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Arguably the central concept of the Freudian enterprise, the unconscious played a crucial role in Lacan’s rethinking of psychoanalysis with tools borrowed from structural linguistics. In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, the concept will be extended well beyond the clinical context.

In their classic reference text, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis write: ‘If one wished to summarize the Freudian discovery in one word, it would be that of the unconscious’ (474). Indeed, crucial to the advent of psychoanalysis was Freud’s conviction that philosophers had traditionally erred in seeking to equate ‘mind’ with ‘consciousness’. In his first ‘topography’ of the ‘psychic apparatus’, codified in his article titled ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), Freud considered the unconscious as a domain distinct from the preconscious and the conscious mind, the former being conceived as an antechamber of sorts for the latter. In contrast to the continuity between these domains, the unconscious was constituted by repression, though Freud maintained that the ‘repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious’. Developing a psychical topography that ‘has for the present nothing to do with anatomy’, Freud described the unconscious as a domain that was ‘timeless’, that knew ‘no negation, no doubt, no degrees of certainty’. Instead, its crucial mechanism was a network of cathectic intensities, driven by processes of displacement, in which ‘one idea may surrender to another its whole quote of cathexis’ and condensation, in which one idea ‘may appropriate the whole cathexis of several other ideas’ (SE 14: 186). These concepts of condensation and displacement will be translated into the terms of metaphor and metonymy in Lacan’s structural and linguistic reframing of psychoanalysis.

Though Freud’s later work witnesses the construction of a new topology along the lines of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego, the unconscious remains a crucial concept, in that it is inclusive of the activities of, and the relations between, the Id and the Superego apart from the Ego (roughly correlated to consciousness). It is indeed the breadth of the concept of the unconscious, and its insistence throughout the Freudian edifice, that will account for its centrality to Lacan’s work. As Lacan puts it in his first seminar, ‘the unconscious is made up of what the subject essentially fails to recognise in his structuring image, in the image of his ego – namely those [traumatic] captivations by imaginary fixations which were unassimilable to the symbolic development of his history’ (S1, 283).

Among Lacan’s most famous pronouncements, delivered many times over, is the claim that the unconscious is structured like a language (e.g., S3, 167). This thesis had multiple meanings and implications in Lacan’s teaching, allowing him to make his case for the primacy of the signifier in the constitution of the subject distinct from the ego. As noted, it also allowed Lacan to deploy the analyses of structural linguistics, in which differential relations are paramount and distinct from fixed essences or terms, as a way for accounting for the peculiar subjectivity of the unconscious and the desire that motivates it. Most broadly speaking, however, Lacan’s attention to the unconscious was designed to accomplish two critical gestures. First: to decouple psychoanalysis from the ‘ego psychology’ of the Anglophone world, which conceived of analytic practice as a means to help the ego ‘adapt’ to its natural and social surroundings. By maintaining a strict cleavage between the ego and the subject of the unconscious, as well as emphasizing the determinant role of the latter, Lacan sought to remain faithful to Freud’s fundamental and indeed revolutionary insight. Second: Lacan’s emphasis on the science of linguistics, a science, as Lacan noted, that was unavailable to Freud himself, was geared toward keeping the unconscious as a concept clear from all romanticist pathos or vitalist implication. In his lesson in his eleventh seminar, ‘The Freudian Unconscious and Ours’, Lacan said:

To all these forms of unconscious, ever more or less linked to some obscure will regarded as primordial, to something preconscious, what Freud opposes is the revelation that at the level of the unconscious there is something at all points homologous with what occurs at the level of the subject – this thing speaks and functions in a way quite as elaborate as at the level of the conscious, which thus loses what seemed to be its privilege (S11, 24).

What is more, this ‘homology’ in the unconscious is what helps account for the role of desire, inextricably linked to speech:

[T]he unconscious is always manifested as that which vacillates in a split in the subject, from which emerges a discovery that Freud compares with desire – a desire that we will temporarily situate in the denuded metonymy of the discourse in question, where the subject surprises himself in some unexpected way (S11, 28).

Bound as it was to language, for Lacan the unconscious is, in another of his famous phrases, ‘the discourse of the Other’ (E, 814), in this case the big ‘Other’ being the symbolic order itself. In his insistence upon the relation between the Symbolic and the Real in the unconscious (as opposed to the Imaginary Ego), a relation which, to be sure, evolved over the course of his teaching, Lacan nonetheless remained faithful to Freud’s late topology of the Id, Ego, and Superego. By emphasizing time and again that ‘it speaks’ or the ‘Id speaks’ [‘Ça parle’], Lacan sought to interrogate a subjectivity that was irreducible to the imaginary capture of the ego, caught in a web of specular ideology. The true nature of the Lacanian unconscious remains a source of contestation among interpreters of Lacan’s work. What is incontestable is the impact that his reconsideration of the ‘Position of the Unconscious’ (E, 829-850) had on the editors of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the inaugural article of the journal, ‘La Science et la vérité’ (CpA 1.1), Jacques Lacan writes that ‘it is unthinkable that psychoanalysis as a practice and the Freudian unconscious as a discovery could have taken on their roles before the birth […] of science’ (CpA 1.1:8, trans. 857/727). Lacan locates this ‘birth of science’ in the seventeenth century, specifically with the ‘rejection of all knowledge’ that was the condition for ‘the moment Descartes inaugurates that goes by the name of the cogito’ (CpA 1.1:8; 856/727). Later, Lacan explicitly links the unconscious to the problematic of truth. If science is predicated upon a lack of truth about truth, insofar as a metalanguage about truth is impossible, this is because ‘truth is grounded in the fact that truth speaks, and that it has no other means by which to become grounded’. Lacan continues: ‘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 who knew how to let the truth – going by the name of the unconscious – speak’ (CpA 1.1:19; 868/737).

