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Repression is a Freudian psychoanalytic term that denotes a mental mechanism of defence against ideas that are incompatible with the ego. Freud divided repression up into a primary repression in which the unconscious is first constituted, and a secondary repression involving the repulsion of representations back into the unconscious. Lacan interpreted the concept of repression using concepts from structuralism and linguistics. In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Freud’s distinction between primary and secondary repression is taken up in detail by several authors.

Freud’s first use of the concept of repression is in his 1892 ‘Preliminary Communication’ of the results of Studies on Hysteria (1893; written with Josef Breuer), where the term refers to the ‘intentional repression’ from ‘conscious thought’ of an idea a patient ‘wished to forget’ (SE 2: 11). Freud developed his psychodynamic theory of repression further in the 1894 article ‘On the Neuro-psychoses of Defence’. He claimed that neuroses were the result of the persistence of repressed ideas and affects in the mind. The hysteric represses ideas ‘incompatible’ with his or her ego by converting the energy associated with the idea; the obsessional neurotic, on the other hand, represses the idea, causing a displacement of the repressed idea’s affect onto a symbolically contiguous idea (SE 3: 49). In this piece, he specified the sexual nature of most ‘incompatible ideas’. He contended that ‘the separation of the sexual idea from its affect and the attachment of the latter to another, suitable but not incompatible idea – these are processes that occur without consciousness’ (SE 3: 53).

In the 1915 metapsychological article on ‘Repression’, Freud went on to make an important distinction between a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ repression:

We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression [Urverdrängung], a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it.

The second stage of repression, repression proper, affects mental derivatives of the repressed representative, or such trains of thought as, originating elsewhere, have come into associative connection with it. On account of this association, these ideas experience the same fate as what was primally repressed. Repression proper, therefore, is actually an after-pressure. Moreover, it is a mistake to emphasise only the repulsion which operates from the direction of the conscious upon what is to be repressed; quite as important is the attraction exercised by what was primally repressed upon everything with which it can establish a connection. Probably the trend towards repression would fail in its purpose if these two forces did not co-operate, if there were not something previously repressed ready to receive what is repelled by the conscious (SE 14: 148).

This distinction would prove crucially important, first to the work of Lacan, and then to the theorists in the Cahiers. Both saw ‘primary repression’ as the key to understanding the ‘original’ division of the subject into conscious and unconscious parts.

During the 1950s, Jacques Lacan reinterpreted Freud’s theory of repression and displacement with the linguistic categories of metaphor and metonymy. Insofar as metaphor involves the substitution of one linguistic term for another which slips ‘beneath a bar’, it is the linguistic correlate and mechanism of repression.

In ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ (1958), Lacan suggests that primal repression bears on the ‘alienation of need’ and the shift to the level of intersubjective demand (E, 690). But as he reflects further on the thought of the repression of the ‘first signifier’, his view changes. Throughout the 1960s, Lacan focuses at length on Freud’s notion of primary repression, appealing to a number of different methods and means to formalise the operation that gives birth to the unconscious. What is primally repressed becomes the thought of the lack in the Other, and the task of psychoanalytic theory becomes to formalise the relations between the ‘barred’ or ‘divided’ subject and the Other.

The first wave of Lacanian thought, in the early 1960s, also took up the distinction between primary and secondary repression. In 1961, Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire published their groundbreaking study of Lacan’s concept of the unconscious, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’. They attempted to make sense of Lacan’s suggestion that primal repression was internally connected to the process of metaphor in language. ‘The origin of the unconscious’, they stated, is the ‘process that introduces the subject into a symbolic universe’.1 There must be fundamental metaphors that make this process possible. They do not focus on the paternal metaphor, but rather on the process of metaphor itself. According to Laplanche and Leclaire, there are ‘two levels of symbolisation’ at work. The first involves a primal encounter with language as a system of signifiers floating without relation to each other. In this first phase of symbolisation, the network or ‘web of significant oppositions’ is cast onto the subjective universe; but no particular signified is caught in any single mesh. What is introduced is pure ‘difference’. ‘The second level of symbolisation’, on the other hand, ‘is that which, following Freud, we call primal repression, and, following Lacan, metaphor’. This second phase is metaphor proper. In metaphor, an internal self-differentiation of the signifier takes place: the signifier goes under the bar, but is preserved on another, virtual line. If signifiers left to themselves float around picking up sense from contingent associations with other signifiers, then metaphor is a way of doubling the signifier, of interiorising difference within it, by creating a vertical dimension. It is this latter process that ‘really creates the unconscious, by introducing that ballast which will always be missing in a unilinear language, and which is lacking in the symbolic world of the schizophrenic’. Taking up Lacan’s suggestions about the presence of ‘quilting points’ [points de capitonnage] in speech and language, Laplanche and Leclaire propose that ‘the signified is from then on caught in specific meshes’, so that ‘at certain privileged points, the indefinite oscillation comes to a halt’.

