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Unconscious

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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French: inconscient
German: Unbewußte

Sigmund Freud

Although the term "unconscious" had been used by writers prior to Freud, it acquires a completely original meaning in his work, in which it constitutes the single most important concept. Freud distinguished between two uses of the term "unconscious."[1] The adjective it is very widely used to refer to any element of mental or psychic activity that is not present within the field of consciousness; as an adjective, it simply refers to mental or psychic processes that are not the subject of, that occur in the absence of, conscious awareness, thought, attention, perception or control. As a noun, the noun-form designates one of the psychical systems described by Freud in his topographical model of the psyche, his first theory of mental structure.

Freud's Model of the Unconscious

"Topological Model"

The "topographical model" divides the mind or psyche into three separate component parts -- or "psychical localities":

The unconscious system is not merely that which is outside the field of consciousness at a given time, but that which has been radically separated from consciousness by repression and thus cannot enter the conscious-preconscious system without distortion.

"Structural Model"

Freud's second model of the mind or psyche -- the "Structural theory" -- consisted of three "agencies":

In this model, no one agency is identical to the unconscious, since even the ego and the superego have unconscious parts.

Jacques Lacan

Early Work

Lacan, before 1950, uses the term "unconscious" principally in its adjectival form, making his early work seem particularly strange to those who are more familiar with Freud's writings.

Later Work

In the 1950s, however, as Lacan begins his "return to Freud," the term appears more frequently as a noun, and Lacan increasingly emphasizes the originality of Freud's concept of the unconscious, stressing that it is not merely the opposite of consciousness.

"A large number of psychical effects that are quite legitimately designated as unconscious, in the sense of excluding the characteristics of consciousness, are nonetheless without any relation whatever to the unconscious in the Freudian sense."[2]

He also insists that the unconscious cannot simply be equated with "that which is repressed."

Biological Reductionism

Lacan argues that the concept of the unconscious was badly misunderstood by most of Freud's followers, who reduced it to being "merely the seat of the instincts."[3] Against this biologistic mode of thought, Lacan argues that "the unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual;"[4] it is primarily linguistic.

Language

This is summed up in Lacan's famous formula, "the unconscious is structured like a language."[5] Lacan's analysis of the unconscious in terms of synchronic structure is supplemented by his idea of the unconscious opening and closing in a temporal pulsation.[6]

Criticism

Lacan himself qualifies his linguistic approach by arguing that the reason why the unconscious is structured like a language is that "we only grasp the unconscious finally when it is explicated, in that part of it which is articulated by passing into words."[7]

Discourse

Lacan also describes the unconscious as a discourse: "The unconscious is the discourse of the Other."[8] This enigmatic formula, which has become one of Lacan's most famous dictums, can be understood in many ways. Perhaps the most important meaning is that "one should see in the unconscious the effects of speech on the subject."[9] More precisely, the unconscious is the effects of the signifier on the subject, in that the signifier is what is repressed and what returns in the formations of the unconscious (symptoms, jokes, parapraxes, dreams, etc.).

Symbolic

All the references to language, speech, discourse and signifiers clearly locate the unconscious in the order of the symbolic.

Indeed, "the unconscious is structured as a function of the symbolic."[10]

The unconscious is the determination of the subject by the symbolic order.

Exteriority

The unconscious is not interior: on the contrary, since speech and language are intersubjective phenomena, the unconscious is "transindividual."[11] The unconscious is, so to speak, "outside."

"This exteriority of the symbolic in relation to man is the very notion of the unconscious."[12]

If the unconscious seems interior, this is an effect of the imaginary, which blocks the relationship between the subject and the Other and which inverts the message of the Other.

Formations

Although the unconscious is especially visible in the formations of the unconscious, "the unconscious leaves none of our actions outside its field."[13] The laws of the unconscious, which are those of repetition and desire, are as ubiquitous as structure itself. The unconscious is irreducible, so the aim of analysis cannot be to make conscious the unconscious. In addition to the various linguistic metaphors which Lacan draws on to conceptualize the unconscious (discourse, language, speech), he also conceives of the unconscious in other terms.

Memory

The unconscious is also a kind of memory, in the sense of a symbolic history of the signifiers that have determined the subject in the course of his life.

"What we teach the subject to recognize as his unconscious is his history."[14]

Knowledge

Since it is an articulation of signifiers in a signifying chain, the unconscious is a kind of knowledge (symbolic knowledge, or savoir). More precisely, it is an "unknown knowledge."

See Also

References

  1. Freud, Sigmund. "The Unconscious." 1915e. SE XIV, 161
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.163
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 147
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 170
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.167
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 143, 204
  7. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 32
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 16
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 126
  10. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 12
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.49
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.469
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 163
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.52