We’re going to start with a naive question – what is the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious?

This short article is about the unconscious of ‘things’, and if we think about what these ‘things’ might be, psychoanalysis already gives us several possible answers. We could think of:

  • Freud’s ‘thing-presentations’ (Sachvorstellungen)
  • Das Ding – the second sense of ‘thing’ in Freud
  • The internal “foreign body” described by Freud and Breuer in the Studies on Hysteria
  • The ‘part-objects’ of Kleinian and object relations theory
  • Objects a of Lacanian and post-Lacanian theory

‘Things’ vs metapsychological abstractions

All of the ‘things’ on this list, despite being drawn from different traditions, at least share the advantage of being considerably less abstract than many of the ways the unconscious is usually described in psychoanalytic theory (and in psychology more widely). This doesn’t mean they are more correct, but it allows us to avoid the ‘dangers’ of metapsychological abstraction. Here are three such dangers.

1. The danger of ‘mental state-ism’

The easiest way to describe the unconscious is as a mental state. This sounds relatively uncontroversial but also somewhat wishy-washy when we probe it philosophically. One of the most interesting philosophers of recent years to have tried to refine a definition of the unconscious as a mental state is David Finkelstein.

For Finkelstein, we can say something is unconscious if we lack to ability not just to recognise it but to self-ascribe it in an expression:

“Someone’s mental state is conscious if she has an ability to express it simply by self-ascribing it. If she lacks such an ability with respect to one of her mental states, it is unconscious” (Finkelstein, ‘On the Distinction Between Conscious and Unconscious States of Mind’, p.93).

You could object that pretty much anything could be self-ascribed, but Finkelstein’s argument in response would be that “the self-ascription will not be an expression of that mental state” (ibid, p.95). Something is unconscious when someone “lacks the ability to express some of his mental states in self-ascriptions of them” (ibid). This means that, for Finkelstein, psychoanalysis is not really about granting someone a knowledge of their unconscious but of granting “a certain sort of expressive ability” (ibid, p.97).

Finkelstein’s argument succeeds in two ways but falls short in one. On the one hand, his proposal is helpful in that he doesn’t rely on an epistemic criteria to pronounce something conscious or unconscious. It’s not about whether something is known or not known, it’s about “being unable to do something – of being unable to express one’s state of mind in a particular way” (ibid, p.97).

Finkelstein also gives us a way to distinguish what is ‘unconscious’ from Sartean ‘bad faith’. It’s not that you fail to acknowledge something about yourself (after all, symptoms and other unconscious effects do not simply vanish just because we recognise them). Instead, a thought is unconscious when we lack the ability to occupy the expressive position from which we could self-ascribe it.

But the problem with Finkelstein’s view is that it’s not quite the kind of unconscious we’re dealing with in psychoanalysis. When Freud defined the unconscious in 1915 he was careful to distinguish the descriptive unconscious from the unconscious as a system – one distinguished topographically from a conscious or pre-conscious system, whereby the difference was the result of a dynamic interplay of psychical forces which had – at their basis – ‘things’ (SE XIV, 159-215).

But what kind of ‘things’? Freud’s idea was that the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious are not ‘mental states’ at all – they are ‘thing-like’ presentations. If we leave aside for a moment the criteria of self-ascription, whether or not this is a reflection of particular mental state is not – at least for Freud – the criteria by which we should judge whether something is conscious or unconscious.

The psychoanalytic unconscious is not defined on the basis of things you can’t express or self-ascribe, nor ‘mental states’, it’s defined on the basis of things – thing-like presentations. It doesn’t matter whether they are words, impressions, visual or auditory stimuli – the important thing about them, as we will see, is their ‘thing-ness’. As Freud emphasised in 1915, we should think of the unconscious less like another person and more like another thing (SE XIV, 169-170).

2. The danger of personification

We have discussed the critique of psychoanalysis proposed by Georges Politzer before on this site, and it’s a good one. In short, Politzer was opposed to the abstraction of Freud’s metapsychology and thought that the presentation of an ‘internal world’ – populated by a cast of internal characters like the ‘agency’ of censorship, the ego, super-ego, and id – were over-personifications that only led us further and further away from a ‘realist’ view of the unconscious.

