the feared stimulus until he or she feels they can confront and overcome their fear. However, Freud is here suggesting that this should not be the treatment’s focus because, in its embryonic phase, phobia comes actually from “a love-impulse demanding to be transposed into the system Pcs” (p.182). The vicissitude of this love is very strange: because it is unable to be cathected by the Pcs, (that is, it is forbidden to enter consciousness), it is “discharged in the form of anxiety” (p.182); in other words, it does not pass through consciousness. We see this view expressed very clearly in the papers of the late 1890s – anxiety as a direct translation of sexual libido that has not been properly discharged, an unconsummated sexual excitation.

In the second phase, Freud says that a substitute idea is cathected and allows,“the still uninhibitable development of anxiety to be rationalised” (p.182). It is a cathexis from the Pcs that does not attach to the anxiety itself, but to a substitutive idea, a “substitute by displacement” (p.182) or “substitutive formation” (p.183), which forms an anticathexis.  An idea in the Ucs (the love) is inhibited from reaching the Cs and so expressed or released as anxiety. This anxiety, however, cannot be inhibited, so it is up to the cathexis of the Pcs to anticathect a substitute idea that would on the one hand allow the anxiety to be rationalised, and on the other prevent the repressed idea from becoming conscious. This is perhaps one way to understand Lacan’s well-known dictum that anxiety is the only affect that does not deceive (see, for example, Lacan, Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, 2004, p.41). The actual anxiety, Freud says again, is “quite uninhibitable” (p.182), but the idea that constitutes the anticathexis “acts as if it were the point of departure for the release of the anxiety-affect” (p.182). That is, the substitutive idea allows us to rationalise the anxiety on one hand, and on the other to “set in action a projection outwards” (p.184) of the anxiety. For example, if the anticathexis is a horse (as in Little Hans’ case) or a spider, or heights – it allows us to make sense of or rationalise the anxiety that has arisen as a result of an originally repressed idea being denied access to the Pcs (Cs). This is why, Freud says, “Clinical observation shows, for instance that a child suffering from an animal phobia experiences anxiety under two kinds of conditions: in the first place, when his repressed love-impulse becomes intensified, and, in the second, when he perceives the animal he is afraid of” (p.182). The third phase of the development of a phobia involves an attempted suppression of the development of anxiety (Freud says that the suppression of affects is the true aim of repression) and that this is brought about by an especially intense cathexis being afforded to everything around the substitute idea. This generates a small amount of anxiety which is used as a signal against a greater amount. “The system Cs now protects itself against the activation of the substitutive idea by an anticathexis of its environment, just as previously it had secured itself against the emergence of the repressed idea by a cathexis of the substitutive idea. In this way the formation of substitutes by displacement has been further continued” (p.184).

In the case of conversion hysteria, cathexis of the drive attached to the repressed idea is not attached to a substitute but transformed into a bodily form, a part of the body being selected as the anticathexis which we recognise as the symptom. The symptom is thus a compromise between “the wishful aim of the instinctual [drive] impulse no less than the defensive or punitive efforts of the system Cs” (p.185). To take a clinical example, with one hand a hysteric pulls off her clothes, with the other she puts them back on. The symptom is so resilient because it is held in place from both sides – it satisfies the anticathexis and the Ucs.

For obsessional neurosis, the anticathexis takes the form of a reaction-formation, which is the precise opposite of the repressed idea. The repressed idea of harming a loved one might therefore lead to an anticathexis that takes the form of an overly careful avoidance of harm.

5. The Special Characteristics of the System Ucs.

Freud seeks to show that we can isolate specific processes or characteristics of the system Ucs which distinguish it from the conscious, the system Cs. This again serves to demonstrate how the unconscious, as Freud understands it, has a very particular way of working that prevents us from thinking of it in terms of a consciousness of which we are unaware, or a kind of subconscious.

Firstly, there is no contradiction in the unconscious. The contents of the unconscious “… consists of instinctual [drive] representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis; that is to say, it consists of wishful impulses” (p.186). There is no fighting between incompatible wishes – they simply resolve themselves into a compromise formation. Secondly, the unconscious knows no negation, only “contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength” (p.186), and it is the mechanisms of what Freud labels the  primary psychical process, a mode of functioning unique to the unconscious and distinguishable from the ‘secondary psychical processes of the conscious’, that determine the ways in which unconscious contents give up and take up their cathexis. There are two such primary processes: condensation and displacement. “By the process of displacement one idea may surrender to another its whole quota of cathexis; by the process of condensation it may appropriate the whole cathexis of several other ideas” (p.186). These are the two mechanisms that Freud has already discovered and pointed out as being the very method by which dreams and symptoms are formulated.

