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La représentation

Like ‘analysis’ or ‘subject’, the concept of representation evokes one of the main lines of investigation in the Cahiers that link technical questions relating to psychoanalysis to wider epistemological and philosophical problems.

If ‘classical’ (i.e. pre-Kantian) philosophy generally assumed that suitable forms of representation might be adequate to the realities they evoke, then one of the great problems of modern (post-Kantian) philosophy involves a generalised crisis of representation. ‘If one were to name one central issue that distinguishes the rise of modern thought’, suggests the Lacanian philosopher Alenka Zupančič, ‘it is perhaps none other than precisely the issue of representation, its profound interrogation, and the whole consequent turn against the logic of representation.’1

The general questions that contribute to such investigation are familiar and wide-ranging. If concepts relate only to representations or appearances, how might it possible for a modern philosophy to think actual reality in itself? If images relate only to the conventions of representation, how might the forms of modern art evoke or access the real as such? If modern political mechanisms of representation serve only to consolidate the prevailing balance of social forces, how might new forms of political action contribute to the self-emancipation of the oppressed? If fundamental or ‘structural’ forms of causality are (as Marx and then Althusser suggest) not accessible to or presented within ordinary experience, how might they be re-presented in ways that allow for illuminating analysis of their effects?2 The Cahiers pour l’Analyse participate in this interrogation of representation in several respects, including the domains of realism in literature and nomenclature in science, but their main field of interrogation proceeds through psychoanalysis.

If conscious forms of representation obscure the unconscious desires or drives that motivate them, how might analysis access this domain? As Roger Perron notes, ‘psychoanalysis truly came into being’ when Freud began to refer to the rejection or censorship of unwelcome ideas in terms of ‘“repression”, an active process that changes the status of representations, now unconscious but potentially active (through the return of the repressed); and when, at the same time, he also distinguished the vicissitudes of the two expressions for drives, representation and affect. Strictly speaking, it is only the representation that is subject to repression’ (and thus ‘it would be contradictory to speak of unconscious affects, emotions, or feelings’ in the strict sense, ‘for what is unconscious is not the feeling itself, which has disappeared, but the still active mechanisms that generated it’).3

In the Cahiers, and in corresponding English usage, the French term représentation renders two quite distinct terms in Freud’s writing: (a) the conventional term Vorstellung, which literally means the presentation (or ‘placing before’) of an object or experience,4 and (b) Repräsentanz, meaning a ‘representative’ or ‘delegate’.

The first meaning is predominant in Freud’s early work on the interpretation of dreams, in which he outlines some of the elementary conditions of ‘representability’ [Darstellbarkeit] that need to be met by dream-thoughts, so as to allow them to be represented by images. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis note, the ‘expressive system constituted by dreams has its own laws. It demands that all meanings, even the most abstract thoughts, be expressed through images’. According to Freud, the work of displacement fundamental to dream censorship will tend to prefer ‘pictorial substitutes’ and other forms of ‘visual representation’.5

The second meaning – representation as delegation – underpins Freud’s subsequent work on ‘drive’ or ‘instinct’ [Trieb]. As Freud suggests in his essay ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), since the drive is itself unconscious (i.e. repressed), ‘if the drive did not attach itself to a representation, or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it’ (SE 14: 177; trans. modified). In Freud’s ‘energetic’ conception of the psyche, observes Serge Leclaire, ‘representation corresponds to a process of investment, of fixation of energy in a form, a trace, in such a way that the affect corresponds to a process of partial discharge of energy’ (CpA 2.5:127).

The two meanings combine in a phrase – Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz or Vorstellungsrepräsentanz – that occurs only once in Freud’s writings, but which subsequently came to acquire an important place in Lacanian teaching. In his 1915 essay on ‘Repression’, Freud argues that repression ‘turns representations away and maintains them at a distance from consciousness’ (SE 14: 147). And ‘we have reason to assume’, Freud continues, ‘that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical [or ideational] representative [Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz] of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious’ (SE 14:148).6

The problem which later came to preoccupy Jacques Lacan and some of his most prominent followers (including Serge Leclaire, Jean Laplanche, and André Green) concerns the sort of relation involved in such representation itself. What does it mean to ‘represent’ something repressed? More generally, in what sense can a formation of the psyche ‘represent’ an originarily biological (if not simply physical) phenomenon like an ‘excitation’ or an ‘instinct’? As Perron notes,