By ‘realist’ he meant an unconscious that is revealed in the uniquely individual, highly idiosyncratic modes of expression of each person: a truly phenomenological unconscious. We do not need any abstract personification to describe the unconscious in this way, Politzer thought. To take just one of his examples, in Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection from Interpretation of Dreams Irma’s sore throat is an idiosyncratic expression of Freud’s wish for a mistaken diagnosis, in just the same way that the French term pere means the English word father. They are just two ways of saying the same thing, two modes of expression, so we don’t need a metapsychological division of the psyche into conflicting personified agencies to show this (Politzer, Critique of the Foundations of Psychology, p.107).

3. The danger of reification

Politzer’s critique also helps us avoid a tendency to reification in talking about the unconscious. We find this when we slip into the assumption that there are such things as ‘unconscious desires’ within us that are pushing to be realised, or waiting to be discovered by the psychoanalyst. Things that we’re referring to when we say ‘I unconsciously desire x’.

But what we find in Freud – and what Lacan is especially good at pointing out – is that desire never shows itself as such. All the way through the 600 pages of Interpretation of Dreams there is not a single dream that allows us to put our finger on some kind of purified, unalloyed unconscious desire of the dreamer. Instead, unconscious desire is detectable in a series of complex, combinatorial and sometimes contradictory expressions, never in one form that can be stated with the first person pronoun (as if it ‘existed’ in a more reified sense). We should think of unconscious desire as more like a Trojan horse or hitchhiker that attempts to smuggle itself in, through the otherwise innocuous details of our manifest dreams, and latent thoughts connected with them.

This in itself sounds rather abstract, but it shouldn’t. Because in order to avoid the fallacy of reification we should think about ‘unconscious desire’ in the same way we think about the ‘redness’ of a sunset or the ‘blueness’ of the sky. These qualities are perceptible and describable, but even so descriptive qualities or abstract nouns are not things as such – they can’t be laid down on a table next to pens, paper and your phone.

A certain strand of continental philosophy falls victim to this fallacy of reification with talk of ‘essences’. An egg is an egg – we can put one on the table – but there is no ‘essence’ of an egg that persists when one is scrambled, another is fried, and another used to make a cake. In the same way, we can’t be content with simply talking about ‘unconscious desires’, ‘unconscious fantasies’, ‘unconscious drives’ as things – we have to explain what ‘stuff’ they’re made from and where they come from, and how they become unconscious in the first place.

The truth of reification

But there is a truth to reification:

“We have to find room in the unconscious – and for now let us say, in psychoanalytic psychology, in metapsychology – not only for internal characters, but for internal things. In psychoanalysis, there is a truth of reification… I am referring to the part-object” (Laplanche, The Unconscious and The Id, p.36, his emphasis).

The ‘Unconscious of Things’ should be understood in the same way as we hear people talking about an ‘Internet of Things’ – that is, an assortment of various objects, perhaps unrelated in themselves, but connected as part of a system or network.

‘Part objects’ are examples of such ‘things’. Thinking in these terms helps us avoid the three dangers of metapsychological abstraction. It roots us in an unconscious of introjected objects – ‘things’ – rather than an unconscious of indefinite mental states (which raises more questions than it answers because we have to define the unconscious in opposition to consciousness); internal agencies or characters (personification); or ‘unconscious desires’ (reification).

The “truth of reification” Laplanche proposes might come in different forms. ‘Things’ may be part-objects, objects a, all of the above or none of the above. Here is another way to think about them, from the opening pages of Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria:

“We must presume rather that the psychical trauma – or more precisely the memory of the trauma – acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work” (SE II, 6, emphasis mine).

What about ‘the unconscious structured like a language’?

So what about ‘the unconscious structured like a language’? This commonplace Lacanian mantra is oft-repeated but its meaning still disputed. Is Lacan saying that the unconscious is structured in the same way as a language (a network of differential elements, ‘things’ that are structurally separable) or with the same material as a language (specifically, linguistic signifiers – phonemes, acoustic images, and so on)? Is there even a meaningful difference? Decide for yourself on the basis of the following passages from Lacan’s work:

The unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters” (Seminar XX, p.48, Lacan’s italics, emphasis in bold mine).

[Talking about how there’s no such thing as a ‘meta-language’, no ‘Other’ of the Other] “This is precisely why the unconscious, which tells the truth about truth, is structured like a language, and why I, in so teaching, tell the truth about Freud” (Ecrits, 868, emphasis in bold mine).

“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)” (Ecrits, 799, emphasis in bold mine).

These descriptions may seem very far away from the internal “foreign body” or part-object that might constitute the unconscious of ‘things’. So how do we square the two?