In his fundamental maxim that the unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan aligns condensation with metaphor (condensation is a metaphoric process) and displacement with metonymy (displacement is a metonymic process). If Lacan is so adamant that the linguistic character of the unconscious is to be revealed through a close reading of Freud’s works, we might ask what prevented Freud from articulating it himself? Lacan argues in Seminar I that structural linguistics postdated Freud and that therefore he could not have made use of it conceptually. This in itself is a rather weak argument given that the advent of structural linguistics came with Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which was published in 1908, nine years after The Interpretation of Dreams, but seven years before the metapsychological papers (including the current paper). Moreover, because of the fact that Saussure’s son, Raymond de Saussure, trained as an analyst and had entered an analysis with Freud himself in 1921, it would be very surprising to think that Freud was simply unaware of the work of Raymond’s father. It is perhaps more likely that Freud simply did not find structural linguistics applicable to psychoanalysis, and did not see it as representative of the structure of the unconscious. In the current paper, Freud seems to be laying the stress not so much the linguistic elements of the primary process themselves (the displacement of the signifier in dreams, symptoms, etc) but the mobility of cathexes. It is the displacement of  cathexis given to an idea/representation that can be shifted, rather than the displacement of the vorstellungrepresantanz, the signifier, itself. This would suggest that Freud, unlike Lacan, does not believe there to be an autonomy of the signifier itself; rather, that this in turn is dependent on the degree to which it is cathected with the mysterious psychical energy. We shall return to this point later on.

To finish Freud’s list of the special characteristics of the unconscious, Freud says that it also possesses the characteristics of timelessness – it knows knows no time and does not observe temporarily; and lastly that it is not subject to reality – it observes only the pleasure principle.

Towards the end of the paper we find a few remarks by Freud on the role of the Pcs (Cs), though they are scanty and would probably make more sense to us if we could read them alongside the lost metapsychological paper on consciousness. In the preconscious/conscious we do not find the mechanisms of displacement and condensation, nor the mobility of cathexes (there is “an inhibition of the tendency of cathected ideas towards discharge” (p.188). The role of the Pcs is described as being to order and censor representations in correspondence with the reality principle, and to thereby allow access to what we experience as conscious memory.

VI. Communication Between the Two Systems

Contrary to popular views of what might constitute the unconscious (possibly aided by the common knowledge of Freud’s love of archeology), the Ucs is not some kind of relic that must be unearthed and examined as a mark of something buried from the past. On the contrary, Freud opens this chapter by stating that the Ucs is very much alive and active, and that it interacts with the Pcs (Cs) via what Freud calls its ‘derivatives’. Indeed, what a study of such derivatives tells us is that it is very difficult to make clear cut distinctions between the Ucs and the Pcs (Cs), but neither does Freud says he feels an obligation to create a simple and clear cut theory if it did not adequately represent the phenomena of clinical experience.

Whilst the metapsychological paper on consciousness is lost Freud does return to the question of consciousness, but all the while making it clear that we need to deal with this question by dividing what we understand as consciousness into the systemic presentations of Cs and Pcs. “To consciousness the whole sum of psychical processes presents itself as the realm of the preconscious” (p.191). Freud’s move of positing a preconscious and differentiating it from the conscious (and, of course, the unconscious) helps him illustrate his earlier point about the necessity of supposing an at least descriptive unconscious – there are thoughts that we are not conscious of, but that are capable of becoming conscious; they are, for the time being, latent. What Freud describes as preconscious might descriptively be unconscious, but he distinguishes them as systems, thus “much that shares the characteristics of the system Pcs does not become conscious” (p.192). This passage is difficult to follow because of the fact that Freud is distinguishing different systems with different ways of operating and not simply defining the unconscious negatively against the conscious. If we want to achieve a metapsychological presentation we need to hold fast to these distinctions and “emancipate ourselves from the importance of the symptom of ‘being conscious’” (p.193).