In the conclusion of ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3), Jacques-Alain Miller links his preceding analysis of the emergence of the 1 out of the 0 in Frege’s discourse to Lacan’s concept of the subject of the unconscious. The exclusion of lack that occurs when the unitary concept of the zero sutures over non-identity is a phenomenon in which ‘the exteriority of the subject in relation to the Other is maintained, which institutes the unconscious’ (CpA 1.3:48, trans. 33). Moreover, ‘if repetition itself is produced by the vanishing of the subject and its passage as lack - then only the unconscious can name the progression which constitutes the chain in the order of thought’ (CpA 1.3:48/33).

In his response to Miller in ‘L’Analyste à sa place?’ (CpA 1.4), Serge Leclaire suggests that the concept of the non-identical is, from the psychoanalyst’s perspective, not simply reducible to the zero and its sutured function in a logical chain. In fact, the non-identity that accompanies sexual difference is directly related to what Freud calls ‘unconscious concepts’:

This [concept] certainly involves a unity, but one that covers things that are non-identical to themselves: in his example, the faeces, the child, or the penis, or why not, the finger, the cut finger, the little spot on the nose, or indeed the nose itself. The notion of the unconscious concept emerges from the pen of Freud to connote the unity of things that are small or indifferent, but which are capable of being separated from the body. Perhaps we have here the concept, the reality of a thing that is non-identical to itself (CpA 1.4:52).

Leclaire will resume his discussion of the unconscious concept, and its integral non-identity, in a riposte to Miller in the first segment of his seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ which appears in this same issue (CpA 1.5:68-70).

In Georges Canguilhem’s ‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’ (CpA 2.1) which opens Volume 2, Maine de Biran is credited with shifting the sense of the cogito in such a way as to provide a historical condition for the emergence of the Freudian unconscious. For Maine de Biran, the human being is not an intelligence served by organs, but a living organization that is served by an intelligence. It was this ‘somato-psychic’ approach to the mind which underwent an inversion at the end of the nineteenth century, when the psychic ceased to be the intimate, the elusive interior, and became an ‘abyssal’ unknown (CpA 2.1:86). The replacement of the ‘somato-psychic’ with the ‘psychosomatic’ occurred alongside a shift in the concept of the unconscious. In Descartes, the psyche had been assimilated to consciousness, while the unconscious was treated as belonging to the order of the physical. But after Freud, it is also possible to conceive of unconscious psychic states, so that psychology can no longer be thought as the science of consciousness. The psychic is henceforth no longer the intimate, but is now also that which itself hides, and which we hide. ‘The intimate is opened up to the abyssal, and psychology becomes the science of the depths of the soul’ (CpA 2.1:86).

Serge Leclaire begins his contribution to this volume ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 2.5) with specific reference to the ‘scandal’ of the unconscious. He writes: ‘psychoanalysis marks the entry into everyday life of a new dimension, the unconscious’ (CpA 2.5:125). Everyone has heard of the ‘scandal, imposture, discovery, revelation and revolution’ attached to the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious. Yet the analyst ‘still passionately guards his difference’ from non-analysts. But if the secrets of the unconscious are now declared everywhere, in magazines, newspapers, not just in the ‘salons’ of intellectuals, but in factories, schools and other institutions, then what is there to protect? ‘The psychoanalytic revolution is done, the unconscious recognised - let us no longer talk about it!’ Alluding to the arguments concerning an epistemological break as the condition for the emergence of a science developed elsewhere in the Cahiers, Leclaire says that to take such a view would indicate the unsettled ‘miscognition’ [méconnaissance] that ‘seems necessarily to accompany every approach to this new dimension’. There is a grain of truth in the notion that the new dimension opened up by psychoanalysis is ‘irrational’, if we take the term in a mathematical sense. Just as Pythagoras recognised that ‘there is no common measure, in the order of the rational numbers, between the diagonal of a square and its sides’ (CpA 2.5:126), psychoanalysis must also be alert in an analogous way to the intrinsic difficulties of grasping hold of its object.

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1), Lacan affirms again that the problem with phenomenological accounts which ‘suture the cleavage of the subject’ is their inability to recognize the reality of ‘the unconscious by dint of what it structures as language’ (CpA 3.1:6, trans. 107). In response to a question concerning the relations between his thought and Marxism, Lacan writes: ‘Only my theory of language as structure of the unconscious can be said to be implied by Marxism, if, that is, you are not more demanding than the materialist implication with which our recent logic is satisfied, that is, that my theory of language is true whatever be the adequacy of Marxism, and that it is needed by it, whatever be defect that it leaves Marxism with’ (CpA 3.1:10; 110-1).