Laplanche and Leclaire then part company in a footnote on one significant issue, concerning the status of primal repression and its relation to symbolisation. They write: ‘It is at this precise point that our research diverges. J. Laplanche wants to maintain the distinction between two types of metaphorization, which he relates to the two stages of repression according to Freud. S. Leclaire is concerned with the prior logical moment, that is, the first level of symbolization, whose constitution is necessary so that metaphor may “function”. This divergence of interest explains why for J. Laplanche, what is “primal” is the whole of the two levels of symbolization, of which the second would be primal repression (or metaphor), while for S. Leclaire what is “primal” is the very constitution of the first level of symbolization (myth of the meeting of the biological and the signifier, the problem of the “fixation” of the death-drive). (J. L. and S. L.).’2 Laplanche’s insistence on the integrity of the two-step process and his restriction of primary repression to the second level of symbolization bring with them special problems that have been subject to sustained critique, including by Lacan himself.3 Leclaire’s position, that what is primal is the ‘very constitution of the first level of symbolization’, avoids Laplanche’s dilemma. For Leclaire, there are no original ‘images’ at the basis of the unconscious, only chains of signifiers taken in their phonetic difference. There is no moment of instinctual satisfaction, only the fixation of intensities through initial, idiosyncratic ‘schemas’ of language, that are gradually subjected to abstraction and universalization. He contends rather that primal repression proceeds through the interconnection of key signifiers with the erogeneous zones on the body.4 He proceeds to develop this perspective in his articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Several other discussions of primary repression proceed in the wake of Laplanche and Leclaire’s founding analysis.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller compares his strategy towards Frege’s logic with Derrida’s attempt to uncover the origins of geometry in his early work on Husserl’s Origin of Geometry (1962). Distinguishing his approach from Derrida’s phenomenological ‘recovery’ of origins, Miller suggests that the foundations of logic are ‘constituted not as a forgetting, but as a repression’ (CpA 1.3:39). On the basis of a theory that logic involves a suture of the ‘non-identical’, Miller proceeds to sketch out a formalised account of primary repression itself and the correlated processes of secondary repression and symptomatic repetition. Thus as well as being a term to describe Frege’s miscognition of his own summoning of the ‘non-identical’, ‘suture’ is Miller’s term for the movement of displacement and placeholding in the unconscious (39).

In Serge Leclaire’s first three contributions to the Cahiers, he does not focus directly on the theme of primary repression, but continues to develop his account of the relation of the drives to language. He states that ‘the process of a psychoanalysis can be described in a summary fashion as consisting in making certain repressed elements in the unconscious system re-enter into the circuit of consciousness’ (CpA 2.5:126). But he turns directly to the theme of repression in the third instalment of his Seminar (CpA 8.6; see below).

In ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales, et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’ (CpA 2.6), Thomas Herbert (Michel Pêcheux), argues that ‘All the philosophies of consciousness and the subject (that is almost to say, all of philosophy, except certain dissidents like Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud)’ have the ‘ideological function of repress[ing] in the subject the unrealisable-realisation of social command’ (CpA 2.6:152). Herbert contends that ‘the function of political practice is to transform social relations by reformulating social demand (demand as well as command […]) by means of discourse’. Further political uses of the concept of repression are to be found in Herbert/ Pêcheux’s ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’ (CpA 9.5), where he maintains that the failure of Marxism to achieve the ‘“methodical reproduction” of the object of science […] in the strictly scientific sense of the term’ has resulted in ‘the immense repression of historical materialism’s scientificity, a repression still exercised against it “from without”, and too often, “from within”’ (CpA 9.5:76). Empiricist theories of science, moreover, are complicit in ‘the repression of the political determination that nonetheless supports the whole of their techno-political edifice and produces a primary syntactic dominance which renders them particularly resistant to a productive transformation of their object’ (84). The aim of discourse theory is to combat this kind of repression by tackling the sources of ‘syntactic dominance’.