Moreover, there is not simply a process of censorship between the Ucs and the Pcs, but also between the Pcs and the Cs, (which means that we no longer need to think in terms of there being separate registrations of the same content in different psychical localities). Some ‘derivatives’ of the unconscious are qualitatively indistinguishable from those of the conscious, but remain repressed and cannot become conscious, except when they are ciphered (“having undergone great distortion” (p.193) into substitutive formations or symptoms. Likewise, there are presentations in the preconscious which cannot become conscious because they are, as explained above, qualitatively preconscious but factually unconscious. They may cipher themselves to gain access to consciousness, but they are usually recognised as unconscious derivatives by the second censorship on the border between the Pcs and the Cs and rejected. For example, what is demanded of the patient in psychoanalysis is that the derivatives or formations of the Ucs, that are by virtue of that fact preconscious, are allowed conscious presentation (through free association, adherence to the ‘fundamental rule’ of analysis’, etc). Analysis  thereby works on loosening the second censorship, between the conscious and the preconscious, to have an effect on the first censorship that is effected against the unconscious. What Freud is therefore effectively saying is that analysis can only ever deal with the formations, productions, derivatives of the unconscious – it is never apprehending a ‘purified’ unconscious in its essence. Whilst affecting the unconscious from the direction of the conscious via the ‘derivatives’ or formations of the unconscious is how psychoanalysis works psychotherapeutically, it is really quite surprising to see Freud insist on such a limit to this power: “It is doubtful how far the processes of this system [the Pcs (Cs)] can exert a direct influence on the Ucs; examination of pathological cases often reveals an almost incredible independence and lack of susceptibility to influence on the part of the Ucs” (p.194).

At the end of this paper Freud suggests that “If inherited mental formations exist in the human being – something analogous to instinct in animals – these constitute the nucleus of the Ucs” (p.195). Contrary to his usual terminology for the drive (trieb, mistranslated into English as ‘instinct’), Freud is indeed referring here to an instinct, in the sense of an inherited pattern of knowledge. Stratchey points this out with a footnote, and directs us to a section of the Wolf Man analysis. What is Freud getting at here, and how do we reconcile such a statement to Lacan’s insistence that the unconscious is precisely not the domain of instincts – that it is language – or more precisely, the symbolic – that constitutes the character of the unconscious?

Let us look at the relevant passage in the Wolf Man case that Stratchey directs us to. Here Freud is wondering whether his patient’s ‘primal scene’ – the experience of witnessing his parents having sex as an infant – was real or phantasised. Amazingly, Freud says it does not matter, as,

“These scenes of observing parental intercourse of being seduced in childhood, and of being threatened with castration are unquestionably an inherited endowment, an phylogenetic heritage…. All that we find in the prehistory of neuroses is that a child catches hold of phylogenetic experience where his own experience fails him. He fills in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth” (Freud, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, SE XVII, p.97).

This is a fascinating passage but we need not read it as pointing to an instinct (like an instinct for food or self-preservation that characterises animals). Instead, we could take it as pointing to the symbolic order itself, in the Lacanian sense – a signifying framework into which the child is born and to which it appeals when its own experience fails. When empirical experience fails, when the Wolf Man encounters a point of impossibility or something he is not able to conceptualise, an appeal is made to a different register (the symbolic order) to function in its place. That is, not to some inherent instinct, but a signifying framework that might situate empirical reality. Indeed, the Lacanian analyst Darian Leader argues that the Oedipus complex itself is not some derivative of an affective relation to the parents, but is instead in itself a symbolic structure introduced in order to mediate empirical reality; the child appeals to something from a different register to that of the affective relations to the parents (Leader, D, The Schema L,  in Burgoyne, B (ed) ‘Drawing the Soul’, Karnac: 2000, p.174)

VII. – Assessment of the Unconscious

In this final chapter Freud is looking at the differences in psychical structure and symptomatology in what he calls the ‘transference’ neuroses on one had, and the ‘narcissistic’ neuroses on the other. The former comprise neuroses in which a transference relationship to the analyst is possible – for Freud, hysteria and obsession, chiefly. The latter comprise what would be labeled today as the psychoses – schizophrenia, melancholia, etc. Freud asks why it is that in the narcissistic neuroses things that we might expect to be unconscious in the transference neuroses express themselves openly? Freud links this to the disturbances of speech he encounters in such patients. He notes that their relation to their own words is “’stilted’ and ‘precious’” (p.197) and they employ peculiar ways of expressing themselves; reference to “bodily organs or innervations is often given prominence in the content of these remarks” (p.197). He discusses two cases he has come across in which such patients are able themselves to perform a kind of spontaneous analysis on their symptoms – they recognise the signifying connections but, contrary to hysterical or obsessional symptoms, they are not repressed; instead, they are taken literally. For example, a patient complains,

