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Synopsis of Serge Leclaire, ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’

[‘Note on the Object of Psychoanalysis’]

CpA 2.5:123–135

This article appeared in March 1966 in Cahiers pour l’Analyse, vol. 2 (‘Qu’est-ce que la psychologie?’). Leclaire’s seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, published in the Cahiers as ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ (CpA 1.5, CpA 3.6, CpA 8.6), included commentaries on the topics discussed in Lacan’s Seminars, then running concurrently at the ENS. Lacan’s 13th Seminar, delivered from 1965-66, was entitled The Object of Psychoanalysis, and Leclaire’s ‘Note on the Object of Psychoanalysis’ is a brief analysis of what Leclaire takes to be the theme of Lacan’s seminar.

Leclaire’s aim here is to pinpoint (cerner) what is specific about ‘the object’ of psychoanalysis. Leclaire does not make any distinction here between the object of psychoanalysis itself as a theory and practice, and the particular kinds of object found in psychoanalysis (such as the objet petit a); rather he attempts to isolate the specific psychosexual mechanisms that Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis take as their objects. It turns out that the true ‘object’ of psychoanalysis in this sense is the drive; this helps to clarify the difference of the object of psychoanalysis from the object of psychology.

Leclaire begins with general remarks about the current status of psychoanalysis. ‘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!’ 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’ (126), psychoanalysis must also be alert in an analogous way to the intrinsic difficulties of grasping hold of its object.

At the outset of the first section, Leclaire 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’ (126). Leclaire thus returns to one of the key problematics in his 1960 paper with Laplanche, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’: ‘how does an unconscious representation become conscious?’ (126). In the earlier study, taking Freud’s 1915 text ‘The Unconscious’ as their source, Laplanche and Pontalis had noted that Freud put forward two hypotheses about how unconscious representations become conscious: (1) that a second ‘inscription’ [Niederschrift], or new ‘fixation’ occurs in consciousness, as distinct from the unconscious (the hypothesis of ‘double inscription’), and (2) that the same representation undergoes a change of state (the ‘functional’ or ‘energetic’ hypothesis) (SE 14: 175). Freud vacillates between the latter interpretation, which Laplanche and Leclaire say is ‘phenomenological’ (insofar as the same state is, as it were, subjected to different lighting), and the former, properly topographical interpretation, which Freud admits is both cruder and most convenient.1 Laplanche and Leclaire say that they ‘would willingly decide in favour of the double inscription’. The problem is how to formulate it in a less crude way. In their paper, they do this by reinterpreting Freud’s theory of double inscription in terms of a Lacanian account of the function of metaphor and metonymy in the constitution of ‘key signifiers’ in the unconscious. They use Lacan’s theory of metaphor to show how signifiers can fall beneath the ‘bar’ of consciousness, or are subject to repression.2

Here Leclaire once more emphasises the ‘heteronomy’ of the system of the unconscious in relation to the system of consciousness, now focussing in on the question of representation (Vorstellung) in Freud. In ‘The Unconscious’, Freud had remarked that ‘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 language, says 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). But how is the ‘communication’ between the two heterogeneous systems of the unconscious and consciousness established? The problem he faces with the hypothesis of double inscription is how ‘the same representation (of a unique affect of the drive [un unique émoi pulsionnel] exists in the psychic apparatus under two different forms’ (129). Leclaire proceeds by relating this problem directly to the problem of repression, and to Freud’s suggestion in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that ‘the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved […] provides the driving factor’ (SE 18: 42). Leclaire says that the constitution of the drives in the process of primal repression produces exactly a situation in which ‘the same representation … exists in the psychic apparatus under two different forms’. The obtained experience of satisfaction is both the same (pareil) and not the same (non-pareil) to the original experience of satisfaction.

Leclaire then gives a ‘summary example’ of how this similarity and non-similarity is manifest at the clinical level. He takes an ‘unconscious representation of a drive-affect of the aggressive oral type’, which he transcribes as ‘kroq’. Recalling once more Freud’s remark about the ‘things heard’ at the core of the fantasy (SE 1: 248; cf. CpA 1.5:61), Leclaire proceeds to inquire into the origin of such verbal ejaculations. In this case, the patient made a sequence of significations by playing on the term ‘croque’ - croquemitaine [bogeyman], a game of croquet [croquet], around the major signification of ‘to bite with vigour’. Thus the unconscious representation ‘kroq’ enters ‘a chain of elements that have no formal links between them and constitutes sequences open to multiple permutations (croque, trotte, crotte, Pitou, toutou, toupie, picroque) (129-30). According to Leclaire, maintaining the difference between the unconscious representation and its pre-conscious and conscious derivatives is crucial for psychoanalytic theory and practice.