What is a signifier a signifier of?

Firstly, we have to separate unconscious processes and mechanisms from unconscious things, the material or ‘stuff’ of the unconscious. The idea of an unconscious ‘structured like a language’ might tell us a lot about the workings of the unconscious, but less about how something gets unconscious in the first place. In the 1960s many psychoanalysts were exercised by the debate about whether the unconscious was the condition of language, or language the condition of the unconscious. We will see a bit later on why this question became ultimately irrelevant.

Secondly, we can only treat signifiers as ‘things’ if we think of them as ‘thing-like presentations’, or “de-signified signifiers”, to use Jean Laplanche’s term (Laplanche, ‘A Short Treatise on the Unconscious’, in Essays on Otherness, p.92). That is, if they refer only to themselves. Because – ultimately – we have to ask: ‘what is a signifier a signifier of?’

As we will see, some – like Laplanche – argue that the signifiers of the unconscious are not the signifiers of language. The most we can say about them, Laplanche thinks, is that they are “borrowed from visual sense-perception” (Laplanche, The Unconscious and the Id, p.99), a bricolage of different elements that can’t all be bucketed together as ‘signifiers’ in the linguistic sense.  For Laplanche, the signifier will always remain stuck to the thing, even if only a fragment of the thing. If there are ‘signifiers’ in the unconscious they are not ‘representations of things’ but thing-presentations. That is, they refer only to themselves.

‘De-signified signifiers’: signs?

But aren’t Laplanche’s ‘de-signified signifiers’ simply what Lacan refers to as ‘signs’? Here we need to define what we’re talking about, and in Seminar XX Lacan gives us some working definitions that we can use to separate ‘signs’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘signification’.  

“The signifier”, he says, “is characterised by the fact that it represents a subject to another signifier” (Seminar XX, p.49). That is, the subject does not represent him- or herself to another subject directly, but via the signifier, in the same way that a lawyer represents a client to another lawyer, or an ambassador represents their country to another ambassador. This is why Lacan talks about a primacy of the signifier. The mediation of the signifier is a structural necessity and it is only through the signifier that the subject is arrived at:

“The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signifiers, whether he knows which signifier he is the effect of or not. That effect – the subject – is the intermediary effect between what characterises a signifier and another signifier, namely, the fact that each of them, each of them is an element” (Seminar XX, p.50).

Signification is the process by which the effect of meaning is produced. Signification produces a phenomenon of meaning, but that effect results from the movement of the signified under a chain of signifiers. Signification is the passage of the signifier into the signified, as Lacan neatly demonstrates in the ‘bathroom doors’ analogy from ‘The Instance of the Letter’ (Ecrits, 499).

This is why signification is always momentary and contingent – signification can change because the signifier is separable from what Lacan calls here in Seminar XX “its meaning effects” (Seminar XX p.50).  

“A sign”, however, “is not the sign of some thing, but of an effect that is what is presumed as such by a functioning of the signifier”. He goes on, “That effect is what Freud teaches us about, and it is the starting point of analytic discourse, namely, the subject” (Seminar XX, p.49-50). Laplanche’s ‘de-signified signifiers’ are therefore not equivalent to what Lacan calls signs because, as we see here, for Lacan the signifier retains its primacy, and the sign is an effect of it. Laplanche, on the other hand, is talking about a point at which the signifier-signified distinction becomes meaningless – ‘de-signified signifiers’ are things in the sense that they refer only to themselves.

We’ll come back to this point in depth later on.

For now, we can ask: what’s the basis for all this in Freud? We find three possible answers in his work to what the ‘things’ of the unconscious might be.

Are ‘things’ memory traces?

The first thing to know is that, for Freud, a memory-trace is never simply an engram or a ‘stamp’ of the event, object, or ‘thing’ itself. The beauty of Freud’s model is that he instead breaks a memory up into different pieces, and those pieces exist separately in a stratified system – the mnemic system – where they sit until they become ‘cathected’, invested, or charged:

“As you know, I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory-traces being subjected from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a re-transcription. Thus what is essentially new about my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is laid down in various species of indications.” (Freud, Letter 52, SE I, 233, emphasis in italics Freud’s, emphasis in bold mine).