“… That her eyes were not right, they were twisted. This she herself explained by bringing forward a series of reproaches against her lover in coherent language. ‘She could not understand him at all, he looked different every time; he was a hypocrite, an eye-twister, [meaning, ‘deceiver’ in German] he had twisted her eyes; now she had twisted eyes; they were not her eyes anymore; now she saw the world with different eyes” (p.198).

Freud intuits a qualitative difference between this type of patient and an obsessional or hysteric – between the narcissistic neurosis and the transference neurosis. In describing these patients’ symptoms he maintains that “we have a feeling that something different must be going on here, that a substitutive formation such as this cannot be attributed to hysteria, even before we can say in what the difference consists” (p.200). In the clinical examples  he gives Freud is clear that, despite the similarities in the symptoms themselves, they are of a different order to the transference neuroses. We see that Freud, to his great credit, looks not at the nature of the symptom for a diagnosis, but at the patient’s relation to their symptom. If this were a hysteric, Freud tells us, she would not “have any accompanying conscious thoughts, nor would she have been able to express any such thoughts afterwards” (p.199).

So where does this take us? The crux of the difference he perceives between the transference neuroses and the narcissistic neuroses lies in the relationship of the patient to language. In Lacanian diagnosis (and even in diagnostic methods that are more descriptive or behavioural) we are well acquainted with the idea that disturbances of language can be taken as a hallmark of a psychotic structure; Freud’s view is that what we see in the narcissistic neuroses is a kind of hyper-cathexis of words. The difference between the transference neuroses and the narcissistic neuroses lies in “the predominance of what has to do with words over what has to do with things” (p.200) in the latter. The words themselves carry a strong cathexis for the schizophrenic, so what expresses itself consciously in the symptom, (or symptomatic act) is linked to the unconscious current “only by the sameness of the words used to express them” (p.201). What he calls the ‘word-presentation’ is totally detached from the ‘thing-presentation’. So Freud’s theory of schizophrenia, its difference to transference neurosis, is constructed on the basis of a lack of relation between the word and thing: “Where the two – word and thing – do not coincide, the formation of substitutes in schizophrenia deviates from that in the transference neurosis” (p.201). For Freud, the linking of the word-presentation and the thing-presentation is a process of cathexis. In the narcissistic neuroses the weight of the cathexis is borne by the word-presentation; by contrast, in the transference neuroses, repression works by denying a ‘word-presentation’ a connection to a ‘thing-presentation’. “A presentation which is not put into words, or a psychical act which is not hypercathected, remains thereafter in the Ucs in a state of repression” (p.202). In the transference neuroses it is the transformation of an unconscious presentation into words  (by a process of cathexis of the word-presentation that is inherently linked to the object or thing-presentation) that is forbidden; in the narcissistic neuroses it is the exact opposite: a hyper-cathexis of the words, but no link to the thing-presentation, and no cathexis to the object.

To understand this from a Lacanian perspective we would have to ask what conception of language is present here. Freud appears to be saying in this chapter, quite unequivocally, that there is no language in the unconscious, that word-presentations only come into operation at the level of the preconscious.  All of this might seem to undermine, or even directly contradict, Lacan’s most famous assertion that the unconscious is structured like a language. However, we have to look closely at what Freud says. As Freud puts it, “The system Ucs contains the thing-cathexes of the objects… the system Pcs comes about by this thing-presentation being hypercathected through being linked with the word-presentations corresponding to it” (p.201 – 202). Freud is thus exhibiting a view of language in which, tacitly, there is a fixed correspondence between the word and the thing.

So then what do the ‘thing-presentations’ refer to? Freud says earlier in this paper that unconscious knows no reality – it does not have a reference to reality and its manifestations prove this. For example, as a dream is a formation of the unconscious we might dream of a man with an apostrophe for a head, or a boat that is placed on top of a house, but none of this is meaningful to us in our waking reality. Men do not have apostrophes for heads and boats are not found on the tops of houses. In the current paper Freud draws a  correspondence between the formation of the dream and the formations of schizophrenics: “In schizophrenia words are subjected to the same process as that which makes the dream-images out of latent dream-thoughts – to what we have called the primary psychical process” (p.199).