In his introduction to the second instalment of his seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Serge Leclaire again emphasizes the importance of the unconscious in Lacan’s teaching, claiming that ‘the subject of the unconscious finds its place in no psychology, just as it seems excluded from all logic of enunciations’. It is the ‘unconscious and the central function of lack [that] make clear the impasses of knowledge and the order of fantasy’ (CpA 3.6:83).

In ‘Le Concept freudien de “Représentant”’ in Volume 5 (CpA 5.2), Michel Tort traces the development of this concept through Freud’s mature writings, noting that his increasingly biological account of the drive winds up in a speculative myth that is symptomatic of the ambiguities of the concept throughout Freud’s thought. In one section, Tort devotes special attention to the role of the drive in the repression that is constitutive of the unconscious (CpA 5.2:52-58).

In ‘La Pensée du Prince’, François Regnault applies Lacanian theory to a reading of Descartes’ and Machiavelli’s contrasting accounts of the relation between politics and history (CpA 6.2). In his option for Machiavelli’s materialist view, the nascent science of history to be found in his thought, Regnault orients himself according to Lacan’s insistence that ‘history […] constitutes the emergence of the truth in reality.’ Recollection of the (historical or psychic) past is concerned to establish ‘not reality but truth, because the effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come, such as they are constituted by the scant freedom through which the subject makes them present.’ The real per se can be accessed only as a ‘kernel of the impossible’ (CpA 6.2:42): a traumatic primal scene, for the individual, or, in the domain of history, an inaugural usurpation of power. What the historian or analyst encounters in the past is not what actually happened in its raw or brutal state but an already-elaborated historical account, ‘riddled with lies and blank spaces’ (via primary, unconscious historicisation of the traumatic real) and which is then to some extent ordered and rationalised (via secondary, conscious historicisation and censorship). Genuine analytic and ‘scientific work consists in unstitching the secondary distortions that have persisted under censorship’, so as to learn not that your history is determined by an extra-historical (instinctive, primordial) unconscious but rather that ‘your “history” is itself, in truth, the unconscious’. Analysis thus allows us to ‘substitute for the distorting historicisation of conscious discourse a true history’, i.e., one that allows the subject of that history to appropriate the contingencies of the past as so many ‘necessities to come’ (CpA 6.2:42).

The final instalment in Leclaire’s ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ in Volume 8 concludes with a summary of a contribution to this seminar titled ‘L’Inconscient et son rapport avec la sexualité’ by Claude Conté (CpA 8.6:119). Conté’s presentation takes the form of a reading of Lacan’s ‘Position of the Unconscious’ (E 830-850/703-721), itself a summary of many of Lacan’s claims in Seminar XI delivered in 1964. Conté concludes with Lacan’s statements that ‘the unconscious is tied to the subsistence of a subject of non-knowledge [sujet du non-savoir]’ (CpA 8.6:119) and that it is due to this non-knowledge that ‘the opposition masculine-feminine arises, about which we know nothing’. This subject of non-knowledge provides a ‘point of impossible access, or more exactly, a point where the real is defined as impossible’. The Freudian cogito is thus fundamentally linked to sexual desire, and thus can also be named desidero, ‘I desire’.

In the section devoted to science in ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6), one the Cahiers’ programmatic texts, Jacques-Alain Miller expands the Lacanian concept of the unconscious beyond the clinical context to a theory of discourse as such. If logic governs the field of the statement [énoncé], while psychoanalysis articulates the field of speech [parole], there must be a third position for a theory of discourse. The difference between logical formalization and statements in the linguistic field is that the latter refer back to a code whose virtuality is essential for messages to be possible (CpA 9.6:100); the subject’s speech is inverted as soon as it is uttered in the field of the Other (since, amongst other reasons, it is liable to interpretation in ways other than directly intended). The lack of the code at the level of speech, and the lack of the subject-agent in the place of the code, however, combine in such a way as to generate the possibility of an unconscious (CpA 9.6:101). While the subject is correctly conceived as always ‘repeating’ a ‘primordial and generative’ relation to the Other, a full theory of discourse would also reveal more specific circuits of repetition emerging from the primary split between subject and Other. For instance, there is an ‘Other scene’ of the class-struggle, with its own specific combinatory of ‘class-interests’. It is in principle possible to become quite specific about this distribution of lacks. A psychoanalytic structuralist approach to statements can search through the array of placeholders for the specific lacks that support particular structures. This kind of reading is ‘transgressive’, since it traverses the statement towards the enunciation. ‘Analysis’ remains an appropriate name for this kind of reading.

Select bibliography

  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Unconscious’ [1915], in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. Vol. 14. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Ego and the Id’ [1923], SE 19.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre III. Les Psychoses, 1955-1956, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1981. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956, trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre XI. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertand Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth, 1974.