In the second section of the piece, Leclaire follows up this conception of the difference and similarity between unconscious and conscious representations in Freud’s conceptions about the drive. From the beginning, Freud had sought to ‘examine what shape the theory of mental functioning takes if one introduces a quantitative line of approach’.3 According to Leclaire, Freud ‘is led very early to consider the mind on the model of an apparatus that will function, in one respect, like a drive-machine [machine à pulsion] (in the sense that one talks of a steam-engine [machine à vapeur]), with the drive here designating the source of internal energy’ (131). The economic aim of our mental apparatus is to obtain pleasure and avoid unpleasure. Pleasure is defined by a diminution of excitation, while pain (or ‘unpleasure’) involves its exacerbation. Excitations that bombard the exterior of the organism can be fended off by fight or flight mechanisms, but excitations that come from the interior - from the drives - must be satisfied by means of specific actions; if they are not satisfied in some manner, there will be an intolerable increase of tension. The drive is a constant force, with an immutable aim: to reduce tension. Freud acknowledges a paradox in this conception in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism’ (1924). If the drive aims at the diminution of tension, then ‘logically, it must find its most achieved accomplishment in the sovereign exercise of the death drives [pulsions de mort], the end of which is precisely to lead all tensions to zero’ (132). If this were so, however, ‘the pleasure principle […] would be entirely in the service of the death drives, whose aim is to conduct the restlessness of life into the stability of the inorganic state’ (SE 19: 160). But this cannot be correct, as ‘it cannot be doubted that there are pleasurable tensions and disagreeable relaxations of tension’. Indeed, Freud acknowledges, ‘the state of sexual excitation is the most striking example of a pleasurable increase in stimulus’. According to Leclaire, Freud is led by a ‘long detour’ to the position on the drive spelled out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the ‘driving factor’ is explained as the difference between the pleasure demanded and that which is achieved (SE 18: 42). It is this difference that is expressed in the drives, but also in the signifiers that emerge from their repression.

The drive therefore appears as the dynamic of difference, and it would be justified to say that the goal of the drive is to maintain this difference, because by virtue of the satisfaction it demands, it re-animates at every instant the experience of a difference with the memory of primary satisfaction. In the same way one can say that pleasure is always referred to some other pleasure more intense and inaccessible, which is presented as the present remainder of a nostalgic dissatisfaction (CpA 2.5:133).

We thus arrive at the central problem in identifying the ‘object’ of psychoanalysis: the drive is bound to the attempt to ‘seize an object that is indifferent to it, and which only takes on its value through its ungraspable difference with a lost model’ (134).

In a final section, Leclaire refers to the Seminar on The Object of Psychoanalysis being run at that time by Lacan, which he says can best be approached by appealing to the ‘topological model’ developed in it. Leclaire proposes a geometrical representation of the ‘ungraspable difference’ he takes to be a ‘nodal function’ in psychoanalytic practice. His diagrammatic representation takes up his previous reference to the Pythagorean discovery of ‘irrational remainders’ (135). The object appears to the psychoanalyst in the same way as the irrational remainder appears to the Pythagorean who measures the diagonal of the square.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure, 1965-1966’, II. CpA 3.6:91.
  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘Les éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse’. CpA 5.1:17.

English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • 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].
  • ---. ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---.. ‘The Unconscious’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---.‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’ (‘The Wolf Man’) [1918], SE 17.
  • ---. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Part 2: General Theory of the Neuroses [1917], SE 16.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], SE 18.
  • ---. ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism’ [1924], SE 19.
  • ---. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, trans. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis, trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • 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.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure 1965-1966’, CpA 1.5.
  • ---. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure, 1965-1966’, II. CpA 3.6.
  • ---. Psychanalyser. Paris: Seuil, 1969. Psychoanalyzing, trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.


1. Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, 132.

2. Ibid, 152-63.

3. Freud, Letter to Fliess, 25 May 1895, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, 129.