Freud at first followed a rather simplistic theory of perception that was consonant with the empiricist-associationist school that dominated the late nineteenth century: perception [here] functions like a recording device that faithfully transcribes the formal qualities of the perceived object, supplying ‘raw’ material for the associative process. The resulting representations are themselves preserved unchanged in the form of ‘memory traces.’ But [… further] clinical work soon revealed the extent to which memory traces were manipulated through repression when they reappeared during the return of the repressed, were recathected by an affect, or were used for the disguised fulfilment of a desire. The perception itself, initially subject to psychic conflict, cannot be mistaken for a simple record, or inscription. It took a long time before Freud was able to acknowledge that every perception, every memory trace, and therefore every representation, is ‘constructed’ by the dynamics of the psyche itself and undergoes a constant process of retroactive reworking.

Analysis of the ways in which unconscious desire motivates this reworking then allowed Freud to ‘escape the empiricism of his early work’ and to explore the idea that psychic life emerges alongside desire. In order to address some present demand or need, desire reactivates the memory of an earlier satisfaction and represents it by supplying ‘something similar to a perception, in other words, a hallucination.’7 Subsequently to come to terms with the ‘reality principle’ is to learn to discriminate between different kinds of representation.

Laplanche and Leclaire propose, in their 1961 article ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’, to translate Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz as ‘représentant représentatif’. Laplanche and Leclaire suggest that the Repräsentanz in question primarily ‘designates the function of translation of the drive with which the “representation” (Vorstellung) has been cathected’ – a solution which leaves open the old problem which Michel Tort would address anew in CpA 5.2 (see below), regarding the relation between the biological and the psychical domains.

Lacan’s own more general and more distinctive contribution to the question of representation was to reframe it in terms of the logic of signification, whereby a ‘signifier represents a subject for another signifier.’ Zupančič provides a compelling gloss on this development as ‘something that is as important for contemporary philosophy as is Cantor’s secularization of the infinite’. Understood along Lacan’s post-Saussurean terms,

representation is itself infinite and constitutively not-all (or non-conclusive), it represents no object and does not prevent a continuous un-relating of its own terms (which is how Badiou defines the mechanism of truth). Here, representation as such is a wandering excess over itself; representation is the infinite tarrying with the excess that springs – not simply from what is or is not represented (its ‘object’), but from this act of representation itself, from its own inherent ‘crack’ or inconsistency. The Real is not something outside or beyond representation, but is the very crack of representation.8

At the same time, then, analysis of the domain of signification also prepares the ground for an investigation of its limits or rather its points of impasse or impossibility, i.e. of those ‘Real’ elements of experience that resist signification-representation: objet petit a, jouissance, the ‘bipolarity of sex’ (E, 849/720), etc. As an ‘ejected’ element belonging to the order of the real, for instance, objet petit a is itself unrepresentable but (as Leclaire puts it) performs the ‘function of representing every possible representation of the subject’ (CpA 8.6:102).

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Although most discussions of representation in the Cahiers relate to psychoanalysis, the first and last significant passages on the topic in the journal refer to logic and chemistry respectively. Yves Duroux, in his ‘Psychologie et logique’ (CpA 1.2:33), notes how Frege’s non-psychological determination of number relies on a preliminary division of the field of Vorstellung between merely subjective representations on the one hand and ‘objective’ representations on the other, and only the latter (whereby an object is represented by a concept) can be subsumed under logical laws. François Dagognet’s contribution to Cahiers Volume 9, on Lavoisier (CpA 9.13:178–194), effectively picks up on Frege’s logical ‘optimism’ in an affirmation of the clarity and distinction of modern chemical notation. In keeping with its Lavoisian inspiration, chemical nomenclature continues to try to ‘represent and enclose a world that is getting bigger and bigger in or under signs that are smaller and smaller’, via the multiplication of prefixes (mono-, di-, tri-, iso-, cyclo-, etc.) and suffixes (-ol for the alcohols, -ane for the alkanes, etc.). The results have been impressive. In modern chemistry, Dagognet claims, ‘there is nothing that cannot be said or expressed’, and chemical terms truly ‘condense and deliver’ the substances they represent (194). The well-made language of chemistry thus ‘defines an island of resistance in a philosophical sea’ that otherwise rages against the orderly representation of symbols and formulae.