Freud’s unique theory of memory stratification solved a problem that was bugging him even in the 1890s: are memories inscribed in the conscious or unconscious system? Here’s the dilemma: memories can’t simply be registered in the conscious (or pre-conscious) system because we would be constantly overflowing with the excitation attached to them. But a the same time they surely can’t be registered in the unconscious system because we are capable of remembering most things that happen to us so easily. This is what Breuer recognised in the Studies on Hysteria when he wrote that the mirror of a reflecting telescope cannot at the same time be the photographic plate (SE II,189, footnote). It can’t do two different things for the same object.

So in Freud’s stratification model the breaking-up of a memory trace is done on several different levels (chronologically, associatively, and so forth) all of which Freud elaborates in Letter 52 to Fleiss. A memory trace comes to have prominence or importance as a result of being ‘cathected’ or invested, which in turn allows a split between the idea and the affect, accounting for why we remember certain memories which seem so ordinary but not those of supposedly great magnitude in our lives.

So rather than a single memory of a single object or event (for example, a traumatic event) there are instead multiple memory traces split up and stratified over different layers depending on simultaneity, causality, and so on. This means that one part of the memory can be conscious and another unconscious. Freud had solved his problem (ta-da!)

The stratification model also allowed Freud to sever any link between the event or object and the memory trace. When you remember something, Freud’s model implies that you are in fact simply following a path through those stratified levels, a particular combination of which he calls ‘facilitations’ (Bahnung). When in the 1950s Lacan comes to study repetition automatism and argue for the autonomy of the signifier with reference to cybernetics, exchange circuits (see Seminar II), and heads-or-tails algorithmic combinations (see the postface to the Seminar on the Purloined Letter in the Ecrits) he is using exactly this model of combinations and facilitations that Freud had employed for his theory of memory stratification. It also allowed Freud to go on to argue, in 1899, that memory is never simply an inscription or trace but a distortion or screen (see the ‘Screen Memories’ paper, SE II, 301).

Are ‘things’ ideas?

Freud uses the German term vorstellung to express what we generally refer to as ‘ideas’. Sometimes it is translated into English as ‘presentation’, and representation is often offered as its French equivalent. Clearly they are not all the same, so it is easier to say that an ‘idea’ or ‘presentation’ for Freud is a registration – and specifically, a registration of the object in the mnemic system we described just now.

But ‘idea’ only makes sense in Freud’s lexicon when it is contrasted to ‘affect’ because – as we saw – the two are distinct and separable. The different destinies each pursues can be seen clearly in the psychoneuroses. In obsession, affect is displaced from the idea – so that a particular ritual or compulsion seems to revolve around some seemingly innocuous and trivial detail. In hysteria, it is converted – most classically, the “strangulated affect” is converted on to the body, where the repressed idea can then find expression (SE II, 17).

Thing-presentations or Word-presentations?

This distinction only makes sense if you think about it in terms of Freud’s metapsychological model of 1915. That is, as solution to the problem he is trying to solve at that time – whether there are separate conscious and unconscious presentations of an idea (the topographical hypothesis); or whether there is only a single presentation, which is either conscious or unconscious, depending on from which system the level of libidinal investment it receives originates (the functional hypothesis).

For Freud, a ‘thing’-presentation is much closer to the ‘thing’ (as in ‘object’) than the word-presentation. ‘Thing’-presentations are what the unconscious system deals in – you only get thing-presentations in the unconscious. And Freud’s ongoing therapeutic aspiration is to trace an unconscious idea back to this thing-presentation. We could say: to the point where it is a signified rather than a signifier of anything – to where the signifier and signified coincide to the extent that the distinction becomes meaningless. As the philosopher Raymond Tallis joked in his book attacking structural linguistics, Not Saussure, the distinction between signifier and signified exists only in the minds of linguists. What matters to Freud is exactly this point of coincidence – the pathogenic nucleus – and the whole point of following associative pathways through stratified layers as we saw earlier is to get to it.

The difference between the idea (or presentation) and the memory-trace is that the idea has to be cathected to be revived. It is not simply an inert registration. And in order for the thing-presentation to gain access to consciousness it has to be connected to a word-presentation. As Freud puts it:

“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” (SE XIV, 201).

Witnessing the slippage from ‘signifier’ to ‘thing’

Given all of this, can we really say that the unconscious has a linguistic character – whether structured like a language, or composed of signifiers? Is Lacan’s famous formulation, and the pronouncements he makes about it we quoted earlier, justified? And how can we square it with the notion of an ‘unconscious of things’?

There are three ways this can be done, but in each we can detect a certain slippage from the primacy of the ‘signifier’ to the privileging of the ‘thing’.