Michel Tort’s article (CpA 5.2) is an analysis of Freud’s concept of Vorstellungsrepräsentanz (psychical representative), as it appears in the key passage from Freud’s ‘Repression’ cited above (SE 14: 148). Freud speculates that the ‘first phase of repression’ consists in ‘the psychical (ideational) representative of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious’. Tort begins by recalling Laplanche and Leclaire’s proposal in their 1961 article ‘L’Inconscient: une étude psychanalytique’ to translate Vorstellungsrepräsentanz as ‘représentant représentatif’. Laplanche and Leclaire had suggested that the Repräsentanz in question primarily ‘designates the function of translation of the drive with which the “representation” (Vorstellung) has been cathected’.5 He concurs with Laplanche and Leclaire’s use of the term, but argues that the term ‘representative’ [représentatif] remains ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. The main problem that arises, according to Tort, is that Freud’s basic point of departure, the problem of the relationship between quantities of excitation on the one hand, and the drive as a mental phenomenon on the other, has been gradually occluded, and the discussion diverted into questions about representation (and of signification in general). Tort also criticises Lacan’s use of the translation ‘tenant lieu de la représentation’ for Vorstellungsrepräsentanz (and, by implication, Jacques-Alain Miller’s reformulation of it; CpA 1.3:39), which he claims also risks detaching the term from its context and transposing it into the problematic of representation. Instead, the term Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz should be seen as a specialised version of a more general Freudian term, the ‘drive representative’ [Triebrepräsentanz]. Tort points out that in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (both texts date from 1914), ‘repression is defined as a specific vicissitude of the drive [destin de pulsion]’ (CpA 5.2:50, trans. 24). In both texts, the impulses of the drive are the primary reference point. ‘The reality whose vicissitudes or transformations theoretical analysis ought to pursue is the drive itself […], and never the representation as such’. What happens in ‘Repression’ is a specification of the general problem of the fixation and transformation of the drives.

In ‘Le Pensée du Prince’ (CpA 6.2), François Regnault develops a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ modes of historicization that supervenes on Freud’s distinction between primary and secondary repression. The distinction between types of historicization dates back to Lacan’s distinction in his 1953 ‘Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’ between a ‘primary historicization’, or primary inscription of events, and a ‘secondary historicization’ of censorship and false connections. In primal historicization, ‘history is already being made on the stage where it will be played out once it has been written down, both in one’s interior and outside’ (E, 261). Primary historicization, which involves the original constitution of events that will only assume their full significance later, is repressed by secondary historicization, but remains active within the interstices of the secondary ‘text’. Regnault uses the distinction to isolate the particular kind of history written by Machiavelli (primary historicization), and to suggest that ‘Historians of the primary’ and scientists alike ‘must be capable of completely undoing the official pages and of smashing the machines of consciousness’ (CpA 6.2:44).

