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A complex is the more- or less-repressed standardization of emotionally strong conflictual experiences. When these experiences are triggered, either by certain themes (such as new pieces of information), or emotions (in which case they are called "constellations"), the complex produces a reaction, such that the individual perceives the situation in terms of the complex (with a distortion of perception), and responds with an emotional overreaction, which mobilizes the processes of stereotyped defense.

Carl Gustav Jung developed his concept of the complex at the same time as he was engaged in his experiments with association. It is within this context that the concept appeared for the first time, in 1904, in an essay called "Experimentelle Untersuchungen über Assoziationen Gesunder" ("The associations of normal subjects," with Franz Riklin). But he had already used the term, without any particular specificity, in his thesis of 1902.

When, at the turn of the century, Jung and Riklin eagerly turned to research on association in order to construct typologies, they studied what they considered normal disturbances of experience. They showed that a test subject could not uniformly form associations with ideas that were attached to highly emotionally-charged experiences and personal difficulties. They went on to hypothesize that such complexes might constitute the background of consciousness, and that in any neurosis of psychical origin, there would be a complex characterized by a particularly strong emotional charge.

Later, in 1907, Jung established that any event charged with affect gives rise to a complex and reinforces those that are already in place. Complexes act from the unconscious and can at any moment either inhibit, or on the contrary, activate conscious behavior. They reveal conflicts, but are also defined by Jung as crucial hot points of psychic life.

In 1934, Jung summarized his theory of complexes and emphasized that, even outside of the effects of any individual constellation, complexes involve the active forces that determine the interests of everyone and thus serve as the basis for the symbol formation. This conception of complexes, which he continued to develop afterwards, led him to emphasize their creative effects. From a therapeutic perspective, this is an important aspect of his psychology and his clinical work. From it he developed the idea of promoting creative development through the integration of complexes. This idea plays a large role in many of the techniques developed by the Jungian school. Finally, it is from this insight that Jung came to see archetypes at the heart of complexes.

The experiments in association, as well as the concepts of the complex-ego, of the symbol and the archetype, imagination and emotion, and transference and counter-transference, all refer to Jung's idea that the complex is caused by the painful confrontation of the individual with the "necessity to adapt." Thus the very concept of complexes takes on an even more dynamic dimension: each one appears as an effect of the condensation and generalization of experiences that might, at any moment, be associated by analogy with a new piece of information or emotion. This is why the concept takes on decisive importance for understanding what is at play in the transference and the counter-transference.


See also: Castration complex; Dead mother complex; "On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement"; Libidinal development; Ethnopsychoanalysis; Identification; Imago; Masculine protest (analytical psychology); Penis envy; Phallus; Primal fantasies; Primitive horde; Psychanalyse et Pédiatrie (psychoanalysis and pediatrics); Psychoanalysis of Fire, The; Repression; Sexual differences;Structural theories; Word association; Word-Presentation. Bibliography


Whereas the imago designates an imaginary stereotype relating to one person, the complex is a whole constellation of interacting imagos; it is the internalisation of the subject's earliest social structures (i.e. the relationships between the various actors in his family nvironment).

A complex involves multiple identifications with all the interacting imagos, and thus provides a script according to which the subject is led 'to play out, as the sole actor, the drama of conflicts' between the members of his family.[1]

In his pre-war work, Lacan argues that it is because human psychology is based on the complexes, which are entirely cultural products, rather than on natural instincts, that human behaviour cannot be explained by reference to biological givens.

Nevertheless, while drawing this explicit contrast between complexes and instincts, Lacan also recognises that complexes may be compared to instincts in that they make up for the instinctual inadequacy (insuffisance vitale) of the human infant, and argues that the complexes are propped on biological functions such as weaning.[2]

In 1938 Lacan identifies three 'family complexes', each of which is the trace of a 'psychical crisis' which accompanies a 'life crisis'.

The first of these complexes is the weaning complex (complexe du sevrage).

Taking up the idea of a 'trauma of weaning', first developed by RenÈ Laforgue in the 1920s, Lacan argues that no matter how late weaning occurs, it is always perceived by the infant as coming too early.

Whether traumatic or not, weaning leaves in the human psyche a permanent trace of the biological relation which it interrupts.

This life crisis is in effect accompanied by a psychical crisis, without doubt the first whose solution has a dialectical structure. (Lacan, 1938: 27)

After the weaning complex comes the intrusion complex (complexe de l'intrusion), which represents the experience that the child has when he realises that he has siblings.

The child must then cope with the fact that he is no longer the exclusive object of his parents' attention. The third and final family complex is the Oedipus Complex.

After their appearance in the 1938 paper, the terms 'weaning complex' and 'intrusion complex' disappear almost completely from Lacan's work (there is a brief reference to them in 1950, but little else; Ec, 141).

However, the Oedipus complex remains a fundamental reference point throughout, and this is complemented by a growing interest, from 1956 on, in the Castration Complex.

From a term borrowed by the German psychologist Zeihen and used by Eugen Breuer, then Jung and Freud: a cluster of emotionally charged associations, usually unconscious and gathered around an archetypal center (and so a blend of environment and disposition). Repressed emotional themes. Complexes were first noticed by Aristotle, who in his Psyche called them part-souls, and behave like little personalities (and have unconscious fantasy systems), often even after partially incorporated into awareness. A more powerful complex will either blend with one less powerful or replace it, and its constellating power corresponds to its energy value. Complexes are the contents of the personal unconscious, whereas archetypes, their foundations, are those of the collective unconscious. Complexes, found in healthy as well as troubled people, are always either the cause or the effect of a conflict. The complex arises from the clash between the need to adapt and constitutional inability to meet the challenge. They originate in childhood, and their first form is the parental complex.

Jung thought women's complexes usually simpler and more often erotic than men's, which focused on work and money. Complex-sensitiveness: the tendency of an old complex to disturb associations when it's brought up with similar stimuli.

  1. Ec, 90
  2. Lacan, 1938: 32-3