Most other references to representation, in the Cahiers, involve expeditions upon these disorienting waters.

In his ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 2.5), Serge Leclaire returns to a fundamental question in Freudian theory: ‘how does an unconscious representation become conscious?’ (126). We only have access to psychic drives or experiences insofar as they come to be attached to a representation, or manifested in an ‘affective state’ (cf. Freud, SE 14: 177), and as we have seen, psychic ‘representation corresponds to a process of investment, of fixation of energy in a form, a trace, in such a way that the affect corresponds to a process of partial discharge of energy’ (CpA 2.5:127). This raises the question as to how ‘communication’ between the two heterogeneous systems of the unconscious and consciousness might be established. How might ‘the same representation (of a unique affect of the drive [un unique émoi pulsionnel]) exist in the psychic apparatus under two different forms’? (129). Leclaire addresses the problem by relating it directly to the process of repression. As a result of repression, ‘the same representation’ takes on two different forms of psychic existence. Preservation of the difference between the unconscious representation and its pre-conscious and conscious derivatives, Leclaire concludes, is crucial for psychoanalytic theory and practice.

André Green’s ‘L’objet (a) de Jacques Lacan, sa logique et la théorie freudienne’ (CpA 3.2) considers the relation of the objet petit a to representation, and to signification. Green argues that the signifier has two sides, representation and affect, and claims that the latter has not been taken sufficiently into account as a part of the fundamental signifying operation.

After expounding Lacan’s theory of the objet petit a, André Green asks about its relation with representation (Vorstellung) in the Freudian sense. ‘Given the relation of object (a) to representation, it is appropriate to investigate its relation to the signifying chain. What relationship is there between represented lack and speech as concatenation?’ (CpA 3.2:21; trans. 170). More precisely, Green asks whether there might be ‘in Freud’s work one point about representation that has not been taken up by Lacan: the distinction between different kinds of representation (eg., that of words and things), which might lead to still further differentiation, in order to underline the original character of Freudian concatenation?’ (21/171). Green then tries to clarify the necessary ‘distinction between the representative of the drive and the affect’ (28/179), and develops a complex account of the ‘differential distribution of the mode of representation’ (30/182). Along the way, Green criticises Jacques-Alain Miller’s account of signification and representation (27/177). According to Miller, ‘it is through the very operation of separation [coupure] that the subject comes forth, or constitutes itself as subject – at the expense of the object’ (27/177). Miller cannot then explain, Green suggests, how the object ‘lives on’ in the relation between desire and demand.

Green goes on to address Laplanche and Leclaire’s work on the relation of drives and affects to representations and signifiers in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and on the crucial mediating concept of an ‘ideational’ or ‘psychical’ representative [Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz].9 Green’s position is that ‘representation and affect are two different types of signifiers. Affect has a major aspect as a discharge process, whereas representation is a production entering into a combinatory system of transformations’ (29/180). Green then proposes a ‘conjectural’ distinction between representation and affect, which he claims can be supported by passages in Freud’s late writings. In a further section on ‘The Problem of the Differential Distribution of the Mode of Representation’, Green suggests that the Freudian theory of signification even extends as far as the perceptual field. Lacan shows how the perceptual field is centred upon ‘points of fascination’ or ‘specularisation’ that translate effects in the symbolic order. Green says that these points result from the ‘barrage effect [effet de barrage] weighing upon discourse that necessitates not only combination, but also changes of register, material, and modes of representation of the signifier’ (31/183).

The instalment from Leclaire’s seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, published in CpA 3.6, explores a definition of ‘the drive [as] the psychic representative of a constant force emanating from the interior of the organism and which tends to satisfy itself by the suppression of the state of tension that reigns at the source of the drive itself’ (CpA 3.6:85). Leclaire emphasises the fact that psychoanalysis is constrained to work within the field of representation: the psychoanalyst always has to do with ‘psychic representatives’ [représentants], and should avoid trying directly to access what is represented via extrapolation from the representative itself.

Michel Tort (‘Le Concept freudien de “Représentant”’, CpA 5.2) provides the most substantial discussion of Freud’s concept of a ‘ideational representative’ [Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz]. Tort sets out to provide a systematic analysis of the term, to relocate its context in Freud’s work, and to criticise misinterpretations of the significance of the term in the Lacanian psychoanalysis of the time. Tort argues that the recent emphasis (in the work of Leclaire, Green and Laplanche) on the représentant as the essential mediating instance between drive and representation, and thus between the physico-biological and the mental or psychic, effectively leaves Freud’s original problem – how to move from simple quantities of physical excitation to the psychic/mental dimension of drive – more or less intact, by diverting the discussion into the exclusively ‘mental’ domains of representation and signification.