In the third and final instalment of Serge Leclaire’s Seminar ‘Counting with Psychoanalysis’ (CpA 8.6), there is a sequence of sessions devoted to the subject of repression (refoulement). Noting that Freud’s theory of secondary repression is founded upon his theory of primary repression, he proposes to focus on the latter in the seminar, taking a ‘structural’ approach to what he now regards as the fundamental problem: the relation of primary repression to enjoyment [jouissance] (CpA 8.6:91). Leclaire remarks that at least two questions are raised by Freud’s hypothesis of a primary repression in the 1914 text. The first is how to make sense of the ‘contradiction’ involved in stating that a properly psychical representative is barred from consciousness in the drive. For Leclaire, the difficulty resides in the fact that Freud assumes that a system of consciousness, in opposition to that of the unconscious, already exists before these first fixations take place. The second question concerns how consciousness, concerned to avoid a state of unpleasure, refuses to accept a representation attached to a drive for pleasure. It looks as if a movement towards satisfaction is blocked for the sake of unpleasure. Leclaire says that this paradox finds its most ample treatment in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (SE 18). Leclaire proposes to examine the problematic of fixation, which he says reveals ‘the fundamental cleavage in psychic life’ in its clearest form: on the one hand, there is an unfulfilled drive, ‘irremediably fixed in the suspense of its non-satisfaction’ (93), while on the other hand, and simultaneously, there is ‘the irrepressible pursuit of a satisfaction to fill the gap opened up by the first refusal (Versagung)’. The origin of the jouissance investigated by Lacanian psychoanalysis is to be found in this process of fixation. What is essential to repression, however, is that it ‘turns representations away and maintains them at a distance from consciousness’ (SE 14: 147). Repression is the fundamental barrier that ‘maintains the splitting [l’écart] necessary to all logic; it is the condition of the possibility of difference and articulation without which there would be no structure, no logic’ (93). Giving new primacy to the themes of phallus and castration, he argues that primary repression must be understood as in terms of the ‘veiling of the phallus’ (110).

In ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), Jacques-Alain Miller analyses the concept of ‘repression’ into metonymic causality. Projecting the idea of a theory of discourse that could reveal all the patterns of displacement at work in ideological discourse, Miller suggests that ‘the space of displacement’ is ‘at once univocal, repressed and interior, withdrawn and declared’, and that ‘only metonymic causality might qualify it’ (CpA 9.6:102). This approach would give one the ‘fundamental law of the action of the structure’.

In their second set of questions to Michel Foucault, the Cercle d’Épistémologie take issue with Foucault’s account of the ‘exclusion’ of statements from discursive fields. ‘Since here his axiom is that there is no unthought except of rules, he is forbidden from speaking of the unthought of a statement or of a discourse: this unthought will only ever be another statement, another discourse. Is it therefore necessary that the critique of continuity […] excludes a statement from being produced in order to take the place of another? That is to say: in order to prevent it from appearing, in order to repress it? That a discourse can come to the surface in order to repress some other beneath it: it is nevertheless this that appears to us as the definitive acquisition from psychoanalysis’ (CpA 9.3:44). Foucault’s account of exclusion does not appeal to a notion of repression, and the Circle contend that it is unclear as to how and why certain statements are excluded from a discourse. They suggest that the psychoanalytic account of repression (and, they add, a Lacanian notion of enunciation) would help to resolve these perplexities. They conclude by asking, after Foucault’s ‘Response’: ‘where does Foucault stand now, in relation to Freud, and to Nietzsche?’ Whereas Freud’s psychoanalysis appeals to the notion of repression, Nietzsche’s theory of forces does not; hence, they suggest, Foucault must now choose between Freud and Nietzsche.6

In ‘Subversion infinitesimale’, Alain Badiou interprets the resistance to infinitesimals as a paradigmatic instance of the sort of ideological ‘repression’ [refoulement] at work in the preservation of what Althusser called, after Bachelard, the ‘epistemological obstacles’ that ideology erects to hinder the development of a subversive science (CpA 9.8:126-128).


  • Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905], in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. Vol. 7. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘Repression’ [1914], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘The Unconscious’[1915], SE 14.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], SE 18.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’ [1953], in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, in Écrits.

Secondary bibliography

  • Archard, David. Consciousness and the Unconscious. London: Hutchinson, 1984.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire’. Hommage à Jean Hyppolite. Paris: PUF, 1971. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, trans. Donald F. Brouchard and Sherry Simon. Foucault: The Essential Works, Vol. 1: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • 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), The French Freud, ed. Jeffrey Mehlman.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: PUF, 1967. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.
  • Laplanche, Jean. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. J. Mehlman. Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 1976.
  • Lemaire, Anika. Jacques Lacan [1970], trans. D. Macey. London: Routledge, 1977.


1. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, 161.

2. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, 162.