1. The Lacan way

If Lacan talks about the primacy of the signifier and says that the unconscious is structured like a language, how can we square this with Freud’s focus on thing-presentations rather than word-presentations being the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious?

His simplest argument is that it is the nature of the unconscious to use signifiers as things – that is, in their pure materiality (see for instance Seminar VII, p.44-45 and p.62-63). When Lacan nonetheless makes heavy use of Freud’s das Ding (‘the Thing’) in Seminar VII, his idea is that das Ding is the ‘beyond’ of the signified, outside of language, much more like a Kantian thing-in-itself (Kant in fact uses the same German term). Freud’s das Ding, in Lacan’s hands, can thus be the object-as-such, the horrific, incestuous object of desire against which the pleasure principle protects us and towards which the beyond of the pleasure principle – jouissance – tends. By contrast die Sache – the term Freud uses for ‘things’ in 1915 when discussing ‘thing-presentations’ (Sachvorstellungen) in the unconscious – are for Lacan linguistic in nature insofar as they are the signifiers as things in their pure materiality.

Lacan’s argument is only partially convincing. There is still nothing to justify why these Sachvorstellungen – thing-presentations – should be linguistic. The mode of their processing in the overall psychical economy might sometimes be, but not their status as such. Freud is clear that the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious is Sachvorstellungen, but Laplanche’s contention is that the most we can say about them is that they are “borrowed for visual sense-perception”, perhaps ‘fragments’ of language, cobbled together in a kind of bricolage or configuration (The Unconscious and the Id, p.99-100). This doesn’t allow us to simply bucket them all together as ‘signifiers’ in the linguistic sense, if such elements do not always behave the way signifiers do in linguistic structures.

We still have to ask the same question we raised earlier: if they are signifiers, what they are signifiers of?

Perhaps Lacan himself wondered about this question, because as his work develops through the 1960s and 1970s we can trace an increasing prominence given to the object as such over-and-above the signifier.

  • This starts around Seminar VII in 1959-1960, as we saw, with a re-examination of Freud’s ‘Thing’ (das Ding).
  • From das Ding grows the concept of object a in the 1960s, an element which – even without a specular form – allows the subject to separate from the signifying order. In one of its first iterations in Seminar X from 1962-1963, the object a is differentiated from das Ding because of its use in mediating the experience of anxiety.
  • Object a is then used to refine a new theory of fantasy in the later 1960s (Seminar XIV from 1966-1967 in particular) during which time Lacan argues that in fantasy we create a relation to an object – usually borrowed from the pre-genital register – as a way of defending against the desire of the Other. The fantasy is the response to that desire, built up around the object.
  • By the late 1970s, it is the object a – not the signifier – which will sit at the centre of the Borromean knot, at the inmost juncture of the subject’s sense of life. 

2. The Leclaire way

Lacan’s one-time student and analysand Serge Leclaire had an alternative way to square this problem through the concept of the Letter, which he defined in a 1968 article as:

“The materiality of the trait in its abstraction from the body, abstraction being understood both in the ordinary sense and as an operation of detachment from the corporeal surface.” (‘The Unconscious, or the Order of the Letter’, in Leclaire’s Psychoanalyzing, p.88, his emphasis).

He uses this concept to answer the question of how it is that something gets unconscious in the first place. A single element in an extremely pleasurable or painful experience remains to mark that experience, and it is this mark that he calls the Letter. Although the examples Leclaire gives may seem a little wacky, he’s showing that it’s not just the inscription or mark of the signifier that is important – after all, why one signifier rather than another? – but the link to the registration of an experience of intense pleasure or pain in or on the body. This is how the Letter is different from the signifier, but it is also distinct from the object too:

“It is the trait that fixes in a foreign register what seems incapable of being inscribed, namely, jouissance as annulment, which is accomplished in an evanescent fashion by the moment of pleasure” (ibid, p.96).

3. The Miller way

In his 2006 article ‘The Real Unconscious’ (recently published in Lacanian Ink, 50) Miller distinguishes two kinds of unconscious: the ‘transferential’ unconscious and the ‘real’ unconscious.