Tort argues that the term Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz, used in Freud’s 1915 essay ‘Repression’, is a specialised version of a more general Freudian term: the ‘drive representative’ [Triebrepräsentanz]. When over the following years Freud tries to clarify the articulation of the relations between drive and representation, he falls back (in the 1920 text Beyond the Pleasure Principle) on ‘an entirely speculative and “biological” theory of the nature of the drive’ (59/31). The new ‘mythologising and biologising of the drive’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle conjures up a spurious ‘aim’ at the organic level itself, in terms that conflict with his earlier, more rigorous conception of the aims of the drive in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (1915) (60/31).

When he returns to the problem in The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud looks for a new way to defend the idea of a ‘deduction of psychical energy and of the psychic processes in general starting from the drive’ (63/35) but again confuses the two domains in question: he has to ‘impute to initial sexual energy (Eros) as such the psychical characteristics which conceptualised the structuration of the sexual drive by the psychism (the concept of displacement over objects)’ (63/35). In short, Freud is forced into a speculative ‘biological hypostasis’ of the drive (59/31), based on an ‘organic particularity of sexuality’ (65/36). Tort dismisses this recourse to ‘“biology” [as] an ideological myth […]. A form of scientificity which can only be imported into a domain in a speculative form is ideological for sure.’ Tort concludes that ‘the concept of Repräsentanz (insofar as it remains caught up in efforts to deduce the domain of the psychic from the domain of the biological, and assumes that the psychique and biological points of view are reversible) is not a rigorous concept, but the ideological designation of an absolutely new relation between sexuality as drive and the representation imposed by clinical experience’ (66/37).

Jean-Claude Milner’s reading of Louis Aragon’s experimental novel Mise à mort (CpA 7.2:45-56) addresses the question of representation in a very different register, in terms of the essential dilemma of realism. Is the most realistic representation one that erases all marks of its artificial status as a representation (so as to seem like reality itself), or on the contrary, that which erases all trace of its deceptive nature, by emphasising the fact that it is nothing but a representation? Aragon, Milner suggests, has made of this dilemma the principle of a literary machine that confines its readings within the dynamics of representation as such, in the entangled play of doublings and displacements, such that ‘we cannot grasp any term without being obliged to follow the structure which is the past and future of this point, and its unceasing multiplication’ (55).

Rousseau’s work invites interpretations that emphasise his (futile) efforts to escape such entanglement. As Alain Grosrichard explains in his ‘Gravité de Rousseau (L’Oeuvre en équilibre)’, CpA 8.2, representation for Rousseau is an affliction that accompanies the loss of natural plenitude. As Rousseau imagines him ‘natural man’ experiences a ‘rich silence’ because he never needs to represent his needs or desires in speech; a similar silence is enjoyed by those ‘happy peoples’ whose ‘General Will need not speak [prendre la parole] because their state speaks faithfully on their behalf’ (43). By contrast, the silence of the slave corresponds to that of a General Will that has been subjected to the tyranny of representation. In this instance, the subject is effectively silent because the discourse in which he is embedded is not his own; it is the discourse of the other. ‘It is between these two silences that Rousseau’s oeuvre is born, breaking the one to escape from the other’ (44). As Grosrichard reads him, Rousseau understands the world and its composite representational structure as the product of a perversion in nature, and the history of the world as the unending quest to find that ‘gravity’ that might restore balance to nature. In this perverted world, the subject, be it individual or collective, experiences a progressive ‘toppling outside of himself’ (44) and is forced to live in a permanent state of eccentric (i.e. ‘off-centre’) relation to the nature at its source. This eccentric state is the state of representation itself. Rousseau seeks to let nature speak without representation, by effectively bending representation against itself. Rousseau’s discourse operates in the ‘distance maintained between an exterior which it pushes away yet continuously belongs to, since it is written discourse and representation, and a silent centre it never managed to reach, since reaching it would have meant silencing and cancelling itself as discourse’ (46).

Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) connects the domain of representation to his structural account of the subject as the inconsistent and elusive support of the signifying chain. The subject that emerges out of the primary process of structuration is to begin with nothing more than a ‘support’, a ‘subjected subject’; subject can relate to structure only via a relation of miscognition. An imaginary system of representations then builds up around ‘the fundamental absence in the structuring process’, and ‘compensate[s] for the production of lack’. These ‘representations are put into play by what they conceal [dérober] – by what they have the function of concealing, so that they exist only in order to hide the reason for their existence’ (CpA 9.6:96).

Select bibliography

  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), SE 14.
  • ----. ‘Repression’ (1915), SE 14.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’. Les Temps modernes 183 (1961). ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, trans. Patrick Coleman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972).
  • Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1974.
  • Perron, Roger. ‘Idea/Representation’, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis,
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Zupančič, Alenka. ‘The Fifth Condition’, in Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, ed. Peter Hallward. London: Continuum, 2004.


1. Alenka Zupančič, ‘The Fifth Condition’, 197.

2. In his 1967 review of Louis Althusser’s work, Alain Badiou referred the problem of structural causality to a distinction between presentation and representation. According to Althusser’s dialectical materialism, economic practice ultimately exercises determinant causal power over a social formation, an articulated social whole, ‘structured in dominance’. But this power does not ‘exist’ as accessible within the social formation, i.e. it is not presented as such. Itself absent, it is re-presented by an economic ‘authority or instance [instance]’, and ‘this representative [représentant] is itself caught up in determination (according to whether the instance is dominant or subordinate, according to the extent of its conjunctural efficacy, itself prescribed by the correlation of [other] instances, etc.). The causality of the economic practice is thus the causality of an absence upon an already structured whole, in which it is represented by an instance’ (Badiou, ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’, Critique 240 [May 1967], 457 ).

3. Roger Perron, ‘Idea/Representation’, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis,

4. ‘In French,’ observes Serge Leclaire, ‘re-présenter evokes the dimension of a return in the present time, while in German, vorstellen puts the accent on the space in front of what it replaces’ (CpA 2.5:127).

5. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, ‘Representability, Considerations of’, The Language of Psychoanalysis, 388-389.

6. Jean Laplanche and Pontalis translate Vorstellungsrepräsentanz as an ‘idea or group of ideas to which the instinct becomes fixated in the course of the subject’s history […]. “Vorstellungsrepräsentanz” means a delegate (in this instance, a delegate of the instinct) in the sphere of ideas; it should be stressed that according to Freud’s conception it is the idea that represents the instinct, not the idea itself that is represented by something else – Freud is quite explicit about this’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Ideational Representative’, The Language of Psychoanalysis, 202-203). Laplanche and Pontalis point out that Freud’s reference here to a representation or ‘delegation of the soma within the psyche […] is formulated in two different ways. Sometimes the instinct itself is presented as “the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind”. At other times the instinct becomes part of the process of somatic excitation, in which case it is represented in the psyche by “instinctual representatives” which comprise two elements – the ideational representative and the quota of affect’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Psychical Representative’, ibid., 363).

7. Perron, ‘Idea/Representation’, citing Freud, ‘A Project for a Scientific Psychology’.

8. What makes any given situation infinity, Zupančič continues, ‘is not the exclusion of any operation of representation […] but its inclusion. What makes any particular “presentation” infinite is precisely that it already includes representation. [Lacan’s master signifier] S1 as “point de capiton” is not a meta-signifier in relation to S2, to the virtually infinite battery of signifiers and their combinations that Lacan also calls “knowledge”. S1 quilts this set not by counting the count itself, but by “presenting” the very impossibility of an immediate coincidence of the two counts, i.e. by presenting the very gap between them. In other words, S1 is the signifier of the impossibility of the two (counting and counting the count itself) to be One. It is the signifier of the very gap or interval or void that separates them in any process of representation: a void that is precisely the cause of the infinite layering of representation. For Lacan, the Real of being is this void or interval or gap, this very non-coincidence, whereas the wandering excess is already its result. S1 presents this void by naming it, it does not represent it. Lacan’s S1, the (in)famous “master signifier” or “phallic signifier” is, paradoxically, the only way to write [with Badiou] that “the One is not” and that what “is” is the void that constitutes the original disjunction in the midst of every count-for-one. The count-for-one is always already two’ (Zupančič, ‘The Fifth Condition’, 199-200).

9. Cf. Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire, ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’, Les Temps modernes 183 (1961).