3. Laplanche says that ‘at the level of unconscious language, there are only images, serving simultaneously and inseparably as signifier and signified. In a sense it may be said that the unconscious chain is pure meaning, but one can say as well that it is pure signifier, pure non-meaning, or open to all meanings’ (Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious’, 262). However, this leads to a paradox, one which is put most clearly by David Archard in his 1984 book Conciousness and the Unconscious, which contains an extended account of Laplanche’s and Leclaire’s developments of Lacanian theory. ‘The key signifiers of the unconscious are said by Laplanche to play an anchoring role for the preconscious signifiers. The former prevent the latter from “sliding” so much as to make any stable meaning impossible.’ The problem, says Archard, is that these key signifiers that make the determinacy of meaning possible are said to both possess and lack the characteristics proper to signifiers. ‘Laplanche tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, he claims that the unconscious is composed of signifiers because thing-presentations, which Freud said composed the unconscious, must be understood as elements of language, signifiers. On the other hand, these thing-presentations are merely images to which the distinction between signifier and signified does not apply, or rather, the signifying image refers to nothing but itself as signified. Again, if one refers back to the formula for repression it is clear that what occurs in repression proper is that a signifier, in the normal usage of the term, is drawn below the bar by virtue of its associative connection with an already existing chain of signifiers. But how can a signifier, which is properly a signifier, contract associative connections with a chain of signifiers which are not properly signifiers? […] Presumably, this [anchoring] occurs because the unconscious signifiers are univocal, and this permits their preconscious metaphorical substitutes to have, albeit at a certain remove, a fixity of meaning. But the key signifiers, by Laplanchean definition, are univocal in a trivial sense. Being both signifier and signified, they can only connote themselves and nothing else. A more pregnant sense of “anchorage” would require that they be signifiers in another, that is, normal usage’ (Archard, Consciousness and the Unconscious, 95). This would undermine the status of the key metaphorical signifiers in acting as conditions for the possibility of the coherent use of the space of signifiers. Laplanche’s way out of this impasse was to reinstate a qualified naturalism within the process of primal repression. In Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1970), Laplanche argues that for Freud sexuality itself has its origin in an impossible attempt to re-find a lost natural object. In a first moment, a real object is lost, for instance, the mother’s milk after weaning. ‘The lost object is the object of self-preservation, of hunger’ (Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, 20), and sexuality itself only comes into being in the fantasmatic activity that fills the place of that loss. ‘Sexuality appears as a drive that can be isolated and observed only at the moment at which the nonsexual activity, the vital function, becomes detached from its natural object or loses it […] The object one seeks to refind in sexuality is an object displaced in relation to that first object’ (88, 20). The sexual object is thus not a real object that has been lost, but a fantasmatic object that compensates for a real object that has been lost. Laplanche’s way out of the dilemma articulated by Archard is in effect to argue that it is oral instinct that is placed under the bar in weaning. In Laplanche’s later work, the child’s material loss of milk is connected directly with the impossibility of distinguishing between imaginary and symbolic mothers, and therefore the inherent seduction involved in primary relations to the Other.

4. ‘Unlike Laplanche, Leclaire recognises primal repression itself […] as the first movement of the constitution of the unconscious. Leclaire’s reservations are, as it happens, important, as they put him out of reach of Lacan’s criticisms. If, as Leclaire thinks, primal repression itself is not in fact effected in accordance with the mechanism of metaphor, if it consists simply of the establishment of a parallelism between oppositional signifiers and differentiated lived experiences, then strictly speaking there is no “fixing” of the signifier to the signified, of the signifier to the instinct. Nor is there any possible limit, at this level, to the primary process. And the reasons for the interlocking of the secondary process and conscious language must be sought elsewhere. According to Leclaire’s views, when secondary repression proceeds for its part to a metaphoric substitution of S for S, it is merely actualising the possible paths of the return of the repressed, without these paths being traced in a definitive pattern.’ Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, 125. For Lacan’s critique of Laplanche, see the appendix to Lemaire’s book, General Purport of a Conversation with Lacan in December 1969, 249-253.

5. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytical Study’, 145.

6. Foucault’s 1971 paper ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ indicates that he takes the latter path.