The idea of a ‘real’ unconscious may seem an oxymoron if we make the loose alignment between the linguistic nature of the unconscious and the symbolic register. But for Miller the ‘real unconscious’ simply means the unconscious that is without meaning (ibid, p.34). Basing himself in Lacan’s later work, Miller starts from the idea that the signifier, as such, signifies nothing – that S1 isn’t a representing signifier (ibid, p.27). This is exactly what we find in the canonical example of Joyce, he argues. So when we’re looking for the unconscious – for what is truly unconscious about the unconscious – we should look for both a lack of meaning and a lack of the transferential bond (ibid, p.29). We can catch a glimpse of this if we isolate – in a slip of the tongue, for instance – the moment before “the machine of attention” starts to operate (ibid, p.30).

Has Laplanche won out?

This new concept of the ‘real’ unconscious might seem surprising to Laplancheans – if the ‘real unconscious’ is without meaning, isn’t Miller just saying the same thing as Laplanche when the latter referred to ‘de-signified signifiers’? Does the term ‘real’ unconscious add anything to the description of the nature of the unconscious Freud was trying to elaborate with the distinction between word- and thing-presentations?

As Laplanche’s ‘de-signified’ signifiers are thing-like presentations, he can claim “the opposition presentation of the thing/presentation of the word loses its pertinence for the psychoanalytic unconscious” because “the presentation of the word (verbal representation) becomes in the unconscious, like the (visual) representation of the thing, a thing-like presentation” (Laplanche, ‘A Short Treatise on the Unconscious’, in Essays on Otherness, p.92).

Indeed, with the notion of the ‘real unconscious’, Laplancheans might wonder if Miller is subject to the very same criticism Lacan made of Laplanche in 1969 – that a ‘de-signified signifier’ implies a signifier could signify itself? (see Lacan’s preface to Anika Lemaire’s Jacques Lacan, p.xiii). Laplanche’s point in reply to Lacan is very simple:

“I think that at a certain point signifiers have no other signifieds than themselves. That is a point I make also in a personal way, by saying that the primacy of the signifier is a secondary one. When the signifier becomes the signified it acquires some kind of primacy, but that is a secondary primacy.” (Laplanche, responses to questions at the ICA Seminar, 5th May, 1990, published in Seduction, Translation, Drive, p.79)

Does the recent introduction of the ‘real’ unconscious into Lacanian jargon therefore signal that Laplanche has won this argument? Is the ‘real’ unconscious a concession to this point, albeit disguised as a new Lacanian concept?

Either way, it is clear from these three attempts to square the issue – Lacan’s, Leclaire’s, and Miller’s – that there is a gradual moving away from an unconscious of ‘signifiers’ (a linguistic conception of the unconscious, in which the signifier is primary), and towards an unconscious of ‘things’ (whether they be objects a, hybrid concepts like the Letter, or the notion of a ‘real’ unconscious without a link to meaning).

Crucially however, what all these alternative models have in common is that there is always some link to the body, the corporeal dimension. This is why we have to distinguish the processes of the unconscious from the stuff of the unconscious – the operation from the material on which it works. As people like Laplanche have pointed out, ‘part-objects’, residues of ‘visual sense-perceptions’, and ‘internal foreign bodies’ can’t all be reduced to signifiers in the linguistic sense. And likewise, the unconscious can’t be reduced to the ‘primacy of the signifier’ because we always have to ask: what would they be signifiers of? It is things as such, things in their thing-ness, not things-as-signifiers, that are fundamental to the nature of the unconscious.

‘De-signified’ signifiers are the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious

So, to answer our question, this is what the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious is: the unconscious of ‘things’ is an unconscious of de-signified signifiers – that is, signifiers that refer only to themselves.

Not, we should note, drive. This is the very instructive lesson that comes from Laplanche – that there is no independent force of the drive that somehow sits behind the representative:

“For me the drive is a force of the representatives themselves and not “behind” them, which would go back to some abstract force which doesn’t exist for me.” (Laplanche, ibid, p.73).

Laplanche is countering another version of the reification fallacy we saw earlier – to believe that the drive exists as an independent force. But the ‘stuff’ of the unconscious – these ‘de-signified’ signifiers which refer only to themselves – are nonetheless not inert. They are sources of stimulation themselves, Laplanche believes (ibid).

But how do ‘things’ get unconscious in the first place? The easy answer is ‘primal repression’. But this only pushes the question one step back – how does something become primarily repressed?

