Working Over

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Psychical working over is the work of thought that links and associates mental representations among themselves and through the intermediary of language, leading to their evolution, through the successive translations and networks of symbolic associations put into operation by fantasies, from the stage of the primary processes to that of the secondary processes. It is an expression of the instinct's requirement for psychic work owing to its link with the somatic.

Sigmund Freud borrowed the term psychical working over from Jean Martin Charcot, who described a period of mental processing between the time of a trauma and the appearance of hysterical symptoms. As early as 1892, and then in the Studies on Hysteria with Josef Breuer (1895), Freud evokes a working out through association that has not been able to take place in hysteria, leading to stasis of the traumatic effect in a separate psychic group, with no possibility of liquidation.

The mechanism takes into account the nucleus of the actual (defense) neurosis that is central to the neuro-psychoses (in this case, hysteria). The lack of psychical working over is even more clear cut in the actual neuroses, properly speaking. In the essay "On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the Description 'Anxiety Neurosis' " (1895), Freud invokes the absence of a psychical working over of sexual tension as the cause of the actual neuroses, through either excessive discharge into the soma (melancholia, neurasthenia) or excessive accumulation (anxiety neurosis).

Different levels of this work of linking and mentalization of the instincts can be described. The first level is the site of transformation of the physical quantity of an excitation tending toward immediate, reflexive discharge into a psychic quality that can be preserved and serve as a tool for thought and a guide for action. This transformation occurs through (1) the inhibitory effects of the lateral cathexes (according to Freud's 1895 "Project for a Scientific Psychology"); (2) representational translations; and (3) the mechanisms of symbolic representation of the Preconscious and censorship (according to Freud's writings from The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) through his essays on metapsychology [1915]). This level demonstrates the capacity of the psychic apparatus, by means of its representations, to direct and contain discharges, promote deferred action, and impose a waiting period.

The containment of free psychic energy is accomplished through fixation of that energy within representations and symbolic networks that are relatively stable. In Freud's account, memory traces form a hierarchical system of signs made up of successive strata (like the lava flows he describes in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" [1915]). He states this clearly in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated December 6, 1896, where he evokes the "re-transcription" (1950a [1887-1902], p. 233) of memory traces at several registers—at least three, perhaps more—of signs. Each register corresponds to a temporal stage in psychic life, and the passage from one register to the next occurs by means of a process comparable to translation. Each retranscribed memory trace "inhibits its predecessor and draws of the excitatory process from it" (1950a [1887-1902], p. 235).

For Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis in their Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1967), psychical working over constitutes an important junction between the economic register (management of excitation) and the symbolic register (the network of associations) in Freud's theory of the psychic apparatus. In the view of such authors as Michèle Perron-Borelli and Roger Perron (1997), Alain Gibeault (1989), or François Duparc, this symbolic elaboration occurs by means of symbolization processes that construct a network extending from the most primitive fantasies of action to the most elaborate fantasmatic organizations: the family romance, or infantile theories of sexuality. According to Duparc (1997, 1998), each system of signs (images of motion, visual forms or representations of things, representations of words, or elaborated fantasies) has its own capacity for temporal containment, which increases with the psychic delay that precedes discharge.

But in order for psychical working over to be a flexible, creative process that is not limited to containing action and orienting the subject toward abstract signification, it must nevertheless allow for the possibility of the instinct's deployment in all its dimensions, including the affects, resonances among fantasies and representational forms, and controlled breaking of the habits of language and thought. These tertiary processes, which enable regression, have the effect of freeing language from a state of mourning. For Duparc, representation is a living process in that it transports the drives through the various resonances charged with motricity and affect, among the forms pertaining to the most primary level of symbolization (forms conveying motion, primal protofantasies), the visual forms and mechanisms of figuration that fix the instincts' movements within the censorship of the preconscious, and the elaborate forms of the rhetorical figures of language.


See also: Conscious processes; Fundamental rule; Lifting of amnesia; Memories; Memory; Psychoanalytic treatment; "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through"; Resistance; Transference neurosis; Work (as a psychoanalytic notion). Bibliography

   * Duparc, François. (1997). Hallucination négative, formes motrices et comportements autocalmants. Cliniques psychosomatiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Duparc, François. (1998). L'Élaboration en psychanalyse. Bordeaux, France: L'Esprit du temps.
   * Gibeault, Alain. Destins de la symbolisation. (1989). Revue française de psychanalyse, 53 (6), 1493-1617.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
   * Perron, Roger, and Michèle Perron-Borelli. (1997). Fantasme. Action. Pensée. Algiers, Algeria:Éditions de la Société algérienne de psychologie.