Building on this, Lacanian analyst Phillipe Van Haute suggests that what Freud is actually getting at when he refers to ‘thing presentations’ are presentations that “do not, as it were, present anything – presentations that are not intentionally directed to a reality outside of us. In other words, they are not presentations of something else, to which they refer” (Van Haute, P, Against Adaptation, Other Press: 2002, p.4).  The ‘thing presentations’, which Freud puts forward as the stuff of the unconscious, have no referential value – they do not refer to a reality outside or beyond them, because the unconscious knows no reality. Thus, Van Haute argues that if the unconscious is structured as a play of signifiers, these signifiers themselves can be taken as ‘thing-presentations’ because the unconscious that Freud is describing treats signifiers as things. Van Haute notes that Freud uses the term Sachvorstellungen (thing-presentations) instead of Vorstellungen der Sache, (presentations of things, in reality). Returning to the example of dreams, when we are awake, and the manifest dream content is presented to us as a memory, we can unite such ‘thing presentations’ with the ‘word presentations’ that are the privilege of the preconscious, and ‘thing presentations’ “take on intentional character as a result of this connection with language” (ibid, p.4).“The dream employs words in their sheer materiality – and thus independently of their referential potential – in order to connect the elements of the dream” (ibid, p.5). The dream work is thus a process of ciphering signifying material, working “simply on the basis of the material similarity between the words” (ibid, p.6). Freud himself even says as much in a footnote to this final chapter: “The dream-work, too, occasionally treats words like things” (p.199, footnote).

So, whilst it may indeed be true that Freud says that the unconscious does not know language, we only need consider this a refutation of Lacan’s argument that the unconscious is structured like a language if we consider language to have a simple referential function whereby a ‘word-presentation’ refers simply and unequivocally to a ‘thing-presentation’. Whilst this view is quite archaic it does indeed appear to be Freud’s view in this paper, and indeed Freud suspends his final formulation of an explanation of the difference between the unconscious and the conscious on this point. The difference between a representation in the conscious and a representation in the unconscious, he tells us, is not that the same content is represented in the unconscious and in the conscious, nor that there is a change in the idea itself, but that “the conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone” (p.201, my italics).

Likewise, we need to recognise that Freud does not says that thing-presentations refer to presentations of things (in some objective, external reality). With these two distinction made, we see now the genius of Lacan in being able to liberate psychoanalytic theory from the necessity of assuming a psychical energy that invests or cathects representations. Through his subversion of Saussurian linguistics he gives an autonomy to the signifier itself, unhinging it from its referent or ‘presentation of a thing’, and demonstrates throughout his work (for example, in the beautiful ‘toilet doors’ analogy in ‘The Instance of the Letter’ in his Ecrits, or in the analysis of Poe’s The Purloined Letter that opens the Ecrits) that the signifier can produce effects without a cathexis by some mysterious psychical energy; that it can produce effects purely by its difference from other signifiers in a signifying structure, and that its effects reside in its sheer materiality – right down to the phonetic or syllabic level.

By way of closing remarks to our commentary on this paper, we can note that in his analysis of the narcissistic neuroses in this final chapter Freud comes surprisingly close to articulating Lacan’s position that repression is not the operative mechanism in the psychoses. For Lacan, psychosis is characterised by the mechanism of foreclosure (a foreclosure of the Name of the Father), and whilst Freud obviously does not arrive at the same conclusion, he does seem dissatisfied with using the term ‘repression’ to account for the mechanism of the narcissistic neuroses. For example, Freud writes, “… a doubt must occur to us whether the process here termed repression has anything at all in common with the repression which takes place in the transference neuroses” (p.203). Moreover, despite saying that the word-presentation receives a more intense cathexis in schizophrenia, just a few sentences later he says that “the cathexis of the word-presentation is not part of the act of repression, but represents the first of the attempts at recovery or cure which so conspicuously dominate the clinical picture of schizophrenia” (p.203 – 204). We might hear in this remark echoes of Lacan’s theory of the sinthome as a way for the psychotic to keep the registers of the symbolic, imaginary and real knotted together, to tie together meaning and a localisation of jouissance.

By Owen Hewitson,

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