Here Laplanche’s major contribution to psychoanalytic research – the ‘General Theory of Seduction’ – becomes very interesting. Summarising very broadly, it is an implantation model which involves the transmission of an ‘enigmatic message’ from the parent to the child. These enigmatic messages are examples of ‘de-signified’ signifiers. They are always linked to the body, always around an ‘exchange zone’ – that is, some kind opening on the body, or privileged point of interface in the parent-child relationship which can be described as ‘sexual-pre-sexual’ (SE II, 133) – and are always directed to the child by the parental other.

Primal repression is a failure of translation

Primal repression is the result of a failure of translation of these enigmatic messages. This is where Laplanche’s theory harks directly back to Freud’s famous Letter 52 that we looked at earlier in terms of the retranscription and re-arrangement of memory traces. It is worth quoting the relevant passage in full:

“I should like to emphasise the fact that the successive registrations [of memory traces] represent the psychical achievement of successive epochs of life. At the frontier between two such epochs a translation of the psychical material must take place. I explain the peculiarities of the psychoneuroses by supposing that this translation has not taken place in the case of some of the material, which has certain consequences…. A failure of translation – this is what is known clinically as ‘repression’. The motive for it is always a release of unpleasure which would be generated by a translation; it is as though this unpleasure provokes a disturbance of thought which does not permit the work of translation” (Freud, Letter 52, SE I, 235, emphasis in bold mine).

Even with its basis in – and condition on – the body, what we see as the drive in psychoanalysis is a product of this translation process. The important differentiator between Freud’s abandoned theory of seduction from the late 1890s and Laplanche’s ‘General Theory of Seduction’ is that the latter doesn’t rely on any meaning or intentionality on the part of the adult towards the child. Indeed, Laplanche’s theory may also give us a model for unconscious intergenerational transmission – paving a way for showing how something could be transmitted without intentionality, across generations, and end up constituting the unconscious of another person.

“I am an encoded of the anti-past”

To bring this to life, here is a clinical example of how this failure of translation may work.

One of the fundamental lessons of psychoanalysis is that if something cannot be given a meaning (via signification) or representation (via the signifier) it appears in another register. In Lacanian terms, if something cannot be adequately represented through the symbolic or imaginary – that is, through words or images – it appears in a much more discreet way, perhaps on the body (localised at the ‘exchange zones’ we saw earlier) or through the kinds of ‘practices of inscription’ we find in minimalist or abstract art. The way these impossibilities are used may themselves differ – either as ‘idioms of distress’ when they appear in the clinic, or therapeutic ‘knottings’ that help organise someone’s life and restitute against suffering.

Drs Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudilliere are psychoanalysts practicing in Paris and professors at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Their research interest centres around madness and trauma. Interviewed a few years ago by Cathy Caruth, Gaudilliere told the story of how he first introduced himself to one of his psychotic patients – a man confined to an asylum for more than 10 years, feverish, and almost starving:

“‘I am Jean-Max Gaudilliere’, I said, ‘I am a psychoanalyst of the ward’. And he looked at me with his eyes completely wide open from fever, and he said to me, ‘I am an encoded of the anti-past’” (interview with Davoine & Gaudilliere, quoted in Caruth, Listening to Trauma, p.82).

If we break down this enigmatic but beautifully poetic expression, we can see how it illustrates what an unconscious of ‘things’ might look like:

“I am– As Gaudilliere notes, “He was the encoded. He said: ‘I am an encoded of the anti-past’” (ibid). Here we see the ‘internal foreign body’ that Freud and Breuer described at the very start of the Studies on Hysteria (SE II, 6). Being itself becomes the ‘thing’.

“Encoded” – Here we see the ‘de-signified signifier’, devoid of meaning or communicative intentionality, ‘thing-like’ as Laplanche describes it. This is the sense of ‘thing’ in Freud’s 1915 distinction, and we can align it to the pathogenic nucleus he searches for.

“Anti-past–  Here we see the failure of translation Freud noted in his early theory of memory registration and repression. The way Gaudilliere’s patient describes himself, at the core of his psychosis, is mark of an alternative past that has been (primarily) repressed due to a failure of ‘translation’, but not a failure of transmission. The ‘anti-past’ is still expressed, but in this form rather than in the form of memory as we usually understand it.

To conclude, the lesson here is that if you want to understand the nature of the unconscious, you have to be able to say how something gets unconscious in the first place. For that, you need a theory of transmission or implantation to explain primary repression and provide a link to the other (whether the parental other, other generations, or others more broadly).

It is this that Laplanche’s ‘General Theory of Seduction’ provides. 


By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

Creative Commons Licence
All content on LacanOnline.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.